The Baltics, conquered

Hello readers,

This coming November will prove to be an overwhelming barrage of activities, coursework, presentations, planning, essays, and travel.  I’m leaving on a trip to Stockholm tomorrow, and have further trips and appointments planned throughout the month, which makes things all the more difficult to manage.  I’ll just have to do the best I can to balance things.  I’ll try to get another two blog posts in for this month, but I can’t promise I’ll be able to.  Either way, there’s an exciting blog post now!  Yes!

Taking advantage of my mid-semester break from classes, I took a week-long trip through Latvia and Lithuania.  I spent most of my time around the capital cities of Riga and Vilnius.  Latvia and Lithuania, though socially and politically different from Estonia in significant ways, are often lumped together as ‘Baltic’ states, and are only now really developing themselves as European tourist destinations.  Estonia is the wealthiest of the three countries, and Latvia the poorest, although the living standards and wages are relatively similar throughout the region.  Trains around the Baltics remain slow, inconsistent in quality, and often limited in service, so bus transport is really the way to go.  Riga is approximately 4 hours south from Tallinn by bus, and Vilnius 8 hours.

My first stop was Vilnius, Lithuania.  After navigating the city bus system (and bits and pieces of the Lithuanian language), I managed to make it to the house of my first host, Marijus (who I met through CouchSurfing).  Marijus was a fine host, and took time out of his very busy schedule to show me around the city.  On my last night, I stayed with Justas, an economist in Vilnius who couldn’t have been more friendly and amiable.  He took me to concerts, pubs, restaurants, and made sure I always had someone to see the city with.  I was also able to meet with a variety of Lithuanian students (who I got in touch with through my Lithuanian friend, Viktorija, who lives on my floor in the dorm).  I already want to go back and visit them (and the city) again.  Particularly as a first-time CouchSurfer, I’d say the experience was fantastic.

Vilnius skyline
Vilnius business district
Vilnius Old Town

As a European travel destination, Vilnius is painfully underrated.  The city is beautiful and comfortable, with a colorful, sprawling Old Town (apparently the largest Old Town in Eastern Europe) dotted with parks that give way to high-rise development.  In many ways, the city is a lot like Tallinn, though larger, cheaper, less compact, and not yet dominated by tourists.

Vilnius Uzupis district
Near Cathedral Square in the Old Town

Laima (the word means ‘luck’ in Lithuanian), a friend I met in Vilnius, also went with me out to Trakai, a small town near Vilnius that is famous for its castle and surrounding lakes.  She was generous enough to take time off of her university work to personally drive me to Trakai and give me a tour of the area.  Despite her name, Laima insisted that she was really quite an unlucky person.

The castle at Trakai

My experience in Latvia, though still enjoyable, was quite different.  I attended a trip organized by ESN (Erasmus Student Network) Tartu, which meant that I was travelling with a bus full of other exchange students from Estonia.  I was only in Riga for two days (we all stayed in a hostel for one night), and I feel a bit dissatisfied with the short amount of time I spent there, especially compared the time I had in Vilnius.  I also wasn’t able to meet many Latvians, much less talk with them about their country or city, which was disappointing.  I spent most of my time wandering around the city and exploring on my own or with other students from the trip.

A view over Riga's Old Town

Riga is dramatically different from both Tallinn and Vilnius, which I think are more similar cities.  Latvia’s capital was mostly destroyed in bombing raids during World War II, though a small (and beautiful, as expected) Old Town still remains.  The city is the largest in the Baltics (with the metropolitan population just under 1 million), and it feels more urban and fast-paced than Vilnius or Tallinn.  The center of the city, situated along the banks of the Daugava River, is gorgeous, and is dense with German Art Nouveau architecture (according to Wikipedia, anyway) and carefully maintained urban parks.

Somewhere in Riga
Somewhere else in Riga

I was also able to briefly see a few castles around the Latvian countryside, which was nice, but a bit rushed, especially since I would have preferred more time to relax and experience the country as more than just a member of a tour group.

Near the castle at Cesis, Latvia

Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, despite many similarities, have quite distinct cultures.  Estonia has been pulled in the direction of Finland and Sweden, and tries to model itself as a sort of ‘free-market Nordic’ country in the Baltic.  Lithuania has historically been culturally closer to Poland, and the country remains heavily Catholic (and, for reasons difficult to determine, has the world’s highest suicide rate, according to the WHO).  Latvia is currently caught somewhere in the middle, unable to truly connect to any bordering nation in the same way that Estonia and Lithuania have, yet still sceptical of Russia.  It will be very interesting to see how these small nations change and develop in the future, especially with the conflicting influences from Russia and the European Union.

Hopefully my trip to Stockholm this weekend will prove as successful as my Baltic adventure last week!  I’ll have to bring some work and some reading with me, unfortunately, but I think I can get everything done.  Wish me luck!

Terviseks,

Tim

P.S. The laundry room here still sucks.

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