Friday, October 7, 2011

The Baltic Countries

Looks like I put in the wrong link to the album for Latvia. I just corrected it but didn't make any other changes to this post. 

It has been another week and a half and we have covered quite a bit of ground. We have slowed down a little bit as we have wound our way through the Baltic countries. We followed our original itinerary and spent three nights in each in country. Our Baltic journey started in Vilnius, Lithuania followed by Riga, Latvia with our last stop being Tallinn, Estonia.

As I mentioned in the opening paragraph Vilnius, Lithuania was our first stop. We had an uneventful nearly three hour flight from Dublin that only cost us about $125 for two people on Ryan Air which has to be one of the most basic airlines I've flown on. When we landed in Vilnius we actually had to clear immigration which I thought was odd since both countries lie in the border less Schengen travel area of Europe. We received a stamp in our passports for entering Vilnius but didn't receive another one in any of the other three Baltic countries. We got in around 11 pm the night we we arrived in Vilnius and spent two days walking around town. Our hotel was about a good ten minute walk into town. Vilnius is kind of light on sights. We walked around their old town area and inside a couple churches. We were taking a leisurely pace since we had been on the go so much in Ireland.

tower in Vilnius, Lithuania
The most interesting for me was the Museum of the Genocide Victims or KGB museum as the locals call it. The museum tells the story of Lithuania starting just before World War II when they were overtaken by the Soviet Union then the Germans and then the Soviet Union again after World War II until 1991 when they regained their independence. It was pretty sobering. Several thousand Lithuanians lost their lives during the World War II period while several thousand more were relocated to Russia following the war. One thing that I learned was there was an armed resistance to the Soviet Union for about 9 years after World War II concluded. I don't recall learning about that while studying history. The museum itself is housed in a building that both the Gestapo and KGB used. We even got to walk into the execution chamber where I believe about a 1,000 people were executed during the occupations. If you are ever in Vilnius I would recommend it. It only cost $3 per person.
memorial to those killed by the Soviet Union during their occupation of Lithuania (1945 to 1991)
The only negative that I can think is that we got ripped off by our taxi driver that took us from the airport to our hotel. He already had his meter running and we ended up paying twice what we should have despite having an estimate of what we should have paid. On the way to the bus station we had a better taxi driver that our hotel arranged for us who even took slightly less fair than what the meter indicated.

Next stop up for was the country of Latvia. To get to Latvia we took a 4 hour bus ride from Vilnius. We used the services of Lux Express and had an uneventful trip. Our bus had a toilet, free tea & coffee, and even free wi-fi on board for all for around $21 per person. Buses are by far and away the best method of transportation in this part of the world. They have a train network but service is limited. At the Latvian border we actually stopped for a few minutes while a border guard inspected everyone's passport. He barely looked at our US passports but looked at other individuals passports more closely. Not sure what he was looking for but we have experienced this in other countries too. Guess we are a low security risk :-).

view of Riga, Latvia from St. Peter's Church
Our time in Riga was spent like it was in Vilnius. We arrived at our hotel around 6 pm on the first night. We walked around a little bit and found a nice Latvian restaurant for dinner. We spent each of the next two days strolling around town. Riga is much larger than Vilnius with more to see. Vilnius has a population around 500,000 while Riga is I believe around 2 million. We walked around their old town area, the canal park, an art nouveau building area, and their market which bills itself as the largest in Europe (it actually might be true). We also toured Riga's KGB museum which was similar to Vilnius's and is worth the visit. Their occupation museum is free although they have a box for donations. We ate at some nice restaurants including a pretty good vegetarian one. The vegetarian one came along at about the right time considering all the meat and potato meals we have had recently. I think both of our bodies have been craving some more vegetables.

Alethea holding up a menu for a restaurant in Riga, Latvia
I enjoyed our time in Riga more so than Vilnius. There is more to see plus it feels a little more like a western European city while still being different. It also earns a few more travel points since it wasn't too difficult for us to get haircuts and do our laundry at a self serve laundry facility that our hotel helped us out with. Self serve laundry facilities are not easy to find in Ireland or Vilnius for some reason.

Tallinn, Estonia old town area
The last stop on our Baltic tour was Tallinn, Estonia. Tallinn was another four hour bus ride. The journey from Vilnius to Riga was flat and agricultural whereas the journey from Riga to Tallinn was more wooded but somewhat similar. We spent three nights in Tallinn. We got in around 5 pm and managed to take a public bus to our hotel instead of a taxi. We toured Tallinn a little differently. Alethea had actually been here just three years ago while she was working for Nokia. She wasn't feeling too good on our first full day so I toured Tallinn myself using the self-guided tour found in the Rick Steves Scandinavia book that we are carrying. Estonia isn't in Scandinavia but Rick includes a chapter on Tallinn. In case you are wondering Lithuania and Latvia are no longer included in his book.

Russian Orthodox Church in Tallinn, Estonia
In all I spent about 3 hours walking from site to site. Tallinn has the best preserved old town area of the three countries It has cobbled stoned streets, old churches, and other old buildings with some dating back to the 13th and 14th centuries. On our second full day Alethea was feeling better so we ventured back in to the old town area for a little bit in the afternoon. Alethea also discovered that right behind our hotel is the largest alcohol store in the Baltic area. We both toured the store. Alethea went in by herself while I was in the old town and saw people buying alcohol by the suite case load. They appeared to be mostly from Finland where alcohol is more expensive.

Town Hall in Tallinn, Estonia
The only real negative that we experienced outside of Alethea not feeling good was with our hotel. There was a group of teenagers staying at the hotel who were very loud. We didn't say anything the first night but did on the second night. It was so bad that we changed rooms to a different floor for the third night since they still had another night at the hotel along with us. I tweeted and sent a long but civil email to the hotel management complaining and by the time we got back from our walk into the old town they had left a gift package in our room apologizing. We got a free bottle of champagne, flowers, chocolates, fruit, and some nuts. More importantly it was quiet for our final night and at least I got a decent night's sleep.

our apology gift basket from our hotel in Tallinn
That wraps up our journey in the Baltic countries. I enjoyed it. It was interesting for me to be able to go into three countries that were once a part of the Soviet Union. They are more western and developed than what I thought. If I were giving any recommendations I would visit Tallinn and Riga but would probably skip Vilnius. There isn't really anything wrong with Vilnius it is just that Riga and Tallinn do a better job of representing the region while being just different enough. I will say the best beer I had was in Vilnius. It was a honey lager type that was both unfiltered and unpasteurized. 

Up next for us is Scandinavia. Our plan is to start in Finland which I know isn't technically part of Scandinavia. It is Nordic. We'll then move west over to Sweden then Norway and Denmark. In Helsinki, Finland we'll get together for dinner with some of Alethea's work friends from Nokia. So far we've reduced our time in this part of the world by a week. We knew Scandinavia was going to be expensive. When we got closer to beginning this stretch of traveling and were looking at the cost of accommodations it really hit home how expensive it was going to be. We'll actually be spending a few nights with some of Alethea's friends in Finland, Sweden (close to Copenhagen, Denmark), and then hopefully again in the Netherlands before returning to the US.

Link to photo albums: