April 23 - May 8, 2017

[The Picasa links work, but don’t show a map.]

This was a 15-day Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT) tour.  OAT is US-based, and the 14 tour members were all from the US, both unlike most of the trips Margaret Grant and I have been on in recent years with Andante Travels.

The photos are "geotagged".  This adds GPS data (latitude, longitude, elevation, etc.) to the photo metadata, just as the camera brand and model, date and time, exposure info, etc. are automatically recorded by the camera itself.  This lets you see exactly where each photo was taken, usually to within a few meters.  (Most current smartphones, and some newer cameras, geotag pictures and videos automatically, unless disabled for privacy or security reasons, but I use a Canon camera and add the geotagging information using an external geologger and an app.)  The “Photos” links below don’t show the geotagged information, unless you download a picture and open it in a GPS-aware app, such as Photos (Windows 10) or Preview (Mac OS X).  Google Picasa used to be good for this, but at the moment, I can’t get Google to show the map; I’ll update this item if and when I do.  :-(  The pictures are still viewable, though.

The photos here are not edited, except for adding the GPS metadata, though some would benefit from some adjustments.  They’re size-reduced for the web, but I’d be happy to send you individual photos or a DVD with the full-resolution photos.

The itinerary below is based on the OAT itinerary, with links to the photos added for each day and minor editing.  Comments added by me are in [brackets].

Day 1 Depart U.S.

You depart the U.S. for Vilnius, Lithuania. [Margaret and I go Denver -> Chicago -> Frankfurt -> Vilnius, and all of the connections go smoothly.]

Day 2 Arrive in Vilnius, Lithuania

After an overnight flight, arrive at the Vilnius airport, where an OAT representative will greet you. Once we check into our hotel, we have an orientation walk [no walk], followed by a brief orientation session and a Welcome Drink, and meet travelers from the pre-trip extension to Krakow & Warsaw, Poland. This evening, enjoy an introduction to hearty Lithuanian cuisine during a Welcome Dinner at our hotel’s restaurant.


Day 3 Explore Vilnius [Photos]  [Picasa]

After breakfast, we embark on a tour of the Lithuanian capital. Although the exact location of its original capital city has been lost to time, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was the first established state in this region. Vilnius distinguished itself as an important cultural center when Vilnius University opened in 1579, immediately attracting students from as far away as Sweden and Hungary. The 20th century proved a turbulent time for the Baltic city, but its historical buildings survived. We begin our exploration by walking the cobbled streets of the city’s compact Old Town to admire the carefully restored Baroque buildings and medieval charm that earned it UNESCO World Heritage status. We’ll also explore the linked courtyards of Vilnius University before taking a bus to view the magnificent stucco sculptures that adorn the Peter and Paul Cathedral. Following the city tour, enjoy your afternoon exploring Old Town on your own.

Lunch and dinner are on your own today.


Day 4 Vilnius • Optional hot-air balloon ride over Vilnius • Excursion to Trakai • Experience Karai culture • KGB Museum visit  [Photos]  [Picasa]

This morning, join an optional hot-air balloon tour for a unique perspective on the medieval city and surrounding countryside. [Weather did not permit the balloon option.] After, we’ll take a brief journey outside of Vilnius to Trakai, considered the de facto medieval Lithuanian capital because Duke Vytautas the Great preferred the dreamy landscape punctuated by scenic lakes and islands over Vilnius. First, we take a short boat ride to visit the island of Trakai Castle, a red brick, fairy-tale fortress built by Vytautas and his father in the 15th century to fend off German knights. Then we’ll meet with some local Karaims, who belong to the oldest Turkish tribe—Kipchaks—who were brought from Crimea to Trakai in the 14th century as bodyguards for the castle. During a cooking demonstration, they will share some insights into their culture with us and we’ll enjoy a lunch of traditional Karaite specialties, such as kibinai (savory meat pastries). We’ll then depart for Vilnius by bus.

