Outside Finland Travel

River cruising: Egypt’s a Nile ahead

Cruising along the world’s longest river combines sun, culture, ancient moments and all on a comfortable floating hotel.

If the Nile didn’t exist then Egypt wouldn’t, not at least with its present population: currently 76 million and adding another 2 million mouths annually. Looking at the country’s current geography, it’s difficult to believe that seven millennia ago it was lush savannah roamed by lavish wildlife such as elephants, gazelles and lions before a climate change altered things drastically. Apart from the long ribbon of water and its adjacent green bands that snakes its way from sources in Ethiopia and Uganda, desert ochre is the primary colour nearly everywhere.

Nile Egypt

For all but the hardiest Egyptologist, a cruise from Luxor to Aswan is an intensive history lesson where knowledgeable guides deliver a bewildering series of facts, figures and background in a veritable flood. For example, Egypt is now an Arab republic, but most of what is on display was created and built by ancient Egyptians – a completely different people. Arabs immigrated just a few centuries after year zero, but the countries (there were two: upper and lower kingdoms) had already been overrun and ruled by Libyans, Nubians, Persians and Greco-Roman kings and pharaohs. Similarly, after the Arabs, came the Ottoman Turks, French and the British – all of whom absorbed to some degree local influences while leaving their own marks, sometimes literally in the form of carved graffiti defacing aged stone monuments.

The 360-odd riverboats that now sedately ply between the two cities of Luxor (Thebes in ancient times) and the beautiful metropolis of Aswan (where the British smartly based themselves for their 19th Century Sudan campaigns) are similar in design: up to five decks above the waterline with cabins and a restaurant, bar and reception to the sun deck with its pool and canopy-providing shade. Most are given 4- or 5-star status but that may not always match a traveller’s definition.

One thing is certain; the infamous health problems are as much a thing of the past as the itinerary. Food is washed and cooked in mineral water sparing the toilets the occupancy rates of yesteryear. And in addition to the inclusive excursions to see temples, tombs and towns, options cover hot air balloon sunrise rides, day-trips to Cairo plus sound and light shows. The latter two are not recommended: the Egyptian capital cannot be seen in hours and the shows lack any movement as the title implies.

Nearly all cruises start from Luxor, but before casting off, visits to the nearby Luxor and Karnak Temples are hors d’oeuvres as a taste of things to come. Both are fine examples of ‘Egyptian’ sites (as against those showing the Greek or Roman influences of the rulers of the day) of worship to their gods – the main trio being the great sun god Amun-Re, his wife Mut (Mistress of Heaven) and their son Khonsu (Moon God). Then it’s off to the Valleys of the Kings and Queens on the arid west bank of the river where royalty and nobility have their final resting places hacked out of rock and decorated with finely worked and coloured hieroglyphs, all by hand, and stocked with treasure for the afterlife. Taking in this plethora of superlatives taxes the perception, brain and memory. Fabulous sights such as the two 20-metre high Colossi of Memnon statues (remains of Amenhotep III’s temple), the Nobles Tombs and the Ramesseum appear as side shows compared with Queen Hatshepsut’s stunning temple at Deir al-Bahari. If possible, a visit the nearby artisans’ village, where the people who created these places lived and died reveals the lives of the craftsmen who created this exquisite ornateness. 

Messing about on the river

After setting sail, the sun deck is the place to watch local life pass by: for ornithologists alone, there is the eye-boggling spectacle of hoopoes, egrets, cormorants, herons and ibis flying, fishing, wading or just floating by on branches. Their colours and sounds are matched by local fishermen and riverbank villages complete with compulsory mosques. Mud-brick dwellings are not usually painted or decorated, but now some do so – for the foreign visitors a guide informs.

As the water and day drift by, it’s worth recalling that 95% of Egypt’s population now live by or on the river and its floodplain, which waters just 5% of its land. Until the High Dam was built, the annual autumn flood used to decide its economic fate: a good wash of Ethiopian mud and nutrients would feed the floodplain and ensure a bounteous harvest. ‘Nilometres’ measured its high point and thus formed the basis of that year’s taxes.

Nile River

Pulling in to Edfa, horse-drawn caléches line up quayside in expectation. (Although the French were in Egypt a mere five years, before Nelson evicted them, it’s considered a Francophone country). Here, the Ptolemaic temple to the falcon god Horus (237-57BC) and many succeeding sites are constructions of Greco-Roman rulers who used local culture for their own purposes, but were bewitched too. The entrance and hypostyle hall architecture shows their influences in this well-preserved structure.

Next port of call down, Kom Ombo’s impressive approach at sunset would persuade anyone to get out a camera and burn an unforgettable memory. This temple is unusually dedicated to two idols: Haroeris (the good doctor) and Sobek (the crocodile god). The crushed stone used to colour the walls and columns remains vivid.  As the sun sets, the flora and fauna cast gentle curved outlines on the water as feluccas and fishermen draw dark shapes against the red glow on the horizon. The silence is serene. Dinner awaits. Could it be better? 

Aswan – dams, desert and delights

Early signs of nearing this city are the feluccas with their distinctive angular lateen sail. This southernmost city is a centre of the Nubian people. In pharaonic times, there existed Lower Egypt around the river mouth called the White Kingdom and Upper Egypt spreading out from Thebes named the Red Kingdom after the nearby stone. Nubia, with its dark-skinned people occupied an area that reaches far into north Sudan.

Smooth rock formations and outcrops, the First Cataract, dot the river and banks. The city’s business and residential buildings, hotels, mosques and shops perch on the east side. Two islands, Elephantine and Kitchener’s, serve different purposes as residential and recreational areas between the two banks. At night the west lights up to show the nobles’ cave graves of Qubbet al-Hawa.

Time here is precious as the list of places to visit would demand longer than is given, from the quarry where stone was hewn for temples and tombs down river to Abu Simbel. Not to mention the souk, dams, museums, Coptic cathedral and monastery, Old Cataract Hotel, Corniche, the Aga Khan’s tomb and local Nubian culture. Their straw coffee filter is just the tip of differentiation.

Nile River

To keep it simple, there’s the relocated Philae Temple, near the British-built Old Dam completed in 1902 after 13 years. This was dwarfed when the contentious High Dam was completed in 1970 reducing the threat of flood, storing precious water for dry years, supplying 65% of Egypt’s then power supply then and creating the world’s largest reservoir: Lake Nasser.

Conversely, the annual wash with its precious silt was halted causing farmers to use fertilisers for the first time, the extinction of several bird species and disrupting the environment along the river to its mouth. Locals claim the Nubian culture will never recover. While under construction, a massive international effort in the 1960s rescued the most precious pharaonic archaeological treasures.

