Road Trip: Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania

After our booze cruise from Stockholm to Finland via Åland Islands, we were back on dry land for a long layover in Latvia en route to Russia.

Taking inspiration from Anthony Bourdain’s The Layover and our own 24-hour-or-less adventures in Paris, Athens, Casablanca, Isle of Man, and other locales, we decided to visit all three of the Baltic states in the 21 hours we had.

Renting a car at the Riga airport, we could tell things would be a bit different from the moment we hit the road.

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In addition to an abundance of charming vintage autos, we also saw some strange driving behavior by all of the vehicles on the road. You see, in Latvia, the lines mean different things than they do elsewhere in the world.

Drivers straddle the dotted line on the shoulder of the road, and what most people would think of as the “driving lane” is actually a relatively fluid passing zone. From small sedans to tractor trailers, people whipped in and out of traffic at an alarming rate, often passing five or six vehicles at a time with an oncoming passer playing chicken from the opposite direction.

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A rather questionable use of highway lines in Latvia

So it’s no surprise that we were relieved to cross the Latvian border into Estonia and make our way to the tranquil beach at Krapi Telkimisala.

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Although Google Translate refers to it as “Crap Camping,” this waterfront Estonian campsite is far from it. It’s an immaculately clean, naturally gorgeous forested area that opens onto a secluded, pristine beach.

We enjoyed the sunshine and sand for a bit before making our way back through the forest and onto the highway once more.

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Are the mushrooms magic in Estonia? We’ll never know.

We drove back through Riga and into Lithuania, headed toward a highly-rated microbrewery just across the border that listed a good dinner menu online.

We arrived, starving and thirsty, at Rinkuskiai brew pub about an hour before closing, only to be told that they’d stopped serving for the night. We explained that we’d driven from Estonia specifically to have dinner there, to which they responded, “You should’ve called first.”

I’m not sure how we would’ve known to call this restaurant to let them know we were coming (and I can’t fathom the presumption it would take to call every restaurant ahead of time and announce our arrival, as if they existed only for our visit), but they also informed us that every restaurant in that particular Lithuanian town was already closed for the evening, so we were without dinner. Or beer. Or Lithuanian hospitality.

So we drove back to Latvia, where we had a terrible dinner from a gas station before making our way to our delightful hotel.

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We had no idea that we’d be back in this same region in the very near future after an interesting Russian visa situation on our way to Belarus.

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Our second visit was a return to Estonia, which was decidedly the highlight of our first foray into the Baltic states.

On the shore of the Gulf of Finland lies Tallinn, Estonia, capital of the country that first appeared on the map in 1154. Tallinn’s Old Town is one of the best preserved medieval cities in Europe and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but don’t assume that the city is stuck in the past. Tallinn is often referred to as “the European Silicon Valley,” and it has the highest number of startups per person in Europe.

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Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Tallinn, Estonia

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St. Nicholas’ Church in Tallinn, Estonia

Just around the corner from the ornate Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Tallinn is St. Nicholas’ Church, an homage to the patron saint of sailors and fishermen. Built in the 13th century, it has housed everything from important Gothic and Renaissance works of art to the mummy of Duke Charles Eugène de Croÿ, the commander of the Russian army at the Battle of Narva in 1700, whose body was only there because no one was willing to pay for its burial.

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After climbing the many hills and descending the many stairs of Old Town, we landed in a delightful little tourist district that was home to the Tabula Rasa restaurant and the St. Petersbourg Hotel.

We took a seat on the charming patio and ordered escargots in herb butter and the “best in town” grilled pork tenderloin skewers, along with a fantastic regional wine.

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It turned out to be the perfect date night.

We continued our stroll through Tallinn’s Old Town, where we saw several quirky shop windows, talented street musicians, and a show-and-tell of archaeological excavations on display for visitors and locals alike.

Estonia is high on the list for a return visit.

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