Become a Patron of Matta Mundi

Experience the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and exhilarating feelings of an international backpacker

Thursday, December 3, 2009


The spıce market ıs not a market. It ıs a sea of spıce. No, a sea of mountaıns... of spıce. I never knew spıces could look lıke a kaleıdoscope. Smells waft thıther and yon buffetıng you wıth muh more marketıng charısma than the men besıde the stalls could ever hope to possess. When spıce does not occupy a stall, Turkısh Delıght pıcks up the baton. Pıstachıo, lemon, aprocats, and all thıngs ın between. Pıles of the sweet stuff. My tongue has a fıeld day workıng overtıme wıth yum-yums. I try to get by wıth just eatıng the free samples before beıng pushed off towards a rıval Delıghtful stall.
Is ıt bad to say that Mosques look lıke Bobafett? Because they do. Im sure of ıt now. Just as Im sure that any socıety that fınds beıng human a blıght that has to be dıscouraged ıs wrong... Women coverıng themselves head to toe ın 35-40C weather. It must be because, as everyone knows, women are evıl. Thats rıght! And no one, NO ONE, wants to look at evıl thıngs. Yep, I dıd say ıt, mothers, grandmothers, young women that love puppıes, babıes, and flowers are so obviously evıl. So cover them up totally lest we set eyes on somethıng so abhorrent. Just ıgnore that ımfamous bounty hunter watchıng you from the top of the hıll.

When you're a mile or so away from the happiness of your hostel's toilet and you need to use the facilities pretty quickly because of that curry from the night before, panic ensues. This is not a hide behind a bush job, this is serious business. This is as they say, the shit. And it was about to go down. Goodbye Tomb of Suleiman the Magnificent I must leave you abruptly for a rather pressing engagement. Still, there's a one lira WC just next door, and entering through the incredibly tiny door you realise with some horror that there is no commode. There is porcelain, just nothing substantial in terms of relative height. Thank you so much for allowing me to use this hole in the ground. It takes longer that I would like to derobe on the flooded floor, after all, what exactly are you supposed to do with your trousers? Feeling better and fully clothed once more, I smack my head upon the dwarf-sized door on the way out. So maybe not up to my best as I leave the WC designed to have a laugh at foreigners.

"Yes My friend!" joins the throng of noisy sales chatter that lights as I enter the markets. Tiny streets and crowds you'd never think possible to get through make the experience...invigorating.
This is life. Business is happening. I stand poised to eat a flatbread sandwich that the boy next to the stall is still trying to sell me. Stop the pitch, I've already entered into a contract for the damn thing. He's right though, it is good. The sweet chili sauce really makes it. Other salesmen shout things like 'you want jeans?'. No thanks, it's 36 degrees out here and the press of bodies is contributing to my sweat factor. "My friend! Where you from?" He's trying to engage my attention. I leave instead. Show any interest, answer and you're doomed with a new 'friend' trying to sell you a belt or a camel. OK, I made up the camel. "You're from Italy? Spanish?" and then as I get farther and farther away, the guesses get more ridiculous, "India? China? No I know! Korea, yes Korea!" Wrong and wrong.

Cats and kittens stalk and play respectively as the afternoon call to prayer erupts from the nearest and then next nearest mosque. Synchronization is not well known. And yet the effect is wonderful, it's charming and peaceful and as iconic of an Islamic yet secular country as the minarets it's played from.

Yes I had to cover my knees with a skirtive sheet. Yes I took of my shoes to go into the mystical Blue Mosque. Yes women cover their heads and shoulders going into the same. yes other women are dressed like fashionable bomb removal squads roaming the streets with small children in tow and look for that next glamourous headscarf. Yes to all that, and yet explicit erotic music is free to blare out from the nearest rooftop terrace. Really? Yes to that too. No one cares if it's in English.

Leaving Prague

Should you decide to hitch-hike from Prague to say, Bratislava, or even grand Wien, make sure you get someone actually going to one or the other. A series of shorter hops cannot be done on this trail. Should you decide otherwise, there are a number of theoretical possibilities that might occur. Theoretically you might get a lift from a guy that speaks practically no english, which makes communication difficult in regards to where you happen to be going, and he may only be going say, twenty miles or so. Theoretically he could drop you off on the ramp off the motorway that has such an abundance of traffic to see one car every ten minutes. Theoretically, you may try hitching, illegally, on the motorway itself. Theoretically you may decide to get to the town that guy was going to to get a bus. It might be about ten miles away, but what options have you? You might be lucky enough to get a lift to that small town, Theoretically find the bus depot, Theoretically point at pictures of buses so people know that you'd want to take one out of their miniscule area of concrete. Theoretically, the only bus goes back to Prague, where as chance might have it, there's a bus heading towards, say Bratislava, which Theoretically, you could take. Or could've taken in the first place. Theoretically of course, or not. Anyway, 'misewell' chance the thumb right? Oh yeah, and on that Theoretically bus to Bratislava, don't panic, you are probably still on the bus. The Czechs have got the idea about speed and turbulence. They just forgot that speed isn't usually an accompanying factor or that turbulence is usually reserved for the flying variety of bus.