Abu Simbel was one, located less than 100 metres from its original site, it was built by Ramesses II to glorify himself, his favourite wife Nefertari and celebrate his so-called victory at Kush and intimidate the local Nubians too as it was a public place, not reserved just for nobles or priests. This is born out by the immense statues outside the two temples, now located inside a man-made hillock.

Built in the 13th Century BC it was re-discovered in 1813 by a Swiss explorer, J L Burkardt, when sailing passed who unfortunately informed Givanni Belzoni. The Italian promptly went and looted it as soon as he could. Carvings with dates bear testimony to his avarice. But the grandeur could not be stolen. A cruise along the Nile forms indelible memories that will remain lifelong, as it is eternal.   

Egyptian idiosyncrasies

The British poet Shelley was inspired by the Ramesseum to pen his classic Ozymandias. Similarly, Agatha Christie appropriately wrote ‘Death on the Nile’ at Aswan’s Old Cataract Hotel. Alexandria was home and setting for Lawrence Durrell’s ‘The Alexandra Quartet’.

Due to its Francophone status, continental twin-pin plugs are standard.

Alcoholic beverages are not cheap in Egypt and on board are very expensive e.g. €5.50 for a half-litre can of local Sakkara lager.

Though the crew and guides are bought off by a tip paid in advance (GB£15), other Egyptians expect baksheesh off tourists. And bargaining is ubiquitous – with a third of the original asking price as normal.Government shops though are both cheap and hassle-free. Ask for their address.

Nile River

Quietly inquire if alcohol is for sale – just because it’s not on the menu doesn’t mean there’s none available. As alcoholic drinks are scarce and expensive, stock up at the airport on arrival where a good range of products are both available and illogically cheap. The local lager and aniseed brew are good; whiskey of doubtful quality and the wine may not be to your palate. ‘Egyptian champagne’ – karkadeh is a refreshing non-alcoholic concoction made from dried hibiscus flowers.

Smoking is an Egyptian way of life. Tobacco is consumed voraciously in cigarette form or via a water pipe (sashwa) and getting close to a local man (women are never seen smoking in public except in big cities) can form the impression there is national halitosis. Food is not spicy unless added. Tea and coffee are sweetened to the point of nausea – 5 teaspoons per small cup. And the coffee has a thick foundation at the bottom so don’t throw your head back and pour it down. Curiously, fish is rarely on the menu.

In Aswan, most tours call in at a perfume house where the essence oils for famous scents are produced. If it is a reputable approved establishment, it’s a bargain. You will be proudly informed that western products (that have different names here) are 90% alcohol and water which disappear quickly, whereas essence never evaporates. This is true and a small inexpensive bottle makes a great gift or souvenir. And it is impossible not to have at least one small stone carving or papyrus in your suitcase at the end.

Jewellery is another memento, but caveat vendor – choose your shop carefully. Herbs too and natural indigo are cheap and widely sold. Egyptian cotton is world famous, but expensive except from a state store. Buying and wearing the regional costume, a one-piece shoulder-to-toe    gallabaya is another must-have.

Lastly there are two schools on the origins of the words Egypt and Nubia. For the former, it either derives from the ancient word kemet meaning black soil – or if you prefer, black people as some claim.

Similarly, Nubia comes from the word nub meaning ‘land of gold’ for which it was renowned or the tribe Nuba that inhabited some of the kingdom then. Nubians were Christians for about a thousand years until the 15th Century too.

Concerts Music

Mariza – the bewitching diva of destiny

{mosimage} Many countries and cultures have their dark side expressed musically that mirrors people’s sorrow and suffering. USA has its blues and old country, Argentina and Finland their tango, minorities such as some Sámi joiking or women keening at funerals. 


Portugal has fado – which as Mariza explained at her Helsinki concert (11 October) at Finlandia Hall means destiny. However, one of her songs Meu Fado Meu does not make it clear if it will be happy or sad, good or bad, or perhaps all and more. It was the ideal setting for anyone who has had sad news such as the untimely death of a recent romance (saudade – see below). This was reflected in the sixth number: Beijo de saudade  recalling a lost lover. Off her latest album, it was sung with Tito Paris, a Cape Verdian, and clearly harks from the West African islands' own form of desperation: the morna.  

Small and slim – she looks much taller due to her slender form and full-length black dress and arm stockings – the only colour is supplied by her hair and narrow hoops of ribbon on the garment. 

Straightaway the first few songs are sad, soul-searing and full of excruciating loss – it isn’t necessary to understand Portuguese to get the meaning as they are all delivered with total intensity, passion and utter involvement. She almost pleads with the audience to share her angst, pain and even tears. The song Tasco de Mouraria, recalls her parents’ bar when she was only five years old and the catalyst to become a singer in the eponymous Lisboa district, had teardrops filling her eyes reminiscing a childhood lost that can be only remembered, but never re-lived. Honestly portrayed and conveyed. 

As the dark clouds gather for a series of inevitably bad conclusions, the lyrics are wrung out in loud notes, long piercing soft monotones or a soulful, lilting voice. This is all combined with facial expressions, serpentine hand gestures and, of course, the eyes that glittered, glistened and glowed according to the situation being sung demanded. 


A good example was Barco Negro which had a haunting percussion-only backed opening lament, which floats the listener down into the depths of the inner self, before suddenly lightening up in the middle, only to finish with another series of frighteningly worrisome notes and ending with a violent stormy crescendo.  

The backing musicians were all in tandem and equally talented, playing wooden guitars, piano and brass trumpet plus a drummer that used his hands as much as a range of sticks. They all plucked, blew and struck without sheet music – except the horizontal hand-held bassman (viola baixo). However, all was revealed by Mariza later that in fact it was where he kept his watch for some reason! She spoke a lot, mainly in English, introduced the musicians several times illustrating their harmonious rapport and gave short explanations of fado, some songs and about her life and philosophy – sometimes witty, often serious. 

But it was not all pure doom and gloom in a melancholic melodic setting. After the instrumental guitarrida (which the audience was taught to say en masse), the remaining songs became lighter in mood, even joyful at times. The last song, a Mariza favourite Primavera returns to the theme of loss and hopelessness, a Gibraltarian afficionada informs.  

Two encores followed: the first featured the Portuguese and six-string guitarists with herself – but unplugged with all three singing, assumedly, a traditional folk song. It proved that despite their stature, the sound system could have been dispensed with. The third, obviously unplanned, encore after a visible weakening on stage to the audience’s entreaties, was back to routine, but with everyone invited to stand up and dance along. 

