Baltics to the Balkans

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June 28th 2012
Published: July 14th 2012
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Estonia - old city walls TallinnEstonia - old city walls TallinnEstonia - old city walls Tallinn

View from our hotel - it was just getting dark at midnight.
Our twenty-five day trip through Eastern Europe provided us with an insight into quite a different corner of the continent that we had not experienced before. In the course of our trip we experienced many differences in climate, geography, language, culture and religion.

One common thread was that the countries we visited had all suffered from the dead hand of communism. This is very obvious visually, with the ugly grey housing blocks that greeted us as we approached the various cities that we visited. Occasionally we experienced the off-handed "what do I care" communist service ethic in stores and on public transport.

All countries we visited had also shared the traumatic and tumultuous effects of the two world wars and, in the Balkan countries, much more recent conflict. Moving around was easy for us. We were able to make the most of the extensive network of bus and train links that efficiently connect all the major centres. It was good to be able to sit back, relax and enjoy the view as well as meeting a few of the locals.

We started our trip with a flight to Tallinn, capital of Estonia, and northernmost of the three Baltic
Tallinn - Oldest operating pharmacy in EuropeTallinn - Oldest operating pharmacy in EuropeTallinn - Oldest operating pharmacy in Europe

This pharmacy opened its doors over 500 years ago. Some of the medications were bizarre. It has a great view over the beautifully preserved medieval square.
states. It is just across a narrow strait from Helsinki and roughly on the same latitude as the northern tip of Scotland - so short nights and cool days.

Estonia was quick to embrace the opportunity to become part of Western Europe and was the first East European country to join the EU and NATO. Interestingly it is one of the most tech savvy countries with WiFi in buses, trains and even out in the forest.

Our hotel overlooked the walls of the Old Town which was full of beautiful medieval streets and squares.

A four hour coach trip took us down to Riga, capital of Latvia. Yet another manageable city of half a million with its own distinctive feel. This has to be the art nouveau capital of Europe. At the turn of the 20th century a local school of architects produced many streets lined with the most unusual and beautifully decorated facades. We were completely taken by this style and became very snap happy.

Lithuania is the third in this trio of Baltic countries and we travelled first to Klaipeda on the Baltic coast. This historic former Prussian city is famous for the Curonian
Tallinn - view over the old town.Tallinn - view over the old town.Tallinn - view over the old town.

Easy to lose your way.
Spit, a 100 km narrow stretch of forest-covered sand, similar to Fraser Island. The Spit lies just off the coast and we spent a fun day cycling through the pine forests and along sand dunes.

There were plenty of locals on the beach enjoying the sun but no takers for a swim - at 11deg C easy to understand!

Another four hour coach trip and we arrived in Vilnius, the capital, where we spent three days. Our hotel was on the edge of the Old Town's former Jewish Quarter. Vilnius was one of the most important European centres for Jewish culture up until WWII with about 90 000 (one third of the population) people living in the Jewish Quarter. The population was wiped out by the Nazis and the Quarter is eerily quiet. We visited the only Synagogue remaining and spoke to a guide who told us there are only a couple of hundred Jews left in the city.

Lithuania is famous for its lakes. We spent a day at Trakia, about 30km out of the city.Here a very romantic castle sits on an island in the middle of the lakes. To get to the castle we
Riga - Russian Orthodox churchRiga - Russian Orthodox churchRiga - Russian Orthodox church

This interesting building was constructed in the traditional way from timber.
had to cross two small bridges linking two small islands. This was a festival weekend with celebrations which we enjoyed being part of.

Just as Tallinn has its medieval architecture and Riga its art nouveau, so Vilnius has its grand baroque. We saw some magnificent churches and monasteries in this style.

We flew from Vilnius to Krakow in southern Poland. This beautiful city, which was once the royal capital of Poland, had been recommended by many fellow travellers and we could understand why. Our five days here gave us plenty of opportunity to explore some of the sights.

Our first evening was quite memorable as Poland, along with Ukraine, was hosting the Euro 2012 Football Cup. On this evening Poland was playing Russia. We sat in with locals and really enjoyed the excitement as Poland unexpectedly drew 1-1. With the reaction of the locals you would have thought they had thrashed Russia as the whole town really went off, with plenty of noise and colour and thousands celebrating in the main square!

This happy feeling was contrasted greatly with our visit to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp complex, 50km from the city. It was hard to imagine
Riga - Orthodox churchRiga - Orthodox churchRiga - Orthodox church

There is always plenty of incense, chanting and bells in these services.
the despair and suffering that occurred here for almost four years. Definitely a place to visit for anyone who doubts the Holocaust.

The Wieliczk Salt Mines, just out of Krakow, were an amazing place to visit. Salt has been mined here for a thousand years. We walked down about 150m underground and in our three hour visit saw only about 1% of the whole complex. There are huge cathedral-size caverns carved into the salt with the walls lined with religious icons and statues, all carved out of salt - even the chandeliers are made from salt. There is a convention centre and concert hall with regular performances - a cool spot away from the summer heat.

