As the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia mark their centenaries, we wander medieval streets, bogs and borders to unravel a trio of nations looking to move beyond a difficult past…
Shortly after crossing the border from Latvia into Lithuania, our minibus pulled over at one of the more bizarre sights of my life so far: a windswept knoll rising above a flat patchwork of grain fields, completely covered by a dense forest of crucifixes. There are hundreds of thousands of them, maybe millions – it would be impossible to count. They range from tiny twigs tied with thread, to huge wooden and iron crosses hung with life-size effigies of the crucified Christ.
I joined pilgrims and tourists gazing in awe from a boarded walkway up and over the hill. Branch paths twisted deep into the devotional jungle. To a background of sacred chants and rosary beads tinkling in the wind, a few people were planting their own crosses in any smidgen of earth they could locate. I found the scene at once stirring and strangely unsettling.
During Lithuania’s decades spent under the heel of the USSR, the Hill of Crosses became a lightning rod for defiance and resistance. However, the Soviets bulldozed the site as often as the crosses reappeared. The true marvel of this place, therefore, is that every cross there today is part of a phoenix-like rebirth that started not long after communism was finally given the boot in 1990.
Danute Balsys, a schoolteacher from Vilnius, was there that day with her two children, who had made and painted their own small crosses. “We are here to remember the thousands who never came back from the gulags. Also, to offer thanks for our freedom,” she told me simply.
I reached the hill on day five of a weeklong meander through the Baltic states. The plan was to combine capital cities and historic sites with walks in wild places: forests, lakes, wetlands and nature reserves as pristine as anywhere in Europe. These swathe a trio of countries that, when put together, are not much larger than England and Wales but possess barely a tenth of the population. Together, they celebrate 100 years since they broke apart in 2018, and I was curious to see how a turbulent century had shaped life in three very different neighbours.
I began in Tallinn, capital of Estonia. From the cobbled and pastel-painted medieval heart of the once fabulously wealthy Hanseatic League port, we climbed up to seagull-swooped city walls. From here I gazed over the Gulf of Finland on one side and a skyline of Lutheran spires and Orthodox cupolas on the other. We were soon on the road driving east along a boulder-strewn coastline that slowly melded into a marshy mosaic of gleaming lakes. This was Lahemaa National Park, where the day’s activity was to clip on racquet-like ‘bog shoes’ (pretty much the same as snowshoes) and bounce across a springy green expanse of sphagnum moss, all the while weaving through a lacework of creeks and pools bathed in lemony light.
The horizon was broken by the ghostly skeletons of trees petrified in peat. Frogs rasped while chords of wild music from a flock of cranes drifted across the emptiness, but we must have been the only humans in tens of square kilometres.
Local ‘bog-walking guide’ Raimo Sindonen showed us where to find deliciously sweet, dark blue bilberries, but warned: “Beware of the poisonous bog rosemary.”
There was a hint of the unearthly, like in an Eastern European fairy tale, when Raimo pointed out carnivorous sundew plants with gummy tentacles extended. Their prey was the spinning columns of midges and the iridescent blue dragonflies that I had just watched hovering over peaty water the colour of coke.
There are well-maintained hiking trails in protected forests and national parks throughout the Baltic states, though these are so little used that there seemed to be boundless space for everybody. Take Gauja National Park, across the national border in Latvia, where we drove the next day. The park is about the size of Dartmoor and known here as ‘The Switzerland of Latvia’ (rather absurdly since nowhere is higher than 150 metres above sea level). However, I felt a rare sense of space and emptiness, almost untamed wilderness, as we wound through forests of pine and spruce, then climbed to the rim of a sandstone gorge cut through by the rushing river Gauja.
My guide for the whole trip was Tauno Noulik, an erudite young Estonian who was at his expansive best when helping us get our heads around the complex history, relationships and politics between the Baltic states. Tauno was clearly used to the inevitability that visitors will at first tend to lump the three countries together, on account of a shared landscape and history.
“You have heard that all three countries are marking their centenaries this year,” said Tauno as we drove south. “It is sort of true, because they escaped together from Russian rule at the end of the First World War. But we were re-occupied by Nazi Germany, then by the USSR in 1944. We finally broke free together in 1990, then joined the EU and NATO in 2004.”
