Podcast #157 — Notes from the Baltics: Riga, Latvia and Tallinn, Estonia

Selfies with Friends in Tallinn

Wrapping up my time in Charlottesville, VA with some “bleisure” travel, as well as some pure leisure travel with a quick trip in the Baltics. And a listener talks about the reason for his out-and-back day trip from Washington, DC to Hong Kong. All this and more at the direct link to the podcast file or listening to it right here by clicking on the arrow below.

Here is the transcript of TravelCommons podcast #157:

  • Intro music — Warmth by Makkina
  • Coming to you today from the TravelCommons studio in Chicago just off the shores of Lake Michigan toward the end of what has been a record-breaking cold November. The first half of the month here was the coldest in 148 years with an average temperature of 31 degrees, which compares to an average high for November of 50 degrees, and a low of 39. But what’s been worse has been the early snow — 3½ inches of snow on Halloween (another record) and again on Veterans Day. And by some incredible strokes of luck (as opposed to any foresight on my part), I dodged both snows — by flying home from Charlottesville, VA the day before Halloween, and scheduling a week off the road the week of November 11. It’s always better to be lucky than good.
  • Last week was my last week in Charlottesville, finishing up an 18-week project that started in July. A year ago, when I wrapped up a long run in Charlottesville and didn’t know if/when I’d be back, I took an afternoon to hit Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home that was only a 10-15 minute drive from the client. It was one of those things I wanted to do, but kept putting off — I’ll get to it — and here I was, the last day, and so squoze it in between meetings and calls.
  • With that in mind, I did just a touch more planning this year, and on my second-to-last trip, the week between the Halloween and Veterans Day snow storms, I flew in a day early on Monday, but to IAD rather than CHO, instead renting a car, and driving the length of the 105-mile Skyline Drive down to Charlottesville along the tops of the Blue Ridge Mountains through Shenandoah National Park. I was probably a week late for peak leaf peeping, but it was still pretty, especially when looking west over the Shenandoah Valley.  I don’t think I would’ve made a special trip to drive Skyline Drive, but since I was in the neighborhood, why not? And it turned out to be just a great drive — clear blue skies, still some good leaf color, and on a Monday, not a lot of people on that 2-lane road. 
  • And then last Thursday, flying out of CHO for the last time until I don’t know when, I had to order one last beer at the Tailwind, the airport bar. For an airport with only 5 gates, the Tailwind always has a great rotation of local craft beers. And there’s a mini-Cheers effect — maybe not everyone knows my name, but Lyn the bartender recognizes me from my 4-year off-and-on presence in her bar. When I showed back up in July after a 9-month absence, she recognized me right away. So I had to get one last beer from her. I looked at the blackboard and ordered the stout from Blue Mountain Brewery, which was not far from when I ended my trip down Skyline Drive. I was getting over a bit of a cold; the IPA would’ve been a bit rough on the back of my throat. That Dark Hollow Stout went down smoother, but what I didn’t quite pick up on is that it’s a 10% alcohol beer. Bit of an eye opener at 11:30am. Made for a good nap on the flight home.
  • Bridge Music — Dive Deep (Loveshadow remix) by spinningmerkaba (c) copyright 2015 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license. http://dig.ccmixter.org/files/jlbrock44/50488 Ft: Loveshadow

