Friday 28 July 2017
After an 0430 ‘no answer’ call to Air Baltic, I headed back to Lufthansa. The woman on the counter said go and try some other numbers. They wouldn’t work so I went back to Lufthansa and struck a helpful woman who actually got hold of an Air Baltic supervisor in Lapland. “Sorry I can’t help – you will have to buy a fare off Lufthansa and write to us.”
Arriving in Tallinn around noon I caught up with Steve and we headed off around the old town.
Steve takes over todays story from here.
Last night I sent Roger the address: Uus 26, Tallinn. He’d been bumped in Frankfurt and was grateful to know he had a home to head for. Uus 26 is not a big address but he turned up at reception the next afternoon. We’d arranged to meet in Estonia to kick off a 4 or 5 day 1,300km road trip south through the Baltic States then exit via Krakow in Poland.
The plan was to spend this first day in the old town of Tallinn snooping around the tourist sights then head for Riga down in Latvia late afternoon. But on recommendation from our friends The Finns, Karen and I took the kids from Helsinki to Tallinn on the ferry a week before I was due to hook up with Roger. The Finns were right. Tallinn is well worth a visit. So I’d called Roger. “Change of plan. Tallinn warrants more than a few hours. OK?” He was at dinner in South Africa. “Yeah, good one. Book us a bed.” I think he meant two beds.
I spent an hour in the morning before he arrived visiting the small museum of the Estonian Popular Front. While not in English, it graphically portrays the rise of the independence movement, culminating in Estonia declaring independence on 20 August 1991. After settling Roger into the apartment (and reminding management to find us a second bed) we hit the streets in the old town of Tallinn.
Dating from the 12th century, the Old Town in Tallinn has an authentic feel and is very well-preserved. Like many such towns in Europe, tourism is its thing now. “There’s no better place to get scammed than in the Old Town” quipped our apartment manager. True of any tourist destination these days. It’s high season and sure, there are a heap of tourists, but it is not crowded. In fact, it is very agreeable. Enough people to give the place some bustle but still easy to get a table. We climbed the cobbled streets up to the medieval heart at Toompea and found the lookout points atop the old city walls. We spent too long trying to figure out what the huge building was on the horizon beside the Soviet era 314m tall Tallinn TV Tower dominating the eastern horizon. We could see Lennusadam seaplane museum at the coast in the other direction and decided to head there.
I’d been to Lennusadam the week before but was happy to go again. The huge seaplane hangar was built early last century as part of Peter the Great’s sea fortress. It is a very impressive structure housing a maritime museum, which includes the Lembit, a 1930’s era British designed submarine. Docked outside is the icebreaker Suur Toll, the most powerful icebreaker in the world in the early 1900’s. Both the old ships are worth a look. It’s an easy walk through the local residential streets to get there. We passed an inviting neighbourhood garden bar and noted it for the return trip.
I’d read that the tour of Patarei – a former prison in a bloody grim fort on the coast beside Lennusadam – was excellent so planned to go there. Unfortunately, I’d not spotted the note that the prison tours were now closed. A pity. We’d have loved to get inside.
On the walk back into town we wandered over a huge dilapidated terraced structure on the waterfront. We could not fathom what it was. It seemed to have some now-defunct civic or ceremonial purpose. Roger being Roger, asked the prettiest young blonde he could find nearby. Turns out we’re standing atop the Linnahall, a concert hall built for the 1980 Moscow Olympics when Tallinn hosted the Olympic yachting regatta. The plan, according to Roger’s “guide”, was to make it beautiful again. Demolition might be more practical than renovation. Linnahall looks like it was chucked together in a hurry by workers who did not want the work.
Back in the old town and thirsty, we stopped at two of the many watering holes to sample some very good Estonian IPAs while we built an appetite for dinner. Tallinn offers excellent dining. The Tallinn chefs have built a well-deserved reputation for new takes on local foods. Rataskaevu 16 is a bit of a hipster joint. It won an award or two this year so it’s booked out a week ahead. But if you tell them you’re from New Zealand and don’t mind waiting outside while supping on one of their good craft beers then somehow a table just appears. And the food is superb. Roast elk with mushrooms eased down with a good Argentinian red.
