We left Helsinki by way of the nicest ferry that either of us have ever taken (the boat literally was a cruise ship), and arrived in Tallinn, Estonia two hours later. We spent the next couple days enjoying what the Baltic countries have to offer.
The capital of each country provided a glimpse into the countries’ turbulent pasts. The ‘old town’/down town area in each supplied us with a view of the medieval period, while the suburbs provided a window into the mid 1900’s with the communist bloc apartment buildings and large television towers off in the distance.
While Tallinn’s sister city is Helsinki (only 2 hours by ferry), quite a big difference can be seen between the two due to the Soviet occupation of Tallinn during the twentieth century. However, it is clear that Tallinn has spent a great deal in the past couple of decades to upgrade its infrastructure.
The Run Down (Tallinn):
Our only day in Tallinn happened to be during one of its biggest holidays of the year. For that reason we were not able to visit the museums that we wanted; however, we were able to visit the below sites…
- Castle – the castle is situated up on a hill and provides great views of Tallinn. This castle’s history starts in the 13th century and is still used today by the current president. This site also played a role in one of the most fascinating, peaceful protests in history. During the Soviet occupation a human chain was formed that started at this castle and spanned all the way through Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuanian to another castle in Lithuania. The human chain was almost 420 miles and made up of over 2 million people.
- Main Square – the main square features a couple interesting attractions including the oldest pharmacy that is still used today, the town hall, and one of the smallest houses in the town.
- City Wall – Andy was super excited that we were able to climb to the top of the medieval wall that surrounds the city. The views from the wall were pretty spectacular, and it was interesting to see the city as they would in the 1400’s.
From Tallinn, we caught a bus down to Vilnius, Lithuania. We crossed through Riga, Latvia, but had already stopped there during our layover.
We had 2 full days to explore the city, but in hindsight we wish we had booked one more as the KGB museum was closed both days we were there. While the KGB museum was a bust, we still had 2 packed days to wander the city.
The Run Down (Vilnius):
- Hill of Three Crosses – The Hill of Three Crosses is one of the most iconic structures in Vilnius, and it can be seen from many vantage points throughout the city. Visitors can actually go right to the foot of the crosses if they are willing to do a 20 minute hike from from the Old Town.
- Gediminas Tower – The Gediminias Tower is part of an old castle/fortification that dates back to the 15th century. It sits atop a small hill to the north of the Old Town. From the top of the tower we had a truly spectacular panoramic of the entire city – certainly a must do for anyone visiting Vilnius.
- Vilnius Cathedral – We found the massive paintings, sculptures, and other religious symbols to be awe inspiring. The Vilnius Cathedral also had some particularly interesting history. For one, Vilnius is known as “the last pagan nation in Europe” as it was the last country to adopt Christianity in Europe in the 1300’s, so this Cathedral was built shortly after that. Another interesting historical tidbit we learned was that during the Soviet occupation the clergy, fearing destruction of the Cathedral’s treasures, hid them in a bricked up alcove where they remained for several hundred years. These have since been rediscovered and are now on display.
- Vilnius Cathedral Crypts – Inside the crypts are the tombs of many famous people from the country’s history, including members of the Royal family. The crypts were sealed for many years, and when they were finally reopened they had several feet of water in them, and a jumble of remains was basically just stirring about. The tour guide was very enthusiastic, and made the tour really interesting!
- Vilnius Cathedral Bell Tower – The bell tower of the cathedral was actually converted from its original use as a defensive tower of a castle from a bygone era. We trotted up the seemingly endless steps to the top and had another amazing view of the city. In the below picture you can see a view form the bell tower including the cathedral, castle, three crosses, and a palace.
- Andy’s Birth Day – MOST importantly, Andy turned 30 in Lithuania! To celebrate we did our usual tour of the city, but also splurged on some traditional Lithuanian food at a nice restaurant. Happy Birthday Andy!!!!
- Other Odds and Ends – We experienced one cultural oddity related to the bottled water in Vilnius entirely by accident. In Lithuania one of the popular water choices (flavors?) is, essentially, a salty mineral water. We accidentally purchased one of these and our first sip was certainly a shock. Andy compared it to taking a drink from the ocean while trying not to spit the contents out in the middle of the street.