Riga was the closer we could get to a city where the Russian influence was most visible. Besides the beautiful Art Nouveau buildings and some timid examples of modern high-rises, the city is predominantly styled by the modernism which was the norm until 1990. Riga is home to several “pearls” of Soviet-era modernism, but there has long been a widespread reluctance to preserve them — in part on account of the period they symbolise, and in part the likely expense involved. As a result, it is not rare to see crumbling buildings and entire areas of the cities resembling abandoned construction sites.
Despite this, there is a lot of charm in Riga, which is more international than many other European cities and has a lot to offer in terms of getting real value from your travel experience.
We enjoyed the stunning Art Nouveau neighbourhood, and the equal impressive, albeit for entirely different reasons, Central Market. As in other Baltic cities, the city centre proper, with the pretty square and the meandering streets around it, is a very disappointing collection of souvenir shops and bars/pubs with music, all catering to tourists. Once you’ve seen one, you can imagine all others and devote your time in these cities to other more interesting areas.
Finding one of the best gluten-free bakeries with great cappuccino earned Riga a lot of points in our book.
An unexpected stay in the Rimini of Estonia, just because I left one night without booking in my plan… Valeria loves the unexpected, so she was happy while we were trying to arrange for a night somewhere in the most crowded city in Estonia, where Estonians go for the beach. Eventually, we booked a room at a couple’s home not far from the beach, and it turned out as one of the best rooms in the entire trip. They were a bit in disarray because the booking came only 1 hour before our arrival, and they wanted the room and everything to be absolutely perfect.
It was, and we spent a lovely afternoon on the beach, having our beloved herrings for picnic, and listening to an open air concert by a folk group, who had the most famous rapper as their guest for the evening.
To top it up, dinner in a garden restaurant nearby our home was a delight, almost like eating in someone’s garden.
One of the highlights of our trip. After the HomeExchange accommodation was cancelled because of an unresponsive owner, we had to find an alternative while in Stockholm, one week before our ferry to Tallinn was scheduled. Others would have panicked, but we did not: thanks to the excellent guarantee by HomeExchange and their great support staff, we enquired first about a home that would be available for us in the HomeExchange network. As this turned out not to be possible (it is difficult to find someone who can open their doors on a few days’ notice, for a stay of 8 days). So, we were authorised to look for a rental and we found a lovely apartment in Kalamaja, the most authentic area of Tallinn. The city is a mix of traditional houses, panelled with wood, and extraordinary architecture, which is luckily not limited to skyscrapers and office buildings, but is trickling down on condos and housing for everyone, with good style and a lot of attention to quality of life of the people living there. This is something we haven’t found often: many cities are more beautiful than Tallinn (no need to give examples here) but few areas liveable, in the sense of having the right combination of prettiness and infrastructure friendliness. In Tallinn, you can be on the beach, have great shopping, rest in beautiful parks, or visit interesting cultural venues, all while eating well and enjoying markets where raspberries or blueberries (the best we’ve eaten in a while) cost 5 EUR/kilo. Sure, a cappuccino will be 4,5 EUR, which is outrageous for Italian standards, but it will be enjoyed in a stylish surrounding, with no cups and saucers clattering which seems a constant in Italian bars, good wifi, and a relaxed environment.
This said, we enjoyed Tallinn very much, and the variety of activities we were able to cram into our 7 days: a lot of biking on flat terrain (easier than at home), some beach, a couple of very interesting museums, including one in open air showcasing life in Estonia in the middle age, and plenty more. Finding good quality ice cream (La Muu, Valeria’s favourite) and a gluten-free restaurant in Telliskivi was super too. We will return!
PS – Forgot to mention that Estonia is one of the most advanced countries worldwide for everything related to electronic payments. Until now, after one month since we left Italy, we haven’t used cash.
I wanted to start this post and call it “long-awaited”, but since only a couple of aficionados read these notes, I’ll just say it was late. We arrived in Stockholm with the usual thoughts of someone from Southern Europe, which sees Scandinavia as a model of efficiency, tidiness and smart solutions for everyday’s life. We weren’t disappointed of course, but what we did not expect was … it’s even better that we think, and looking and a myriad of big and small details made us wonder how these are not adopted everywhere else in the world. Perhaps having the citizen’s wellbeing at the center of politicians and city planners isn’t so easy… Pictures we post below speak for themselves. Bike lanes everywhere, not just for show, but actually to push people to leave their car behind and enjoy riding a bike. Digital payments are the norm and cash is frowned upon, even in small shops or market stalls. Public buildings, such as schools, town halls, libraries etc. are impeccable and actually better maintained than private property. The level of food, in casual or upscale restaurants, is outstanding: you pay for what you get of course, but the quality is always there. A 4,5 EUR cappuccino comes with a place to sit that is always a pleasure to enjoy, no noise (the horrific clatter of cups and saucers being loaded/unloaded rom the dishwasher which is omnipresent in Italian bars and sometimes covers conversation is completely absent here. How do they wash things?), nice materials around you. There is an obvious obsession for personal care, considering the hundreds of hairdressers/barbershops you see around, and that’s a bit disconcerting.
Overall, it is a very pleasant city to spend a week, it does not have the archeological wonders of Rome or Athens, but the whole experience is so much more valuable. We visited the Nordiska museum, which had an exhibition on the Arctic and on British influence on Nordic fashion. Both very interesting. Then we biked to Hagaparken and the Drottningholm Royal palace. And Lövo island.
Staying in Årsta (thanks again to Home Exchange!), a residential neighbourhood south of Södermalm, was perfect. Our Swedish host Sara was very kind and even allowed us to stay one extra night before boarding the ferry to Tallinn. Yes, that one.
After a short visit of Lund, lovely city near Malmö, two days in the middle of nowhere in Sweden, in a wooden summer house that has seen better times and is very basic. Not finding bed sheets and towels was a bit of a surprise… Luckily Valeria was in the scouts, and is very adaptable 🙂 Walking/cycling here makes you think of what it means really being isolated, and we wonder what this place will look like in winter. Idyllic spots on a lake and a lovely cafe 13 km from our home (the only available place) made up for the relatively boring uniformity of woods, trees and more trees.
After a 4-hour journey, including the ferry from Puttgarden to Rødby, a wonderful stop in the Danish countryside. Sometimes there are surprises along the road and this farm in the middle of nowhere provided us with a lovely apartment to have dinner and spend the night. The gargantuan breakfast was the cherry on the cake. Highly recommended.
3 nights in Hamburg, the second city in Germany. After Berlin, we were expecting a vibrant, multicultural, fascinating metropolis with the added charm of the North, the Baltic Sea and all that. I must say we were a bit disappointed: despite the great architecture, old warehouses and entire areas of town restored to their severe and impressive bulk, to host offices and private homes on canals, and the occasional super-modern glass tower, the residential areas of Hamburg are built around boring blocks, with parks and large roads, and nothing really unique about them. I am sure we missed a lot by being there only 3 days, so this may be the wrong impression.
We visited the Elbphilarmonie, which is a gem on its own, and the city’s main attraction, St. Michael’s church. This is featured in the Lucky and Zorba film (La gabbianella e il gatto, in Italian) from the book written by Luis Sepulveda.
Our home (thanks to HomeExchange!) was in the Portuguese neighbourhood, a perfect location near the centre and very lively. Many thanks to Alex and Bettina, our perfect hosts.
Our best meal was at a typical Breton crêperie, where we killed a bottle of cider and had the opportunity to show off our French to the owners…
A delightful village in Schleswig-Holstein, Westensee is on a lake, and a paradise for biking. All flat, not like in Tuscany, and bike lanes everywhere, on every minor or major road. Our home was an apartment in a house owned by a local lady, furnished with a lot of taste (Valeria liked the blue bathroom tiles) and with direct access to the lake. The robot was keeping the grass immaculate, and we enjoyed our dinners (more matjes!).
We did a 36km tour to Nortorf, nothing special but a good way to test our biking after so much time. It was impossible to bike in 35 degrees at home, so we like being able to bike with a sweater and a wind jacket on.
We came to Lübeck with some expectations (the capital of the historic Hanseatic League, a port on the Baltic Sea, birthplace of Thomas Mann, Gunther Grass lived her…) but I must say we weren’t impressed. The city center is the usual row of soulless chain shops, the same as in other German city (or European nowadays). The port is nice but it extend for many kilometers away from the historical part of town, so you only see a small bit, with not so many ships. Even the old buildings are a bit weird in their choice of materials and the way they are arranged in space. Perhaps we are spoiled with Italian art and architecture, so here simply does not compare. Nice dinner at Fangfrisch though, which helped saving the day. We stayed at an oldish hotel, which had the charm of tired interiors maintained spotlessly, a bit East-Germany-like.
