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Latvia and Estonia

Updated: Nov 12, 2020

Each of the Baltic States are surprisingly different, yet have many interesting similarities, all of which have made them what they are today. To brag on Lithuania a bit, they once represented one of the most powerful nations on earth, which made it easy for them to break away from the Soviet Union in 1990 and reestablish its own government. Both Latvia and Estonia, on the other hand, have been ruled by other powers for as long as history allows us to see. In fact, each of them only have about 60 years of independence, and that time has come only in the 20th century, broken up by wars and occupations during that time as well. It’s no surprise then that 30 years ago, when they were independent once more, that they had no idea what to do. Riots broke out in the streets, police were attacking and robbing civilians, and chaos ensued. So, what are they like today?

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Even though each of these countries belong to the European Union and there are no border checks, there are still few transport options that will actually take you across the border. We found a bus from Siauliai in Lithuania that would take us north and hopped on board. With a promise of being in Riga, the capital of Latvia, in two hours, we were on our way.

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Upon exiting the bus station in Riga exactly two hours after departing (go efficiency!), we stepped out into a Soviet world… at least at first glance. Nothing was run down, but things were decidedly gray in the immediate vicinity. Our thoughts quickly changed however as we walked the 10 minutes to our apartment and the city center quickly revealed itself to have a neat, modern feel surrounded by countless beautiful old buildings. We couldn’t help but smile as we anticipated exploring the city.

Downtown Riga

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I don’t exactly know what caused the turn around, but Riga has a good grasp on who it is today, and the cobbled streets are very safe and incredible to visit. We made sure to get lost as often as possible wandering through the quiet alleyways, ducking into churches and old guild halls from the time of the Renaissance. Packed with park land within the city center, we had no trouble finding some shade when temperatures reached 30 degrees (90 for you Yankees). One of our favorite areas was actually back near the bus station, where 5 old zeppelin hangers have been converted into a large scale food market. Fresh breads, meats, fruits, etc. were all at our fingertips, and what’s cooler than being in a zeppelin hanger? I’ve never done that before! We were hoping to discover more information on the town with a walking tour but probably due to the morning rain we faced, the guide didn’t show up. Oh well.

Old Guild house

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Parkland

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A really pretty city

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After Riga, we stayed in Latvia but traveled north to the small town of Cēsis, which I’m still not entirely sure how to pronounce. Tay-sis? See-sis? Anyway, Cēsis sits in the middle of a large natural park land which is home to several castles and lots of history. Some 800 to 900 years ago, tired of crusading south to the Holy Land, the Church decided it was time to Christianize the last pagan peoples of Europe. A large number of German Crusaders then occupied this area and settled it, setting up all these castles and ruling over the local people from there.

Cēsis

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With Latvia at a crossroads between Lithuania, Sweden, and Russia, it has long been a battleground and has changed hands many times over the years. Venturing just south of Cēsis to the town of Sigulda, we spent the day walking through forested land from castle to castle (more often castle ruin) to see these impressive medieval works. Even walking through the forest was notable, at least until we encountered a few places on the path where the previous night’s storm had toppled some trees. Not to be deterred, we scaled the obstacles and got to see everything we set forth to do.

Small obstacles in our path

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Cool castle ruins

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Another former castle

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Turinga Castle and national parkland

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Cēsis itself is a very charming town that we spent a day exploring. Not big by any means, it has just a few main streets that are dotted with a few restaurants and many beautiful old buildings. The town has a castle of its own, which was in my opinion the most impressive one we’d seen in the region. Instead of installing modern lighting, we were given lanterns to explore the castle with, making for a bit more of an authentic experience. Similar to Riga the town also has some beautiful parks which we often eat lunch in, and they usually have some fun playgrounds for Ethan as well.

Cēsis Castle

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Torchbearers

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Leaving Latvia was logistically the hardest thing to plan during our time in the Baltics. Trains are very infrequent and schedules do not align, so creativity is rewarded. We ended up taking a train to the border of Estonia, and then booking a bus to take us to our destination, with less than 30 minutes of transfer time, I was a little worried when our train showed up late, but our bus at the border ended up running even later so we had no trouble with the connection. We arrived in the city of Tartu in Estonia at around 10:30 in the evening, but being this far north, the sun was just then setting. It rises again around 4:00 every morning, so thank goodness for shades! I can’t even imagine what it is like to be even further north where in the summer the sun never sets. Next trip, perhaps!

