When the sun shines, the Baltics come into their own
A new online guide to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania aims to help travellers make the most of these beautiful countries. Here, the website's author, Claire Gervat, offers a taste of her insider's guide
Sunday 15 August 2010
Lingering evenings, colourful festivals, cold beetroot soup and storks' nests: there's so much I love about summer in the Baltics that I could go on and on.
There are, of course, plenty of reasons to visit Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania at any time of year, but several of the most appealing are thrown into sharp relief in summer, when the long days and better weather tempt people out.
The first thing that always hits me is how much space there is for everyone, how much room to breathe. Consider the figures. Lithuania has about 51 people for every square kilometre, Latvia has just 35 and Estonia has barely 30. Compare that with England, at 383.
The result? There's a huge amount of countryside to play in, much of it covered by pine, spruce and birch forests, which make the air smell even cleaner than it probably is. The three countries are dotted with national parks, several of which are as wild as anywhere in Europe – and that includes having free-roaming brown bears, wolves and lynx.
Where the wildlife isn't quite so wild, there are networks of paths for hikers and cyclists, for whom the lack of muscle-killing hills – the highest point in the region being a lowly 311m – is a bonus. And if that's too exhausting, you can always rent a boat on one of the rivers or lake systems for a few days of playing Swallows and Amazons.
Where the forests and marshlands end, the cultivated areas have their own gentle appeal. Farming is not yet always an agri-business; there are still huge numbers of small, family-run holdings with camera-friendly wooden farmhouses and outbuildings. Fortunately, diversification has arrived, which means you can stay in some of these rural idylls, join in the work if you wish, and scoff summer produce – honey, berries, mushrooms and much more – in situ at its very freshest. (And if you're planning on staying in town, they all have proper markets where you can stock up on whatever is in season; I always come home nursing a bag of chanterelles if I can.) It's hard to imagine a better environment for a good old-fashioned family holiday.
Around the western and northern edge of the Baltic states is the long and largely undeveloped coastline, with endless stretches of sandy beach where you will never have to lie, sardine-like, with thousands of other sun-scorched bodies. Even in the main seaside towns – Parnu in Estonia, Jurmala and Liepaja in Latvia, and Palanga in Lithuania – you don't have to go far to find a quieter corner.
Nor are the best sandy sweeps blighted by a backdrop of wall-to-wall identikit resort hotels. While there are a few concrete monstrosities left over from Soviet times, many rather stylishly refurbished, there are lots of other places to stay: guesthouses, cottages and even the occasional boutique hotel. It all makes for a pleasant, laid-back atmosphere, which is surely what you want from a beach holiday.
More familiar to British travellers, the three Baltic capitals – Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius – also have a different feel when the sun shines. Every restaurant and café sprouts a proper outdoor terrace complete with parasols and pots of plants (plus a pile of blankets for cooler evenings) to complement the lighter summer menu. Suddenly, the thought of sightseeing by boat or bicycle doesn't seem so ridiculous; nor does ditching the list of sights and just meandering on foot, hoping to stumble on a quirky shop, a tucked-away restaurant or a park with a fair or festival of something or other.
That's another joy of a Baltic summer. It may be fleeting – too much so, the locals always complain – but it's celebrated with captivating enthusiasm from the summer solstice to the end of August. In sports halls, gilded opera houses and beachside forests, there are festivals devoted to everything from folk songs to heavy metal, samba to early music. Every town, outdoor museum, castle and archaeological site joins in with re-enactments, craft fairs and concerts. You'll notice that everyone owns a full set of their national dress for special occasions, which they wear with real pride (perhaps not surprising since it's a mere 20 years since they declared their independence from Soviet rule).
Something else you notice is that, whether you're heading to the beach or a song festival, you don't need to allow for your journey to take twice as long as you expected. Friday and Sunday evenings may see heavier traffic on the most popular routes and the locals may grumble about traffic jams, but no one who has ever sat motionless on the M25 need take them seriously. There simply aren't enough people and cars to create proper hold-ups. As a consequence, you have more time to spend having fun when you get there and more energy to appreciate it.
And if the lack of traffic snarl-ups isn't enough by itself to explain why making the most of summer isn't as exhausting as in many other parts of Europe, perhaps the spa tradition plays a role, as well. Throughout the Baltics, there are places where you can bathe in healing mineral waters, wallow in health-giving mud, or just have a fabulous massage without breaking the bank. It may not be just a summer thing (I've been to one in February and loved it), but as a way of getting body and mind ready for the holidays it's hard to beat. And with spa resorts offering everything from water parks to music festivals, they're a holiday for all ages in themselves.