{mosimage}By the end, most had realized they had been taken down a path where introspective Finns rarely go willingly – unless led by someone who knows what they are doing. Mariza is an artiste who does not hold back one iota, and as such the on-looker is dragged through a gamut of emotions that ends up with a flickering message of hope – perhaps to recapture that amora perdida or its mere memory. It’s a soul-searching emotion-jangling experience for all concerned. Fado is a darkish genre with a now-bright future with the youthful Mariza as its message-bearer for a long time to come. 

Mariza dos Reis Nunes – vocals

Diogo Clemente – classical guitar

Ângelo Freire – Portuguese guitar

Marino de Freitas – Portuguese bass guitar

Hugo Marques – percussion

Simon Wadsworth – piano, trumpet & synthesiser 

CDs: Fado em Mim (2002); Fado Curvo (2003); Transparente (2005) & Terra (2008). DVDs: Live in London (2005) & Concerto em Lisboa 

Fado can mean destiny or fate and derives from 1820s Portugal. It is mournful, but follows a set pattern and full of saudade – pining for something or someone such as a lost love. It plucks at the heart strings and is not for the weak-hearted or strong-willed. There are two forms: the Lisboã and Coimbra – the latter based round the university that had many Brazilian students and their modinhas songs. Fado always has a Portuguese guitar, but the Coimbra style has male singers only dressed traditionally in academic garb (traje académico). The Lisboã districts of Mouraria and Alfama, Bairro Aalto and Madragoa (bairros típicos) still have their casas de fados where the dimly-lit streets and alleys echo to dark strains of emotional suffering.


Concerts Music

Iron Maiden at the Stadium

{mosimage}Having sold out the Helsinki’s Olympic Stadium’s 44,000 tickets in minutes (Tampere’s 26,000 took longer), it goes without saying that this British band is popular in Finland. Their heavy rock/light metal mix has not only an adoring audience here, but one that transcends generations to the point where parents go to the same concerts with sons and daughters. 

Many may have thought the youthful contingent was noticed by singer Bruce Dickinson when thanking the audience, he noted that “We're gonna play songs from the past 25 years tonight and from the looks of it, many of you weren't even born then!” However, he apparently says that every time. It seems time has marched on and been noticed. Still a good time was guaranteed to be had by the Iron Maiden heads and after all these years (decades in fact), the sextet know how to work a crowd: stoking the mass up into a synchronised choral frenzy with arms pointing skywards in unison when it seemed to flag with another golden oldie supported by stage antics.



And Finns are able to have a good time without being filled up (though many had obviously whetted their whistles before entry judging by the  rubbish tip outside). This virtuous patience was illustrated by a full house at Pori Jazz years ago patiently waiting an hour while James Brown had his cup of tea backstage and readied himself for the exertions ahead. 

For nearly two hours on stage, Iron Maiden rolled out their composition compendium, blasted out by walls of speakers with the stage flanked by two huge screens. Unfortunately, in parts the sound system went wonky as guitar riffs clashed with the laws of electronics, which spoilt the result occasionally, if not the enjoyment. No such criticism could be aimed at the singer: BD’s voice has held up despite the years of over-exertion – unlike some aged screamers whose chords have cracked at high pitch in Helsinki in the last couple of years. He belted out every note, not one missed or compromised. In addition to the full-on singing he leapt about the stage impressively in a variety of uniforms ranging from British Boer War soldier waving a Union Jack to voodoo witchdoctor according to the number. 

The other band members, bassist and founder Steve Harris plus guitarists Janick Gers, Adrian Smith and Dave Murray – all hair and tattoos aplenty, no beards though – went through their paces in time-trusted fashion, finger dexterity on display with each able to have a small solo, though not the drummer Nicko McBrain. Possibly this was his punishment for not living up to a promise to buy the whole stadium a drink. He was hidden by what was possibly the world’s largest drum kit and had to stand to be seen and had a separate camera inside his percussion castle. 

{mosimage}As sweat rolled down off and on the stage, BD led the way and was soaked after the first three songs: Aces High, 2 Minutes To Midnight and The Trooper. Fortunately, the enclosure in front of the stage was watered regularly as the security defied their appearance to gently hand out paper cups of thirst-quenching liquid. It’s hard work playing and enjoying a good live rock gig and it’s good to see everyone wanting to give and get their money’s worth. 

Unusually for these large open air shows, the stage scenery changed too from ancient Egyptian spirits to a thing that looked like the “Creature from the Deep” (aka Eddie the Head) to a 5-metre tall skinless cyberman that moved around the stage briefly. This was something those who left before the encore missed.  So after Fear of the dark, Rime of The Ancient Mariner (before which a large seagull flew timely around above the audience, BD is talismanic too it seems), Wasted years and so on, everyone left for a bar to talk about seeing rock legends alive. Many no doubt were looking forward to Tampere the next day…… 

Photos: Eduardo Alonso

Outside Finland Travel

Lithuania overcomes historical hurdles

Being a small country boxed in by bigger more aggressive ones is the fate of the Baltic three. Especially problematic is being on a highway between two of the biggest powers on the continent: Russia and Germany, who of course have been in control of their smaller brethren for large chapters in their history book.

To make geo-political matters worse, even middleweight neighbours Poland and Ukraine have had not been shy about sticking their noses and armies into inferior-sized next-door nations when the opportunity arose. But perhaps some of this was history’s revenge for the Grand Duchy of Lithuania's episode as a regional power stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea in the 13th-15th centuries. Nowadays safe in the EU's bosom and NATO, the country can relax if not let down its guard.


Time has left its scars as well as beauty spots in present-day Lithuania. The capital Vilnius gleams with (heavily EU-funded) restored churches, buildings and sites. Subjectively the most attractive of the Baltic capitals, its predominantly Baroque Old Town is the biggest in the Baltics with a reconstructed Jewish Quarter that bore the brunt of the Nazi and Soviet takeovers. The efficiency of the former saw 80% of the Jewish population exterminated within months and 95% exterminated by defeat in 1945 out of a total of 265,000 in various gruesome ways. What was left of the area was bulldozed by Soviet liberators – including the badly damaged centuries-old Grand Synagogue and its library containing irreplaceable Zionist tomes and documents.

After 1945, a few thousand resistance fighters fought an unequal and ultimately hopeless contest that still lasted for 10 years against Soviet forces, before being ruthlessly extinguished. This is also catalogued there and can be seen at the rather exaggeratedly named Genocide Museum. Otherwise, and more accurately, called the KGB Museum, it is the only former headquarters of the feared Soviet secret police in the EU with a starkly frightening exhibition of the methods employed and lifestyle of an inmate complete with a spine-tingling execution cellar.

