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

The cradle of Estonian culture

Estonia, for both Finnish and foreigners staying or visiting temporarily Finland, has become one of the favourite destinations due to its geographical closeness and the cheap prices of their products, especially alcohol, tobacco and food. But Estonia is not only Tallinn. Discover Tartu, the second biggest city in the country and  the cradle of Estonian culture.

It is almost a compulsory visit to take a walk around the old city of Tallinn, and when the weather is good and warm, Pärnu on the west coast becomes the favourite summer destination, due to its long sandy beaches and spa resources. But I am going to focus this article on revealing you the mysteries and secrets of Tartu, the second biggest Estonian city, the cultural and academic cradle of the country, with one of the oldest Universities founded in Europe.

A country easy to reach

Travelling by sea, overall when it is still not frozen, is even easier due to the many different ferry companies that offer their services between Helsinki and Tallinn, the Estonian capital. Usually the trip takes 3 hours in one of the normal huge ferries. It is an experience recommended to go through once in a life at least. There you can see people gambling, flirting, getting drunk, singing karaoke…it is like a
small world itself. But I recognize that it can also be annoying and boring, especially if you travel during week ends, being surrounded by drunkards who do not allow you even to read a book in peace.

When the weather is warm, you have the option to pay a bit more and use the services of the fast boats lines, that take around 1, 5 or 2 hours to do the same trip. In any case, all the companies are located in a small geographical area around Katajanokka in Helsinki, so it is easy for you to compare prices and schedules, and decide what the best option is.

You can go to Tartu by train or by bus. I personally prefer taking the bus, since there are many
different ones available at any time of the day, so you usually do not have to wait much long at the bus station. Trip takes around 2 hours 45 minutes, and although Estonian road network has still a lot to improve, the buses are relatively comfortable and you can usually buy some refreshment there while
travelling. For those of you who own an international student card, there are always big discounts in all the transportation around Estonia, so have your card always close when purchasing a ticket.  If moving around Tallinn by taxi, watch out since the taxi drivers, as in any other big city in the world, cheat quite often about the fare. A good option is to agree the price in advance. A ride from the terminal to the bus station would not cost more than 75 Estonian crowns. If you want to stay a bit in the centre before heading to Tartu, and need some food, I advice you to taste the delicious Russian soup “seljanka” in a pub called St. Patrick. Yeah…they prepare one of the best Russian soups in an Irish pub!

If you are beer lover, stop by The House of Beer, where they produce their own tasty one. Watch out when eating and drinking in Tallinn, because prices are not how they used to be years ago and it can happen that you end up paying almost as much as in Finland.
Last time I was in Tallinn I paid 4, 5 euro for a big orange juice in one jazz club. Even beer was a bit cheaper… Outrageous!


A charming city with a long academic history

Tartu University was founded in 1632 and undoubtedly nowadays student life makes the city turn around. You have the clearest example in the statue on the fountain that decorates the main square (Raekoja Plats) where the City Hall is located. There you can see 2 young students melt in one long kiss while an umbrella protects them from the rain. As an English friend of mine told me, “there is no better symbol than Kissing Students Statue to define this city”. Just in one corner of the City Hall you can also find easily the Tourist Information Office, where they can answer your questions and help you to plan your stay and excursions.

When finding accommodation, you have prices for all the pockets. From the reasonable cheap hostel located at the same building that the student dormitory in Raatuse Street (where most of the foreign students live) to the last and trendy Hotel Dorpat Spa that was open less than one month ago close to the bus station.

Moving around the city centre is easy, since distances are short, so you can easily walk to do shopping, to eat outside or clubbing. Other feature that amazes me in Estonia is the high variety of products that you can find in the supermarkets, much more extensive and better than in Finland. Quality of food and drinks is usually good wherever you buy, but if you want to play safe and have a bit more of different imported products, you can always go to Kaubamaja supermarket, the big grey (and many say “ugly”) new building that dominates the centre of Tartu, although prices there will be higher than in other spots of the town.


The mother of the town is a river

River Emajõgi (meaning “mother river”) crosses all over Tartu and you can enjoy a bath on summer on both sides of its banks while watching people fishing from the bridges that link both sides of the city. Another great option is to go trekking or cycling to Jänese Matkarada, a path wrothy to explore in the left side of the river with curious wooden statues spattered all along the way.

