The complete guide to the Baltics

Estonia, Latvia and Lithuana have long escaped Communism, fully embracing tourism. Their capitals ⿓ Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius ⿓ are stylish, vibrant café societies, says Clare Thomson, and are the ideal bases for exploring these fascinating countries

What are the Baltic states?

Largely forgotten by the world, Soviet-occupied Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania hit the headlines in the late 1980s with a near-bloodless (hence "Singing") revolution that led to the restoration of their independence in 1991. Since giving Communism the boot, this energetic trio have seen their economic fortunes soar, with all three countries set fair for admission to the European Union in the next few years.

Where are they?

Wedged between the Russia and the Baltic Sea, with Russia's annexe ­ Kaliningrad ­ acting as a bookend for Lithuania. Belarus and Poland complete the perimeter. Running from Estonia in the north to Lithuania in the south, these flat, thickly forested lands are unspoilt, rural and sparsely populated, but all three have buzzing, historic capitals, folkloric traditions that have survived centuries of foreign oppression, and customs and cuisines shaped by a peculiar mix of German, Russian and, in Lithuania, Polish influence.

Estonia has nearly 1,500 islands and islets, and its boulder-strewn coastline is hauntingly wild; Latvia's natural assets include the white-sand, pine-fringed beaches of the "Baltic Riviera"; and optimistic treasure-hunters still comb the coast of lake-filled Lithuania in search of glowing chunks of amber.

Tourism is big business for the Balts, and most are pretty forgiving about the odd bit of Western ignorance or naivety. There are a couple of unbreakable rules, however: whatever you do, don't call the Balts Slavs, and don't get the Baltic Republics confused with the Balkans.

Why are they always lumped together?

Because it's geographically convenient; because all three established themselves as modern, democratic nations in the interwar period, and emerged from the Soviet yoke at roughly the same time; and because that's what Moscow did when it forcibly annexed them during the Second World War.

Latvia and Estonia have a common history, as their ice-free ports were irresistible prizes for more aggressive nations: the Danes, Germans, Swedes, Poles, and Russians all held sway there, while the peasants were in thrall to émigré German barons until 1918. Lithuania, however, has rather nobler roots. In medieval times, its territory stretched south to the Black Sea and east almost as far as Moscow before entering a Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the 16th century.

In the 18th century, most of the territory of the present-day Baltic countries was gobbled up by Imperial Russia. During the 19th century, the grind of Tsarist oppression inspired a powerful cultural awakening in native Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians, paving the way for the three countries to declare their independence in the turmoil after the First World War.

The new-found freedom of the Baltic States was cut short in brutal fashion by the Second World War: Stalin invaded in 1940, Hitler took over in 1941 and Stalin returned in 1944. Hundreds of thousands of Balts fled to the west, but as many, if not more, were murdered or deported to Siberia. The Jewish communities of Riga and Vilnius were all but wiped out, and the three fledgling democracies were instantly extinguished.

How do I tell the Balts apart?

For one thing, they speak different languages. Estonian, a vowel-heavy Finno-Ugric tongue (closely related to Finnish, and distantly to Hungarian), has 14 cases and is incomprehensible to English-speakers; it's still worth a listen, though, as it vies with Italian for the title of most beautiful language in Europe. Latvians and Lithuanians, who are descended from old Baltic tribes, speak ancient Indo-European languages ­ Lithuanian is said to be the closest living language to Sanskrit.

The Estonians are famously reserved and tight-lipped: they're also stubborn, loyal, uncommonly good at singing and curiously dismissive of their Baltic neighbours. Latvians are equally musical, but are easy-going, talkative and notoriously indecisive. Compared with the other Balts, the Lithuanians are hot-headed, spontaneous southerners (although Vilnius is no further south than York): poetic, romantic, Latin and impossibly zealous about nature.

