Friday 20 September 2019

The Baltics by Airbnb

Live like a local

Landscape of Riga
Landscape of Riga
A cafe in Riga
Thomas's base in Vilnius
Miera Iela in Riga
Open road

Thomas Breathnach

Thomas Breathnach takes a trip through Riga, Vilnius and Talinn using homestay website, Airbnb... and makes several friends along the way.

This is travel as it should be.

Aromas of fresh dill, fluffy scrambled eggs and freshly brewing coffee wafting around the rafters. My hosts whisking up breakfast before my eyes.

Forget hotel concierges or insider guides - I'm tracking my way across the Baltic capitals through Airbnb. It's a tale of local accommodation speed-dating for the modern indie traveller.

Airbnb is an online community marketplace allowing guests to book accommodation directly from local hosts and, among its eclectic inventory of 800,000 properties across the planet, a Soviet-era apartment block in Tallinn, Estonia, offers the backdrop for my debut digs.

My hosts, and purveyors of my morning vittles, are the tag-team of Triin Kaarde - a classically trained violist - and her fiancé Sasha, a dancer and member of their nation's proud Russian minority.

"Hey, Russia is never a minority!" he jokes across the table.

It seems the pan-European commonality is already kicking in. I may be a veritable stranger in the shadows of Triin and Sasha's funky fitted kitchen, but already we're chatting and lounging around like a group of reunited Erasmus students. This feels like home.

It's Saturday, and my hosts are off to visit Tallinn's Balti Jaam flea-market, so I jump at the invite to join in on the bargain hunt. "They sell everything you'll never want," pipes Triin, as we negotiate gaggles of Babushka grannies, fiercely embroiled in rounds of bric-a-brac Russian roulette.

A day of urban wandering continues, devoid of Old Town sightseeing fatigue and rich in insider insights, around the happening 'hood of Kalamaja.

Come nightfall, we part reluctantly after 24 hours of bonding - they're tram-bound to a house party; I'm bus-bound to Riga in Latvia. My next Airbnb adventure comes courtesy of the fantastical, suburban abode of Ilze Lidere; a Latvian born and bred artist who, like many of her country folk, served a stint in Ireland.

"I worked as a florist in Longford for seven years!" she beams, welcoming me into her pad.

Ilze is a warm character, a quirky hybrid of Agnetha Fältskog and Phoebe Buffay, with a fittingly eccentric home. A dead plum tree canopies her lobby; there's a cat named Frida Kalo in her cottage garden, and The Age of Aquarius pipes wistfully from the stereo.

Forget an overnight stay, when can I move in?

I'm Ilze's first Airbnb guest, as it turns out, but I'm effortlessly wooed by her mi-casa-e-su-casa hospitality. Over the course of my stay, we talk art, life and Longford over fresh mint tea and birdsong - it's an ambience more redolent of a mindfulness retreat rather than a home-stay.

There's a life beyond it nevertheless, and Ilze later points me towards the arty quarter of Miera Street; Riga's so-called 'Bohemian Republic'.

Along a trail of street art and VW Bugs, I observe my host's beatnik city patter by. Amid the globalising trends of hipster standards, it seems Riga is no different to Kreuzberg, Williamsburg or Stoneybatter. Banjos, pulled-pork and Conor McGregor-beards are in. Design conformity is most certainly out.

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Miera Iela in Riga

On the road in Riga, Latvia.

The final frontier on my Baltic hopscotch is Vilnius, the beguiling capital of Lithuania, and a city where honey-hued Baroque streets hum with life.

"Every day is a Sunday in Vilnius!" explains Victoria Diaz, an Argentinian fashion marketer, who along with her photographer husband Tomas, is my final Airbnb host. My Vilnius visit coincides with Jonines; Lithuania's midsummer festival, where scores of freebie nocturnal events are reclaiming its leafy streets.

So, Victoria, Tomas and I strike out from their retro loft, short-cutting through Vingis Park, where darting fireflies speckle the skies above us.

Through the night, we explore the photography and art exhibitions surrounding Lutgis Square, eventually stumbling upon an open-air recital of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata. Such Baltic bliss.

The next morning, Victoria suggests welcoming the day with the most unexpected of Lithuanian practises… Tai Chi. The City of Vilnius, together with local Chinese community, it turns out, run a series of classes across the city each week. Thanks to Tomas' bike, I peddle off for a free morning session on the banks of the Neris River. It's reflection time.

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Thomas's base in Vilnius

Thomas's base in Vilnius.

If "to Airbnb or not to Airbnb?" is the question, then a resounding 'yay' must be the answer.

This whistle-stop tour of the Baltics has gifted me a far greater insight into three wonderful cities than I could have expected from hotels and guidebooks.

From Tai Chi to chai tea, these snapshots have given me a yearning to return. And when I do, I'll have a few social visits to pay.

Read more: Ireland's most weird and wonderful Airbnb rentals...

Thomas’s Airbnb hosts:

In Tallinn, Triin and Sasha offer a sofa bed from €34 (listing #2925940). Arthouse Riga has private rooms from €57 per night (listing #1113661). In Vilnius, Viktoria and Tomas have private rooms from €38 (listing #2576006).

AIRBNB: What is it?

Airbnb (airbnb.ie) is an online community that allows any registered property (from a renovated church in Galway to a revamped KLM plane in Schipol Airport) to welcome guests. Local hosts exist in 190+ countries, including Ireland, and the site adds a service charge to each booking, bumping up the rate by about 12pc. Both hosts and guests can leave reviews of the stay.

Getting there

Ryanair (ryanair.com) flies from Dublin to Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius - all three Baltic capitals -  from €82 return. It also operates routes from Cork and Knock Ireland West to the region. On the ground, Lux Express (luxexpress.eu) is a super way to bus through the nations. City-to-city fares from €20 each way.

Book the best value holiday packages to the Baltics on travel.independent.ie.

NB: All prices subject to change/availability.

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