Nestled between the Baltic Sea and the Russian Bear is a pocket of Europe where once-nuclear bunkers are now modern-day museums. Here’s one traveller’s take on Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia — the democratic Baltics. And here’s to keeping them that way, as Putin threatens to bomb us back to 1945.
Story by Ryan Murdock, Photos by Tomoko Goto
We lost the satnav signal as we entered the park — as though all satellite communications were being jammed, and we’d just driven off the officially sanctioned maps. There weren’t any houses or signs, and thick forest closed in to the edge of the road.
The voice of Darth Vader — our driving companion — only burst back into life as we were heading down a forlorn gravel road on final approach to the base.
“Turn around as soon as possible,” he said. “I find your lack of faith disturbing.”
It felt like an omen. But despite being warned off by the Dark Lord of the Sith, it was difficult to imagine four hardened missile silos filled with so much destructive power, when surrounded by forests and lakes. Had Plokštinė been operational, we would have been intercepted long before. The immediate surroundings of the launch area were protected by a four-layered system that included barbed wire, a sensor wire that triggered alarms in a guardhouse, and an electrified fence.
My wife Tomoko read me the details as we drove into the parking lot.
“The combat system P-100 had been used for security of the perimeter,” she said, “which generated 380 to 2,000 volts and ensured the offender’s death from electrical shock.”
Just beyond the wire, four launch silos housed 22-metre tall R12 rockets with three-metre warheads, connected by long underground passageways to a multilevel command centre buried deep beneath reinforced concrete.
This Soviet medium-range nuclear missile facility was built in the early 1960s by 10,000 soldiers brought in secretly from USSR satellite states. Missiles from this very same base were deployed to Cuba in September 1962, sparking off the Cuban Missile Crisis, which nearly led to full scale nuclear war.
The Cold War happened for real in this beautiful forested corner of Lithuania. And there were fingers on the trigger ready to obliterate all of Western Europe — but I’m getting ahead of myself. Plokštinė was abandoned when the Soviets left the Baltics in 1991, and there’s no more need for Cold War gloom. No one will interrogate you in Lithuania, or suspect you of being a Capitalist stooge — although they may try to add 12 inches to your waistline through an overabundance of good, heavy food.
I learned that lesson within hours of landing in Vilnius, capital of Lithuania. I set out with my photographer wife Tomoko to explore this little known corner of Europe because the three Baltic countries had sat there for years on the fringes of my map, mocking my ignorance. I tried learning about them online, but there wasn’t much to be found in websites or books. And so I finally decided to see them for myself.
Vilnius is a charming green city, and its people have a great love of the outdoors. Everyone seemed to be riding a bike, or paddling something, or running. The kids looked healthy and intelligent too, and I pointed this out to Tomoko as we explored the winding old town streets.
“Look at them,” I said. “They’re amusing themselves by playing outside, like we used to do back in my day. They aren’t waiting around for their parents to entertain them, or sitting indoors twiddling some gadget.”
I ranted on that theme for another ten minutes, and she just kept taking photos. I really don’t think she was listening. But it was true. Vilnius reminded me of my Ontario childhood. All those rivers and shining blue lakes on the outskirts… The smell of pine needles and cultivated fields… Grasses waving between patches of forest… And so many different layers of green.
I expected to find more of a Russian influence in the city, given that Lithuania was forcibly annexed into the Soviet Union in 1944 (that after being first occupied by the Russians in 1940, then brutally by the Germans in the Second World War), and remained a satellite state until the fall of the USSR in 1991.
The language sounded vaguely Slavic to my untutored ears, but the people were more open and shy, with none of the stern closed-faced bluster I’ve come to regard as the badge of the Russian tourist in Europe. And their tastes are as different as their demeanour.
Lithuania is a beer drinking country, unlike the vodka-fuelled regions to the east, and there are many excellent craft brews to be discovered, from light lagers to amber ales to pale wheat beers. The beers have a lovely floral note, with hints of honey, and each region has a specialty of its own.
But it’s the food you’ll really need to watch, because it will land you in the hospital if you attempt to eat Lithuanian-sized portions. Their diet is hearty and filling, based on cabbage and beets and splashes of cream. And of course there’s the ever-present potato. It’s served on the side of every dish, and it forms the soft protective shell of dumplings, too.
I ate some small dumplings for dinner during our first evening in town. We asked our young waiter which were the best.
“I usually have meat,” he said.
