Just enough off the beaten path
I often get asked where to visit in Europe after you have seen the main attractions (think Eiffel Tower, Rome, London, etc). One of my suggestions is to visit the former Soviet Republics, such as Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia. These countries aren't far distance wise (there are several non-stop flights...Ryan Air even flies to some locations), but the experience is different from what you find in many other parts of Europe.
This photo is from a (restored) caste just outside of Vilnius, Lithuania (called Trakai Castle). I mention the restored part because many old buildings in Europe are as they have been for hundreds of years, with only minor restorations. However, in Lithunia the older buildings were allowed to crumble and were not maintained for many years (under Soviet rule). After gaining independence, they have restored many of the cultural centers based on what they looked like in their prime. If I didn't know this castle had been restored, I would have had no idea. The supplies used in restoration were as close to the original materials as possible.
Vilnius is the capital city, but has a smaller town feel with a river running through the city. It is one of the greenest capitals in Europe....both in terms of green space and environmental regulations. The city is very walkable and I found everyone to be very friendly.
As you may have figured out, I love food! Lithuania had lots of great food that I had never tried before---this photo is of potato pancakes (which I've had many times), but on the menu were probably no less than 30 varieties. This was with an egg and onion. Lithuania is also known for kibiny (spellings vary) which are handheld, dough pockets filled with one of many options. The best part is that it was easy to try the local specialties as the prices are quite low....this potato pancake dish was about $2 (even with table service in a restaurant) and kibiny were closer to $1 and two would make a meal.
Moving on to Estonia, many people experience the capital city of Tallinn on a Baltic cruise (I did as well---we were sailing on Seabourn). The old city is fairly compact and can easily be seen during the 6 or 8 hours of a port stop.
If you look close, you can see one of the cruise ships in the background. It is a short 5 to 10 minute drive from the port to the old town and many cruise lines have bus service (it is included in the price with Seabourn and around $10 for other cruise lines).
One thing I noticed in Tallinn was all of the churches of various denominations. There were more than 10 churches right in the city center, many open to the public and several with museums inside.
The most memorable part of my visit was my stop at the Museum of Occupations. As the title hints at, this museum is dedicated to the history of Estonia told through who was occupying the country. It is a fairly small, but the exhibits tell the very personal story of Estonians and how their life changed during the time the country wasn't independent. I learned so much from this museum, I would 100% recommend it. It is about a 5 minute walk outside of the old city.
I visited Riga, Lativa in 2009 and it was my first exposure to an Eastern European country. There is a similar museum of occupation in Riga and I left feeling completely ignorant as I knew nothing about this part of the world (other than it has been under Soviet rule). I also had no idea that there were concentration camps in Latvia. I literally found out this fact looking a tourist brochure showing tours available. I hired a guide and went to the camp about 40 minutes outside the city---I was expecting something along the lines of Auschwitz in that it would be a surviving camp...like with buildings. What I saw was much more powerful in a lot of ways....the camp is now completely in ruins with a simple monument documenting the location. When news spread that troops were coming to liberate the camp, the guards set fire to the camp. There were very few survivors. All that is left is a few concrete foundations. My mind filled in too many blanks and I was quite emotional. My guide also took me to a mass burial site which is marked today with a simple marker. It was an uncomfortable visit, but I felt like I wanted to know more about the history and the guide was essential in giving me that background---had I hired a driver only to take me there I wouldn't have known what I was looking at.
A visit to Riga isn't all depressing. In town there is a new section with high rise buildings next to the old town, so it is easy to mix current day life with history. I wish I could post photos, but after searching for hours, I can't seem to find my jump drive from 2009 (a hazard of moving all the time!!). Trust me, the city is beautiful and worth a visit. A few cruise lines stop near Riga or the airport is just a short drive from the city.
All of the cities I mention are great to visit over a weekend or 3 days. They all have plenty of accommodation and restaurant options and the prices are very reasonable. In addition the the history I mention, there is also plenty to do in terms of entertainment (Riga is known for having an excellent ballet), shopping and a thriving culinary scene. Please feel free to get in touch if I can help you plan a visit.
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Tracey is the owner of Unraveled Travel and has traveled to every continent (thanks to the recent visit to Antarctica!