My entire trip around Europe stemmed from one idea – to visit my former colleague Helen in Estonia, where she is now studying. Before then, I had never given much thought to this tiny country.
But from that small wish, I found myself exploring some beautiful countries I don’t think I would have done otherwise, as, determined to see as much as I could in my limited time, I tagged on visits to Lithuania and Latvia en route to Estonia, which developed into going all out and visiting nine countries in three weeks using Interrail.
The Baltics aren’t covered by the Interrail pass, so I was a bit anxious about how much it would cost me, but it turns out travel – and everything else – in these countries is ludicrously cheap. I went from Warsaw to Tallinn, stopping in Vilnius and Riga for £32 (it should have been £20, but more on that later).
The three capital cities are stunning in the winter, but definitely bracing. Layers on layers on layers was the only way to survive the icy climate and despite my thick clothes, old women in each country kept coming up to me to see if I was warm enough (well, that’s what I gathered from their gestures as they didn’t speak English. Or they really just wanted to rub my face and hands.). I’m not sure they believed me when I attempted to reassure them that I was OK.
Vilnius was first on my itinerary and the first part of my travels properly alone. As I may have mentioned before, I am a bit of an anxious person and while on the train from Krakow to Warsaw I had started to get myself quite worked up about the overnight bus journey to Lithuania.
This was all completely exacerbated when I discovered not a single person working at Warsaw station knew where the bus stop for Lux Express was. In the dark, literally and metaphorically, hungry and carrying a backpack that seemed to be getting heavier every second, it wasn’t until I stumbled on a friendly police officer who showed me where to go that I started to calm down.
I just had to entertain myself for 4 hours – McDonald’s with your free wifi and universally cheap food how I love thee!
Then, another problem.
You know when you just have a feeling that something is wrong? That niggling feeling that you can’t put your finger on? That bubble in your stomach and the scratch in the back of your brain that is telling you that you need to just double check your tickets for the millionth time because this time you will realise you’ve made a mistake? Yea. That. Turns out, it’s sometimes worth listening to.
I’d only gone and booked my bus from Vilnius to Riga (which was the next stop on the trip) for January, not February. FML.
It was only another £12 to buy a new ticket, but I felt like a moron.
But alas, this was not the end to my travel woes. A few days later in Tallinn, that same feeling came back to me, and I discovered that instead of booking my ferries to go Tallinn>Helsinki>Stockholm, I had booked Tallinn>Helsinki, Tallin>Stockholm. FML again.
Fortunately, the Tallink Silja office was really close to my hostel and the staff there just swapped my Tallinn>Stockholm ticket for a Helsinki>Stockholm ticket for no extra cost.
Despite the lack of financial repercussions, the feeling of inadequacy as a capable, independent human resurfaced and stuck with me for a few too many days. So much so that these feelings bubbled over and I had a panic attack one night because I thought I had lost something my sister had bought me for Christmas (turns out it was hiding in my coat sleeve, obviously). FML AGAIN. I was probably too hard on myself, and I know that rolling with the punches is part of travelling and mistakes happen, but I was disappointed that I had made silly mistakes so soon into my travels and in such quick succession.
Anyway, who wants to know about the Baltics as places to visit rather than just reading self-indulgent crap? Yea, me too.
Don’t tell Riga and Tallinn but I think Vilnius is my fave of this little trio. Like the other two, it’s tiny. Like walk around and see virtually everything of significance in a couple of hours tiny. But that’s why I love it, and the Baltics, in general.
It’s beautiful, charming, quirky and cool. The free walking tour didn’t quite live up to the standard I had become accustomed to in Poland, but this is a city that is made for winter, The buildings look incredible, the air is crisp, there are barely any tourists, and did I mention that it’s cheap? Always a bonus.
And actually, I might be cheating a little bit because my favourite thing I did in the Baltics wasn’t technically in Vilnius, but it’s close enough so I am counting it.
About 40 minutes ride away on a rickety old German bus is Trakai Castle. The 14th century castle itself is on an island in Lake Galve, which in the winter freezes over with ice so thick you can walk across the lake. If you are looking for a castle out of a Disney movie or a château then think again. This is not the most beautiful example of architecture in Europe. But that’s not what you go for.
You go for the slightly daunting walk across the ice, slipping and sliding your way there, watching others gracefully glide by, and ice skaters twirling in the distance, while the sun shines in a clear, bright blue sky, and families throw snowballs at each other. It is a fairytale castle not for its design, but for its location.
And it only costs £3 to get there on the bus. Win.