Rüütli is the name of the main pedestrian street that starts from the Main Square, and it is excellent to stop by the terraces and have refreshment. Another nice spot to explore in Tartu is Toomemägi (Toome Hill). There is located the Dome Church, whose ruins are being rebuilt, and houses the Tartu University History Museum. Take a look also at the Old Observatory and the Devil and Angel bridges. And when you are tired of sightseeing and cultural life, Tartu has one of its strongest points in the great amount of places to go out, have a drink and party. Nevertheless, this is a student town! Prices are still low compared to Tallinn, and the atmosphere is more relaxed. I recognize I like beer, so for beer lovers as me, again a good advice is to taste the excellent house beer (maja õlu) in Püssirohu kelder (Gun Powder Cellar), a quaint old gun powder storage turned into a tavern. There are karaoke nights there quite often, but the quality of the singers usually makes you go for the beer with renewed strengths…

Other good place to eat and drink is the Irish Pub Wilde, with another excellent house beer, although you can also give a try to the national beer brands: Saku and A le Coq (no, it is not French…) which quality is honestly much better than the Finnish ones. Also Czech beers are usually easy to find and quite affordable. Suudlevad Tudengid Bar (Kissing Students) in the Main Square or Maailm in Rüütli are other good choices when your stomach calls for something to chew.

My advice for you about Estonian delicacies is to taste while having a coffee the delicious “pirukad”, filled with mushroom or meat, and also give a try to the hot black bread with garlic sauce, yummy! And if you prefer Russian cuisine, Rasputin restaurant is an excellent option.

Tartu is quite a secure city and Estonians are in general calm and honest people. By own experience, I can say that I have not had any problems while staying there. But obviously, a bit of common sense, overall when being outside late at night, is always recommended. You will see that you can find people from the private security company “Falck” controlling everywhere, from buses to clubs, but in general you should not have to receive any disgusting surprise if paying a bit of attention to the places where you move. If you are a party animal, there is quite a huge offer of big clubs to satisfy you: Maasikas and Illusion clubs are new ones opened during last year, apart from Tallin Club (my favourite one), Pattaya (decorated as if you just have stepped inside
the jungle) or Atlantis, latest one being maybe the most popular
in the city, due to its excellent location close to the river at the other side of Raekoja Plats. And when the clubs close, for the bravest ones there is a "legendary" bar to gather together until the end of the night: Zavood.

And the most important feature of Tartu: it has a lot of charming. So if you are looking for a bit different destination, far from the hordes of Finnish visitors in search of booze in Tallinn, my advice is, go for some days and discover all what Tartu
can offer you!

Raatuse Bridge

It has become a kind of tradition in Tartu to cross the bridge that links Raatuse street and Raekoja Plats walking on the arch that elevates over it. We do not recommend the activity, since falling from there
can send you most probably direct to the grave, but still you can see, especially at nigh time, some drunk shadows tempting their luck.

Where can you find the citizens of Tartu at week end? Sleeping with hangover until late? Watching TV? In most of the cases, no. Go to the storages and shops in the outskirts of the town and you will find the answer. Estonians are kinds of work alcoholic who always think about the next thing to fix at their own houses. And there is always something to fix! So after the normal work hours, it is time to do some “remontti” (“or as our friend Markku from Finland would call them: “remons”).

Photos: Antonio Diaz

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.

Outside Finland Travel

Stylish Stockholm

Only hop, skip and a boat ride away from old Helsinki is the capital of Sweden and the home of 1,7 million of hip and trendy people. Stockholm is easy to get to, but hard to forget. Who wouldn’t fall in love with the beautiful old part of the city and the creative and contemporary cosmopolitan atmosphere of Stockholm?

Sweden and Finland have love and hate relationship. It is because of our long history together and apart, but nowadays it is all about competing in everything, for example in music and ice hockey. Some of you may remember that we just bit Sweden  in both sports this year! We
Finns have to admit though that there are lot of great Swedish things; like Absolut Vodka, ABBA and Pippi Longstocking.


The weather in Stockholm is same we have in Helsinki, but sometimes just a hint warmer. After all it is to south from here! When visiting the city in winter, it is a cool and trendy, but cold city to hang out. That is why I recommend you to go right now, when the air is warm and nights are light.

Bridges and boutiques of Stockholm

The whole area of  Stockholm is build on 14
islands and the city itself on 7 islands, so almost everywhere you go you will be surrounded by water. The most spectacular part of the city is the Old Town with its old and beautiful buildings. The Royal family lives there as well.

