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Baltic Travel Notes PDF Printable Version E-mail


The Baltic Republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania

Some Travellers' Observations

Barry and Margaret Williamson
October 2009

These notes are from our third visit to the Baltic Republics, travelling south in the autumn of 2009. Our first visit had been in 1999, travelling north and we travelled there again in 2006. There was much to compare and contrast in the many changes that have occurred in the intervening years. Between previous journeys along the west (Baltic coastal) side of the countries, with time in each of the capital cites, and this journey along the northern and eastern (Russia and Belarus) borders, we feel that we have begun to know these complex and very different countries. But much remains to learn.

This time we entered Estonia from Finland, crossing the Baltic on the Helsinki-Tallinn ferry (about 2 hours), and left Lithuania for north-eastern Poland by road at the border crossing between Kalvarija and Suwalki. Schengen rules throughout Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Finland, so the borders are open, unlike those of the UK. All EU citizens have a right to live, work and move freely in any and all of these countries.


More information is provided in our detailed, illustrated daily travel log of our 900-km (560-mile), 25-day motorhome journey this year, and in our accounts of previous journeys in 1999 and 2006.

Have a look at: http://www.magbaztravels.com/content/category/8/87/30/  .

For galleries and slide shows of images, try: http://www.magbaztravels.com/index.php?option=com_zoom&Itemid=26&catid=225

Size :
These are all small countries, perhaps now viable only as constituent members of the European Union.

Estonia           Area:  45,226 sq km      (18% of the British Isles).
                      Population:  1.3 million   (2% of the British Isles)
Latvia            Area:  64,589 sq km      (26% of the British Isles).
                     Population:  2.25 million  (4% of the British Isles)
Lithuania       Area:  65,303 sq km       (27% of the British Isles).
                    Population:  3.4 million    (6% of the British Isles)

You can see from these figures that the density of population in the UK is 6 times that of the total for the Baltic Republics: 241 people per sq km in the UK compared with 39 in the Republics.

Currency: Prices are often quoted in euros and all three countries are really keen to join the zone. We obtained local currencies from widespread ATM's, but our supply of euros from Finland would have been acceptable in many places, except small local shops. Receipts often showed the amount in both euros and local currency. Many campings, larger shops and all hotels and petrol stations, even in remote areas, willingly accepted our Visa card. We found Lithuania more reluctant to accept cards– the large campsite at the tourist hot spot of Trakai demanded local currency or euros, nor would its restaurant take anything but cash. 

At the time of travel in September and October 2009, the currencies and exchange rates were as follows:

Estonia:       Currency Kroon (Kr)  = 100 senti       1 Euro  15.65 Kr (or EEK)
Latvia       Currency Lat (Ls)        = 100 santims   1 Euro     0.70 Ls
Lithuania   Currency Lit (Lt)         = 100 centai      1 Euro     3.45 Lt

These rates against the euro are stable as each country prepares to enter the euro zone, something which we heartily approve. Sadly, the UK pound/euro exchange rate is quite unstable.

Moving on to Poland (currency the Zloty at 4.2 to the UK pound) makes it all just like the old days, inside what is now the euro zone. Sweden to Poland on our route still involves 6 currencies, with only Finland using the euro! Local currency has to be spent or changed or obtained at each border and exchange rates have to be carried in the head or on a piece of paper for each transaction. How many Kroons to the euro and how many euros to the pound? The numerically challenged need a pocket calculator. In any case, our notion of the exchange rate never agrees with the one used later by our friendly neighbourhood bank back in the UK (or should that be Shanghai or Hong Kong?) - the HSBC. No wonder they can afford to give themselves large bonuses.

Borders: All three Baltic Republics, Finland and Poland are member of the Schengen Agreement, so the borders are open. Passing from Estonia into Latvia and Latvia into Lithuania, we didn't need to show a passport or to slow down, except to photograph the road sign welcoming us to the next country. Crossing the border into or out of Russia or Belarus is, of course, an entirely different matter, involving visas, carnets, expense, an invitation, patience and forward planning!

Geography: The highest point in the Baltic Republics is barely 1,000 ft (318 m) in Estonia. For the most part the countries are flat in the west (the Baltic coast) with rolling hills in the bucolic east (along the Russian and Belarus borders). Forests and lakes are not on a scale to equal those in the nearby countries of Sweden, Finland and Poland, but still occupy a major part of each Republic. 51% of Estonia, 45% of Latvia and 33% of Lithuania is covered in forest of mixed deciduous and pine trees.

