Day 39, Kaunas, February 17th 2012

Tea 39: More Hot Chocolate instead of tea!, Chocolaterie, Kaunas Old Town

Today (yesterday) was a lovely day.  Lithuania is definitely a place I will need to go come back to.  Unfortunately my time here is almost up and tomorrow (today) I will be leaving for Poland.  My day started with another great breakfast, bread and cheese and then banana pancakes and yoghurt.

 After this great start to the day I left the house and walked down the huge staircase (210 steps) to the town centre.  First stop was the bus ticket office where I bought my ticket to Warsaw for another bargain price of 29litas, about 8.5 Euro.  The lady in the ticket office was very friendly and helpful with everything, printed me off my ticket and then I headed into the town centre.  I wandered down the long main high street Laisvės alėja, lined with trees and that leads all the way to the old town.  The old town starts after you have traveled beneath the main road and come up the other side.  Immediately recognisable as an Eastern European / Baltic Old Town, with the building styles and layouts.  The first street is still the main street and leads directly to the town square.  There are lovely little shops, a tea shop (though not cafe), which I popped in to have a look and a smell, but didn’t buy anything.  Then I went to a little glass fronted photography gallery just off the town square.  A nice space with some good work on show, though I have totally forgotten by who, and their website isn’t up to date yet.  In the town square there were workmen taking down a huge christmas tree made from recycled green plastic bottles.  I imagine it must have looked quite cool at night time.  Apparently the tree is only just being taken down because some wise fellow decided that the weather had been much too cold for people to work outside at such a job and so it had been left until now, when the weather is reasonably milder.  A very good idea!  I wandered around and then decided to take a seat next to a sculpture of Maironis, Lithuania’s most celebrated poet, who had studied during his high-school years in Kaunas.  While I was sitting there in the peace and quiet a delivery lorry turned up and two young people were, rather unceremoniously left holding a mattress.  After a few attempts to lift and carry the thing I decided that I would offer some help to the young couple.  So I got up, went over, apologised for my lack of Lithuanian but offered help.  We carried the mattress the few hundred yards to their front door, had a little chat about why I was in Lithuania and what they did (students, one studying Music Technology, the other Medicine), and then I went back to the town square.

I then walked a little while north and found myself at Kaunas Castle, an old, semi-ruined, semi-reconstructed (and therefore sort of ruined a little more), building that stands more or less at the point where the two rivers, the Nemunas and the Neris, meet. It also marks the start of a small area of parkland that is the true point of the land where the two rivers meet.  The little park is only a few meters higher than the river level, the ice of one river was pretty much mostly frozen, but on the other, the Nemunas the ice was breaking up and shifting.  Huge great chunks of glacial blue ice slowly floated down the river, creaking and bobbing about.  It was quite an amazing sight.

After that I went back into the Old Town Square, I had spied a place to get a little treat.  Chocolaterie, as it is simply named, is a sweet little chocolate and coffee cafe.  It isn’t cheap, and especially not by Lithuanian standards, but as a small treat it is ok.  I had the above hot chocolate, and espresso sized cup filled with glorious liquid chocolate, I also treated myself to a piece of cake, true gluttony as the chocolate by itself was much more than enough sweetness.  But the cake was really good, chocolate, cherries, more chocolate, and not just sponge but a layer of solid chocolate in the middle too.  Very, very bad for you, and therefore very, very good for your soul…

I sat there for a while, then wandered through some of the side streets of the Old Town.  Taking my life in my hands down the icy narrow, cobbled streets until I reached the Nemunas River again, but this time further up stream, by a large bridge that leads into the heart of the old town.  A huge sundial sits on the wall of one building, it’s smiling face greeting all those that arrive.  I then met up with Lina’s brother and one of his friends who decided to take me to the Žalgiris Arena, the huge black basketball arena that sits on a small island in the New Town area of Kaunas.  Basketball is actually Lithuania’s national sport, and they are very passionate and proud about it.  In the arena a competition was on between a lot of Lithuanian schools (though I don’t know if it was just local schools or the whole country).  The stadium is mostly black, outside and in, which is actually quite nice to sit in, the focus is really on the basketball court.  We sat and watched for a while.  Small three person competitions taking up the time between quarters of the main game of the day.  Then a small challenge for a member of the audience to throw a basketball from the centre of the court into the basket, but, as if this wasn’t hard enough, they were blindfolded.  When they inevitably missed the audience was told to scream and shout as if they had made the shot.  The guy throwing was very almost convinced!

