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Monday, 31 October 2016

Looking, Listening, and Learning: Cycling the Baltic States

Written by Dale Fehringer
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Egle, our tour leader, met us in the hotel lobby the night before our tour began. She memorized our names and outlined our agenda, emphasizing that we would be on a tight schedule. We will cover three countries in seven days, she told us, and she wanted to show us the sights and teach us about this part of the world. Then she encouraged us to attend a music festival in the main square and she went home to prepare for the tour.


We were in Vilnius, Lithuania, to begin a cycling tour of the Baltic states (Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia). The tour had been organized by Explore (, a U.K. travel company, which arranged the tour leader, bus, driver, and bicycles. There were 11 of us -- eight Brits and three Americans – representing a variety of ages and backgrounds. It was a cordial group, easy to fit in and easy to get along, and we spent the next week together; cycling, sharing, and developing friendships. Our mutual goal: relax, enjoy each other, and take in as much as possible.



There were a lot of Russians at breakfast the first morning, and people from Poland, Spain, England, and Germany. They were all trying to get into the breakfast room at our hotel at the same time, and it was a feeding frenzy for those who got in. Eventually the young man at the door began to turn them away, telling them there was no more room and they would have to wait until someone left. Why, I wondered, were so many people in Vilnius, from so many countries? After breakfast I went back to our room and looked again at our map. Lithuania is in a central location, readily accessible to all those countries, and tours from all over Europe, Russia, and Asia come here to study the history and see the lakes, forests, and wildlife. So why is this country, which many people in the U.S. haven’t even heard of, so popular?


For one thing, it's easy to get to. There are a variety of airlines that fly here, and an extensive train network from most major European cities. Also, it’s relatively inexpensive. Our meals, for example, cost a fraction of what they would in the U.S. or the U.K., and hotels cost half as much as in Western Europe. There’s a lot to see and do here, too; like hiking, cycling, swimming (in the Baltic Sea), shopping, and sightseeing. And there’s an extensive history here, as well. These countries are on the Baltic Sea shipping route from Western Europe to Moscow, and they have been major ports for hundreds of years.


Because of its central location, Lithuania has been invaded and ruled by outsiders for centuries. In the past 200 years it has been under the control of Russia, Germany, Poland, the Soviet Union, Germany, and the Soviet Union again -- and each of those regimes has been harmful. The Nazis rounded up and murdered most of the Jews, and the Soviets tortured the leaders and oppressed everyone else. Yet Lithuania has retained its identity and its pride, and its people have remained friendly and accommodating.


We cycled today in Trakai Historical National Park, which is an oasis less than 20 miles from Vilnius. It was a peaceful ride through woods and lakes. We happened upon a festival and were treated to women in traditional costumes, local music, and dancing. We toured the ruins of the Trakai Castle, first built in the 14th century, and now a museum of Lithuanian history.


Vilnius, the capital and largest city in Lithuania, is vibrant and feels comfortable and modern. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with a strong history of Jewish influence and a plethora of beautiful churches. Today, it has a government presence, museums, universities, a symphony, and spectacular hilltop views. We assumed we had seen most of it last night when we walked to a street festival and around town. But tonight, Egle, who lives here, took us through side streets, alleys and shops, and we discovered there's a lot more to Vilnius than initially meets the eye. We learned about its history, people, flowers, and art. We saw tiny cafés and craft shops, and we heard its long and difficult past, and how its people bounced back from invasions, mass deportation, and years of terror and oppression. And Egle choked up a little as she told us how the people rebuilt their city after the Soviets left, and how they formed families, and neighborhoods, and cultures. She proudly pointed to a brass plaque in the town square from 2002, when President Bush came to Vilnius to celebrate Lithuania joining NATO. That was a huge occasion for Lithuania, which has been invaded and occupied so many times by its larger, aggressive neighbors. The plaque says: “Anyone who would choose Lithuania as an enemy has also made an enemy of the United States of America.”


Vilnius is an amazing city -- not as much for its looks, although it has a beauty of its own -- but more for its resilience. It has come back many times, and we got the impression that if it needed to, it could come back again.