The Baltic coast is low-lying and sandy. 'Cliffs' as high as 30 metres (100 ft) on Estonia's north coast draw crowds to stand and wonder. Estonia has 1,521 islands in the Baltic - Latvia and Lithuania have none. The Curonian sand spit, crossing the border between Lithuania and Kaliningrad (the strangely detached piece of Russia), is of great interest. Starting in the industrial port of Klaipeda, it runs south for about 30 miles before continuing into the hard-to-enter Russian enclave. At this point there is a very expensive Lithuanian campsite, or you can take a boat across the lagoon contained by the spit and onto the mainland at Silute. The spit phenomenon (under threat from pollution, deforestation, Russian oil extraction, tourism and global warming) is repeated further south in Poland, near Gdansk.

Each country has its own language which, to our alert eyes and ears, appear to be entirely unrelated to each other or to anything else we have ever seen or heard. The high proportion of Russians remaining in each of the countries adds another level of linguistic challenge. Unusually, our collective sound grasp of English, German, Latin and French is of little help. Fortunately many of the younger locals do make some attempt at English, often with a slight American accent absorbed from too much TV, DVD, computer games, songs and computerised voices.

Estonian, a Baltic-Finnic branch of the Finno-Ugric language group, barely survived the centuries of occupation by Russian and German aggressors. It was preserved by oral folk traditions among peasants, which were then collected and published as recently as 1860. The language contains 14 cases (English nouns have two), no future tense (that's nice), declining adjectives (we often do) and no articles (English has two and we have too many). However, we have heard children as young as two speaking Estonian, so it can't be as hard as it seems.

Latvian is one of only two survivors of the Baltic branch of the Indo-European language family. Less than half the small population speak it (Russian is equally popular) and English is making great inroads. The Latvian for the UK is 'Apvienota Karaliste' and Germany is 'Vacija': now where did that come from?

Not surprisingly, Lithuanian is the second of the two survivors of the Baltic branch of the Indo-European language family. Many of its forms have remained unchanged for longer than other members of the family (Greek, Latin, etc) and so it bears a direct relationship to Sanskrit. More recently, English words are becoming incorporated into the language, so all aboard the 'Autobuso'.

Having experienced Finnish, these three languages, Russian and then Polish, all in a row, we looked forward to getting back to Greek, the oldest language still spoken in Europe (as it takes so long to learn).

Modern History: All three Baltic Republics have had to make the transition from being a part of the USSR, ruled from Moscow, to membership of the EU, Schengen and NATO, all in 18 years. From the criminal Leninist/Stalinist version of Marxism to the full-blown Anglo/American version of Capitalism, red only in tooth and claw. No wonder many older people look more than a little startled.

The Baltics have a fascinating modern history, although it's all a bit vague before the last century. The stories (their founding myths) are of tribes riding in from Central Asia on little ponies; then heroic struggles against conquests by the Russians and Germans (and sometimes the Swedes or the Danes), all taking it in turns. A very few memorials mark earlier battles, like the early 18th century Northern War between Danes/Swedes and Russians in eastern Estonia. Most monuments record World War II German atrocities, including 100,000 Jews shot in the head in the forest, 5 miles from the centre of Vilnius, capital of Lithuania. Another 100,000 were murdered in a camp at Salaspils near Latvia's capital, Riga: part of the 175,000 Latvians who were ultimately exterminated or deported. There are monuments to the failed fight alongside the Germans to stop the Russians in 1944, and to the murderous activities of the Russians and the KGB. The torture cells of the KGB in the centre of Vilnius, now a tourist attraction, lie just across the way from McDonalds, encapsulating all that has changed.

Let us not forget to count our own blessings, as well as those bestowed on these benighted countries (and many others) by Regan, Thatcher, Bush Snr, Kohl and, not least, Mikhail Gorbachev. Yes!

What is left now from almost 50 years of Russian occupation are the obsolete decaying industrial and military remnants of enforced membership of the USSR. Many Russians themselves remain: in Riga, Latvia's capital, they are in a majority. On our 2009 journey along the eastern border regions of the three countries - borders with Russia and then Belarus - we heard much Russian and met many a babushka walking the road with her shopping bag, headscarf, long coat and wellies, wearing a look of pained resignation born of long suffering. How sad to see them counting their small coins for a little treat of a bar of chocolate in the local Supermarket Palace of Capitalist Culture. In Bulgaria, the rash of modern German supermarkets are called 'museums' - look at the display but don't touch! 

Capitalism is making rapid strides, most particularly in Estonia (always closely allied and influenced by Finland across the narrow Baltic Sea) and Lithuania (now with an open border to Poland, with Germany just over the horizon). Latvia seemed to us to be struggling, particularly away from the bustling capital of Riga. The roads were terrible, the villages unreformed, shops limited, houses and flats unimproved and the people looking dowdy and withdrawn. Latvia also seemed to contain more than any country's fair share of derelict industrial plant and little sign of new industry. Not as run down as Bulgaria, not by any means, but certainly poorer than its two Baltic neighbours.

