The Baltics: Lithuanian sunsets, Latvian all-night Jāni festival, & Estonian awesomeness

The Baltic countries, made up of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, are tucked away in the northeast of Europe between Russia, Belarus, Poland and the Baltic Sea. The native people of Lithuania and Latvia are known as Baltic people, but the Estonians are Finnic along with the Finnish to the north. All three had times as part of European empires, or ruled by them. Starting in the 18th century, the three countries were gradually absorbed into Russia, and the evidence is still very noticeable. They gained independence after WWI, but WWII saw them become occupied by the Soviet Union, which lasted until the early 90’s. The whole region has a rich interesting history to dive into. The Baltic States are very small in size, but a lot of fun to explore, and the people were wonderful to me every step of the way.

I entered Lithuania from Poland on a beautiful sunny day, which was nice after all the rain that was following me. After a couple of days in Kaunas, I rode to the coast and made my way north. Cute little harbor towns and long beaches that reminded me of home.

Between the rain, there was some perfect wild camping on beaches lit by colorful sunsets.

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And boy was there some rain. On the ride towards Latvia it was dumping so hard it literally felt like buckets of water being dumped over my head. In no time I was soaked from head to toe with boots and pockets full of water. Riding in that kind of downpour, my jacket and old snowboarding pants are no match for mother nature. Seeing a covered gas station at a time like that is like seeing the doors of heaven opening up for you. Around the Latvian border, I pulled under cover of a small shop and was followed by a German couple on a BMW. After buying me a hot coffee and shooting the breeze for a bit about where we were coming and going, he went out to his bike and came back with a gift. He saw how miserably wet I was and gave me a big new rain jacket. I’m not sure if it was ever worn before. What a nice thing to do for a stranger. That jacket still lives on and has been a good friend for many more rainy days.

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Latvia was a blast, not only is it home to some of the most beautiful girls in the world, but just a fun place I thought. I spent a while in Riga, the capital, and my timing couldn’t have been any more perfect. The Jāni Festival was going on, which celebrates the summer solstice. The day before is called Ligo Day, and this is when the party starts to lead up to Jāni. On Jāni Eve, many people from the city travel to the countryside for gatherings to eat, drink, sing and celebrate the solstice by observing the folk traditions related to  fertility and renewal. Huge bon-fires are lit and there’s a lot of good times to be had. I met some guys from Barcelona and we had a fun few days, and the highlight was the Jāni festival on our last night. Even with a lot of locals leaving the city, Riga still puts on a big party along the river complete with bonfires and a huge live music stage. A blast of a night where the sun just barely set after 11pm, and after a few hours of dusk, starts rising back up. Walking home through the city at 6 am, the whole night reminded me of another one for some reason. The full moon party in Thailand, completely different, but experiences felt similar.

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For Jāni, different types of grasses, flowers, and oak leaves are used to make wreaths to wear on the head, and of course we ended up with some of these.  Girls wear wreaths made of flowers, grasses and herbs. It’s believed that when braided with twenty-seven flowers and herbs they prevent disasters and diseases, and repel enemies. Men wear wreaths from oak leaves, symbolising the strength of the oak tree. They were also supposed to be for the blessing of horses and bees. Together with Jāni cheese and fires, wreaths are also symbols of the sun. They symbolized us being stupid drunk travelers.

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The Baltic Coast of Latvia is beautiful with open peaceful areas to pitch your tent next to a beach. Weather it be on the edge of a forest looking over a rocky low-tide, or in the soft grass of a family beach park in a small village. The sunsets never disappoint.

