1 year ago today Georgina and I set off from Dover to Calais to meet Aoife in Estonia for a two and a half month tour of Europe with our band Wild Troupe (formerly Really Potcheen). I can’t really remember all of the details because I didn’t actually keep this diary at the time (probably for the best because it is already very long!), but here’s what I remember…
Wild Troupe Tour Diary pt.1: From Poleglass to Tallinn
Like all good plans of this nature should be, it was made over 3 pints of Guinness in the afternoon with pennies scraped together from a short busk. 3 months later we had gigs confirmed in 5 different countries and had purchased a van from a highly respectable private seller in Poleglass, Belfast, and a fine van it was: a 2002 (white) Ford Transit, driving well but with a few extra ventilation/rust holes stuffed with blue roll and silicon. Another month passed and Tilly was given a fresh lick of isopon and paint, a couple of stickers and a 5-star interior design make-over. Gigs were confirmed all over north-eastern Europe: 22 in total over 7 countries. On the 30th August 2014 I set off from Belfast to Liverpool to start Wild Troupe’s hefty 7,000 mile adventure.
The agreement to go on tour made 4 months earlier.
After a stop off and quick performance in Essex at the Whitedale Party (one day destined to be the next Shambala) and a lengthy unplanned detour around Kent, Georgina and I departed the drive-on-the-left-hand-side British Isles on 1st September. Upon arriving in Calais we saw the camps of migrants planning on attempting to swamp one of the ferries just a few days later (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-29057709). Tilly barely drew an eyebrow because we were going the wrong way and we didn’t hang around – we were on a straight beeline for Tallinn as quickly as possible. The first night in the van was spent in a German service station (already our fifth country that day) after a mildly terrifying journey on the autobahn (going past the remains of one car which showed why it’s important to concentrate at over 130 kph). Doubts about the legality of sleeping in a van, whether or not we were meant to pay for the toll and Georgina’s head being in the food bucket all night were all part of the ‘bedding in’ process in terms of getting used to sleeping in a regular van.
Tilly sailing from Belfast to Liverpool, 30/8/14.
The next day took us from Germany into the (currency) unknown of Poland. Big smiles and a cringe-worthy lack of effort to even try and speak Polish got us past the tolls. A brief detour through central Warsaw was made easier by a continual stream of swearwords at Mandy (the satnav), although the mistake really hadn’t been her fault. This was to become a recurring theme – more on this story later. The next lesson learnt was that from Warsaw west the roads are good (presumably to impress the Germans), but from Warsaw east they get significantly smaller, windier and in some cases rattlier. A stationary queue of traffic as far as the eye could see prompted a homemade detour through the East polish countryside and almost over the precipice of an unfinished road bridge (Speed-style). Luckily common sense and odd looks from a number of highway construction workers alerted us to our dramatic Hollywood-esque peril and we did a sketchy U-turn and followed the correct (but, in our defence, less conspicuous) dirt track that went around the bridge. Our second over-night was spent in ‘Doubtful Lomza’: an eerily creepy, dark area with overcrowded service stations. It seemed safe to assume Georgina would never sleep in the van again.
Travelling through Poland is like time-travelling.
The services were already full of trucks so we parked right by the road, so all through the night it sounded like cars were heading straight for us. Despite this and the creepy darkness we survived the night. The morning light revealed a less doubtful side to Doubtful Lomza: it turned out we were surrounded by corn fields, hence the deep eerie darkness the night before, but it was quite cool by day. The doubtful shack that was the services’ shop was adjoined by an equally doubtful toilet. This was compensated sweet Burn energy drink. With some sweet Burn energy drink and a lack of desire to sleep in the van again we set off on our biggest day of driving. In that one day we travelled through 4 countries. A quick getaway from Lomza had us soon enough at the Poland-Lithuania border. We stopped to make sandwiches and admired the tumble down ex-Soviet look of the border checkpoint we saw in front of us (the first such crossing we had seen). Some trucks were being rigorously searched by police, a khaki army truck with two giant wooden boxes in tow with “Property of the US Government” emblazoned on the side drove past, but the actual crossing toll-plaza style thing stands as nothing more than a pre-European Union relic. Stocked up on quick and easy sandwiches we were ready for the Baltics. The army man standing 100 m down the road with a machine gun wanted to chat, however. We were pulled over and asked for “passes”. Two British passports, “There you go, thank you”. He walked around looking at the van a few times then banged on the side and said “Autopass”. First thought was, “Am I meant to have a passport for the van? Some strange vehicle passport?” I also considered he may want vehicle documents for some reason, perhaps to prove I hadn’t stolen it, but I didn’t in fact have these, the DVLA did, so I might as well have stolen it. I decided the best thing to give him was the insurance certificate. He looked at it and shook his head. “Autopass.” Good. Well I stuck at it, pointing at my name then myself explaining “me”, and the vehicle registration and pointing at the van. He continued to shake his head, but still I persevered and after about 5 minutes of “Autopass” he eventually rolled his eyes and waved us on. Perhaps he wanted a bribe. I didn’t think of that. Or perhaps he wanted to see my driving license, that would have made much more sense in hindsight, but I only though of that a few miles up the road. Oh well, there’s always next time.
