If your geography is as bad as mine, you might be saying, “Baltic states? Where’s that?” Okay, I just learned that the Baltic states include Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Situated snugly next to each other in central Europe, they’re just northeast of Poland and close by or on the bay across from Sweden and Finland.
Lithuania is best known to me because a woman who hailed from there once helped me clean my house for a time. She cleaned houses two days a week, worked as a medical technician two days a week, and saved the other days to sail and travel and just generally enjoy herself. I found out later she had been a physician in Lithuania, but the U.S. would not accept her credentials. I loved her indomitable spirit and zest for life!
Today Lithuania is an increasingly popular travel destination, both for those with a personal connection and for those who simply want to appreciate a different culture. The Lithuanian language is related to ancient Sanskrit and Greek and is second only to English in the richness of its vocabulary. Lithuanians are crazy about basketball, so they’re quite modern in that way and in many others. Visitors to the Old Town center of Vilnius, the capital, will find a multitude of visual and performing arts, lots of cafes and many vendors of amber, linen and high fashion. Vilnius has been recognized as having the cleanest air of any European capital. Plus you can easily see more by visiting several other significant cities within short driving distances from Vilnius – one of which is Birzai, home of beer in Lithuania and named by the NY Times as one of the world’s top 46 places to visit.
As Kestutis Ambrozaitis, who operates Lithuanian Tours, said about his favorite tours, “For good or bad, all big cities across the world are becoming more alike.” He prefers to take his guests into the countryside to meet the rural residents of these beautiful countries. Each one of the Baltic states has huge forested areas and rolling hills full of small cottages and homes. It’s traditional for hosts, when visitors come to their homes in Lithuania, to greet them by offering the country’s special dry cottage cheese (with or without caraway seeds) along with a dish of honey for dripping. And although Kestutis says he’s tried the amber tea – amber is said to have healing properties – he recommends the amber vodka for a much greater effect.
One sight you may not want to miss in Lithuania is The Hill of the Crosses where you’ll see 200,000 different individual crucifixes, all uniquely designed. For more details, check out www.Lithuania.travel.
A full 50% of Latvians live in the capital city of Riga. The other 50% live in the countryside, and most Latvians speak English. Highlights of a visit to Latvia might include a beer bath or an amber massage. You might end up spending the night in one of the several manor houses or castles that have been turned into visitor lodgings. And there are plenty more that are just charming visitor attractions. You can enjoy 310 miles of beaches. Find much about Jewish and Soviet history. The central market boasts 1000 stalls full of wares. Find out more at www.laltvia.travel
Estonia, the smallest of the Baltic states and one of the smallest nations in Europe, is two hours by air from London or Paris and only an hour and a half by boat from Finland. Estonia has occupied the same piece of ground for the past 10,000 years, and they are well-settled, and most of them speak English.
Well-known for its huge Christmas market, the winter days are 6 hours long and the summer days 19 hours. The country is 55% forests and 20% bogs – the the World Health Organization ranks Estonia the cleanest air in the whole world. Residents are huge nature lovers. They even have nature cameras set up in the wild to observe the animals – by season they may be trained on eagles, bears, seals or others. Fishing is a year-round activity here. And golfers will be interested to hear of the many natural-landscape – not manmade – courses available for play.
In winter you can drive across the sea on 30 kilometers of ice roads – they say all the rules of the road reverse when you drive on ice. The country is mad for technology – their motto is “Wifi is a basic human right.” They are heavy users of e-voting, e-prescriptions, e-schools, mobile payment systems, and digital signatures – contracts signed at a distance. Tourists from the nearby Nordic area always seem to want to come back to this forward-looking and beautiful country. Find out more at www.visitestonia.com.