Are there any downsides? Well, as you'd expect, hot weather is not a given; the 30C spells of last month and last year are the exception, not the rule. But, I'm happy to forgo the sunburn in return for everything else that Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania offer the traveller in the summertime.
Tallinn (tourism.tallinn.ee) is beautiful at any time of year, even at the height of the cruise season. Stay in the Old Town – I like the Hotel Schlössle (schlossle-hotels.com) – so that you can enjoy the quieter mornings and evenings, but head off to the city's less touristy districts in the day. Upmarket Kadriorg has a park, two art galleries (ekm.ee) and lots of relaxed places to eat. Further east, at Pirita, you'll find a beach, spa and botanical garden. In the opposite direction, at Rocca al Mare, there's a charming Estonian Open-Air Museum (evm.ee) – if you're feeling lazy, you can ride round it in a horse-drawn carriage.
The islands off the west coast have a special appeal to Estonians because they were firmly off limits during Soviet times. Saaremaa (saaremaa.ee) is the largest and best known island, though still unspoilt. The main town, Kuressaare, has a ruined castle and several modern spa hotels. Otherwise, it's all about nature: quiet beaches, rare wildflowers and forests. Neighbouring Muhu (muhu.info) has one of Estonia's best hotels in Pädaste Manor (padaste.ee) and equally soothing landscapes. The north coast is more rugged, but well worth a visit. The section around Lahemaa National Park (lahemaa.ee) is a good place to start.
Riga's airiness – all those parks, avenues and Art Nouveau buildings, such as Hotel Neiburgs (neiburgs.com) – comes into its own in summer. I recommend a boat trip on the greenery-flanked canal and river that encircle the Old Town (kmk.lv) for the views. The boat stops at Ostas Skati (ostasskati.lv) on Kipsala Island, which is lovely for a sunny-day meal.
The closest beach to Riga is at Jurmala (jurmala.lv), which means "seaside", and is just a short train ride away. There's a great sweep of white sand about 19 miles long and some excellent spa hotels, such as Baltic Beach (balticbeach.lv), which offers a fantastic mountain lavender massage that I still dream about when I'm feeling stressed. Majori is the liveliest area; stroll along the beach in either direction and you'll soon have the place to yourself.
Inland, active tourism with a dash of culture makes the Gauja National Park and the historic towns of Cesis and Sigulda within it is a good starting place. Sigulda is heaven for adrenalin junkies, but if you don't fancy the summer bobsleigh, rope walks or catapults, canoeing on the Gauja river is more restful – hire your craft at Zagarkalns (zagarkalns.lv) in Cesis.
I love spending a few days pottering around the capital, Vilnius, staying somewhere friendly such as the Shakespeare Boutique Hotel (shakespeare.lt). There are sights for list-tickers: the serene new National Art Gallery (ndg.lt); the grim KGB Museum (technically the Museum of Genocide Victims, genocid.lt/muziejus); and more churches than you'd expect in a country that embraced Christianity so late. But the real pleasure lies in just soaking up the beauty of the mainly Baroque Old Town and checking out the work of excellent local designers such as Giedrius Sarkauskas (linoko pos.lt) and Julija Zileniene (julija.lt).
A close second on my list is Druskininkai (info.druskininkai.lt) in the south-east. People have been coming here for 200 years to bathe in the mineral waters and wallow in healing mud, which explains the mix of 19th-century wooden villas and clunky Soviet blocks. One of the older buildings is now a comfortable riverside hotel, the Europa Royale (group europa.com), conveniently close to the superb new Aquapark (akvapark.lt) and the Druskininku Gydykla centre (gydykla.lt), where a classic mud bath will set you back about £8. As for the seaside, it's hard to beat the tranquil Curonian Spit (visit neringa.com), essentially 60 miles of sandbar split between Lithuania and Kaliningrad.
Claire Gervat has just launched bestofthebaltics.com, a small but growing online guide to her favourite places and experiences in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania
How to get there
Air Baltic (airbaltic.com) flies from Gatwick to Riga and Vilnius with connections to Tallinn and other cities (returns from €63). Other direct flights from various UK airports include Estonian Air (estonian-air.ee) to Tallinn, Tartu and Vilnius, easyJet (easyjet.com) to Tallinn, and Ryanair (ryanair.com) to Riga and Kaunas. Baltic Holidays (0845 0705710; balticholidays .co.uk) can put together any combination of city, beach, spa and countryside tour. A tailor-made trip to all three Baltic capitals, with private transfers, starts at £500 per person for nine nights, based on two sharing. For rural accommodation, try Baltic Country Holidays (celotajs.lv).
Visit Estonia (visitestonia.com); Visit Latvia (latviatourism.lv); Lithuania National Tourism Office (lithuaniatourism.co.uk).
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