Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania: the regaining of independence in 1991 by these three countries was a happy outcome of the demise of the Soviet Union. Of all the fragments of that former super-power, the Baltic countries have perhaps the brightest future and the least clouded present.
Though geographical proximity leads the countries to be conventionally thought of together as a single entity, the degree of difference between them is surprisingly great in terms of ethnicity, language, historical development and religion.
The Estonians are of Finno-Ugric origin and their language has nothing in common with their Latvian or Russian neighbours. Lithuanian history has for much of the post-mediaeval era been linked with Catholic Poland, whereas Estonia and Latvia were early recipients of Protestantism.
In the eighteenth century these states succumbed to the bear-hug of the Russian Empire – and only after the First World War did they achieve full independence. In 1940, with the annexation by the Soviet Union, they once more fell under Russian rule. Between 1941 and 1944 they had the additional suffering of the German Occupation. Yet the Baltic States were always among the most prosperous and liberal of the Soviet republics, and among the most independent-minded.
Surprise ranks high among the responses of the visitor now – surprise that there is so much of interest and beauty, and surprise that the Iron Curtain was indeed so opaque a veil that most of us in the West could remain so ignorant of these countries and their heritage. Surprise, perhaps, that on the whole the region functions with considerable efficiency and sophistication.
Tallinn (Estonia). Fly at c. 10.15am (Finnair, Nordic Regional Airlines) from Heathrow to Tallinn via Helsinki. First of three nights in Tallinn.
Tallinn. The upper town has a striking situation on a steep-sided hill overlooking the Baltic Sea with views over the city. Among the mediaeval and classical buildings are the Toompea Palace (Parliament), Gothic cathedral and late 19th-century Russian cathedral and the 15th-century town hall (visit subject to confirmation). Continue through the unspoilt streets of the lower town with its mediaeval walls, churches and gabled merchants’ houses and see the church of the Holy Ghost and the City Museum. Visit St Nicholas, a Gothic basilica with a museum of mediaeval art.
Lahemaa National Park (Estonia). Drive east into an area now designated as a national park. The charming manor houses of Palmse and Sagadi have full 18th-century classical dress disguising the timber structure. Lunch is in a roadside inn, with wooden buildings – a former postal service station on the road to St Petersburg.
Tartu (Estonia). Drive through a gently undulating mix of woodland and fertile fields, with traditional vernacular farmsteads. Tartu is in some ways the cultural capital of Estonia, the university having been founded in 1632. There are fine 18th- and 19th-century buildings, especially the town hall and university and there is a visit to the restored Jaani church. First of two nights in Tartu.
Lake Peipsi (Estonia). Drive to the shores of Lake Peipsi and visit Alatskivi, Raja and Kolkja, all villages which provided refuge for the Old Believers, persecuted for their disaffection with the Orthodox Church. Return to Tartu via the recenty re-opened Estonian National Museum.
Cesis (Latvia). Enter Latvia travelling through hilly landscape renowned for its beauty. Cesis is an historic and well-preserved small town with church and ruined castle. First of three nights in Riga.
Riga (Latvia). Explore Latvia’s capital on foot. The Art Nouveau district is a residential quarter of grand boulevards, with classical, historicist and outstanding façades. Within the extensive Old Town there are mediaeval streets, Hanseatic warehouses, Gothic and Baroque churches and 19th-century civic buildings. There are visits to the Menzendorff House, a restored merchant’s house and now a museum, Gothic St Peter with its distinctive tall spire and the cathedral, which is the largest mediaeval church in the Baltic countries.
Riga. A drive via the market, formerly Europe’s largest, situated in five 1920s Zeppelin hangars, followed by a visit to the fascinating outdoor museum of vernacular buildings. Free afternoon in Riga; possibilities include the Occupation Museum or the Jewish Museum.
Rundale (Latvia), Kaunas (Lithuania). Rundale was one of the most splendid palaces in the Russian Empire, built from 1736 by Rastrelli for a favourite of Empress Anna. Lunch is in the palace restaurant. Lithuania is entered via the town of Bauska and there is a stop in Kedainiai to visit the regional museum. First of two nights in Kaunas.
Kaunas (Lithuania). A diverse historic town with a wealth of architecture. Near the central square are a number of churches and a museum dedicated to Lithuanian folk instruments. The Ciurlionis Art Museum has works of Lithuania’s most famous composer and artist. Other afternoon visits include the Resurrection Church and the neo-Baroque Synagogue.
Pazaislis, Vilnius (Lithuania). At Pazaislis is a magnificent Baroque nunnery and pilgrimage church, one of the architectural gems of Eastern Europe. Continue to Vilnius which, far from the sea, has the feel of a Central European metropolis, with Baroque the predominant style. Afternoon walk to the bishop’s palace (now the Presidential Palace), the university, and the Church of St John. First of three nights in Vilnius.
Vilnius. Walk to the Gates of Dawn, the Carmelite church of St Theresa, the former Jewish ghetto, the cathedral and the exquisite little Late-Gothic church of St Anne. Visit the church of Saints Peter and Paul with outstanding stucco sculptural decoration and the newly restored Grand Dukes’ Palace.
Vilnius. Visit the Church Heritage Museum and Kazys Varnelis House Museum, an eclectic private collection of art and maps. In the afternoon visit the Vytautas Kasiulis Museum and there is some free time; suggestions include the Genocide Museum, Vilnius Picture Gallery or the Theatre and Music Museum.
Vilnius. Fly from Vilnius to London Heathrow, via Helsinki, arriving at c. 6.00pm.
Price, per person
Two sharing: £4,170 or £3,690 without flights. Single occupancy: £4,590 or £4,110 without flights.
Air travel (economy class) on Finnair and Nordic Regional Airline flights; travel by private coach throughout; accommodation as described below; breakfasts, 5 lunches and 8 dinners with wine, water and coffee; all admission to museums, sites, and donations to churches; tips for restaurant staff, drivers, guides; all state and airport taxes; the services of the lecturer, tour manager and local guides.
Hotel Palace, Tallinn: a comfortable 4-star hotel on the edge of the old town, recently reopened after a smart refurbishment. London Hotel, Tartu: a modern, centrally located 4-star hotel with a good restaurant; decor is quite bright. Radisson Blu Ridzene, Riga: a 5-star hotel though more akin to a 4-star, well-located with views over the park. Hotel Daugirdas, Kaunas: a 19th-century mansion with modern features. Novotel Centre, Vilnius: a plain but comfortable 4-star chain hotel in a good location on the edge of the old town. Single rooms are doubles for sole use throughout.
This is a long tour with four hotel changes and some long coach journeys. There is a lot of walking, some of it on cobbled or roughly paved ground. Average distance by coach per day: 56 miles.
Between 10 and 22 participants.
Before booking, please refer to the FCO website to ensure you are happy with the travel advice for the destination(s) you are visiting: www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice.
'The lecturer was excellent. He is amazingly knowledgeable and everything worked very smoothly.'
'The itinerary was carefully chosen e.g. appropriate day of the week for particular town or venue.'
'Very thoughtfully assembled. Overall we felt we had gained very full overviews of all 3 countries.'
'A superb lecturer with encyclopaedic knowledge of all three countries. Insightful and accessibly informative.'