Brave Baltics,  Brave Hearts

Brave Baltics, Brave Hearts

The Baltic countries are found along the Baltic Sea in northern Europe. They’re made up of the former Soviet republics of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, with Russian exclave Kaliningrad often thrown into the mix. These countries vary in culture and language, in part because of the patchwork of dominant European powers throughout their history, from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Baltic Germans to the Swedish crown.

Eventually all came under Soviet rule.

Estonia's UNESCO-listed red-roofed capital, Tallinn <br>Photo credit: Jaak Nilson/Estonia Tourist Board

Estonia’s UNESCO-listed red-roofed capital, Tallinn
Photo credit: Jaak Nilson/Estonian Tourist Board

UNESCO CapitalsThe Baltics are so rich in history and architecture that each country’s capital is designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

  • Estonia’s 13th century capital, Tallinn, survived wars and fires with its medieval, cobbled town center. Yet quaintness aside, Tallinn is listed as one of the world’s top 10 digital cities.
    • Highlight: The Song Festival grounds, where Estonians sang banned national songs in 1988 that led to the overthrow of that country’s Soviet rule.
      Angla windmills of Saaremaa, Estonia Photo credit: Jaak Nilson/Estonia Tourist Board

      Angla windmills of Saaremaa, Estonia
      Photo credit: Jaak Nilson/Estonian Tourist Board

  • Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius, is vast, with more than 70 streets and 1,500 historic buildings set aside for preservation. This includes the landmark Vilnius Cathedral, today filled with Catholic believers for Mass in a place used as a warehouse during Soviet times.
    • Highlight: The ominous KGB museum with its history of spies, torture, and intrigue. It’s sobering to stand in a jail cell where political prisoners were interrogated and killed.
      Hill of Crosses, Lithuania's place of national pilgrimagePhoto credit: Brian Seifipour

      Hill of Crosses, Lithuania’s place of national pilgrimage
      Photo credit: Brian Seifipour

  • Little Latvia’s capital, Riga, is the largest city in that country, earning UNESCO status for the wooden architecture and Art Nouveau buildings in its historic town center.
    • Highlight: Famed concerts in the landmark 12th century Dome Cathedral, featuring one of Europe’s most historic organs. 
      Domes dot the old town of Riga, Latvia Photo credit: Peter Guttman

      Domes dot the Old Town of Riga, Latvia
      Photo credit: Peter Guttman

And what about Kaliningrad? It’s an exclave, meaning it’s surrounded on all sides by countries other than the one that rules it – in this case, Russia, 200 miles away. The city isn’t UNESCO-listed, but getting there is. Travelers can drive along the 11-mile-long UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Curonian Spit to get to this ice-free port town, a highly restricted, closed military area during Soviet times.

The Curonian Spit borders Kaliningrad, Russia and Lithuania <br>Photo credit: Lithuania State Tourism Department

The Curonian Spit borders Kaliningrad, Russia and Lithuania
Photo credit: Lithuania State Tourism Department

Brave Hearts, the Baltic WayIn August 1989, two million people formed a nearly 110-mile human chain stretching across the Soviet Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. From Tallinn to Vilnius, they joined hands in a dramatic protest marking the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, an agreement that affected the fate and future of Eastern Europe for half a century. It seemed the entire world held its breath as this collective bravery – dubbed “the Baltic Way” – unfolded in a defiant, dramatic drive for freedom.

Torchlight flags in Tartu, Estonia Photo credit: Jaak Nilson/Estonia Tourist Board

Torchlight flags in Tartu, Estonia
Photo credit: Jaak Nilson/Estonian Tourist Board

Just a few months later, Lithuania was the first republic to bravely reclaim its independence from the Soviet Union, later followed by Estonia and Latvia. Today all three are members of the European Union.

Brave hearts, indeed. But then, it’s the Baltic way.


Travel To the Baltics with MIR
Learn more about MIR tours that travel to the Baltics, home of “the Baltic Way.”

(Top photo credit: Jaak Nilson/Estonian Tourist Board) 

PUBLISHED: January 18, 2014

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