Baltic Map 


Europe Map



We're still in Lithuania, but on the other (western) end of the country, in a city called Klaipeda, on the Baltic Sea, across the water from Stockholm, Sweden. It was a five hour bus ride across Lithuania, through flat farmlands. Along the way we saw neat wooden farm houses, small villages, and fields of corn, rye, buckwheat, and vegetables. We cycled beside the Curonian Lagoon, which is an important spot to view bird migration, and visited a 19th century lighthouse and an Ornithological Station, where researchers catch, tag, and release birds to study their migration patterns. And, near the end of the day, we pedaled through a forest to fishing villages, where locals have trawled the Baltic Sea since the 16th century.


Our overnight stay in Klaipeda, the third-largest city in Lithuania, was in a large, K-shaped high-rise building built by the Soviets, which now houses a hotel, restaurants, sauna, and casino. Our view included the nearby seaport, with ferries and giant metal cranes used to load and unload ships in the nearby docks. We hadn't heard of Klaipeda, but it turns out to be a very old and important port city, primarily because the water doesn't freeze in the winter. It was once the capital of Prussia, and it's been fought over by Poland, Germany, Sweden, and Russia over the centuries. Today, it's a cruise ship stopover and a major summer resort for people from Lithuania.



Curonian Spit

A short ferry ride away from our hotel is a long sandy stretch of land called the Curonian Spit, which is excellent for cycling and bird watching, which we did today. This beautiful place is connected to Lithuania on one end and to a small, isolated part of Russia on the other end. It's more than 60 miles long, narrow, and covered with sand dunes and forests. In the summer it's crowded with tourists, but today we pretty much had it to ourselves. Narrow trails run through the trees -- perfect for bicycles. This was some of our best cycling ever through dense woods, next to the Baltic Sea, with waves on one side and singing birds on the other. We hiked to the top of Witches’ Hill to see wooden carvings of mythical characters and to hear the stories. We ate mackerel and perch in Nida, a small fishing village, and climbed to the top of a hill to see a gigantic sundial made of stone. Half way up the hill an elderly man stood in the trees playing classical music on a violin. From the top of the hill we could see waves from the Baltic Sea and most of the spit. And, like Sarah Palin, we could see Russia from there. 



Our sojourn through the Baltic States continued today as we cycled through the Giruliai Forest from Klaipeda to the resort of Palanga. Now primarily a summer resort town, Palanga has been around since 1161 when the King of Denmark disembarked there with his army and captured the castle of the Curonians. Various countries have fought for this port and beach city over the centuries, and it is now primarily a summer resort for people from Lithuania, Poland, and Russia. Egle told us her grandmother brought her here as a child to swim in the warm Baltic waters. We enjoyed cycling through the nearby forests and taking in the peace and beauty.


But we needed to move on, so we loaded our bikes, boarded our bus, and went off to Latvia, the middle of the three Baltic states. It was a five-hour bus ride across flat farmland to get to Riga, the capital and largest city. Along the way, Egle told us about this country’s long and varied history, including how in 1986 thousands of men from the Soviet republics (including people from Latvia) were forced by the Soviet Union to go clean up after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Their service was obligatory, she told us, and they did not receive proper safety equipment or training, and they were not informed about the dangers they faced.


Riga is slightly inland, on a river, and it's a very old and diverse city of around 700,000 people. It is sophisticated, and up-to-date in every way. It has an efficient transportation system, good stores and restaurants, lots of culture and entertainment, good schools and universities, and a progressive, democratic government. The residents are educated and industrious, and virtually everyone speaks Latvian, Russian, and English. It's much less expensive than comparable western European cities, so it's a bargain for us western tourists. And, like Lithuania, it has a long and difficult history of occupation and oppression, having obtained its independence from the USSR in 1991.



We followed Egle around Riga on foot to hear the highlights and get the layout of the place. This city was a major power in the 13th–15th centuries, primarily because of trade with central and eastern Europe, and the center of the city reflects the prosperity. Riga is also known for having one of the best collections of art nouveau buildings in Europe, many with elaborate, decorative facades. We finished our tour, boarded our bus, and rode to the nearby resort town of Jurmala, on the Baltic Sea. This has been a vacation destination for wealthy and powerful Russians for decades, and we cycled around town past dozens of incredible seaside mansions and resort hotels, then on to the beach, where we cycled on the hard-packed sand. The weather was perfect, the beach nearly deserted, and it was a great experience to cycle next to the waves.


