Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, is not only the largest city in Lithuania it's projected shortly, to become the biggest city in the Baltic states. It's 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 flaps 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 (lots of those), parks, squares, bars, cafes and restaurants. The Vilnius Castle Complex is picturesque,. 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 even a diminutive castle on top of a small hill is hard to miss. Though the climb to Gediminas Tower is tough in these conditions.
Forty minutes by road from Vilnius is Trakai Island and its turreted (much more impressive) picture postcard castle. It's reached by a walkway over the frozen Lake Galve, from the mainland. The castle dates from the fourteenth century, home to the Dukes of Lithuania, and was heavily restored in Soviet times (after much resistance). But there isn't that much to see inside, but the grounds are dotted with locals enjoying the snow. It makes a great Christmas card scene
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 a natural harbour. It's on the Gulf of Riga, at the mouth of the Daugava river, where it meets the Baltic Sea. Riga is also one of only 14 capital cities that consists of only four letters. I will leave you to work out the others. I've flown here from Tallinn.
Riga, like Tallinn, 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 your thirst with a glass of cool beer, which will open not only pores, but also will give a totally new outlook on life.’
Latvia is known for its forests (54% of the country), bog (10%), 12,00 rivers, 3,000 small lakes and wide sweeping beaches. Latvia is very flat. Its highest point is Gaiziņkalns, at 312 metres above sea level. In an attempt to surpass Suur Munamagi, the highest point in Estonia, at 318 metres, they built a tower on top, but that had to be demolished in 2012. It was deemed to be unsafe.
Latvia was established as an independent country in 1918, after centuries of Teutonic, Swedish, Polish-Lithuanian and Russian rule, At the outset of World War II, Latvia' was forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union, occupied by Nazi Germany and then re-occupied by the Soviets in 1944. The peaceful 'Singing Revolution' in 1987, led to the restoration of de facto independence in 1991. Since then, Latvia has been a democratic unitary parliamentary republic. and became a member of the European Union in 2004. The currency is the Euro.
And quirky fact: A Latvian-Jewish tailor named Jākobs Jufess invented jeans. (He was backed by Levi Strauss.)
As always in European cities, there are plenty of churches, and this is definitely a city of dreaming spires. shown to good effect at sunset, as hot air balloons drift overhead.There are a sprinkling of notable wooden nineteenth houses and some fetching stepped gables in the pedestrianised medieval Old Town of Riga. There are magnificent Baroque guild houses and Hanseatic dwellings. Alongside, is 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. According to UNESCO, this is 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. There's also an Art Nouveau Museum, inside an apartment that's itself showcases stunning examples.
Eating out in Riga 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 café 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, on the Baltic Sea 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. The largest tower is known as Fat Margaret (Paks Margareeta). Dating from the early 16th century it was built to impress visitors arriving by sea. It was used as a storehouse for gunpowder and weapons, then as a prison, It also saw some bloody violence during the 1917 Revolution, when the prison guards were murdered by a mob of workers, soldiers and sailors. The tower has been restored to house the Maritime Museum.
The fourteenth century Loewenschede Tower, has walls that are a metre and half thick. It's height was later raised to 24 metres - you can climb up for views over town. And the Munkadetagune Torn (Tower behind Monks), was an ammunition depot, so it was also known as the Tower of Ignition Cords (great translation). It was originally named for the nearby the Dominican Monastery of Catherine. This one has been burned down repeatedly and reconstructed . Today, it's a café.
Then there's Kiek in de Kök, Bastion Passages, the Carved Stone Museum, Maiden's Tower, Marstal Tower and the Short Leg Gate Tower. Together they make up a huge museum complex. Kiek in de Kök is a six storey cannon tower. It still has nine of Ivan IV's cannonballs embedded in its walls. It's called Kiek in de Kok as the soldiers could see straight into the kitchens below. There are Bastion Passages linking the towers. There's also the Epping Tower, with one straight side. That's now a defence museum. But I think you get the idea. There are 26 towers altogether.
Not to mention Toompea Castle - more towers.
Tallinn has cobbles, dotted with medieval churches (up numerous flights of stairs for more of the requisite views, across town and out to sea), grandiose Hanseatic architecture, barns, warehouses and straw strewn half-timbered inns aplenty. There's also a splendid Russian Orthodox Cathedral - another one named after the saint Alexander Nevsky. Its Gothic Town Hall, built in the thirteenth century and with a 64metre high tower, sits in Tallinn’s main square. St. Nicholas Church is another thirteenth-century landmark, now used for concerts and to exhibit ecclesiastical art.
The Baroque Kadriorg Palace was built by Tsar Peter the Great of Russia for his wife Catherine in the eighteenth century, after the Russians besieged Tallinn. It was magnificent at the time, but after he died Catherine showed little interest in the building .Neither did their descendants. Today, it's a beautiful art gallery.
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 hostelries 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 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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