Australia is a country of immigrants. It’s therefore not uncommon for Australians to describe themselves as “part-Italian” or “part-Malaysian” or “part-Croatian.” Me, I’m “part-Lithuanian.” Only a very little part mind you – my grandfather was half-Lithuanian, half-Polish (and perhaps even a little Russian). My grandmother was German. In truth, my blood has been so watered down that I don’t really consider myself anything other than 100% Australian. But when you know that you have come from somewhere else, it’s natural to want to see what the place is like, to get a sense of the country & cultural your family grew up in. To wonder, what if they hadn’t immigrated, what would my life look like, could I be living in Europe right now?
I had been to Lithuania once before on a trip with my mum and stepfather when I was still at university. We stayed in Vilnius, and my memory of the place largely consists of sitting at outdoor cafes drinking beer in the sun, gazing at the multitude of pastel-coloured catholic churches. Also memorable, is the lack of tourists. In 2006, Vilnius (and Lithuania as a whole) was still a relatively unknown place for those living outside Europe. Ever since first going, I was eager to bring the husband back with me so he could experience the “other” Europe with me – distinct from the Eiffel Towers, Leaning Towers of Pisa and Disneyland Castles.
Three Week Itinerary – Eastern Europe
We had three weeks – so we planned on exploring all three of the Baltic countries, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. We started in Vilnius, working our way north on buses, through Latvia and finally ending in Tallinn. Although Eastern Europe is being explored more by tourists now, (Riga is a popular spot for Hens/Bucks weekends due to cheap flights from the UK, while Tallinn is on the standard cruise ship itinerary) there is still a wonderful otherness about it when compared with destinations in Western Europe. When first timers go to Paris – they go to the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre. In Rome, they muddle around the Forum, throw coins in the Trevi Fountain. London – it’s Tower Bridge, Big Ben, Tower of London. Going to Eastern Europe is just to see. To sit. To explore. To absorb. Without the pressure.
Upon return, I found that Vilnius was busier than it had been some 10 years prior – sitting on the main street of the old town I heard Australian accents at the next table. And I should caveat by confirming it was summer when we went. But the experience for me was pretty much the same as I remembered. We sat in the old town, drinking beers in the sun, draping a fleece blanket over my knees when the warmth started to drop. The sensation was as delightful as it had been during my first visit – except the bars/cafes now all came with free (working) Wifi (like everywhere in Europe now). Perhaps the Lithuanian part of me is biased towards Vilnius, but to me it is a special, special city – somewhat quiet, unassuming, and pretty in a crumbly kinda way.
Unlike Western Europe, the train infrastructure in the Baltics is not particularly well-developed. Not really wanting to drive a hire car between three separate countries, we therefore opted to get around via buses – and what a pleasant surprise it was. The bus system between the countries is logical and fairly simplistic. You can take a long distance bus all the way to Moscow if you want. Otherwise, the major cities in the Baltics are only about 4 hours apart. And the buses themselves – these aren’t your shitty, rickety, non-air-conditioned pieces of crap (although they do exist too of course). These buses are fancy! Some even have TV’s in the back of the seats. And they all have Wifi. I’ve been on much shittier planes than these buses (ahem, Iberia – thank you). It’s pretty easy. And the ease makes it definitely worth it. The only time you might run into trouble is if you want to use the rest room – often they are locked as it is the bus drivers’ responsibility to clean. Well… understandable I guess.
Like the rest of Europe, most people in the Baltics speak English as well as two or three other languages. If you happen to speak Russian that may help also. Some tourists may find the demeanour of locals somewhat cold or suspicious particularly when compared to the tourist-dependent areas in Italy and Greece. But this lessens as you get further north, as the number of tourists increases of course – although it is still nothing like the crowds of Western Europe. Tallinn, for example, is now a hotspot for day trippers arriving on cruise ships, or visiting from Helsinki. During the day, the old town is crawling with American, Chinese and other Western Europeans (read: mainly German) following the tour leader’s flag on a stick and trying not to lose the group. But 4pm hits, and the city relaxes. It’s your time to explore the bars, cafes and restaurants dotted in amongst the medieval turrets. Give Tallinn a bit of time. Stay the night. Or a few.
If you can get out of the main cities, you may be able to shake the tourists off for a short period. International tourists tend to stick to the capital cities, while the locals, together with some Russians and Germans (Germans – like Australians – tend to get everywhere) will explore those places that are not as well-known. In Lithuania, we spent a couple of days on the Western side of the country on the Curonian Spit – a national park area popular with families for hiking, biking and swimming in the colder than cold Baltic Sea. In fact, it’s not dissimilar to some of the coastal tourist hotspots in Australia which during the school holidays fill the caravan parks with Aussie families bringing their dogs and bikes. To get there, we took the bus from Vilnius – the bus got on a ferry, and finally we arrived at Nida. Traditional hotel accommodation is almost non-existent there, most holidayers tend to book holiday apartments or stay at guesthouses. But if you want to go “where the locals go” this place is it.
This was not the only ferry experience we had in the Baltics. The second was an interesting journey which took us to the Estonian island of Saaremaa, and was probably the most unsure we felt with regard to transport. We took a bus from Riga to a city in Estonia, only to have to connect to a minibus which would take us on a ferry to the island. Waiting for the minibus was a little nerve-racking, it was not possible to reserve seats, so it was first come first serve – we were probably the only English-speaking tourists going there. Despite concerns, we managed to get a seat and a few hours later found ourselves on the island.
Saaremaa is a lovely option for those game enough to try something different. It’s the kind of place one might go for a relaxing weekend away. Estonia has the Finnish sauna influence, and it was in Saaremaa that I had my first authentic spa-sauna experience. The hotel we stayed at had a spa-sauna – and was traditional in the sense that no bathing suits were allowed. Being a prudish Australian, I was a little apprehensive at least initially – even though the spas were male-female separated – where are you supposed to look? What if someone is offended by my bikini wax (or lack thereof)? Soon though, when I discovered the tiny Turkish bath and sauna were mostly frequented by 60-year-old women who know how to operate the sauna hot rocks and are otherwise just there to relax, I too, relaxed. It was the best, most unassuming spa-sauna experience I’ve had to date. And the nudity issue? Well let’s just say, I’ve since been into the mixed saunas in Germany and northern Italy where everybody has it out without a second thought. What’s so embarrassing about the naked body anyway!
For those wanting something different, consider Eastern Europe. Western Europe is of course fantastic, but a times the constant crowds can become wearisome. If you want the European chill without the pressure of sightseeing, Eastern Europe might just be a nice option.
Best Tips for Eastern Europe Travel
- Keep an open mind.
- Be prepared for the occasional squat toilet – particularly at train & bus stations.
- Aim for summer when the sun is high, the afternoons long and the beer awaits.
- For those that like history (particularly relating to World War II) museums are on offer in each of the capital cities.
- Don’t be a bus-snob. They are great!