Baltic Reflections

So ends the first leg of my trip – my short tour of the Baltic capitals of Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn, where I’ve spent the last two weeks.

And I’ve been left pleasantly surprised by these cities, and the countries they’re part of. They’re places full of history, if that’s what you’re after. Fractured and bloody histories, perhaps. But who’s history isn’t bloody and fractured these days?

The stunning view from the top of the bell tower at Vilnius University
The stunning view from the top of the bell tower at Vilnius University

There are similarities between all three cities, and indeed all three countries. All three were the subject of invasion and occupation by the Nazi’s. All three were then ‘liberated’ by the Soviet Union, and became part of the USSR. All three have had to reinvent themselves since they came to independence in 1991. You can still see the scars, although you can also feel a new sense of confidence that liberal independence has brought to the Baltics. For the first time ever, these are countries who’s independent futures seem secure.

They all have very distinct ‘Old Town’ areas full of winding alleyways and European town squares lined with cafes and restaurants. To an outside observer, to all intents and purposes, they look like different productions of the same model.

But having spent a fortnight travelling through these places, what has struck me about them wasn’t the similarities that draw these places together, but rather the differences that set them apart. They’ve responded to their new found independence in different ways. Some have reached for the capitalist bounty, seemingly whatever the cost. Others have taken a more thoughtful, creative approach, choosing rampant cultural liberalism over rampant economic liberalism. I know which I prefer.

The vast an bewildering Riga central market. Where anything is possible!
The vast an bewildering Riga central market. Where anything is possible!

There’s something in the mentality of these cities, something in their individual psyches, that makes them distinct. From Tallinn’s self deprecating fatalism (‘We check the flag on the Houses of Parliament each morning, in case its changed’, joked the girl who showed us round), to Riga’s confidence and brashness, to Vilnius’s rebellious radicalism. You might see similar places with your eyes, but the flavour they each leave is very different.

It probably won’t surprise you to find that my favourite Baltic capital was Vilnius. I fell for the city’s bohemian nature that seems to infuse every street and alleyway. I loved the sheer ridiculousness of the Republic of Uzupis and its 43 point constitution. The whole place seemed to go about its business with a quiet air of assured indifference to life. The pace was slower. I found that addictive.

You could probably argue that of Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius, the latter is possibly the least well know among travellers. And for fear that huge influxes of tourists could damage the landscape of Vilnius, I sort of hope it stays that way (although this blog probably isn’t helping matters!). I worry that Riga is a prime example of a city which has suffered as a result of mass tourism. It’s got so much going for it, it’s a beautiful place full of stunning architecture and grand history. But in responding to the tourist market at its doorstep, it has lost its authenticity. Riga today is dangerously close to being quite a tacky place. It reminded me of Blackpool. The Vegas of the Baltics, perhaps.

Kiek in de Kok, in Tallinn.
Kiek in de Kok, in Tallinn.

You could argue that Tallinn is teetering on the brink between the two. It could go one way or the other. But alas, I’m afraid it is tipping the way Riga has gone. Souvenir shops already line streets across the old town. Prices are rising. Quality isn’t. The best day I had in Tallinn was when I actually got out of the touristy Old Town, and made for the flea market and the old prison which no-one else seemed to want to go to. That speaks volumes, I think.

That said, a tour through these three cities is a great way to spend a fortnight. Prices aren’t too bad, especially not if you stay in hostels, of which all three have many good examples. Do your research and you’ll find a friendly happy hostel, cheap and welcoming. The beer in these cities is also outstandingly good, and each has its own local specialities which make the trip worth it on its own.

And I guarantee you, you won’t get bored. Their pasts may be similar and their fates may seem intertwined, but these are three cities very clearly set on different future trajectories, eager to define themselves, and so far doing a pretty good job of it. And as these three cities go their separate ways, now is as good a time as ever for you to go and see how they’re getting on…

Adam’s Top Tips: The Baltic Capitals

Blimey, thanks for that. Some thoughtful stuff there.

Yeah, I guess so.

So go on, how long should I spend there?

Give it a fortnight. That’s plenty of time. One thing I didn’t do, which other travellers I met did, was head to other cities in these countries outside the capitals. If you could squeeze another one or two in, you could have yourself a pretty nifty little tour!

Good idea. Whats the best way to get around?

Bus, mainly. All three cities are connected by excellent bus links. I travelled with LuxExpress, but EcoLines also do some pretty cheap seats. It takes roughly 4 hours to get from Tallinn to Riga, and the same to get from Riga to Vilnius.

And that’s the order you’d visit them in, I guess?

Well yeah, but that’s because I’d save the best until last. You might be different to me. Maybe if you go the other way you’ll end up thinking Vilnius is boring and lackluster compared to the other two? You pays your money, you takes your choice.

Whens a good time of year to go?

The summer, probably. The winter gets freezing. And I don’t mean ‘Blimey, its freezing today’. I mean actually freezing! Tallinn is further north than John O’Groats. This isn’t a place that enjoys mild winters. Then again, if you want a romantic place to take a winter break…

I’ll ask the Missus, although I think she was hoping for Cancun. What was your budget?

I got by comfortably on £30 a day, which covered me for a hostel for the night (£10-£15), and an average of £5 a meal, although this varies obviously. Vilnius was cheaper than the other two. And it was better too. Have I mentioned I thought it was better?

Yes, you have. Any final thoughts?

Yeah: These places will suit anyone! A young couple looking for a romantic getaway; a family with kids; more cultured people (read: older) who want to soak up some history; a group of lads looking for a boozy weekend away; a group of girls looking for a place to have a Hen do; or a solo traveller. There really is something here for everyone.

Even me?

Even you.