Tartu by night

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As we pulled into Tartu in southeastern Estonia, we were shocked by how modern the area was. The bus station sat between two or three malls, and everything was all lit up all fancy like. We had come to Tartu for the old town and the historic side, but did we come to the right place?

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After getting some sleep, we set out the following morning to search for the old part of the city. It only took us a 10 minute stroll from those malls to be transported back in time 500 years to the Estonia of old. We found ourselves back on cobbled stones looking up at the beautiful old Town hall building in the main square, with its bells that play our their melodies at various hours of the day. It was also easy to spot the massive university, founded 400 years ago and still well in use, with over 20,000 students in attendance.

Downtown Tartu

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We ended up doing a self-guided tour of Tartu using a booklet we got at the tourist information center to learn more about the history and buildings in the town. The city, which turns out to be the second largest in Estonia, has created or attracted many famous outstanding scientists and doctors throughout the ages (although I don’t think I’ve heard of any of them), who have contributed to knowledge we now have about our planet, the universe, and medicine. Although some of the city was destroyed during World War II (they were victims of circumstance), there were still some old churches and a section of the city that survived the bombings.

Tartu town hall

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Who's that hottie taking a photo?

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Tartu University

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From Tartu we took a relaxing train to Estonia’s capital of Tallinn. As much as I hate to admit it, for such a young country, Tallinn is the most beautiful city we visited in the Baltics. Like Latvia, Estonia was ruled by the Russians until World War I when the government upheaval in Russia allowed them 30 years of independence. The now Soviets used the cover of World War 2 to retake the country, but lost it for 4 years during the war to Germany. Unfortunately the Soviets did a lot of damage retaking the country and didn’t give it back up until 1990, where it’s been independent ever since.

Look at that city

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Estonia though has been forged while under foreign rule, and their recorded history starts when the Danes (and shortly after, the Germans) took over the small village where Tallinn now stands exactly 800 years ago. In fact, of all things the Estonians were having a celebration of the Danish occupation when we arrived. Kind of a strange thing to celebrate, isn’t it? Well, between the Danes, Germans, Swedes, and eventually the Russians, Tallinn and Estonia are what they are today. And, as I was getting to a few paragraphs ago, it is a really amazing place.

Tallinn

We spent several days in Tallinn itself, and even did 2 walking tours to be able to bring you all this wonderful information. During the second tour I even got to play the part of a nobleman as we learned about the history there. Ethan got to be a hero in one of the tales! We made sure to wander the streets on our own as well checking out all the neat homes, churches, government buildings, old walls, medieval towers, and the like. With so much to see, and the celebration going on around the city with music and activities, I don’t think we ever would have gotten tired of it.

That's Lord Noah to you!

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Everywhere you look

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Party time

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We did manage to take a day and drive out into the countryside with a rental car we picked up in the city. Lahemaa National Park, just an hour outside of Tallinn, was the perfect place to discover nature. We first stopped at Viru bog, where we wandered on wooden boardwalks through the mossy marsh before returning back to the car through pine forest. We then drove to the fishing village of Kasmu to see some coastal nature, and were also lucky enough to see some pretty old manor houses once owned by the local fish captains. Finally, on the way back to town we made a quick stop at Jagala waterfall, which at only 8 meters is still one of Estonia’s tallest. Not too bad for a really flat country!

Viru Bog

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Along the coast

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Quiet Kasmu

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Jagala Falls

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Although our time in the Baltics was relatively short, we were really blessed by our time here, and really glad we came. From being able to meet family for the first time to seeing so many natural and man-made wonders, I can only hope that we can return soon to see everything we’ve missed and maybe even find a way to add Russia to the mix. Even while traveling I’m always planning those future trips! For now, I’ll just have to settle on taking a ferry across the Baltic Sea to our next new region of Europe, Scandinavia! I’m not bummed about that at all! Stay tuned!

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