A dreadnought fan from childhood, Steven Herrick takes to the city trams to explore Tallinn and Riga.
I'M STANDING on a street corner in Tallinn, Estonia, waiting for the No.2 tram to take me into the mediaeval old town on a hill overlooking the Baltic Sea. Beside me in the queue is an old woman, wearing a scarf and wielding her shopping trolley like a threat. She holds a bouquet of flowers wrapped in black cellophane - a celebration or a funeral?
The fire-engine-red tram clangs down the street and I'm transported back to suburban Brisbane in the '60s. Mum would hold my hand as we clambered aboard a dreadnought tram to the city. I preferred the dreadnoughts to the sleek silver bullets and drop-centre carriages. What child doesn't want to ride on a dreadnought?
Gallantly, I offer the Estonian woman my hand to board. She ignores me and trundles to the one remaining seat. I stand on the floorboards, gripping the overhead strap and once again feel the sway and rattle of a child's toy made large. I lean forward to see if the driver is wearing a peaked cap. I'm tempted to reach across and open the window, like my mother would on the Brisbane tram, to feel the exhilarating breeze of childhood. But it's a cold April, with the wind whipping off the Baltic.
Tallinn's trams began as horse-drawn vehicles in 1888. Today, much of the rolling stock is new and sterile but some relics remain from Soviet times, a tram-spotter's playground.
The old town can be easily walked in a morning and the three-metre thick citadel walls enclose a jumble of mediaeval buildings and cobblestone lanes. Locals sit at outdoor cafes, sipping kefir (a fermented milk drink). In the park beside the domed Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, a young woman offers me a bow and arrow. For a small change, I can attempt to pierce the circular target five metres away. After failing dismally at my three attempts, I buy a packet of cinnamon-roasted almonds in consolation and watch teenage Robin Hoods hit the target with nonchalant precision.
My favourite building is St Olaf's Church, erected in the 12th century, with a distinctive steeple added three centuries later, which made it, briefly, the tallest building in the world before it was struck by lightning and burnt to the ground. Since then it has been completely rebuilt twice more and suffered repeated lightning strikes.
Back to the trams. My wife and I take the No.4 line to Pirita Beach and stroll along the deserted sand, watching the ferries departing for Helsinki and Stockholm. Rotund men wheeze and sweat on workout equipment among the trees. We share apple cake and excellent coffee in a cafe beside the ruins of St Bridget's Convent - which was ransacked by Ivan the Terrible in 1575 - before hopping on the red rattler tram back to the city.
A more serious tram-spotter town is Riga, Latvia. The network opened in 1882 and now extends to 11 routes with 123 kilometres of track. When we arrive on a dark night threatening sleet, I tell my wife I plan to ride them all. She shudders. I imagine it's because of the cold.
In the suburbs of Riga is Mezaparks, touted as Europe's first garden city when conceived of in the early 20th century, now home to diplomats, bankers and our welcoming bed and breakfast. Extravagant villas slumber in the forest, guarded by alsatians and high fences. Our genial host offers guided walks throughout the area, touching briefly on the dark past of a German concentration camp. "In this forest, hidden away," she mutters. After the war, the Russians seized the villas and many families were forced to live together in each house. Maybe it was such cohabitation that helped the Popular Front, who used this suburb as a base in their struggle for Latvian independence in the '80s.
Mezaparks is also the starting point of the No.11 tram, the prince of tram routes. The two-tonne blue carriage begins its journey on a wide boulevard bordered with flower gardens, restaurants and children riding bicycles along forest paths. After a few kilometres, it trundles beside the Bralu Kapi (Brothers' Cemetery), resting place of the Latvian Riflemen, national heroes of the World War I, and the adjoining Meza Kapi (Forest Cemetery), where defiant Latvians laid flowers during the Soviet occupation at the grave of their first president, Janis Cakste.
After the serenity of these well-tended shrines comes the austere apartment blocks of suburban Riga, where the architectural horrors of Soviet times are slowly crumbling. Washing hangs from windows, rusted pipes protrude and the advertisements on our tram selling sleek BMWs seem to thumb their nose at yesterday's poverty.
Before the tram crosses the River Daugava, we alight and wander the art nouveau extravagance of the area bordered by Alberta and Elizabetes streets. The Art Nouveau Museum is entered through a dizzying confection of a staircase, worth the price of admission alone. Prominent nouveau architect Konstantins Peksens lived here until 1907, designing more than 200 of the surrounding buildings. I couldn't resist snapping a photo of the art nouveau bedpan in the child's room.
Afterwards, we walk beside the No.11 tram route for the rest of its passage to the old town. At the Riflemen monument we debate, like much of Riga, whether the memorial glorifies the Latvian soldiers or reminds the citizens of recent Russian domination. The noble faces of the statue remain mute. They stare defiantly westward.
We stop for a lunch of borscht and potato pancakes, washed down with Hungarian wine, in a restaurant opposite the curiously named House of the Blackheads.
In the afternoon, we wander cobbled streets across town to the neo-classical Central Market.Each building has stalls offering a smorgasbord of hard cheeses, sauerkraut and dried or fresh fish.
I seek out a stall hawking black bread and buy a loaf. My wife raises an eyebrow. Before we board the No.11 tram back to Mezaparks, I explain that my mother occasionally bought a heavy loaf at the grocer near our tram stop. The name of the bread in faraway childhood Brisbane was Riga black loaf.
Home at last.
Finnair (in code-share with Qantas) flies to Tallinn and Riga, via Singapore and Helsinki, from $2700 return. finnair.com. An overnight car ferry operates between Stockholm and Tallinn ($290 a double, one way, including car). tallinksilja.com/en.
Tallinn: Tram tickets can be bought from kiosks for 96 euro cents ($1.30).
Riga: 24-hour tickets are available from kiosks for 1.50 lats ($2.90).
Tallinn: Tihase B&B, Tihase 6A, has a self-contained cottage available for $80 a night. Rooms cost $50 a double. tihase.ee.
Riga: Homestay Riga, Stockholmas Iela 1, Mezaparks, has doubles for $100. www.homestay.lv.