Tauno is equally forgiving of tourists’ tendency to rely on stereotypes once they clock the fact that each Baltic nation does indeed have a distinct identity. In fact, he seemed to enjoy playing along with it. “Estonians are reserved people, Lithuanians are passionate, and Latvians… somewhere in between,” he laughed in parody. “Estonians are obviously the best-looking and Lithuanians, well, shame about them. And Latvians? Somewhere in the middle!”
A clashing contrast between the Estonian and Latvian languages was more obvious, even to my untutored ear. The former is of the Finno-Ugric family, closely related to Finnish, and has a musical lilt with long, trailing vowels. It didn’t sound at all like the harsher Lithuanian I was to hear later, which is Indo-European and said to be, grammatically, the closest living European language to Sanskrit. And Latvian? Well, you guessed it, that lies somewhere in the middle.
Thanks to Schengen there are no hard borders here, but the twin frontier towns of Valga and Valka, either side of the Estonia-Latvia border where we crossed, were united once upon a time, only to be cut in half when both new countries claimed it in 1918. For some reason, British diplomat Sir Stephen Tallents was called in to mediate; he drew a line that, today, still places Latvian-speaking Estonians next door to their Estonian-speaking Latvian neighbours. Even today, there remains a frontier feel to the two-faced town, mainly on account of the gaudy shops selling cheap alcohol and other goods on the Latvian side, where taxes are lower.
Once in Latvia, I was struck by how much Soviet architecture survives. In part I mean the Brezhnevera grunge of the small-town outskirts, but more so the angry-looking monstrosities such as the Academy of Sciences in Riga. This multi-tiered skyscraper, nicknamed ‘Stalin’s birthday cake’, was our introduction to the Baltic port and capital, because our small hotel squatted in its lee, near enough to make out the hammer-and-sickle decorations.
I strolled into Old Riga, passing an enormous First World War-era Zeppelin hangar, which nowadays houses the humming central market. Town Hall Square, bombed to hell and back under Nazi occupation, has been faithfully restored and was filled with street musicians and open-air restaurants. I tried a bowl of the Latvian classic dish saltibarsciai, a chilled beetroot, cucumber and dill soup whose subtle taste defied its candyfloss-pink colour.
Roaming further afield, I found that the historic centre was wrapped in airy parks and the serene Pilsetas canal. Here, I encountered some exquisite art nouveau buildings, also meticulously restored. There was even an Anglican church dating from the late 19th century, when a sizeable community of British herring traders settled in the city.
Yes, despite Stalin’s eyesores, I loved Riga. While Tallinn was cute and ever so Instagramable – if a bit of a Hanseatic theme park – the biggest of the Baltic cities felt utterly unpretentious and cosmopolitan. Somewhere in the middle? Not a chance of it.
“I wonder what this would have been like during the Cold War,” mused one of our number as we drove south towards Lithuania.
“There is a new Cold War,” replied Tauno. “The difference is that we are on the other side now.” This segued into a discussion about how Russia continues to cast a shadow over the Baltic states, despite their trading in of communism for a modern outlook and membership of the EU and NATO.
Touring these three nations brought plenty of sights to savour, but I had not anticipated that political undercurrents would be so much to the fore. More than any other region I can think of, except perhaps Vietnam and Cambodia, some appreciation of its tortured past was key to understanding the present. How else to make sense of the Hill of Crosses, for instance? Or, for that matter, our next destination in Lithuania, the Curonian Spit.
At Klaipeda we crossed by ferry to this wild, 98km sliver of land, fringed to the west by the white-capped Baltic and miles of beach that remain one of the world’s most bountiful sources of amber. On the other side are green sea meadows leading to a calm, lapping lagoon and fishing villages where locals sell amber trinkets and scrumptious smoked herrings. Between the two are some of Europe’s biggest sand dunes.
From our hotel at the little holiday town of Nida, as far down the spit as you can drive, a day’s hike took us first through cool pine forests, then up the flank of a giant whale-back hump of fine sand ribbed by wind and resembling the roof of a giant mouth. The dunes reminded me of the Tunisian Sahara, which is pretty odd for north-east Europe. Then we dropped to the wind-harassed beach and walked for kilometres along the shore, ankles in the chilly Baltic. I picked up a fingernail-sized tawny fragment of what must have oozed out of the trees as gooey pine resin millions of years ago and smiled.