Following Up

  • Mark Skinner sent a note to comments@travelcommons.com a few days ago
    • Hi Mark, Long time listener. So your tag line “It’s more about the journey than the destination” hit home to me with what has to be my oddest business trip yet. Tomorrow, I’m flying Washington to Hong Kong, via EWR, arriving Monday afternoon, and then returning on Tuesday morning! I’m basically there for dinner…
    • No meetings in Hong Kong, it’s all about taking a cosmic ray detector for NASA on an over-the-pole flight; which the UA flights 179/180 do quite well, EWR-HKG-EWR. They want to understand the amount of radiation from space inside the aircraft cabin. I’ll be in the air longer than on the ground. I’m planning to stay on and to sleep at “normal” east coast times, which means while I’ll have a hotel room by HKG, I’ll be awake then (night in HK, but daytime hours for me).  Happily my upgrades to Polaris Business both ways have been confirmed! Otherwise the 16 hr flight would seem even longer…
  • Oh, my! There’s a nice end-of-year mileage run! I told Mark that his itinerary reminds me of one I did 12 years ago when I flew to London for a lunch meeting to wrap up a project. I flew ORD-LHR, showered in the arrivals lounge, took a car out to Reading, gave the final readout over lunch, hopped back in the car to LHR, and caught the afternoon flight to DEN. I always say that ORD-LHR-DEN run was the epitome of “stupid” travel, but Mark has a good reason for his out-&-back.  Given the amount of time I’ve spent at 35,000 ft over the past 35 years, I’m not sure I want to know the results of Mark’s measurements.
  • United Airlines sent out a link promoting a jet lag app, Timeshifter. Though Mark won’t need one because he’s staying on Eastern Time during his quick jaunt to Hong Kong, I decided to give it a try for my trip to Latvia, Estonia, and Finland. Going east, from the US to Europe, has always been easier for me. My usual routine – I skip the seat-back entertainment for 4-6 hrs of shut-eye (I wouldn’t call it true sleep) on the flight over, eat breakfast when I arrive even if I’m not hungry, get outside as much as possible, take a 30-minute nap after check-in, push through until 11:30pm that first night, and then set an alarm for, say, 7am the next morning. That usually resets my body clock and I’m pretty much good-to-go for the rest of the trip. Timeshifter added two things to my routine: starting to shift to destination time a few days before leaving, moving bedtime and wake-up time an hour earlier each day – going to bed at 10 instead of 11 and getting up at 5 instead of 6 the next morning. The second thing was taking melatonin before going to bed, which I tried by I’m not sure that it really does anything for me. It’s also a well-designed app that notifies you about things like when to seek out direct sunlight and when to start and stop with caffeinated drinks. I used the free first plan. Not sure I’ll pay the $9.99 for another plan, though.
  • And speaking of caffeinated drinks, last week, staying at the Omni Hotel in Charlottesville, they gave me two door hangers — one for each night — that I could exchange for a drink delivered to my door in the morning, or a beer at the bar in the evening. The first night, since I’d already had a margarita at dinner, I skipped the bar for something in the morning. Looking at the door hanger, my choices were coffee, tea, and Red Bull. Wow. Guess they’re catering to all kinds of morning afters. It wasn’t a big margarita, so I went for the cup of tea.
  • Following up on last episode’s carry-on discussion, about buying a new bag to meet Finnair and AirBaltic’s size and weight limits, My new TravelPro Maxlite bag worked like a charm. I packed a week of clothes and didn’t tagged by any gate agents. It even fit in the overheads of the ATR prop jobs that hopscotched us around between Riga, Tallinn, and Helsinki. On one of our passes through Helsinki, I saw an AirBaltic luggage sizer and scale by an empty customer service desk, so I decided to check the bag out. It was a bit of a force fit into the sizer and it weighed in at 8½ kilos, just a bit over the limit. Glad I didn’t catch a gate agent’s eye.
  • And since we’ve been talking about carry-on luggage over the past couple of episodes, so I pulled together all those threads into a new “how to choose a new carry-on” blog post. It went up at the beginning of the month, updating the one from last February, just in time for the Christmas shopping season. If you or a frequent traveling loved one needs a new carry-on, check it out, complete with Amazon Affiliate links if you want to toss a buck TravelCommons’ way.
  • And speaking of prop jobs, I definitely misfired on my Finnair seat choices between Helsinki and Riga. I was more focused on choosing seats for the long flights between Chicago and Helsinki, and didn’t pay much attention to the 45-minute flight to and from Riga. So just picked one off the seat map where there would be with no one next to me – 5C both ways – which, as it turned out, was empty for a reason, because it was right next to the propeller. I had forgotten how loud those propellers get on take-off. I popped on my Bose Noise Cancelling headphones (which, I noticed, are starting to show a good bit of wear; so I might be doing a bit of Black Friday/Cyber Monday shopping) on taxi, but when the pilot revved up the propellers, the noise cancellation started to cut in and out. The headphones were having to generate huge “anti-waves” to cancel the prop noise and the battery was too low to support the load. Luckily, I always carry extra triple-AAA batteries in the case. But while I was swapping the battery, the noise, the oscillation pressure was killer. I couldn’t get those headphones back over my ears fast enough. If you go to the TravelCommons’ Instagram page, you can see a bit of video out the window of my HEL-RIX flight complete with a slow-motion propeller.
  • And if you have any travel stories, questions, comments, tips, rants – the voice of the traveler, send ’em along — text or audio comment to comments@travelcommons.com — you can send a Twitter message to mpeacock, post your thoughts on the TravelCommons’ Facebook page or our Instagram account at travelcommons — or you can post comments on the web site at TravelCommons.com.
  • Bridge Music – Drops of H2O ( The Filtered Water Treatment ) by J.Lang (c) copyright 2012 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license. http://dig.ccmixter.org/files/djlang59/37792 Ft: Airtone

