Visiting charming old towns is as easy as one-two-three on an organised overland tour, writes Bob Wallace.
If there is a single word germane to the Baltic states, other than Baltic, it is "Russia".
The three small countries that snuggle up alongside each other along the cool southern shore of the Baltic Sea re-emerged in 1991 as states independent of the old Soviet Union, but they still share a common mistrust about Russia and a spectre of re-occupation.
Russia has certainly left its mark on Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. The language is still in frequent use in some areas (more so in Latvia and Estonia), holidaymakers and Russian-owned holiday homes are still evident, and places like the distinctive art nouveau buildings of Latvian capital Riga are in the hands of property-banking Russians. Then there are the intermittent games of Baltic chess between Russia and Nato when the armed forces make moves that reinforce the Red imminence.
For visitors, however, there is so much to see that it is easy to throw aside the Russian veil and enjoy the independent and individual features of this tiny troika.
Ship cruises have done a lot to raise the profile of the Baltic states — as have, in a totally different way, stag parties for betrothed young Brits — but for a deeper immersion, overland journeying on an organised tour can be somewhat more fulfilling.
A good entry point for the Baltic states is Warsaw, which is on the networks of major international carriers and provides the opportunity for a look at Poland before taking the short aerial hop to the Lithuanian city of Vilnius. There is also some logic to this, given Lithuania was once part of a commonwealth with Poland.
Today, the Lithuanian capital, where the Vilnia and Neris Rivers merge, is a convenient starting point for the first leg of the trifecta. This is where we joined other tourists and guide Valdis — himself fluent in Russian as well as English and his home tongue Latvian — on a quiet Sunday afternoon in a sleepy city to start our Beyond Travel tour operated by Baltic Vision.
We thought: "Get used to dumplings." Fifty years of Russian influence left a legacy of beet borscht, pickles, pork and anything incorporating apples, including wines. Like its sister states, however, Lithuania is taking adventurous strides into a cuisine that nonetheless has some food constraints dictated by climate.
The other features to look forward to were the charming old towns that are part of the otherwise up-to-date capitals of Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn. Sure enough, in this case they were indeed up to expectations.
Vilnius has 1200 medieval buildings, not to mention 48 churches. And if you visit the Vilnius Cathedral, check out the adjacent plaza for what is known as the Miracle Tile — this paving stone marks the southern terminus of a human chain of an estimated two million Balts who in 1989 formed a 650km ribbon linking Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius in protest against Soviet occupation.
Tours such as those of Baltic Vision offer a range of optional side attractions at a reasonable price — we decided to sign up for the lot (at a discount) — and the first of these proved its worth. This was a visit to Trakai, the former capital of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, 27km outside Vilnius, with its beautiful lakeside setting and distinctive red brick castle-museum taking visitors back to the days of knights in shining armour.
As the bus cruises along and heads towards the meat in the Baltic sandwich that is Latvia there are frequent attractive countryside sights and points of interest. One of them is the extraordinary Hill of Crosses, a rise in the terrain covered in untold crosses, many of them supporting rosary beads. Unsurprisingly, the Hill of Crosses is regarded as one of the holiest sites in Catholic Lithuania.
Across the unmarked border into Latvia there is an equally distinctive sight, this one in no way as primitively arresting — the magnificent Rundale Palace, the former summer residence of the Duke of Courland, one of the historical cultural regions of western Latvia.
It features a profusely and richly decorated Golden Hall, part of a notable porcelain collection and Delft-tiled central heating units — definitely one of "the" places to be invited to in its heyday.
Riga, founded in 1201 by a German bishop, is the largest of the three Baltic capitals and probably its most vital. Apart from its stag-party reputation, it not only contains an impressive old town and a striking Freedom Monument in the city centre, but also a kaleidoscope of architectural styles. The most notable are the art nouveau buildings from the early 20th century inspired by architect Mihails Eizensteins (aka Mikhail Eisenstein) in the St Petersburg suburb of Riga.
The city is also home base for Baltic Vision and airBaltic, among other enterprises.
For attractions outside the city, go to the very broad sands of Jurmala Beach on the Baltic (after June) or Gauja National Park in the northeast.
Along the coastal highway in Estonia is the pleasant township of Parnu, which also invites a leisurely walk along the beach before the drive through forests to Tallinn, most northern of the Baltic capitals.
Tallinn is a pleasant blend of medieval tranquillity and modern urban life, with two routes down to its old town — Long Leg St and Short Leg St. Here you can take in a castle (Toompea) and the old town hall, as well as religious landmarks. There's the 13th century Dome Church — also known as St Mary's Cathedral, formerly Catholic now Lutheran — and the much grander Russian Orthodox church, Alexander Nevsky Cathedral; a chimeric building that can take 2000 worshippers under its five fancy onion domes.
Tallinn's old town buzzes in the summer with its many shops, galleries, markets and cafes. Ill Draakon is as much an experience as a place to eat, with its candlelight, brusque service from staff in medieval period costumes, coarse crockery and no-frills furniture. The food, including its famed elk soup, is fine, by the way.
The tour continued from Tallinn, via a ferry ride across the Gulf of Finland to Helsinki, then around by road to St Petersburg, Vladimir Putin's home town, where Russia means Russia. But that's another story.
And what about the basket of optional extras that we decided to purchase en bloc? In summary, well worth the money. Coincidentally, both the best and most mediocre experiences occurred in Riga.
The most underwhelming was the ethnographical open-air museum outside the city (others obviously knew better — we were the only part of the group who went there). And the most unexpectedly (for me) enchanting option was an organ concert at the Riga Doms (cathedral), featuring Latvian organist Ilona Birgele, assisted by local soprano Evita Zalite.
In a word, outstanding. Or as the Latvians would say: "izcils".
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