“What’s your second choice?” I asked. “My wife already picked that one.”
“I would have the chicken liver,” he said. And so I wisely followed suit.
It struck me that a young person in Canada would never order liver at a restaurant. They’d ask for something greasy or fried, like nachos or a burger. Something unadventurous and typical, never earthy. But the Lithuanians like the less popular bits of animals, and they’re extremely fond of meat and potatoes. You can get great vegetables in the shops too, and the groceries were incredibly cheap.
• • •
Have you ever noticed that maps have secrets? And that they call to you sometimes, through a curve or a contour line or an intriguing place name?
We spent a peaceful week exploring Vilnius and its surroundings, and then we picked up a rental car and drove all the way across Lithuania to the Baltic Sea. I wanted to investigate a strange piece of geography called the Curonian Spit. Its mysterious forests were calling me, and I knew they had something important to show us.
A short 5,000 or 6,000 years ago, the waves and winds of the Baltic Sea caused sand to accumulate in a thin line in the shallow waters off Lithuania, and the territory that would become the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad. This thin strip of fragile dunes and pine forest eventually formed a lagoon, with a single narrow outlet to the sea at one end. The shallow inland lagoon is nearly freshwater, thanks to the rivers which empty into it. But the side of the strip that faces the sea is pounded by high wind and waves.
We drove to the lagoon-side city of Klaipeda, and rolled the car onto a ferry for the short ride across to the Curonian Spit. And I knew the moment we left the port behind us that there was something very special about this place.
The philosopher and novelist Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir vacationed there once, during Soviet times. When he first set eyes on its graceful curving shoreline and thin pine forests, Sartre said, “It feels like I’m at the entrance to paradise.”
The Spit attracted an early school of German expressionist painters too, men like Max Pechstein and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, who went there in the 1890s to form artists’ colonies and to try to capture that soft northern light.
Today the Curonian is mainly populated by fishermen, and dried fish is a staple food through the long hard winters. We found a small place in Nida where a local family sold some of their catch. It was frequented only by residents and us. Tourists came in, of course, but they were driven away by the same conversation that caused us to pull up a chair.
“What do you have?” I asked the young man behind the counter.
“Only smoked fish and beer,” he replied. “You can choose your own from the cabinet outside.”
“Do you have any sides?” Tomoko asked, hoping for potatoes or vegetables.
“Yes,” he said. “We have bread. Help yourself from that plastic tub.”
We followed him outside to a glass case next to the smokehouse. “This one has a lot of small bones and is more difficult to eat,” he said, holding up a bream. “But it’s the most popular fish we have. You can take a knife and fork inside, but I suggest you eat it with your hands.”
The flesh of the bream was surprisingly juicy and sweet, though it had been smoked and dried, and the strong dark beer and black rye bread were the perfect compliment. It was a meal that tasted of the land and sea that surrounded us.
We spent a few days wandering up and down this fragile sandy strip of land. We walked in dappled forests, where birdsong echoed past tall thin trunks, and where the mossy floor seemed to soak up and absorb the light, casting back silence and mystery and a feeling that there really wasn’t anyplace else but this forest right now. We even managed to get a little sun on a windy Baltic beach. The sea was cold, but it was tolerable and there was something strangely soothing in its salty caress.
But evenings were the most magical Curonian time of all. It didn’t grow dark until nearly 11 p.m., and the sun cast its first glow into the skies around 3 a.m. In the long evening hours before that brief dip below the horizon, the light took on the soft tones of a painting, or perhaps of a vinyl LP.
We had entered a world set in analog tones, with skies of soft lavender and gentle lagoon sounds of water splashing on the shore. A pair of swans drifted by in silence. Tomoko released her shutter with a sigh. I wrapped my arm around her shoulder, and we sat there for another hour, our skin tones gradually softening too, until we inhabited a pastel world.
But it was time to go to Latvia, and return to the bustle of city life.
Riga is much bigger than the other Baltic capitals, and its buildings are swarming with otherworldly figures frozen in stone. No, it isn’t possessed by strange spirits — though it did feel that way sometimes. More than 750 buildings in Riga are alive with art nouveau — more than any other city in Europe. We walked through its streets with our heads tilted back and a constant kink in the neck from looking upwards.
Entire imaginary worlds projected out from the fronts of common apartment blocks and vegetation crawled across the façade, as though linear concrete and stone had surrendered to nature and was being engulfed by it.