For obvious reason there are lot of bridges and if you take a walk instead of taxi from the ferry to the city central you will discover some of these beautiful waterways. Especially walk in the old town, called Gamla Stan, is worth of doing. What the heck, you may even see the king and his family, if you stalk long enough on the corner of the Royal Palace. If you get tired of shopping or chasing the princesses of Sweden, you can relax in one of the many parks of the city.

Stockholm is very vivid and cosmopolitan city, mostly because more than 15% of its population are
immigrants or other expatriates. There are lot of cosy cafes, restaurants with all kind of menus and bouncy night clubs, like Café Opera that has been the exclusive party central of Stockholm
for 25 years now. But it is one to mention, there are lot of other great clubs in the city and many of them don’t close until 5.

Swedes know design and fashion. For some reason they always look good and show up wearing the right clothes in every occasion. So, when in Sweden, do as the Swedes do! Best shopping street in Stockholm is drottninggatan. But there are more places to buy your little piece of Sweden than the crowded shopping street and malls. Pop in one of those boutiques in the narrow alleys of the old city or in Östermalm, the art and antique district. The prices are pretty much the same as in Finland.
It hasn’t been longer than a decade, when we Finnish Fashionistas use to make trips to Stockholm
just to buy clothes and accessories. But today we can go there and just enjoy the atmosphere instead of purchasing everything we see, because we finally have H&M and Nilson in Finland too.

Attractive attractions

Those who cannot get enough of culture should check out the House of Culture, Kulturhuset in Swedish, where the galleries, stages, shops and restaurants keep you satisfied for hours! Also Vasamuseet and Moderna Museet are worth of seeing. One of the things not to miss, if you walk in the old city, is the Stockholm’s Cathedral.

If you are more into sports and activities than old culture, you may want to see Globen, the sport and entertainment arena, which has a unique shape: it’s a massive ball! You also may want to go to Eriksdalsbadet which is Stockholm’s largest aquatic Centre with a 50-metre pool, adventure bats, spa and gym. The outdoor pool is open during summer.

If you stay for longer and with kids, you may want to do a day trip to the zoo, called Kolmården. The zoo is one of Sweden’s most popular tourist destinations and only 90 minutes south of Stockholm. I was there when I was a kid and believe me: that’s a great adventure for little ones!

The love boats

when you can fly to Stockholm in an hour, I suggest you to take the over night ferry to get there. It is
experience of its own. You can have massage or facial, have a nice dinner and drink colourful cocktails on the deck while watching the sunset. These ships are known internationally as love boats. So who knows, you may even meet the Mr. Right or if not, there are plenty of Mr. Right Nows on board! If it happens
that you drink too many GTs, “The It Drink” in Nordic, you really should try your best and get up early and go to the deck to see the most beautiful summer view of the archipelago of Sweden. The countless islands look amazing in the morning light.

If you are planning to take the ferry I strongly recommend you to stay in Stockholm few days in between, because the partying is usually so severe that you maybe thankful to have one day to recover from it and then have enough time and energy to discover the city. Too many people don’t even leave the boat on
their trip and that is a pity, because they miss out a lot! By the way: you can
also get off on the Åland on your way to Stockholm.


Åland Islands belong to Finland, but people living on them speak Swedish and that would be soft descending to the Swedish world and great way to see something new.

After all of these years that I have been exploring Stockholm,
I still don’t know what it is that makes it so much more glamorous than Helsinki. Maybe it is the certain self-confidence and style Swedes have? Or maybe it is just because the grass always seems to be greener on the other side?


more information

to Stockholm

cabin for 4 people starting from 110e


from Helsinki
starting from 110e

Metro map

click Stockholm.
Here you can find metro maps in every city on the globe!)

Outside Finland Travel

Dreaming about the Dominican Republic

There is more than just great wind and surfing on the island of Hispaniola. The Dominican Republic was the first European settlement in the New World, founded by Columbus in the early 1600s. Nowadays, the Caribbean is a popular destination for all kinds of travellers, including sailors from all over the world. And no wonder: turquoise water, islands with green hills and endless beaches make it a perfect destination for anyone seeking tranquillity. 

