Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania on Foot
As threatened, this is the write up of the Baltic holiday taken at the end of May.
It relies heavily on tour notes provided by Explore Holidays, and features the occasional comment and anecdote thrown in for good measure!
It was a good introduction to these three different countries and pretty much did what it said on the tin: interesting and hectic, with varying degrees of culture and flora and fauna thrown in.
There were sixteen of us in the group – including Trev who never says no to a good holiday. Generally speaking, the group was very low on the nutter quotient and everyone got along fine and dandy with Ieva doing a splendid job as tour leader.
Day 1 – The tour started in the Estonian capital, Tallinn.
Situated on the coast, in the Gulf of Finland off the Baltic Sea, Tallinn is also a major port. Its ‘Old Town’ is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the city was a European Capital of Culture in 2011.
With some houses in the city dating back to the 11th century, Tallinn doesn’t really need to push itself as an obvious tourist attraction.
There is no shortage of medieval churches and gabled houses, and just about any aimless amble through the winding streets will eventually fetch up at the Town Hall Square, which provides the main focal point of the Old Town.
Must-see attractions were summarily seen in a mustily way – St Nicholas Church, and the onion-domed Alexander Nevsky Cathedral were duly ticked off, before dining at the Peppersack. A medieval theme continued at the restaurant with traditional costumes on the serving staff plus a medieval sword-fight (every evening at 8pm).
It’s not all medieval-minded – Estonia is the birthplace of Skype and Hotmail, and virtually every school is connected to the Internet.
Estonia also has one of the world’s highest divorce rates (almost 80 per cent) so perhaps they should start putting their tablets and smartphones away – and start talking to each other!
I particularly like the fact that over 50% of Tallinn is covered by forest, and about 10% of the country is classified as a nature reserve.
Day 2 – After another brief walking tour of Tallinn’s Old Town, we travelled east to Estonia’s largest and oldest national park, Lahemaa National Park. As well as its rich nature, the park also celebrates Estonia’s cultural heritage, encompassing ancient fishing villages and 17th and 18th century manor houses.
We walked along the Beaver Trail, discovering the diversity of the plant and animal life of the park and looking for beaver dams and dens along the Altja River Valley. Lots of forest was got through before we ended up in the 400 year-old fishing village of Altja.
There were no sign of the chisellers though – a mid-afternoon time slot does not lend itself to optimum beaver watching – a dusk or dawn walk would surely have nailed this!
Along the edge of the peninsula, ancient chunks of rock lay in the shallows where they had been left behind long ago by retreating glaciers.
Locally-lunched on Baltic herrings at a dandelion-strewn tavern in the forest before heading to the bog lands, where we learned to bog walk in special bog shoes (that’s a lot of bog in one sentence).
Traditionally used by local villagers, these specially adapted clip-on shoes (tennis racquets with straps) allowed us to hike through a fascinating ecosystem of gently undulating and forested terrain. By employing a tried and tested ‘shuffling flip-flop’ technique, I managed to stay upright for almost the whole walk through.
Stayed overnight at the very attractive Palmse Hotel within the Lahemaa National Park – a short, servile stroll away from the impressive 15th century Manor House.
Day 3 – We crossed the border into Latvia, and after approximately four hours we landed in Riga, the Latvian capital, for a short city tour.
Fortunately, it was raining during our time on the road so there was little concern over getting out and about until we reached Riga.
Lying at the mouth of the Daugava River on the Gulf of Riga, Riga ‘Old Town’ is also a UNESCO Heritage Site, particularly noted for its Art Nouveau and 19th century wooden architecture.
Riga’s skyline is pierced with spires, towers and weather vanes – some with black cats arched on turreted rooftops.
We took in the Freedom Monument, St. Jacob’s Church and the city’s cathedral plus the House of the Blackheads – originally erected during the 14th century for the Brotherhood of Blackheads, a guild for unmarried German merchants in Riga.
Art Nouveau with its decorative architecture cornered many a street, and solemn gothic buildings rubbed shoulders with baroque architecture – all adding to the eclectic mix.
In the afternoon we continued on to Cesis in Gauja National Park. This is Latvia’s biggest national park and is known as ‘Latvian Switzerland’ due to its rolling landscapes. The park includes the valleys of the Gauja River and its tributaries, and also hill forts, stone castles, churches, watermills and windmills. Cesis itself is a medieval town, over 800 years old, and its 13th century castle was the main stronghold of the Livonian knights who ruled most of Latvia and Estonia during medieval times.
