Unfolding the Baltic

Unfolding the Baltic

Tri-capital tour

Rich in history and culture, the three Baltic nations — Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia — which were hidden under the Soviet red flag for decades, have now emerged as stars of the European tourist circuit.

The charisma of these countries unfolded before me when I travelled by road from Warsaw in Poland to St Petersburg in Russia, spending generous amounts time in their capital cities — Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn. After gaining independence from the Soviet Union in the 90s, these tiny nations along the Baltic Sea gradually shrugged off their dead weight and developed a strong tourism industry.

Baltic history

The history of the Baltics goes back almost 800 years with neighbours Germany, Russia, Sweden and Poland laying claim to the territory from time to time, until WWI when Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia were born as autonomous sovereigns. However, their independence was short-lived. During World War II, they fell under Stalin’s influence and remained as part of Soviet Union till its dissolution in 1991.

Their progress in the recent time has been inspiring. All three are now members of the European Union, economically robust, technically savvy and welcoming to the outside world. Some traditional Baltic food and culture like the oral folklores and music festivals are perhaps the only common platform among them. In fact, as we drove through the rural settings and went past small villages and towns, impoverished samples of the Soviet era are noticeable like small huts, dilapidated buildings, empty racks in stores and poverty-stricken people. However, it’s a different story when we arrive at the capitals where signs of modernity and affluence are explicit.

Artistic Vilnius

Festooned with open courtyards and cobbled streets, 700-year-old Vilnius looks like an artist’s enclave, the design of historical buildings being mainly Baroque. We enjoyed its panoramic fabric from a red-brick castle tower built on the top of a hill, named after Gediminas, the Lithuanian Grand Duke who founded the city in the 14th century. The silhouette of the cityscape below, presided by colourful and decorated spires and domes of numerous churches standing on both sides of River Neris, is a visual feast.

At the base of the hill is the Cathedral Square that buzzes with singers, folk dancers, street performers and friendly locals, all of whom give visitors a local taste. At the centre of the square is an equestrian statue of Gediminas overlooking the Royal Palace and Vilnius Cathedral, later recognised as the nation’s most venerated cultural and religious sanctuary. 

Vilnius is also steeped in Jewish heritage from humble beginnings in the middle ages to horrific atrocities and almost complete obliteration under Nazi occupation. There are significant sites in the city with links to the Jewish legacy. 

A must-see in Vilinius is the Trakai Castle. Located outside the city limits on the shores of an idyllic lake, the fairytale-looking 14th-century bastion has a museum to draw an interesting insight into the history of the nation’s medieval period.

The beauty of Riga is so accomplished and its ambience so vibrant that the title, ‘Paris of the North’, is tagged to the Latvian capital. Sitting quietly along the Daugava river, the cityscape impressively showcases eye-catching Art Nouveau architecture, lurid gargoyles and praying goddesses that gallantly adorn over  edifices lining stately boulevards and cobbled alleyways. A good way of picking up a different perspective of Riga is by taking a leisurely cruise along the city canals that stream through the manicured parkland before joining the river.

Tallinn’s appeal

Tallinn, our next stop, is the smallest of the three Baltic capitals in size. A spectacular panorama of medieval architecture greets us as we enter the metropolis where the Old Town stands as the nucleus of most of its charms. Bestowed with a clutter of turrets, spires and winding streets, the cobblestoned labyrinth of Old Town hosts magnificent churches, towers and historical monuments that keep most visitors locked within its perimeters during their stay in the city. 

The Town Hall Square, dominated by the 800-year-old Gothic Town Hall structure, is the focal point of Tallinn. In summer, locals visit its numerous outdoor cafes and sip wine while watching the bustle. At one side of the square is Tallinn institution — a pharmacy originally established in 15th century. Two must-do’s in Tallin are to hike up to the top of Toompea Hill for a visual feast and to visit the Alexander Nevsky Orthodox Cathedral, a striking example of Russian influence in the Baltic.

Distinctly noticeable throughout the region is that economies are in the hands of the energetic young cohorts. Most of them speak English, dress fashionably, drive flashy cars, display the latest Samsung mobile and lead a fast life. The older generation is envious of them.