surinenglish

Travels with my smartphone

The Europa Royale hotel in Riga has a fascinating history.
The Europa Royale hotel in Riga has a fascinating history. / Jennie Rhodes
  • A bus (and train) journey round the Baltics as a lone female traveller is easy these days

Escaping the heat of Malaga for a ten-day trip around the Baltics would, in normal circumstances, have been heaven, except that I managed to time it in the middle of the pan-European heat wave. Still, it made packing easy and with my cabin-size trolley suitcase I set off for my solo adventure.

Skyscanner calculated that the cheapest way to get to Estonia, my first port of call, would be via Frankfurt, but also kindly included a 24-hour stay in the city. So, I duly downloaded the Booking.com app onto my mobile phone and found myself a cheap deal, in the heart of Frankfurt and near to the S and U-bahn. Perfect.

As my mother has always said, I "always land on [my] feet", so my fears about arriving late at night in an unknown city were allayed when I overheard two Spanish ladies chatting in front of me in the queue to board the plane. It turned out that they both lived in Frankfurt and were returning after spending their summer holidays back at home in Malaga.

"Don't worry," quipped my newfound friend, Marián, who is originally from Vélez-Málaga, "I need to get off at that stop too so you can come with me to the train station when we get off the plane," she proffered in Spanish. Result.

While I love a bit of solo travel, and managed to get myself round South America and parts of south east Asia totally unscathed (and that was before the advent of the mobile phone app), I am still acutely aware that I am a lone female traveller. I take precautions, so to speak and yes, I do take taxis when I really feel I need to. I stuff money and credit cards in my underwear (I am trusting that this won't bring on a wave of unprecedented muggings along the Costa) and touch wood, so far, have not experienced anything untoward. My lone female traveller instinct is always there.

Frankfurt is clearly not as prepared as I am for temperatures hovering around the 40 degree mark, so I was unperturbed when I saw that the 'air conditioning' in my 'budget room' was a small fan perched on top of the mini-fridge. The next day I came across a river cruise, which I thought might put a bit of cool air into my sails, if not wind, per se. The cruise took in the European Central Bank headquarters, as well as the city's skyscraper district, known locally as Mainhatten.

Having sweltered in the heat of all day, I was not best pleased when I read that there had been a security alert at Frankfurt airport (a French family who managed to get through the security checks). Thus my flight would not get in to Tallinn until the small hours of the following morning. My lone female traveller instinct went into overdrive again having only ever arrived in Tallinn once, many years ago, with an ex-boyfriend in tow and via the ferry from Helsinki. Also in broad daylight as I remember.

Once again, mother was right. The lady to my right on the plane was Estonian, spoke perfect English (as did every other Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian and nearly every Pole I encountered on my trip) and was also getting a taxi; she informed me that there was always a queue of reliable taxis at all hours outside Tallinn airport. Hurrah!

A table for one

One thing that any lone traveller, and in my experience, especially women, will comment on is the lonely evenings. Waiters secretly hope that you will decide to go somewhere else, as there are very few tables for one to be found and all tables could be occupied, at the very least, by a couple. Do the maths.

Still, with a lack of your own conversation you do pick up some gems from other tourists, like the two American ladies discussing the relative benefits of weight loss "meds" they have been prescribed and the risks of having a gastric band fitted. All while tucking in to the unhealthiest looking thing on the menu.

You also get the enthusiastic waiters who see you as an easy target for brushing up on their English. Still, they love to give recommendations of places that are off the beaten track, for anyone open to a bit of cultural immersion. Cue my uber-friendly waitress, Melany (with perfect English, naturally) at the Restoran Tabula Rasa who was looking for a recommendation on Trip Advisor (which, in case you're wondering, I duly obliged).

Next stop, Riga. The Latvian capital is four and a half hours by coach from Tallinn and booking tickets couldn't have been easier. Ecolines runs a regular service between the two cities, and indeed it is one of the two major coach companies, along with Lux Express, which operate around much of eastern and central Europe. I purchased my online ticket via my mobile phone and away I went. The same went for a two-night stay in the Europa Royale hotel, which of course, I booked through the Booking.com app.

Historical hotel

While I wouldn't usually choose a four-star hotel, I could hardly resist a stay in the former home of Latvia's most famous journalists, Emilija and Antons Benjamins, which, shortly before the fall of communism, saw women writers cooking soup to feed the defenders of Latvia. By then the country had become a place where the heads of the People's Fronts of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia came together to fight for freedom and the end of the regime. I'm not sure what either party would make of the place now being a luxury hotel, but such consumerism has certainly hit the Baltics.

With a former USSR army map of my home town purchased from Jana Seta map shop in the historical Berga Bazārs, in my case, I made my way to the bus station to catch my Ecolines (ticket bought on phone previously and less elegant accommodation via the app) to Vilnius. After another 4.5-hour bus journey through the lush green Latvian and Lithuanian countryside, interspersed by small towns and villages, many of which boasted signposts for the nearest Ikea and organic shops, I arrived in the Lithuanian capital at the same time as the rain, which finally broke the European heat wave.

It was another two-nighter in Vilnius, where I joined the free walking tour led by Vytauté, who gave an insightful and often humorous guided walk around the city. Then it was off to Warsaw, for the slightly badly planned dash to get to Gdansk, from where I had my flight back to Malaga. In my excitement I failed to factor in two things: Kalingrad - it gets in the way of a direct route between Lithuania and northeast Poland; and despite them looking like fairly small countries on a map, the reality is that it really is quite a long way from Vilnius to the Polish capital.

There was nothing for it. A nine-hour coach journey. No problem. Lux Express, I would say, even had the edge over the seemingly unbeatable Ecolines. Free headphones allowed me to watch a couple of fairly recent films I hadn't seen and an even greater range of free hot beverages, a free bottle of water as I boarded and an extremely well-maintained onboard loo helped the hours go by relatively painlessly.

The journey took a long time for three reasons: it is actually quite a long way from Vilnius to Warsaw as I have said; I hadn't factored in the time zone change, meaning I had to put my watch back one hour; and for all the signs of modernity - Ikea, and a Baltic-wide obsession with all things organic and gluten-free - the roads, it seemed, were literally being built before me. It felt like I was in one of those Road Runner cartoons when they're making the road as the Road Runner runs along. I genuinely began to hope that Wile E Coyote wasn't hovering by a precipice with a knife to cut the rope.

I just had time for a free walking tour of Warsaw and some pierogi (traditional Polish dumplings) before changing from my thus far favoured mode of transport and taking the train to my final destination, Gdansk. Having not found an adequate app to pre-book my seat (horrors!), I found myself having to buy, from the only person who spoke not a word of English during my entire trip, a first-class ticket, in sign language, pointing and writing notes which were passed back and forth under the glass counter. Ah, the good old days! I think it was worth the extra 64 Złoty (about 15 euros), just for the very polite gentleman who helped with my luggage once in my compartment as well as the free cup of tea and chocolate muffin.

My final land-based journey was by taxi, which I hailed outside Gdansk train station. It was too early for public transport and the lone female traveller in me was glad that, at 6am northern Poland in August experiences broad daylight. Two flights later (this time just a three-hour stopover at Munich airport) and I was back in Malaga. Late in the evening, but safe in the knowledge that I had a reliable shuttle to the car park where I had left my car 10 days before.