Roads and Driving: Latvia had the worst roads by far; many are still made of mud or gravel and even main roads can have sections of gravel. Where improvements had been made, they were literally patchy! Patched roads with potholes made for a slow and uncomfortable ride, almost as bad as Romania. Where bitumen had been laid, it was in sections as if the money had run out (or gone somewhere else) at some stage.

Lithuania has the best roads, with even some back country roads through forests having a coat of smooth bitumen. Estonia is somewhere between, not as good as Lithuania but certainly not as badly shod as Latvia.

Books for tourists such as the 'Rough Planet' and the FCO travel website,  among others, warn of bad driving, blaming the usual East European dis-ease of former Trabant and Lada owners going beserk in a fourth or fifth-hand Mercedes, probably stolen from West Germany. Some of that is true but it is all relative. After Greece, Romania and Bulgaria, not to mention Italy and India, we felt at-ease. We saw no foreign-registered cars, other than Russian, making us a novelty which perhaps helped. There is no courtesy on the road (this is very much an English custom) and offers of courtesy, such as pulling over to enable overtaking on a narrow road, are met with puzzlement and indecision.

Fuel: We use 95 octane lead-free petrol, which is widely available at service stations staffed for long hours on 7 days a week. On every occasion in all 3 countries, our visa card was accepted with no problems, though we were sometimes asked to pay before filling. The price in Estonia was 87 UK pence per litre and in Latvia 86 pence. Diesel would have been even cheaper.

LPG was available without difficulty in Latvia. After being a rarity in Sweden and Estonia (and completely absent in Finland), this was good news. The cost is less than half that of petrol.

The mains electrical supply was steady and without interruption, in our experience of being hooked up on campsites and elsewhere. However, there may be problems with the future of the supply, especially in Lithuania, which entered the EU with two Chernobyl-type reactors. One has been closed down at the EU's behest; the other is due to close this year. It will cost nearly 4 billion euros to decommission these monsters and a similar figure to replace them with a modern and safer equivalent. Meanwhile all three countries rely on the big, kind and cuddly Bear next door for their gas supplies.

Camping: The Dutch club ACSI  lists 30 campsites in Estonia, 30 in Latvia and 15 in Lithuania. The sites tend to be on the Baltic coast, near the respective capital cities or in tourist hot spots in the lake districts. A few sites stay open all year and offer winter sports. In the shoulder season between summer and winter, they can be very quiet: in late September and early October we stayed on ten campsites in total across the 3 countries and were always alone.

There are marked differences between Estonia and Latvia on the one hand and Lithuania on the other. For example, in autumn 2009 we found camping prices were low in Estonia (typically 8 or 9 euros for a motorhome, 2 adults + electricity) and Latvia (average 10 euros) but much higher in Lithuania (more like 20 euros). With the UK pound at a low ebb (or has the tide gone out and stayed out, prior to a tsunami?) against the euro, this can make for financial difficulties in Lithuania. Here motorhomes and caravans are charged considerably more than tents. Therefore foreigners (who have caravans and motorhomes) pay more, while locals (who have tents) pay less - a little like the old days when there were three price bands in campsites and hotels: for locals, people from friendly 'socialist' countries and people from (unfriendly) capitalist countries. Guess who paid most.

In Estonia and Latvia, the camping is usually part of a restaurant, hotel, guest house or holiday park with a spare piece of land - sometimes sloping grass, sometimes a level car park. This arrangement usually includes the use of hotel toilets and the loan of a key to a hotel room or sauna or swimming pool for an excellent shower. An electrical hook up is provided: it could be the same one used in the winter for the heater that keeps a parked car's engine from freezing. And, of course, the hotel or holiday centre usually has a restaurant.

Lithuania tends to have traditional campsites, with electrical hook ups, a toilet/ shower block and sometimes a restaurant. This may be one reason why they are more expensive - they need the money to keep open. It's not a sideline to a more profitable business.

All camping places included free access to the internet from Reception, via WiFi or a computer open to public use. UK campsites have much to learn from this – both the Caravan Club and the Camping & Caravanning Club, on their few sites offering WiFi, charge something like £3 an hour or £6 per day.

Food and Drink: Throughout these three countries, tap water usually has a metallic taste and a brownish tinge: our electric kettle took on a brown patina. All this reflects the source of the water: it's pumped from the ground. Two tank fills we had were OK, but at most places the water was undrinkable despite filtration and boiling. Even taking a hotel or campsite shower could be unpleasant at times, with a strong metallic smell. Drinking water is sold cheaply in 1.5- and 5-litre plastic bottles in the supermarkets but we were only once forced to fall back on it. The moral is to fill your containers when you may!

Supermarkets are plentiful in number and well stocked. Unlike many other Eastern European countries, we didn't see any that were overtly foreign (eg Lidl, Aldi, Kaufland, Tesco, Dia, Carrefour). Prices were perhaps half of their equivalent in many West European countries and the quality of fresh food, local fruit and vegetables, etc was good.