The following day we travelled a short 20 minutes to Travemunde, a beach town full of tourists, all of them from Germany. Thanks to the nice weather, the huge beach and the nice matjes we had for lunch, we enjoyed the few hours we spent there. Valeria even managed to exercise on the beach, while I was happy with the 10,000 steps I managed despite the pain in my leg.
Always great to be in this lovely city, but many surprises for someone who is not a regular visitor: you can really see how sustainability is embraced in all aspects of life, and how the city drives the future in a way that its citizens like and make their own.
Mobility options are many, from e-scooters, S-bahn, trams and buses, taxis and car sharing, mostly with electric cars. Most of all, people bike everywhere and there is a cycling path on every street.
Despite the grim weather, we had a wonderful time: Valeria had never been so we started from the basics (Brandenburger Tor, Potsdamerplatz, Unter den Linden, Museuminsel and Tiergarten, where was our hotel). The Holocaust Memorial has an immediate and very direct impact on the visitor, no audioguide or brochure needed. We visited the very good DDR museum, which proved surprisingly engaging for us: perhaps life in the 70s in the DDR wasn’t so different, at least visually, from the one we experienced back then. We recognised many daily life objects and learned a lot on the life of an East German family, even by visiting a reconstruction of a typical apartment.
Topping our visit was a refined dinner at the vegetarian bistro Bonvivant, which was well worth the price and filled our senses with new flavours.
Both breakfasts were enjoyed at the Café am Neuen See, a hip place on a lake, which had about 3000 seats, all empty in the morning, but it gives an idea how popular the place is on weekends and on sunny summer evenings.
You don’t expect much from former East Germany, but it’s a mistake: Leipzig is lovely and an example of how liveable and sustainable cities should be. Not much traffic, bikes everywhere, a huge pedestrian area, young people are the majority and everything is well kept, particularly public spaces and buildings.
We had a quick dinner on Marktplatz, enjoying wine and food from Alto Adige (!) while listening to some jazz music and then went to visit the largest dead-end train station in the world. I know our friend Giovanni would have liked it a lot. The following morning we visited the very modern university, and both thought it would be nice to restart our studies here…
We spent 4 nights at Hotel Bergbock, a mountain hotel near Matrei in Osttirol and Lienz. weather was OK but our plans to hike and bike were somewhat limited by some trouble with my hip, which is painful and really annoying. We managed to do some hikes and Valeria took the gondola lift to 2,300 meters on the Hohe Tauern mountains, near the Grossglöckner. On Monday, I tried to get some medical attention in Lienz first and then succeeded in Innichen (Sudtirol, in Italy) where after 3 hours wait and an x-ray I got prescribed some heavy medicines that will hopefully alleviate the issue. Thank God to Italian healthcare that was more accommodating than the Austrian one.
A good first day of our journey spent in this relatively unknown small town in Northern Italy, near the border with Austria. It is still very hot, so as soon as we arrive we retreat in the shop/lab of our friend Francesca, who creates the most tasteful objects with Japanese cloths and other unique textiles. Take a look at her website to have an idea. Dinner at Osteria Alla Ghiacciaia follows. I must confess I ordered the least summery dish on the menu, frico, which is a local delicacy I love, but also fairly heavy.
Our favourite spot on the Belgian coast the rare times we ventured there. The kids loved the large beach, the quistax and the ice cream. I loved the boule de Berlin delivered on the beach by some bakery boy…
Every Belgian has a favourite beach town. Some like Ostend for its urban buzz. Others go for Knokke for its chic art galleries and restaurants. But De Haan has an authentic charm that is hard to beat.
Le Coq (as it was originally called) was built in the dunes in 1889 by the German urban planner Hermann-Josef Stübben.
He shaped the resort with winding lanes, quaint white villas in English country house style and large gardens. The houses have romantic names like Little Red Riding Hood and look like drawings in a German fairy story.
While other resorts on the Belgian coast have become overdeveloped, De Haan has hardly changed.
The strict planning laws laid down at the time have prevented the construction of modern apartment buildings, and you still find small family-run hotels, unique B&Bs and friendly restaurants.