Baltic states: Beneath a Russian veil in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia

Visiting charming old towns is as easy as one-two-three on an organised overland tour, writes Bob Wallace.

If there is a single word germane to the Baltic states, other than Baltic, it is “Russia”.
The three small countries that snuggle up alongside each other along the cool southern shore of the Baltic Sea re-emerged in 1991 as states independent of the old Soviet Union, but they still share a common mistrust about Russia and a spectre of re-occupation.

Russia has certainly left its mark on Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. The language is still in frequent use in some areas (more so in Latvia and Estonia), holidaymakers and Russian-owned holiday homes are still evident, and places like the distinctive art nouveau buildings of Latvian capital Riga are in the hands of property-banking Russians. Then there are the intermittent games of Baltic chess between Russia and Nato when the armed forces make moves that reinforce the Red imminence.

Tallinn is a pleasant blend of medieval tranquillity and modern urban life, with two routes down to its old town — Long Leg St and Short Leg St. Here you can take in a castle (Toompea) and the old town hall, as well as religious landmarks. There’s the 13th century Dome Church — also known as St Mary’s Cathedral, formerly Catholic now Lutheran — and the much grander Russian Orthodox church, Alexander Nevsky Cathedral; a chimeric building that can take 2000 worshippers under its five fancy onion domes.

Tallinn’s old town buzzes in the summer with its many shops, galleries, markets and cafes. Ill Draakon is as much an experience as a place to eat, with its candlelight, brusque service from staff in medieval period costumes, coarse crockery and no-frills furniture. The food, including its famed elk soup, is fine, by the way.

The tour continued from Tallinn, via a ferry ride across the Gulf of Finland to Helsinki, then around by road to St Petersburg, Vladimir Putin’s home town, where Russia means Russia. But that’s another story.

And what about the basket of optional extras that we decided to purchase en bloc? In summary, well worth the money. Coincidentally, both the best and most mediocre experiences occurred in Riga.

The most underwhelming was the ethnographical open-air museum outside the city (others obviously knew better — we were the only part of the group who went there). And the most unexpectedly (for me) enchanting option was an organ concert at the Riga Doms (cathedral), featuring Latvian organist Ilona Birgele, assisted by local soprano Evita Zalite.

In a word, outstanding. Or as the Latvians would say: “izcils”.




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