So I’m back from the Baltic Region and I’m totally and utterly knackered because I arrived back in Berlin just today!
It was a 26 hour coach-bus adventure journey.
We didn’t die!
This independent trip was fifteen (15) days in total:
That makes 12 days for the holiday itself and 3 days for travelling! Whoop! Whoop!
I had lots of fun but I’m exhausted.
I’m also very pleased that I’ve just been to a completely new region of the world, and I’ve knocked four (4) new countries in one (1) go!
For those of you who don’t know, I’ve just returned from Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Finland.
So why the hell did I do this?
Well first of all, I’m a little eccentric. I mean, remember that time when I climbed up a live volcano in Bali or when I fell off a ski lift in the Czech Republic? And what about the sex show that I went to in Amsterdam?
I like pushing buttons.
But why go to the Baltics?
As of now, the region above has not really been discovered by tourists and travellers. To be candid but have you ever heard of Latvia? What about Lithuania? And to be honest, we all know of Finland, but how many of us have actually been there?
‘Told you so!
These countries are based in Europe and their capital cities have stories of richness, history and grandeur, unspoilt by the full-board package set and the larger louts of stag and hen nights. They are sparsely populated, and not your typical cheap and friendly destination. As a matter of fact, prices in Finland border on the insane and Estonia has prices that would make your hair stand up, although still considered to be a “budget” destination.
I want to experience these countries for myself.
I went to the capital city of Vilnius.
I’ve already discussed basic background, and although I know that the “other Eastern Europe” ought to be cheaper than Western Europe, it isn’t always the case. In fact, I would consider Prague more expensive than Berlin!
I love Prague.
I even used to live there and back in the day, everything cost hardly anything at all.
Prague is still a very wonderfully budget place to go to but it’s got competition.
I really couldn’t believe how wonderfully low the prices actually were.
So now let’s get down to the nitty-gritty:
Living in Berlin means that Continental Europe is right on your doorstep. Basically, if you’re an expat living in Europe and you don’t use the opportunities to check out the neighbouring countries, then you’re a fool!
There. I said it.
We are lucky that our continent is a wonder of different countries, cultures, languages and customs. Merely an hour away from Berlin is the border of Poland. A completely different country in every way. Surrounding Germany is also France, Holland, Belgium, Austria, the Czech Republic, and Denmark. Every one of them beautiful, interesting countries.
And I have been to them all.
Lithuania of course, is a different kettle of fish having recently established re-independence from the ex-USSR in 1991 – a mere 24 years ago. As a result, Lithuania is still fairly “new, ” unspoilt, uncrowded, welcoming to visitors and desperate to stand out from its Baltic brothers.
And if you’re that way inclined, you can be sure nobody knows where it is. A true adventure!
HOW DO I GET THERE?
You can of course fly. There is an international airport in Vilnius with major Eastern airlines being the main market but for most of you reading this blog, the following airlines might apply: Aeroflot, airBaltic, Finnair, Estonian Air, LOT (Polish Airlines), and Ryanair.
You generally can’t take the train if you’re coming from Western Europe as Western train companies don’t come this far “North”. They go up to Poland, Slovakia & Slovenia yes, and then East to Hungary and Romania! Trains in the Baltics tend to come from Russia or ex-USSR States and no-one really recommends them as they’re far too old, far too slow and far too unreliable.
Pretty much everyone we met was travelling either by car or by bus, and so were we!
We were on a part-sponsorship with – Lux Express, and it really wasn’t that bad at all.
Thankfully, everything went smoothly.
I had communicated with the company on-line as per details and requirements, and they were wonderfully professional and timely, with information and tickets.
The coach-bus was clean and all the luggage was individually checked and handled by one of the drivers. Passports and I.D. cards were also individually processed and tickets double-checked. Seating was allocated and unlike typical coach-bus journeys, was outfitted with individual flat screens and WiFi, albeit not always working, but you can’t have everything LOL!
I tend not to sleep on coach-buses, trains or planes, and this trip was no exception. Happily, the individual lights were all working.
We had brought along our own blankets and cushions (although you can also buy them on board for €4.00 and €3.00 respectively), and I read my kindle and even watched a couple of films such as the “X-Men: Days of Future Past” and “Bad Neighbours.”
I started to watch “Foot Loose”, but I lost interest!
The coach-bus was fully booked from Berlin but once we got to Warsaw, there was a huge shift in seating after midnight, and then free seats were available. So we were able to take double seats and stretch out. They even had seatbelts, floor lights, power supply outlets per double seats, headphone slots (which you can also buy for €1.50) and a toilet that was somewhat clean.
Until the end of the journey.
We were on a part-sponsorship, but Lux Express has discount prices if you book early.
You can usually get a one-way single ticket from Berlin to Vilnius with the Simple Express from €36.00 – a journey of 7.15 hours and through 3 countries! From Vilnius to Riga with Lux Express from €15.00, and from Riga to Tallinn from €16.00. You can also go to Russia with the company if you so wish. From Tallinn to St. Petersburg from €25.00!
