It is not exactly the same as the cliche about London buses — but 2018 is proof that if you wait long enough for a European national centenary, three will come along at once. Last month marked the 100th anniversary of the creation of the modern Latvian state — a red-letter date that completes a trio of three-figure Baltic independence birthdays, in the wake of similar moments in Lithuania (tethered to Feb 16, 1918), and in Estonia (Feb 24, 1918).
These milestones are being saluted with gusto in the countries in question. And it is not difficult to understand why. While these three amigos were not alone in taking shape amid the turmoil of 1918 — the Czech Republic and Slovakia (jointly, as Czechoslovakia), as well as Poland, all emerged, to some extent, from the fire of the First World War — the Baltic states had further roads to walk in their bid for definitive freedom. All three were subsequently occupied, not just by Nazi Germany, but by the Soviet Union — and they would not escape the latter until 1991.
Twenty-seven years on from this last liberation, Lithuania (lithuania.travel), Latvia (latvia.travel) and Estonia (visit estonia.com) have all become trusted options for mini-breaks and holidays. But each still has the capacity to surprise those who fly north-east...
Riga is a city of undoubted prettiness. Its celebrated art nouveau district has a museum that explains how this small Baltic seed became a flower bed of early 20th-century architectural grandeur (jugendstils.riga.lv; about Dh20). And St Peter’s Church, 13th century in origin, is home to a giant steeple (peterbaznica.riga.lv; about Dh38) that delivers a splendid view of the labyrinthine streets and busy squares below. There is also sober reflection. Currently being expanded ahead of a big relaunch in the spring, the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia (okupacijasmuzejs.lv; entry by donation) looks back in anger at the Nazi and Soviet eras, and explains why neither incursion is forgotten.
Flights: Fly Aeroflot from Dubai to Riga via Slovenia, from Dh3,100 return.
Riga is pretty, but Tallinn manages to seduce the camera at almost every corner — at least in a centre that, deeply indebted to the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries, has been inscribed on the Unesco World Heritage list since 1997 (praised as a hotspot of medieval commerce whose significance “is demonstrated by the opulence of the public buildings and the domestic architecture of the merchants’ houses, which have survived to a remarkable degree despite the ravages of fire and war”). Russia’s sometime presence lingers in different ways. The most obvious, and most beautiful, is the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral — an Orthodox jewel, finished in 1900, that crowns the main Toompea Hill (orthodox.ee). More insidious is the Hotel Viru (viru.ee), a giant reminder of the Soviet jackboot, where the walls used to have ears. Now debugged, it recalls the clandestine practices of yesteryear via the KBG Museum that skulks quietly up on its 23rd floor (about Dh45).
Flights: Fly FinnAir from Dubai to Tallinn via Helsinki for about Dh4,500 return.
The most southerly country in the triumvirate (sharing part of its lower border with Poland), Lithuania sings sweetly in its little capital. Vilnius fans out around the swarthy bluff of Gediminas Hill, where the Gediminas Tower is the final remnant of the city’s 15th-century castle. And it shines in the neoclassical elegance of its cathedral — an 18th-century gem that manages to resemble a Roman temple (the Pantheon in Rome was a clear touchstone) while being upstaged by its own bell tower (which stands separate and aloof like a lighthouse on a cliff). There is a rotating showreel of art exhibitions at the Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania (valdovurumai.lt; about Dh25), a reconstruction of the one-time royal palace. There are shadows and stains, too. The Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fights (genocid.lt/muziejus/en; about Dh17) aims a hard, unforgiving eye at Soviet times.
Flights: Fly Ukraine Intl Air from Dubai to Vilnius via Kiev for about Dh4,000.
A wide view
While the capitals are the most plausible options for glimpses of the region as winter clicks into gear and Christmas markets take over the central squares, there is more to each country than its respective urban kingpin. Take advantage of the relative compactness of the Baltic world by ticking off Riga, Tallinn and Vilnius, but also venturing to Parnu (an appealing seaside town on Estonia’s south-western flank) — and Sigulda (a town in the Latvian interior, where a ruined fortress, dating to 1207, still monitors the Gauja Valley).
Besides paying your respects to the capitals, also dip into Curonian Spit National Park (the tranche of protected sandbars that Lithuania shares with the Russian exclave Kaliningrad) – and Lahemaa National Park (on the northern edge of Estonia. Boars, wolves, and bears roam within).
A summer alternative is to fly to relatively unknown Palanga, on Lithuania’s west coast.
The Daily Telegraph