Best-kept secrets in the Baltics

  • 2004-06-17
The Baltic states have many a tantalizing secret waiting to be discovered. From zig-zag shaped billiards tables to Bronze Age burial sites, TBT has come up with a list of some secret gems which are just waiting for you to go and discover them. But we're no experts. We racked our brains to put this list together but, we're sure that it's more notable for what was left out rather than what got in. So if you know some truly special secrets about the Baltics we'd like to know about them. Send your ideas to editorsdesk@baltictimes.com and we'll publish the best of them.

BIZZARE
Zig-zag billiards
Looking for an odd night out? The Revel Club (21 Pae St., Tallinn) is well worth seeing for its extravagant interior. The restaurant room feels more like a war history museum with all its medals, swords and guns. And the billiards room features two of the most peculiar tables ever to be seen. One is a zig-zag shape and the other is, well, corner shaped. But hopefully a good dose of Russian cuisne washed down with a generous measure of vodka will help you get your balls into the pockets.

Fare-dodging odds
In Tallinn a one-hour public transportation ticket costs about 1 euro, which may seem unfairly high. So in order to give the needy a chance to save on transport tickets, TBT decided to publish the odds of being caught by a ticket controller in Tallinn. There are 38 ticket controllers working in the city. You can recognize these nervous people by their black uniform and an intrusive desire to check if you have a valid ticket. They usually move in groups of three, just like the Soviet police patrols (as the legend said, one could read, one could write, and the third had to keep an eye on those dangerous intellectuals). There are about 130 trolleys, 290 buses and a handful of trams operating in Tallinn simultaneously, so only 12 vehicles out of over 320 can be checked at a time.

All-night fishing
London may have a population of almost 10 million, but it doesn't have an all-night fishing shop. But Riga has Esma (25 Avotu St.), which is open 24 hours on weekends to allow those notoriously spontaneous Latvian anglers to indulge their passion for the hook. If you're drunk and desperate for food in the middle of the night, Esma also serves cold grub.

Ferris wheel
A 30-meter-high Ferris wheel crowns the top of one of Sigulda's many rolling hills and offers an astonishing view of the Gauja River and valley - that is if you have enough guts to climb into the rickety Soviet built wheel. But most of the time, the corroding metal bucket seats swing emptily in the wind, as almost no one dares set foot in them. But the shrunken pensioner who runs the ride insists that, besides the two creaking seats she'll tell you not to use, the ride is safe. At 0.30 santims a ride, it may be the cheapest death-wish thrill in Latvia. Located at 21 Paegle St., Sigulda.

International waters
Whoever drew up the borders in the Baltic territory didn't have passportless boat trips in mind. Lithuania's liquid borders cross a wide range of aquatic territory, allowing for a thrilling international paddleboat excursion or swim. Most exotic is Lake Vistytis, which straddles the point where Lithuanian territory meets Poland and Russia. Beware, however, that some aquatic borders are more closely guarded than others-when Prime Minister Algirdas Brazauskas' yacht came dangerously close to the Russian part of Curonian Lagoon last summer, the Russian coast guard took quick notice. ACTION

Kalashnikov shooting
What can be more thrilling than this, especially for those who served in the armies of Western Europe or the U.S.A. and who are mostly familiar with the M-16 or other guns. Although the individual cannot privately own an automatic weapon in Estonia, extreme tourism operators have the connections to arrange a meeting between you and Madame AK-47. Visit www.surm.ee for more details.Cable-car bungee jumping

Feeling low? Then take the plunge in Sigulda by leaping off a 43-meter- or 50-meter -high cable car for an unforgettable experience. This adrenaline rush is available every Saturday and Sunday from 6.30 p.m. until everyone's had enough. It costs 15 lats (22 euros) for the first jump and 13 lats for every next jump. Call 371-921-2731 or visit www.lgk.lv for more info.

War Tourism
If the rumors are true, it's now possible to live out your Rambo fantasies in Lithuania. A controversial article that appeared in the daily Verslo zinios last year reported on an underground war tourism industry right under our noses. According to the article, for as little as 40 litas (11 euros), bloodthirsty war tourists can go ape with a Kalashnikov rifle. Reportedly, 200 litas buys a ride on a fighter jet. The only problem is finding out where to make your dreams of destruction come true, as war tourism operators in Lithuania appear to be a clandestine bunch. And don't bother calling the Defense Ministry to find out more-they're too busy with NATO integration to offer aggressive foreigners tourism services.


