Thursday, November 24, 2011

A Brief Tour of the Baltic Capitals

Our first taste of Vilnius was bitter and cast a shadow on the two full days we spent there. We arrived in Lithuania around 10pm after a 3-hour flight from Ireland. It took almost an hour to clear immigration and retrieve our checked bags, so it was almost 11pm when we exited the deserted airport to confront the line of taxis. I picked up a leaflet listing the different taxi companies and their starting fares to the city center. I also had noted what our hotel told me should be the approximate fare (metered). However, when we approached the drivers who were huddled together smoking cigarettes, the best offer was 80LTL ($31), which was four times what I expected. We tried to negotiate, but with no other option available and weary from our travels, we reluctantly got in the cab. When we arrived at the hotel I told Greg I would go inside to check with the receptionist but he didn't realize what I was trying to do was get someone to come out and argue the fare with the driver. By the time I convinced her we were being ripped off and to please come help, Greg had paid the 80LTL and the taxi was gone.
Vilnius, Lithuania
How much did we lose? The equivalent of about $23, which I know is quite insignificant in the whole scheme of things. But considering that we later found out this so-called "taxi scam" has been going on for years in Vilnius, I was angry with the hotel for not warning us (because I had communicated with them multiple times by email prior to our arrival so they knew we would have to take a taxi from the airport), with Greg for "giving in," and with myself for not being patient enough to call the hotel from the airport to tell them what was happening so they could help us. Lesson learned: always thoroughly research your transport options & costs in advance, especially if you will be arriving late at night and thus won't have many alternatives nor staff on hand to assist you. Have back-up plans in place and be sure you & your traveling companion(s) are in agreement as to how to handle any issues that might arise.
really good Lithuanian beer
The remainder of our time in Vilnius was enjoyable enough, but it was hard to shake that first impression. We drank some surprisingly good beer (at a microbrewery - Prie Katedros), enjoyed the mild weather as we explored the old town on foot, and had a sobering look into this country's sad history at The Museum of Genocide Victims, located in the former KGB offices & prison. On that topic I will say a bit more as history played out similarly throughout the Baltic region. Alternately occupied by the Germans & the Soviet Union for a period of more than 50 years (this is simply their recent history), in Lithuania alone more than 500,000 people were either imprisoned, deported or killed. There are comparable statistics for Latvia & Estonia.
great way to travel around the Baltics
We continued our journey through the Baltics to Riga, Latvia, a scenic 4.5hr bus ride north of Vilnius. By contrast to Vilnius, our first impression of Riga was quite favorable -- I had arranged a transfer from the bus station to our hotel (they sent a large, private van) and when we got to our room were greeted with three red roses & a bottle of Rigas champagne (congratulating us on our recent marriage). After an orientation stroll around our neighborhood, we ate a traditional dinner of pork ribs, sauerkraut & potatoes before calling it a night.
for the honeymooners
Awaking to a beautiful fall day, we completed our morning chores (laundry, hair cuts) before setting out for an afternoon of sightseeing. We decided to visit Riga's Museum of Occupation, wanting to compare the Latvian experience with the Lithuanian. It puts everything you see in these "newly" independent countries into context. After spending several hours on foot and needing a "vitamin fix" after weeks of meat & potatoes, we ate a delicious dinner at Kamadena Vegetarian Restaurant before retiring to our hotel room for the night.
Our final day in Riga involved crisscrossing the entire old town on foot to better enjoy the beautiful weather, expanses of green space, Art Nouveau architecture, the market and other historic sights. Unfortunately, I could also feel a cold coming on, and suffered through the afternoon with a stuffy nose. I still managed to enjoy my sauerkraut soup and Russian-style beef kidneys for dinner but we returned to the hotel immediately afterward so I could get some rest.
Old Town Riga
The following day involved another long bus ride, this time from Riga to Tallinn, Estonia. It was drizzling all day but had stopped raining by the time we arrived at the bus station in Tallinn. Still weary from our experience in Vilnius, I avoided the taxi queue and although it took multiple queries with random strangers, most of whom spoke little or no English, we managed to take a local bus to the ferry terminal area where our hotel was located.
at the Latvia/Estonia border
After a restless night, due in part to the loud noise emanating from the hallway and the rooms above & around ours, as well as the full onset of my illness (now feverish & congested), I opted to take a day off from sightseeing and rest in our room. As it was overcast, windy & rainy all day, I was thankful there was a pharmacy in the building adjacent to our hotel where I bought a bottle of chest expectorant. Also, I didn't mind "losing" a travel day as I had just visited Tallinn a couple of years ago so had seen all the sights already anyway.
reflections in medieval Tallinn
After another sleepless night, primarily due to the noisy teenage guests surrounding us, I went to the front desk and demanded that we be moved to another room immediately, which they did without hesitation. After re-settling, Greg & I discussed how we probably needed to consider amending our Northern Europe itinerary as a cost-reduction measure. I wanted to get some fresh air and, since it wasn't raining, we walked into Tallinn's old town for a few hours. Upon our return to the hotel, there was a bottle of champagne, fresh fruit, chocolate & nuts and a large bouquet of flowers plus note of apology in our room. Very nice!
maybe we should complain more often?!?!
We boarded a ferry the following morning for the two hour journey to Helsinki, Finland which I will write about in my next post. To summarize my impression of the three Baltic capitals, I will first say that Riga was my hands-down favorite, although each city has its own charms. Riga feels very cosmopolitan and western European with well-developed public transportation, inviting public spaces and multitudes of cultural offerings. Vilnius has less to see overall and while I love Tallinn's quaint & compact medieval core, it is a bit touristy and often filled with stag & hen partiers who have ferried over from much more expensive Northern Europe.
leaving Tallinn by ferry
While we did encounter a language barrier throughout the Baltics (the average citizen does not speak English but more likely Russian as their second language), most tourism industry employees can communicate with you well enough. Everyone was friendly, if reserved, and these three cities were the ONLY places on this trip where we received a honeymoon "gift" in every hotel room. Traveling between the capital cities was easy, comfortable and wallet-friendly on the LuxExpress bus line. As a whole, the Baltics are very affordable compared to the rest of Europe and, without cutting corners (in fact we ate & drank quite well), we only spent an average of $49 per person per day. With budget carriers like Ryanair offering cheap flights from almost anywhere in Europe, any of these cities would make a fun weekend getaway or, strung together as we did them, a nice 8 or 9 night vacation.

Here are the links to my Baltics photo albums:
Vilnius, Lithuania
Riga, Latvia
Tallinn, Estonia

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