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Afloat on the Baltic

Experiencing the Past in Europe’s Resurgent Crossroads

By Daniel Gabriel

In a time when hefty prices and summer holiday crowds threaten to spoil the romance of European travel, our family found a slice of the Continent that offered history, adventure, and new discoveries daily--without our having to dodge tour buses or break our budget.

From the early Viking raiders to the days of the Hanseatic League and the medieval Lithuanian empire, the Baltic was a crossroads of European culture. Today, with the Soviet Union gone, visitors can combine immersion travel in long-stable Scandinavia with travel in Baltic cultures at long last re-emerging onto the world stage.

With two boys (ages 7 and 11) in tow, we headed for Sweden, Finland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. We rode buses and trams, rented a Moskvich car, took a night train into Latvia, and rode eight different ferries--three of them overnight. Going by public transport saved us money and allowed us to travel with the local people.

Swedish Gotland

Gotland’s capital, Visby, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that sits like a protected medieval jewel surrounded by a fully intact three-kilometer stone wall and over 40 towers. Most activities on the island are free, and Visby itself is best explored on foot.

Kid-friendly options in Visby include bike rentals, the harbor baths, a life-size working catapault outside the north wall, and interactive Fenomenalen exhibits in Gotland’s Fornsal Museum.

Lithunia

Two great places to experience the resurgent culture in Lithuania are the capital, Vilnius, and the coastal Curonian spit, a 100-kilometer-long sand dune laced with pine forests and facing an inland lagoon. Besides hunting for bits of amber, try renting bikes to ride the Lagoon path, or scale the enormous flowing sand dunes that run right to the border of Russia.

Vilnius, with its rambling ruins of the Trakai castles set amidst lakes, is a great place for the kids to learn that history isn’t just something that happened in the distant past. In a field behind a metalworking factory monstrous statues of Lenin and Stalin, which once had loomed above the central squares of the city, now lie rusting in the weeds. We were invited inside Vilnius’ synagogue--and thought long and hard about why it was the only one left out of 96. State oppression takes on new meaning when you walk through the KGB’s holding cells and torture chambers that once claimed victims from every family in Lithuania. The guides are former inmates; the stories they told will never be forgotten in our family.

Estonia

In Estonia, Tallinn’s Old Town is so well preserved that it might be a living museum: medieval town walls, half-ruined churches, fortress towers with views out over the sea. Yet this is a vibrant city. Of special interest to both visitors and locals is the Estonian Song Bowl. In 1989 250,000 people gathered to sing the forbidden traditional songs and began what became known as the Singing Revolution. When our kids stood upon the stage they almost felt they had become a part of it.

The Kuressaare Bishop’s Castle, on Estonia’s remote island of Saaremaa, is a warren of tiny rooms, staircases, turrets, secret passageways, and hidden towers. Circumnavigating the island is a fine way to see “the real Estonia.” There are fields of windmills, fortress churches, a meteor crater, and the massive Panga cliffs.

Helsinki Markets

Probably the best way to meet Finns--or Estonians, for that matter--is to join them in a sauna. Failing that, try walking the harborside markets of Helsinki. In the South Harbor, masts of sailing ships bristle against the sky as fisherfolk with weathered faces hawk their daily catch to passersby. Nearby streetsellers offer vegetables, flowers, woolen hats, and cassettes. Early morning workers sip coffee at the tent-like outdoor cafes while gulls wheel in the sunshine.

Ferries from Northern Europe

Baltic ferries that run between the Scandinavian countries often offer cut-rate fares because they make their profit from the Swedes and Finns who shop duty-free on board. The overnight run between Stockholm and Helsinki can be less than $100 for four people during the off season. Viking Lines offers the cheapest regular fares, but also check Silja for special offers.

Ferries to the Swedish island of Gotland leave from Nynäshamn (an hour south of Stockholm) and Oskarshamn several times a day. We took a six-hour overnight ferry with a four-berth cabin and returned on a more expensive high-speed catamaran (less than three hours) for a total of $25 per child and $70 per adult. To book, contact Destination Gotland, which also offers special bike and hostel packages, as well as a Swedish-language listing of all accommodations options on the island.

