I’ve visited almost every country in Western and Central Europe over the last 40 years, but the three Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia had eluded me, until now!
My initial idea was to fly to one of these capitals and hire a car. There are many budget airline flights to Vilnius (capital of Lithuania), Riga (capital of Latvia) and Tallinn (capital of Estonia), in part to service the stag night trade.
Car hire via Auto Europe is fairly inexpensive, although varies appreciably according to which capital is the starting point, with Vilnius being the least expensive. Of course I would have taken car hire excess insurance before travel in order to keep costs down.
However, I needed to drive from the UK to Hungary early in September, so decided to add in the Baltic states along the way, without really checking out the route and distance involved. It turned out to be rather further than I had imagined!
My 2,800 mile ten-day journey started from Europort (after taking a P&O overnight ferry from Hull), and proceeded via overnight stops in Berlin (Holiday Inn) and Warsaw (Holiday Inn Express) to Vilnius.
I had to take care between Warsaw and Vilnius as the fastest route according to my sat-nav went via Belarus. That would have been an extra country visited for me, but my car would not have been insured and exiting and re-entering the EU could have caused massive delays.
It is almost exactly 30 years since the Baltic Way demonstration, when two million people joined hands in a 420 mile chain from Vilnius via Riga to Tallinn and helped to gain independence for the Baltic states from Soviet domination. My route through the Baltic States followed much of the same route, although keeping nearer to the Baltic Sea between Riga and Tallinn. Reminders of the Baltic Way and its significance were apparent throughout my journey including a very moving exhibition in the Gediminas Castle Tower In Vilnius.
It soon became apparent whilst driving through Lithuania that dual carriageway roads are few and far between, and that also proved to be the case in Latvia and Estonia. So if overtaking on a single carriage-way road is not something you are happy with, then this driving trip should be avoided.
It also became apparent that my route was not one with great scenery along the way, but rather mile after mile of flat forestry interspersed with farmland and, for just a few miles, views of the Baltic Sea.
However visiting the capital cities of Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn made the trip very much well worthwhile.
I stayed at the Crowne Plaza hotel and was very pleased with all aspects of the hotel, including free parking – something becoming quite unusual nowadays in capital cities. It was a twenty minute walk from the hotel to the Old Town of Vilnius, passing a gold-domed Russian Orthodox Church along the way and a Frank Zappa memorial statue (strange since Frank had no links with Lithuania).
I started my visit to the Old Town by taking the funicular up to Gediminas Castle Tower (entrance just €2 for seniors). The sweeping views over the city and along the River Nerus allowed me to get my bearings before exploring further.
Directly in front of Gediminas Tower is the Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania – a very imposing building, but surprisingly only about 20 years old.
The nearby Vilnius Cathedral on the other hand dates back in part to the 15th Century, although its Neoclassical external style is 18th Century. An organ recital when I visited very much enhanced my tour around the cathedral.
Wandering around past the many Baroque buildings in the Old Town led me to the strange red brick Gothic Church of St Anne and then on into the small but peaceful gardens of the Bernadine Park on the right bank of the Vilnia River.
Before leaving Vilnius, I took a 20 mile drive to see Trakai Castle. Although this island castle dates back to the 14th Century, its reconstruction was in the 20th Century. A photogenic place in an attractive little town. Senior citizens get a 50% discount on the entrance fee.
The Islande Hotel Riga proved a good place to stay. The Old Town is in view from the hotel and it is just a short walk away across a bridge over the Daugava River. Directly across the bridge is Riga Castle, which contains the Presidential Palace and National Museum.
I didn’t linger as I had only an afternoon in Riga, so headed off past the Three Brothers buildings and the Powder Tower to the Freedom Monument – symbolic of Latvia’s long fight for independence. The Bastion Hill Park by the Freedom Monument provides a tranquil, river-side oasis in the middle of the city. Nearby is the impressive neo-classical 19th Century National Opera House.
The nearby House of the Blackheads may only date back 20 years or so, being built on the site of the original 14th Century building, but is nevertheless very striking.
My tour finished at the Lutheran Riga Dome Cathedral which dates back to 1211, but has had a whole range of different architectural styles added over the centuries.
I found Tallinn to be the most impressive of the three capital cities. This time I chose an apartment rather than a hotel and can recommend Revelton Suites close to western edge of the Old Town. I booked it through Booking.com.
My tour started at Toompea Hill with its crowning glory the medieval Toompea Castle and the brightly decorated Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. There are two viewing platforms nearby, Patkuli and Kohtuotsa, giving panoramic views over the Old Town and towards the harbour.
I descended to the Town Hall Square via the small but atmospheric Danish King’s Garden and past the Three Sisters houses – each a different architectural style.
The Town Hall itself is the last surviving Gothic town hall in Northern Europe – its 200 ft high tower overshadows the square below.
After stopping for refreshment at the Gelato Ladies coffee shop, I headed to the Kiek in de Kök, a 15th Century defensive tower.
This is the access point for touring a large section of the city walls including the Maiden, Stable and Gate Towers (€6 entry for seniors). It is also the access point for the Carved Stone Museum and to explore the mysterious underground Bastion Passages.
Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia are all members of the EU Schengen Area (as are all the other countries visited on this trip), hence there are no border formalities. I simply drove through each border without stopping.
I hadn’t realised that the Baltic states are one hour ahead of Central European Time until I bought a parking ticket in Vilnius – the expiry time seemed to be wrong!
All three Baltic states have the Euro as their currency and credit and debit cards are widely accepted in garages, hotels, restaurants and shops. I found prices for accommodation, food and drink to be quite a bit less than in the UK, with Lithuania being the cheapest, followed by Latvia.
Senior discounts are often given when visiting museums and historical sites, for example the island castle at Trakai, so well worth checking before paying up – although you may need to prove you are old enough!
POSTED 19th OCTOBER 2019 by STEVE HANSON. Some of the photographs were taken by BARBARA HANSON.