Brave Baltics, Brave Hearts
The Baltic countries are found along the Baltic Sea in northern Europe. They’re made up of the former Soviet republics of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, with Russian exclave Kaliningrad often thrown into the mix. These countries vary in culture and language, in part because of the patchwork of dominant European powers throughout their history, from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Baltic Germans to the Swedish crown.
Eventually all came under Soviet rule.
- Estonia’s 13th century capital, Tallinn, survived wars and fires with its medieval, cobbled town center. Yet quaintness aside, Tallinn is listed as one of the world’s top 10 digital cities.
- Highlight: The Song Festival grounds, where Estonians sang banned national songs in 1988 that led to the overthrow of that country’s Soviet rule.
- Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius, is vast, with more than 70 streets and 1,500 historic buildings set aside for preservation. This includes the landmark Vilnius Cathedral, today filled with Catholic believers for Mass in a place used as a warehouse during Soviet times.
- Highlight: The ominous KGB museum with its history of spies, torture, and intrigue. It’s sobering to stand in a jail cell where political prisoners were interrogated and killed.
- Little Latvia’s capital, Riga, is the largest city in that country, earning UNESCO status for the wooden architecture and Art Nouveau buildings in its historic town center.
- Highlight: Famed concerts in the landmark 12th century Dome Cathedral, featuring one of Europe’s most historic organs.
And what about Kaliningrad? It’s an exclave, meaning it’s surrounded on all sides by countries other than the one that rules it – in this case, Russia, 200 miles away. The city isn’t UNESCO-listed, but getting there is. Travelers can drive along the 60-mile-long UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Curonian Spit to get to this ice-free port town, a highly restricted, closed military area during Soviet times.
Just a few months later, Lithuania was the first republic to bravely reclaim its independence from the Soviet Union, later followed by Estonia and Latvia. Today all three are members of the European Union.
Brave hearts, indeed. But then, it’s the Baltic way.
(Top photo credit: Jaak Nilson/Estonian Tourist Board)
PUBLISHED: January 18, 2014