First of all, relax: this is the Caribbean – it is not like there are important churches and statues on almost every corner, like in Europe. You even have to walk slower! If you really want to do some sightseeing, then visit the home of Columbus in Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican
Republic. That's pretty much all the cultural stuff you can do. As regards the indigenous people, the Tainos, they were almost completely exterminated by the diseases from Europe and the hard work given to them by the Europeans in the 1600s. Sadly, all that is left of the old Dominican culture is some cave paintings created by the Tainos.

Dominican Republic

Today’s Dominican culture is mainly on the streets: the language, food, dance and colourful art. Like dancing? The music is either Bachata or Merengue and it's everywhere: in bars, taxis and beauty salons. And no one minds if you dance on the street – or anywhere for that matter!

Most of the Dominican are descent of European, African and Taino(pre-Columbian indigenous) people. Usually they have black hair, but skin colour varies from very pale to very dark. It is easy to get along with the locals, especially if you know a few words of Spanish. They are very friendly and
relaxed. In fact sometimes they are so relaxed that if they were any more laid back, they would be asleep!

After the siesta, it is time for some fiesta! Dominican rum is very good and excellent for Cuba Libres and Rum Punches! You can also make a drink called “Poco Loco”. Making it is easy: take
a coconut, drill a small hole in it and add some rum! Dominican cigars are also very well known around the world. Some people say that they are even better than Cuban ones.

The food is simple but very delicious in the Dominican Republic. The most famous dish is named after the white-red-blue coloured Dominican flag: it is one part rice, one part beans and one part
meat or chicken. I used to start my day with the “Plato de Frutas”, meaning a plate full of fresh fruit and a cup of Dominican coffee, which is one of the best coffees I have ever tasted!

The local money is called the Dominican Peso, and the locals don’t have much of it. The gap between rich and poor is enormous and corruption is blossoming. Everything is much cheaper than
in Europe, so tipping should play a big part when paying your bills at restaurants, clubs and cafes. If you are smart, you will tip every time you are getting service, as many Dominicans don't get
any salary besides tips!


Outside or inside of the walls

Depending on what you want your holiday to be you should consider where to stay. You can choose to stay at the many-starred all-inclusive resorts or at the smaller hotels. The resorts are for honeymooners and lazy tourists. Everything is made easy for your vacation: eat as much as you like and get smashed on the free drinks by the swimming pool – even the people you meet in the bar are selected for you as no outsiders are allowed within the resort’s walls! It doesn’t sound too tempting, does it? Happily I can report that there is another option: pick a normal hotel and try a different restaurant every night instead of having that same old buffet-dinner at the resort.

Dominican Republic

The weather in the Caribbean is either really nice or totally terrible. The hurricane season is in autumn followed by the wet season: after all, it is the tropics and the plants need their water, so it rains a lot! In April the skies clear and it’s the sunny Caribbean summer again!

Trippin’in the Caribbean

 I used to work for a travel agency in the Dominican Republic, so I am an expert when it comes to excursions there. The most amazing is the whale watching trip. This is only available from mid-January to mid-March, when the giants come near to the shore to make love and give birth.

If you long for luxury, then the trip to Saona Island is for you. You can take a small plane from Puerto Plata to the South East coast of the country. From there the speedboat takes you to the beach, where the sand is whiter than snow! Food and drink is included and you won’t have any worries: just chill out on the hot beach holding an ice-cold drink in your hand!

Catamaran Sailing is another splendid way to spend the day. And so is a daytrip to Gayo Paraiso, which is a sand island with two sheds: one is a bar and the other is the place where you can rent snorkelling gear. You can take the speedboat to the island and on the way make a quick stop to find some massive orange starfish

If you want to see other sea life other than starfish, I recommend diving or snorkelling. There isn’t much in the way of big fish but what you will see is very cute: seahorses, rays and eels. You won’t find Nemo around there, but go and look for Emma: she is this tiny seahorse that I once rescued from the mouth of a fish!

If you want some action, you can always rent a four-wheeler, take a tour on a monster truck or ride a horse to the waterfalls, where you can dip into freezing cold but refreshing water. River rafting is also another way to get your daily dose of adrenaline.

Me and my friends used to have drinks on the beach every night and we always toasted the same thing: instead of saying “cheers”, we said “for another day in paradise!” – and that is what life in the Dominican Republic is all about!

Outside Finland Travel

Under the Thai sun!

Are you tired of waiting for spring to begin?

The earliest months of the year in Finland are the coldest ones and the social life is much quieter than in the summer. That’s a given, but did you know that in Thailand the warm season is turning into a hot one in March? So, why don’t you have a break from the cold and head to sunny Thailand?
Take a preview of the sun this year!