I was pleased to see the second bed when we finally got back to our apartment in the wee hours of the next day.
Saturday 29 July 2017
We headed to the airport to pick up our Budget rental car, which Steve’s wife Karen had kindly booked for us to drop of in Krakow, Poland. Steve presented the booking to the guy at the counter. “We don’t have any record of it and you can’t take our cars out of the Baltic states!”Furthermore he said he didn’t have any cars! Eventually he found one and we agreed to to drop it off in Kaunas, Lithuania. “We don’t let cars go to Poland – they have to stay in the Baltic States. We let one go once and they left it down there for three weeks and we couldn’t get it back.” Maybe they should tell the booking people that.
Eventually we were on the road to Riga. The road heads cross country. The land is dead flat. It’s either crops or forestry. Even though in places freshly baled hay lay on the fields there was no sign of stock or fences.
We stopped at Parnu, a nice little town where the road met the coast. We sat outside a cafe and watched people going about their business.
Soon after that we crossed the now unmanned border into Latvia. The road from here followed the coast down to Riga. At one point we stopped at a beach; with its white sand and only a few people on it it was quite an attractive place.
At a nice cafe we saw the only animals of the day, two goats in a pen.
Arriving in Riga around 5pm we checked into the Hotel Roma; old but well maintained with large foyers on each floor. I had visited Riga three years ago and noticed many buildings were being restored. We took a stroll through the old part of town down to the Daugava river.
Originally settled in the 2nd century it has, like most places in the Baltics, changed hands many times, gaining independence in 1918. In the previous 700 years it been ruled by Germany, Sweden and Russia. Riga was once the largest city in Sweden and later the second largest city in Russia after Moscow. The Germans took it back in 1941, then the Russians in 1944. It finally gained independence a second time from Russia in 1991 along with the other Baltic states.
We continued our stroll up the river where lots of people gathered on the edge or the river walkway. An underpass brought us next to the markets. Four big sheds here were built in the 1930’s to house Zeppelins.
We strolled back around the canal with its grassy banks to the hotel.
In the evening, Luke, a friend of Steve’s, met us and took us to a great little restaurant called 3pavari (the three chefs). We had paper table mats on which the waitress came and spread a combination of blackcurrant pesto and strawberry hokypoki which were the dips for our bread. The local trout was delicious. Deciding to stay local I ordered the “recommended by the waitress” local desert with its onion sponge, black sesame ice cream and fermented garlic biscuits. I will never order again.
Sunday 30 July 2017
We spent an hour or so over breakfast working out how to get past Kaunas in Lithuania where we had to drop the car off. Eventually we booked a bus to Suwalki that would at least get us into Poland. Next we headed to Albert St in Riga to check out some Art Nouveau buildings, designed by Russian Architect Mikhail Eisenstein and completed around 1901. These are pretty unique and have mostly been restored. All the plaster features have been carved in place on the buildings.
We headed south through Jurmala passing lots of large holiday homes. After a brew at a roadside cafe we were intending to stop at the hill of crosses. As we approached the turn off we saw a long line of cars heading up the road towards them so gave them a miss.
The country was much the same as it had bean since Tallinn, flat fields trees and crops all the way.
Striking lots of road works along the way we were starting to run late. There was a flash from the roadside so I guess the ticket is in the mail. We arrived at Kaunas with minutes to spare. Dropping of the car we took a cab with a fat, smelly driver to the city bus terminal – yes he did rip us off. We boarded the rather nice Eco-Lines bus with a cheerful conductor who even confirmed how ugly Steve looked in his passport photos. We spent most of the two and a half hour journey on line and making phone calls trying to find a rental car to get us from Suwalki to Krakow.
