The Baltic Countries
Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are often referred to as the Baltic states. The terms “Baltic states” or “Baltic countries” are common but not official. All three countries rest on the east shore of the Baltic sea, but only Lithuania and Latvia are ethnically Baltic and speak a Baltic language. Estonia has a culture and language that is based on a Finnic background.
The combined geographical area of all three countries is slightly bigger than the state of Washington, but the population of all three is lower than Washington State in the USA.
Each country has a long and rich history, with ancient buildings that could tell stories. The countryside is spotted with farms and woodlands of both pine and deciduous trees. I could almost imagine that I was back in the northeast of the USA, except for the occasional castle reaching up beyond the tree line.
The latitude line of these three countries rests just below Alaska on the other side of the globe. The further north we traveled the more daylight encroached on each night. Our sleeping pattern struggled to align with the sun setting around 11 PM and coming back up around 4 AM. Between sunset and sunrise is a twilight, not quite fully dark. My Russian friend Olga calls this a “white night.”
The Baltics FAQs
The three countries that are usually referred to as the Baltics states are Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. They are located just below Finland and above Poland. Russia and Belarus are on their eastern borders. See map below.
Yes, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are unofficially referred to as the Baltic states. It is a term that started after World War I when these three distinct countries on the Baltic Sea gained independence from Russia. They each have their own languages and distinct history.
Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania all became part of NATO on March 29th, 2004. All three countries became part of the European Union on May 1st, 2004.
Birštonas, the Town of healing waters
In 1854 the town of Birštonas, Lithuania was given the permit to establish itself as a resort. Its claim to fame is the mineral springs all over town purported to have healing properties. Nearly 500 years before this resort status was granted, the town was mentioned in 14th-century writing that spoke of a fortified wooden castle founded by the salty waters of the Nemunas River (source: VisitBristonas).
An observation tower rises high in the sky at the edge of town giving tourists a chance to see the famed winding Nemunas river through the sensational landscape. It’s only 300 steps to the top.
Walking paths crisscross throughout Birštonas. Some meander through the woods or along paths decorated with sculptures. The town is filled with art and places to recline, places to contemplate. Along these walks, mineral water huts provide an opportunity to relax and drink the waters of Birštonas.
My favorite water hut is the Druskupis open-air mineral water evaporation structure. It is a circular structure. Branches from local trees fill the walls, creating a separation from the noise outside but allowing the breeze to waft through. Mineral water flows over the walls creating soothing dripping sounds. Airflow evaporates the droplets filling the space with salty air like that of the sea. I rested on one of the reclining benches inside, breathed deep, listened to the sound of nature, and watched the top of the trees sway back and forth above me.
Then I got up and took a picture of Trin inside the hut. 🙂
Evidence of Healing?
There is little scientific evidence to support the claims. Yet most of us are drawn to the ocean, breathing in the salty air, listening to the rhythm of the waves, and relaxing in the sand. It all does feel a bit healing. Maybe it is just the time in nature, taking time to be rather than do. Taking time to be still which we do so little of in our culture.
At the end of our walk on the mineral water route, we stopped to enjoy the park on the edge of town. I laid back on the wooden seat and looked at the blue sky above. A few clouds drifted high above and a breeze cooled the rays of the sun on my skin. The stream gently meandered, its sound barely perceptible. There is something in Bristonas that lives up to its hype about being a place of healing but maybe it’s not about what is in the water.
The Birštonas website is one of the best town websites I’ve seen for nature lovers. We walked 23 miles of trails, many I would do again and all of them had something different, be it water rooms, art, or vistas overlooking the river.
Note: Birštonas was founded as a resort based on the mineral springs throughout the town. All the springs have since dried up. Bore water from deep wells has replaced the springs providing water to the huts. They are said to have similar mineral properties to what the springs had in the past.
Vilnius, capital of Lithuania
Vilnius was one of the largest Jewish centers in Europe. In 1812 Napoleon called it the “Jerusalem of the north.” Just before World War II, the Jewish population of Lithuania was 265,000. German units and Lithuanian Nazi collaborators murdered 95% of the Jewish population of Lithuania by the end of the war (Wikipedia-Vilnius). Only one synagogue survived the war without significant damage. If one looks closely inscriptions on old buildings throughout the city still bear the mark of what now seems to be a forgotten past. (-Guardian-Steele).
Medieval architecture is the most prominent historical architecture in Vilnius.
The Gate of Dawn, built between 1502 and 1522, is the last remaining watchtower that remains of the defensive wall surrounding Vilnius. Lithuania’s most famous renaissance painting, called Our Lady of the Gate of Dawn, was installed inside the chapel of the gate in the 17th century. Locals and visitors still worship the painting today. As we walked through the gate we noticed a few locals coming through to bow, cross themselves, and mouth a few words before continuing on their journey.
