Fourteen Days in the Baltic States and Just One Book

Baltic states Readers who haven’t the faintest interest in what I did on my holidays might want to pop back in a few days when books will be taking centre stage again. Truth be told, not much reading was done on this holiday – far too much to see and do, not least packing and repacking at which we became quite adept. I’ve long wanted to visit the Baltic states, opened up to Western tourists after the USSR finally imploded in 1991,  and almost made it across the water to Tallinn on a visit to Helsinki nine years ago. Most people seem to start in Estonia’s capital and work their way around to Vilnius but we decided to follow the opposite route, ending up in Helsinki for a few days which both H and I remembered as an easy, laid-back city – just the place to rest up after what looked like a packed schedule of seven towns and cities. Don’t worry: this won’t be a blow by blow account, just the highlights.

Sadly, Vilnius wasn’t one of them, perhaps because we were only there for a day during which H managed to eat a pig’s ear although a sow’s purse had not been made out of it. I did spot a multitude of churches that wouldn’t have looked out of place in South America and Mother Russia (Gruntas Park) marvelled at the beautiful, brick-built St Anne’s with its elegant gothic facade. Kaunas, our next town and Lithuania’s capital for a short time, turned out to be much more enjoyable despite the Hare Krishna brigade who seemed to be pursuing us down its main street on the evening we were there. On the way we’d taken in Grūtas Park, home to many heroic statues of the Soviet era, transplanted from Lithuanian town squares and slightly surreally plonked into a beautifully landscaped park – there were Lenins at every turn. Our next stop was equally odd, just over the border at Bauska for a visit to Rundāle Palace, a bonkers eighteenth-century Versailles-like summer residence. It’s vast, and Bauska is tiny, but the Duke of Courland who commissioned it clearly wanted to make a statement. Its gardens are extraordinary: beautifully laid out and expertly tended.

On we pressed to Riga, which more than lived up to expectations – a stunning medieval centre, Riga - Art Nouveau beautifully restored, and an equally stunning set of Art Nouveau buildings just a short stroll away from it. We walked our socks off getting around it all. Riga is also home to one of those lovely little museums devoted to just one thing of which Amsterdam’s bag and purse museum is one of my favourites. Riga’s was the World of the Hat and it’s quite splendid, displaying hats from all over the world – some of which were stylish, others quite startling but all beautifully crafted. It’s only been open for just over a year but should you find yourself in Riga, it’s well worth seeking out.

Across the border to Tartu, Estonia’s sweet little university town in whose lovely botanical gardens we spent a morning before setting off for Tallinn by way of Mustvee, notable for its proximity to Lake Peipsi, the fifth largest lake in Europe. We stood at the shoreline, looking towards Russia and marvelling at the sight of a ferret being taken for a constitutional on the beach. Despite being seasoned inhabitants of a tourist town, we found Tallinn so crowded that we split the next few day between its fine botanical gardens, the enormous, and very beautiful, Kadriorg park and the excellent Estonian Open Air Museum, only straying into the old town for evening walks around the castle walls and a brief visit to the Museum of Applied Art and Academic Bookshop (Helsinki) Design on our final morning in the city.

A quick ferry ride across to Helsinki for the last three-day lap, some of which I’d planned to spend in Alvar Aalto’s beautifully designed bookshop, opened in 1969. On that first visit to Helsinki nine years ago I was astonished to find an English language crime section that rivalled the one in my local Waterstone’s. Hours were spent browsing three floors of skilfully chosen stock, which is probably why I didn’t make it to Tallinn on that trip. Sadly, one floor is now given over to exhibition space and the stock on the second floor is desperately thin. The café with its original Aalto-designed furniture is still there but it was Starbucks at the front of the neighbouring department store that owns the bookshop which was packed to the gills. Cover image Helsinki was as elegantly relaxed as I remembered but the bookshop is a shadow of its former glorious self.

Which brings me round to holiday reading. Not much of it, thanks to a multitude of sights to see, so I’ll pick out just one which I think will stay with me: Lucy Ellmann’s eccentric, funny yet deadly serious Mimi – a feminist love story set in New York. Just a few too many digs at the British in its Canterbury sections but hugely enjoyable for all that.

Back to the many and various chores of post-holiday life. I’m already missing the breakfast buffet, not to mention storks striding nonchalantly along roadside verges.

16 thoughts on “Fourteen Days in the Baltic States and Just One Book”

  1. I’m fascinated by Finland and the Baltic states and their often tragic history. Very different feel to each of these countries, too, by the sounds of it (I’ve only ever been to Helsinki myself).

    1. By starting in Lithuania and heading towards Helsinki it seemed as if we were following a curve of economic development. Each one more prosperous than the last peaking, of course, in Helsinki as did our drinks bill! The poor Baltics have suffered a great deal of invasion, occupation and oppression – I hope they continue to enjoy their independence, something that the Finnish only gained a century ago, too. I think you’d enjoy visiting them, Marina. So much to see and absorb.

    1. It was a great holiday, Annabel. Such beautiful cities with a great deal of history attached, some of it desperately sad. At least Helsinki will be spared stag parties – 20 euros for a glass of wine and a beer was a bit of a shocker!

    1. Well worth visiting, Tanya, despite the crowds. Need good flat shoes, though. All those cobbles play havoc with your feet!

  2. You make Riga, especially, sound very appealing! Did you read any literature in translation to get you in the mood, or do you plan to catch up on some now? I know of some Finnish authors but not many others from that region.

    1. It was, and should you ever decide to go don’t forget the hat museum. A little gem! I tend to explore after the trip so will be catching up later although I’m not sure how much will be available in translation. The Rough Guide wasn’t particularly helpful, usually a good jumping off point. Any suggestions welcome.

  3. We share a love of books and travel so I really enjoyed reading about your trip, especially as I’ve never visited the area. Riga has been recommended by friends and as Ryanair do flights from Scotland I hope to go there one day soon. Like you, on my last city break to Venice I was too busy sightseeing during the day which also meant I was too tired at night to read much but the way I looked at it was that you can read at home any time but can’t see things like San Marco every day.

    1. Spot on, Helen! Reading’s a wonderful thing but in the words of that old adage, travel also broadens the mind. I’m sure you’d like Riga, well worth putting on your list. I assume that there are cheap flights to Helsinki to from Scotland, too. We heard quite a few Scottish accents there.

    1. It was a little adventure, Cathy. You might like the Design Museum in Helsinki but you’re absolutely right about the expense. We reeled back from a bill of 20 euros for an admittedly large glass of wine plus a beer. Just as well we started off in Vilnius where you can get a decent meal for two for less than that.

    1. Ah, well you’d have to go to Amsterdam for the bags and purse museum but Riga’s hat museum is a close second. And if you do go to the Amsterdam museum I’d recommend tea – expensive but fabulous.

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