Back to Baltics: Images of a Former Soviet Dream


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The Baltics. Reminiscent of a bargain property on the original Monopoly board; not to be confused with the powder keg Balkans; a region whose history features intermittent eras of independence and occupation; and a place whose emotional pendulum swings between the almost white nights of its brief summers and the steel wool grayness of its long winters.

Estonia Travel, Song and Dance Festival
Song and Dance Festival in Tallinn, Estonia.

Home to over seven million people and three distinct languages and cultures, the Baltic region comprises the countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

Now, a virtual show of hands: who knows where the Baltics are?

A Place of Dreams
Not so long ago, the Baltic republics were the stuff of dreams for citizens of the former Soviet Union. A quote from Zhanar, a woman who grew up in the former Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic, tells it best:

For the Soviet people living behind the Iron curtain the Baltic republics were a piece of the West  – the prohibited fruit. They seemed to the rest of Soviet Republics as very Western, perhaps, because they became part of the USSR as last, right before World War II. That is why every Soviet citizen strived to visit those three republics at least once in their lives in order to taste Western culture. To go abroad was a dream, not everyone was allowed to see the real West. People there were different, they talked with a very strong Western accent and that added to the feeling that you are abroad.  Culture was different.  People were more polite and the service in the restaurants was much better.  Architecture was very Western: Catholic churches, tiled roofs, narrow cobblestones streets, traditional rooster-shaped weather vanes: all those were amazing for us that time!  It was completely different from other parts of the Soviet Union.

Today, the Baltics are open to everyone.

Our Recent Return to the Baltics

Our visit to the region this autumn offered us another fresh look while unleashing memories from the deep store of ten years hence. In those salad days, Audrey lived and worked in Estonia on a 27-month stint in the Peace Corps. Dan planted his first European footstep on the airport tarmac in Tallinn, Estonia's capital, and quickly acquainted himself with tales of the Singing Revolution while traveling along the Via Baltica aboard wheezing Soviet relics.

With all this in mind, we offer our visual slice – a little bit then, a little more now – of the Baltics.

Enjoy our photo collections from Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

Estonia

Tallinn

Before we backpacked around Europe in 2000, I got my hands on a used copy of Rick Steves' “Europe Through the Back Door.” (If you are inclined to do so, don't hold it against me. I was young and impressionable; it was the only English language travel book available.)

Estonia's capital city, Tallinn, was described as having “a frosted cake feel.” Sure, the old town is small, cute, medieval and full of cobblestones, but Tallinn is more than just a pretty dessert.

But maybe I'm biased.

The winding, cobblestone streets of Tallinn hearken back to the medieval days of the Teutonic Knights and the Hanseatic League. Tallinn's well-preserved city wall and towers hint at the city's persistent need to protect itself from invaders over the centuries.

Tallinn Travel, Old Town
A glimpse into Tallinn's Old Town.

On a personal note for me, Tallinn was the place I retreated to on weekends during my Peace Corps service in Estonia (1998-2000). Back then, in comparison to my site-cum-hometown of 3,000 people, Tallinn felt like the big city. It was the sort of place where I could buy something other than iceberg lettuce. On my Peace Corps salary, I could even occasionally afford a meal of vegetarian Indian cuisine or ketchup-less pizza.

Typical of the post-Soviet hangover, restaurant service was surly, too. One of the games we Peace Corps volunteers always played: “Get the waitstaff to smile.”

If our charm failed, we had a secret weapon in my friend Amy. She made origami swans and sculpted various other creatures out of napkins. Even the surliest of matrons couldn't help but break a smile when their table was swamped in paper animals.

Fisheye View of Tallinn's Medieval Old Town
Typical medieval Hanseatic architecture from Tallinn's old town.

Old Town Tallinn has seen its share of changes: an endless stream of brightly-hued paint and countless renovation projects since the country's independence in the early 1990s — some more heavy-handed than others — have spruced things up from Soviet gray. Each time we've returned (in 2004 and 2008), the physical changes have been striking. So has the mood, ever more Scandinavian than anything else. Cafes and good coffee are no longer an anomaly, ketchup rarely seeps onto the pizza, and you'll likely get a smile and some English spoken at restaurants.