Thailand is perfect for everyone: for backpackers, beach bums, families and hippies with flowers in their hair, as well as for burned-out business people, who just want to forget the real world filled with stock exchange prices and all that. Spend a week, or months, exploring vivid Thai culture. You won’t get bored in Thailand: just chill out on the beach, check out the glorious temples, do some scuba diving or trekking. And whatever you decide to do, it won’t be too expensive!



Thrilling Thailand

There are plenty of things to do if you like outdoor activities. For trekking there are good places near to Chiang Maj, in northern Thailand. As a part of the trip you can also do some river rafting and if you don’t feel like hiking, there is always some friendly elephant who would like to carry you! For
those interested in climbing, Railey beach is the place to be.

Do you remember how it feels to walk barefoot on the beach? There are countless numbers of beaches to do that in Thailand: crowded ones and quiet ones. You just have to pick your favourite beach. Mine is Ko Phi Phi Leh, which is a deserted beach: no houses, just sand and palm trees! The island is also known from the movie called “The Beach”.

When the sun sets and kids go to bed, the beaches turn into big party zones. The most popular travellers’ beach party, the Full Moon Party, is arranged on Koh Phangan island. The party is so famous that I suggest you book your accommodation in advance unless you want to sleep on the beach (but
in case you do, you won't be the only one!). But don’t worry if the moon is not
full while you are in Thailand, because the restless travellers party pretty much every night!

If diving is your thing or you have always wanted to try it, there are several great places to do that, like Koh Tao, the Similan islands, Phi Phi and Koh Chang. You can see a lot of colourful life under the surface: sharks, turtles and even massive manta rays! Imagine this: you are diving and suddenly it gets dark. You think that it is an unexpected eclipse of the sun. You look up and what you see is a big school of these friendly giants, manta rays, swimming on top of and all around you. It looks like they are flying. It is a sight that will take your breath away.

After the deep blue, it's back to dry land and noisy Bangkok, the capital of Thailand. The
shining temples all over the country are amazing and there are lot of them in Bangkok. A few worthy of mention: Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaeo, where you can find the most revered Buddha image in the country. In addition to sightseeing, take time to explore those smaller side lanes. Who knows, you may even see a glimpse of the everyday life of the locals!

From Buddhism to materialism: shopping in the capital of Thailand is a dizzy experience. Three letters: MBK. If you say this word to the taxi driver, he will take you to the MBK mall and you don’t have any worries how to spend the rest of the day. The mall is not small at all! I spent two days there
and covered only small part of it. The infinite amount of the stuff that is on sale is overwhelming! I have to warn you though – they have a big problem with piracy in Asia, so it is up to your own judgement
what you buy.

Thai food

There are lot of food markets around Bangkok where the food is very cheap and fresh, but if you want to see something different, go to the floating market. It is a nice day trip outside of Bangkok and you can buy sweet and fresh fruits and souvenirs from the boats.


Thai transportation

Thailand is a paradise on earth, but a bit far away from Scandinavia. You will need at least a few weeks off, a passport and open mind. Basically before leaving Finland you only need to buy the flight tickets, starting from 700 euros. You can get a room when you get there. I paid around 3 to 5 euros a night, sharing the room
with my friend. Of course, the luxury room costs much more, as always. Eating out is cheap too and Thai food is amazingly good!

It is easy to get around in the cities: you can take taxi, bus or tuk tuk (the traditional vehicle which is like a mix of a motorcycle and a cart.). Some tuk tuk drivers may sometimes be a little bit
cheeky, so negotiate about the price before you step into the vehicle. You can also rent a scooter, but please be careful: the traffic on that side of the globe is not as safe as here. Been there, done that: I had a motorcycle accident in Thailand. Luckily I survived! So, the safest solution is to take a bus or a train. The connections between the cities are well organized. But do remember that it is not Finland; vehicles may not be on time, buses may break down and weird things happen when you least expect them to, but after all, that is part of the adventure!

After the holiday you will reminisce about those lazy days chatting with locals on the streets, the taste of fresh pineapple in your mouth and those sunsets you watched while lying in a hammock on the beach. And even a short trip to Thailand will make you happy for a long time!

Thailand is such a lovely and lively place, that one article is just scratching the surface. Thus I say: Go there, discover it and you will fall for it!