The Baltic States
Now part of the European Union, the three Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are by far the most easy former Soviet countries to travel around. Excellent bus services (bookable online in English), good roads, a flat landscape and short distances make it easy to get from A to B here. English is widely spoken compared to other countries in the former USSR. The big draws to the Baltics are the old centres of the capitals Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius and castles like Turaida and Trakai. It also shows the cultural diversity of Europe, as each country has its own language and history. I have traveled to this region many times since 2009. But I will only describe my recent visits here, namely to Estonia in December 2018 and to Latvia and Lithuania in March 2019.
Cobblestone streets, alleys, gates, towers and Christmas lights: Tallinn’s old town looks pretty in winter. I visited Estonia’s capital with my friend, former fellow-student and fellow-Dutchman Joringel. Nine years ago we visited all of the Baltic States together, though that time we never made it further north than Tartu, the second biggest city of Estonia. So we were excited we finally got to see Tallinn.
Articles labelling Tallinn as a budget destination are dated, especially when it comes to beer. I already noticed prices in the Baltic States had gone up since the introduction of the Euro, but on top of that the Estonian government recently increased taxes on alcohol. Bad news for Finnish booze cruises and British stag parties, but good news for locals who once had to endure them. Joringel and I paid seven euros for a normal lager in the old town.
By day we walked uphill through the city’s alleys for two lovely viewpoints: the Kohtuotsa and the Patkuli viewing platform. Joringel then had the great idea to book a tour at the Viru hotel. This used to be one of the two hotels were foreigners stayed during the Soviet era. Walls and objects, including ashtrays, were bugged. The tour went into the formerly secret area were agents listened to the recordings. The equipment used to spy on guests is still there. It is a small exhibition, but the guide’s interesting story, the weird setting and authentic equipment made it worth it.
Another place we’d recommend is “The Estonian Maritime Museum” in “Seaplane Harbour”, located in a hangar that used to shelter seaplanes. As we entered we were impressed by the size of the hanger, holding many authentic items including an entire submarine. Outside the hanger lies the over one hundred years old icebreaker ‘’Sur Töll” next to other historic ships. Guests can look onboard, and we spend some time exploring decks, quarters and machine-rooms.
After two nights we boarded a ship one more time to reach Helsinki, in this case the big ferry called ‘’MS Finlandia’’. The ship is over 175 meters long and has a capacity of up to 2080 passengers and 610 cars. It was fun to watch the incoming passengers disembark after the ship docked, as the stream of people and cars seemed endless. Once Joringel and I were onboard we checked a map in the corridors, realising the ship mostly consisted of bars and restaurants. A band performed on a stage at the front of the ship. Behind them was a set of windows, showing the sea and the horizon. We went up on deck. From there we saw islands, followed by a coastline with industrial architecture. We had reached Helsinki.
On my way from The Netherlands to Moscow I stopped for three days in Riga. I visited Riga several times in the years before with my girlfriend, since our friends Lana and Karlis live there. Karlis picked me up from the airport. Besides meeting up for dinner and drinks, I planned to walk around the city and explore the countryside.
Though I was already familiar with Riga’s historic centre, I did several walks here to get some new photos. During my stay the weather changed a lot, with sunny and cloudy weather on the first day, followed by a rainy day that ended with snowfall.
From Riga’s bus-terminal it took about two hours by minivan to reach the Lithuanian town of Siauliai. I found the town centre a bit dull, with the exception of the pedestrianised area called “Vilnius street”. Here I looked at photo-exhibitions in the ‘’Photography Museum’’, recently opened in an old pharmacy. It also has a rooftop-terrace with views of Vilnius street. The English-speaking, enthusiastic and helpful employee at the museum’s desk gave me a warm welcome.
But the main attraction of Siauliai is out of town. A short bus ride and a two kilometre walk brought me to the “Hill of Crosses”. It is a pilgrimage site on a hill in the middle of a field. Over a hundred thousand crosses have been placed on top of the hill - an impressive sight. Locals have placed crosses here since the 19th century. It mostly expanded during the sixties, when people placed crosses as a mark of resistance to the anti-religious Soviet rule.
Back in town I got annoying news. My flight to Moscow for the next afternoon had been cancelled. I found another flight arriving awkwardly late at night when public transport in Moscow is off. This however did allow me to do another day trip.
It snowed the night before, and the train from Riga to Sigulda went through a white landscape. In Sigulda I took a bus to the village of Turaida 5 kilometers uphill. Turaida castle is well-preserved and overlooks a stunning landscape. I climbed its 13th century main tower, from where I could see the surrounding forests, the snow covered hills and the meandering Gauja river.
After exploring the Turaida castle I walked back to Sigulda, passing the ruins of Krimulda castle and the impressive Sigulda castle. Since it was offseason, I was the only visitor to these over 600 years old structures. I underestimated the time needed here. I had to skip lunch to visit it properly without missing my train back to Riga, but it was worth it.
Practical advice on traveling here
Transport: I booked all intercity transport online, using eckeroline.com for the boat from Tallinn to Helsinki, ollex.lt for the bus from Riga to Siauliai and pv.lv for the train from Riga to Sigulda.
Visiting the Hill of Crosses: From Siauliai bus station I took the bus towards Joniškis and got off at the stop called Domantai. I asked the bus driver (who spoke English by the way) to stop there. Tickets were sold on the bus. Once you arrive check the timetable at the bus stop on the other side of the road to know when to be back. It’s a two kilometer walk from the bus stop to the hill of crosses.
Visiting castles around Sigulda: From Sigulda train station I took the bus towards Krimulda and got off at Turaida. The bus driver sells tickets. The walking-paths in the area are accessible, but sometimes the routes are not well marked. Use a map or navigation app to find the castles. Google maps shows the castles but not the walking paths. Therefore I used maps.me, which shows the walking paths as well.