The castle is what drew us to Kaunas, but I found the courtyard art gallery (Keimo Galerija) to be more moving.
Pre-war communities knew each other well, were warm, celebrated holidays, and helped each other during difficult times. Over time the communities became isolated. Vytenis and other artists created yard art to bring communities back together and remember those who were lost during the war.
Our first sighting as we got off the bus in Riga was the massive market. Old German hangars have been upgraded to house the largest market in Europe.
Latvia is home to one of the most strategic trading ports in the Baltics. Riga, the strategic port, is located at the junction of the Baltic sea and the Daugava River. Vikings used this river and it continued to be a major trading route through the centuries. Due to its valuable location, Latvia is highly prized and has been fought over. The most recent invasion was by the Soviet Red Army in 1944. Latvia remained under Soviet control until 1991.
Riga was founded in 1201 and has a beautiful Old Town with cobblestone streets and ancient architecture.
Tallinn, a long time ago
Old town Tallinn is so much fun to explore. It is an exceptionally intact 13th-century city. Wandering up and down the streets was a feast for the eyes and fodder for the imagination of what it might have been like to live here a few hundred years ago.
Not that long ago
On the eastern outskirts of Tallinn along the bay is a large memorial called Estonias Victims of Communist Terror. Between 1940 – 1991 Estonia lost a fifth of its population. Over 75,000 were victims of communist terror. They were murdered or deported and never heard from again.
The main hall of the memorial stretches up from the Baltic sea to a garden of remembrance. Thousands of names were engraved on the black walls reaching up to the sky. We walked through the narrow passage slowly. A woman in front of me reached out and gently touched a name on the wall. Silence aside from an occasional footfall engulfed us inside. Between the sea and the far end of the hallway, the highway sounds drifted through indicating the continuing of life even amid the remembrance of terror and loss.
The outer wall of the hallway recounts horror stories of the Russian occupation. The sun seemed relentless against the black facade but not as mercilessly as what I had just read on the walls.
The path of the garden wound around the hillside. There were white flecks on the outside wall that, upon closer inspection, turned out to be tiny silver bees in the hundreds, in clusters of varying sizes. They represent a community sticking together in spite of everything.
Did you know that 90% of the world’s amber is Baltic amber? From Poland, all the way to Estonia, shops devoted to amber dotted the cities.
What is Amber?
Baltic Amber is thought to come from an extinct conifer tree that grew in the Kaliningrad Oblast region (part of Russia, in red on the map below). Most resins break down in adverse weather, but this conifer tree produced a resin that has more chemical stability.
It is possible that rapid climate change caused these trees to produce a large amount of resin after which the area was flooded causing the trees to be buried under seawater. There they were submerged under sediments. The lack of oxygen in these sediments would have helped to preserve the resin. Heat and pressure would drive out the terpenes and fossilize the resin.
How is Amber formed?
Amber is a fossilized tree resin. Tree resin is a thick and sticky substance not to be confused with tree sap. Sap is thinner and contains more sugar. Keep enjoying maple syrup on your pancakes. It is a sap and no matter how long you wait it will never become amber.
Some of the more well-known resins are Frankincense which is a resin from the genus Boswellia, and Myrrh which is a resin from the genus Commiphora.
Trees secrete resin to protect themselves from damage or attack from parasites or insects. Resin is antibacterial, antimicrobial, and antifungal. It functions as the immune system of the Pinaceae trees (mostly evergreens). This is the main reason so many claim that wearing Amber can be healing. It seems logical, but I haven’t found any studies to prove it.
Where can Baltic Amber be found?
Since amber floats, large storms can unearth and break off resin buried in the Baltic Sea. The most common shores to find washed-up amber are in Poland (Gdansk area), Lithuania, and even Latvia.
Casual beach combing seekers should make sure they understand the difference between amber and white phosphorus left over from WWII. Small stones of white phosphorus can wash up on shore from time to time that looks similar to amber. They can spontaneously combust once dry.
Cost of traveling the Baltic States
Our average travel cost per day since 2016 (excluding USA visits) is $47 USD a day. Two and a half years in South America helped us keep our average very low to date. See details on travel in other countries here.
We fully expect Europe to increase our overall average but we also traveled through the Baltics much faster than we normally would. There were other towns that we would have visited, and we might circle back yet, but we had a prior commitment that crammed our timeline. Slow travel spreads out the transport costs over more days and gives us a better feel for each country.
We enjoyed the Baltics and felt very safe. The streets and old towns had us constantly pointing out cool architecture or art and snapping hundreds of pictures. The monuments were a heavy reminder of the value of personal and political freedom.