Last up was Estonia and its beautiful capital, Tallinn .  From Australia to Tallinn I’d only been stopped by the police once, which was in Uzbekistan. I’d always managed to avoid them or slip by their waving arms by playing stupid. On my way in to Tallinn, there was no getting by the officer in the middle of the highway pointing straight at me. I looked around hoping he was after someone else, but it became apparent he wanted me. The large officer looked like a linebacker waiting for a running back. On my way into the city I hadn’t realized the speed limit had dropped to 50 km/h. I obliviously was going 85. He asked for my license, which sent a panic through my body. As I reached in my pockets, I realized I didn’t have it. I always keep it in my pocket, but it was nowhere to be found. I rummaged through my tank bag a little bit flustered, and thinking I’d lost my wallet and all my documents inside. As I tore through all my cases, the officers grew more and more suspicious. I could care less about them at this point and I’m sure I looked a bit panicky. I could tell in their minds they were thinking, “oh how convenient, all of a sudden you’ve lost your wallet with license”. I was sure I had lost it that morning when packing up camp on the coast, and gave up looking. They looked over my other documents and were unhappy with just about everything I showed them, but after a lot of lecturing they let me go. They told me to go straight to my hostel and on Monday morning go straight to my embassy and get an international drivers license. I agreed to whatever they said just to get on my way. I’d only be in town a few days, and would never see them again. The funny part was a couple of days later I found my wallet tucked away in the strangest place. I really love misplacing keys and wallets.

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Tallinn’s Old Town might be my favorite I’ve been to, and that’s after going through basically all of Eastern Europe. It’s one of the best preserved medieval cities in Europe. From the 13th century to 1918, as well as during Nazi occupation, the city was referred to as Reval. It’s strategic location made it a very important trading hub. Tallinn’s history is deeply intertwined with Russia, Finland, and the Scandinavian countries and is a blast to lose yourself in. A third of Estonia’s population lives in the city called the Silicon Valley of Europe. It has the highest number of start-ups per person in Europe, and is the birthplace of Skype.

The area was inhabited for thousands of years, but the turning point in history was in the 13th century when a castle was erected by the crusading knights of the Teutonic Order. Soon the city developed into a major centre of the Hanseatic League, and its wealth is shown through the public buildings (the churches in particular) and the domestic architecture, which have survived remarkably well despite the many fires and wars in the following centuries.

Sunsets from the walls of the Old Town are spectacular looking out over the maroon tiled roofs, old stone spires, and narrow cobble-stoned streets weaving through tightly clustered pastel building. The pinks and oranges illuminate the sky from the Gulf of Finland.

The city was a European Capital of Culture in 2011, and is full of brain tickling eye candy spread throughout alleyways and old factories.

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Around the walls of the old town. Such a gorgeous area.

In 1980 Tallinn was still annexed by the USSR, and for the Moscow Olympic Games the Pirita Olympic Yachting Centre was built next to the sea. The large concrete structure is pure soviet architecture. The complex is fun to explore, but has fallen in disrepair from its glory days and is a mere ghost of what it once was.

This is what it used to look like.

Another piece of history worth exploring is the Patarei Prison. A sprawling brick and concrete structure, it was originally built as a sea-fortification in 1820. During the Soviet occupation, from 1944-1991, it was used as a prison by the KGB and was home to criminals and political dissidents. It remained open until the early 2000’s, when Estonia joined the EU and pulled the plug. Gruesome things went on inside these walls. After the final prisoners were sent elsewhere from Patarei, the prison was left abandoned. It’s one of the most well-preserved soviet prisons and is exactly what you would expect, extremely spooky and creepy.

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Whatever and wherever you end up exploring in Tallinn, you will stumble across something beautiful, strange, intriguing, tasty, or friendly.

The Baltic countries were amazing and I would love to return to these tiny nations someday, but Finland was calling and I hopped on a massive ferry heading north. The massive boat was like a cruise ship full of bars, duty-free, and a casino.

A two and a half hour ride delivers you into Helsinki where you’re welcomed by the sea gulls swooping around to check out the new visitors.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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About Trueworldtravels

Following my heart around the planet. Bringing to life the unique world around us through writing and photography.
This entry was posted in adventure travel, baltics travel, beaches, border crossing, camping, Motorcycle world travel, Photography and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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