Baltic Impressions: Highlights of Riga, Vilnius and Tallinn
A Baltic States Travel Guide
By Kirsten Knauf
Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have been part of the European Union since 2004.
While renovations of numerous heritage sites are being undertaken all over, large parts of the countries are still untouched by the "Western" lifestyle.
The Baltic States are small enough to visit all three countries in "one go" while still unique enough not to blend into each other. I traveled from Vilnius in Lithuania to Tallinn in Estonia, passing through Latvia on the way.
As for scenery: all three countries are pretty flat and alternatively sports forest and grass, or grass and forest. During the summer months, the occasional black-and-white dots standing next to the roads are (when four-legged) cows or (when two-legged or sitting high up) storks.
Or, in case they are large and grey, there is a pretty good chance you have come across yet another medieval castle ruin.
My international flight took me to Vilnius, the cultural capital of 2009. Accordingly, the historic center was all newly renovated, every building gleamed white.
Vilnius is especially renowned for its churches, but strolling through it on a Sunday the town itself seemed pretty quiet.
A short train ride away Trakai Castle, situated on a small island in a lake, is one of the most photographed sites in the country.
The part Lithuania is most famous for, however, is the Curonian Spit: an island about 0.3 - 2.8 km wide and 100 km long, separating the Courland Lagoon from the Baltic Sea.
Partly belonging to Russia, it has been a famous summer destination for centuries. Half a day on a coach plus a short ferry ride took me there, and back in time.
Lots of little colorful wooden houses dotted around the main village of Nida, surrounded by forest, water, and the great dune, reminded me of Scandinavia.
German novelist Thomas Mann spent several summers writing here, in a blue wooden house overlooking the backwater. Today his house is a museum about the Mann family.
Amber galleries abound, and as the fossil resin is still found in the area this is a good place to buy.
Several small museums concentrating on the local history and culture, like fishermen's homes, round off the picture of an outwardly picturesque but in fact very hard and dangerous life, especially during the winter months.
The great dune, right at the outskirts of Nida, buried 14 villages underneath its wandering weight before reforestation managed to control it.
Climbing the great dune sounded much harder than it was: depending on your fitness, you can climb up the wooden stairs and come back through the forest, or vice versa.
Alternatively, the dune is also accessible by car or by one of the many bikes available for rent, albeit the road takes a huge detour.
Afterward, I walked to the other side of the island to dip my feet into the Baltic Sea before treating myself to beetroot soup and potato dumplings in one of Nida's many restaurants.
The small Nida pier is home to a number of boats which are offered for rent on an hourly basis or offer tourist trips.
After some haggling, I found a boat that took me out for a day across the lagoon to the Memel Delta, a grassy landscape crisscrossed by little canals sporting a huge variety of bird life including the ever-present storks.
The capital Riga, often called Paris of the East, is famous for its art nouveau architecture. Some of the older houses were beautifully renovated, but as soon as you looked into side streets things were beginning to crumble.
Right on Market Square, I came across a museum that is unique in the world: the sun museum.
A young Latvian woman started collecting sun symbols from all over the world until she had so many she decided to show them to the public.
Even though traveling between Baltic cities is easy, as soon as you want to go off the main roads tourist infrastructure is still very basic. The entry fee includes a private guided tour as well as the chance to color an image of your very own sun in the museum's workshop and take it home with you.
Therefore I fell back on a guided tour to explore some National Parks with the minimum of fuss.
Unfortunately, our bus driver turned out to be much more knowledgeable than our tour guide: even though the iron curtain went down in 1993 it is still very much present in some people's heads, especially the older ones.
Nevertheless, we managed to see an impressive variety of medieval castle ruins - the number of steep, uneven stone steps I climbed up and down towers in various states of decay in the dark was out of this world!
Sigulda, Turaida and Cesis castles (within Gauja National Park) especially stood out for location, scenery, and atmosphere. At Cesis castle you can even borrow your own torch – a real fire, not the battery-powered variety!
From outer space was also the next highlight, the meteoritic Kaali crater created an estimated 3,500 years ago at the island of Saaremaa. I had so looked forward to it, but all it was was an - admittedly perfectly rounded - hole in the ground, filled with a green lake and surrounded by trees.
Also on Saaremaa island, located in the town of Kuressaare, stands one of the Baltic's few castles that today is not a ruin, but a museum. Or, rather, a maze of rooms and staircases home to several different kinds of museums.
I spent half a day in there getting lost and still did not manage to take everything in. The rooftop offered prime views of the moat, the town, and the sea. So did the rooftop café, which was much less windy.
Still, the city adapted and handles the hordes really efficiently while keeping its medieval charm. The final capital was Tallinn, right on the seafront with easy ferry access to Helsinki.
Accordingly, the city is often swarmed by tourists: Finns out to drink and shop, young Europeans out on stag/hen parties, and cruise ship passengers out on day trips.
Cobbled streets winding between the upper and lower part of the city, as well as many cafés and restaurants with local cuisine on the menu, offer plenty of possibilities to escape the crowds.
Most of the former castle wall is still intact, so there were yet more medieval towers to climb, some of them museums or artists' workshops.
This was also where I succumbed to buying a colorful felt hat from some charming ladies as my Baltic souvenir. While I was there they even had a "medieval market" on the main square as part of a medieval festival, where people in old-fashioned costumes performed traditional dances, and handicrafts and food fitting the theme were sold.
Kirsten Knauf works in finance and as a freelance writer.
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