Much needed relief is provided by a fair walk up the main drag Gedimino Avenue which bears the name of a 14th-Century Lithuanian Grand Duke. At the end is the Cathedral Basilica and Bell Tower that was a cinema not too many years ago. Lithuanians are overwhelmingly Catholic and somehow the country's Soviet leadership did its utmost to ensure they remained a majority in their own land. So a remarkable 80% of the population is of Lithuanian stock. Some achievement considering it has been a market place for traders at this crossroads where peoples have for centuries come from all over to settle and prosper plus the deportations and Russian immigration that occurred elsewhere. By comparison only two-thirds of Estonia's and a half of Latvia's populations are made up of locals.

One such example of successful transplantation is the Kairemes (or Karaites) who were brought to Lithuania in 1397-8 when the great hero Grand Duke Vytautas returned from a campaign in Crimea, bringing 340 families with him. They are a Turkic people whose faith is based around the Old Testament and other scriptures but who deny no religion. Once numbering in the thousands, there are now just a few hundred mainly in Vilnius and Trakai, where the two remaining 'kanesa' or places of worship are.

Just 30km from Vilnius, Trakai and its old castle are a must-see. The town contains, like most of the country, churches of different religions: catholic of course, but also orthodox, a synagogue and the kanesa. A walk up the main street (not a Herculean task) takes you past the points of interest such as St John Nepomuk perched on top of a pole, who has a myth behind his omnipotence. Sculptures and statues accompanied by a legend are a Lithuanian feature with fact blurred by time.

The castle is almost entirely re-built after invading Cossacks in 1655 succeeded in doing what was intended to be nigh impossible. But it manages to resonate with history and the objects on display are fascinating – such as the, literally, pots of money dug up by archaeologists containing thousands of coins. But peak season crowds may be a stumbling block to see it all at your own pace. Set in an islet on Lake Galvės, the bridge back has a splendid view of the Kaireme  street, known as 'Small Town' with its wood houses fronted by three windows: one for God, one for Vytautas and one for the owner. Many now are restaurants (Kaireme are said to be a Jewish sect and so businesslike, but maybe it is a recipe for their survival) serving their cuisine and home-made brews which are just as popular with local as foreign visitors.


At the lakeside restaurant Kybynlar, meals start with a sort of pickled salad, followed by unleavened pastry pies containing lamb or chicken with herbs and vegetable similar to a pasty. These dishes are traditionally accompanied by krupnik, a herbal spirit drink with each restaurateur having his own formula. Now numbering around 250, possibly the EU's smallest minority has managed to retain their own language, just, religion (the kanesa is 50 metres away) and culture throughout tumultuous times, which is a testimony to their resilience and adaptability. For example, the guide of the Trakai kanesa, Michal Zajaczkowski, is a decorated Soviet war hero, former insurance man and publisher of the kanesa''s book and still sprightly at 86. Karaites/Kairemes are also known for attaining positions of high office way above their number. It now appears the EU and Lithuanian state may rescue them from the brink again.

Down the former Soviet Union's longest, straightest and flattest motorway is Kaunas, truncated Lithuania’s capital between world wars. This pleasant city, the most ethnic Lithuanian at 93%, on the confluence where the rivers Neris and Nemunas meet, had celebrity thrust on it as Vilnius had been purloined Poland at the time. Naturally there are churches and sculptures aplenty with tales and 'lucky tricks' to improve your life, especially in marriage matters. For a country with a long Roman Catholic tradition, there seems a lot of ways to get hitched by talking, thinking or whispering to a piece of moulded metal or carved stone – usually of an animal. Seems suspiciously superstitious and/or pagan to the outside observer…

Lithuanians appear to like to call it a day about 11pm. Thus the nightlife can seem subdued to a serious party animal. Holidays like Mothers' Day appear to be followed by 24 hours of penance for whatever joy was had – or sins committed. But Kaunas seems to have escaped the worst of the war and Soviet takeover by comparison, though its original castle, like the one in Vilnius is just a symbolic wall section and tower.

The nearby Franciscan monastery (which somehow remained active in Soviet times) church of St George encapsulates what nearly 40 years of Soviet occupation and atheism is capable of. It looks alike a rave party was held there (coincidentally it was a Soviet dance studio), but instead of leaving it as a memorial warning to future generations, millions are to be spent renovating it although only 12 monks remain, one of whom sits there every day as a silent sentinel.

The Curonian Spit over the channel from the country's only port, Klaipeda, is for the get-away-from-it-all set. A long finger of land emanating from nowadays Kaliningrad (formerly Danzig), it has an amazing variety of wildlife (but bereft of the social kind) and geography that goes from desert dunes to dense boggy forest. Plus it has a border with Russia halfway along which can be viewed from the nearby dune peak,  the Spit's highest point at 63m.  

It's always attracted holidaymakers, especially the German intelligentsia between the wars who set up their headquarters at the Hotel Hermann Blode. German Nobel Laureate, the writer Thomas Mann, after spending a summer there as a hotel guest, built a holiday home in typical style and spent three summers there 1930-1932. Now a museum, it has the local characteristic: all the window frames are painted blue in the belief that this keeps insects away in summer. The local cuisine includes crow meat, if ordered in advance for those with adventurous palates.


Apart from this ‘delicacy’, the Lithuanian recipe book contains a few surprises for those who have faced the daunting dishes of Slavic cooking. Cepilinai (Zeppelins) are the dumplings that many countries in the region so revere from the good old farmhouse days. Tastier than those produced in neighbouring countries, it still looks many mouthfuls too much and finishing one (never mind two which may stare up at you) should be seen as an achievement of heroic gourmand, if not gourmet, proportions.

The cold beetroot cream soup and hot potato is a type of north European gazpacho. Fish dishes too are on the lighter side, but meat, and Lithuanians are as carnivorous as anyone, may remain cloaked in heavyweight sauces surrounded by fried potatoes. But the joy of Lithuania is its beer. For the connoisseur the offering ranges from light to heavy in appearance, volume, calories and effect. But all seem to have the common characteristic of freshness, liveliness and taste. There’s even a ‘Beer Road’ tour for aficionados to go from one brewery to the next.

An international accolade came when Vilnius was designated European Capital of Culture 2009, one which the city fathers and state alike will spare no effort to make a huge spectacle to put their city and country on display. The people themselves will be as welcoming as they have historically been, who are remarkably accommodating to those who have rudely been in charge, but nowadays can breathe a little more freely.

Outside Finland Travel

Athens seductive off-season anarchy

Since the idea of the Olympics going home for the modern games centenary in 1996 was mooted, the Greek government started spending to update its infrastructure. However, the plan flopped as the games only took place in their historical home in 2004 – just as well, as Athens was no where near ready to host them eight years before.