NATURE

Royal rock
The biggest rock in the Baltics, courtesy of the last ice-age, is reportedly located just outside Tallinn in the forest next to the Port of Muuga. Residents of the nearby summer cottage district will likely show you the way. Actually there are two huge rocks there, the larger one being the size of a small two-storey house. There's no tourist infrastructure around them, and the "Big Rocks," as the locals call them, are completely away from the beaten path. Beware of local couples seeking a romantic hideaway or a bunch of beer-fueled youngsters grilling sausages

Healing spring
For more than a century, people have been coming from across the Baltics to visit a bubbling spring said to have healing powers. Nested in a tranquil gully shaded by birch trees, a winding brook of crystal clear water springs from the bottom of an ash tree. It is believed that the water's pureness and natural minerals can cure all sorts of ailments. One woman was said to be cured of blindness after splashing the water on her eyes. The tree is adorned with Latvian weavings, scraps of linen, ribbon and other trinkets left as a gift for Mate Mara, the pagan Latvian mother of the earth. With its unexplainable healing, the spring is the only one known in the Baltics. The source is located almost a kilometer off the road leading from Gaizinkalns to Madona. A wooden sign reading "avots" marks the detour on the left side of the road. The sign is approximately 4 kilometers past the Gaizinstars hotel.

The National Botanical Garden
Located in Salaspils, this is the biggest botanical garden in the Baltics. The collections exceed 16,000 plant taxa (species, subspecies, varieties, forms and hybrids), including more than 5,000 trees and shrubs and about 1,500 hothouse plants, and much more besides. You can even buy a permit for 4 lats to fish in the garden ponds. Salaspils is 18 kilometers southeast from Riga. Go climb a tree and remember your roots. See www.nbd.gov.lv for more info.

Swamp tour
Who doesn't love a good swamp tour? Now there's no need to go all the way to Louisiana to get your feet wet in the muddy waters of swamp life. A few years back, inventor Antanas Gedvilas created Lithuania's first fan boat, which is capable of skimming over the stagnant pools of shallow water that cover much of Lithuania. Gedvilas' boat is now being used by the State Border Guard Service to patrol some of the squishiest bits of the Belarusian border. But luckily for tourists not interested in wading illegally into Belarusian territory, Gedvilas is willing to take groups on swamp adventures in the marshes surrounding Trakai. To find Gedvilas' tour, just ask any resident of Trakai where he lives.

SOVIET
Naissaar Island
Also known as Nargen and Nargo, the largest island in the Tallinn Bay, is a grand piece of 20th century military history. Every time the Estonian or foreign navy arranges exercises near the island, which served as a military object for almost a century, dozens of old bombs and mines are recovered. Today the 19-square-kilometer island, however, has remained almost the same as in 1993 when the Russian troops left it. The main attrasction is the Russian garrison campus and the mine factory, all empty. As the island was a restricted area for half a century during the Soviet occupation, its nature is extremely well-preserved. There is no regular connection with the mainland, unfortunately, and no electricity on the island.

KGB prison museum
Visit the Karosta prison for a truly unique experience. "Behind the Bars" is a show that gives visitors a taste of what life was really like for prisoners in Soviet times. Carried out by professional actors in uniform, visitors are unsparingly treated like inmates. There's even an opportunity for people to spend the night in a cell for a small fee (about 4 lats), but that's only for the extremely curious or those of a masochistic disposition. The KGB prison has become Liepaja's biggest tourist attraction and for good reason. It's a brilliant idea. Telephone 371-6369470 or visit www.liepaja.lv for more info.

Soviet cinema
This particular secret is, unfortunately, one reserved for Russian speakers only. Nonetheless, if you happen to remember a few declensions from your college Russian course, there's no better way to put them to work than by watching classic Soviet film at the Skalvija and Ozo theaters in Vilnius.