Our route from Calais to Tallinn (without detours).
It was plain sailing from there, for 2 hours or so. In the depths of mid-Lithuania we hit traffic. The Baltic states don’t really do motorways or dual carriage ways, there’s simply not the traffic to require them. As a result, road works can cause pretty major queues. After 10 minutes sitting in one particular queue drivers started getting out of their trucks to stretch their legs and we established we weren’t waiting for lights to change. In the distance we could see cars pulling off down a road to the right, but no trucks – presumably there was a low bridge or something on the diversion that meant only cars were following the side road. Tilly would fit under most obstacles alright so we jumped out of the queue and drove up to the front. Well it turns out the diversion was through a farmer’s field, but there weren’t many other options. We were following a small removals/box truck, which was a little reassuring because if he could make it so could we. We set off down the bumpy track and were soon into a dense patch of woodland. The truck in front was doing a great job of trimming back all the low branches in front of us. The ground started to get boggy, there was a stream nearby. Soon the van was snaking around in the wet ground and it dawned on us that if the van in front got stuck we would have been rather in a pickle. I’m not sure how one would phone the AA and ask for a tow truck to “a forest somewhere in the middle of Lithuania”. Tilly (the legend) pulled though, however (practicing Colin McCrea rally as a child paid off), and we were back on our mud splattered way once we passed a jack-knifed truck blocking both lanes.
We crossed another skeleton of a border check point. No army personnel this time, just a very bumpy road where clearly both countries thought it was their neighbour’s responsibility to maintain the tarmac. The sun was starting to dip in the sky turning everything a shade of gold, the countryside looked resplendent, and I’m pretty sure the can of Burn was cracked and in hand – yes, Latvia was good. Lithuania had been a bit of a rollercoaster but this lifted our moods considerably. The mood was nearly upset by some traffic as soon as we reached the first town, but beyond there we had reasonably clear run up the open road. Latvia, it should be noted, is beautiful. For miles, huge swathes of woodland run right down to Baltic Sea beaches. At places the road runs right alongside the sea, with the low evening sun shining through the thin band of trees flanking the road. Magic.
At some point we stopped at a delicious McDonalds near Riga to make use of their free WiFi as we hadn’t told Aoife yet when to expect us. She was a bit surprised when we said that night and swiftly cancelled her plans to go to Helsinki and booked us a room at Red Emperor – this was us being relatively prepared compared to how things were by the end of the trip (more on that later). For future reference: the Chicken Selects in Latvia were a bit disappointing. It was dark before we reached the end of Latvia. It would have been great to stop for the night, but with only 3 hours or so left we pressed on. We stopped regularly through all of these countries at services, but as we had done nothing but watch white lines fly by and do crosswords we were usually slightly dazed when we did and attempting local languages was not a strong point (if we in fact remember which country we were currently in). It was most polite to pretend to be a deaf mute and just point. When, however, Georgina found herself locked out of the services needing the toilet just after I had been in (in her politeness she let me go first, and in that time it strayed 2 minutes past closing time) it was necessary to revert to ignorant English. Nice.