Getting off the bus we strolled to the Hotel Loft 1898 ,which we had booked on line. At NZ$144 for the two of us we weren’t expecting what we got. Built in an old army barracks, the place was brand new and really well fitted out with excellent staff. It got better with beer costing only 9 zloty (about 2 euro).
We sat outside still trying to work out how we were going to get out of here. We then decided to see if we could find someone that did guided tours. We found one on the net and sent an email. To our surprise Anna from “Into Poland” came straight back to us. Two beers later we had a driver booked to take us to the Wolfs Lair and on to Krakow – around a thousand kilometre journey.
Monday 31 July 2017
Peter our driver is waiting in the foyer at 8am and we set of to the Wolfs Lair. Heading out through the suburbs of Suwalki we are impressed with the nice houses and tidy gardens. The countryside in this part of Poland is rolling with lush grassy fields, cows grazing and lots of crops with stands of trees.
Around 10am we arrived at the Wolfs Lair in the Masurian woods to be met by Javwiga, our guide for the next couple of hours. This place is an amazing piece of engineering built in stages between 1941 and 1944. As the allied bombs got bigger they made the structures bigger. There was a workforce of around thirty thousand employed during the construction period. The locals and others thought it was a chemical plant that was being built here. For the semi-bomb-proof buildings, precast beams were brought from Hamburg and laid next to each other to make the roof.
First stop was the remains of the 50m meeting room where in 1944 Stauffenberg left a briefcase with a bomb in to try and kill Hitler.
Close to there is a monument to the Poles who spent 10 years clearing the 54 thousand mines that had been placed to protect the site.
Next stop was the guest bunker, about 10m high with two layers of rooms inside surrounded by by several meters of concrete. Air filtration systems were in place in case of chemical attacks. Originally these bunkers were a bit smaller but after the British started using the Tall Boy bomb they added another 2 meters of concrete both on top and around the sides with an air gap to add additional protection.
We then moved on to Hitlers bunker, built the same way but with an area added on with windows for him to hang out and entertain people in.
Georing had a similar bunker with a large guest house including wine cellar next door. He also had air defenses on the top of his bunker with shafts for the gun crews to get access.
There were a few more bunkers of this style around the camp for communication and other operations that needed maximum protection. As the Russians approached towards the end of the war the Germans blew up all the big bunkers using up to seven tons of TNT on each one. The blast was so powerful it tipped the several meter thick concrete roofs of the structures. Apparently the blasts were so big they cracked the ice in a lake some distance away. As a joke people have placed sticks under some of the tilted ones to look like they are being held up.
Javwiga had been an excellent guide filling us in on many details, not only about the development but also about the Russian occupation period.
The trip to Krakow was quite slow until Warsaw, where the roads improved and Peter gunned the Audi station wagon along at 160kps plus.
The journey southeast to Krakow revealed a lot more population than we had seen in the north.
Tuesday 1 August 2017
A guy in a Mercedes van picked us up from the Conrad Hotel in Krakow. I had booked the tour through Get Your Guide, thinking it was going to be a group of four or or five. We were dropped at a hotel and moved to a 36-seater bus. An hour or so later we were at Auschwitz. For some time Sylvia and I have looked at groups of people with head phones and radio receivers walking around tourist areas listening to the guide on their head sets. We are both very clear that is something we would not want to do. Yes you got it – soon with the thirty plus in our group we were wired for sound after heading through security. We grouped our way to the main entrance with the sign over the gate. “Meaningful work sets you free”.
This camp, the first one, was originally a single story complex for soldiers from the Polish army. When it became a POW camp they added an extra story and a loft to the buildings, which soon became a concentration camp housing thirty thousand people.
The large kitchens were the first thing we passed.
Now it is a museum with 1.5 plus visitors annually. We were lead through a number of buildings set up as examples of how people had lived and worked as slaves in this camp. We saw the two tons of people’s hair that had been piled up when the camp was freed, ready for sale for factory’s to weave garments from. We also saw cyanide cannisters, shoes, spectacles and pots etc that made the museum.