If you still can't tell the difference, you can always go by appearance. As a gross generalisation, Estonian women are strikingly attractive (shame about the men), Lithuanian men are remarkably handsome (but not so the women), while the Latvians are, as usual, somewhere in the middle.

Aren't post-Soviet states a bit grim?

Your average Balt will find the term "post-Soviet" deeply insulting, preferring the rather ungainly expression "pre-European Union". Over the past decade, they have embraced western concepts ­ from Nike to parliamentary democracy and service-oriented tourism ­ with a vengeance. Estonia even has the dubious honour of being the first former Communist country to win the Eurovision Song Contest. Perhaps more importantly for the visitor, the Baltic capitals ­ Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius ­ have regained their pre-war reputation as vibrant café societies, awash with stylish hotels, boutiques and bistros.

If you must do the Soviet thing, you'll find evidence of the bad old days in the main towns' hideous Brezhnev-era suburbs, or ghostly regions such as the deserted military base of Paldiski, west of Tallinn. But don't try out your Russian unless you're sure you're addressing a Russian-speaker: it's still a language associated with oppression. Best to stick to English, which is widely spoken in tourist offices, restaurants, hotels, and even in remote areas.

So is it cheap?

Yes and no. The cost of many services, including business hotels and car hire, is comparable to prices here, and many Western-manufactured goods, such as designer clothes or nappies, are actually more expensive. Local products, however, are a bargain, as are everyday items and services such as food, drink, taxis and public transport.

How do I get there?

Estonia: Estonian Air (020-7333 0196; www.estonian-air.ee) flies direct from Gatwick to Tallinn; from £275. Cheap alternative: fly on buzz (0870 240 7070; www.buzzaway.com) from Stansted to Helsinki, for around £100 return, then there is the choice of passenger and car ferries or hydrofoils between Helsinki and Tallinn (journey time from 90 minutes) run by Tallink (00 358 9 228 311; www.tallink.fi); you can also cross via catamaran with Nordic Jet (00 358 9 681 770; www.njl.fi).

Latvia: British Airways (0845 773 3377; www.british-airways.com) flies five times weekly from Gatwick to Riga (from £197).

Lithuania: Lithuanian Airlines (020 8759 7323; www.lal.lt) flies from Heathrow to Vilnius from £265. Cheap alternative: Ryanair (08701 569 569; www.ryanair.com) from Stansted to Lubeck, a short hop on the train to Kiel and then the Lisco (00 370 61 55943) ship to Klaipeda.

Open jaw: to fly into one city and back from another, the best option is with SAS, which flies to the Baltic capitals via Copenhagen or Stockholm from Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted, Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen; returns from £229.

When should I go?

The Baltic States are at their best between April and October; July is the hottest, and most touristy, month. Go in June if you want to witness the "white nights" (in reality, a kind of eerie grey that lingers through the brief night) and the ritualistic St John's Night festivals (23 June), which herald the long-awaited arrival of summer. Bonfires are lit across the countryside, and every village celebrates what was traditionally seen as the longest day of the year by drinking, staring into the flames or singing, dancing and leaping over the bonfire.

And where do I begin?

First-timers should aim for the capitals. All three have historic city centres, and are beautiful in strikingly different ways.

Tallinn, once a member of the Hanseatic League, is thoroughly modern in outlook, but it's also one of the best-preserved medieval cities in the world, with a spiky skyline, orange-topped castle towers and pastel-coloured houses. The wooded upper town has an uplifting, airy feel, with dreamy sea views and seagulls wheeling over the ramparts.

Riga's Old Town is also pretty, but the city's main strengths are its lively nightlife and the astonishing concentration of Jugendstil buildings. It's celebrating its 800th anniversary this year, and is regaining the vibrant, cosmopolitan atmosphere that moved Hemingway to call it, with remarkable lack of imagination, the "Paris of the North".