After a while I decided I would head back home, so, leaving Lina’s brother and friend I walked across the main bridge back to the mainland, walked past the huge empty unfinished Soviet era hotel.  This is an almost solid block of concrete, about 12 stories high and probably the size of a few football pitches.  The thing is built so solid that it is apparently near impossible to break it down, the reinforced concrete latticed with steel.  No one knows what will happen to the thing, but everyone hopes something will happen to it.  It is like a huge, grey, gloomy reminder of the past.  Making it back home, through the little park, that was once a graveyard, then a sports arena (another Soviet influence) and now a park with reference to the previous graveyard, and back up the 210 steps, myself, Lina and Algis sat a chatted for a while. Then we ate some traditional Lithuanian dumplings, little parcels of pastry filled with meat or mushrooms which are boiled and served with sour cream and salad.  Very satisfying food!  Then a couple of Algis’s friends arrived and we sat with some wine and a few card games, and another round of Dixit (the game I failed to explain yesterday).  Then by the time all that was over it was time for bed!

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Day 31, Pärnu, February 9th 2012

Tea 31: Organic Pu Erh, Piccadilly Wine, Pärnu.

Coming to Pärnu was a good decision.  This little cute seaside town is very beautiful and has some similarities to a few British Seaside towns.  I woke up and got ready to head into the town centre where I was meeting Ivo, one of the guys who I am staying with, in his Wine and Chocolate Café ‘Piccadilly Wine’.  I wandered into town slowly, soaking up the sunshine and enjoying the relative warmth of -10’C, compared to the previous days -15 – 20’C.  I found myself in the small town centre; traditional wooden faced buildings lining most of the streets, and then eventually found the Café; gentle music playing into the street from the café is the best clue.  Inside is beautiful, one wall is lined with many different varieties of wine and also some teas.  Gorgeous cakes line the counter and handmade chocolates gleam out at you temptingly.  Ivo was talking to a customer so I looked around a little and then took a seat.  When the customer was gone I got up and chatted to Ivo for a while and then had a lovely cup of Organic Pu Erh Tea.  This tea is not to everyone’s taste, it is very earthy and dark and extremely complex.   The tea was rinsed first, this helps to remove some of the dustiness that can be in the tea, it is not essential to do this as most people like it this way.  But for a morning tea it helps to lighten it up a little.  I was then given a wonderful Chilli Dark Chocolate Truffle.  The chocolates in the Café are all made by Ivo’s business partner, specifically for the café and they all look amazing, and if they all taste as good as that one did then they all taste amazing too!  I spent a good hour or so chatting and drinking tea.  Then I decided to head for the seaside.