Satyrs leered from among clusters of grapes. And gorgons with swirling heads of snakes glared down at those bold enough to knock on the door. Other buildings were adorned with mythical beasts, screaming masks, hideous goblins and cold robotic faces that stared with eerie blankness into the distance of our collective future.
Shimmering blue tile work and elaborate stained-glass windows added bursts of soft colours. And the entire district displayed an overabundance of … well … very abundant bare-breasted women, bringing a rich sensuality to these expressive stone facades through curves I could almost feel.
Art Nouveau’s early influence was said to be Japanese print art that came to Western Europe in the 1880s. But the creative output was expressed in distinctly European rather than Asian ways. Greek and Egyptian aesthetics were combined with nature, and in Latvia those natural elements — vines, floral motifs, and depictions of animals — took on local forms.
Riga’s buildings became an expression of the indigenous Latvian essence, and a showcase for wealth at a time when Riga controlled the trade routes to the east. But while this wealth was on display in the upper-class neighbourhoods of the city, much of it came from the land and it was in the countryside where we really got a taste of just how abundant these lands once were.
In the Middle Ages, the Baltic region formerly known as Livonia — today comprising parts of Latvia and Estonia — was made up of a patchwork of territory owned by various Knights of the Livonian Order and the Catholic Church. After the Order’s decline in 1557 the knights stuck around, and their role gradually transformed into that of a landowning aristocracy. Some of them were assimilated into the Polish nobility and others into the Russian royal court.
It quickly became a case of keeping up with the Bērziņš (the most common surname in Latvia, kind of like “Smith”!) — but in this case rich landowners built ostentatious estates instead of buying new BMWs. Manor houses popped up like weeds after a rainy spring, each one more pretentious than the rest.
There are more than a thousand of these historic homes that still survive. Rundale Palace is of course the most famous — it’s the most visited tourist site in the country, with vast gardens intended to mimic Versailles. But I think it’s necessary to visit the smaller manors to truly understand just how rich Latvia became on the bounty of her lands.
This point in our trip coincided with my birthday, and so I used it as a convenient excuse to experience life in one of these stately homes for ourselves.
Birini Castle is set on a lake on the outskirts of Gauja National Park. It’s a massive pink birthday cake of a place, with forested grounds, stables and a garden with fresh produce. We booked the largest set of rooms, the second floor tower suite. A few small groups came by that afternoon to tour the grounds, and after they left the only sounds were the clop of horses walking down the gravel path outside, and the swoosh of a stork flying up to his chimney-top nest. There was just one other guest.
We had our own key to the back door, which opened onto a massive foyer with a double wooden staircase and soaring ceiling. I let myself in and creaked my way up the stairs, pausing to examine the ballroom. The thought crossed my mind of inviting some friends, or perhaps sitting down at the grand piano to tickle the ivories. But I stood there for a while in silence instead.
I always wander such places lost in my own thoughts, imagining what it would be like to live there—as I am now, not as some duke or ruler, and not with a huge staff of servants. I was caught between history and an imagined near-future. I heard the crunch of gravel beneath my wheels as I drove through the massive gates and parked my car in the courtyard. I felt thick carpet beneath my feet as I walked through the library and smelled the books… And I wandered through the vast empty hallways and closed up abandoned rooms, like a character from an old childhood novel.
A noise from somewhere deep in the house brought me back from my reverie, and I went down the passageway to our rooms. The antique desk was the perfect place to write. And when I’d finished scribbling in my notebook, we sat in the curve of the tower and sipped a cold glass of Bollinger champagne.
Later that afternoon, we wandered down to the watermill for a cold glass of beer and a traditional Latvian sauna. Its old wooden walls had seen a party or two, but like a king living in splendid isolation we had the building to ourselves, and hot lashings of steam soaked away all our cares—and hopefully a birthday wrinkle or two.
When we were thoroughly sweated out we walked back up to the castle to dress for dinner. The restaurant was located deep in the vaulted cellars and it attracted locals and day trippers as well as the only other guest. We asked the young waitress about the specialty of the house, and she said, “I highly recommend that you taste our beaver.”
“Excuse me?” I said. But Tomoko’s surprised expression confirmed I’d heard her right.
“Our beaver is very juicy,” she said.
I nodded and tried to assume a pensive look, but we were both pinching ourselves under the table because where I come from “beaver” is slang for something rather lewd. It’s not a creature I’d ever considered dining on before, but I decided to follow her advice. A platter of rich red meat eventually arrived, accompanied by grilled vegetables from the castle garden, pureed green peas and buckwheat. And I can confirm that beaver goes very well with a California Zinfandel.