The extra time was needed, as the Greek psyche (just one of many Greek words English purloined*) is not about unnecessary rush, which excludes the traffic of course. But the capital city appears to work sometimes in spite of its citizens. This is an attraction and one of many undersold by the hydra-headed promotional bodies.


The introduction however is one of serene efficiency. The new, hugely expensive airport is gleaming, AC-cool, spacious and quiet. Sleek trains, easily the quickest and cheapest mode, smoothly whisk passengers into the centre with each station announced in Greek and English aided by route maps above each door for the deaf. Paradise* compared to London.

However, once out of this delivery tube, reality hits. At Omonia Square, one of the city’s compass points, there is a flashback to the old days. Run down, crumbling, littered with rubbish and people lounging around smoking or snoozing. The cacophony* of traffic noise is constant, with little notice paid to rules and regulations. Cars are parked anywhere and everywhere – including pedestrian crossings. Motorbikes do not feel the need to stop for red lights or pedestrians, so it's miraculous vehicles do. Helmets are obviously not compulsory, or if they are the law’s as fickle as its enforcement.

Attractively a city of few skyscrapers, but that’s probably more down to earthquakes than any vision of the authorities as architectural harmony appears not a priority. Styles from preceding decades rub shoulders with those from other centuries or even eras. A 1000-year-old Byzantine church, Kapnikarea, had swishy Ermou shopping street built around while modern hotels housed in classic buildings are surrounded by 1960s mass residential projects (Art Hotel Athens on Marni street).

But although this may grate the eye, the overall impression of Athens is still positive. By all means do the must-see sights: the Acropolis, Temple of Zeus, the 1896 Olympics Panathinaiko Stadium, the re-built Roman Agora and Likavitos and Philapappou hills. The variety of religious places of worship reflects Athens history covering ancient to modern gods. Unfortunately a spiky network of scaffolding covers many as preservation projects seem destined to go for as long athey have existed.

And be warned: sightseeing in Athens is not for weak or faint-lunged. Despite the excellent cheap public transport (subway, suburban or light rail takes precedent over the trolley, bus and taxi for speed and reliability), the only way to the Acropolis, Philipappou and Likivitos hilltops is on foot. The funicular railway to the latter is often closed.

The rewards for hoofing it up these slopes are good to spectacular. The panorama from Likavitos fits the latter description not only to look down from Athens highest point, but also for the Ayios Georgios church atop and terrace cafés there after walking the wood-lined meandering way plus the open-air eponymous* (another Greek word) theatre.

At the top of Philipappou hill, after wandering on a circuitous cobbled road specially laid in the 1950s that passes the Pnyx, Ayios Demetrios church and Doras Startou theatre, there’s the disappointing 2nd century BC monument to Gaius Julius Antiochus known as Philippapos or ‘beloved grandchild’. But in late afternoon it is the spot to see the gentle sunset alight on the Acropolis and Piraeus port in the opposite direction.

Conveniently a return route goes through the suburbs of Makrigiani on Dionissou Areopagitou to the Plaka, the old city quarter, which is a magnet for tourists and all the cheap tat that goes with it. Saunter along Adrianou for a trip down kitsch lane. Around Monistaraki metro station, unfortunately a building site for the foreseeable future, Athenians gather en masse for Sunday’s antique market or to sit in the sun at the many cafés, bistros and restaurants doing what they love most: eating, drinking, talking and smoking – preferably all at once. Meals at tavernas around here are cheap as beer, ouzo and wine cost about €2.50 with meals at €2-9 for a plate of souvlaki or Greek salad.


Athens is not for the politically correct brigade, especially those who find the legal weed a threat to personal and public health or the global environment in general. As democracy* (Greek for 'rule of the people') was born here, it’s fitting that smoking is everywhere and the ubiquitous clouds around and stubs underfoot are evidence of widespread enthusiastic participation.

But in summer when cloaked in an industrial smog, it seems a spurious point anyway, which is why visiting there off-peak i.e. outside summer, is best. For the visitor who goes there in the 'winter' months, there's the magnetic combination of low tourists numbers, hotel rates, insects, balmy temperatures (about 20°C) covered by a gentle blue sky.

So it's only just that near the city are other attractions for the mildly adventurous. The small port of Rafina on the east coast has nothing to recommend it except outstanding seafood restaurants arranged in a small curve near its ‘dock’. It’s a good idea though if you write down your own ‘bill’ as the waiters can sometimes be so rushed and confused, they can ‘overcharge’ – accidentally of course!

In similar fashion, the destinations from Piraeus are like a panoply* (yep, another Greek one) of island jewels awaiting your choice. The nearest are in the Saronic Gulf, although you can voyage as far as Crete and farther if desired. Salamina, Aegina, Angistri, Hydra, Poros and Spetses can be reached by fast craft or ferry in just a few hours. In addition there is the 'Athens One Day Cruise' on classic cruise ships e.g. MV Giorgos, that stop at three islands in 12 hours.

Aegina and Poros offer different delights off-season. The former has the traditional busy semi-circle of cafes and shops overlooking the small harbour plus some splendid churches to visit. Poros, within 300m of the mainland town of Galatas, has a calm waterfront where vessels call in before continuing on in the narrow channel to other islands. Busy in summer, it’s charmingly deserted the rest of the year with its quaint whitewashed alleys, houses and clock tower. A hired bike ride to the 18th Century Zoodochos Pigi Holy Monastery and Love Bay in the opposite direction suffice to see most of what there is.

Rooms and flats are available for €30 a night, but nightlife is for those who like it on the quiet side. As in all of Greece, the obligatory market, square, cafés, small restaurants, bakeries and confectioneries are in place. Speed is not the essence of life and contrasts with the, albeit lovable, chaos* (a Greek word) of Athens. The early morning or evening voyage offers fabulous photo opportunities to and from Piraeus for romantics and enthusiasts alike.

It is strange but perhaps in keeping with the Greek persona* (Latin unfortunately) that the best attractions are oversold (such as the ancient sites), thus attracting the hordes, while others are under-promoted or ignored, such as Monastariki and outside Athens beauty spots. Oh well, a glass of ouzo, a plate of seafood and toasted bread sprinkled with olive oil will sort that out. Eventually. 

*English has absorbed many Greek words. However, it is not particularly well known that some have migrated to the modern vocabulary via Latin. Academy is a fine example. It was a suburb of Athens named after the hero Academos (or Ecademos) and was the location of one of the three celebrated gymnasiums (a Greek word often thought top be of Latin origin). Plato established his school of philosophy here, after being taught by Socrates, with Aristotle one of its graduates. In addition his platonic love was meant to be deep, though non-physical. It appears to be far more popular in theory than practice.

