Well Latvia and Lithuania aye. Of all the countries we have travelled to, these have to be two that we least expected we would ever get to. In fact, before we started looking into doing this trip if you had of asked us to point to either of these on the map the best we could have done would have been “somewhere near Russia”. And Russia has definitely played a big part in the recent history of these Baltic nations (including Estonia, which we sadly didn’t make it to). With borders on the Baltic Sea these countries have always been sought after. Before the Russians wanted a part of them it was the Swedes trying to get at them to take their powerbase onto mainland Europe. Lots of interesting history and culture in general, which means it was a real pity we only had four days left when we entered this region until we were booked to arrive in Russia. If we had to plan things again, maybe we would have allowed more time to explore these Baltic nations. Although saying that, as cool as they are, they are not as cheap as you would expect, with their ascension to the Euro pushing prices up to close to what we were paying in Germany and pretty much more than the rest of Eastern Europe; in the tourist areas anyway. Although, that shouldn’t put you off exploring what is definitely some different countries
We arrived in Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital, after a 10 hour train trip that included 2 changes, so were a little on the tired side. But as we only had two days here, we headed out to find some local cuisine for dinner. We definitely found something different, with the restaurant we ended up at having plenty of local game specialties, which included Beaver Stew. In a country we had not expected to go to, we ate some meat we did not expect to eat and it was awesome; tender, juicy and very flavoursome. After such a great meal we decided to head out for a drink. The first pub we went to was modelled on an English theme, with a red phone-box as the entry to the bar area and pint glasses that were actually even bigger than pints. They even had some pretty classic meals on their menu, including fish and chips (which looked awesome) and a full English breakfast, but unfortunately when we went back the next morning to try them we found out it didn’t open to the evening. On our way home that first night we stopped off at another bar and were pleasantly surprised to find them playing a documentary on Jamaican dancehall music. The place was filled with dread-locked Lithuanians, which was quite surreal. We had stumbled upon the local wannabe-Rasta scene. After the documentary finished a DJ started and there were some pretty interesting reggae dance moves going down. The crowd was a little strange in our opinion, maybe summed up nicely when Jared asked one guy where he was from and his answer was “earth”. Maybe a little try hard, but great to see something quite different.
On our one full day in Vilnius we tried to get in as much touristy things as we could. There is a great Old City area which we walked around including a number of churches you can see inside for free. There is a couple of hills you can walk up too, so we were able to get some great views of the city and the multiple spires that rise from it. We also had to check out Uzupio, which is suburb that has declared itself its own republic, with its own constitution, and on April 1 it celebrates its National Day. This is where all the artists and general Bohemians live so was interesting to check out, but there were also plenty of trendy locals from the other side of the river here, which makes us think that like so many of the “cool” places in the world the usual gentrification is starting to happen here also.
Without any good train connections between Vilnius and the Latvian capital of Riga, we decided to go by bus. We chose what was called the luxury option, which wasn’t much pricier than the standard, and were stoked with the quality. The five hour trip flew by, with a generous amount of leg room, WIFI and a personal media player screen on every seat to watch English movies or play games on. In Riga we were met by the owner of the apartment we rented in his little convertible Fiat, which he was extremely proud of and was pretty cool. The apartment was across the river and outside the Old Town area, but was only a short walk away. We headed in for some dinner and found, maybe more so than most places, the main old town tourist area extremely expensive for food and drink. It was however quite visually stunning, but it is hard to imagine too many locals spending time there.
The constant theme we have had through Eastern Europe of temperatures being far higher than expected continued in Riga. With it being over 30 degrees we decided to do what the locals do on our only full day here and headed out to Jurmala Beach. It was the first time in a couple of months we had the chance to go to a beach that was on the sea (not a lake) and we were surprised by its quality. The long white sandy beach however was totally packed out, and I guess who can blame the locals, as you would have to make the most of a 30 degree weekend day, when such a large percentage of the year the temperature is below 0. Jared went for a dip in the Baltic Sea and, despite how warm the air temp was, the water didn’t match and was extremely chilly. It also had a far less salty content than any sea he had swam in before and had a green algae/plant growing. But hey, there were plenty of locals swimming and it was bloody refreshing.
As our overnight train to Russia didn’t leave to 6pm on our last day in Riga, we had plenty of time to get out and see some tourist sites. We started with a free walking tour, which surprised us a little, as it didn’t go through the Old Town. The guide was rather flamboyant, so it made for an enjoyable experience and we got a bit a feel for the history of the place, which included some early occupation by the Swedes, followed by some pretty sad times when Russia had control of the place. There is still a big Russian influence in the city at the moment, with up to half the population coming from there. It is a matter of contention with the locals, as they bring in a lot of wealth, but they also feel they are still being occupied by the former communist behemoth. After the walking tour we checked out the Museum of Occupation, and from here you can really see why the Latvians aren’t too keen on being occupied. After WW1 they only had independence for 20 years, until Stalin and Hitler did a deal that saw Russia occupy Latvia. This lasted until 1941 when the Nazis invaded Russia and took Latvia for their own. At this stage the Latvians welcomed the Germans as they were seen as their liberators, how wrong they were. Then by the end of WW2, Latvia was back in the hands of the USSR and they had to suffer under communist tyranny right up to their independence in 1992. During these occupations over 550,000 Latvians disappeared, which is over one third of the population pre WW2.
Despite all the doom and gloom of these occupations, which affected both Latvia and Lithuania, both countries seem to have come through it well. Vilnius and Riga are both great old cities that are some of the tourist hot spots in Europe and, from what we have read, both countries have great things to see outside their capitals. We are a little disappointed we didn’t get to see more of them, but from the little taste we got, it tasted pretty good.