The road to Tallinn was long and dark and straight. We listened to Estonian radio. Normally we didn’t listen to the radio (Tilly’s radio/aerial isn’t great at picking up signal, and I don’t particularly enjoy day time chart music when it’s in English so didn’t really fancy trying Baltic varieties just yet). Late night Estonian music sorted us right out, however. Arriving in Tallinn was interesting – they don’t really have too many road markings on their three-lane streets. By day I’m sure it’s quite apparent where to drive when there are other cars to follow but we were just making it up as we went along. We arrived at Red’s at approximately 1.30am. A monster of a day with around 12 hours of driving. Woopa. If there’s one thing that will sort you out after that it’s a tequila shot apparently, and on Wednesday’s they were buy-2-get-1-free in Red’s (not the easiest place to find when you’re tired in the middle of the night). Before that we moved the van from our illegal parking spot to a sketchy 24 hour car park near the harbour, the hostel staff said it’s not the safest place for it, but at two euro a day it was enticingly cheap. We checked in, a private room for one night, then a dorm the following. Checkout, blab la bla, we’ll deal with that tomorrow. We headed to the bar to find Aoife. Bless, she looked so excited, like it was Christmas, and to celebrate she bought many tequilas at 3-for-2 on staff price. Filthy. When the bar started to quiet down we headed out for a night in the town, and ended up at mainstream bar called Shooters. The exceedingly large selection of different shooters and the fact they came in shot ladders made up somewhat for the leap in price compared to Red’s. We also witnessed something quite spectacular in Cleo’s method of dealing with handsy/forward/plain creepy Estonian and Russian men. Scary white girl came out. Don’t cross her, you’ve been warned. Aoife wrote us a letter to give to Adrian (the night shifter) to leave for the morning shifter the next day asking if they could clean our room out last so we didn’t have to check out so promptly at midday. Sleep would be necessary.
So we woke up on the first day around midday anyway (just in case our late wake up request didn’t make it to reception) and gradually decamped to the sun deck in the lounge. Because the beer was cheap we had a drink just to settle into the Tallinn lifestyle, proving to be a slight inconvenience when it came to sorting what to do with the van later in a country where the alcohol limit is 0.00%. Craig looked rather surprised when we said we had parked overnight in the 2 euro car park beside the sketchy 24 hour Russian bar. Craig is the guy in charge of Red’s with a bone in his nose, a dread locked beard and a tiny puppy called Tilly who was currently overseeing the destruction of a wall, repainting and carpentry in his bar – a conventional person would probably been much more concerned about the van. Sure enough when we went over to grab the rest of the stuff we needed from the van for the upcoming week there was a concerning amount of glass all over the car park ground. Craig arranged a reasonably secure and private place to park through a friend of the establishment, Harry. “You can drive over there now with Harry”. Only problem was that I had been drinking. So, less than 24 hours after arriving I hand my keys over to a guy I barely know to drive my van off (presumably he had insurance) to an unknown location: sweet. He brought the keys back, and then even struck us a deal whereby if we did a gig at the end of the week on the Sunday night before going to Lithuania he would give us a cheap stay in the laundry room. Top lad.
The beer was cheap (and badly poured 1/3 of the time).
So began the start of a lengthy spell of time in Tallinn at the Red Emperor, having one night in a private room, one in a dorm and then four in the surplus laundry room. During this time we took part in activities including (but not limited to):
- Being hungover
- Eating enormous pancakes
- Cheese twist pastries
- Practising in the laundry room
- Practising in the hostel lounge and either converting other guests to loving Irish music, or making them hate us
- Eating very cheap dumplings at Eat
- Super Happy Half Hour
- Busking (and discovering it was reasonably lucrative)
- Doing the Tallinn walking tour
- Doing the abandoned Soviet prison tour
- Having no idea where the van was
- Meeting John Kennedy, a distant relative who has ended up in Estonia
View over Tallinn.
Outside the Soviet Prison.
Inside the Soviet Prison.
Over the course of the week we practised for our first gig, both in the hostel and out in the street. We made a good few pennies in front of the Viru gates, got some free food and beers, made some Russian friends (who didn’t speak English but were excellent at staring while slowly swaying and drinking), got some photos taken by a Estonian gentleman with a sizeable camera and even had a bit of competition with a local busker on the Friday night. After being fair we played for a shorter stint and let him take over – he was good, but not quite up-beat enough for a Friday night in my opinion. Sunday brought our first gig at the Red Emperor (and our first ever gig in a skateboard half pipe). Fox, the hairy sound magician hooked us up with sound tech and Harry (who was already hosting our van) took some sexy photos as well. The bar kept us well-oiled and the general consensus seemed to be pretty positive – a genuine relief for us as we were pretty sure Irish folk and even contemporary folk are pretty off the radar in Estonia (particularly in Red’s). Our first short, and relatively rough first set was under our belts with some great photos to last a lifetime… Next stop Lithuania.
Busking at the Viru Gates.
Hand drawn promo by Yanush Kaszmarek.
Live at Reds, round 1 (photos by Harry Tiits).