Outside Finland Travel

The fishy tales of Saaremaa, Muhu and Abruka

A peculiar, near eccentric choice of holiday destination, are three of the islands off Estonia’s western coast for a week or so. What do they have that the rest of this little country that acts as a museum for all of their conquerors and misrulers don’t? Nothing really – just much of the same with less crowds, crush and clamour. To make it crystal clear: if you’re looking for action of the loud, resort sort, close your eyes and throw a dart at the Mediterranean.

Occupying 6.5% of the country’s land area and home to 35,000, Saaremaa and its picture book capital Kuressaare are mainly a trip back in time, but with the present-day thrown in to make sure creature comforts are on tap – unless you really want to get away from all of that too.


Over the centuries, the islands have seen more changes of ‘ownership’ than the country itself. Germans, Danes, Swedes and Russians have been ‘in charge’ since 1227 when the Teutonic Knights finally suppressed rugged local resistance. Even Estonians have ruled here briefly. Between 1919-1940 and after 1991, the blue, white and black tricolour has flown from flagpoles.

History is very visible as all left their mark (or stain) on the architecture, society and cuisine. The Archbishop’s Castle in Arensburg, as Kuressaare was called until 1919, is the only untouched fortress left on the Baltic coast. So far away from pre-20th Century geo-political issues that it was never even attacked, never mind damaged. Until 1559, the West-Saare Bishopric’s seat was firmly placed here before the splendidly named Bishop Munchenhausen sold it to Denmark’s King Fredrik II.

It’s a must-see, such pristine obelisks are a global-scale rarity. This small solid 15th century edifice contains leftovers, exhibitions and the obligatory legend of a Catholic monk walled in after ‘dishonouring’ a local maiden. Despite this, his tomb is called ‘the cellar of the immured knight’. In one wing is an interesting museum to the alternating Nazi and Soviet occupations showing how invaders take liberties with local residents rights who were unlucky to be in a possibly strategic, but attractive place.

An example of this callousness is the statue and monument to those killed in the Estonian War of Independence (1918-1920) now to be seen on Kuressaare’s main street, the original was destroyed during Stalin’s period – Uncle Joe wasn’t so avuncular towards free spirits. But at least the Nazis and Soviet had a major battle at Tehumardi when the latter’s forces finally expelled the fascists from Estonia with over 1,000 casualties on both sides after 5 hours of close combat. For Estonians, victory by either side was still a defeat.

Kuressaare’s attractions are few: a couple of churches, the 17th Century town hall and a weighing house, a 100-year old Dutch windmill which is now a bar plus other watering holes, cafés, restaurants and hotels. Most are at their best in the summer sun. And it doesn’t take too long to see it all on foot. Kuressaare now markets itself mainly as a spa town with treatments for the aged and their ailments. Nice hotels tend to be occupied by stiff limbs and aching bodies, the sheer wear and tear of time. Their habit of wandering around silently in bathrobes gives the impression of a hospital or heaven’s waiting room, not an R&R place. But the ones that have a pool have an advantage.

Outside town there is Sõrve lighthouse (52m), piles of stones erected by passers-by at Tagaranna, a row of 5 windmills at Angla (4 apparently are local style that can be swivelled around to face the wind, the other a static, boring Dutch type), the meteorite crater at Kaali (which means cabbage, a name contrived by Estonian peasants after the German nobleman von Gahlen who owned the local manor until 1729), the Pangla cliff – and  that’s about it.

Saaremaa’s attractions are its sheer simplicity, quietness and slow pace. If you like hunting, there’s game aplenty to shoot: wild boar, wolf, beaver, elk, deer, ducks and other fowl, which also find their way into the local cuisine and hence onto your dinner plate. Ditto for fishing folk. Some antique shops have pretty good collections of yesteryear and Kuressaare market usually has yummy honey, berries and mushrooms, depending on the season. The island is well known for its dairy produce: local smoked cheese, dark bread and butter being a tasty combination and souvenir.


Muhu is called an island, but is joined to nearby Saaremaa by an old dyke that acts as an umbilical chord to its bigger sister, and is the link to the mainland via Kuivastu harbour. Ferries run almost continuously in high season. Here you may be shown a herring-bone panelled door, brightly painted, and be told you will see these all over the two islands – only not to see another! These islanders like to tell stories and are infamous for it.

A famous Muhu spot is Padäste Manor, a luxury boutique hotel rightly famous for its style and dining – and one of the Thompson Twins stayed there once upon a time, if you remember that trio. Liiva in the island’s centre is a cute little village with a church, antique-and-handicraft shop and a good eatery in the former dairy. Koguva village on the west coast is a combination open museum and working village farm. Birth and final resting place of Estonia’s famous writer, diehard communist Juhan Smuul, who drank himself to death there after failing with a hat-trick of wives. An English-speaking guide, who looks like the archetypical Estonian, will point out his statue, which has a story in itself, of course.

Lastly there is Abruka. The logic of going there is difficult to put a finger on. I was told that tourists go to get away from it all. They must be very satisfied at fulfilling their aim so exquisitely. A small boat runs a cheap subsidised service from Roomassaare harbour, not far from Kurressaare. There you can be met by the owner of the then only ‘accommodation’ on this pimple in the sea (30 residents), in a smelly, bouncy, old Soviet army lorry to be taken to his campsite.

He has an inexhaustible store of stories, luckily only in Estonian. So if you do understand some, my advice is to not tell him, otherwise the short journey will take even longer as he will stop every 50 metres to revive some folklore to you. The rude little huts in his garden barely count as shelter: gaps between the roof and walls do not look capable of keeping out rain, cold and the summer clouds of mosquitoes.

What you don’t take with you must be bought from the camp ‘shop’, facilities are okay but not en suite. However, it’s ridiculously cheap (outside Tallinn generally is), which may be its only attraction. It appears he never throws anything away either. So for auto enthusiasts, there are vehicles that you may never see, or have seen, again. But the piles of empty plastic buckets of preservatives and tyres and other rubbish are just an eyesore.


The good news is that a hostel was built last summer and will be open for business in 2008 with the island’s only bar, airtight accommodation and a shop of sorts. This competition may blow away the aforementioned host without the most, but if you really want to get away from everything, no.

nsurprisingly, walking is the most popular pastime with the local graveyard (containing victims of resistance to and Soviet repression plus the Estonia sinking), the hill where residents were gathered for deportation by Stalin, a beach and the world’s smallest public library on the itinerary.