The castle fell silent soon after dinner, and we took a late-night walk around the grounds, where I was greeted by indifferent horses and a very friendly cat. And then we let ourselves in by the back door and wandered through the hallways, looking at old photos on the second and third floors. Birini Castle apparently has a resident ghost—a young servant girl who hanged herself in one of the rooms over unrequited love. But she wasn’t anywhere to be found that night. And so we retired to our room for more champagne, and I sketched layouts and renovations in my head.
• • •
Riga was another place that felt the heavy hand of Soviet domination during the occupation. As the most important city in the Baltics, and the main seaport, it was also an obvious target in the Cold War. But if thermonuclear destruction rained down on Latvia, the fearless Communist civil leadership would survive.
Or at least, that was the intention behind the massive Ligatne bunker, a 2,000-square-metre secret facility whose existence was only declassified in 2003. I’m fascinated by Cold War sites, and I’d never pass up the opportunity to explore one. So we drove out there one drizzly day, nearly an hour east of Riga, into the heart of a beautiful forested national park.
The bunker was known as “The Pension” because it was cleverly concealed beneath a dreary 1960s’ so-called rehabilitation centre. But I’m not talking drug rehab or AA—this was a sort of spa in communist times, where the elite could go to be pummelled by large women called Olga, or be treated to beetroot enemas and a diet of carrot sticks.
The place still functions as a spa/rehab centre today—although I don’t know how burnt out or nostalgic you’d have to be to want to stay in that dimly lit throwback. As we paced around the lobby waiting for our guide to arrive, I amused myself by playing some sort of shuffleboard on a massive billiard table with tiny wooden wheels, and an old lady in a bathrobe shuffled over to watch. When Oskar finally marched in he launched straight into a Soviet-era spiel, refusing to take us down below until someone surrendered an ID card. I gave him mine, and he glanced at it with a frown and put it in his pocket.
Without further delay we walked across the lobby to a normal concrete internal stairwell, and descended several flights to a big steel blast door nine metres underground. The temperature dropped as we went, bottoming out at a cool 13 degrees Celsius.
“This facility was meant to be the command centre for the Latvian communist political and administrative leadership in the event of war or serious natural disaster,” Oskar said. “This was not a military bunker, though it did of course have room for KGB officers.”
The civil authorities would rush down there to run the government, but there was no room for their families, or for any women at all. Civilians would have to take their chances up above.
The bunker was planned at the height of the Cold War in 1968, but it only became operational in 1982—when it was no longer needed. It could house 250 people for up to three months. An artesian well supplied clean water from 150 metres deep. And the air circulation system still works perfectly today—a fact we discovered when Oskar switched it on with a roar.
“The generators still work too,” he said. “We use it sometimes as an alternate source of power for the rehabilitation centre, if there’s an outage … Everything inside the bunker is original. When the Soviets left, the facility was closed. And because even the location was secret and the centre was built on top of it, it was never broken into or scavenged like other abandoned sites.”
Vintage equipment included a communications system that bounced signals from other facilities in the region and relayed them directly to Moscow. A sign on the wall above the electronics read, “Without communication there is no order. Without order there is no victory.”
In the command centre we studied enormous wall maps with hand-drawn plans outlining what would happen if the dams of all hydropower stations were destroyed, which towns would be underwater and how this would affect the largest population centres. There was also a radio station with a full recording studio for politicians, so they could tape their speeches.
“All speeches were recorded in those times,” Oskar explained. “It had to be perfect, and mistakes were not permitted. W, could not see our leaders as weak.”
The chairman (of the Communist Party; official title of its leader) also had a large, dimly lit office complete with daybed. This was the only bed in the entire massive facility. Everyone else was supposed to sleep at their stations.
Oskar escorted us through the bunker by putting us into the scene. He elected Tomoko chairman, and sat her behind the desk to make an on-the-spot “disaster announcement” to the population. We had to put on gas masks and I was told to do 10 push-ups and breathe normally. And we posed heroically beside a bust of Lenin, and pretended it was an honour to do so. We even ate a Soviet-style lunch in the canteen, at tables where the plastic flowers from 1982 still looked fresh. The small meat-stuffed dumplings were surprisingly tasty, but the Kool-Aid style “drink” was not.