Notes from the Baltics: Riga, Latvia and Tallinn, Estonia

  • At the end of October, right after pushing out the last episode, my son Andrew and I flew east for a week hopscotching through the Baltics — Riga, Latvia; Tallinn, Estonia; and Helsinki, Finland. Why the Baltics? I’m not really sure. I’m sure we had a good rationale when we first thought of the trip a few years ago, but now, it wasn’t much more than “here are a few kinda outta-the-way countries that might be cool to wander around.”  
  • Andrew booked our flights — Finnair from ORD to Riga with a connection in Helsinki. The Finnair service was fine, a pretty standard Airbus A330 but with lots of polka-dot Marimekko patterns on everything. I’d forgotten they were a Finnish company. I skipped using my UK passport one last time for a quick pass down the EU passport lane, deciding not to strand Andrew in the “everyone else” passport path, which led to an unexpected grilling from the Finnish border control cop about the details of my itinerary. Then he spent a good bit of time paging back and forth through my passport stamps. Can’t think of what he found interesting — the Chinese visa, the two Indian visas, maybe the Moroccan stamps from that day trip to Tangiers 3 years ago? Eventually, he decided to put his Helsinki stamp right next to August’s Krakow stamp and then open the gate so I could walk through. 
  • I’m not quite sure what I expected from Riga, but it turned out to be a nice, mid-sized city. Maybe it shouldn’t have, but I was surprised at how well-preserved the city center is, especially the buildings with the over-the-top Art Nouveau edifices with huge faces over the doorways and carved figures holding up window sills. It took some money, though. Down by the river, I saw two buildings side-by-side, the one on the right recently refinished and repainted; the one on the left was still waiting its turn, but time is running out. The Art Nouveau look was there, but muted under the grime and soot and flaking plaster; with some relief decorations on the window balcony worn away.
  • I was surprised, though, at how empty Riga’s old town was in the middle of a Tuesday. The streets were empty. Where was everyone? Maybe across the river where it looks like they’ve built new modern office towers. I was glad I didn’t book our hotel down here.
  • The Central Market down river from the Old Town was much more lively, and also where Riga stopped looking so Scandi and started looking a bit more post-Soviet. The busses and streetcars orbiting the market looked left over from the early ‘90’s. But I liked it. Most of the people here seemed to be doing their own grocery shopping — unlike food markets in places like Paris and Barcelona that seem to have more people taking pictures of fish than buying them. But the place is so big that I don’t see that it could survive just on food porn tourism. They repurposed a set of World War I zeppelin hangars — one for fishmongers, one of butchers, one for greengrocers, and then part of one with some restaurants where Andrew and I made lunch from a round loaf of Uzbeki bread and some tortellini-looking dumplings filled with lamb and venison. It was pretty good.
  • Then it was time to go search out some beer taprooms which had us walking sorta northeast, on a straight line away from the river, away from Old Town, across the canal and parks and past the embassies that sorta ring Old Town, and back into a less renovated landscape of storefronts and converted factories, some places run down, others with the hipster-signaling strands of naked edison bulbs over wood tables. Wandering into a courtyard off a busy street, we found  Labietis that had wide and interesting mix of beers — herb beers and fruit beers, as well as the usual batch of IPAs. The names were interesting, also. Migla, which they translated as “Fog” had hemp and peppermint in a light pale ale. Not sure it was my top pick, but I gotta give them props for trying something different.
  • It was a 45-minute prop job flight from Riga to Tallinn on AirBaltic. I did have a bit of a travel snob realization, though — when everyone is getting on the same bus for a plane, boarding status is kinda meaningless. Anyhow, AirBaltic was fine service — no hassles with carryon luggage, no annoying on-board upsells, though with only 45 minutes, there’s not too much damage they could do. Heading for the cab rank at Tallinn, I saw the same warning signs they had at Riga airport – there’s no regulated taxi fees so be careful which taxi you get into. At Riga, we used one of the airport-approved cabs with a meter. At Tallinn, we used Bolt, a ride-sharing app that looks a lot like Lyft. I used earlier in Krakow and had good luck with it, and it worked fine in Tallinn too – €4 from the airport to Old Town seemed a pretty good deal.