I walked through the little town, its beautiful buildings glinting with icicles, the trees lining the streets casting long, thin shadows across the perfect white snow.  I made it to the seaside where I could not actually see the sea.  For as far as my eyes could perceive the ocean was frozen, just pure white reflecting the winter sunlight, the snow fall from the previous couple of weeks unbroken and perfect.  I walked out onto the ice for a while, spying into holes in the ice, clambering over mounds of broken and then refrozen ice.  The peace and tranquillity was wonderful, that is why I am so glad I came here.  The place was just so peaceful for me, probably a stark contrast to the summertime, when this little city becomes the ‘capital’ of Estonia.  I walked along the coastline for a while, going out as far as I dared, which probably was nowhere near as far as I could have gone, the ice being so thick and solid.  The snow crunching beneath my feet and the cold, salty sea air cleansing my lungs.  I then turned off of the beach and into this little area behind the dunes and marshland.  In this area are a few sculptures, and some buildings, one of which apparently houses the Parnu mud baths.  I then decided it was about time for something to eat and so headed back into town.  Through a nice little park with birds chirping in the sunlight and flitting about between the branches of fir trees.  Back in the centre of town I found a little organic café that had been suggested to me earlier.  It is quite nice inside, a little bit like they are trying to bring the outside in with Parisian style plastic seating and small tables.  I had a nice fish soup and a cup of rooibos vanilla, which was much like any rooibos vanilla.  I sat for a while writing and watching the world go by then left and headed towards the river.  Next week will be the Parnu ice festival and at the crest of a small hill/mound by the river teams of people are currently building huge ice castles, igloos and other such sculptural works from breezeblock sized chunks of ice.  I wandered amongst the activity then out the other side where a small group of lads were doing some snowboard stunts and taking photographs using a bungee try system where three guys would run with the bungee, stretching it out and into the hands of a fourth who would then propel themselves off of a small ramp and onto the railing of a staircase currently laden with snow, whilst two others would be searching for the perfect angle to get the best photograph.  After a while standing, watching and taking a few of my own photographs, I went further up along the river to a little bridge that led to a dry dock and the Parnu Yacht Club.  More wandering and then back into the centre of town, along the opposite bank of the river.  In town I decided to buy my ticket for the bus and to warm up in shopping mall, buying a few snacky things for my bus journey.  Then I went back to the apartment.  Ivo was home when I arrived and we hung out for a while before we both then went back to his café.

Back in the café Ivo did a bit of work and I sat and wrote a little more.  Then we had a little food and a really great slice of chocolate cake, warmed up a little to make it even more wonderful, and complimented with a bit of homemade strawberry sauce.   Really, really great!  After a while we left and went back to the flat, Liis, Ivo’s wife and my official couchsurfing host came home around 9:30pm after a yoga class and we prepared her some more food, as well as another helping for ourselves.  Then we sat and watched a movie, I made all of us a hot chocolate using rice milk, and then I went to bed.  A lovely day, relaxed, peaceful, comfortable, and now I’ve sat and written this, I realise, quite full!


Day 27, Tartu, February 5th 2012

Tea 27: Grenadine Tea, Cafe Truffe, Tartu

Today was my first official day in Tartu.  After a great breakfast of way too many delicious pancakes with ice-cream, nutella, and homemade apple jam, and a long time trying to prepare my mind to venture out into the cold, my host and I went for it and headed for town.  She lives just a short walk away from the ‘city centre’, or the town square.  The sun was shining down, but I now know to associate this ominously with the cold, as it means a clear sky, and a clear sky in winter means COLD!  Today, initially, felt a bit warmer than yesterday, but after a few minutes walking the inside of my nose began to freeze and I soon came to the conclusion it had all been an illusion.  And, yes, your nose freezing is reasonably painful.  We escaped into a shopping mall, where we both went simply to warm up a little, and also for me to buy myself some more toothpaste.

That task achieved we headed back out.  We walked around, through a little park area, with the most bizarre, and I must say slightly worrying sculpture by artist  Ülo Õuna, called ‘Father and Son’.  It is kind of bizarre, reading more about it reveals its, fairly obvious intentions, but still, it is a little strange.  We continued onwards, past the pretty, pastel coloured buildings, some of which are really old, including the university building, which was built around 1804.  But the university itself was established in 1632, making Tartu University one of the oldest in Northern Europe.  We went up Toome hill, towards the observatory, beneath ‘Angels Bridge’ (Inglisild), and then up and across the bridge, getting some nice views out across the city.  We then circled around the little bit of parkland, outside the old Hospital, past an ancient looking church that is made up of various functioning and ruined parts.  The great exposed red-brick built arches reaching high up over our heads, the sun shining and turning them an even richer shade of red.  We walked back around and down into the centre again and I got a few ideas of little cafes to pop into.  The city is pretty sleepy feeling, whether this is because of the weather, the winter or just because of the fact that today is a Sunday I do not know.  Tomorrow should help me find out.