Numerous ferries run between Denmark, Poland, and the northern coast of Germany (especially to Travemunde or Kiel). Gdansk, Poland is served by the same ferry terminal in Nynashamn that makes the Gotland run.

We also ferried from Stockholm to Klaipeda, Lithuania. This 17-hour trip, which cost $280 for the four of us, included meals and a cabin and provided an excellent introduction to Lithuania. Virtually all the other passengers were returning Lithuanians. The meals were huge helpings of traditional food. One advantage of landing in Klaipeda is its proximity to the Curonian spit. Small ferries to and from the spit were accessed simply by walking down to the old harbor area in Klaipeda and asking for the ferry to Smiltyne.

Other convenient routes between northern Europe and the Baltic states include Stockholm-Tallinn, Stockholm-Riga, and Travemunde-Riga. The political changes in the area mean that new ferry services are springing up all the time.

Perhaps our most memorable ferry ride was between Helsinki, Finland and Tallinn, Estonia. The trip can be done in a couple of hours by hydrofoil or catamaran (the usual fare is $25, which makes it a popular day outing for Finns), but we took the Georg Ots, an enormous ferry that was once the only direct link between the Baltic states and the West. Most passengers sit inside, but we stayed on deck and watched the sun set over the Gulf of Finland. The special value of the Georg Ots is that, after docking in Helsinki at 11 p.m., one can book cabin space and sleep aboard. While this is not cheap ($20 per child, $40 per adult), it includes a massive breakfast and saves an expensive night’s lodging in Finland.

Land Transport. The days of the Baltic express train may be limited. As of this writing, there are no trains at all between Riga and Tallinn. However, connections can still be made between St. Petersburg and Warsaw from both Tallinn and Riga. We took an overnight train from Vilnius, Lithuania to Riga (the entire trip ran $6 for kids and $12 for adults) and had a great time. Be prepared for Soviet-era service. We booked a four-berth compartment, which included clean linen. Space is a bit tight, but this was easily outweighed by the joy of rattling through tiny, sleeping stations.

Buses, which run most places, vary from tiny minibuses to air-conditioned giants with reclining seats and soft drink service. Costs are high in Scandinavia, but in the Baltic states buses cost only $2-$3 per 100 kilometers. In cities, the kids especially liked riding trams. This is one of Helsinki’s few bargains--the 3T tram makes a figure-eight that takes in most of the best sights.

Car rental is possible as well, but expensive. Expect to pay $100 per day in Scandinavia and $50 per day in Lithuania. On the Estonian island of Saaremaa we found a garage renting Russian-made Moskvich cars for only $20 per day. As the island has lots of remote sites of interest, the car allowed us to see a great many things that would otherwise have been inaccessible. Plus, there were so many empty dirt roads that the boys got to try driving the car. Now that was a hit!

Lodging Options. In Sweden or Finland consider staying at a youth hostel. Most offer family rooms, and at $15-$20 per night per person, this may be your cheapest option. On Gotland, try rooming in a private home ($75-$100 per night for four).

In the Baltic states prices drop considerably. Costs for homestays averaged $50 per night for the four of us and generally included huge and varied breakfasts. The chance to choose between stepping outside our door into the heart of Vilnius’ old town or sniffing the sea air with the local kids on the Curonian spit was ideal. In Tallinn we stayed in the “family suite” of a three-room hotel on the top of Toompea, the upper portion of the old walled city. Otherwise, we stayed in private homes or apartments.

The trick is finding out about these lodgings. In Lithuania, contact Litinterp, which has offices in Vilnius, Kaunas, and Klaipeda. Ostensibly an interpreting agency, Litinterp is run by energetic young folks with good English skills who book rooms, rent cars, run their own apartments, and offer general advice. This is your best contact in Lithuania.

In Sweden and Estonia local tourist agencies don’t normally book rooms, but the staff are friendly and willing to help. Try Gotlands Turistservice in Visby, Gotland, and the Estonian Tourist Board in Tallinn, Estonia.

Above all, stay flexible and keep your adventurer’s hat firmly in place. The kids will love it and the family memories will last a lifetime.