Journey: The Baltic countries 2007
Comtourist has the objective to visit all the former Soviet republics and Eastern Block countries before 2020. In 2007 we took ferry from Rostock Eastern Germany to the Estonian capital Tallinn with our car and a tent. We camped four weeks in the Baltic countries Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and ended our holiday in the Russian enclave Kaliningrad. We had a great holiday in the Baltic countries enjoying the old cities, beautiful nature and extensive Soviet heritage. We can recommend a camping holiday in the Baltics to anybody.
Nowhere was the impact of the fall of the Soviet Union bigger then in the three small Baltic countries. Years of Russian occupation finally came to an end in 1991 and the Baltic people were free citizens, only for the second time in their history. Meanwhile they became successful free market economies, part of NATO, full EU members and may join the Euro soon. Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania all have modern camping’s both in nature parks and in the main cities. Travelling by car is really very easy, there are no border procedures between the countries and tourists are not hassled by traffic police. Kaliningrad is a different story, a Russian visa is needed, waiting times at the borders can be eight to ten hours and tourist are stopped many times by policemen trying to enforce a bribe. Photos: Baltics
Planning the journey
Comtourist is based in the Dutch capital Amsterdam, and Estonia’s capital Tallinn is almost 1900 km away. So driving all the way and back would take lots of time, especially considering the state of the roads in Poland. It quickly became clear that taking a ferry, at least one way, would make the journey much more pleasant. We looked at many options and concluded that the ferry from Rostock (Germany) to Tallinn via Helsinki (Finland) was the best solution for us. From Estonia’s capital Tallinn we then would drive back home via Latvia, Lithuania, Kaliningrad (Russia), Poland and Germany. It was our intention to camp where ever possible and mix city and nature destinations us much as possible.
Ferry across the Baltic Sea
It takes about 6 hours to drive from Amsterdam to Rostock, a harbour city in North East Germany. We went early so we could spend some extra time in Rostock, the city with the former GDR’s (communist East Germany) most important sea port. After walking around town and enjoying a good German dinner we went to the ferry harbour were we shipped in around midnight. We had booked a cheap cabin without a window, nothing fancy but decent enough. The ferry left port at four in the morning and we were on our way to Helsinki. Almost two day’s on a ferry is a very good way to start a relaxing summer holiday. Just sit on deck with a cold beer in the sun, enjoy the view and prepare for the rest of the holiday by reading some good travel books. We arrived in Helsinki very early after the second night on the ferry. Our ferry to Tallinn was booked for the early evening so we had a good half day to spend in Helsinki. The Finish capital is interesting from a Comtourist perspective, since its architecture, politics and culture were heavily influenced by Russia and later the USSR. In the evening we took the ferry (basically a floating bar and liquor store) to Tallinn which takes about two hours. We were now in Estonia and our tour of the Baltic countries could begin.
Estonia: the pearl of the Baltic’s
We started our Baltic’s tour in Tallinn the capital of Estonia with it’s historic city centre. The city camping near the beach looked more like a deserted industry terrain then an actual camp side. We did manage to set up our tent on a little patch of available grass and enjoyed the historic town for some days. From Tallinn we took the coastal road to Paldiski a deserted Soviet submarine base. The same day we moved on to Virtsu from where we took the ferry to the Island of Muhu from where we drove to Saaremaa the biggest island of the Baltic countries. We stayed a couple of days on a camping near Mandjala not far from the islands main city Kuressaare. The camping and island were very pretty, only the thousands of mosquitoes were spoilers during the summer evenings. From Saaremaa we drove to Latvia the next country of our Baltic tour. Photos: Estonia, Tallinn
Latvia: stunning nature and a buzzing capital
From Virtsu we took the coastal road to Latvia via the Estonian beach resort Parnu. Our first destination in Latvia was Sigulda (German: Segewold) in the centre of Gauja national park in the Vidzeme region. Locals call Sigulda the "Switzerland of Vidzeme" due to its beautiful mountains and ski resort. We set up our tent on a beautiful nature camping on the Gauja riverbank. From the camping we did a 25 km downstream canoe trip, hiked in the hills and looked at athletes practicing on the bobsled track. We took the train from Sigulda to Cesis a town with a beautiful medieval castle. From Sigulda we drove 58 km to the Latvian capital Riga. We stayed on the city camping situated on Zakusala Island in the Daugava river in the centre of Riga. Riga cannot match Tallinn’s old city centre but it has many Comtourist attractions like the Stalinist university building, automobile museum, aviation museum and a grand Soviet ww2 memorial. Photos: Latvia
Lithuania: Catholic crosses, Soviet statues, KGB terror and amazing dunes
The famous hill of crosses close to Siauliai was our first stop in Lithuania. This site of pilgrimage is a hill where people have left millions of crosses and more are added every day. The Soviets bulldozed the site three times but people kept coming back to leaf a cross behind. We drove on to Trakai a historic city and lake resort in 28 km west of the Lithuanian capital Vilnius. The lake site camping we stayed on was very nice and in Trakai we enjoyed traditional Lithuanian food and folklore. Trakai is also an excellent base to make daytrips to Kaunas and Vilnius. Most interesting attraction in Vilnius are the TV tower and the former KGB prison, now a museum. Next destination was the Curonian Split a 98 km long sand-dune spit that separates the Curonian Lagoon from the Baltic Sea and borders to Lithuania on one site and Kaliningrad (Russia) on the other site. We first drove to Klaipeda (German: Memel) from where we took the ferry to Smiltyne. Our camping was close to Nida (German: Nidden), the main town off the Curonian Split. We really enjoyed the unique dune landscape, old sailing ships in the harbour and traditional houses in the small towns. One of the historic highlights in Nida is the house of famous German writer Thomas Mann. Photos: Lithuania, Vilnius KGB Headquarters
Kaliningrad: a Russian enclave in the EU
Kaliningrad (German: Koningsberg) is one of those places that is very interesting while most people aren’t even aware of it’s existence. Koningsberg was the main city of East Prussia part of the German Reich after world war one but separated by the Danzig corridor that belonged to Poland. After the second world war Koningsberg became part of the Russian SSR and not Poland or the Lithuanian SSR. The result is a Russian enclave within the borders of the European Union. We stayed in a Hotel for once during our holiday. Kaliningrad has many Comtourist highlights, most notable are the House of Soviets, B-413 submarine, Bunker of General Otto Lasch, Torpedo boat monument and much more. We had an excellent day trip to Baltiysk (German: Pillau) home of the Russian Baltic fleet. Waiting time at the Russian Polish border was horrendous (probably up to 10 hour), we paid the Russian border guards fifty Euro to avoid waiting the whole day. Photos: Kaliningrad, Baltiysk
Back home trough Poland and Germany
Relieved to have escaped the Russian border guards we got on our way home trough Poland. The roads in Eastern Poland turned out to be as bad as we feared so we reached Germany after driving a whole day. The next day was our final part of the journey but we had one more stop to make. We had passed the Motor Technical Auto-Motor-Freizeit Museum in Bad Oeynhausen a couple of times already and decided to pay it a visit this time. A large collection of Soviet and GDR cars, aeroplanes and military equipment made it worth while. The final conclusion is that camping in the Baltic countries is a great experience that we can recommend to anybody. Taking a ferry both ways would be the best idea although the roads in Poland should be better by now.