Going across Europe by bus gives the opportunity to go through places that I never planned. The 3 countries that make up the Baltics are a perfect example. The only thing I knew about any of these is hearing the name Estonia in the classic ’90s movie Encino Man. So basically, I knew nothing.
To get to Estonia I took a 7 hr bus from St Petersburg, Russia. Was a bit of a rough ride as I was pretty hungover and sleep deprived from the Vodka and White Nights in Russia. The main city to see is Tallinn and it is really simple to get to the old town by public transport or taxi from the bus station. The town itself is like a story book of medieval times. Stone gates surround the old town that is filled with narrow cobblestone streets and a mixture of old stone and semi-newer brightly painted buildings. It is a definitely a touristy place with many shops and restaurants catering to the masses. While I was there it was sunny and beautiful out which made for some great walks around the city. There are plenty of parks to stretch out and relax in during the day and more than enough pubs to fill your nights.
After a few days relaxing in Tallinn I made a bee line thru Latvia and on to Lithuania. I am sure someone will hate me for saying this but they are generally the same. Old buildings, Older churches and pubs all around. Not that I didn’t enjoy each of these countries but they were lacking diversity and excitement. Once I made my way to Lithuania things started to change a wee bit. The main city in Lithuania is Vilnius and this place is very unique. For starters one part of town runs as an independent state and artists haven. Just across the river you will find The Republic of Užupis, which literally translates to other side of the river. Formed in ’97 they celebrate their independence on April Fools day. Maybe they are serious, maybe it a joke. Either way they are not recognized by any government but also don’t have any mainstream distractions like internet cafe’s and big malls. They don’t house any official government offices but they have their own constitution. Among other things some of the rights you have are “The right to die, but this is not an obligation.” and “A dog has the right to be a dog”. In this quirky little neighborhood, er country, artists flock to the river side to paint, draw, chat and maybe burn a few joints. There is a Backpacker Jesus, Huge Penis Statue and art of all forms tucked around the streets. You can even get your passport stamped showing you’ve been there! Definitely worth a visit.
One must see thing in Lithuania is The Hill of Crosses in the northern town of Siauliai, don’t ask me how to pronounce that. Coming from Riga I kind of went right past it on the way thinking it was near Vilnius. So myself and 3 others decided to rent a car and have a good ole fashioned Lithuanian road trip. Car rentals are fairly cheap, about $37, and the drive is 2.5 hours. This was a great way to add some excitement and adventure to the journey since I have only traveled by bus thru The Baltics. Between the 2 cities there are hardly any towns and nothing but gorgeous landscape to admire. One benefit of driving in other countries is the lack of billboards on the highway. Such a nice change from the U.S. with nothing to distract you from the bright green and yellow fields.
The hill of crosses is a really interesting site that dates back to the 1800′s though nobody really knows why people started placing crosses there. Over the years the Lithuanians have used the site as a sign of allegiance to their former independence and a place to pray for peace. Even when the Soviets ruled and attempted over and over to tear it down they still traveled across the country to place their crosses. With the overgrown weeds and wildflowers all around the crosses the hill has a gothic charm I’ve never seen anywhere else.
If I were to use one word to describe my time in The Baltics it would be picturesque. If you are looking for art, castles, parks and endless opportunities for great photos this is the place to be.
For renting a car in Europe turns out you do NOT need an international driving license. I have one but forgot it at home and they happily accepted my California license.
Language is not an issue when visiting Estonia, Latvia or Lithuania. Most people speak english and you will find English on almost every menu.
In all of the cities I visited there was never a question of personal safety. Of course use common sense and don’t have money hanging out of your pockets. Overall they are exceptionally safe and even ok for hitchhiking from country to country.