From rural landscapes to surprising city sites, enjoying a private tour of the Baltics

By Steven Emmet
This article appears on page 42 of the April 2016 issue.
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Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Tallinn, Estonia.

Since I would be attending a dermatology conference in Riga, Latvia, my wife, Yuki, and I decided it would be a good time to visit the three countries collectively known as the Baltics: Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.

Vilnius

Arriving in Vilnius, Lithuania, we first stopped at the Mabre Residence Hotel (Maironio Str. 13; mabreresidencehotelvilnius.com). The building, dating from the 17th century, served as a monastery and military headquarters before being converted to a hotel. 

Our room was spacious; the bed, comfortable, and the Wi-Fi, fast and free(!). The shower had lots of hot water; the separate duvets for each of us kept us nice and toasty, and the pillows were just to my taste, thin. The free buffet breakfast, held across an inner courtyard in a tiny restaurant, was more than adequate, and the folks working there were both friendly and helpful (not always the case at other hotels encountered in the Baltics). 

We easily found the highly recommended Forto Dvaras Restaurant (Pilies g. 16). Folks, you may want to fly to Vilnius just to eat there. OMG! 

We started with a traditional potato stuffed with meat (tradiciniai i¸daryti me˙sa), followed by pelmeni (dumplings) for Yuki and an absolutely scrumptious, moist, tasty salmon (dvaro lašišu˛ kepsnys) for yours truly. The salmon, apparently from Norway, was absolutely superb. 

Then the check arrived… and totaled about $23! Yes, for everything, including beer and tea. Needless to say, we headed back the next night.

In the morning, we walked around Vilnius, seeing churches as well as famous buildings and historical sites where Jews had once lived and prayed. We even encountered a collection of Jewish tombstones that had been used as steps and building materials during the Soviet era. 

Lithuania had a long Jewish history, but during World War II, about 95% of the country’s more than 200,000-strong Jewish population was murdered by German units and Lithuanian Nazi collaborators. So, while we saw many sites that famous rabbis and notable Jews had called home, there are essentially no Jews left in Lithuania.

A path leads visitors through the thousands of crosses of different sizes and materials at Latvia’s Hill of Crosses.

After Vilnius, our first stop as we drove north was Rumšiškes, where a collection of old houses, gathered from around Lithuania, have been assembled into an open-air museum. The houses, most made of wood, were historical examples of the lifestyles of both the rich and poor. One house, created out of mud and sticks, was apparently the type of house built by Lithuanians sent to Siberia, assuming they survived that trip. 

Farther north was Kaunas, still in Lithuania, and the road there was typical of all the major roads we traversed throughout the Baltics: lined by brown farmhouses, forests, fields and more brown farmhouses. 

We visited the former Japanese consulate, from WWII, and the house of Chiune Sugihara, who, against the Japanese government’s orders, saved over 6,000 Jews during WWII by giving them visas to allow passage to Japan. These magnificent acts caused him many problems back in Japan after the war, and it wasn’t until near the end of his life that he finally received the recognition that was long overdue.

To Riga

On our way to Riga, Latvia, on the Šiauliai-Joniškis road, we found an old church with absolutely fabulous gravestones. The gravestones were of modern design, with curves and odd shapes — quite beautiful. 

Our first planned stop was the Hill of Crosses near Šiauliai. True to its name, there were thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of crosses of different sizes, shapes and materials. Built initially in the 1800s, the site was destroyed by the Russians but was rebuilt. 

Outside the center of Riga, large, rectangular, concrete buildings, old, dingy and typical of Soviet city architecture, abound, as they do throughout the Baltics. 

We did visit the Jewish Museum in Riga, which had many moving pictures and exhibits, and briefly visited the KGB Building, which the Russians took over from the Nazis during the Soviet occupation.

Our boutique hotel in Riga was the famous Art Nouveau Neiburgs (Jauniela 25/27), which was not only located in the heart of the Old Town area but was quite nicely decorated in a Danish-modern fashion. It would be ideal for a long-term stay also, as our room had a cooktop, microwave and fridge. 

Everyone had a smile, and the standard buffet breakfast was OK. I’d rate it 5 stars.

Many of the buildings in the heart of the city would look at home on New York’s Fifth Avenue, and trendy restaurants of every persuasion were close by.

Dinner was at the Key to Riga restaurant (Doma Laukums 8a). The medieval terpsichorean music being played by two musicians outside the restaurant caused us to stop and listen, and the menu looked interesting, so in we went. We had mushroom crêpes, bean-and-beef soup, salmon and South African wine. It was expensive ($55 for two) but worth it.

Winding down

On the way to Estonia, the northernmost member of the Baltics, we had lunch in Tartu, a university town that is small but quite pleasant. There we learned that you can get an excellent cup of coffee in a Statoil gas station. Who knew?