The vast Rynek Square in the centre of Old Krakow is lined with outdoor cafes and restaurants. On one corner stands a huge cathedral with two massive towers. On the hour, every hour, a trumpeter plays an unfinished tune from the four corners at the top of the tower. Supposedly this goes back to the 15th century when the Tartar hordes were attacking the city and the warning was sounded but an arrow from one of the invaders ensured the warning was
Riga - Blackheads Guild Building Riga - Blackheads Guild Building Riga - Blackheads Guild Building

The original building dated back to the 15th C. It was partially destroyed in WWII and demolished by the Soviets.
never completed.....good legend!

After the flat country we had seen so far our next coach trip took us through the beautiful Tatra Mountains and into Slovakia to the capital, Bratislava. The approach to the city was very ordinary but we were pleasantly surprised by the atmospheric Old Town with its small squares and narrow streets. A plaque on one old building commemorated a performance by Mozart ....he was six years old!

A short train trip took us along the Danube to Budapest, a city we had enjoyed on an earlier trip.

A full day's train trip south brought us to Sarajevo, capital of Bosnia. The last few hours of this 12 hour trip took us through heavily forested valleys dotted with small villages. It was quite a novelty to see minarets of the mosques increasing in number as we went further into the country.

The three days we spent in Sarajevo were fascinating. The Old Town with its narrow, cobble-stone streets lined with coffee shops and stalls had a real Middle Eastern feel to it. The local food and delicacies (read icecream and pastries) were quite up to the standard we had heard about.

Riga - Art Nouveau spectacularRiga - Art Nouveau spectacularRiga - Art Nouveau spectacular

Riga is justifiably famous for its streets lined with Art Nouveau buildings. We loved them.
city is still recovering from the infamous four year siege which only ended in 1996. All in all 13 000 citizens, including 1 300 children, were killed during this time. There is still evidence everywhere, with bullet-pocked walls and shells of buildings. We walked down the infamous Sniper Alley where hundreds of people were killed or wounded just going about their normal daily activities.

We spoke to a number of young people who really grew up without a childhood, but no real bitterness, only hope for the future. It seemed a bit ironic that a town where a Catholic cathedral, Orthodox cathedral, Synagogue and main mosque are all within a ten minute walking distance, was subject to such an attempt of ethnic cleansing.

Another spectacular train ride, through no less than 60 tunnels, brought us to Mostar, where we spent a night. The 14 degree temperatures of the Baltics faded quickly as we walked out from our hotel into the 44deg heat! At this time of the year evenings are definitely when you venture out to see this little town with its famous bridge.

Another day another border - this time down into Croatia and along the
Art Nouveau RigaArt Nouveau RigaArt Nouveau Riga

Every building had something different.
beautiful Dalmatian coast to Split. We had spent a couple of days here on a previous trip but, nevertheless, enjoyed revisiting the 3rd century palace built for the Roman Emperor, Diocletian, as his retirement pad! In the evening the famous waterfront esplanade was as busy as ever with locals and tourists promenading.

More spectacular scenery through northern Croatia brought us to the capital Zagreb, a very elegant small city.

Our final destination was the tiny country of Slovenia, wedged in between Croatia and Italy. Its capital Ljubljana was described as being a mini version of Paris and Prague without the crowds. This picturesque little city lived up to that description.

We had a day trip to Lake Bled, in the foothills of the Julian Alps, about 60km from the capital. This picture postcard lake has an island with a 15th century Gothic church and is overlooked by a classic castle. We walked the 5km around the lake taking far more photos than usual as it looked so good!

Back to London with plenty of happy memories of an interesting corner of Europe.

Additional photos below
Photos: 46, Displayed: 28


Art Nouveau - RigaArt Nouveau - Riga
Art Nouveau - Riga

We visited an apartment which was decorated in the original art nouveau style, including this intriguing staircase.
Art Nouveau interiorArt Nouveau interior
Art Nouveau interior

Furniture, light fittings and even table settings were all in the same style.
Klaipeda, Lithuania -coffee to goKlaipeda, Lithuania -coffee to go
Klaipeda, Lithuania -coffee to go

Enjoying a coffee while waiting to catch the ferry to take us over to the Curonian Spit.
Curonian Spit Baltic beach Curonian Spit Baltic beach
Curonian Spit Baltic beach

A few locals were enjoying the sun but not the water - it was freezing.
Fun in the forestFun in the forest
Fun in the forest

We spent a day cycling through the pine forest and sand dunes.
Helpful signage - Curonian SpitHelpful signage - Curonian Spit
Helpful signage - Curonian Spit

There is a beach for everybody.
Trakia - LithuaniaTrakia - Lithuania
Trakia - Lithuania

To reach this island castle you had to cross over two small islands...or go by boat.
Trakia island castleTrakia island castle
Trakia island castle

Our visit coincided with a local festival with plenty of celebrations.
Vilnius cathedralVilnius cathedral
Vilnius cathedral

Built in the style of a Roman temple. The Communists removed the religious symbols and used it as a car repair workshop.
Vilnius BaroqueVilnius Baroque
Vilnius Baroque

Even this Russian Orthodox church was decorated in the Baroque style.
Vilnius - The Choral SynagogueVilnius - The Choral Synagogue
Vilnius - The Choral Synagogue

Before WWII there were over a hundred synagogues and more than 80000 Jews. Now there are barely enough for a congregation. This building survived because the Nazis used it as a storage facility.

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