We decided to pick up our pace after leaving Russia.
Stepping off the train in Helsinki we set out to cover four countries in less time than we typically take for one, only to spend two nights in each before moving on.
Helsinki was a bit of cultural shock after China, Mongolia, and Russia. There weren’t many sites to see, but there was something refreshing about being back in the West: everyone spoke English, we could read characters on street signs, restaurants weren’t filled with smoke, cars actually slowed when we crossed the street. We made our way around by walking and taking the efficient tram system to the National Museum of Finland and the Senate Square with the iconic Lutheran church that was far more impressive from the outside.
Twenty minutes on a ferry took us to Fort Soumelina, the sea fortress that played a crucial role in the country’s history during the Swedish-Russian War and Finnish Civil War and is now preserved as an UNESCO world heritage site. While we arrived after the tourist season to find all of its historic buildings closed we had the island mostly to ourselves.
Finland is among a handful of Northern countries that farm reindeer for their meat. Every restaurant served it. I tried it once and was hooked – it had a distinct, gamey taste. Sarah wasn’t a fan, but I ended up ordering it for every meal: reindeer soup, reindeer steak, reindeer over mashed potatoes.
No trip to Finland, no matter how short, would be complete without a visit to a Finnish Sauna. The sauna is an integral part of its culture – the country of five million people has two million saunas. Even our hotel had one, but since it was being renovated, we went to a public one that was housed in its own building (rather than part of a gym) and separated by gender. We showed up early afternoon when it was empty but the after work crowd soon joined mine. It was a very social affair – people would come at a few at a time, sit around in the sweltering heat while chatting in Finnish, leave to lounge outside on plastic chairs while having a beer or playing Jenga, and then return. After a few cycles my skin felt very clean and all my pores had opened – neither Sarah nor I had used saunas much at home but plan to change that.
Thousands of Finns each day cross the Baltic Sea to shop or spend the day in far cheaper Estonia. We joined them and boarded possibly the largest boat I’ve ever been on for the two hour journey to Estonia’s capital Tallinn.
Prior to the twentieth century, the states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania had unique histories; afterward they have been intertwined. All were granted independence from the Russian empire in 1917, occupied by the Soviets and the Nazis during WW2, forced to join the Soviet Union afterward, granted independence in 1991, and admitted to the European Union in 2004.
Today the countries felt very similar – each had an “old city” with cobblestone roads and historic buildings surrounded by a newer city of modern ones. Busses from the same company took us between their capitals without border controls. Even tour guides often failed to make a distinction between the three – a building was described as the biggest/oldest/tallest in the Baltic States.
Besides the unique languages and separate currencies, each country did have a slightly different feel.
“Disneyland” is the word to best describe Tallinn’s old city. Surrounded by an outer brick wall, inside its gates were winding streets without trash and clean red roof buildings free of graffiti.
Stores only sold quality merchandise without tacky t-shirts or I-love-Tallinn mugs. Western European tourists have made the city a premier weekend destination of the continent by arriving in droves and filling its restaurants and bars.
We met an American couple (currently ex-pats in Dublin) and explored the city with them, climbing to the top of the tallest church, exploring a museum in the city walls, and taking a city tour by a college student that ended with us dancing an Estonian folk dance in the middle of the town square.
Latvia’s capital Riga was a grittier version of Tallinn.
Its old city was less contained than Tallinn’s, with large glass buildings abutting historic ones. It felt less safe – we were warned to avoid certain nightspots that had a reputation for shaking down tourists.
The city’s powerful occupation museum detailed life under Soviet and Nazi occupation, which although was specific to the occupation of Latvia, described the experience shared by Estonia and Lithuania. I found it most surprising that the Latvians bore as much anger towards the Soviets as they did the Nazis.
Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, had fewer tourists and people speaking English. It wasn’t quite clear where the old city ended and the new began.
Vilnius had the requisite older buildings, several churches, and cobblestone streets but also unique areas. The Uzupio section of the city had been declared independent by hippies who posted their own 41 point constitution in eleven languages. (Rule #13: A cat is not obliged to love its owner, but must help in time of need.)
The highlight of Vilnius for us was seeing American friends of ours, formerly of New York, who now work for the US State Department. We visited their palatial accommodations where we caught up and had a chance to have a rare home cooked meal.
We finished our Baltic States tour with a day trip to Trakai, population 7000, and former home to Lithuania’s famous Grand Duke Gediminas during the 14th century. The town is now an official historic park, has the most lakes in the country, and in an attempt to relive its glorious 700 year old past, has rebuilt the castle on its lake destroyed long ago.
After four consecutive large capital cities, walking through the picturesque area was a relaxing end to our visit to the region.