  • I can see why Tallinn is popular for long weekends. The Old Town is just that — winding cobblestone streets, lots of churches and restored old buildings, and lots of shops in those old buildings. It’s up on a hill, so lots of scenic overlook Instagram moments. You could easily spend a couple of days wandering the streets, popping in and out of churches and museums… and shops and bars.
  • But after a half-day, I was ready to breach the Old Town’s walls to see what else there was to Tallinn. The first stop was a market by the train station – Balti Jaama Turg. Nowhere near the size of Riga’s Central Market, we strolled around until, after the 4th or 5th fruit stand and butcher stall, our minds wandered to lunch. We bought a couple different kinds of Uzbeki breads from one stand and a couple of beers from another. The breads were stuffed with some sliced meat cooked in a warming, floral spice, maybe cinnamon. It was very good, though I never got the story of why all the Uzbeki food up here.
  • We walked out and around the train station, and through a collection of restaurants in small square buildings, old cargo containers and a couple of railcars. As much as I liked the Uzbeki breads, I wish I’d seen these places first. On the other side was something called Telliskivi Creative City. It looked like an old office or administrative building had been converted to a kinda “makers” mall, where people were doing small-scale clothing or leather work in the back of their space and selling it out of the front. We took a quick pass through it though didn’t see anything we wanted to haul back to the US.
  • We walked kinda north-northeast, through the Kalamaja neighborhood toward the harbor. Kalamaja was the exact opposite of the Old Town – wood buildings vs. stone; straight paved streets vs. windy cobblestones; groups of flats vs. castles and government buildings. A few blocks off the harbor we hit the Põhjala Brewery & Tap Room. It was in what looked like a very recently renovated stone building; workers were in the midst of renovating the building next to it. Where Labietis felt very native — funky space tucked away behind some kinda decaying buildings — Põhjala could’ve been any new taproom in the US — big U-shaped bar, open kitchen, BBQ on the menu. The beer was very good; the BBQ maybe less successful, but having lived in Memphis and Dallas, I’m a bit of a BBQ snob. The smoked trout dish, though — that was great. 
  • We walked back towards town on a path that ran along the harbor. There were lots of new apartment buildings across the road — 3-4 stories with floor-to-ceiling windows and enclosed balconies facing the harbor. There wasn’t a lot there… yet. But you could see it coming.
  • We stopped at the Uba Ja Humal beer store before heading back through the Old Town walls. We walked through the front store to the taproom in the back, complete with a DJ who was set up between the back coolers. Locals would pull a can out of a cooler, pay for it at the bar, get a glass, and sit down at a table with their friends. Tallinn had that kind of easy-going vibe.
  • Both cities have done a good job renovating and preserving their Old Towns, and now seem to be expanding past that, repurposing older, maybe Soviet-era buildings to something a bit hipper, edgier (?), less traditional. I came away liking Tallinn a bit more than Riga, but maybe it’s because they’re a little bit further down that hipper, less traditional path.

Closing

  • Closing music — Pictures of You by Evangeline
  • OK, that’s it, that’s the end of TravelCommons podcast #157
  • I hope you all enjoyed this podcast and I hope you decide to stay subscribed.
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2 Comments.

  1. We did a Virginia road trip last year and hit up Monticello as well, fascinating. From there we stopped at Devil’s Backbone brewery to recharge before also driving Skyline Drive towards Luray, VA, and a visit to the caverns.
    I haven’t done a mileage run in years but came real close to losing my Southwest companion pass status for 2020. I had to change a few of my travel website profiles to use my Southwest card over my Hilton American Express card in order to hit it for 2020. It’s always a tough decision do I want 12 points per dollar at Hilton properties or free Southwest flights for my wife. As always, another great episode.

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