But despite wandering around down there for nearly two hours, we only saw a fraction of the facility. Several distant corners of this place would just have to remain a Cold War secret. We had one more country to visit on our trip, and a few hundred kilometres of forest to cross. And so we loaded the Skoda one last time and headed north into Estonia.
We had walked through the gloomy cellars of the former KGB Headquarters in Vilnius and Riga, and saw the chipped walls where so many people had been tortured and killed. We saw forests whose deep green silence concealed vast underground weapon sites pointed at our homes in the West, and bunkers which ensured the survival of the invading elite who raped these Baltic lands and used their people so callously.
Each of these Cold War sites exposed the institutional cruelty of the Soviet occupation: the faceless grey of a system gone mad, the crushing weight of an inhuman ideology. But nothing had prepared us for what Tallinn held in store.
Tour guides have called Patarei the most haunted place in Estonia. It was built as a sea fortress under the orders of Nicholas I of Russia (ca. 1828) to protect the sailing route to St. Petersburg. The vast sprawling structure covers an area of four hectares (10 acres), and when its fortress phase became obsolete in 1867 it saw service as a barracks. But Patarei is best known for the years between 1919 and 2004, when it was a Soviet prison.
We parked in a vacant lot beyond the outermost wall and walked through the gates, toward what looked like a college-aged couple sitting in a small shack.
“We’d like two tickets please,” I said, reaching into my pocket.
“It’s three euro each,” the girl said. She was sitting at an old wooden desk, and the boy sat in the corner strumming random chords on a guitar.
“There aren’t any explanations or signs, just this small brochure.” She pointed to a tall metal gate. “Go through there. You can explore anyplace that isn’t locked.”
The exercise area in the courtyard beyond the gate was based on the same format as the KGB jail we saw in Vilnius: narrow cells of stone block, with a small view of the sky through the cage over the roof and a walkway running down the centre so guards could watch each prisoner from above. There was barely enough room to pace around in a circle and only high noon would give proper light. But I guess it didn’t matter very much. According to records, prisoners only got one hour of sunlight per week.
Many people were murdered in Patarei. It happened in the hanging room, just off the yard, down a narrow corridor in a space set between thick walls. I knew the place immediately because a hole had been hacked into the cold stone floor to accommodate the dangling legs of the condemned. But hanging takes too much time. The KGB preferred a bullet to the back of the head, in a room deep in the cellars where the walls had been painted red to conceal bloodstains.
Inside the central portion of the prison, a long curved hallway stretched for about a quarter of a mile in an arc originally designed to ensure invaders of the fortress couldn’t fire a shot down its length. Huge cells opened off this hall, room after narrow room, crammed with 16 metal bunks. Each cell held 30 people who were locked there awaiting trial, or exile to Siberia. At its peak, Patarei held approximately 4,600 prisoners.
These damp cells faced the sea with tall wooden windows, giving a view of the ferry terminal and of ships going past, and of warmth and of freedom. But it must have been so terribly cold in winter, with the wind streaming through broken panes, and those thick stone walls soaking up the sea air.
Bare bulbs lit a lot of the prison rooms, but many cells had been left in darkness, as though the Soviets had just gone and forgotten to close the door. Blankets were scattered on bunks and decaying books rotted on shelves in the prison library. Photos of women torn from magazines were still taped to the walls of the cells. Old telephones and typewriters were piled in a heap in the centre of one narrow office room. And coils of razor wire still rusted in the yard.
In the surgeries of the medical wing, faded green operating lights hung over stained tables and empty vials, packs of latex gloves and paperwork were scattered in piles on the floor. Just down the hall, in small rooms panelled in cheap wood, the Soviet doctors conducted psychic experiments on inmates.
I could vividly imagine how hopeless and bleak it must have felt to be locked away there. How the cold would chill me to the bone beneath a coarse wool blanket as I stared at the ceiling from a rusted metal bunk. My nose recoiled from the sour sweat smell of all those confined people, and the stink of bad food and boiled cabbage.
We were picking through the debris of someone’s life. It went on and on, through so many long corridors and dark rooms, on level after level. But we only saw a small fraction of the prison—and that took three hours. Several other wings were barred so that I could only see another gloomy corridor disappearing into distant shadow, with room after room opening off of it.
When we finally came out, the sky hung low and rain was drizzling down. We didn’t emerge into sunlight. And we walked away in silence.
