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Battling through the Baltics

Mention the Baltics to people and chances are they’ll think you’re talking about the Balkans, that violent territory of vague borders and well-defined hatreds.  It is a common mistake of geography and name recognition.  Both are emerging post-Soviet regions.  The Balkans quickly devolved into bloody, headline-grabbing tribalism.  The Baltics quietly slipped away from the distracted Russian bear and just as quietly began a voluntary merger with the European Union.

That there is a distinct Baltic region at all is a surprise.  For centuries, the Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) were regularly preyed upon, colonized, depopulated and dominated by the alternating armies and politics of Germany, Sweden, Poland and Russia.  Yet, these three small nations of forest, farmland, and obscure languages have arrived intact in the 21st century.

Not everyone has noticed that arrival.  Squeezed between brooding Russia, the expansive E.U. and prosperous Scandinavia, the Baltics easily can be overlooked as a unique region and a promising tourist destination.  That is changing: for better or worse. 

Tallinn to Tartu

Tallinn, the compact capital of Estonia, is the entry point for Finnish and Swedish weekenders arriving by regular ferries from Helsinki and Stockholm.  Russian day-trippers drive in from the border near Narva in the northeast corner.  The rest of us arrive at Lennujaam Airport.  From the air, the small terminal, painted blue and yellow, looks like an IKEA outlet; until you notice the NATO jets parked on the narrow tarmac.

Downtown Tallinn is dotted with parks and dominated by the walled enclave of Old Town.  Passing between the empty guard towers that periodically erupt from the medieval walls, visitors will find themselves treading down cobblestone streets and claustrophobic alleyways.  The town walls will keep you from getting lost, and heading uphill will take you to the Toompea, a former hilltop stronghold.  From there, Tallinn’s low skyline is dominated by Russian onion domes, German church spires, and self-erecting cranes from the nearby docks and ferry slips.  Avian-inspired wind vanes sprout from red tiled rooftops and dragon-faced drain spouts pour water into Raekoja plats, Old Town’s main square. 

Within the walls, visitors will find plenty of gift shops, boutiques, bars, restaurants, banks, wine shops and nightclubs.  Local artists sell their wares from alleyway cubbyholes, and weekenders sell Nordic sweaters, gloves and hats from wooden stalls set up along the ‘Sweater Wall.’  Amber is the local gem.  It washes out of the Baltic Sea and flows almost as quickly from every shop into every tourist pocket. 

Depending on the time of year, the best way to leave Tallinn may be by car.  In October, the two hundred kilometer drive separating Tallinn the capital city from Tartu the university town will take you through still green farmland and birch forests burning with bright autumn colors.  The two lanes roads are adequate, but probably shouldn’t be used at night.  It’s very dark in this lowland country of fields and forests.

Tartu is the second biggest city in Estonia and home to the University of Tartu.  Students make up about twenty percent of the population and it is hard to tell where the town ends and university begins.  Maybe that’s why Tartu seems like such a fun place—despite the former KGB prison.  There are party boats on the Emajogi River; late night dancing at riverfront Atlantis; dinner and plenty of beer at the Gunpowder Cellar (which is more cathedral than cellar); pedestrian streets and quiet little shops.  The architecture is interesting and the art is whimsical.  A statue of Oscar Wilde guards the Wilde Irish Pub; the bronze ‘Students Kissing’ dominates the town square, and painted cardboard mannequins stare out from university windows.

Riga, Latvia

It’s about five hours drive to Riga from Tartu.  The road takes you through woods and fields darkened by autumn rain and ends at a European rarity: a guarded border crossing.  Passports are checked and cell phones silently switch carriers.  Finally in town, the banks and hotels convert dollars, Euros, and Estonian kroons into Latvian Lats.