Visaginas
For those of us who lived in happier places when the Soviet Union was still around, there will never be a surefire way to understand what life in the Evil Empire was really like. Luckily, the town of Visaginas in extreme northeastern Lithuania affords visitors a glimpse into the insanity of the Soviet mentality. Built in the 1970s to house engineers and scientists working at the nearby Ignalina nuclear power plant, Visaginas is a living monument to late-Khruschev period. A quiet stroll along Kosmonaut Street yields such pleasures as playground apparatus shaped like atoms and the charming Geiger counter that gives a continuous radiation reading in front of the local town hall.

Cultural

Love's padlocks
People who still believe in Santa Claus and eternal love are an endangered species in most countries, but not so in Estonia! For proof of this, just go to the Keila waterfall near the town of Keila and several hundreds meter down river you will find a bridge with dozens of padlocks attached to its railings. Newly-wed couples come there to leave a padlock with their names on as a sign of their eternal love and they then throw the key into the river. Extremely sentimental couples return to the bridge years later to check if their lock is still there. Needless to say that the number one sport for the local kids is to retrieve the keys from the river and then unlock the locks. Extreme romantics are advised to purchase an industrial-strength padlock.

Laboratooriumi
Laboratooriumi is doubtless the least visited street in the Old Town in Tallinn and it hides a small Ukrainian-Greek Catholic Church (which is probably the least visited church in the capital). The bizarre-looking church is now being renovated, but the keeper says it is still open to visitors. As in the Russian Orthodox tradition, you can leave a piece of paper with a name written on it on a door, so that the priest can later pray for that person.

The devil's boats
The reconstructed Araisu ezerpils village in northern Kurzime is a unique archaeological site, as there are three so-called authentic "velna laivas" ("devil's boats") - stone piles formed in the shape of a boat, which were used as burial sites at the end of the Bronze age, and are rarely found on the east coast of the Baltic Sea. Call 371-332-2259 or visit www.kurzeme.lv for more info.

Aglone Cathedral
Every year devout Catholics from all around Latvian and Europe go on a pilgrimage to the tiny town of Aglone in Latgale to celebrate the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. As many as hundreds of thousands of people converge there on the evening of Aug. 14 and most stick around for the entire night. It's quite a sight and the atmosphere is simply amazing. A vast, seemingly unending line of people take part in the "road of Christ" procession, in which they ponderously shuffle along holding a candle. The procession ends at the symbolic Golgotha - three Crosses by the graveyard. There are absolutely loads of food stalls around but it's not the easiest place to find a stiff drink.

Indulgence Festivals
Nothing better proves Lithuania's status as a Roman Catholic country than its summer indulgence festivals. In what will most likely baffle a soul raised on rationalistic Protestant theology, these events require their participants to perform a variety of tasks in exchange for indulgences, or blessings that spare the faithful a spell in purgatory. While it may seem decidedly pre-Vatican II, the largest such festival, which takes place in Zemaiciu Kalvarija on July 2-12, takes thousands of pilgrims on a sometimes-grueling tour of 40 stations of the cross.


Food

Burgers
A snack/cigarette stand has only really made it when the local police patrols and taxi drivers start to frequent it. According to this criteria, the nameless kiosk at Nomme Street in Tallinn arguably sells the best hamburgers in town. Like all distinguished hamburger kiosks, it has developed several homemade brands, of which Maksiburger is the best loved among the clientele. It's a big hamburger with two cutlets made of an undisclosed type of meat accompanied with a slice of cheese, a leaf of green salad, a handful of chopped cabbage (a must for Baltic hamburgers) and plenty of tomato-mayonnaise sauce.

Fresh smoked fish
If you travel along the coastline in Latvia through the countless tiny fishing villages you'll encounter loads of roadside stands selling mouthwateringly delicious fish, such as eel and Baltic haddock. If you travel through Jurmala, these villages include Ragaciems, Bigaunciems and Lapmezciems, among others, but you can also find some stands in the opposite direction, going toward Tallinn. You can easily spot the booths from the road, or if the car windows are down, you will simply smell them.