Women dressed in period costumes outside old town restaurants like Olde Hansa take this medieval charm to the edge, but draw one step back. Tallinn teeters on the edge of the frosted cake, but somehow maintains its spirit. Like any city that makes good on peddling its history, the trick is to get lost and create your own story from the cobblestones and ramparts. So next time you find yourself there, surprise someone with “Tere! Kuidas laheb?” (Hello! How are you?) and a smile. This will help you peel away the veneer and experience some of the real Estonian spirit yourself.

Along the way, you'll discover a café or gallery worth a taste; perhaps you'll sense that Tallinn is Scandinavian in its trajectory and uniquely Baltic in its charm.

Outside the old town, you'll find tiny wooden churches and turn-of-the century buildings competing for space with shiny glass skyscrapers. This is modern Tallinn, the birthplace of Skype and home to free wifi internet.

Explore the Estonian Countryside

Estonia is small, making it easy to sample bits of its culture across the country, even during a short visit.

Take in the laid-back, yet spirited, university town of Tartu or experience island life on Saaremaa. Luxuriate in spa treatments and mud baths in Haapsalu or take a dip in the Baltic Sea at Pärnu. For something more green, consider a hike in Lahemaa (and a dip in the Gulf of Finland) or take a taste of typical Estonian small-town life in a village like Märjamaa (where Audrey lived for two years).

More photos from Estonia

Latvia

My first visit to Riga, Latvia was in 1997; it was my initial stop in the Baltics en route to my Peace Corps stint in Estonia. The city was still very much in the early stages of transition from its Soviet past.  My memories:  dark buildings, a gray pall.

No longer. Riga has undergone a face lift in the last decades. Today's Riga stands in stark contrast to those early days as it shows off the range of its reconstructed and eclectic architectural stock – lanes lined with refurbished churches, restored medieval buildings and hip restaurants and cafes. During our last visit in 2008, we were struck not only by the polished and colorful buildings in Riga's downtown, but more importantly by the city's architectural diversity.

Travel to Riga, Latvia
A changing Riga.

Riga's architecture serves up hints of its former glory as an important commercial center and influential Baltic seaport. If you look closely enough, you'll find a sea of architectural styles from medieval Gothic to Art Nouveau. The city is a bit of a Northern European architectural smorgasbord: a little bit Modern, a little bit Gothic, a bit of Copenhagen here, a bit of Stockholm there.

The dominant, colorful building above — The House of the Blackheads – was destroyed in World War II and rebuilt in the mid-1990s. Perhaps appropriately, the blocky cement building — a throwback to the Soviet era — is now the Museum of Occupation.

So many layers, so much history.

And while it's easy to get stuck in Riga's old town center, venture out to discover the architectural melange in the surrounding neighborhoods.

More photos from Riga, Latvia.

Lithuania

During his first visit in January 1999, Dan fell in love with Vilnius, Lithuania's capital. Even in the dead of winter, the charming dilapidation of its old town evinced a certain warmth – at the time, a perfect match for black and white photography. It was full of nooks and crannies, workshops and galleries, people painting and carving — and probably wondering where, as we always do, where life would take them.

These days, Vilnius' perfectly painted churches and colorful streets are suited just as well for color photography.

Vilnius Travel
Stuck on tea in Vilnius.

Regardless of what you shoot, be sure to peek into the city's numerous courtyards, for you may just discover Vilnius' real character in the form of an unrenovated medieval horse stable or a bust of Tony Soprano.

Here's just another reason to love autumn in Vilnius. Sitting at an outdoor café to enjoy the remainder of a warm, sunny autumn day, this little one appeared, done up à la Anne Geddes.

Autumn in Vilnius, Father and Daughter all dressed up
The Face of Autumn in Vilnius.

Explore Lithuania

Make your own postcard at the picture-perfect castle in the village of Trakai near Vilnius. Grab a bike and pedal down the Curonian Spit, checking out the sand dunes and friendly wild boars. On the shore, soak up summer beach and jazz festivals in Klaipeda, before heading back inland to get to know the mafia and the Holocaust history of Ninth Fort in Kaunas.

See more photos from Vilnius and the rest of Lithuania.

About Audrey Scott
Audrey Scott is a writer, storyteller, speaker and tourism development consultant. She aims to help turn people's fears into curiosity and connection. She harbors an obsession for artichokes and can bake a devastating pan of brownies. You can keep up with her adventures on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. And you can learn more about her on the About Page and on LinkedIn.