• • •
As we moved north through each of these small countries, we seemed to grow closer to Scandinavia by degrees. Estonia existed in a strange mental borderland caught midway between St. Petersburg and Finland. It has always been a crossroad between those two places, and its people felt semi-Scandinavian, as though they looked outwards while their two Baltic neighbours looked in.
The weather had taken a turn for the sodden when we finally arrived in Tallinn’s Old Town. All the museums were closed for the Midsummer holiday, and so were the shops. Midsummer’s Eve is the biggest holiday in Estonia. On this longest night of the year, the sun barely dips below the horizon and dusk seems to merge into dawn.
Throughout the Baltics and Scandinavia, friends and families pack up their coolers and return to the forest, where they gather at cottages, blaze up a bonfire, and stay up drinking to welcome the sunrise. But in the city, Midsummer is a lonelier occasion. Especially in the pouring rain.
We drank local ales in one of the few open bars, and thus fortified set out to prowl the gloomy night. The origins of Tallinn date back to the 13th century, when a castle was built on the site by the invading Teutonic Knights during the Northern Crusades. But most of the architecture we identify with “old Tallinn” reflects the heyday of the Hanseatic League (13th to 16th centuries), a mercantile and military alliance of northern German and Baltic cities. The city occupied a strategic point on the trade crossroads between Northern Europe and Russia, and its fortifications reflected its importance, with tall walls and 66 defensive towers.
Seeing Tallinn in the drizzling rain, totally deserted, gave the old town the perfect atmosphere. The cascades of water took the stone walls back a couple centuries. And without all those tourists, my mind was free to resurrect the city’s ghosts.
My footsteps echoed off the walls and cobblestones of empty alleys. The rain beat a military tattoo on the hood of my jacket. Each alley and street seemed to lead to one of the walls, or to a low arched gate, and each time I ducked outside to see those walls from a fresh angle.
I imagined what a forest dweller or pagan tribesman would have felt, coming upon this scene on a cold heavy day, seeing the conical orange roofs rising up from the forest and looking up at their powerful flanks. The world of forest and town were separated by more than just grey stone. The town connected the larger northern European world—and the forest dweller could scarcely imagine the life it represented.
But the normally hectic town was shuttered, and even its ghosts had chosen to stay inside. In the end, we left without ceremony. We slipped quietly into our car outside the walls, shook the water off our hoods and drove back to our apartment in the suburbs.
The small flares of bonfires dotted the distance. Shouts echoed up the street, and people wandered by at 3 a.m. A family in our apartment complex sat grimly on their balcony clutching books—husband, wife and sleeping toddler—waiting for dawn to arrive. Another family huddled beneath trees, holding beer bottles and barbecuing in the rain. Their hunched posture had something of duty about them. They reminded me of soldiers on watch.
The rain came and went, and small groups of people continued to shuffle past our forested suburb street all night long. The light never quite went out. But we did. We had an early boat to catch the next morning. Our tires hissed across rain-soaked streets that had a feel of the apocalypse about them. No one was stirring in this hungover, sleep-deprived town.
We boarded a ship of the Tallink Line and settled into comfortable seats in the lounge. I sipped a hot coffee and opened my book. The boat came alive with a deep vibration that shook the walls and rattled the metal tiles in the ceiling. It settled as we picked up speed.
The old prison slid past, with all its damp ghosts. And the Old Town of Tallinn receded into the distance. The last thing I saw was the orange conical roofs of the towers and the walls, and the thick spire of St. Olaf’s Church.
And we sailed off to Helsinki, and new adventures. But that’s another story, and we don’t have time for it here.
The Outpost Guide to the Baltics: Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia
By Simon Vaughan, Outpost Senior Editor
The Baltic Nations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have a rich history, vibrant culture, unique identities and their own languages. Latvia took its name from one of four eastern Baltic tribes, while Lithuania was the largest state in Europe at the end of the 14th century, with a territory that included present-day Belarus and Ukraine.
In the centuries that followed, the region was at various times ruled by the Danes, Swedes, Russians, Poles and Germans. At the end of the First World War in 1918, all three nations gained their independence (Estonia’s Independence Day is celebrated each year on February 24, while Latvia celebrates theirs on November 18, and Lithuania on February 16).
In 1940, the Soviet Union annexed all three countries. In 1990, Latvia and Lithuania declared their independence from the Soviet Union (although it was not recognized by the Soviet Union until late the following year), and Estonia followed suit in 1991.