So why Saaremaa, Muhu and Abruka? For what they haven’t got, not for what they have. The simple life can be the good life. And they must have the world’s best collection of aromatic juniper forests, from which culinary tools are assiduously carved. Plus the home-made prize-winning beer at Kaali (Saaremaa has a beer-making competition every year), Pilnla is unique. Disappointingly, the beer bearing the name Saaremaa is actually brewed in Tartu in south-east Estonia.
The town council of Kuressaare has even invested in a golf course that opens in 2008 with foreign tourists specifically targeted. Golfers may be less than impressed to find out it’s built on a former refuse heap, but the green fees will be at the lower end of the scale.

But why go all the way to a place off the beaten track, if not to walk that path? The hunting lodges and campsites are comfortable, cheap and friendly with the ‘saun’ ubiquitous and obligatory. So do what the locals do, take it slowly, sweat it out, take a cold beer and vodka, watch the sun go down – or come up! 

Recommended places:
Hotel Arensburg, Kuressaarre, Saaremaa (
Jurna Hunting Lodge (
Liiva Restoran, Liiva, Muhu
Kaali Tavern (   

Outside Finland Travel

Turkey’s glittering Aegean jewels

In the south east of the country that has one foot in Europe and the rest of its body in Asia, lies a peninsular that has history and memorable panoramas in equal measure. The Anatolian coastline here is dotted with coves and bays, sites of picture-book villages, resort towns and property
development. Seek and you will find a your spot.

History lessons

Let’s call this whole area Bodrum after its main town. However, it’s immediately apparent that it doesn’t look traditionally Turkish. That’s because it isn’t – it’s been part of various empires since the 13th Century BC and was called Halikarnossos for centuries. Claims to fame are the birthplace of Hedorotos (‘Father of History’) and site of one of the original Seven Wonders of the World: the 3,000-year old last resting place of King Mausolus (from where the word mausoleum derives). This was ruined after a 1303 earthquake, but still worth seeing for history buffs.

Myndos Gate

From the Amphitheatre cut in the hillside, a Greco-Roman joint venture, there’s a magnificent view of the town, dominated by the 15th Century St Peter’s Castle built by The Knights of St John – sacrilegiously using stone from the mausoleum. This early example of recycling has proved durable, acting as a bastion of Christianity against heathen hordes and a testament to its German architect Heinrich Hegelholt.

The fortress contains the English, Spanish, French and Italian towers constructed and occupied by noble chevaliers from those countries witnessed by the 265 coats of arms carved in stone. Pious and devout they may have been, but still unwelcome occupiers and were driven out by Ottoman Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent in 1523. A French battleship bombarded the castle in 1915 believing there was artillery inside. The damage was repaired by 1963 illustrating how time stretches here.

It’s home to the Underwater Archeology Museum with exhibits of Bronze Age ships, cargoes, seafarers’ lives – and a video for those who prefer a compact glimpse. Of interest to female visitors is the nearby hall containing the model of Carian Queen Ada with copies of her, her clothes and restored
jewellery of finely worked gold.

Although historical sites abound, let’s finish with the Myndos Gate – the last remnant of the ancient city’s outer wall through which a triumphant Alexander the Great entered in 334BC. However, he was so ragged off by the stiff resistance, he ordered the city to be sacked, but spared the citizens
(and the Mausoleum) in a typical Alexandrian act.

Holidays, rest & relaxation

Enough of the past, most visitors nowadays go to lie and fry in the sun, of which there’s no shortage and/or enjoy the waterspouts. Offshore is a yachting (sailors can admire the local wooden yachts or gulat) and wind surfers’ paradise: the wind blows strongly and continuously, speeding craft and surfers alike over the water – and providing beach bums with a cool breeze.

Nearly half of holidaymakers reside in ‘all-inclusive’ hotels which have their own beachfront, boats and other playthings. This eliminates money changing hands and the local habit of hassling passers-by to eat at their restaurant and haggling prices. But convenience dulls the adventurous spirit, so it’s a choice that should be weighed carefully.

Experience gave the impression that the in-your-face marketing is less annoying than elsewhere in this country where it’s a way of life. For the bargain hunter and incurable dealer, a 30-minute negotiation (or hours sometimes) is ensured in a carpet shop or at a textile market where famous brand knock-offs can be had for around €10.

So what is there after a hard day’s lolling around on the beach or doing something in the sea? Hiring a car widens the options or taking a taxi (after setting the fare first) to visit one of the little waterfront gems like Bitez, Gümüslük, Gündogan and Ortakent-Yahşi or the bigger spots Yalikavak, Gümbet and Turgutreis.

A dinner at one of these places nearby or overlooking the water watching the sunset is guaranteed to raise the romantic temperature or chill-out the stressed. The area boasts of its seafood (not cheap), lamb dishes
(cheaper) as well as fresh local fruit and vegetables (cheap and tasty). Once again the Greek influence is noticeable: hors d’oeuvres-type entrées, ‘meze’ dishes, feature chickpeas, aubergine, tomatoes and onions stewed or diced together with the region’s silky light olive oil.

A local speciality, kabak çiçeği dolmasi, combines unique appearance with taste. Its exoticness comes from the use of unusual ingredients; courgette flowers stuffed with rice, nuts and herbs.


And the drinks list must start with a raki – the Turkish aniseed aperitif that hits the spot even if you don’t know where that is. After a couple, you won’t care anyway. With a meal the local reds are a mixed lot: from rough to ready, but light on the wallet at least, if not the palate. Turkish beer is an acquired taste, which I didn’t. Two will do.

If you are young or think you are, the nightlife can match the local wildlife. But if this includes clubbing, be prepared to cough up wads of notes. The main club in Bodrum takes its name from its Greek predecessor and it is obviously intended for noble patricians to hob-nob together as the prices appear (minimum €13 and up for anything) designed to keep the plebs out.

The door gorillas are ably supported by airport security equipment, which made me think who goes there and with what purpose in mind. A local waterside watering hole will serve much the same purpose without waking the dead and looking like a tacky unfinished film set.


What to bring back from your trip can take some of the pleasure away from a trip. After all, if someone wants something, they can always go there themselves. Every town, but thankfully not the smaller spots, has markets and shops heaving with tat, claptrap and useless ‘objets d’arts’. Buy at your peril, as some of it may not last the journey back to the hotel, never mind home.

Textiles are a cheap memento and kids’ stuff especially as the little darling won’t be able to fit in it for long. For the discerning, pistachios are a must, the local herbs, honey and halva too. The olive oil comes in airport baggage-handler-proof metal drums and bars of olive soap with amazing skincare
claims are ideal as ladies’ gifts. Just potato cooked in the oil tasted exquisite and all soap cleans if not cures.

