One of the best ways to see the Baltic States is by car. However, most tourists do not venture out of the capital cities of Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius. This is because the Ryanair Effect has most travellers locked into traipsing around these cities for the weekend—but things are changing. If you take a week or more you can explore beyond the picture box postcard cityscapes of narrow streets and plastered houses of the Baltics and venture into a wonderful pastoral existence, where you can see elk, pick wild blueberries and swim in sea with not a soul in site for miles around.
The Great Baltic Touring Route was set up by WRIS, an Estonian travel company. Their aim is to help independent travellers from overseas to explore beyond the cities and get an authentic experience of the Baltic States, including Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
They have teamed up with all the relevant tourism boards and car hire firms such as Hertz and Europcar, as well as SSC Ferries, airBaltic and Estonian Air in order to offer a variety of routes, which are detailed below.
At the beginning of your trip you pick your car up in one city and at the end you drop it off in another. On the way travellers can stay in a variety of authentic properties from manor houses, spas to farm stays. All bookings are done via the Great Baltic Touring Route (GBTR) website. Any problems en-route and WRIS, the travel agent organisers give you a number to call.
Having been to the cities of Riga and Tallinn on separate occasions you soon realise when you get on the road that there is more to the Baltic States than these cities. Estonia’s life is perched between the woodland and the sea. A rolling country framed with birch trees and meadows full of flowers.
Expect good English and a quiet, but discerning people, whether you are visiting the Russian Old Believers on the shores of Lake Peipsi or the Setu minority - like the reindeer herders of Lapland - further south on the border with Russia and Latvia.
The roads are traffic-free, speed limits are adhered to strictly and don’t forget to pay for the petrol/gasoline before you start using the pump. In fact this fly-drive is an easy ride for most drivers. There are no switchbacks or steep inclines and the distances between sites are not large. From north to south, Estonia only measures 240km, from east to west 360km.
Here are some of the highlights of this trip:
In Narva you can see where Estonia has dipped its wick in mother Russia. Predominantly Slavic in nature, two imposing mediaeval castles face each other across the Narva River - the Danish tower looks over to the Russian fortress of Invangorod. Narva is the last stop in the European Union before you hit Russia. You are on the road to St Petersburg here and it has a frontier town feel, and that is its main appeal.
This is Estonia’s Oxford or Cambridge. It is the country’s second largest city and the heartland of the country’s culture - it is believed to be the country’s oldest. A centre for learning - the university was founded in 1632 - the old town is full of winding streets and neo classical buildings. Old cafes and bars are filled with full of young Estonians, check out the University café. Sine the city joined the Hanseatic League old mercantile wooden houses line a number of roads. The fact is Tartu holds a lot of appeal to the traveller.
Riga Central market - the largest market in the Baltic
It is the Baltic States’ largest and most interesting market and occupies five huge Zeppelin hangers built by the Germans in Latvia during the First World War in preparation for the planned bombing of Petrograd.
The bombings never took place and by 1930 the hangars were dismantled and transported to Riga, where they provided the capital with a huge covered market that is still operating today.
The local municipality is trying to preserve the structures and keep the atmosphere alive. It is still full of the old Russian guard even though ten years since independence and over several years since joining EU. It is one of my highlights in the Baltic States. Locally picked cranberries can be purchased along with caviar and Uzbek melons.
Tips for the traveller
For the peak period of June and July, the Estonian Tourist Board suggests the traveller books in January.
Bills must be paid in Estonian kroons or Latvian Lats if credit cards are not accepted.
Never drink and drive - no level of alcohol is permitted. The speed limit is 50 km per hour in built-up areas, 90km per hour in the country and 110 km per hour on motorways. In towns there are parking permits, fines and wheel clamps.
Driving is on the right and EU nationals should be in possession of a national driving licence.
Islands, Spas and Beaches
This coastal route follows the Baltic Sea from the medieval old town of Tallinn, through the historic spa town of Haapsalu, frequented by Tsars and Tchaikovsky, to the white sand beaches of the Estonia’s summer capital, Pärnu.
The route then takes you through some of Estonia’s 1500 islands via the fourteenth century castle at Kuressaare on Saaremaa Island where a ferry links Estonia with Ventspils; the bustling maritime port of Latvia.
From there it’s a short drive to Riga, the historic capital, via the nineteenth century spa town of Jurmala.
(The suggested duration is four nights minimum)
Kingdoms, Churches and the Amber Coast
The route begins in Vilnius with its romantic skyline covered in church spires and crosses. Drive via Trakai lakeside castles to the spa town of Druskininkai, known for its healing salt treatments.
Depart Druskininkai via Grûtas, where here you can visit Lenin and Stalin in the Soviet statue park. Take the back roads to the city of Kaunas, marvel at the view of the old and new towns from surrounding hills and visit the peculiar Devil Museum.
Drive further on towards the western coast of Lithuania to Klaipéda and spend the day exploring the UNESCO world heritage listed national park of the Curonian Spit.
Venture only as far as Nida, the town believed to be gradually disappearing into the sea, where Lithuania ends and the Russian Kaliningrad begins. Stay overnight in Klaipéda but wake up early and head to Palanga, the lively summer capital of Lithuania, to see the stunning sunrise from the beach. Journey back to Riga via the hill of crosses at Diauliai.
(Suggested duration: 4 nights minimum)
Empires, Manor Houses and Castles
The inland route takes you east of Tallinn via the fishing villages of Estonia’s famous Lahemaa National Park to some of the best preserved German manor houses in the country.
As the border with Russia approaches, you have the opportunity of visiting the secret Stalin era USSR ‘closed town’ of Sillamäe before viewing the historic fault line of competing empires at Narva Castle as it faces Ivangorod Castle in Russia.
The route then winds its way along the sandy beaches of Lake Peipsi through the villages and onion dome orthodox churches of Russian Old Believers to the cultural heart of Estonia; the eternally youthful historic university town of Tartu.
From there you head south into Latvia and the spectacular Knights of the Sword crusader castle of Csis before heading to Riga via Gauja National Park.
(Suggested duration: 4 nights minimum)
The Great Baltic Touring Route is fully supported by:
Wris Travel Agency,
Narva mnt 7 D
Contact: +372 612 9140.
Website address: http://www.wris.ee
By Nick Easen