Eating in restaurants was inexpensive: basic but tasty. Service was rudimentary but one could see that they were trying! Ten euros could buy two main dishes, with potato and salad garnish, along with water or a soft drink each and perhaps a simple dessert. In common with all East European countries of our experience, the basic cuisine is dominated by the pig, the chicken and the potato. In the Baltics, as in Finland, 'fresh vegetables' on a menu means sauerkraut and/or tomatoes and cucumber. Burger and Pizza places are also available in the cities, slowly extending their hold on the nations' appetites and waistlines.

We don't tend to consume the drug ethyl alcohol in its various solutions, but we did notice that the locals didn't share our views and tastes. Long rows of supermarket shelves are devoted to bottles of many different shapes and sizes containing liquids of varying hues, the favourite being clear and labelled Vodka.

Friendliness: Not really. We experienced little spontaneous friendliness - we were left alone and largely ignored, even if clearly in need of help when, for example, we were lost. Younger people working in the tourist industry had been trained to be helpful and spoke some English or German. It was a joy to see a hotel receptionist force a group of French visitors to grapple with speaking English!

Tourist Information: It seems that much EU money has been devoted to developing tourism, particularly as a source of employment and income in rural areas. Tourist Offices are present in towns and large villages, although they are sometimes hidden away and unsigned inside a local government bureaucracy. You need the map they will provide in order to find them! As many as four young ladies at a time may work inside and they look uniformly but pleasantly startled when a foreigner actually walks in. If English doesn't work, try German. Or just help yourself to the many excellent large-scale local maps, accommodation/camping lists and details of local 'Tourist Objects' as they might be called. Internet access is also available at Tourist Offices, though it may be limited to a few minutes and you may have to stand at the keyboard. (We believe it is also freely available at libraries in the Baltic countries, though we didn't try them as we had regular access through campsite WiFi.)

Not least, a Tourist Office may well have detailed maps of local cycle routes, varying from a few kilometres to 50 or more. The TI in Kraslava gave us (free) a beautiful spiral-bound detailed guide to 44 cycle rides in the Lake District across the Latvian/Lithuanian border. Each ride has a detailed map, description, photographs, phone number for local accommodation and tourist attractions. The only negatives we could see was its use of German and of gravel roads. But cyclists are a tough breed and should be able to cope with both. Which brings us to …

Cycling: We saw little evidence of leisure cycling – just a few locals riding their old utilitarian bikes. However, a lot of work has been put into developing a series of short circular rides in many areas. Our own experience is that there is scope for much longer rides on quiet roads through forests and past lakes, particularly on the eastern side of the countries. Free camping with a tent would be OK and inexpensive, simple accommodation is widely available and many campsites also have cabins. In our autumn we had some good day rides, deterred from touring only by the rain and the high winds.

Cycle shops are few and far between - we guess you would have to go to one of the capital cities to obtain any parts for a modern western bicycle. Local machines still have one gear, a back-pedalling brake, metal mudguards and cotter pins!

Things to Do: We are reminded of Peter Sellers' penultimate film 'Being There'. Often that's enough, for the observant traveller in the Baltics with a receptive and analytical mind. On the other hand, the capital cities have all the usual amenities of theatre, museum, book shop, bar, pub, sauna, restaurant, night club, good hotels, old buildings, churches, and places where Jews used to live and work, etc. The Baltic Coast and the extensive Lake Districts provide every kind of boating and water sports. Quiet roads, tracks and forests welcome the reclusive, the wanderer and the cyclist. There are places to ski in winter. Only the mountaineer could be disappointed!

The Lonely Planet suggests a three-week tour of all three countries for those wanting to see former military installation, largely from the Soviet era. Missile sites, bunkers, radio telescopes, nuclear power plants, Stalinist architecture, submarine pens, airfields, etc - they are all there. There are also many preserved and well-displayed and documented sites associated with the Holocaust during the German occupation 1941-1944. Not just Jews but Gypsies, Liberals, Communists and Resistance Fighters were lined up on the edge of pits they had dug themselves, then shot in the back of the head by intrepid members of the SS Einsatzkommando. Museums of Genocide in the capital cities tell it all.

Safety: We felt and were safe, even when camping alone for the night in the remote, unlit fields and parking lots of semi-closed campsites. Guide books and the FCO website warn only of dangers from petty crime in the major cities - pick-pockets, muggings, scams, drink-spiking, credit card cloning, etc. The usual things.

Conclusion: Moving steadily forward within the body of Europe, the three Baltic Republics face a greatly improving future, eager to join the Euro zone. Schengen, positive encouragement for cycling, good public transport, widespread free WiFi, open access to vast areas of forest and lake - how far behind can the UK get?