Cross-border travel

Much of the southern and western coastline overlooks islands, of which many are Greek. The one within touching distance twinkling the most lights off the south coast is Kos. Tensions between the two old rivals have lessened to the point that day-trips between Bodrum and Kos towns are possible by small ship or fast hydrofoil taking 20-60 minutes.

It operates on an exchange system: as it is usually for a day, Turkish operators provide the service one day and their Greek colleagues the next. This alternating system seems to work perfectly, but those travelling by slow ferry appeared more barbecued than the cooler-lookers on the faster mode.

So the options before travel are many: which resort and what lifestyle you want. Whether to rummage round Greek, Roman, Persian and other civilizations sites or lounge around or be active on, in or under the Med.
All-inclusive, B&B or a mixture? The alternatives are there:

Outside Finland Travel

Soviet ‘delights’ in Latvia

For under-25s, the Soviet Union is something older generations talk about and those that were a part of it don’t want to remember or prefer obliteration of its existence. This has led, unfortunately, to souvenirs of the ’Evil Empire’ as President Reagan once dubbed it, being really and/or
psychologically air bushed from sight.

Some samples are still around – and have been turned into tourist attractions by enterprising people. Two are in Latvia, one north of Riga, the other in the southern city of Liepāja. Let us journey for an hour first northwards to Skaļupes near Cēsis. In a tranquil setting stands the rehabilitation centre Līgatne. It is however just, literally, a cover for something very serious.

Karostas Cietums

After walking down innocuous stairs 9m underground is the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic’s bunker nicknamed ’The Hotel’. It was built (then SUR4m/€7m) to act as a safe haven behind 2.5m thick concrete for the top 250 communist party officials in case of nuclear attack. Its main purpose in those circumstances was to act as a command and control centre in response. Each soviet republic had one.

Its background began with the Latvian CCP Central Committee’s 1968 decision to build it, but it was not operational until 1982. Despite Soviet planning’s legendary reputation, reality was less impressive: much of the plan remained on the drawing board. Small, but fatal, mistakes are noticeable to the untrained eye.

For instance, beds were to be installed later or brought down from the sanatorium, which was exclusive to elite party apparatchiks. Remember, nuclear strikes were known then to have a 4-minute warning. A missile base to hit back nearby was never started, there was a food store – but it was empty, and although the plan was for the chosen few to be safe and secure for 3 months, inadequate fuel supplies made this unlikely.

With so many to shelter, it is a warren of rooms and corridor connections with all the trappings needed for survival from offices, dining, power, air conditioning, etc. It was so secret that it only opened to the
public in 2003. Now this untouched showcase is an exhibition of cold war mentality.

At 2,000 square metres in area, it’s big, but the first impression is the cold, stark, sterile atmosphere (3 star compared to the next Soviet relic). All power for the facility would be generated by two T-54 tank diesel engines for the array of Soviet ’state-of-the-art’ communications rooms: secure telecommunications with its equivalent in the Kremlin, possible surviving units in the country and internally, all monitored of course.

Obsolete gadgets such as typewriters, telex, teletype machines and telephones using a fixed-line are stacked together. As outside might not exist anymore, it had to be self-contained and self-sufficient especially regarding air purification and oxygen generation, which needed power.

Everything was done in the socialist way: eating together in the less-than-gourmet canteen, the ’games room’ is decorated with Communist Party paraphernalia – Comrade Lenin stares at you in every bunker room – as you groove to the latest approved tracks (I noticed ’Stars on 45’ in the vinyl pile) on a record player. For nostalgic visitors or blue-eyed innocents, a real
meal of the times can be served up if booked in advance.

There are map rooms containing detailed charts that show possible destruction lines that atomic shockwaves would cause if Riga got a direct hit, instructions on what to wear if you went outside (what for is a mystery), how to cleanse late arrivals (!) and so on.

Other planning gaps are all too obvious: where were dead bodies to be put if someone died? There was no refrigeration unit and no method to expel decaying corpses. Like most Soviet reality, it was based on self-preservation. The guide calmly informs its real purpose was to hide from the population after a conventional attack. Because 9 metres is insufficient to withstand a thermo-nuclear blast – it had to be 15 at least!

A night to remember

The city of Liepāja near Lithuania has been home to Russian/Soviet Baltic fleets for over a century. Czarist stubbornness was equal to Soviet inflexibility: the port was dredged and a canal built despite a perfectly natural harbour located up the coast in Ventspils.


There lies a city-within-a-city, the naval base that was home to up to 30,000, but behind a wall. Karosta was an autonomous urban area occupying a third of Liepaja’s land. Originally named ‘Port of Alexander III’ after its modest originator, during Latvia’s brief inter-war independence, locals cynically labelled it ‘Kar Osta’ or ‘War Port’.

Worth a visit in itself, it’s just a short bus ride from Liepaja centre. Inside are Russian Empire red brick buildings and Soviet concrete blocks. Also self-sufficient with its own infrastructure of entertainment, education, libraries, shops that a captive population needs – even its own
internal post! The landmark St Nicholas Cathedral, now restored back to tits original purpose, served as a storeroom in Soviet times.

But it is the military prison that slams home the message. Built in 1900 it has contained a variety of forces miscreants throughout its 97-year history. Russian, Latvian, German and Soviet prisoners have been sentenced and punished here – sometimes by firing squad. Underneath the nearby pines there is more than earth. Nobody ever escaped.

Nowadays ‘Karostas Cietums’ is an award-winning tourist attraction and venue of a popular Latvian reality television show. Groups are frogmarched two abreast around the facility after a thorough dressing-down by guards, most of whom worked here in what they still proudly call ‘the good old days’. Backtalk, marching out of step, sloppy posture are all met with a sour expression, barking rebuke and ‘punishment’ for the offender(s).

Cells had little light, air or heating, the walls acted as inmates’ de facto calendars, prisoners slept on wood pallets in 2m x 3m crammed side-by side with a narrow gutter for those who couldn’t hold nature back. With only 30 minutes in the morning for all ablutions for a cell of 6-7, this was
understandable. Guards would wake up prisoners every hour if they wished. Mealtimes were silent and frugal.

During the 45-minute tour, every opportunity is taken to give you that spine-tingling feel, like being locked in a dark cell with shock treatment (I’m unable to say to keep the surprise element). For the adventurous (or foolhardy) you can stay the night in a cell with only cold water and a Soviet toilet for
luxury. If you’re really radical, you can order the ‘special treatment’ during the night.

These two leftovers from a bygone era are a unique chance to experience what it was Soviet Union was like. You may smile, but it was no joke to those had to endure it.