Riga is a busy capital and a busy port for Baltic trade, travel and tourism.  Modern hotels on the west bank of the Daugava River offer a panoramic view of Riga Castle and Old Town.  (Yes, every Baltic city has an Old Town.)  The Old Town area lacks the walls and comfortable claustrophobia of Tallinn. Car traffic is restricted and throngs of tourists and locals wander the cobblestone streets in search of late night clubs, fancy restaurants, chocolate shops, book stores, cubbyhole cafes or Double Coffee–the Baltic equivalent of Starbucks.  The area also counts a number of museums and cathedrals, and landmark buildings such as the curiously named House of Blackheads (it’s not what you think) and the unfortunately named Cat House (it’s not what you think). 

Just east of Old Town is a stretch of beautiful parkland bisected by a narrow canal.  The park is a pleasant place to eat lunch, view Latvia’s spire-like Freedom Monument and new Opera House, and watch newlyweds place the traditional engraved padlock of love on the iron railing of a small bridge.  Two adjacent parks—the Esplanade and Vermanes darzs—border an area that might be described as Embassy Row.  A little further east, the Reval Hotel’s Skyline Bar offers the best view of a city busy building its future and protecting the remnants of its past.

Vilnius, Lithuania

It is 300 kilometers south from Riga to Vilnius.  Inland, away from the heat sink of the Baltic Sea, the autumn rain turns to wet snow and briefly coats the empty pastures.  In downtown Vilnius, the cold sleet has made the narrow, cobbled streets slick and forced the outdoor stall owners to close up early.  Fortunately, the weather also forces us to look for shelter, and that turns out to be St. Germain, a small restaurant and wine bar near the wreckage of St. Michael’s Church.  It’s the perfect place to drink wine, warm up, and return to for an outstanding dinner.

Vilnius is what you would get if you merged Tallinn and Tartu into one city.  It is a small national capital and a small university town.  Everything in the Old Town area seems to be in a state of rehabilitation and renovation.  The town’s fortified walls are long gone, and it is an easy walk north to the Nervis River.  There are plenty of old churches in this catholic country, including the National Cathedral and the Gates of Dawn Chapel.  The tower of Higher Castle Museum and the Three Crosses monument are visible in the distance.  Opposite the Cathedral is Gedimino Avenue, a modern street of modern stores, restaurants and microbreweries. 

Visitors staying through October 31 may be surprised to see local students and bar patrons decked out in Halloween costumes and colors.  More surprising—and perhaps a little creepier—is November 1, All Souls Day, when everyone wanders through the local cemeteries saying prayers and sprucing up the graves of their ancestors.  

Invasion and Integration

Car travel ends in Vilnius—unless you’re adventurous enough to cross into autocratic Belarus or that Cold War fragment of the USSR, Kaliningrad.  Otherwise, the airport will convert your accumulated kroons, lats and Lithuanian litas to Euros and return you to the E.U., the U.K. and Scandinavia with little trouble. 

By car or plane, travel through the Baltics is made easier by new infrastructure, reliable cellphone service, new international hotels, and WiFi access in cafes, hotels, and university buildings.  The January 2008 conversion to the Euro (2009 for Lithuania) undoubtedly will spend up tourist transactions as low-cost airlines bring in European neighbors at an increasing rate.

Indeed, budget carriers like EasyJet and Ryanair are already pouring hordes of British weekenders into Tallinn and Riga.  It’s a British invasion that is causing some friction because most of the travelers are looking for cheap booze, cheap sex, and a low probability of arrest.  One happy weekender recently told a Finnish reporter based in Tallinn, “We drink.  All day and every day.”  That seems true enough; it’s easy to spot revelers spilling out of Irish and British pubs in the old town areas of Riga and Tallinn. 

Of course, international friction is a two-way street.  Decades of cultural isolation and “White Russian” xenophobia have left many Estonians, Latvians and Baltic Russians unprepared for European and American diversity.  Some of my Indian and Latin American colleagues felt that ugly intolerance in some restaurants and late night bars.  It’s an attitude that travelers and locals will need to mindful of as the post-Soviet Baltic merges with the diverse and dynamic E.U.

But rowdy Brits and angry isolationists aside, it’s easy enough to enjoy a unique part of Europe that was, until recently, terra incognita to most tourists.

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