A road less taken - the underbelly of Baltic tourism

  • 2005-07-13
  • By TBT staff
The Baltic states are currently witnessing an unprecedented influx of tourists, from the invasion of beer-guzzling and chest-baring British stag parties to groups of elderly Scandinavians being herded around cobblestone streets. But every tourist invariably sees the same sights and follows the same well-worn trails. While TBT is glad to see so many tourists in town, we would like to offer a more unusual and, dare we say, interesting guide for those who want a little more than medieval kitsch and beer garden karaoke.


The Maskavas region of downtown Riga, just a short walk from the Central Station, is a precious piece of crumbling, dilapidated, needle-infested history. Frequently referred to as Maskachka by locals, it has something of a notorious reputation as it is home to a large number of hoodlums, prostitutes, gypsies, drug addicts and other human remains. Yet the area is not without its charm. It is home to Latvia University's impressive Academy of Culture and boasts some inspiring turn-of-the-century architecture. Latvia's most distinguished living poet also resides there. If you want to see a slice of Riga at its rawest, this is the place. It also has the dubious distinction of having served as a Jewish ghetto during the war.


While every tourist inevitably heads with outstretched arms to the Old Town, most Rigans head home to suburbs like Purvciems. These gray, Soviet-built labyrinths are home to the majority of the capital's population. Okay, there's not really much to see if it's a spectacle you're after, but Purvciems is a strangely attractive place. Soviet-built suburbs are often derided but the fact is they're cleaner, safer and more pleasant than many of their Western counterparts. At least the Soviets didn't skimp on trees.

North Europe's biggest rock

Many a romantic has kept a torn-out magazine photograph of the fog-swept hills of Machu Picchu, the glowing lights of Paris or a deep Jamaican sunset, dreaming of the day their creased and washed out picture will become a reality. But what about the giant pegmatite granite boulder of Estonia? As much as the Sphinx and the Matterhorn, this erratic boulder, with a perimeter of 49.6 meters and a volume of 930 meters cubed, deserves to be lusted after by world dreamers. Ehalkivi, as it's called in Estonian, is the largest erratic boulder in the glacial area of North Europe. To laymen it may look like any other old rock, but to geologists and rock-lovers, Ehalkivi is a Machu Picchu within itself.

Premier League action

Soccer lovers might want to head to Latvijas Universitates Stadions on K.Barona St. to catch some premier league action. Don't mind the fact that you can count the spectators on one hand or can stroll for free into the stadium, passing the sole security guard as he keenly follows the end-to-end action. A lowly paid English Premier League player probably makes more in a week than the entire FK Riga team makes in a year. Sad but true. The stadium also has a charming jock-style bar, so if the action is too slow for your liking you can just go and get drunk instead. A beautiful and extremely phlegmatic St. Bernard dog looks after the place at night.

Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant

Get a slice of history while it lasts. The world's largest RMBK Chernobyl-style reactor plant is due to be phased out by 2009 as part of an agreement reached between Lithuania and the European Union during accession talks. But a visit to this frighteningly impressive plant may well leave you with a satisfied sort of inner glow. Visaginas' town center, some 2 kilometers west of the plant, features a Geiger counter that records daily radiation levels. The plant boasts two RMBK reactors, which are graphite cooled and have no containment system; if an accident occurs, radiation immediately escapes into the open air. Visaginas is 120 kilometers north-east of Vilnius. If you don't have private transport, trains connect Vilnius with the town of Ignalina, 50 kilometers south of the plant. Go see it and you can claim to have witnessed a piece of ignominious history.

An all-Latvian hero

Latvia is sometimes a little desperate in its attempts to create a repertoire of internationally famous nationals. Take Dundaga, home of the original Crocodile Dundee. The origins of this contemporary Tarzan figure can be traced to a pretty little village set among three lakes. The town centerpiece is a statue of a crocodile, given to Dundaga by the Latvian Consulate in Chicago in 1995. The statue honors Arvids von Blumenfelds, a local who fled to Australia during WWII and spent his days hunting crocodiles in the Outback. The film "Crocodile Dundee" (which was a blockbuster in the 1980s) is said to be based on the exploits of this all-Latvian hero.

Center of Europe

Ever since Lithuania was a major European power in, oh, about the 15th century, it has been keen to get back into the center of European affairs again. Its chance came in 1989 when the French National Geographical Institute named a spot on the road to Moletai, 25 kilometers north of Vilnius, as the epicenter of Europe. Originally marked by a small, granite plaque that was unfortunately vandalized, a new sculpture - a pyramid with all the European capitals and their distances from the center marked on it - currently represents the site. To get there, turn right off the Vilnius-Moletai road at the "Europas Centras" sign. Never let it be said that Lithuania isn't at the very heart of Europe.

Relics of road construction

"Those interested in road-building will like the Latvian Road Museum: in one building there are carts, drays and even a hearse, in the other 's tractors, a bulldozer and other mechanisms serving road-construction purposes in the country over the decades," reads the Tukums district museum Website. Next to Riga's picturesque Old Town and the rolling hills of Sigulda, this museum is most likely "must do #3" on every tourist's check list. With an entrance fee of 20 santimi (10 percent of which we hope goes toward improving Latvia's decrepit and pot-hole ridden roads), this tourist hotspot is likely to be booming all year long. If this strikes you as the perfect venue for a birthday or bachelor party, we recommend reserving the road museum well ahead of time.

A field

There's nothing more moving than the sight of a field, especially an empty one. Forget historical monuments, forget architectural wonders, a grassy meadow holds more poignancy than the Statue of Liberty's fingernail. And the same can be said for Lithuania's Saules field, located near the town of Pamusis. So it does, actually, have some historical significance. So it marks the spot where Lithuanians courageously sacrificed their lives during a battle against the crusaders in the 13th century 's and won. As we all know, history repeats itself. So let us learn from this. But a field… now that's something worth thinking about.

Estonian insurance museum

Set up for students hoping to go into the time-honored insurance business, this tiny library and museum gives an overview of how the practice developed and thrived in Estonia. Curiosities on display include industry artifacts from the 19th and early 20th centuries such as stylish advertisements, publications and antique office furniture, as well as a progression of adding machines from the 1930s to 1980s. Visitors can leaf through 19th-century insurance policies so ornately printed that they could qualify as works of art. And we're sure the museum curators won't object if you ask to touch their catalogue of worker compensation terms. Located on Tatari St. 23/25 in Tallinn, the museum is open weekdays if booked in advance.