The Baltics are an often overlooked part of Europe, comprising of three countries (Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia) with a combined population of 6 million and a land area smaller than the state of Victoria. They were on our list primarily because neither Ash or I had ever been there before, and the purpose of this trip is to see as many new and interesting places as possible.We planned to hit each capital city (Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn respectively) over a week and a half. This was more than enough time, as these charming cities can easily be experienced in 3 or so days.
We arranged to be in Vilnius on February 16th, their Independence Day, which celebrates the establishment of an Independent Lithuanian state. It’s always great to be in a place during big holidays or festivals, and we have tried to plan our trip around this. You get a real sense of the local spirit and are able to join in all the celebrations. Vilnius was no exception, and on Independence Day morning I grabbed some miniature Lithuanian flags (they were everywhere) and joined thousands of locals in a random street parade.
That evening Ash, I and some new friends from the Hostel (from Brazil, Belarus and Germany) hit the streets and headed to Cathedral Square, which was hosting the biggest party in the country. In addition to the live music and tens of thousands of people, there were also 70 bonfires setup in the street, which were certainly welcome in the – 3°c weather.
The following day we wandered the hilly, winding streets of the old town, and wound up across the river in the ‘free city’ (though really just a neighbourhood) of Užupis. In 1997 the residents of this bohemian suburb decided they wished to be independent, and established an artistic commune based on tolerance, equality and the pacifistic yet resilient motto of “Don’t Fight, Don’t Win, Don’t Surrender.” They also have their own Constitution which includes such unique rights as;
“Everyone has the right to make mistakes”
“Everyone has the right to celebrate or not celebrate their birthday”; and
“A cat is not obliged to love its owner, but must help in time of need”
Vilnius is a city full of stories, charm and great food. If you want a quick way to make friends with locals, simply compliment their national basketball team or make a joke about Estonians being slow.
We changed our plans after staying in hostels for over a week and booked an Airbnb in Riga, where we had an entire apartment to ourselves for the same price as two beds in a hostel. We needed a break from the hostel/drinking/travel scene after moving constantly for 2 weeks and Ash being a little under the weather with a cold. When travelling for over a year, it’s just not sustainable to spend every day seeing sights and doing activities. Our time in Riga was a perfect example of this, and whilst we felt guilty for not seeing much of the city as we wanted to (we can recommend a good pizza place and cheap supermarket wine), we took full advantage of our own apartment to relax, recalibrate and plan. No matter where you are there will always be something else to see and do, but when travelling long-term self-care is vital, and you should never underestimate the revitalising effects of a comfy lounge, pizza and Netflix.
Our goal now is to get an Airbnb (or hotel room) at least once every two or three weeks, to have our own space and unwind from the hecticness and constant social interaction of hostels and non-stop travel.
Of all the Baltic cities, Tallinn is perhaps the most picturesque, and certainly the coldest. The Northernmost capital is regularly -5°c in February, but it’s the brutal ocean winds which blow in from the Baltic coastline which really make you feel the chill. Despite this, the city is so beautiful that we were more than willing to brave the cold in order to explore the alleys, hilltop lookouts and medieval walls of the old town.
On our second day we made friends with an incredibly enthusiastic waking tour guide, who explained, amongst other things, the nuances of Estonian manners. For example if someone were to slip and fall on ice (*cough* Ashlea *cough*), or struggle to carry a heavy load, it would be considered insulting to offer to help them, as it suggests they are incapable of managing the situation themselves.
She also strongly recommended we see a famous Estonian movie which had just come out. Tõde ja õigus (or “Truth and Justice”) is an epic collection of five stories by Estonia’s most famous author, Anton Hansen Tammsaare. It’s a point of national pride for the country, akin to the Man from Snowy River in Australia, and the movie was specifically developed and released to celebrate the anniversary of Estonia’s Independence.
Eager to escape the cold, embrace some true Estonian culture, and continue my quest to eat popcorn in as many countries as possible, we found a local cinema, confirmed (with a bit of difficulty) that the movie had English subtitles, and settled in to see what all the hype was about.
The cinema chairs were incredibly comfortable, the popcorn was top quality, but unfortunately the three hour long movie about a 19th Century farmer who struggles against the land and his own morality was a bit slow and depressing. Although it was the first of five movies, so we’ll give it the benefit of the doubt and say it was a prequel to set the scene before the real story starts, like The Fellowship of the Ring or Deathly Hallows Part 1 (actually it wouldn’t be fair to compare it to Fellowship, that was still a great movie).
Tallinn has great nightlife, beautiful architecture and incredible sights. Rather than recommending specific sights or activities however, it is best experienced by simply choosing a direction and walking. You are guaranteed to stumble into amazing places, and there are just too many little nooks and crannies to explore to even attempt an itinerary. One of my best memories is Ash and I going our separate ways for a few hours, wandering the streets and meeting back for lunch to share what we each found.
Baltic Verdict: For as many similarities as there are between Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, there are an equal amount of idiosyncratic differences. There is a friendly rivalry between the three states, and the history of the entire region is truly fascinating. For friendliness and charm I’d recommend Vilnius, and sheer beauty and exploring you can’t go wrong with Tallinn.