Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, is known for its baroque architecture, especially in its medieval Old Town, but it’s difficult to discern any architectural features. This is partly because everything is covered in snow and partly because it’s almost too cold to be out on the street, let alone look around. We scuttle around, trying not to skid on the icy patches. I buy a felt Russian army hat with ear covers from a shop filled with war memorabilia. I’m not sure I look overly elegant, but it does the job.
Vilnius has the largest medieval old town in central and Eastern Europe. It’s UNESCO-protected, of course, as are the other Baltic state capitals. There is the usual melange of churches, parks, squares, bars, cafes and restaurants. The Vilnius Castle Complex is particularly picturesque, the grounds dotted with locals enjoying the snow. It makes a great Christmas card scene. The river alongside confusingly has two names, Neris and Vilnia. Take your pick. Užupis, the trendy neighbourhood on the other side of the river, declared itself an independent republic on April 1, 1997.
The countryside is mainly flat, so a more diminutive castle on top of a small hill is hard to miss. Though the climb to Gediminas Tower is tough in these conditions.
The best news is that Vilnius is incredibly cheap, especially the vodka. I'm loading up.
Read more about Lithuania here
Nearly one in three of Latvia’s two million residents live in the capital, Riga, sometimes described as the Paris of the North. It’s the largest city in the Baltic States, built on natural harbour. It’s also one of only 14 capital cities that consists of only four letters. I will leave you to work out the others.
Riga, like Estonia, is a UNESCO World Heritage site in the historic centre (more for Art Nouveau rather than medieval buildings though) and a magnet for stag and hen parties. There are a huge variety of bars and there’s a female wearing a bridal veil sitting in almost all of them. There’s even a Beer Spa, where you can ‘immerse yourself in a warm beer bath… while simultaneously quenching thirst with a glass of cool beer, which will open not only pores, but also will give a totally new outlook on life.’
There are sprinkling of notable wooden houses and some fetching stepped gables in the medieval Old Town alongside a vast Central Market with five huge hangars and aforesaid art nouveau architecture. Roughly one third of all buildings in the centre of Riga are designed in this style, making it the city with the highest concentration of Art Nouveau architecture anywhere in the world. According to UNESCO it’s also the finest concentration of Art Nouveau architecture in the world. A bronze circular marker in the middle of Cathedral Square celebrates this achievement. We can see it from our hotel window.
Eating out is a little fraught. There’s not so much choice in all the cocktail bars, other than few fancier more expensive establishments. Most of the time we frequent a small cafe where you pile your plate up from the buffet and pay by weight. It’s a cheap and fun way to sample all the local food - lots of dumplings!
Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, is schizophrenic. The old city, all terracotta roofed medieval towers, bastions and curtain walls is UNESCO recognised. The rest is very high tech, sometimes dubbed the Silicon Valley of Europe, because it has the continent’s highest number of start-ups per head of population.
The delightful enclosed area is easily explored on foot, with a main drag between gates, guarded by more red wizard hatted towers. There are cobbles, dotted with medieval churches (up numerous flights of stairs for the requisite views, across town and out to sea), grandiose Hanseatic architecture, barns, warehouses, an impressive town hall and straw strewn half-timbered inns aplenty.
The Estonians are making the most of their heritage. Our hotel is a beautifully converted, wood and glass plate warehouse, just outside the old town walls. The hostels cater especially to the marauding stag party groups. There are plenty of these too, enjoying the ‘buxom serving wenches’ in their medieval costumes, serving beer in medieval drinking horns. It’s entertaining, if not very realistic.
It’s warm enough to sit outside in August, but it’s more peaceful indoors. We find a bar to have a quiet cocktail, until we are joined by the England Under 21 rugby team on tour.
Next stop Riga.
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