After a six hour drive coming from Pärnu (Estonia), I arrived in the middle of a traffic jam in the old town of Vilnius (Lithuania). What a change of culture! Yes, I liked Riga in Latvia – and I enjoyed Tallinn in Estonia. But Vilnius in Lithuania felt quite different. It’s a whole world apart from the other places I visited earlier during my Baltic road trip. Actually, I am quite happy to have visited the cities in the present order.
By coincidence, Vilnius seemed to be the icing on the cake. There is an abundance of cobbled streets, cars and shops. While old towns usually are inhabited by chic boutiques, cafes and rich people, Vilnius feels like the entire population is living smack down the historic center. I do agree that this is my personal perception of things. There are heated debates on Internet forums whether Riga, Tallinn or Vilnius wins the top spot of being a worthwhile place to visit. Take my advice: Visit all of the three cities and then make your own assessment.
During my travel, I found small and subtle differences in the culture of each of the three Baltic states. In general – hoping not to offend any of the citizens of the Baltics – I found Latvia to be a mix of traditional Latvian values and European style, whereas Estonia felt simply modern and very, very Scandinavian. Lithuania on the other hand, looks very traditional and feels a bit Russian. That’s perfect for me, since I love Russia…
Moreover, some of the major attractions outside Vilnius are Soviet nostalgia based theme parks. Well, after staying a day in Vilnius, I obviously wanted my “fix” of Soviet nostalgia and thus I was heading to the Zemaitija national park.
There, the former top secret Soviet nuclear rocket launch-base of Plokstine was undergoing remodeling to accommodate tourist groups. Due to this work, the whole site was closed for visitors, which was kind of a let down. Nevertheless the remaining guards did let me wander around parts of the area so I could take some photographs of the dome shaped roofs of the launch silos. According to the information in guidebooks, the underground site features a maze of corridors, rooms, and stairways. Definitely worth a revisit, once this area is officially open again.
Wandering around the nuclear missile site is not necessarily a “Disneylandish” experience. Having lived through the cold war parts of my life, it looks simply beyond me that someone would seriously place nuclear weapons with a 2000 mile range at the outskirts of Europe. Had these rockets been triggered, most of Europe would have been destroyed for centuries to come.
The very fact that this is now a tourist pilgrimage site shows how pointless the effort in building the launch silos was in the first place. Building such structures has nothing to do with achievements of the Romans, Greeks or the Egyptians. In history they will go down as curiosity of sick political systems.
As much as I was smiling about the fact that I now stood in a top-secret location of that time, taking photographs – as much I was disgusted to see the effort put in towards potential destruction.
On a very reflective note I left this site and went to Siauluai to visit the “Hill of Crosses”. It is believed that the first crosses have been put on the hill after an uprising during the Polish-Russian war back in 1831.
The exact number of crosses, statues and crucifixes at is estimated at more than 100’000. Not far from the hill is the town of Siauluai where I stayed overnight before returning back to Riga (Latvia) where my return flight was due to leave two days later.
The road-trip through the Baltic states was very pleasant. I wish that I had allowed more time to visit. This is definitely a region to revisit again some time in the future.