We then decided it was far too cold again, and headed to Heli’s (my host)  favourite cafe, Cafe Truffe, right on the main square.  This is a nice contemporary cafe, with loads of cushions and a lovely menu, though their cheesey ambient jazz music selection was questionable.  I ordered a lovely sweet and sour Grenadine Tea, lemony, bright pink and a good hit of all things citrus.  Heli went for a Cinnamon Coffee that looked pretty good.  We also both ordered soup, Heli a Creamy Cheese Soup, whilst I had a Vietnamese Style cream soup with mushrooms, shrimp and fish.  It was very tasty, the mushrooms are flavoursome and dense, whilst the spices were perfect, and the first proper bit of spice I have had for a while.  They don’t tend to do spicy in Estonia, or Helsinki really.

After a nice long time chatting and getting fed and warm we left and more or less immediately went into the Tartu Art Museum.  This is in a small building that seems to be contending with the Leaning Tower of Pisa for worlds most falling over building.  The work on show was of good quality, much like the work in KUMU, kind of chronologically, but from the 60’s to 2010.  There is a lot of interesting and rather amusing stuff in there.  It seems as though they must be having a constant battle with the building and gravity, the leaning of the building making some of the works hang one way and on the other side they hang the other.  On the ground floor is a solo retrospective show of work by Enn Tegova, some of the paintings here must have been in storage or the dark for a long time, as the colours are still so rich they could have been painted yesterday.  Some have even been victim to a little bit of warping too, which is kind of a shame, but also quite nice that they are still being shown.  They kind of fit with the involuntary theme of the tilting building.

The sun had begun to set, the nearly full moon was shining brightly in the gently darkening blue sky and we headed home, my nose freezing once more.


Day 11, Helsinki / Vantaa, January 20th 2012

Tea 11: Green Tea with Lemon, somewhere in the Baltic Sea, near Helsinki.

SNOW!  Proper Snow!  Helsinki is like I had sort of imagined it would be, but even more snowy, especially after the lack of snow in Copenhagen and Stockholm.  Apparently yesterday they had 20cm, and today they must of had the same again.  There is loads!!!  I’ve not seen so much since I was a kid skiing.

I woke up in my cabin at around 8am local time, 7am head time and 6am UK time.  I was lucky in that the cabin I had booked was a shared one, and so I could of had to share with other people, but the ship was quiet and I had the whole thing to myself!  Brilliant!  So after a fairly decent nights sleep I headed downstairs to the Promenade deck in search of tea.  I didn’t get my hopes up and was therefore not too disappointed when I was limited to a small Twinings selection.  How they manage to fit so many tannins into their tea I do not know, I’m starting to think when they say ‘Green Tea’ they just mean they picked the ones out of the black tea batch that stand out a little…. It did the job though and by the time I had drunk that and eaten the extremely dry and chewy cinnamon bun thing (trust me, a camel would have struggled), it was almost time to disembark.  I headed to the top deck and out into the cold air, where I was greeted by lots of lovely, snow-covered islands, even the back of the ship had a little covering.  Helsinki soon loomed up on me and it was time to get off.

I took the tram from the Olympia ferry terminal to the central station and met my friend Eeero, who is kindly hosting me for the next 10 days, outside of the station, after me having seen him, but not him me, outside of the Sokos hotel / department store and me chasing him around for a while.  We went and got my travelcard sorted and headed to his house in Vantaa, a little way north of Helsinki.  After dumping my stuff, meeting his wife and their new baby I headed out into the snow, really really thick snow, and back into the city centre where I filled myself up at a disgustingly satisfying Chinese Buffet and wandered around the city a little to get my bearings a little.  The river running through Helsinki is completely frozen over and a weird murky brown colour, which means I will not be testing my theory that you could easily walk across it, but nonetheless I’m pretty sure that water isn’t moving for a while.  I treated myself to a bar of soap and a wee in a department store and headed back to Eeero’s place.