Region Remains Unspoiled
The three Baltic statesEstonia, Latvia, and Lithuaniafree at last after 700 years of almost unbroken German and Russian domination, are full of medieval cities and storybook towns. They are also ecologically unspoiledwith vast forests, thousands of lakes, and hundreds of miles of pristine beaches.
One example of the country's ecological purity: storks flourish there. This big bird has all but disappeared from Western Europe and Scandinavia because the wetlands upon which it depends for frogs and other stork goodies have been drained.
Ecology-minded visitors can pursue activities—such as birdwatching, hiking, horseback riding, and cross-country skiing. Bicycles are easily hired and biking holidays make sense, especially in Latvia, which is relatively flat. Numerous windmills and watermills have been turned into guest houses.
All over the Baltic states, farms and small houses offer bed and breakfast arrangements. Farmers serve food produced on their own farms, giving visitors a chance to enjoy the fresh farm products for which the Baltic area is famous. Mushrooms and berries gathered in the woods add savor to a cuisine that features pork, lamb, beef, and such fish dishes as herring, lampreys, salmon, and river trout.
And the friendly Baltic people do love their beer. The best known beer city is probably Birzai, in Lithuania, where the brew is fresh and unpasteurized and hence available only on draft. It's said that the brewery was the first place the people rebuilt after the Swedes sacked the town in 1704.
Untouched by Tourism
Until 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed and the Baltic countries re-emerged as independent nations, tourism didn't exist in most of the rural areas of the three countries. Ecotourism was identified as a way of helping to make the rural areas economically viable while retaining their natural and cultural heritage.
For 50 years the seaside was declared strictly off limits by the Soviets, who had a fear both of invasions and defections by boat. In retrospect this, too, has had its advantages. Parts of the Baltic coastline are so unspoiled that UNESCO has declared them biosphere reserves. The Kursiu Nerija National Park in Lithuania was set up partially to protect sand dunes, some of which are more than 300 feet high and provide a view of the sea, the lagoon, and the forests.
Down the coast from the Estonian capital of Tallinn is Haapsalu, which became a famous spa specializing in curative mud therapy in the 19th century. Bathing in, sitting in, or submerging a foot, hand, or arm in hot peat is claimed to be good for treating inflammations, promoting circulation, relaxing the muscles, and relieving arthritic pain.
Saaremaa, a Time Capsule
One of the large islands off the Estonian coast from Haapsalu is Saaremaa, which, having been sealed off from the rest of the world for so long, is a sort of time capsule of Baltic life as it was. It's a place of wooden windmills and villages with thatched cottages and centuries-old stone fences. The islanders have their own songs and mythologies, as well as their own methods of salting fish, brewing beer, and baking bread. Another famous beach resort, Jurmala, is so convenient to Riga that some visitors choose to base themselves there rather than in the city.
Access to the three countries is easy: All three are linked up by the Via Baltica highway from Warsaw to Tallinn and by a railway line from Berlin to Tallinn, Vilnius, and Riga. All three cities also have airports.