So what is Prague? It's been called many things, usually good and involving iconic bridges. So what is Prague? An old draughty city choc-a-bloc with bagfuls of all things Baroque. And yet the draughtyness is held at arms length by the integration of technology and tourists swarming the ancient capital. High above, the castle stands guard like a starving soldier waiting in vain for his relief, but still must stand ever so attentively. It's only defense from the tourists is one that was good back when, standing the test of time but no longer repelling militant invaders, its height and endless barrage of stairs to the castle grounds and gardens. Today's invaders are somewhat less dangerous should they not all select 'flash' at the same time.
Should you survive the castle's grand defense mechanism, do not be tempted by Pragish beer. Yes there are stories, the 'piva' is amazing in Prague, and cheap, which is never a bad thing for beer to be. Yes the beer is cheap, but go to pay and see that they've charged you for what you thought were free pretzels sat out for patrons, do not look surprised. At least not too much. This city is clinging to all it's got; a billion tourists a day in a multitude of touring throngs being led by the same number of little flags on sticks. After a while, even Prague's greatest asset becomes little more than a commonplace eyesore. Baroque architecture begins to dwindle from its elaborate pedestal of delightfulness. Gothic structures appear freakish yet tantalising should you be able to see them through the waving wanded flags shepherding its flock of camera bearers. That said, the Astronomical Clock is a thing to marvel, and should you sit down in the old town square to enjoy it, you may care to sample some of the abundant free pretzels... ...

Tuesday, December 1, 2009


After leaving the Baltics, you know you're really back in the west, or closer to it anyway, by the sudden appearence of american chain/fast food besides Mcdonalds'(Mcdonalds' is everywhere, even the south pole of inaccessability).

Next, if you thought Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were flat, then you didn't truly understand the meaning of the word until Poland and the North European Plain came into you're path. It's flat as a, well, plain-cake. Gone are the stretches of coniferous acreage, gone are the ferns and low growth greenery. Fields and fields, decidious finite woodland and an endless amount of flatness that precipitate bad jokes like plain-cake.

Then finally, Warsaw...

A sprawling mess of brilliantlly restored war destroyed buildings. It's filled with Neo-Georgian streets in the centre and a miniscule Old Town. Surrounding this is a real hodge-podge of the modern, concrete communist, classical, and ramshackle architecture all thrown in in the hopes that something will be good.

Bakeries are everywhere, bringing with them, as they do, their refreshing and pleasurable aromas of fresh bread, cakes, and pastries. Filling the Old Town square are innumerable Carlsberg umbrellas, shielding from sun or rain the patrons below as they drink to your health and theirs. And why not? This is a revitalised Warsaw, enjoy, but go easy on the pastry.


When you arrive in town, you may be lucky enough to hear the driver say, ''Welcome to Vilnius, have nice day, bye bye.''

A certain something strikes you as you enter Vilnius throught the blue gates of Dawn. It's not the miraculous number of churches or the narrow side streets, street cafes, or high castle up above on a steep hill. No, none of these. Something even better.... No seagulls. Throughout the rest of the Scando-baltic region the threat of the gull is a very real event. But Vilnius if free of the flying enemies, thus allowing for an unparrelled tour of the city.

Down Ausros Vartu, past the butter and sugar filled pancakes to Rotuses Square, where cafes and pubs line the pavement. Take a stroll down crunched yet perfect Stikliu to the Presidential Palace of white and blue. Head past the university to Katedros Square where the Belfry and Cathedral are seperated, making an interesting change to the usual set of ecclesiastical palaces. High above stands Gedimina Castle atop a hill of the same name.

Yet for all of that, the city doesn't feel special, the sounds aren't there, just the regular city annoyances. The smells, sweet and savoury pancakes are few and far between. Sights are there to be seen, but they're so severely spaced that it doesn't feel like an old town should. The view from Gedimina Hill is superb, but apart from that... well I'll say it again:

There are no seagulls in Vilnius.

