We have been blessed with the adorable Pamela working at the Holysmoke office for the last few weeks so we asked her to pen a blog on one of her favourite trips. She has done many but loved St Petersburg by night so she choose the Baltic States.
Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia are three small but outstanding countries which have become Europe’s tourist surprises. The old medieval towns in each capital have vibrant night life, cobbled streets, colourful painted houses and are far from the drab and dull Soviet republics some people still believe them to be.
Having never been on a long coach tour, I decide that 16 days through the Baltic States via Belarus to St Petersburg, covering 1,000 kilometres, will be ideal. As much as a coach can be upmarket, this is first class with comfortable reclining seats and enormous windows. All tours and meals are thrown in so this is going to be a breeze.
The tour director, Pommy Johnny, welcomes us on board in Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius. Now living in St Petersburg, his knowledge of the area, the history and the language turns out to be a major plus.
The Hill of Crosses in northern Lithuania
Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia are members of the European Union,” he explains “and are a gentle introduction to the area. “Belarus is somewhat stuck in the past but is representative of the real Soviet Union and then there’s St Petersburg, the most beautiful city in the world but I’m biased.”
Vilnius, with its gothic and baroque old town is not bad itself. The skyline’s full of centuries old Russian Orthodox and Catholic churches The cafes, in the narrow winding streets, are especially good for people-watching. In this part of the world, people smile back, even at the somewhat serious site of The Hill of Crosses in northern Lithuania.
On the road, Pommy Johnny, in between jokes, brings us up to date on the next country with geography, history, politics, salaries, costs, exchange rates and a travel journal. Nothing left to know. It’s great.
Once in Riga, Latvia’s capital, I instantly determine that this revitalised and magnetic city lives up to expectations. It definitely rivals Prague as another of Europe’s most popular cities. With large, open parks, an historic section, its own Art Nouveau architecture and great nightlife, it’s no surprise to discover that the people have a determination to leave behind the old Soviet image. While holding on to its historic charm, it’s evident by the new glassy and glossy buildings springing up and the amount of new Mercs, BMWs and Volvos strutting their stuff, that Riga’s economy is in good shape.
As the smallest of all three Baltic States, Estonia has the longest coastline, with lots of spa resorts, where taking a sauna is a national pastime. The capital, Tallinn, a cruise ship port, has set a strong trend in fashion and design. This enchanting city, with great views from Toompea Hill, is a blend of old medieval and ultra-modern buildings like the very stylish shopping centre, Viru where passengers spend serious Estonian Kroon. The café culture is thriving and the coffee’s as good as anywhere. Art deco buildings are being restored, new trendy cars are in the streets and the people are prosperous. Another great place to people watch.
This is where Johnny’s knowledge of Russian and its people comes in handy. As we sit in the coach at the Estonia/Russia border, having handed over our passports, Johnny spends over two hours arguing, or so it seems, with custom officers. After checking and rechecking various passport stamps and matching photos to passengers, we cross into Russia. No smiles here. I’ll never know if Johnny helped or not but it would’ve taken lots longer had he not known the language he claims. I expect, no matter what, it’s never a quick or straightforward border crossing.
At sunset in St Petersburg, we relax on a barge cruise, sailing under some of the 342 bridges and past the sheer grandeur of Russia’s imperial capital, a dazzling metropolis, showcasing mansions and palaces all undoubtedly housing a treasure trove of art and culture.
A visit to the Hermitage for half a day is far too short. How can you see such a display of bewildering artifacts from Egyptian mummies to Picassos to exquisite furniture in a few hours? They reckon there’s something like three million items here. And then there’s the Russian Museum, spread over four palaces, with the best collection of Russian art in the world.
And the elaborate Petrodvorets, often referred to as the “Russian Versailles” and the fortress of St Peter and Paul all must be seen. The whole city is a magical open air museum. It’s bewildering all right. I think I’ll learn Russian and go back – still so many places to see.
Tallinn, the capital of Estonia
- Visas are required for Russia
- ATMs are readily available for local money.
- Best time to visit Russia and Eastern Europe is May-June or September- October to avoid crowds and miss winter.
* Photography: Pamela Wright