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Poland and the Baltic Countries 2013 (1)

Poland and the Baltic Countries 2013 (1)

Four World Heritage Sites in four capitals of four countries in eight days. That was my plan. It seemed possible, but I was unsure of it being wise.

I mean, a flashpacker is travelling like a backpacker but on a larger budget. That’s what I have grown into becoming. The challenge of this trip around the Baltic Sea would be in another sense of “flash”; it would have to go fast. My biggest question was if it would be too fast to really get an idea of what my destinations were about. Would I be paying the places enough respect to limit my stay to 48 hours, each?

On a balancing weight the answer to that question could have been on the negative side, meaning no. The fact is that my conclusion was more balanced on this one too. As a matter of fact, I do believe I got a fair idea of what my destinations are.

On the other side of that imaginary weight I had put these arguments:

I was not basically visiting the four countries of Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. My ambition was to visit the Old Towns of the four capitals of these countries. The Old Towns are all UNESCO World Heritage Sites. This narrows the scope quite a lot. In short, ambitions are aligned with realism.

Although I’m ambivalent about it, I do tick off countries and World Heritage Sites, as evidenced here. My plan would give me three new countries and four more sites.

To make it simple: Yes, it’s possible and yes, it’s not too much to cover in eight days. This trip was great and I loved it. That’s the reason I’m publishing this introduction article, as an argument for others to do the same.

 

Poland - Warsaw (Warszawa) - Aerial view of the Old Town

Rooftops in the Old Town of Warsaw

 

About the four countries

I will be presenting the places more in depth in the upcoming four articles, but here is an overview.

Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia are all democratic states and members of the European Union and of NATO. Each country has its own language, and its own history as independent states sometime in history. The three Baltic States in particular all have a large minority group, Russians. All four have a coastline along the southern and eastern shores of the Baltic Sea.

Poland has a large population, around 38.5 million. Lithuania (3 million), Latvia (2 million) and Estonia (1.2 million) are considerably smaller.

All countries have throughout history been challenged, conquered, sacked, ruled and split by stronger neighbours. The Danes once had a strong presence in Estonia; Sweden once dominated the other Baltic countries. By far the most influential foreign powers have been the Germans and the very large neighbour to the east, Russia. Germanic knights, Hanseatic traders (and Dutch), German immigrants and later on Nazi-German occupying forces have had profound effects on the development of these four nation-states.

Likewise, and in particular during the 20th century, Russia has been the dominating foreign power in this region. Poland was split into two by Stalin and Hitler, igniting World War II. After the war Poland would be forcibly entwined with a number of other states in the Warsaw Pact, behind the Iron Curtain. The three Baltic States were not allowed to be separate states like Poland, but was included in the USSR, forming a union with Russia. They regained their independence in 1990-1991.

 

Estonia - Pärnu

My bus from Riga to Tallinn, here at Pärnu

 

Getting around

I had booked plane tickets to Warsaw (Poland) and out of the region from Tallinn (Estonia). The four capitals are laid out nicely like puppets on a string on a roughly south to north axis. There are 1,058 km by road from Warsaw via Vilnius and Riga to Tallinn. It is only just over four hours by bus between each of the three northern capitals, and tickets to luxury coaches can be purchased online 15-30 EUR apiece.

All countries being members of the EU, and with Schengen border regulations, meant that there would be no border complications.

I decided on not taking trains – they are not the proper means of transportation in these countries. On the other hand there are bus routes just about anywhere. The online purchase task was very easy, and I used this bus company for all my three legs: LuxExpress. They offered cheap and very comfortable transportation on luxury buses: good seats, free drinks (water and coffee), monitors on the back of the seat ahead with a number of videos and video games for individual free consumption, and free Wifi. More importantly, they left and arrived on time.

The bus stations of these four capitals were all very organised and easy to find your way in. Some of them were even located so close to the Old Towns that I was able to walk to and from my hotel.

 

Estonia - Tallinn

Watchtower and medieval city wall in Tallinn

 

This was my itinerary

Warsaw: Arrival at noon on Day 1, departure at midnight Day 2. One night at the Castle Hotel. The night bus takes about 9 hours.

Vilnius: Arrival in the morning of Day 3, departure  in the afternoon of Day 4 for Riga. One night at the City Gate Hotel. The bus to Riga took 4-5 hours.

Riga: Arrival late evening on Day 4, departure in the evening of Day 6 for Tallinn. Two nights at the Wellton Old Riga Palace Hotel. The bus took 4-5 hours.

Tallinn: Arrival late at night on Day 6, departure by air around noon on Day 8. Two nights at the Taanilinna Hotel.

The hotel links are to the agencies I booked through. Researching several places as I usually do I ended up with Booking.com and Venere.com, two agencies I have good experience with. I was looking for reasonably priced hotels inside or very close to the Old Towns. They all met my criteria.

I might add that I went the week before Christmas. All capitals were decorated for the holidays, and there were fascinating Christmas markets in all capitals but Warsaw. The only disadvantage of going this time of year (apart from the temperature) is that I saw nothing of the scenery outside the capitals. The evenings are too dark. Making this trip during the summer months would add an extra dimension to it.

 

Latvia - Riga - Christmas market

Christmas market in one of the Old Town squares of Riga

 

Further reading

Coming up are the articles from the four capitals. Read about Warsaw, Vilnius and Riga. Tallinn is coming up. I have also released short articles in my World Heritage series. Check them out: Warsaw, Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn.

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2 Comments

  1. I think you are right in that seeing these places in the Summer would reveal a different side to them than visiting in the Christmas period. That said, I bet the Christmas markets were great! Look forwards to reading your more in-depth posts about each place.

    • Thanks Dave. The Christmas markets were great, in particular the ones in Tallinn and Riga.

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