Our hotel in Tallinn was the Hotell Palace (Vabaduse Väljak 3), which, unfortunately, was very unpalatial. Our first room had two skylights but no windows. That’s right, no windows! So five minutes later we were back at the front desk, where they were shocked that we would mind staying in this “deluxe” room. For $50 more a night we were offered an upgrade to a junior suite, which we took. 

It seemed that the folks who designed the rooms had never stayed at a hotel before. With no grab handles in either the tub or shower, if you slip, you’re sure to find out about the local medical facilities. 

And when you’re ready for bed and you click the switches over the bedside tables, they turn on lights on a picture over the bed; that’s it. You want to turn off the room lights? Get up, go to the wall across the room, turn them off and use your own flashlight to find the bed again. 

But the hotel was near the Old City, so it wasn’t a total loss. 

Dinner at the Olde Hansa restaurant (Vana Turg 1; www.oldehansa.com) was good but way overpriced ($14 for a glass of house wine!). 

We then returned to Riga to attend the conference that took me there. We opted to stay at the Radisson Blu Daugava Hotel (24 Kugu St.), located next to the strange-looking library, the conference’s venue. 

For an extra $45 a night we upgraded to a junior suite, which was worth it, as we had plenty of room and a nice view of the river. Unfortunately, the hotel was sort of dowdy, with peeling wallpaper and yellowed caulking. And while the Wi-Fi was free, it was so slow that we couldn’t use Skype. 

An old wooden home at Rumsiskes, Lithuania.

However, there was plenty of hot water, the beds were comfortable, and the breakfast buffet was acceptable (but with bad coffee — sadly, the case at all the hotels in which we stayed). I’d recommend staying across the river in Old Town unless you need to be by the library. 

While there were buses and even a free shuttle to the Old Town across the river, it was only a 10-minute pleasant (but breezy) walk. 

Final details

Heaping quantities of praise must be given to Jolanta of the Business Tour Company (phone +370 685 21220, www.btcompany.lt). She not only created a very cost-effective tour for us ($4,661, including hotels, guides/drivers, daily breakfast and admission to most sites), she checked on us daily. For our upgraded room at the Palace Hotel, we found out when we checked out that she had picked up the extra charges. 

While I’m not sure I’d recommend a Baltic tour to all of my friends, if you do want to go, contact Jolanta. 

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Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Tallinn, Estonia.

Since I would be attending a dermatology conference in Riga, Latvia, my wife, Yuki, and I decided it would be a good time to visit the three countries collectively known as the Baltics: Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.

Vilnius

Arriving in Vilnius, Lithuania, we first stopped at the Mabre Residence Hotel (Maironio Str. 13; mabreresidencehotelvilnius.com). The building, dating from the 17th century, served as a monastery and military headquarters before being converted to a hotel. 

Our room was spacious; the bed, comfortable, and the Wi-Fi, fast and free(!). The shower had lots of hot water; the separate duvets for each of us kept us nice and toasty, and the pillows were just to my taste, thin. The free buffet breakfast, held across an inner courtyard in a tiny restaurant, was more than adequate, and the folks working there were both friendly and helpful (not always the case at other hotels encountered in the Baltics). 

We easily found the highly recommended Forto Dvaras Restaurant (Pilies g. 16). Folks, you may want to fly to Vilnius just to eat there. OMG! 

We started with a traditional potato stuffed with meat (tradiciniai i¸daryti me˙sa), followed by pelmeni (dumplings) for Yuki and an absolutely scrumptious, moist, tasty salmon (dvaro lašišu˛ kepsnys) for yours truly. The salmon, apparently from Norway, was absolutely superb. 

Then the check arrived… and totaled about $23! Yes, for everything, including beer and tea. Needless to say, we headed back the next night.

In the morning, we walked around Vilnius, seeing churches as well as famous buildings and historical sites where Jews had once lived and prayed. We even encountered a collection of Jewish tombstones that had been used as steps and building materials during the Soviet era. 

Lithuania had a long Jewish history, but during World War II, about 95% of the country’s more than 200,000-strong Jewish population was murdered by German units and Lithuanian Nazi collaborators. So, while we saw many sites that famous rabbis and notable Jews had called home, there are essentially no Jews left in Lithuania.

A path leads visitors through the thousands of crosses of different sizes and materials at Latvia’s Hill of Crosses.

After Vilnius, our first stop as we drove north was Rumšiškes, where a collection of old houses, gathered from around Lithuania, have been assembled into an open-air museum. The houses, most made of wood, were historical examples of the lifestyles of both the rich and poor. One house, created out of mud and sticks, was apparently the type of house built by Lithuanians sent to Siberia, assuming they survived that trip. 