Oh and by the way, have nice day, bye bye.

the road to Sigulda

Turaida Castle, a slightly ruinous complex of brick and stone. A tall tall tower, a long wall, gates and a three storey keep. Its redness contrasting greatly with the wild greenery. The castle stands guard over a deep green hole cut by a gurgling river far below. Far across, though you cannot see it, sleeps Sigulda, a quiet tourist town with an old soviet train station.

Taking the train from riga can be haphazard in nature. Especially if you act hastily upon hearing what you think is 'Sigulda' issuing from the announcing speakers. This will lead you to a tiny village of neat gardens, scything grannies, spread out wooden houses and a sandy maze of roads. There's a trick following the main road out of that place in order to hitch-hike to your proper destination of Sigulda should you decide not to wait around an hour for the next train. A wrong turn takes you towards a stream snaking away from a vegetable garden and a yelping dog. Fear not, for the sound of fast moving cars can be heard. it's up to you to make it through the forest to that motorised salvation. it is difficult work, best done with footwear that can get wet, for the many crossings over the stream are easier than taking the high road. The way becomes boggy and you may start to worry.

Nothing for it but the high road after all. Beavers engineered the bog, so it can't be terribly vast, as fears thought. Cutting a trail up the steep sides of the stream bank the cars get louder. Trees give way to meadow and there, yes, a glimpse of automobile. Finally the road, finally a lift to Sigulda. It took an hour, the same as waiting for the next train...

But when you trek through the ruins of Sigulda Castle, see the redness of Turaida level with you standing upon the opposite outcropping with the rivers green canyon between you, it was worth it. Should you decide to take the train back to Riga and ask a taxi driver for confirmation that that soviet era building of concrete is indeed the station, do not be surprised when he says, "Choo-choo, da".

And the moral of the story? Learn to speak Latvian to avoid such a mess, or, don't be hasty, you'll only get your feet wet.


Under the giant square gramophone tent ceiling the rain can be heard quietly if at all. For across the latvian piazza, above the little round tables for two or four, stands a small stage where a pair of muicians ply their trade. A soothing jazzy duet of tenor sax and joanna. The beer is a good robust nutty quality that makes the best brown ale. It's taste lingers on the tongue and olfactories through the bites of potato pancake and slightly salted salmon filet. Background of leftover carnival bulbs that remind me of christmas and a pleasant chatter-murmur of human speech deep in a delightful evening out. Regular rounded brick pavers twist and turn drawing patterns amongst the feet of chairs and man. Surrounding us stand late nineteenth century creamy erections with the occasional rowan chestnutty pepperpot style roof. The waitresses bustle. The patrons drink with gusto and eat with grace. The drinks are poured. The music is played. The aromas grip your being with a certain amount of pleasure on their part and yours. There is a nagging, growing suspicion that this evening will undoubtedly end. Yet that matters not. For there are always more nights to be raptured in Riga.


I step out from Olevimägi willing my feet to decide my route for me. My ears pick up the sweet sounds of a working yet laidback city. My nostrils sort through the smells of spice bread and, inevitably, beer. Will these feet of mine take me down Uus, or sulevimägi or vene? Or will they lead me down along the Laboratoorium with its many regular tiled towers? They lead me down cobbled Sulevimägi and onto Pikk, my stomach now pulling me forward as only a stomach can. It whispers, 'stuffed pancakes' and then 'dumplings, russian dumplings.' But no, the first suggestion was the better. Pikk takes me to Rataskaevu and thence to Kompressor, the pancake place. The close cream houses have an almost Mediterranean flavour around me as I enter for some savoury comestibles. After an enormous chicken and feta pancake, Voorimehe street leads me into Raekoja Plats, the square before the Town hall where hangs a crowned dragon protecting or enslaving the local populace. I decide that I'd enjoy some altitude, and to that affect I climb the many stairs of Lühike Jalg through the doored gateway-tower up onto Toompea, the hill above the lower town. Skirting Lossi Plats and the onion domed Alexander Nevsky Cathedral I walk along Piiskopi street to Kohtu Street. The cobbled lane opens to a patch of park shaded on both sides by old buildings. I sweep along the path from Kohtu and come to the primary reason of this high open park. There before me rests the little old town of Tallinn, with its orange-topped tower walls and winding cobbled alleys, the wonderful food wafts its perfume towards me, reminiscent of my recent meal. The lilting rhythmic speech that is Estonian fills my ears as I am joined by a handful of locals to savour all that is Tallinn.