In a little corner of North Eastern Europe lie three of the continents smallest and least visited countries. The Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania rarely make international headlines and have a combined population of just 6.5 million people (roughly the same as London). However in recent times the explosion of budget air travel in Europe has led to many travellers discovering this charming region.
Although the three countries have different linguistic and cultural traditions, they also have much in common and a strong bond exists between the Baltic neighbours. The history for each follows a general theme of brief fledgling periods of independence followed by a longer period of foreign occupation. For half of the 20th Century they were a part of the Soviet Union but their traditional cultures somehow survived life behind the Iron Curtain and flourished again as the trio gained independence in the early 1990’s. Each nation has changed significantly in the two decades since then and they have become strong and stable members of the European Union which has helped attract more visitors to the region.
The northernmost and smallest of the three is Estonia but it has enjoyed perhaps the smoothest transition to post-independence life. Estonia has a slightly different make-up to the other two countries with a non Indo-European language and close cultural links to Finland, a short hop across the Baltic Sea.
Tallinn situated on the shores of the Baltic is a beautiful medieval city that has certainly retained all of it’s ancient charm. The winter certainly adds to its appeal when snow covers the glorious castle and fortress that overlooks the more modern parts of the Estonian capital. There are also some fascinating museums such as the Museum of Occupation which documents the long struggle for independence. It’s exhibits include the story of how Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians formed a two million strong human chain in 1989 connecting the three capital cities in a peaceful protest at Soviet rule.
Fast-forward to 2013, Tallinn and also the Latvian capital of Riga have developed a reputation for having some of the hottest nightlife in Europe. Although the gap is closing the region remains much cheaper than Western Europe and alcohol prices here are perhaps a third of what they would be in nearby Scandinavia. Over the past decade the region’s cities have therefore become an increasingly popular place for foreigners looking to party. Admittedly some joints are a little bit shady, the better bars aren’t hard to find with a combination of cosy cellar bars and lively night-clubs catering for all tastes.
Most visitors to this region are on short trips to one of the capitals. That said there are many other interesting places to discover and you can even work out a full backpacking route for this corner of Europe. Tartu, in southern Estonia is a charming riverside university town worth visiting for a day meanwhile over the border in Latvia, Sigulda is perhaps the highlight. The town has a mysterious feel with castles and caves while adventurous travellers will enjoy hurtling themselves down the Sigulda bobsleigh track.
The largest of the three Baltic States is Lithuania but it is still relatively small and travelling between any two towns rarely takes more than a couple of hours. The special architecture and old town of Vilnius rival that of any of the great ancient cities in Europe. Other towns of interest include coastal Klaipeda famous for entertaining summer festivals and the cultural hub of Kaunas in the heart of the country. There is also some lovely countryside and several national parks in Lithuania while the giant sand dunes and beaches of the Curonian Spit are a pleasant summer attraction.