Following our arrival in Vilnius, we’ll take a tour of the Museum of Genocide Victims— commonly called the “KGB Museum” because it occupies the former KGB headquarters. For much of the 20th century, Vilnius was under brutal, communist Soviet occupation, both before and after a three-year Nazi occupation during World War II. While Lithuania was a state of the USSR, anti-Soviet resistance gained power and the people finally elected a government in 1990 that declared Lithuanian independence. The Soviets gave up the city the same way they had taken it—violently. We’ll view exhibits that serve as a memorial to the victims of the atrocities that took place here, including a walk through the prison where the KGB held dissidents and freedom fighters. Following our visit, we enjoy a discussion with a local expert about Lithuania’s struggle for independence.

Dinner is on your own this evening.

Breakfast, Lunch

Day 5 Rumsiskes Open-Air Museum • Kaunas • Travel to Klaipeda [Photos]  [Picasa]  [test link]

On our way to Klaipeda, we first stop at Rumsiskes. Here, we’ll explore a fascinating, open-air ethnographic museum. We’ll walk through a collection of 18th- and 19th-century rural dwellings and farmsteads, gaining an understanding of the history, lifestyles, and character of Lithuania’s four main regions. We’ll also visit an artisan workshop and a dwelling used by Lithuanians who were deported to Siberia by the communists. We arrive in Kaunas—Lithuania’s second-largest city—in time for an included lunch at a local restaurant. Kaunas served as Lithuania’s capital while the country fought to reclaim Vilnius from Poland after World War I.

Upon our arrival in Klaipeda—Lithuania’s oldest city—we’ll have time to check into our hotel before gathering together for dinner in a local restaurant.

Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner

Day 6 Klaipeda • Curonian Spit • Hill of Witches [Photos]  [Picasa]

Klaipeda is the gateway to a coastal stretch known as the Curonian Spit, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This fragile sand dune peninsula—shared by both Russia and Lithuania—is separated by a protected lagoon on one side and exposed to the harsh Baltic Sea on the other. We begin our day with a brief ferry ride to the Curonian Peninsula. First we’ll hunt for some of the amber—known as Baltic gold—that washes up on the beaches during winter storms. Then we’ll hike to the “Hill of Witches,” a forested path through the dunes filled with more than 80 unique [modern] wooden sculptures based on Lithuanian folk legends.

After lunch in the private tavern of a local family, we’ll drive up to Parnidzio Dune, where we’ll enjoy views of the Baltic Sea, Curonian Lagoon, and nearby Russia. Next, we’ll visit an amber workshop and gallery for a hands-on demonstration of the many uses for this beautiful fossil resin found along the Baltic Sea.

Dinner is at a local restaurant this evening.

Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner

Day 7 Klaipeda • Hill of Crosses • Travel to Riga, Latvia [Photos]  [Picasa]

After breakfast, we drive towards Latvia and stop to visit the Hill of Crosses, a grassy double hillock blanketed by several thousand crosses. Some say the tradition of planting crosses here began in the 14th century, and the area has long served as a place of peaceful resistance for Lithuanian Catholics, who used the site as a memorial to their fallen freedom fighters and as a way to stay connected to their roots and traditions during the long Soviet occupation. Despite several Soviet attempts to bulldoze the hill, determined locals would quickly rebuild the cherished place of pilgrimage. After leaving the Hill of Crosses we’ll stop for lunch at a local restaurant. Then, we’ll visit the beautifully restored 18th-century Baroque palace of Rundale, which was designed by the architect of St. Petersburg’s Hermitage, Bartolomeo Rastrelli.

Upon our arrival in the Latvian capital of Riga, we’ll check into our hotel. Then, we’ll enjoy dinner together at our hotel.

Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner

Day 8 Explore Riga’s Old Town [Photos]  [Picasa]

Set close to the mouth of the Daugava River, which travels from the Baltic Sea into Russia, Riga was historically an important trade port. Its prosperity also made it a target for conquerors; before Latvia declared itself an independent nation in 1918, Riga was claimed by Russia, Sweden, Lithuania, and Germany. As a diverse, thriving city with a prominent upper class, Riga experienced radical change under occupation by the Soviets and Nazis. Buildings from Riga’s most prosperous eras—particularly the Art Nouveau period—still stand throughout the city. After breakfast, we’ll enjoy a discussion about contemporary Latvia and its past. Then, we’ll walk through Riga’s Old Town, a dizzying collection of cobbled lanes, gargoyle-adorned buildings, and lovingly restored 17th-century architectural treasures under UNESCO World Heritage Site protection. We’ll also wander through the city’s Central Market. Located in converted Zeppelin hangars from the 1930s, the market’s pavilions encompass more than three-quarters of a million square feet of space and are also under UNESCO protection. After an included lunch in a local restaurant, you’ll have free time to soak in more of Riga’s timeless elegance on your own. Perhaps you’ll view the Latvian Academy of Sciences, a rare piece of Soviet architecture known as “Stalin’s birthday cake” to the locals. Or relax in a café and, if you dare, order a beverage with Riga Black Balsam—an herbal liqueur that Latvians celebrate as an invigorating cure-all for whatever ails you. Dinner is on our own this evening.

Breakfast, Lunch

Day 9 Riga • A Day in the Life of Ligatne Village [Photos]  [Picasa]

This morning, we’ll depart for A Day in the Life experience at Ligatne Village. Located 45 miles outside of Riga within Gauja National Park, Ligatne is both a scenic and historical complex surrounded by rolling hills, cliffs, rivers, and caves. First, we’ll enjoy breakfast with a family of winemakers [and woodworkers], followed by a tour of their private winery. We’ll then meet with a representative of the village before heading to a Home-Hosted Lunch with two of the local families. Then, we head back to our hotel in Riga.

Dinner is on your own this evening.

Breakfast, Lunch

Day 10 Travel to Tallinn, Estonia • Visit Cesis Castle [Photos]  [Picasa]

On our way to Estonia, we stop for an included lunch in Cesis, a picturesque medieval town situated within the natural beauty of Latvia’s Gauja National Park. Cesis was the capital of Livonia during the Middle Ages, and we’ll revel in its authentic medieval ambiance and admire the well-preserved ruins of a 13th-century castle built here by the Knights of the Sword. [We had a few extra minutes, so we also visited a bobsled/luge/skeleton track.]

We’ll also enjoy a brief stop in Parnu—a chance to stretch our legs and catch a glimpse of Estonia’s premier seaside resort—before arriving in Tallinn, the northernmost of the Baltic capitals—for an included dinner.

Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner

Day 11 Tallinn • Tallinn City tour [Photos]  [Picasa]

Estonia’s capital and largest city, Tallinn sits on the Bay of Finland, directly across from Helsinki. We’ll find both Scandinavian and Russian influences in the language, culture, and architecture here. As with most major Baltic cities, Tallinn was occupied by the Soviets, then the Nazis, and then the Soviets again, who forced Estonia into the USSR. Tallinn was the site of Estonia’s “Singing Revolution”—a series of protests in the late 1980s where thousands gathered and sang for independence from the Soviet Union. After four years of singing and other acts of protest, Estonia achieved something remarkable—independence from the Soviets through a relatively bloodless revolution. Today Tallinn manages to preserve its history and quaint medieval buildings, while at the same time modernizing and thriving in the technology industry. As of January 1, 2011, Estonia’s official currency is the euro— making it the first Baltic nation to meet the European Union’s criteria for adopting the currency.

We begin our day in Tallinn with a city tour by bus. We’ll drive out to the grounds of the Tallinn Song Festival, where the first of many singing protests took place. Then, we continue with a walking tour of the city’s UNESCO World Heritage-designated Old Town, a tangled warren of cobbled streets lined with outdoor cafés and wonderfully preserved 14th- and 15th-century buildings. After that, you’ll have time at leisure, followed by a discussion on Estonian independence.

Dinner is at a local restaurant this evening.

Breakfast, Dinner

Day 12 Tallinn • Kadriorg Park • KUMU Museum [Photos]  [Picasa]

After breakfast, we take a local tram out to Kadriorg Park to view the resplendent palace residence built by Russian Tsar Peter the Great for his empress Catherine I, and to walk its lovely, manicured grounds. (Kadriorg means “Catherine’s Valley.”) Then we visit the KUMU, a modern art museum located on the edge of Kadriorg Park, featuring the leading names in Estonian art and sculpture from the 18th century to the present day, including an impressive collection of Soviet-era works. After an included lunch in Kadriorg, we take the tram back to our hotel (or back to Old Town).