Enjoy this terrible video of me crossing the lake.
How I got there
Train – Krakow to Warsaw; bus – Warsaw to Vilnius
Where I stayed
Jimmy Jumps (which has excellent, free waffles for breakfast)
How much I spent
£42 – including £10.15 on Interrail fees in Poland. Or £13 a day
Buses here are quicker, and cheaper, than trains.
Unintentionally, I had quite a luxurious experience in Riga. The hostel I booked is the cleanest, comfiest hostel I have ever stayed in. It has yet to be beaten in the last three months. It was so comfy I had a “day off” from travelling and just stayed in the warm and relaxed. It was perfect.
Like Vilnius, Riga was very quiet, but starting to get a bit busier as everyone’s favourite day approached – Valentine’s day. Yay.
It may surprise you to learn that I took a free walking tour here, but I chose one that took me outside of the centre of the city into the art nouveau district and some areas slightly off the beaten track. But, before that I explored the Old Town by myself, wandering down its cobbled streets, stumbling upon random buildings and churches (so many churches) and enjoying a very peaceful stroll before it got too busy.
The walking tour was much better than the one in Vilnius. The guide was great (an actor, so very enthusiastic in his storytelling) and he stopped to tell us many an interesting tale of the city’s past, while keeping us moving at a decent pace so we didn’t freeze to death.
I made a friend on the tour (yay, friend!) and we went back to Riga Central Market – Europe’s largest market, housed in five huge pavilions created using parts of old zeppelin hangars (I believe no zeppelins have ever been held in the hangars, at least in Riga) – for an explore around the weird and wonderful stalls, before heading to the Latvian Academy of Sciences, or Stalin’s Birthday Cake as it more commonly referred to.
It is one example of Stalinist architecture in the city, and sticks out like a sore thumb, situated in the middle of wooden houses that were once part of the Jewish ghetto.
For a small fee, you can go up to the 17th floor (for the most part in a lift, thankfully) to get a view of the Old Town across the river – and it is definitely worth it. There were just two other people up there and you can see the whole city sprawl out underneath you. Even though the main area of the city is very small, Riga’s suburbs spread out for miles.
How I got there
Bus – Vilnius to Riga
Where I stayed
How much I spent
£80, or £27 a day (slightly over budget, but a lot of alcohol was drunk one night, and I fucked up my bus tickets)
Go up “Stalin’s Birthday Cake” to watch the sun set
In the summer, boatloads of tourists are dumped in Tallinn each day, as they step off their cruise ship, which has been touring the Baltic Sea. This is great for local businesses, but annoying for those who want to take the city at their own pace or for those who just want to go out to grab a sandwich for lunch, or so I was told by Helen, who I had finally managed to catch up with in the city she recently called home.
I had no need for an organised walking tour here – I had a friend and tour guide in one! Perfect. Fortunately it was deepest, darkest winter and there were only a few other brave souls who were exploring Tallinn at this time of year.
If you have a thing for religious buildings and/or gold, make your way up to the top of the hill (you’ll see it) and visit Alexander Nevsky Cathedral – the Russian Orthodox cathedral. It’s truly spectacular. It’s also next door to Parliament, so you can get your politics hit, as well as a great view over the city.
Close by is the Museum of the Occupations (plural – Soviets, Germans, Soviets), which costs 6Euro for entrance. It’s worth it though – the small building houses a huge number of artefacts from the time, and for all the history super nerds there’s about two hours worth of films, interviews and documentaries you can watch (complete with stools you can take around with you as you move from display case to display case).
Just outside of the Old Town walls is Linnahall, built to host the sailing event at the 1980 Moscow Olympics. It’s falling to ruin now, but has excellent views over the harbour and the sea, and if you are in to street art (or grafitti, depending on your view of it), there’s plenty of examples on its walls. Just be even more careful there, it was the iciest place I visited.
To escape the Soviets, medieval fare was in order, and there’s no better place for it than III Draakon (Three Dragons). And it was the best food I had during my Europe trip. Not only can you pretend you are in Game of Thrones, sitting by a fire in a low-ceilinged pub, with a name like Three Dragons you half expect Daenerys to come swooping in to set you free from the slavery of your life while you tuck into your hearty elk pie and ale. It also ticked one off my 30 before 30 list – eating in a restaurant by myself.
How I got there
Bus – Riga to Tallinn
Where I stayed
How much I spent
£36, or £18 a day
Fuel up on pancakes (savoury and sweet) and beer at Kompressor before heading out to explore