Driving through Latvia and Lithuania, we were hoping to explore these lesser known countries thoroughly and had grand ideas of finding new and undiscovered areas and hidden gems. While this trip didn’t have the spectacular highlights that we were secretly hoping for, we certainly saw some pretty interesting things along the way. Here are the highlights.
Kuldiga is a small town about an hour and a half from Riga. It’s famous for being home to the widest (and probably the shortest in depth) waterfall in Europe. It also has a well-preserved quaint little old town. We spent an afternoon exploring Kuldiga, following the cute little canals that flow around and in between the old houses. Whilst not nearly as spectacular as many famous waterfalls, the beauty of it is that you can walk across the rapids from one side of the river to the other. Unfortunately we weren’t game enough in the chilly weather and we forgot to bring our towels, woops.
Karosta fort and prison
Karosta, along Latvia’s west coast, was home to the naval base of the empire of Russia Tsar Alexander III in the very early 20th century. It later also served as a base for the Soviets. The location was particularly strategic as it was the gateway to Western Europe and the water did not ice over in winter. The northern forts were the original fortification built along the coast to protect the naval base. Today, completely abandoned, the concrete structures are decaying and dilapidated and literally falling into the ocean.
Karosta also houses a military hospital turned military prison, now a museum. It was actually quite an interesting visit, learning a little more about the soviet occupation and seeing some of the conditions that the prisoners had to live in. It’s also possible to spend the night there in a prison cell as be treated as a military prisoner would have been during the soviet period.
Plokstine missile base and Cold War museum
In the middle of nowhere, a former nuclear missile base has now been converted into a Cold War Museum. The museum section was really interesting and informative and its very scary to think how close the world was to a nuclear war during the Cold War. Whilst it’s probably not the most visual attraction, the museum does take you through the base and we got to see down one of the 4 missile silos.
Hill of crosses
We had to cross over into Lithuania for this one. Having seen a few photos before hand, we admit we didn’t expect much. It started during the soviet era as a bit of a rebellion against the soviet ban on religion. It quickly became a pilgrimage site with the locals and has grown. But what a site! There are crosses on top of crosses and more crosses on top of that! Big, small, plain, decorated, the crosses do not stop! Naturally we added one of our own to the hill.
Lunch in Kaunas
Our lunch in Kaunas is worth an honourable mention. We ate a restaurant called Uoksas, which surprise surprise is the number 1 restaurant in Kaunas on Trip Advisor. It is a high quality fine dining restaurant that runs a special set lunch menu. It has 1 entree, 1 soup, 1 main and a dessert. Each dish ranges from 2-5 euros and you choose whichever course you like. The service was fast and the food high-class. Most of the tables were taken up by business people on their lunch break, sitting on their own enjoying their quick but quality €2 gazpacho or €5 roast duck. We though this was a great concept and it meant that all time and effort was spent on perfecting the quality of their few nominated dishes.
Grutas park aka Stalinworld
This was a huge waste of time. This park is publicised as a “sculpture garden of soviet era sculptures and an exposition on soviet relics”. Sounds interesting enough but what we saw was a bunch of Stalin heads and Lenin heads with a few random people in between. Furthermore, it’s also home to a zoo. A very poorly maintained zoo with mini enclosures and depressed-looking animals, in particular the birds and the bears – dial the animal rights hotline! It was also a rip off, costing €15 for the two of us.
The highlight of our time in Vilnius was crossing into The Republic of Užupis. Once a neglected neighbourhood, was taken over by struggling artists who took advantage of the abandoned buildings turning the area into their own little colony with a bohemian and laid-back vibe.
In April 1997, it declared itself an independent republic with its own flag, currency, president and constitution. It’s difficult to know whether its a serious thing or a bit of a joke. Read the republic’s constitution (displayed on mirrored plaques in many languages in the centre of town), and you can decide for yourself.
Gauja national park
The last few nights of our Baltic road trip were split between Cesis and Sigulda. We wanted to get back in touch with nature and explore Gauja National Park.
We drew on inner athlete and mustered up the energy to go on two hikes! The first took us through the forest and then along the river and into a valley, under chairlifts that service the slopes in the winter. We even came across a derelict bobsleigh track.
The second hike was a little more physically challenging. After peering into some small cave openings we tackled the infinite stairs that took us to the summit and around to Turaida Castle, a red brick medieval castle turned museum.
Next we brace ourselves for an 18 hour overnight bus ride to Krakow, Poland.