Two weeks in the Baltic region began on September 17th with a flight from Istanbul to Riga, Latvia. It was then to be a flight to Vilnius, Lithuania, however the plane for the second flight was changed to a smaller aircraft resulting in a 1 hour flight turning into a 4 hour bus ride. I was joined the second day by a good friend from Toronto whom I greeted still donning shorts and thongs while everyone was bundled a bit too excessively in jackets and winter hats. A substantial change from the plus 30 degree weather I had been experiencing for the last number of months.
Vilnius is relatively small and more then walkable over a day. Being there for the weekend we were able to take in the Sunday markets where booths lined both sides of a street selling freshly cooked traditional food, baked goods, massive hats and locally made garments.
Leaving the sleepy capital for the sea side was a good change. On the tip of the Curonian spit we stayed in a small village called, Nida. This is the closest point to Russia, sitting only 4km away. Though the weather did not entirely cooperate we made the best of it and hired a couple of bikes to ride along the coasts. The massive sand dunes and wind-swept beaches were very beautiful, as were the trails that wound through the aging forests where we spotted a couple of small wild bores crossing the track. A laid back place that you could easily spend a couple more days in, especially on the shoulder season when it is not overrun with tourists.
Moving onward to Latvia, Riga was home for the next 3 nights. The city was more bustling and the old town full of churches and squares. What did lack were restaurants with desirable menus, with the exception of a couple of Indian spots which filled our bellies. Riga is home to a very large central market, which is spread over 6 airplane hangers and more vendors outside. They were quickly seen, then ticked from the list. Venturing to the other side of the river, home to much of the city’s Russian population, it was more laid back and made for a relaxing stroll through one of the many parks that blanket the city. This concluded our Latvian time.
The last of the Baltic countries, Estonia, was the final stop in the region. Using Tallinn as the jumping off point we spent time in the city as well as visiting Lahemaa National Park and Helsinki, Finland. The old town of Tallinn is quite touristy with restaurants and shops. It has been under UNESCO protection for the last few years meaning that positively no architectural changes can be made. A more chilled out atmosphere than the other 2 capitals. The architecture outside of the city is an amazing site. They have left the old stone buildings and built new on top, using a mix of creative materials and designs. A very nice integration of old and new.
To see more of the country, including the national park, which is the largest and oldest in the country, we booked what ended up being a private day tour. A grand thing of not being somewhere in high time and the weather not being completely opportune resulted in us getting a full day trip with a guide through various parts of the park and additional stops along the way for $90 euros. We made a stop at the Song Festival amphitheatre where every 4 years 30,000 people gather and sing, it also hosts big name acts such as Michael Jackson, Tina Turner and Elton John. Prior to getting to the park we also passed old Soviet apartment blocks where a ¼ of the city’s population (100,000 people) live. There was then the Tagala Juga waterfall which measuring in at 8 meters is the highest in the country! Once in the park we hiked through an old growth forest, saw boulders washed up near the shore dating back 3-4 million years in a small fishing village, bog walked (highlight of the day!), saw an old manor house and a couple of summer vacation spots. A well packed day and something that would have been impossible to organize with public transportation.
Helsinki is only a short jaunt across the Baltic Sea aboard a large ferry/cruise ship. Yes we took a cruise! To see what is often referred to as the 4th Baltic capital, due to its location and similar culture, we spent a night there. Trying to cover as much as we could in the short time we had proved possible. Especially considering the non luxurious accommodations which had us up and out before 8 am the following morning. It is a very well maintained and clean city. The streets are wide and most buildings are kept below 6 storeys, they are old, brilliant blocks of shops with flats above. On display in Senate Square were the United Buddy Bears, a public art exhibit which begin in 2004 it rotates annual though the world. Each country is represented by a bear which a national artist has painted/designed. They are arranged in a circle and stand as a symbol of solidarity and peace among nations, while at the same time raising funds for the UN to assist underprivileged children around the globe.
Two weeks in the north wrapped up we both caught flights the following day, her to Toronto and I to be big city of London!