Tourists are flocking to the Baltic states in record numbers or, rather, to the capital cities. But few people make it out to the countryside, which is arguably where the "real" identity of these countries can be found. And no, a one-day excursion to Saaremaa, Sigulda or Trakai doesn't count. The Baltic countryside is an endlessly fascinating place, once you really get to know it, where storks are storks and frogs are nervous, as one bizarre advertising slogan put it. TBT has compiled a list of pointers to help the intrepid explorer see what makes the countryside here such a unique and charming experience.
Most of the older country houses come with a well on their land which taps into wonderfully clean and pure spring water. One sip from it will make you wonder why you have spent so much money on dubiously sourced bottled water for all these years. No wonder the Baltic country folk are so robust. They even boil their eggs in it.
In Estonia every village has three things - a village alderman, a shop, and at least one drunk in grubby clothes sitting on a bench in front of the shop, drinking a plastic bottle of beer. Sometimes this is the village alderman. The bench tends to get especially busy on weekends.
Looking the part
Don't expect to see country dwellers wearing galoshes and tweed caps: the height of fashion for all ages is the tracksuit. It's hard to exaggerate the popularity of this particular garment - everyone from the kid kicking his football against the old kolkhoz to the berry-bucket-laden grandmother at the bus stop can be seen in striped trousers, matching jacket optional. Strangely, brand names don't seem to matter much. The relative merits of the Nike swish and the Adidas triangle are rarely discussed in country circles. If you were to sneak a camera into the homes of these country folk, you'd probably find a closet filled with a dozen tracksuits, one for each month of the year. This cuts down on washing. Â
If you want to get to the heart of Baltic culture, head to the countryside. Every Lithuanian village has its own patron saint which is celebrated once a year in a religious feast. It's the biggest community celebration on the calendar and a day when the village really comes together. Traditionally, different-shaped candies are made and sold next to the village church, making it a very special day for children as they get to eat all the homemade sweets they want.
If you go into a village pub, make sure they know you're not from the next village if you want to avoid getting beaten up. Rivalry among young people (who apparently don't have anything else to do) can get pretty heated. Teenage girls seem to be the nastiest in this regard. Also, it's not a real Friday night in the village pub unless someone ends up with blood on their face. It often happens that two tracksuit-wearing adversaries go outside to fight; one then ends up with blood on his face, then both go back inside and sit next to each other at the bar, drinking away again, blood and all.
There are many skilled workers in the countryside, but just don't expect them to work like hyper-efficient Westerners. They will take their time as they go about renovating your dream country house, frequently stopping for a little homemade vodka or beer while replacing the old asbestos roof. In fact, many of them would rather be paid by the bottle than with hard cash, probably because it saves them a trip to the local store.
Few places in Europe can be as badly signposted as the Latvian countryside. It seems that each small town and village is allotted just one sign, which normally appears several meters after the turn you need to take to get there. On the other hand, every river, no matter how piddling, is signposted with its name at every bridge, which is immensely useful.
Almost every rural bar in Latvia is manned by a woman. She is normally pushing middle-age, wears her best face to work and can alternately be coquettish, maternal, aloof or downright caustic, depending on the situation. When fights break out, as they often do, she is skilled at diffusing the situation. When men despair about their lot, she is adept at topping up their glass and consoling them with a few wise words. And when the same men then hit on her, she raises a suggestive eyebrow before sternly telling them that they've had enough and sending them home to their wives. The countryside might well fall apart without her.
Getting the axe
Although most people have taken to capitalism like ducks to water they still retain close ties to the countryside and their roots. This explains why so many Baltic men are impressively handy with an axe. During the week they may be nimble with all sorts of accounting feats, but when they go off to their country home or to visit their granny, they can reduce a pile of logs into firewood with astonishing speed. This skill also comes in handy during wedding celebrations when the man has to split a chunk of wood in as few strokes as possible.
Old wives' tales
There is one simple rule for the clueless foreigner visiting the Latvian countryside: listen to the locals. Whether it is their formidable knowledge of the various medicinal values of local plants, or their verdict on whether it is or isn't safe to walk across a frozen lake, they really do know better in most things. They are closer to nature than most people would ever know.
Countryside food isn't always for the faint-hearted. In Lithuania, for example, there is a dish known as Vedarai, which is made when the family pig gets slaughtered. The pig's blood is first stored and then later used to fill its guts, which are then fried or grilled. The final product looks a lot like a sausage, except it is mostly made from congealed blood rather than meat. Vedarai is a traditional delicacy. In Lithuania a pig is a pig: there's no need for euphemisms like pork.
Many country houses don't have an indoor toilet or bathroom. The answer to the first problem is simple: a trip to the outhouse. This is typically a cozy little wooden hut that stands over a deep hole in the ground. The problem is they stink so badly you have to hold your breath if you're not used to the stench. You will rarely find any printed material lying around to read, although some scraps of newspaper often dangle off a hook on the door for the purpose of wiping yourself. As for washing, most people use a sauna or public baths.