Unearthed Google fact: Latvians are the world’s most voracious newspaper readers.
Day 4 – We drove to Sigulda, and followed a trail through the forests and river valleys of Gauja National Park. Walking past the ruins of Livonian medieval fortresses and a neo-gothic castle, the walk ended at the 13th century Turaida Castle. A cable car across the valley provided dizzy views down over the forest. Returning to Cesis, another walk along an obligatory forested trail delivered us to the Erglu Rocks on the River Gauja, a famous local site where the mosquitos were lying in wait to feed on anything remotely Rhesus Negative.
Day 5 – We drove west for approximately two hours to Kemeri National Park, founded in 1977 to preserve the local wetlands, coastal lakes and dunes. Here we walked on a raised boardwalk above the wetlands, discovering the distinctive mosses and bog pine trees amid the small pools and lakes.
We returned to the seaside and spa resort of Jurmala for lunch. Jurmala is known for its curative mineral waters and therapeutic mud, and its interesting multi-style architecture.
It wasn’t long before we crossed into Lithuania, the largest of the three republics and distinguishable from its neighbours by its Catholicism.
Although Lithuania converted to Christianity almost 200 years later than its northern neighbours, the Church retained its power and today most people are devoutly and visibly religious.
We continued south and crossed the border into Lithuania, and onto Klaipeda; a car ferry was then taken to Nida on the Curonian Spit.
It had been a long jaunt to get here so it was only fitting that three pints of the local ale was required at a bar overlooking the healing waters. They weren’t officially ‘healing’ – they just made me feel good when having those three pints.
Day 6 – The Curonian Spit National Park is a 98 km long sand dune spit that separates the Curonian Lagoon from the Baltic Sea.
Rippling sand dunes up to 60m high, breaking waves, pine forests and old Curonian houses make up this UNESCO Heritage Site (is anything in the Baltics NOT a UNESCO Heritage Site?)
Varying landscapes of the spit were to be enjoyed during a morning walk – coastal, pine forests and sand dunes just about covered it.
A rare free afternoon meant I could return to the forest for a few hours and enjoy an additional meander through the trees before visiting the summer residence of Thomas Mann.
I can feel some culture coming on…
Thomas Mann was a German novelist, short story writer, social critic, philanthropist, essayist, and won the 1929 Nobel Prize in Literature – ‘principally for his great novel, Buddenbrooks, which has won steadily increased recognition as one of the classic works of contemporary literature.’ Buddenbrooks, really? I might have to download that one onto the Kindle.
In 1929, Mann decided to have a summer house built above the lagoon in the fishing village of Nidden, East Prussia (now Nida, Lithuania) on the Curonian Spit (it was mocked as Uncle Tom’s Cabin by locals). There was a German art colony in Nidden, and Mann spent the summers of 1930–1932 writing here. This cottage is now a cultural centre dedicated to him, with a small memorial exhibition.
When Hitler came to power in 1933, Mann fled to Switzerland. While traveling in the South of France, Mann heard from Munich, that it would not be safe for him to return to Germany.
There was a festival of sorts carrying on in the town – essential viewing with a pint or two during the light evening. The real show-stoppers were the swarms of flies that snow-stormed around the peninsula and were literally smoking from the trees. Never seen anything like it – they were quite mozzie-like – possibly mayflies? Fortunately, there were no biters amongst them but they did tend to clog up the beer tankards.
Day 7 – A long journey took us southeast to Trakai the formal capital of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.
Located on a peninsula in Lake Galve, Trakai is now famous for its 15th century castle, which sits outside the town on a small island. A suitably scenic walk was taken around the town and lake, before visiting the castle.
A short journey then propelled us into Vilnius. You’ll never guess – the ‘Old Town’ of Vilnius is also a UNESCO Heritage Site.
There was plenty of evidence of the devoutly religious; Vilnius is crammed with shrines and lavish churches amongst the cobbled alleys and crumbling corners.
Vilnius is famous for its baroque architecture, seen especially in its medieval old town. The 16th-century Gate of Dawn, containing a shrine with a sacred Virgin Mary icon, once guarded an entrance to the original city.
Unearthed Google fact: Until the Nazi occupation, Vilnius was known as “the Jerusalem of the North”