IS IT GOING TO BE CROWDED?
OMG. You have got to be joking. Perhaps because it was at the end of March but there was hardly anyone there! You could literally count all the tourists and many were quite young. Lots of tourists from Brazil, Argentina, Spain, Germany, America, Canada, Australia, and the UK. In fact, we bumped into the same French man that we met in Lithuania, in Latvia!
They say that in the summer Vilnius gets crowded, but I hardly doubt it, as there are only 3 million people in the whole country!
WHAT IS VILNIUS LIKE?
At first glance coming into Lithuania, I found the country to be very Eastern-European-like with lots of abandoned buildings with busted out glass windows, clapped out blocks of flats, commmunist-sized boxes, abandoned industrial chimney factories and looking awfully grey.
Once we checked-in, looked around, and fairly soon after went on our free walking tour organised by Vilnius With Locals, we pretty much knew were everything was.
Vilnius is the capital of Lithuania, one of the largest old cities in Europe, and is covered by countless churches. In fact, 65! It might have a population of only just half a million people, but all that history makes up for it!
Although our young guide didn’t talk too much about the Jewish history of Vilnius, it is also known as “the Jerusalem of Lithuania” because of its strong Jewish past, “Little Rome” and “North Athens.” Vilnius is a treasure-trove of Baroque craftsmanship and a valuable and historical site of not only Baroque, but also Gothic, Renaissance, and other architectural styles.
We experienced panoramic views, we walked around the town, we had lunch at the Independent Republic of Užupis – a bohemian community of artists – and located on “the other side of the river” separated by a bridge, a UNESCO World Heritage site in itself, and similar to the Freetown Christiania community in Copenhagen!
I’ve been to the independent community in Denmark. It’s very laissez-faire, but pretty cool.
We went to many cultural sites of interest in Vilnius and although it was freezing and wet, we had a fairly good time.
I really like walking tours and this tour really gave us an insight into the capital city. It was snowing and freezing cold and it dampened many an enthusiasm as half the group abandoned ship and took off! I was stupidly determined to hang on until the end, when in reality, all I really wanted was a hot toddy!
It paid off though as our tour guide introduced us to a local place for lunch, where we had our very first original, authentic Lithuanian food.
We clapped our hands and tucked in!
I DONT SPEAK LITHUANIAN.
Not a problem.
I was surprised to discover that English is widely spoken.
A good tester of this were the children. I approached two young boys and they spoke beautifully. I also met a small group of children in the National Art Gallery who stared a little at my fabulousness but again, they spoke fantastic English and allowed me to take a few photos of them dressed up in historical costume!
If you can speak English, German or Russian. You’re in!
AM I GOING TO LIVE IN A HUT?
Whenever we go on a family holiday, I like to mix things up a little in order to experience a wide variety of accommodation possibilities, to meet the locals, and to stretch our budget in a more comfortable way.
In that wise, I decided to book a small family Bed & Breakfast consisting of just seven (7) rooms, and located between the Old Town and a park. This B&B was called Vilnius Home Bed and Breakfast and we were in the Family Room.
The owner – Aleksandra Kiseliovienė – was lovely. She’s a smiley, fun, jolly woman who looked 26 but wasn’t! She also appreciated and understood the importance of social media and had a really easy-to-use website, and is all over Facebook! As we chatted about the Fall of the Berlin Wall and international travel, she told me that she had recently taken a similar bus trip herself in travelling from Vilnius to Prague.
Aleksandra very kindly invited us to join them for breakfast even though breakfast for us, would normally have started the next day.
For more about the lovely Lithuanian food, hang on until next week!
Our stay at Vilnius Home Bed and Breakfast was a delight.
When you book a room on-line, you can never be entirely sure what you’re going to get and can only hold your breath and cross your fingers.
I didn’t know what to expect in Lithuania and was surprised at what we received.
The Family Room consisted of six (6) bunk beds, each with a set of drawers that you could lock and individual light and power supply outlet, a table, two (2) chairs and a huge bean bag. There was also a private balcony which had a garden table and two (2) garden chairs, perfect for summer hanging out and chilling!
There were only seven (7) rooms in the whole house so there was a bathroom on each floor which was shared. It was clean and fitted out with shampoo/conditioner, shower gel and other toiletries which you could use free of charge, if you so desired. Each guest also had two (2) sets of towels.
The beauty of a B&B is that if you’re nervous about visiting a country, it’s a lovely way to blend the virtues of a hotel and a hostel. You have the safety and security of a family home with the option of meeting people in an open kitchen. Very similar to a lovely place that we went to on our hiking trip in the mountains of Wales a few years old ago, that place was called The Old School Hostel and Bed & Breakfast.
Ah Wales. Love it!
But I digress.
With just seven (7) rooms, you’re able to meet as many people as you want and at the time that we were there we met a young pilot from Italy doing his advanced flight training in Lithuania (it’s cheaper!), a young couple from Poland, an old couple from Spain, and ourselves!
On our last day, we also met three beautiful young girls from Minsk (Belarus) who had just returned from Belgium. Once they knew that I was a corporate trainer, although shy, wanted to practice as much English as they could.