Many European airlines including low-cost carriers offer flights into the three capitals of Tallinn (Estonia), Riga (Latvia) and Vilnius (Lithuania). While it’s possible to travel between the three nations by bus, there is only limited international bus service into the three, most notably from Germany and Russia (though at this time, in 2022, travel to and through Russia is not recommended or even available). There are rail links and ferry services from Sweden, Finland and Germany to all three nations.
Canadian passport holders do not require a tourist visa to visit Estonia, Latvia or Lithuania for any stay of less than 90 days. All three nations are included in the 26-member Schengen area, and as such passport and visa requirements are the same as those of all other Schengen Agreement nations. The Schengen Area is comprised of 26 European countries which have eliminated border controls between themselves and each other Schengen nations.
To enter the Schengen Area, Canadian passport holders require a passport valid for at least three months beyond the traveller’s expected departure from that country. Customs officials may also request proof of sufficient funds and an onward ticket. To stay in Estonia, Latvia or Lithuania for longer than 90 days, it will be necessary to apply directly to the relevant embassy or consulate for an Estonia, Latvian or Lithuanian visa prior to arrival. Travellers are advised to ensure that their passports are stamped for their initial entrance into the Schengen Area. Failure to have an entry stamp could result in problems later on if you have an encounter with police or immigration authorities and may even result in a fine or deportation.
If following in Ryan and Tomoko’s footsteps in Lithuania and venturing to the Curonion Spit, please be aware that Canadian passport holders are required to hold a visa in order to cross the border at Nida to visit the Russian half. The Russian visa must be obtained before arrival.
Bus and train: All three nations have comprehensive domestic bus networks that reach most parts of the countries. There are also railway lines but in many cases service is slower and more expensive than buses.
Car: In Latvia, only a Canadian driver’s licence valid for one year is necessary to drive, although an International Driving Permit is recommended. Estonia requires a Canadian driver’s licence and an International Driving Permit, while Lithuania requires only a valid Canadian driver’s licence for any stay of less than 90 days. If residing in Lithuania for 185 days or more in one calendar year, it is necessary to obtain a Lithuanian driver’s licence.
Bicycle: Hiring a bike in the capital cities of all three countries and in some rural areas — especially the Curonian Spit — is a great way to get around and see the sights.
When to Go
The Baltic’s weather is similar to that found throughout much of Canada with generally pleasant summers and cold, snowy winters. Situated on a similar latitude to northern Canada, the region’s summers have long days and white nights while winters are dark for much of the time. The best weather is usually found in mid-June to late-August.
Hotels and guesthouses are common, with youth hostels popular in major centres, and B&B-style accommodations becoming more prevalent. Good campsites are available throughout much of the region.
In general, medical facilities and the availability of medical supplies is good in the main cities of all three countries.
Canadian Diplomatic Representation
Estonia and Latvia adopted the Euro in January 2011, while Lithuania switched to it in January 2015.
Estonian is the official language of Estonia, as is Latvian in Latvia, and Lithuanian in Lithuania. Russian is spoken in all three countries by both ethnic Russians and by those educated under the Soviet system. Russian is most common in Latvia and Estonia while least in Lithuania. English is spoken at many tourist centers and by younger citizens.
Estonia: 1.265m (Tallinn 391,000)
Latvia: 1.986m (Riga 621,000)
Lithuania: 2.884m (Vilnius 517,000)
Fantastical Odds & Ends
Assistance: If you have any enquiries or problems while in Riga, Latvia, contact the Tourist Information telephone line on 1188. The line is operated in Latvian, Russian and English 24 hours a day.
Lithuanian: Is the oldest living Indo-European language and is currently spoken by 4 million people.
Crocodile Harry: Australia’s legendary Crocodile Harry, the inspiration for the movie Crocodile Dundee, was actually Latvian. Arvīds Blūmentāls was born in Dundaga, Latvia before emigrating to Australia. You can visit the 13th century Dundaga Castle and see the permanent exhibition dedicated to the great croc hunter!
Beard-lifting: In September 2007, Lithuanian strongman Antanas Kontrimas set a Guinness World Record by lifting a 63.2 kilogram woman 10 centimetres off the ground using only his beard!
Kiiking: In 1996, Estonian Ado Kosk invented the sport of Kiiking. To kiik means to swing in Estonian, and as its name suggests, participants stand in a tall metal swing held in place by foot straps and swing 360 degrees around the top of the swing’s frame, looping the loop in dramatic acts of extreme derring-do. ♦