Vilnius, the only inland Baltic capital, lies in a leafy bowl on the confluence of two rivers. Its Old Town is warm and mellow: with ochre-coloured houses, wrought-iron shop signs, extravagant baroque buildings and an enticing labyrinth of inner courtyards, it's less commercial and more bohemian than its northern counterparts.

The capitals are good bases for day or overnight trips. From Vilnius, visit Kaunas, the elegant second city (home to the Museum of Devils), or the windswept Hill of Crosses, in Siauliai; a moving testament to resistance: it was repeatedly bulldozed by the Soviets, but courageous Lithuanians kept rebuilding the mound. From Riga, take a trip to the medieval ruins of Sigulda Castle, the 18th-century Rundale Palace or the Jewish memorial at Salaspils, where giant sculptures commemorate the thousands murdered there by the Nazis.

Estonia's second city, the largely neoclassical university town of Tartu, is seen by many Estonians as the nation's spiritual capital. It was also the site of the country's first song festival, held to celebrate the abolition of serfdom in 1869. For a more exotic experience, go east to the shores of Lake Peipus, Europe's fifth-largest, to see the villages where persecuted Old Believers fleeing Russia found refuge in the 18th and 19th centuries.

But I want to get away from it all

Then you've come to the right place. During the Soviet occupation, much of the countryside was strictly out of bounds to foreigners, so rural areas are still remote and unspoilt. Animal-lovers will find an abundance of rare fauna: Estonia has brown bears and lynx; Latvia has more white storks than the rest of western Europe combined; and Lithuania, where a whopping 11 per cent of the country is protected territory, is home to a few very rare black storks. Perhaps the most remarkable natural treasure is the fragile Curonian Spit, a wild, magical strip of shifting dunes, fishing villages and fantastical wooden carvings that links Kaliningrad and the Lithuanian town of Klaipeda.

You're also guaranteed a bit of peace and quiet: Estonia, for example, has an average population density of 32 people per sq km (the UK packs more than 200 people into the same space), and its main islands, Saaremaa and Hiiumaa, are spectacularly tranquil. While you're out in the wild, don't miss an opportunity to plunge into a rural sauna, where you can beat yourself (or a companion) with traditional birch twigs.

For details of rural accommodation in Estonia, contact Eesti Maaturism (00 372 556 55172; www.maaturism.ee); in Latvia, contact the Country Tourism Association (00 371 761 7600); and in Lithuania, contact the Lithuanian Tourist Information Centre (00 370 7 408 410; www.turinfo.lt or www.travel.lt). For information on all three, go to www.travel-guide.com .

Can I swim in the Baltic sea?

Protests about the pollution of the Baltic helped fuel the Singing Revolution, and while much has been done to clean up the coastal waters, there's still room for improvement. The beaches, on the other hand, are clean and free from crowds, with good facilities and a backdrop of dunes and pine forests.

Three Latvian beaches now have Blue Flag status, including Majori, in Jurmala, a string of small seaside towns dubbed the "Baltic Riviera" for their fine white-sand beaches and beautiful old wooden bungalows. Kremlin bigwigs loved it too, and built a luxurious hotel complex with private beaches, indoor pools and giant banqueting halls; lesser mortals can stay there now, but at a price (Rigas Licis; 00 371 776 11 80). Estonia's short stretch of beaches is centred around the lively spa town of Pärnu, while Palanga, Lithuania's summer playground, has a splendid long beach with a nudist area, and an infectious party atmosphere in summer.

How do I get around?

Travelling between the Baltic countries is not as easy as you might expect. Riga-based Air Baltic (00 371 720 7777; airbaltic@mail.bkc.lv) flies between the capitals, but at prices tailored to the business traveller. The railway network is slow and desperately in need of investment, so the locals rely on cheap but comfortable coaches. It takes six hours to travel from Tallinn to Riga and another six to get from Riga to Vilnius. There's also a good network of buses linking the main towns. You won't save much time if you drive: speed limits are strict, and the quality of the main highways is erratic. The car comes into its own when you explore the countryside. There's a good choice of car-hire companies, but be warned: the quality of local driving can be frighteningly bad.