Back in Riga, we went through a recently-opened Occupation Museum, where we learned about the harsh treatment of the Latvian people by the Germans and Russians during and after the second world war. We were appalled at how badly Latvians were treated and how resilient they have been. A most inspiring story took place in 1989, when (to express their dissatisfaction with Soviet rule) two million people from the three Baltic states formed a human chain, linking hands for over 300 miles, from Tallin, Estonia, through Riga, and to Vilnius, Lithuania. Film footage of the event shows people of all ages holding hands and singing, with looks of determination in their faces, and it proves again that you can keep good people down, but you can’t defeat them.


Like Lithuania, Latvia has been a very pleasant surprise!




Lahemaa National Park

The drive across Latvia to Estonia was across flat lands that look a little like Nebraska -- farmland with tan-colored fields in the foreground and dark trees in the background. Stone farmhouses dot the horizon, occasionally interspersed by small villages with tall, pointed church steeples. Estonia is clean, organized, and slightly wealthier than its neighbors, and like them it has a long history of occupation and struggle. They became independent from the Soviet Union in 1991 and have made remarkable progress since, becoming members of NATO and the EU, and gaining proficiency in technology, industry, and shipping. We enjoyed interacting with the locals who are educated, friendly, proficient in English, and tolerant of the many Russians who vacation here.


We spent most of the day cycling in Lahemaa National Park. This very large and beautiful park is on the northern edge of Estonia, on the Baltic Sea. It features lakes, rivers, forests, and gigantic boulders carried here by glaciers thousands of years ago. We stayed in a former manor house with hand-built wooden furniture and comfortable dormer rooms.



Our bus ride to Tallin was short and scenic through fields of wheat and rye. We enjoyed watching grain being harvested on one side of the road and bales of hay being put up for winter cattle feed on the other side.


Tallinn is a beautiful, medieval walled city with castles, cobblestone streets, and Russian Orthodox, Lutheran, and Catholic churches. We toured the city on foot and appreciated the history, variety of architectural styles, and cleanliness. It was Saturday and the public squares were packed with tourists, mostly Russian, who were buying souvenirs and drinking shots of vodka and beer in enormous steins. Local shopkeepers, dressed in peasant costumes, encouraged us to buy almonds, carved wooden souvenirs, or to eat in their restaurants. We peeked into hidden courtyards, wound down narrow cobblestone streets, and climbed stone staircases to enjoy sweeping views of rivers, castles, and red-roofed buildings, hundreds of years old.


Our group had a farewell dinner at an ancient restaurant called the Pepper Sack, once owned by a spice trader in the 1500's. During our meal some of the waiters dressed in medieval costumes and staged a mock swordfight that was kitschy, but hilarious. We exchanged hugs and said good-bye to each other and to Egle, who had diligently shepherded us around the Baltic states, sharing her knowledge of this part of the world and relating stories of growing up here during Soviet times.



Like Us

Whenever we travel to a part of the world that is new to us, especially if it is a place we know little about, we realize how alike people are throughout the world. Like us, the people of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia have homes, and jobs, and bills. And, like us, they have hopes and dreams, which really aren’t so different from ours. Egle is a good example. She is a mother, a physical therapist, and a tour leader. She has a house, a garden, and a car that she makes payments on. She loves to travel, to learn, and to meet people from other countries. She became a tour leader so she can tell people from other countries what it’s like to live in the Baltic states, and what it was like to live under Soviet rule -- so we won't forget. Like us, she wants to help future generations learn from the past, so they can make better decisions in the future.


This has been a delightful trip! We learned a lot about a surprising and wonderful part of the world. We are looking forward to being home, but we will have terrific memories to take with us.



© Dale Fehringer


Photos © Patty McCrary

Last modified on Tuesday, 01 November 2016