The rest of the day is yours to explore independently. You may choose to venture to the Rotermann Quarter. After Estonia gained independence, this run-down neighborhood experienced a great renewal. Now full of modern buildings, it’s become a center for shopping and culture—whether you browse the open-air markets or relax in a café.

Dinner is on your own tonight. Perhaps you’ll sample kama, a blend of flours used in making many traditional Estonian desserts.

Breakfast, Lunch

Day 13 Tallinn • Travel to St. Petersburg, Russia [Photos]  [Picasa]

Today we journey further east by coach across the border into Russia, stopping for an included lunch in Narva, Estonia. Upon our arrival in St. Petersburg, we check into our hotel and enjoy our first view of the city that Pushkin described as “Tsar Peter the Great’s Window to the West” during an orientation walk. This evening we’ll enjoy an included dinner at a hotel restaurant.

Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner

Day 14 St. Petersburg • Hermitage Museum • Optional Russian Ballet performance or Russian Folk Show [Photos]  [Picasa]

Today we explore the wonders of St. Petersburg, one of the world’s most magnificent cities. It was built at the mouth of the River Neva early in the 18th century by Peter the Great, who wished to create a Russian capital to rival the splendor of Paris. Before the monarchy was overthrown in the Russian Revolution, the tsars and tsarinas of the empire lived the high life in St. Petersburg. They built colorful opulent palaces, inspired arts and architecture throughout the city, and created a virtual soap opera of betrayal while tidily handling peasant rebellions. We’ll see why St. Petersburg is called the "Venice of the North” as our visit reveals several of the city’s picturesque islands, canals, and bridges, including a stop at St. Isaac’s Cathedral, whose magnificent gilded dome dominates St. Petersburg’s skyline.

A hearty Russian lunch at a local restaurant should give us sustenance for our afternoon visit to the stunning gilt Baroque Hermitage Museum. Today, this one-time palace of the tsars—founded by Catherine the Great in 1764—is one of the world’s largest and oldest museums, boasting a massive fine art collection.

Dinner is on your own this evening. You may also take advantage of an optional excursion to take in a Russian ballet performance, right here in the cradle of the art form, where the dancing style was first developed to entertain the tsars. Or, when the ballet is not available, enjoy an evening of music and dance at the optional Russian Folk Show. [Only two signed up for the ballet, so we all enjoyed the Folk Show instead.]

Breakfast, Lunch

Day 15 St. Petersburg • Catherine Palace tour [Photos]  [Picasa]

The day begins with a visit to the Peter and Paul Fortress, constructed in 1703 as the primary defense for the new city but mostly utilized as a prison for the likes of Dostoevsky, Trotsky, and even Peter’s own son, Alexei. Within the fortress walls—with its lovely spire and Baroque interior—resides Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral, the final resting place of most of the Russian tsars since the city’s namesake was buried here, including the last Romanov family—Nicholas, Alexandra, and their children, who were murdered during the Russian Revolution. After lunch on your own, we’ll venture to Tsarskoe Selo (the “tsar’s village”) for a visit to the magnificently restored Catherine Palace. Here, we’ll walk the grounds, and see the Grand Hall of Mirrors, Marble Staircase, and even the legendary Amber Room.

In the evening, we’ll all gather for a Farewell Dinner at a local restaurant to celebrate our adventures.

Breakfast, Dinner

Day 16 St. Petersburg • Return to U.S.

After [bag] breakfast [on the bus], travel to the airport for your flight to the U.S. Or, begin your post-trip extension to Moscow, Russia. [Leave hotel at 2:45 AM; Margaret and I go St. Petersburg -> Frankfurt -> Denver, and arrive on time in spite of airport delays earlier due to severe weather in the Denver area.]


Baltic Capitals & St. Petersburg 2017