Our bus suddenly grinds to a halt. Somewhere in the middle of the Lithuanian countryside, a handful of people are eagerly waiting to get on. Among them, a guy in his 40s. Faintly resembling Jason Donovan in Neighbours days, though with a moustache, he wears acid-washed jeans and a shimmering pink, purple and teal nylon tracksuit jacket. As he takes his seat behind us, the radio starts blaring Voyage Voyage. If my SmartPhone didn’t tell me otherwise, I could swear it is the year 1989.
Exploring the Baltics often felt like travelling back… to the time the Iron Curtain fell. Maybe it is because 2019 marks the 30th Anniversary of the Baltic Way, which ultimately led to the Baltics regaining their independence. Maybe it is because austere Soviet-era apartment blocks are still as much part of the Baltic streetscape as trolleybuses. Or maybe it is because most older people we approach in English look at us blankly. But when I scramble together some rusty school-Russian, they don’t stop talking.
Whether it is this recent history I share with the Baltics or simply the unpretentious beauty of the Baltics and its peoples, I don’t know: Exploring the Baltics felt familiar yet strange and exciting at the same time.
If it’s your first visit to the Baltics and you wonder what to expect, here are a few things you might want to know.
#1 – What we call the Baltics are three independent states
While we lump them together and call them the Baltics, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia are three different independent countries. Each has its own language and cultural heritage. Lithuanian and Latvian are from the same Indo-European language branch. Estonian on the other hand, as part of the Finno-Ugric language family, has more similarities with Finnish and Hungarian than with Latvian and Lithuanian.
#2 – The Baltic countries are proud of their national identities
What many don’t know (we certainly didn’t): During the 15th century, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was actually the largest country in Europe. No kidding! While Lithuania’s rulers did a bit of land grabbing in the Middles Ages, for centuries, it was the three Baltic countries that had to endure being occupied by other forces: Germans, Danes, Swedes, Poles and Russians conquered and subdued the Baltics at one point or another (often more than once). While being part of other countries, Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian national identities continued to evolve in the communities, through cultural traditions, poems and songs.
Being annexed by the Soviet Union in 1944, all three countries only regained their independence in 1991. It may, therefore, come as no surprise that you will see the national flags and national colours everywhere.
#3 – While some can’t figure out how to BREXIT, the Baltics are pro-European
Because of their history, all three Baltic states are fiercely protective of their independence, seeking NATO and EU membership as early as 2002 (and becoming members in 2004).
There are no physical borders between the three countries. You will see road signs indicating you’re leaving one and entering the other. And between Latvia and Estonia, we saw white and black wooden markers every 20 metres or so. But no one will check your passport: the Baltics are part of the Schengen area.
#4 – Baltic cuisine was shaped by its history… and is delicious
Baltic food is hearty, with influences from the foreign forces that invaded and occupied the Baltics over the centuries: from potatoes in all variations (boiled, fried, in dumpling or pancake form), sausages (including some made with potato puree), pickles and earthy soups, all the way to cheese (including cheese made from apple and little curd cheesecakes) and rye bread (baked, fried… and in fluid form, no kidding). Make sure you try it. It’s delicious.
#5 – What looks like a church is not always a church
Another reminder of the different forces shaping the history of the Baltics are its colourful churches of all denominations: you can find Catholic, Protestant and Eastern Orthodox churches everywhere. During Soviet times, practising religious believes was suppressed, and many churches were re-purposed for non-religious uses. While many churches have been returned to being places of worship, others are still being used as museums, art galleries and (thanks to their great acoustics) concert venues.
#6 – There are many museums and memorials worth a visit
Speaking of museums: all three Baltic countries boast incredibly interesting museums, collections and memorials. Some are very well curated (and even interactive). Others could use a helping hand to make them more accessible to a broader audience. Most museum staff we spoke to were enthusiastic and eager to share their knowledge. So, if something doesn’t make sense, just ask.
Our favourites were:
#7 – English is widely spoken (by people under 40)
If you speak to a person 45+ (for example, when you buy groceries) don’t take their indifference or blank look as being unfriendly (though some older folks really are grumpy… but that’s not only the case in the Baltics). People who are Paul and my age (or older) grew up under the Soviet regime. Which means, Russian was the (foreign) language they learned at school.
If you need advice, approach a person in their 20s or 30s. Chances are they are keen to practice their English (and they speak it very well).
#8 – You have a brilliant business idea? Come to the Baltics
Home to just over 6 million people, the three Baltic states are among the European leaders when it comes to the number of start-ups per capita. Estonia is the birthplace of Skype, TransferWise and Bolt/Taxify. Our email marketing provider MailerLite was founded (and is still headquartered) in Lithuania. Even our short-term rental accommodation hosts in Vilnius both worked in the start-up scene.
#9 – The Baltics are pretty flat (and windy)
The Baltics will not be a favourite for mountain climbers (at least not to practice their climbing skills). The reason: In the Baltics, you can’t climb any higher than 318 metres above sea level. That’s as high as Estonia’s Suur Munamägi (the highest point in the Baltics) gets. Latvia’s and Lithuania’s highest peaks are 312 metres (Gaiziņkalns Hill in Latvia) and 294 metres (Aukštojas Hill in Lithuania), respectively.
Without larger mountains for protection, hardly a day goes by without at least some wind. Which is great to cool you down in summer and if you love kite surfing (which you can do in the Baltic Sea and on many lakes – the Baltics have more than 10,000). But it also means that it can get pretty chilly in the winter months.
#10 – Baltic cities boast stunningly (and some less so) beautiful architecture
While many Western European cities were bombed into oblivion during WWII, Baltic cities, towns and villages survived WWII relatively unscathed. From Romanesque and Gothic medieval old towns to strikingly opulent Art Nouveau streetscapes, you can find it all in the Baltics, (sometimes a little too) well preserved.
Especially in smaller towns and in the countryside, many older houses are made of wood. Given the countries’ forests, wood was a cheap building material. Wood also seems to be making a bit of a come-back: we saw quite a few new builds made from wood (including log houses).
Unfortunately, you can also see the same austere 1960s/1970s apartment blocks all over the Baltics. Made from prefabricated concrete, they have the same footprint: 3-5 storeys high, 3-4 units on each floor, some units with balconies/some without. Some blocks have been renovated with new insulation, new balconies and new paint on the outside. Others still look the same as they did 30 years ago.
#11 – Trolleybuses are (still) a very common mode of transport
All three capital cities and Lithuania’s second-largest city Kaunas have trolleybuses. The only difference between them is the age and colour choices: Our favourites by far were those in Kaunas. The city is about to replace its old trolleybuses (with new ones). To give the old ones the send-off they deserve, the city decided to turn them into street art, making the city extra colourful (what a cool idea).
The three capital cities’ trolleybuses are more boring: Vilnius’ is red and cream coloured (and mostly older). Riga and Tallinn boast modern, blue and white ones. Though it seems Tallinn is planning to replace its trolleybuses altogether.
#12 – Football/Soccer is not the National Sport
While the Baltic states each have their own National Football Team, football/soccer is not their National Sport. Instead, Lithuanians go absolutely nuts for Basketball – the Lithuanian National Team ranks 6th in the FIBA World Ranking. Latvians go bonkers for Ice Hockey – the Latvian National Team ranks 10th in the IIHF Ranking. Estonians love both (though with less success at the international level), and sports and the outdoors in general.