30th December 2019
Destination 2020 - Three Beautiful Baltic Countries
Verging on the Baltic Sea are the Baltic countries of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. Each has its own distinctive personality and all three offer a holiday of character and charm.
I have spent time in each of these fascinating countries and enjoyed every visit. Each country has its own speciality, amazing architecture in Latvia, invigorating spas in Lithuania and beer and bog walking in Estonia.
Beyond Riga the Capital of Latvia
Riga, the capital of Latvia is already a very popular destination due to its amazing Art Nouveau architecture, excellent cuisine and fascinating museums and art galleries. But there are many other aspects of Latvia that are worth of exploration in particular the towns on its west coast. Set in extensive pine forests and wild natural dunes they offer their visitors a closeness to nature that is hard to find these days.
Pāvilosta in Latvia
Pāvilosta, sandwiched between the Baltic Sea and the Saka River lies in a natural setting enriched by beautiful parks and historic buildings. Unique, natural grey dunes protected by a nature reserve fringe its large, sandy beach. A Local History Museum is housed in the first pilot’s house, the oldest brick building in the town.
Jūrmala in Latvia
The seaside town of Jūrmala in Latvia snakes along the coast of the Kurzeme, region for three kilometres. The eclectic assortment of beautiful buildings is enchanting – fancy facades and turrets reflect a fondness for the style of Art Nouveau. Sun bathing on the extensive sandy beach, walking through the pine forests embedded in the town or being active in the large parks are favourite activities here. Those hankering for some retail therapy will find plenty of opportunities along Jomas iela a pedestrianised street lined with shops, restaurants and cafés. And the Dzintaru Concert Hall offers a plethora of cultural events.
Kuldīga in LatviaKuldīga, also in the Kurzeme region is balanced on the banks of two rivers. The Ventas Rumba, the widest waterfall in Europe tumbles over the wide Venta River. The narrower Alekšupīte River winds its way through the town itself lapping at the foundations of the old buildings that line the cobbled streets. These old buildings are being lovingly restored to their former glory – a painstaking project that is being undertaken by the owners themselves. The end result promises to be an astonishing showcase of sixteenth and seventeenth century properties.
Birštonas in Lithuania
Birštonas is a pretty spa town in Lithuania. It is attractively sited in a loop of the River Nemunas that flows through the Nemunas Loop Regional Park. It owes its longstanding fame as a spa resort to the mineral waters that flow beneath it. Today those seeking spa treatments can choose from a variety of hotels from the luxurious to the sanatorium depending on the type of health regime required. In between treatments visitors can take a stroll by the river or visit the Kneipp Park in the centre. For the more adventurous hot air balloon trips are available.
Palanga, the Summer Capital of Lithuania
Palanga is the most popular seaside resort in Lithuania. Its beautiful beaches are situated on the west coast of the country it was developed as a summer retreat by the Tiškevičiai dynasty during the mid-nineteenth century. Today many of the villas built during that era are still used as houses, hotels and restaurants. The town features the magnificent neo-Gothic Most Holy Virgin Mary’s Ascension Church. When Count Feliksas Tiškevičiai decided to live in Palanga he built the neo-renaissance Tiškevičius Palace inside Birutė Park. This park extends all the way down to the sea. Today the park and the palace, which includes the Palanga Amber Museum are popular attractions with residents and visitors.
Klaipėda in Lithuania
Klaipėda is an important port on the Baltic Sea. It has survived two major disasters, a great fire in 1854 and the devastation of the Second World War to emerge as a fascinating town encompassing some unusual and unique attractions. These include some unique buildings in a small courtyard known as the Crafts Yard (Menų kiemas) feature the rare Fachwerk architecture. Also popular are the Blacksmith’s Museum and the Lithuanian Sea Museum. The latter is across the sea from the town on the Curonian Spit. This natural sand spit merits more than a fleeting visit, it is so unusual.
Juodkrantė on the Curonian Spit in Lithuania
Juodkrantė is one of several small settlements on the fifty kilometres of the narrow Curonian Spit that belongs to Lithuania. This area is recognised by UNESCO as a world heritage site. The migrating dunes of the spit have been known to bury whole villages until preventative measures were introduced. A wealth of natural attractions can be found along the spit. But the most unusual is the Hill of Witches in Juodkrantė that features several trails through the woods decorated with a multitude of carved wooden sculptures portraying legends, stories and superstitions of the area. This spit and its pretty villages including Juodkrantė, Neringa and Nida is a lovely place to spend some quality time.
Tallinn the capital of Estonia
Tallinn the capital of Estonia is my favourite Balkan capital. Still surrounded by its medieval walls and fortifications and, at first sight, it resembles a scene from a fairy-tale. Its narrow cobbled streets are home to a wide variety of museums. The Estonians love their museums and there are many across the country representing every aspect of their history and their culture. Of particular interest is the seaplane harbour museum. It occupies some architecturally unique seaplane hangars that were part of a complex initially completed as part of Peter the Great’s Naval Fortress in 1916-1917. This museum combines both past and present, land and sea and interactive experiences.
An important trading centre in medieval times it still has an almost complete medieval centre. This, despite being invaded by the Danes, sold to the Germans, conquered by the Swedes and occupied by Russia Visitors cannot fail to be enchanted by the Town Hall Square home to the oldest, still operational pharmacy, in Europe that also houses a small museum.
Today Tallinn is rapidly acquiring a reputation for its excellent gastronomy. Traditional dishes and gourmet platters served with craft beers is one of the highlights of a visit to this lovely city.
Tartu, the oldest University town in Estonia, is full of surprises. These included a large mural on the back wall of one of the university buildings and windows painted on the front with portraits of people inside. The main building of the university is an outstanding example of classicistic architecture. Inside this building we climbed up to the attic to visit the lock-up room where students were put if they had transgressed. Their imprisonment was not too arduous as they were allowed to have servants with them, to go shopping every day and to draw on the walls.
Tartu is also considered to be the cultural capital of Estonia and prides itself on its tradition of free thinking. Everyone should visit the charming Toy Museum situated in two of the oldest buildings in the town. And also, the latest addition to its many attractions is the extraordinary Estonian National Museum. Built in the middle of a re-claimed airfield and opened in October 2016 the history of its inception is as interesting as the exhibitions and galleries inside.
My most exciting experience in Estonia was my first attempt at bog walking in Viru. The sight of an extensive stretch of water swirling around patches of mud and clumps of greenery was a bit alarming. Not a piece of solid ground in sight. But, trusting my guide’s assurance that it was easy provided I followed a few simple rules I strapped the plastic, racket-shaped bog shoes to the boots on my feet and set off behind her. We could not use poles for balance as these would have sunk without trace. It was an exhilarating and enjoyable experience especially as I managed to stay upright throughout.
Air Baltic operates regular flights to Riga in Latvia, Vilnius and Palanga in Lithuania and Tallinn in Estonia. Public transport in each country is very good in particular the long distance Lux Express buses.