If you're not in a rush, cycling is the best way to get around the flat Baltic countryside ­ the highest point, Estonia's Suur Munamägi (Big Egg Mountain), soars to a towering 318m.

Can someone organise my tour for me?

Regent Holidays ( www.regent-holidays.co.uk; 0117 921 1711) organises a two-week Historical Baltic tour ­ which includes Kaliningrad (from £1,135) ­ a five-day Lithuanian Highlights with Riga tour (from £578), individual itineraries to the capitals (£554) and trips to Estonia only (£464). Exodus (020-8675 5550; www.exodustravels.co.uk) organises 11-day escorted cycling trips to Latvia and Estonia (£1,059). Martin Randall Travel (020-8742 3355; www.martinrandall.com) offers 12-day escorted cultural tours for £1,740. Scantours (020-7839 2927; www.scantoursuk.com) has city breaks to each capital (starting at £410) and an eight-day guided tour of all three (£825).

Where can I find out more?

The national tourist boards and information centres can give you details of local tourist offices: Estonia (00 372 699 0420; www.tourism.ee); Latvia (00 371 722 9945; www.latviatravel.com); Lithuania (00 370 262 2610; www.tourism.lt).

The best guidebooks include Lonely Planet's recently updated Estonia, Latvia & Lithuania, and the Bradt guides. Bradt has just published the commendable Baltic Capitals, which includes a chapter on Kaliningrad. Once there, look for the savvy In Your Pocket guides ( www.in yourpocket.com) and City Paper.

If you want to find out more about the complex history of the Baltic countries, try Georg von Rauch's The Baltic States, the Years of Independence, 1917-1940; The Baltic States: the Years of Dependence by Misiunas and Taagepera, about the Soviet era; or, if you're interested in the recent restoration of independence, Anatol Lieven's The Baltic Revolution: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and the Path to Independence or One of the most entertaining books about pre-war Estonia is Ronald Seth's Baltic Corner (1939): the gentlemanly English author is startled by the local predilection for nude bathing.

Clare Thomson is the author of the guidebook 'The Singing Revolution: A Journey through the Baltic States'

ESTONIA

Area: 45,200sq km (just bigger than Denmark).

Population: 1.4 million.

Ethnic groups: Estonian 65.1 per cent, Russian 28.1 per cent, other 6.8 per cent.

Religions: Lutheran, Russian Orthodox, Estonian Orthodox.

Language: Estonian.

Capital: Tallinn.

Currency: Kroon.

Famous Estonians: Arvo Pärt (composer),Jaan Kross (novelist).

I bet you didn't you know that: Estonia has one of the world's highest divorce rates (almost 80 per cent).

LATVIA

Area: 64,600sq km (slightly smaller than Ireland).

Population: 2.4 million.

Ethnic groups: Latvian 56 per cent, Russian 30 per cent, other 14 per cent.

Religions: Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Russian Orthodox.

Languages: Latvian (official), Russian.

Capital: Riga.

Currency: Lat.

Famous Latvians: Sergei Eisenstein (film-maker), , Mikhail Barishnikov (dancer).

I bet you didn't know that: Latvians are the world's most voracious newspaper readers.

LITHUANIA

Area: 65,200sq km (still slightly smaller than Ireland).

Population: 3.6 million.

Ethnic groups: Lithuanian 80.6 per cent, Russian 8.7 per cent, Polish 7 per cent, other 3.7.

Religion: Roman Catholic.

Languages: Lithuanian (official), Polish, Russian.

Capital: Vilnius.

Currency: Litas.

Famous Lithuanians: Aaron Copland (composer), Al Jolson (singer), Charles Bronson (actor).

I bet you didn't know that: Until the Nazi occupation, Vilnius was known as "the Jerusalem of the North".

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