They were so sweet that before they left, they gifted me with a magnet of Belarus, some Belarus chocolate, and a traditional Belarus tea-towel! If you’re in any of the ex-Russian States and looking for cheap flights to the West, then Vilnius is the place to be!
You can also cook in the kitchen (as food & drink are not allowed in the bedrooms), and crockery and cutlery and other cooking utensils were readily available. A sofa and soft cushions were also scattered around so that if you didn’t want to stay in your room, you could take your laptop into the kitchen. The kitchen also had a flat screen TV that was on a loop of music from VH1.
For the first time, I actually saw the video of some of my favourite contemporary songs as I don’t watch TV! I do however watch films, DVD or Netflix series, and BBC Science & Travel programmes which I pre-record.
I just don’t watch regular TV!
Most importantly, Vilnius Home Bed and Breakfast had free WiFi, space to dump all our stuff after our long weary journey, free tea and coffee 24 hours a day and a free breakfast. Everything a couple, a group of friends, or a family with a young teenager, needs!
All this for €60.00 per night in the Family Room which for six (6) people would be €10.00 per night, and in double rooms, from €29.00 per night.
For breakfast, we had delicious home-made pancakes with home-made blueberry, strawberry, and apple jam with cream, yogurt and slices of fruit, And you could have as much as you wanted along with helping yourself to free tea and coffee.
I’M ON A BUDGET. WHAT SHOULD I DO?
No Problem. Pretty much any Eastern European country is quite cheap and is never going to break the bank. If you’re on a budget, you could do worse. Beer is about €2.00 or $2.12. Meals including a starter, beer snacks, and lots of drinks came to about €20.00 or $21.20 and that was for the three of us. Including drinks!
If you’re making your own meals there are a few local supermarkets around and they are very helpful.
I’M LOOKING FOR A BIT MORE LUXURY, IS THERE SOMETHING FOR ME?
Sure there is.
Plenty in the Old Town.
WHAT SHOULD I DO WHEN I GET TO LITHUANIA?
We only went for three (3) days so this was a sloooooow cultural family trip.
There is plenty to do in Vilnius. You can:
WHAT ABOUT TRANSPORT POSSIBILITIES?
Vilnius is so small that everywhere is walkable.
Taxis are cheap. A taxi from our B&B to the international coach-bus station cost a fabulous €3.60!
Yes, the weather.
We arrived at the end of March and it began to snow. Very briefly, but still! Winter had been minimal in the UK and Germany this year, and it came as a bit of a shock. In fact, most of Northern Europe experienced snow this year.
As a result, it was snowy, rainy and freezing cold, which we weren’t really dressed for. On the first day.
We adjusted soon after LOL!
On talking to our host, this type of weather is pretty typical in Lithuania so hoods up, hats on, think gloves and welcome to the windy cold.
I found Vilnius to be quiet and clean and the people enormously friendly and welcoming. It’s a really small town and very easy to navigate. English is widely spoken, the Old Town is lovely and if you’re going to the Baltic Region then Vilnius is a must. In fact, we met people from Australia, France, Belarus, Poland, Italy and Spain. Pretty much everyone we met was doing the Baltic Run.
WOULD I COME AGAIN?
Never say never!
For more information about coach-bus travel to Vilnius, please contact: Lux Express.
For more information about a family-based B&B, please contact: Vilnius Home Bed and Breakfast.
For more information about an independent free walking tour, please contact: Vilnius With Locals.
We received a part-complimentary-part-discounted stay on our B&B but all opinions and the fantastic Lithuanian dishes that I thoroughly enjoyed, are my very own!
I have so much to share with you.
Next week, I’ll be writing about the wonderful Lithuanian food and drink. Oh my!
After that, there will be posts on what we did in Riga, Latvia and our experience in Tallinn in Estonia with the help of the Tallinn Card, what the view was like on the ferry crossing from Estonia to Finland with TALLINK SLJA LINE and what we thought about Helsinki in Finland!
International Games Week Berlin 2015 is a leading cross-industry communication and networking platform for games businesss, development and culture, and will be taking place between April 21-26, 2015.
I’ll be going to TBEX Europe (Travel Bloggers Exchange) an International Networking Conference, for the first time! It’ll be taking place in Costa Brava, Catalunya, Spain from 30.04.15 – 02.05.15.
Strictly Stand Up English Comedy Night will be taking place at the Quatsch Comedy Club on 29.04.15.
Eddie Izzard will be back in Germany and will be front-lining a killer international night of comedy at the Admirals Palast on 08.05.15.
The Berlin Music Video Awards will be taking place from May 27.05.15 – 30.05.15. Anybody can apply!
The Berlin Fashion Film Festival will be taking place on 05.06.15.
I’ll be there. Will you?
If you’re not in Berlin in April, you’re going to miss all the good stuff!
April is going to be invigorating.
Watch this space!
Have you ever been to Vilnius? Have you ever taken a long distance coach-bus trip around Europe? Pancakes or bacon and sausages?