Baltic Underground

East Side GalleryA night in a Latvian prison cell proved to be the most intense experience on our journey through the Baltic States last August.

The goal of our trip had been to look for lost places and ruins on the east side of the Baltic Sea. We were interested in the remains and footprints of the Soviet era and also in the current underground art. The journey began in Germany and followed a route through Poland, Russia (Kaliningrad), Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Russia again (St. Petersburg) and finally Finland.

On the way to our first stop, we crossed the former border between east and west Germany in Berlin. Some pieces of the famous wall are now known as the 'East Side Gallery'.

You can get completely lost in Russia when you don’t know the language or the Cyrillic alphabet, and Sonja and I don’t know either. The only hint we got from Maxim, our couchsurfing host, was that we would meet in front of the famous Kaliningrad Hotel.

Maxim found us there and took us to a party somewhere in the suburbs of the city, without a chance for us to change clothes or prepare ourselves. It was Olga's birthday, a young student who celebrated in an old house together with other students. It was a great evening with interesting people who fortunately spoke good English and gave us an idea of how it feels to be a Russian student in the most western and European part of Russia.

The Curonian Spit is a beautiful area between Kaliningrad and Lithuania. On the Russian side we found a camp site so well hidden that it felt like wild camping. We wouldn't have tried to camp wild so near to the Russian border, but this place was only 50 metres from the beach so we set up our tent and had dinner watching the waves of the Baltic Sea. Marvellous.

It was raining constantly the next day on the Lithuanian side. So we quickly crossed the border into Latvia and rode the bike along a muddy route to a small village called Nida. When we stopped in front of an old wooden house, a lady came out and asked if we wanted to stay for a night. Spontaneously we said, "Yes," and that was a good decision. The lady's name was also Nida and she lived there with her family and some friends who were on holiday. We dried our tent in the attic and spent a wonderful time with Nida in her rustic lodge near the beach.

The next night in the prison was the complete opposite of that. Karosta was a military zone for many years and the prison was a place of terror during the Second World War and later during Soviet times. Nowadays it's kept in original condition as a museum, and if you want to you can stay for a night.

Evita, a young museum guide in camouflage trousers, showed us a prison cell with a simple mattress on the floor. We were the only guests for the night, so it was only Sonja, me and that fearless young lady in the building. Evita led us through the many endless corridors of the prison, showed us remains of the old times and told us stories about the people who were imprisoned there. It smelled musty in our cell, the toilets were unrenovated, and with a creepy atmosphere it was a night we will never forget.

The bike's engine began to have small dropouts on the way to Estonia. At first we didn't worry. We went through a wooded area in Cesis and spent a night with a wonderful German-Latvian couple who showed us some off-road tracks. In Tartu we visited a hidden KGB prison and heard the stories of the Estonian resistance fighters.

On the way to Tallinn, the capital city, the electrical system of the engine broke-down completely. Why did it have to happen on a Friday evening? The woman at the next gas station gave us the address of a car repair shop called "Estpresso" and we were in luck - it was still open. Two young guys took care of the bike, sprayed WD-40 in every corner and on every electrical connection. They didn't really know what the problem was, but after an hour they started the engine and everything worked again. With a feeling of relief, we went on.

We reached the capital in darkness and found a peculiar campsite near the city. It was a small piece of green in between industrial and office buildings. Tallinn is a very exciting and interesting old town. Under the historical city there is a labyrinth of old corridors, which were used as a refuge place during the wars and later as a meeting place for punks. At the harbour, Tallinn artists made a bar out of an old bus and we walked through a big work of art made out of shipping containers.

St. Petersburg is on the way from Estonia to Finland, so we had to do all the border paperwork again. We lost a lot of time and were late on the way to this big town. I didn't think that the area a few hundred kilometres from St. Petersburg would be so desolate and empty. We rode for hours through empty areas, between fields, passing little villages with old small wooden houses.

I only had the address of a campsite, which we tried to find. The location we found some hours later was a really strange place. The campsite was a circle of containers, which had been converted into small guestrooms rented by an old Russian woman. With a drawing of our tent, I showed her that we didn't want to sleep in one of the containers and she allowed us to put up our tent beside this strange place between a highway and a junkyard.

St. Petersburg is a town with endless attractions. Though we didn’t have a lot of time, we visited a church with an unbelievable story. In the Soviet era the St. Petri church was converted into a big swimming pool. Now it's a church again, but under the floor you can still find the remains of the pool. We climbed into the basement, where artists from eastern and western Europe had painted the walls with graffiti. Real underground art.

The contrast could not have been greater when we crossed the border into Finland. I can’t remember when I enjoyed being back on a well-paved highway so much. It was raining again when we reached Turku.

The city campsite is on a small peninsula, and we seemed to be the only campers on the whole place, but on the second day we meet Juli and Phillip, a couple from Russia who were also travelling through Finland. Phillip is an artist and drummer in St. Petersburg and speaks fluent English. We talked a lot and agreed to meet them the next time we visited their home town. In comparison to the cities we'd been to before, Turku was a really small and quite town, the perfect place to relax.

The ferry crossing from Finland back to Germany across the Baltic sea takes 28 hours, and from Lübeck, north-Germany, it's only 350 km to Giebeoldehausen, where our journey was due to end at a motorcycle travellers' meeting.

But it ended earlier. Only 150 km after our start in the morning the rear wheel made a terrible noise. The wheel bearing was broken. We were lucky that we stopped just near a motorcycle workshop that could replace the bearing. But then, 50 km further on the engine went on strike again. That was too much for us. It was around midnight when a tow truck took away the bike and we eventually reached the motorcycle meeting by the early morning in a stuffy rental car.

It really was a journey full of surprises!

For more photos, see the set on FlickR.

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