To the Baltic States
Gdansk (Poland) to Saaremaa (Estonia), July 2013

After our visit to Gdansk, we drove further eastwards. We spent one more week in Poland on our way to the Baltic States. We brought a visit to the Elblag – Ostrada canal, one of the most impressive canals in Europe. Already in the 1850s, engineers constructed this 82 kilometer long canal with inventive slipways to cover the difference in height. At ten places, funicular-kind constructions pulled the boats over dry land, making use of water power. The canal was mainly constructed to transport the wood that was cut in the forests. The canal fell in disuse last century, but nowadays activities are underway to make the slipways operational again. This time not with the goal to transport wood, but tourists.

We also brought a visit to the Biebrza National Park before we crossed the border into Lithuania. There is no real border crossing anymore since Lithuania is part of the European Union, as the other two Baltic countries are. Only a sign with the European flag and the name Lithuania prove that you enter a new country. The road continues further north through a flat and agricultural area to the city of Kaunas. We decided to stay at the city camping, which isn’t more than a concrete parking lot with a small part of grass to pitch a tent. We shared the camping with a lot of campers and caravans. Kaunas is an interesting old city, but a visit of one day is probably enough.

The St Michael the Archangel church in Kaunas (Lithuania)

It was our plan to drive northwards on the western side of the Baltic Countries, and to go back to Poland after a couple of months on the eastern side. So we headed west, with as first destination the small village called Vente, in the south-western corner of Lithuania. We read on the internet that the village was a good place to see birds. It probably is, but not at the time we were there. The place seems to be only interesting during the migration periods. But the ride was not for nothing, because we also wanted to see the Curonian Spit. The national park with the same name is famous for its sand dunes. And indeed, the spit is very interesting, but crowded during the summer months. Many local tourists, Russians and Germans visit the spit to see the sand dunes and mainly to bake at one of the beautiful beaches. But if you stay away from these crowded places, you can still enjoy the beauty of the national park (see also our article about the Curonian Spit).

We drove further northwards through Klaipeda and were very impressed by the cold war museum at Plokstine (see also the article: A 007-experience in Lithuania). We crossed the border with Latvia and spent more than a week in the most western province of this country. The country side of this part looks very much the same as in Lithuania. Many forests, and once in a while a small village and surrounding agricultural fields. Also the cities in this part of Latvia are a little bit similar to their Lithuanian brothers. Most of them have played a significant historical role since the middle ages; often as Hanseatic cities. This western Latvian province is called Kurzeme and is a great place to experience rural Latvia. We were especially excited to see the impressive once ultra-secret powerful spy antenna, used by the Soviets in the 1980s to spy on American satellites (see also our article about Kurzeme).

A sand dune in the Curonian Spit NP

For most travelers who visit Latvia, the capital Riga is the absolute highlight. The city is indeed impressive, but very touristy. The old town isn’t really a city anymore, but transformed into an open air museum. All activities in this touristy part of town are nowadays related to tourism. And that makes it sometimes difficult to see the charms of the town through the loads of tour groups, hotels, restaurants, electrical carts and bicycle rickshaws. But if you have an extra day to spend in the city, you have to go to the areas outside the old city. These parts of the city aren’t only less touristy, but also house the highest destiny of Art Nouveau architecture in Europe. You can also beat the crowds by visiting the old town during the early morning or late afternoon, when the Cruise boats passengers aren’t in town yet.

After Riga we brought a visit to the Gauja National Park and to the historical town Cesis before we head further north to Estonia. We heard from several travelers that they experienced that Lithuania and Latvia have a more Russian atmosphere, while Estonia is more Scandinavian. We are now two weeks in Estonia, but for us it is still hard to tell if this is true. We found Lithuania and Latvia not typical Russian and Estonia not as Scandinavian as we expected. Estonia is more developed and rich than the other two Baltic Countries, and that might give the country a more northern or western European ‘look’. We got our first Estonian impression on their biggest and second biggest islands, Saaremaa and Hiiumaa. These islands, only accessible by boat or plane, are holiday destinations for locals and Finns. The government is investing a lot in these islands, to transform them into holiday destinations with an international allure. Roads are upgraded and special biking lanes are constructed in a high pace. But for now, these islands are still interesting destinations with many dirt roads that make it adventurous to travel around in search for quiet beaches, small traditional villages and abandoned old soviet bunkers.

A view on the Gulf of Riga from the camp site in Engure (Latvia)
City camping of Riga
A square in the old town of Riga
An atmospheric boulevard in the 'new' town of Riga

The ferry from Virtsu to Saaremaa in Estonia

© copyright - / 2013