Ashley Toft explores the three enigmatic Baltic States by bicycle, and reports back on the rich and complex history of each of the fascinating countries and their respective capitals.
Why this trip?
Cycling the Baltic States seemed like the perfect choice of trip for me. It was an area that I knew very little about, and I liked the fact that it covered a lot of ground in three fascinating countries, all in a week. And of course it included the three great historic cities of Vilnius, Riga and Estonia that I had wanted to visit for so long. As a keen cyclist, I was aware that the pedalling would be relatively easy paced, but as it looked like there were a number of longer drives on the trip, the idea of pedalling through the forests and along the coastal paths and beaches of the national parks had great appeal. The reality was all of the above, and so much more.
A rich and complex history
The three historic capitals were all stunningly beautiful, with the old towns in each being surprisingly well preserved, given the region’s location and its turbulent history. The historic centres in Vilnius and Riga boast an amazing number of very beautiful and quite flamboyant Baroque buildings, whereas Tallinn has much more of a medieval feel, with large parts of the old city wall still intact and many of the old stone buildings still standing.
Hearing stories from our Explore Leader, Linas about life behind the Iron Curtain before independence in the early nineties was a real eye opener, including how our hotel in Vilnius was bugged by the KGB and foreign visitors could only meet Lithuanian friends and family inside the hotel. Visits to a well preserved underground nuclear bunker near Riga and a rocket launch site with co-ordinates pointing towards London also helped bring the reality of the Cold War to life.
As always it was the small personal travel experiences (the Explore ‘twists’ as we like to call them) along the way that really made this trip. Getting caught up in a local triathlon near Trakai was certainly memorable; we were clapped like elite athletes as we approached the finish line; little did the crowd know that we were tourists heading for the famous medieval castle nearby. Eating hearty goulash and beetroot soup for lunch in a Soviet style canteen was another real experience, as was trying kybyn (a dumpling filled with lamb or beef, but looking more like a pasty) at a local Karaim restaurant. The Karaim are a Turkish speaking minority group who came to Lithuania originally from Crimea. There are now less than 250 of them left in the country, and they were hospitable and welcoming and unsurprisingly fiercely protective of their cultural heritage.
Something that I hadn’t expected was the variety of food and drink on offer on this trip. The quality was excellent, from smoked fish and caviar to game and salted, pickled and smoked sausages of every type (the German influence!). Also excellent local beers, and unusual herbal liquors which really do grow on you after a while.
Want to know more? Click here to discover the full trip information, highlights and booking avaliability for the Cycling the Baltic States (CBS)