13 thoughts on “Back to Baltics: Images of a Former Soviet Dream”

  1. I do! I do! I know where the Baltics are! I have very fond memories of the Baltics. I traveled to Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia in the summer of 1994. That was the year I graduated from college and I was travelling with my college choir on a European tour culminating in the Tallinn International Choir competition. I remember the countryside of Latvia and our city tour guide who tried with vim to improve our pronunciation of the language. A wonderful homestay and a recording of one of my favorite pieces we performed in the cathedral mark Vilnius. And finally Tallinn. I celebrated my birthday and the choir won first place in the Chamber Choir division, first place for performace of the required piece, and the Grand Prix in the competition between all the divisional winners. To this day, one of my fondest memories.

  2. Very nice article – I liked how you described my town Vilnius 🙂

    Wish you to come back hear ASAP 😉 Promise a home made cepelinai made by my mother.

    Keep going!

    A.

  3. What a fantastic post, you guys! I could print it out, stuff it in my carry-on, and take the trip of a lifetime…and you already have!

    Thanks for sharing your impressions and photos of a part of the world none of my friends or family have ever visited. I now yearn for more Art Nouveau… AND a dip in the Baltic.

  4. @Chip: You were in the Baltics during the early days. You’d be surprised if you saw those cities now – a lot more has changed than just layers of paint! Kudos to your choir group for winning a singing competition against Estonians (and others) – I never met an off-tune Estonian in the 2+ years I lived there! No wonder the Singing Revolution worked 😉

    @Agne: We will definitely take you up on your offer for home made cepelinai made by your mother next time we’re in Vilnius! We’ve only had the greasy, restaurant variety known affectionately as “gut bombs.” Glad you enjoyed how we described your city 🙂

    @Melanie: Oh, be careful about a dip in the Baltic Sea! Even in the height of summer, it can be a steamy 60 degrees (F)!

  5. It is unbelievable how much info did you get from Estonia, usually RTW travellers are visiting max 2 days Tallinn Old Town and continue the same to Riga & Vilnius.

    Really nice pictures (one is taken next to our house), I really hope you have time still to come back, ecpecially for our local Singing & Dancing Party called “Laulu & Tantsupidu” that we have after every 4 yeas – 1/10 of the total population is singing then.

    2 years in Märjamaa;) – I was not expecting reading this from here…

  6. @Reigo: What a small world – that one of the photos was taken next to your house! Estonia will always be special for me because I lived there for two years and really explored the whole country – from Paldiski in the northwest to Volga in the southeast – because there were Peace Corps volunteers (rahukorpuslased) everywhere. Our visits now are divided between friends in Tartu, Tallinn, Marjamaa, and more – we barely have time to do any touristy stuff 🙂

    Yes, the Song and Dance Festivals are wonderful – so colorful and full of pride. I attended the 2000 and 2004 festivals, but missed the most recent one. Next time.

  7. You should be in Tallinn now, we actually have a really cool ehibition about soviet times.
    Looks like the country is learning how to deal with its past.

    And, I agree, you can visit the country getting lost in its beauty even before starting with the tourist crap

  8. @News Estonia: I remember seeing signs for an exhibition or lecture when we were there over the summer about life under communism vs. today. It seemed like a healthy way to come to terms with the past and present.

    Some of my best memories of Estonia were far, far away from any tourist stuff. It’s the people and countryside that make the country special.

  9. I’ll be visiting my mother-in-law in Sweden in August and I’d like to take the ferry across the Baltic Sea. Due to our schedule, I’ll have maybe two days/one night? If you had to choose, which capital city would you recommend if you could only see one (this time – I’ll be back!)?

  10. @Mike: I realize that I’m a bit biased given my experience living in Estonia but I’d recommend Tallinn for a quick visit. The ferry rides from Stockholm there are comfortable and the city is small enough to get a good feel for it in just 1-2 days. Let us know how it goes!

  11. Nice piece! My original plan to visit Tallinn in 2013 was a day trip across the Gulf of Finland from Helsinki, but the more I read about it, the more time I wanted to spend there, resulting in a four-day stay. Tallinn is fantastic (although the heart of the Old Town is edging closer to Disney-esque kitsch). But there’s plenty of authenticity here, and once you pass through the town walls, Tallinn becomes an entirely different place.

    • Stephen, really glad you decided to spend more time in Tallinn than just a day trip. Agree that there is tons of authenticity still in the city. And there is much more to than just the old town, as cute as it may be.

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