The Magical East (of Europe, that is) – part 1

Here I veer away from my usual topics of business (with the occasional foray into commentary on style), to offer up some snapshots of my experiences of travelling. Part 1 looks at a recent trip through the Baltic region.

There are, obviously, different types of locations for different purposes, I thoroughly enjoy the opportunities that my wife and I have had to relax and explore some of the countries surrounding the Indian Ocean (Mauritius, Sri Lanka, The Maldives, to name a few), but it’s the prospect of a road trip that I find electrifies my senses.

I am fortunate to be located in Poland, a country close enough in distance and time to drive to some of the most interesting countries and cities in Europe and last year, my wife and I packed up the car and whisked ourselves off on a round trip from Poland through the Baltic’s. Yes, London, New York, Paris etc are all great, truly great cities but being able to create a trip through northern, Central Eastern Europe and drive up the Baltic coastline was a patiently awaited bucket list item that needed ticking off.

As the trip needed to have some semblance of efficiency we had to forgo Vilnius, in Lithuania and instead opted for the city of Kaunas. Our trip started from our home town of Toruń(1), in the central, top half of Poland, a stunningly, beautiful, Gothic city itself and after a 6 ½ hour drive we arrived at the restored 16th Century Daugirdas hotel. Kaunas is a “nice” place, and the perfect overnight stop to break up what would have been an overlong drive to our next destination; Riga, in Latvia. We will return to Lithuania one day to see its capital; the anecdotes of its visitors are sufficiently positive testimony for that to happen.

The drive from Kaunas to Riga is only around 3 ½ hours, so we took the opportunity to visit one of the most intriguing/weird places I’ve ever visited, the Hill of Crosses(2), a couple of hours north of Kaunas.

I said it was weird…to me, anyway

For anyone who is familiar with post WWII, reconstructed, CEE cities, Riga differentiates itself with its wealth of Nouveau and Baroque architecture that puts it in the “worth seeing” category. What the city, and the country of Latvia certainly has, is a sense of modernity, mixed with a cultural nod back to an historic past. If countries can be compared in epoch, and Poland is my point of origin, then Lithuania is a few decades behind and Latvia seems to be a few in front; just a personal observation.

I don’t speak much Latin so it’s anyone’s guess why I took this picture

One unforgettable memory of Riga was seeing more Bentleys, Ferraris and Lamborghinis than anywhere, outside of the West End of London or Dubai; something I found completely incongruous and simultaneously impressive at the time.

In spite of the appearances of this pic..the old walled city is a vibrant place
The Baroque, 14th C House of Blackheads, just one building in a city famed for its architecture

The following morning we began our 4+ hour drive to Tallinn, for a self-confessed car enthusiast, this was going to be my segment of the trip!

At the outer part of Riga, still in Vidzeme “county”, there is a beautiful lake area; I vividly remember the village of Baltezers, with lakeside views either side of the A2 and the bridge over the canal, that separates the northern expanse of the lake from the south. These views provided more than enough “wow” conversational fodder between us, until our drive north, on the A1 highway, reached dense forest, sandwiched between an open railway line and the Baltic Sea.

For over an hour we travelled in parallel, on the eastern flank of the railway, the forest and the Sea, and then the forest dissipated, whereupon nature’s vista became the Baltic Sea itself. It must have been about 90 km north of Riga that we stopped and ventured down to a beach area. Standing on that narrow, pristine beach, with sporadic copses of pine, acting as nature’s guardians against unnatural spoilage, was a serene moment for both of us and was more than sufficient justification for taking the trip by road.

The view could inspire a poet…unfortunately, I’m not one

A couple of hours later and we reached Tallinn, the third UNESCO World Heritage City on our trip, after Torun and Riga (Kaunas is a UNESCO City of Design). As I’m a member of Hilton Honors, we stayed at the Hilton and I’m pleased we did. Firstly, it’s an excellent place to stay but it is also an excuse to encourage a stroll through the gardens and thoroughfares of Tallinn, to the magical Old Town. The walled city seems almost surreal, as if it is pickled in aspic after the tourists have abated each night and woken by reveille each dawn, to start another day of welcoming and bewildering it’s visitors.

The old city from atop the castle, with the Baltic sea on the horizon. Not only am I not a poet, I’m not a photographer either

Tallinn is unlike any other city that I’ve travelled to in this region. Without question, it has an abundance of Gothic credentials but it combines this with an inherent aura of innovation and futurism. I have never had better “connectivity” than when in Tallinn, Estonia on the whole seems to be at the vanguard of the digital evolution, and this impression is merely reinforced when one considers that Tallinn is the city that gave life to Skype and is the home to NATO’s Cyber Defence Centre.

Not the NATO Cyber Defence Centre

After a couple of days in Tallinn, we headed back to Poland, with a stop just over the border in Augustów. A long drive and an unmemorable stay. About all I can remember of that lengthy stint behind the wheel was being stopped by the Latvian Police for speeding, somewhere south of Riga, which doubled the cost of the trip in one fell swoop.   

Look out for part 2 for a few paragraphs on St Petersburg, Krakow and Prague. Also, if your interests include business, then check out the other posts on the blog.

© Andy Collinsson July 2020

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