As a trio of destinations to visit, Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius make for an astounding adventure into Eastern Europe.
I have a thing for perfectly poached eggs. The yolk needs to be runny but not so runny that the whole egg drenches whatever is below. The side dishes need to be decent, too; buttery mushrooms and oven-roasted tomatoes go down well and anything creative gets double points.
Brunch has never been Europe’s forte but here I am in Tallinn with my husband at the chic café NOP (N is for neighbourhood, O is for organic and P is for practical), perusing a menu that is nothing short of impressive. I decide on poached eggs with quinoa, asparagus and caviar and 15 minutes later my meal arrives. Two perfectly poached eggs crowned with caviar sit atop a bed of quinoa, the asparagus politely positioned on the side. It tastes as good as it looks.
As marvellous as my eggs are, though, there is much more to Estonia’s story than a tasty morning meal. Soon after World War II, Estonia was gripped by Soviet rule, finally regaining its independence on August 20, 1991. Estonia was the last of the Baltic states (the common name that refers to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) to do so, with Lithuania having led the way on March 11, 1990, and Latvia having followed soon after, on May 4, 1990.
In recent times Tallinn has embraced both European and Scandinavian culture with open arms, thanks at least in part to the nation’s bond with across-the-water neighbour Finland and numerous innovative start-ups that have originated here, such as the software behind Skype and TransferWise (a peer-to-peer cash transfer app).
Of course Tallinn’s Old Town is the tourist highlight but the new is getting plenty of airplay, too. Cafés like NOP are thriving, new Nordic-style cuisine at places like Restaurant Ö is attracting hip crowds, the arts and culture scene is flourishing (Tallinn was celebrated as a European Capital of Culture in 2011 by the European Union) and everyone wants in. It’s this intriguing mix of old and new that places Tallinn as a city to watch – or, better still, visit.
I’m exploring the Baltic state capitals – Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius – with my husband and my father, but we have somewhat different travel objectives. I seek out funky cafés in up-and-coming suburbs, my husband is on the lookout for the best photo opportunities and my dad favours spending his time meandering around old town centres chatting to the locals. As different as our travelling styles are, we quickly discover that these three pulsating cities really do have something to suit everyone.
In Tallinn, while my husband and I brunch at NOP, my dad busies himself walking the perimeter of the Old Town. A chatty resident points him to a spot where he is able to see four of the city wall towers lined up and off he goes, keen to find that view.
We meet up later at Town Hall Square for a leisurely amble around the Old Town, passing Toompea Castle (now home to Estonia’s parliament), the Cathedral of St Mary (Estonia’s main Lutheran cathedral) and the Cathedral of Alexander Nevsky (a lavish Russian Orthodox cathedral), before grabbing dinner at a traditional pub where we sample delicacies like pigs’ ears and fried rye bread doused in garlic sauce.
Riga, the largest of the three cities, is our next port of call, and its Old Town offers a different vibe to that of Tallinn. A patchwork of coiling streets, hidden-away nooks and pretty alcoves, it’s a charming city. We separate, engrossed by different paths.
Cathedral Square, with the colossal Riga Cathedral as its centrepiece, is a logical meeting point. It’s one of the oldest religious sites in Latvia, the foundation stone having been laid in 1211; since then it has undergone numerous restorations and today’s edifice features a combination of Gothic, Romanesque, baroque and Art Nouveau styles. It’s Latvia’s main Lutheran church and organ fanatics flock in to admire and listen to the historic musical instrument. I end up meeting my husband and dad here just as an organ concert begins (20-minute concerts at lunchtime are common in summer).
The Soviets, Poles, Germans and Swedes have all ruled Latvia at various times through history and they’ve all left a mark. We hire bikes for half a day and head to one of the oldest districts in Riga, the Moscow District, where early 20th-century Art Nouveau masterpieces sit among traditional 19th-century wooden homes.
Many of the once-glorious buildings are in varying states of decay and if we were to ask a local for sightseeing suggestions they probably wouldn’t recommend this part of town, but there’s a certain charm that comes with exploring areas that are a little less gentrified than tourist centres. We ride slowly past ancient churches and a former synagogue, admiring ‘real life’ in Riga.
Continuing on our somewhat-unusual itinerary we cycle back to the Old Town through the Great Cemetery, a lush green space that today acts as both a public park and a graveyard. In the 1700s the cemetery was built on the outskirts of town but both the city and the cemetery grew significantly and today the two sit side by side. Unfortunately, during Soviet occupation many of the headstones were destroyed and the marble was taken away for use in other cities.
Regrettably, this is not an unusual story. All three Baltic countries lost numerous artistic works and architectural pieces during World War II or while under Soviet control. Churches and synagogues, statues and crypts were destroyed or plundered for their materials. Many remain, however, at least in part, and all three historic Old Towns are listed on the UNESCO World Heritage register.
Vilnius is one of the largest surviving medieval towns in Europe and our last stop. In a city rich in architectural styles (including Gothic, Renaissance, baroque, neo-classical and Art Deco), a walk through Vilnius is a walk through time.
The three of us wander around, lost in our own thoughts, admiring the eclectic assemblage of buildings. We ogle the elaborate exterior of the Church of St Anne; peek into the Church of St Casimir, Vilnius’ first and oldest baroque church; and continue to the Cathedral of St Stanislav and St Vladislav, the most important church in the country for Lithuanian Catholics.
Locals claim it’s possible to see a church pinnacle from anywhere in the Old Town but the best way to really get a feel for the aggregate of churches is by looking down at the Old Town from Gediminas’ Tower, a remnant of the once-glorious Upper Castle.
We join a cluster of people walking up the steep hill to the tower. The dappled afternoon light is hinting that it’s going to be a beautiful sunset so we quicken our pace, eager to enjoy every minute of our final night.
The Nature Trail
Lahemaa National Park, Estonia
Lahemaa National Park is one of the largest national parks in Europe, located about an hour’s drive from Tallinn. A vastness of forests, beaches, bogs and lakes, it offers something for everyone, with plenty of hiking and cycling routes throughout. The national park is also one of Europe’s most important conservation areas and wildlife-watching is a popular pastime. Keep your eyes open to spot moose, bears, lynxes, boars and foxes.
Sometimes referred to as the ‘Switzerland of Latvia’ (at least by the locals), Sigulda is a hilly land of castles and manor houses set in scenic national park terrain. Beckoning as a pleasant daytrip from Riga (about one hour’s drive), this mix of history and nature offers visitors a captivating and diverse mix of attractions to check out. For example, it’s easy to explore a castle in the morning, hike to a riverbank for lunch, then bobsleigh your way down Sigulda’s legendary bobsled track.
Just 28 kilometres west of Vilnius, the well-preserved town of Trakai is idyllically situated among rolling hills, calm lakes and thick forests. Visitors descend to admire the wooden churches, visit the legendary Trakai Castle, experience Karaimes culture (Karaimes people have lived in Trakai since the 14th century) and simply soak up the natural surrounds.
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