We were not on an island, though we might as well have been because just beyond Nida lay a dune that had been razor-wired off to form the buffer zone with Kaliningrad. This oddity of a Russian exclave hugs the Baltic coast, separated from its motherland on all sides and lying 300km west from ‘mainland’ Russia. It was demanded by Stalin at the 1945 Potsdam Conference and has been Russian territory ever since. You can’t cross here, but I climbed the nearest dune, my phone pinging onto a Russian network at the top. With binoculars I cast a stealthy eye over watchtowers and a gunboat on the lagoon. I would love to report a Le Carré moment, but the peace was interrupted only by a chevron of wild geese flying past.
Our penultimate day was a long drive west to east, towards the capital, Vilnius, where the trip ended. Lithuania has noble roots as a powerful Grand Duchy whose territory, at one time, stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea and almost as far as Moscow. We stopped at scattered remnants of this history, preserved in a litany of reconstructed redoubts and battlements, ochre-coloured lookout posts and extravagant moated castles.
The place where the spirit of Lithuania’s golden age really comes alive, however, is Trakai, the former capital and island castle built to rival the imperial court at St Petersburg. The surrounding lake mirrored orange-brick towers rising out of a sweeping forest. I crossed a footbridge to join post-communist families dressed up in chivalric gear for some spirited jousting and mock beheadings.
Vilnius – or at least its centre – is a riot of renaissance and gilded baroque architecture, with a Catholic cathedral and café-filled courtyards. Despite being on the same latitude as York, it felt to me almost Latin in atmosphere – a sense heightened by the giant posters of Pope Francis, advertising his imminent visit. This appeared a tad awkward alongside the city’s official tourism slogan, which is, ahem: ‘Vilnius, the G-spot of Europe. Nobody knows where it is, but when you find it – it’s amazing.’
I tried to reflect a little more chastely on what I had found on my jam-packed Baltic journey. It had been a feast of hauntingly wild places with huge tracts of emptiness to play in. Landscapes and modernised life had slipped along gently, but with captivating cities and a tumultuous past to provide ballast. Yet something was stirring. A century after this trio had gone their separate ways, tearing towns in two and leaving a sense that a return to the dark days of Soviet rule was never far away, there seemed to be renewed optimism. This felt like three very unique Baltic nations finally looking to the future and not, for once, somewhere in between.
The author travelled with Explore! (01252 883188), which offers seven-night Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania on Foot guided group departures between May and September 2019.
Go Hotel Shnelli is a contemporary three-star affair near Tallinn’s main railway station. It is worth asking for one of the rooms with a view over the old town.
Outside the capital, Viinistu Art Hotel is a converted fish factory spectacularly set on the dramatic shores of the Gulf of Finland, at the edge of Estonia’s Lahemaa National Park.
Over the border in Latvia, the grand old manor house of Hotel Cesis is set in beautiful gardens not far from the centre of Cesis town, near Gaujo National Park.
In the Latvian capital, Riga’s Hanza Hotel is a slightly quirky three-star with a buzzing beer cellar; it’s not far from ‘Stalin’s birthday cake’ and a few minutes’ walk from the old town.
In Lithuania, Nida’s Jurate Hotel has been converted from a post office into a scenic stay on the lagoon side of the Curonian spit.
And lastly, on the edge of Vilnius’ Old Town lies Panorama Hotel. This modern three-star hotel is a few minutes’ walk from the centre and has fine views from its upper-level windows.
The Hanseatic port and Estonian capital has a richly atmospheric old town – and is a ferry-ride from Helsinki.
2: Lahemaa National Park
This Estonian expanse of lake-sprinkled wetland is best explored while wearing ‘bog-shoes’.
Estonia’s medieval university town is abuzz during term-time, but handily sleepy in the holiday period.
4: Gauja National Park
Wander forest trails and sandstone gorges in Latvia
Latvia’s intriguing capital, is packed with history, Soviet relics and surprises.
6: Kemeri National Park
A Latvian wetland fringed by fishing villages and veined with boardwalk trails.
7: The Hill of Crosses
This Lithuanian pilgrim spot is a powerful site of Catholic devotion with roots as a focus of political protest.
8: Curonian Spit
Explore dunes, Baltic beaches, amber, a lagoon, and a border with a weird Russian exclave.
9: Trakai Castle
Explore the imperious trappings of the mighty Grand Duchy of Lithuania.
Stroll baroque glories in the Lithuanian capital with an oddly Mediterranean feel.
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