To get the numbers through we were squeezed into the building with many other groups, hugging the right side of the stairs on the way up as another group struggled past us on the way down.
We visited the Gestapo interrogation and death wall where prisoners were shot in the back of the head after interrogation. It was in the basement of this building where they did the first test on the use of cyanide, killing several hundred people. Electric, instant-death fences prevented people escaping.
We exited through a different gate, the double deadly electric fences still in place.
Last we visited the original gas and cremation block which had been rebuilt as a replica. The original oven doors are displayed there.
Handing in our head sets we got back on the bus and headed to Auschwitz Birkenau a few kms away. This camp was built later and housed around a hundred thousand.
Trains arrived here with 80 people in a carriage. People were separated into groups and many marched straight off to the gas chambers on the pretense of having a shower.
We looked at some of the accommodation, washing and toilet facilities in the women’s quarter of the camp. The bunks were three high with six catering for six people on each level.
I was chatting with the guide and she explained she lived only 15 minutes away with her parents who had been in the house for four generations. The house was taken by the Germans during the war but not occupied. Her grandparents, with a family of eleven, stayed with a relation in the old part of town sharing one room. Her great uncle was conscripted to work in a coal mine. He went on leave one day and did not come back. The gestapo tracked him down, took him to Auschwitz 1, put him face to the wall and shot him in the back of the head.
I think it is important to remember that it was not just the Jews that were interred, tortured and murdered here but also many Pols, gypsies, Russian soldiers and more. Apparently it was the Polish prisoners that asked for the place to stand as a reminder.
Back on the bus we headed for the salt mine passing factories that once used the labor from the camps and still operate today .
Arriving at the Wieliczka Salt Mine, our group of 36 went to the front of the queue, were handed head sets and entered the mine, heading down 53 flights of stairs 60m to the first level. This place is amazing. First mined in the 13th century, mining continued right up to 1996 when salt prices made it uneconomic. There are well over 200km of tunnels in the mine and thousands of caverns. Our journey today is a mere 3.6km descending to a depth of 130m.
We headed of through a tunnel, going through chambers where one door opened, we piled in, closed the door and only then could open the next door and continue. Apparently something to do with the ventilation system. We came out into a chamber where some of the equipment used in the mining was on display. Large rope winches, some man and others horse driven, were used to lower logs down for dunnage and shoring, while at the same time bringing the barrel shaped salt blocks up. Mined salt was shaped like this so it could be rolled like a barrel. The fines were brought up in wooden barrels.
The salt walls and ceilings look like grey granite, not bright and white as we were expecting. With brine pools, many large caverns and statues carved from salt this place is quite amazing. Visitors have been coming here since the 1400’s. Nikolas Copernicus is remembered in one of many statues of famous tourists over the centuries. I am not sure if they will be making statues of Steve and I.
We headed down more stairs, both of us impressed by the timber structures holding the caverns up in places.
We came to many more chambers and tunnels, lots with statues. Some of the caverns had been made into chapels.
Arriving at the end of one tunnel and looking over the ballast rail we can see a huge cathedral. The statues and other structures were carved by three men over many years. Even the salt floor had been shaped into tiles. The crystals in the chandeliers were also made of salt.
Not far along was another large chapel where many weddings are held. There is also a restaurant.
Green, clear brine shines in pools. The tallest cavern, at 35m high, has a lift to a deck so one can look down.
Some rocks from the mine on display glow in the dark.
Finally at the bottom we find out why we are in a group of 36. The guide got a bit worried at one stage as we lost a guy from the US for a while.
There is a two storey, four compartment lift that takes nine per compartment, shoulder to shoulder crammed in, that races us back to the surface.
The bus dropped us in the old city just on dusk. We headed to the very attractive, busy square and sampled some local beer before striking the five kms back to the hotel.