Farther north was Kaunas, still in Lithuania, and the road there was typical of all the major roads we traversed throughout the Baltics: lined by brown farmhouses, forests, fields and more brown farmhouses. 

We visited the former Japanese consulate, from WWII, and the house of Chiune Sugihara, who, against the Japanese government’s orders, saved over 6,000 Jews during WWII by giving them visas to allow passage to Japan. These magnificent acts caused him many problems back in Japan after the war, and it wasn’t until near the end of his life that he finally received the recognition that was long overdue.

To Riga

On our way to Riga, Latvia, on the Šiauliai-Joniškis road, we found an old church with absolutely fabulous gravestones. The gravestones were of modern design, with curves and odd shapes — quite beautiful. 

Our first planned stop was the Hill of Crosses near Šiauliai. True to its name, there were thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of crosses of different sizes, shapes and materials. Built initially in the 1800s, the site was destroyed by the Russians but was rebuilt. 

Outside the center of Riga, large, rectangular, concrete buildings, old, dingy and typical of Soviet city architecture, abound, as they do throughout the Baltics. 

We did visit the Jewish Museum in Riga, which had many moving pictures and exhibits, and briefly visited the KGB Building, which the Russians took over from the Nazis during the Soviet occupation.

Our boutique hotel in Riga was the famous Art Nouveau Neiburgs (Jauniela 25/27), which was not only located in the heart of the Old Town area but was quite nicely decorated in a Danish-modern fashion. It would be ideal for a long-term stay also, as our room had a cooktop, microwave and fridge. 

Everyone had a smile, and the standard buffet breakfast was OK. I’d rate it 5 stars.

Many of the buildings in the heart of the city would look at home on New York’s Fifth Avenue, and trendy restaurants of every persuasion were close by.

Dinner was at the Key to Riga restaurant (Doma Laukums 8a). The medieval terpsichorean music being played by two musicians outside the restaurant caused us to stop and listen, and the menu looked interesting, so in we went. We had mushroom crêpes, bean-and-beef soup, salmon and South African wine. It was expensive ($55 for two) but worth it.

Winding down

On the way to Estonia, the northernmost member of the Baltics, we had lunch in Tartu, a university town that is small but quite pleasant. There we learned that you can get an excellent cup of coffee in a Statoil gas station. Who knew?

Our hotel in Tallinn was the Hotell Palace (Vabaduse Väljak 3), which, unfortunately, was very unpalatial. Our first room had two skylights but no windows. That’s right, no windows! So five minutes later we were back at the front desk, where they were shocked that we would mind staying in this “deluxe” room. For $50 more a night we were offered an upgrade to a junior suite, which we took. 

It seemed that the folks who designed the rooms had never stayed at a hotel before. With no grab handles in either the tub or shower, if you slip, you’re sure to find out about the local medical facilities. 

And when you’re ready for bed and you click the switches over the bedside tables, they turn on lights on a picture over the bed; that’s it. You want to turn off the room lights? Get up, go to the wall across the room, turn them off and use your own flashlight to find the bed again. 

But the hotel was near the Old City, so it wasn’t a total loss. 

Dinner at the Olde Hansa restaurant (Vana Turg 1; www.oldehansa.com) was good but way overpriced ($14 for a glass of house wine!). 

We then returned to Riga to attend the conference that took me there. We opted to stay at the Radisson Blu Daugava Hotel (24 Kugu St.), located next to the strange-looking library, the conference’s venue. 

For an extra $45 a night we upgraded to a junior suite, which was worth it, as we had plenty of room and a nice view of the river. Unfortunately, the hotel was sort of dowdy, with peeling wallpaper and yellowed caulking. And while the Wi-Fi was free, it was so slow that we couldn’t use Skype. 

An old wooden home at Rumsiskes, Lithuania.

However, there was plenty of hot water, the beds were comfortable, and the breakfast buffet was acceptable (but with bad coffee — sadly, the case at all the hotels in which we stayed). I’d recommend staying across the river in Old Town unless you need to be by the library. 

While there were buses and even a free shuttle to the Old Town across the river, it was only a 10-minute pleasant (but breezy) walk. 

Final details

Heaping quantities of praise must be given to Jolanta of the Business Tour Company (phone +370 685 21220, www.btcompany.lt). She not only created a very cost-effective tour for us ($4,661, including hotels, guides/drivers, daily breakfast and admission to most sites), she checked on us daily. For our upgraded room at the Palace Hotel, we found out when we checked out that she had picked up the extra charges. 

While I’m not sure I’d recommend a Baltic tour to all of my friends, if you do want to go, contact Jolanta.