When travelling along the roads of Latvia in June, you will be met by the sight of women, young and old, plucking flowers in the fields. They are preparing for Jáni, the country’s midsummer celebration, a testament to both their pagan past and their location in an area where summer means long light nights on the beach and midwinter provides only 6 hours of daylight. During Jáni people flock from the cities to the countryside where they gather with friends and family to eat, drink and sing, while they light giant bonfires. The women wear headbands they weave themselves from twenty-seven flowers to symbolize fertility and innocence and the men wear headbands made of oak leaves, symbolizing the physical strength of the oak tree. The festival is especially important for young lovers. The legends say that the Jáni festival is the only time a year that you can find the “fern flower”, a magical flower that is supposed to grow on the fern plant. During more conservative times, young couples would go alone in to the woods and stay there all night to “look for the fern flower”.
I have always been fascinated by the three tiny Baltic countries, nestled just on the opposite side of our own well-known sea. With Nordic aspirations, a sorrow filled Soviet past and a unique Baltic vibe that is felt throughout the region, from the dense pine forests and the amber-filled beaches to the well preserved medieval capitals. The three capitals are even placed with the perfect hitchhiking distance between each other, so I was expecting the Baltic leg of the journey to be a clear highlight of the trip. And I wasn’t disappointed.
My first stop was Vilnius in Lithuania, which was also my first couchsurfing experience of the trip.
“The Great Prussian Delay” in East Germany had caused me to miss both my appointments in Poland and forced me to sleep in my tent. If nothing else I would have loved Vilnius just for providing me with a couch to sleep on and giving me my first shower in five days.
It turned out that Vilnius had a lot more to offer than just showers. It was extremely beautiful, with an amzing and well-preserved center. It reminded me of a mix between Århus and my favorite city, Ljubljana in Slovenia, with all its young students, cozy cafes and a river flowing alongside the cobbled streets. It even had its own Christania-inspired freetown. Complete with a constitution in Danish.
It was the first time in almost a year that I had the chance to get completely lost in a new city and I wandered the streets for nine hour the first day. One night I made a discovery that would shape the rest of the Baltic trip and force me to reevaluate my food budget rather drastically. My host Vilija had recommended a restaurant that supposedly cooked the best burger in Lithuania. Now I cann't speak to the quality of all other burgers in Lithuania, but it was definitely one of the best I have ever tasted.
When I was going to pay for it, I discovered a tiny yellow book laying on the counter and decided to give it a quick look. It was a list of the 99 best bars and restaurants in the Baltics and I noted down the ones that were affordable on my rather limited budget.
It’s still a strange experience to visit restaurants and ask for a table for one. Especially when I visited a sushi place in Riga and they decided to place me at a massive table with eight seats, as a not so subtle way of emphasizing my "lonely loser status" to the rest of the guests. However, I have found that, when I am able to move past my pride, eating alone gives you a lot more time to really enjoy the food.
I made it to Riga with only one ride from Vilnius and although it was a beautiful city, with the best examples of Art Nouveau architecture I have seen in Europe, my timing couldn’t have been worse. I thought I was smart for visiting it during Jáni but in reality, it meant that almost all of Riga’s inhabitants had travelled to the countryside and most of the city was closed off for the holiday. Add to that the fact that it was raining the entire time and the majority of my time ended up consisting of me getting soaked in the rain while trying to visit cafes and restaurants that were closed when I got there. The only saving grace was an Italian place with a great wine menu that ended up costing me more than five nights in my hostel.
I spent three of the four hours it takes to get from Riga to Tallinn in the back of a van owned by two Swedish DJs in their late fifties, who had such thick accents that I couldn’t understand a word of what they said, but they gave me pägen bread and I partied to The Chainsmokers blasting from their giant speakers while they sat in complete silence in the front.
Tallinn means Town of Danes in Estonian as it was first settled by the Danish crusaders who came here in 1219 under king Valdemar ll. The old colony is in great shape. Tallinn boasts one of the best preserved medieval cities in Europe which includes the old city wall and the Danish King’s Garden, where the Danish flag fell from the sky, as we were being ambushed by the heathens, and helped us win the battle.
The Estonians have a different version of that story. In their version God was trying to give the flag to the Estonians defending their country but the sneaky Danes stole it from them in the same way they stole their land from them. Luckily, the modern day Tallinners doesn’t hold a grudge and they were extremely welcoming and talkative.
Estonia is a bit of an anomaly. Their language is unlike any other and shares more similarities with Finnish than with their Baltic neighbors to the south. They have had the best economic development of all the former Soviet states and are actually campaigning to be recognized as a part of the Nordic countries along with us instead of as a part of the Baltics. In spite of being control by a variety of foreign invaders throughout history, they never lost touch with their own culture and today they are fiercely independent and proud. If Tallinn is anything to go by, then they have a lot to be proud of.
maybe because of, their small and slow roads, all of the Baltics offered a
beautiful and unique hitching experience. Around fifty percent of their area is
covered in deep, lush forest that makes it easy to feel transported to a time
were nomadic tribes roamed the lands and people worshipped Svantevit rather
than Christ. All Danes should try a Baltic road trip at least once because
these places are truly wondrous.
I’m currently on my ninth vodka-soaked day in the Big Bear: Mother Russia. I’ll update you on how that’s going in a couple of days, Insha Allah.