Belashi
The ingredients of these traditional Russian gastronomic oddities are a mystery often best left unsolved. Walk anywhere near Riga's Central Market and the belashi stands are unavoidable. During the freezing winters, babushkas sit and warm themselves behind these pushcarts' deep-frying oil. Belashi have a unique odor - a combination of low-grade meat, onions and that strangely attractive scent of grease bearing a peculiar resemblance to dirty socks. Yet they are amazingly popular with Latvian-Russians. Authentically a tartar dish from Crimea, belashi are a deep fried dough filled with onions and ground beef. Yet what really goes into street belashi is anybody's guess. Urban legend in Lithuania tells of a street vendor whose belashi was made out of the minced meat of a homeless man.

Honey
Honey in Lithuania is so important that it's even a matter of linguistic significance-the word biciulis, translated as friend, comes from the word for bee, as in, he who shares his hive is a friend. Enjoyment of honey in Lithuania hasn't changed much, so the best way to get the stuff is by finding a friendly beekeeper of your own. And if your interest in honey goes past the first bite, check out the fascinating Beekeeping Museum in the northeastern village of Stripkeikiai.

Babka
It seems that people in Dzukija, in southern Lithuania, thrive off of trouble and difficulty. Instead of baking regular bread from flour obtainable at any store, they willingly choose the laborious procedure of grinding their own flour from buckwheat. This homemade flour is the key ingredient to the area's secret Babka bread recipe. If the bakers aren't feeling too grumpy after hours of grinding, they may even throw some pieces of bacon in to flavor the dough. Oh, but how sweet the grueling life of the Dzukija people tastes when biting into the fresh bread

Entertainment

Celebrity spotting
Estonian celebrities may not suffer the same tribulations as their American counterparts, but they still have to keep a low profile. They do this by hanging out at Tallinn's most high class establishments such as Pegasus and Bocca. However, some local celebrities have been known to come over all nostalgic when under the influence, and they stagger off to drink vodka on a park bench, like in the good old days, or they spend their money in some shabby bar like Levist Valjas (make sure you peep into this one on a celebrity hunting tour). So grab a copy of the Kroonika gossip magazine and see how many Estonian celebs you can spot in the bars, pubs and parks of the Old Town!

Gnome forest (Rukisu Mezs)
Deep in Tervetes Recreation and Nature Park exists a land of gnomes. These little forest dwellers, carved from wood by sculptors K.Kugra and R.Kalnins, are dispersed along dirt paths and a tumbling river that winds its way through the gnome village. In addition to their underground dwellings and miniature wood carved houses, the village includes a working water mill, mushroom shaped footstools and a picturesque bridge arching over the river's waterfall. There is even a map pointing out all of the gnomes' dwellings. It's the perfect place for a tranquil nature walk. Call 371-376-3385 for more info.

Lellu Teatris (doll theater)
For those dying to live in the bygone days of Gipetto and Pinochio, when lolly-pop licking kids in leider hosen would crowd a miniature theater to watch wooden marienettes dance and bop about, here's your chance. The Riga puppet theater (16/18 K. Barona St.) offers a new show every few months. Each musical act is filled with colorful song and dance with a good dose of head-clopping humor. Call 371-7285418 or visit www.puppet.lv for more info.

Belmontas Park
Move over Gediminas Castle and Hill of Three Crosses-for the best vantage point of Vilnius, it's necessary to drive out to Belmontas Park, west of the city center. Overlooking serene vistas of the city to one side and stately pine forests to the other, Belmontas is one of the best-kept secret excursions of the capital, known mostly only to locals. Manor houses and a botanical garden round out the pleasant attractions at Belmontas, while an air of exoticism is added to the place by the rituals that Lithuanian pagans sometimes hold at the park's easternmost point. An added bonus is the ample opportunity for couple-watching on Saturdays, the most popular day for weddings at Belmontas.

CD Shopping
The weekend bootleg CD market held at the former site of Vilnius' Pergale theater is one of those places that is both secret and public at the same time. In spite of the attention the market has received-including articles written in The Baltic Times-it is still ignored by officials who, some say, should be enforcing copyright laws. If the legal uncertainty of the Pergale market doesn't bother you, then rush on over to pick up ridiculously cheap CD's. It has a pretty impressive choice on offer, it must be said. And record companies are too rich anyway.