An ambitious family holiday drive to the Baltics
Time to take the high roads
This gave my family and I a newfound confidence to go anywhere in the lesser-known countries north of Hungary for a safer-than-most, three-week camping holiday this July. Excitement at getting out of the house became contagious. In haste we finally packed the car and drove off out of Budapest with much cheer.
How far expectations would succeed – as well as how far on the road we would get – was another matter. It was not worth planning too far ahead. Also, not all campsites were open, and phone calls had to be made in advance to each one, on the day only. Despite all the uncertainties we still hoped to make it to “’end-stop” Estonia, the northernmost of the Baltic States.
The sooner this could be achieved, the better, as we recalled with fondness last year’s travels when the main emphasis had been Poland with a brief excursion to the Baltics, specifically Vilnius in Lithuania. This time we hoped to visit all three countries, providing the gate did not close on us.
It is always our intention to see as much local culture as possible, but with kids on board plus daily catering and campsite requirements this isn’t always possible. Instead it’s often okay to present children with overall impressions of any immediate sightings, and to focus on anything new that gives them a sense of wonder.
We particularly observe the many illustrious wooden churches and decorated panelled houses, which are characteristic in these regions, and we all love the forests and seashores. It’s also worth noting how very pleasant and cool summer conditions in Northern Europe are.
Still, I may as well say this now: this article is not an academic study. Rather it is a hands-on, day-to-day survival guide for “’getting by” in these northern regions as independent travellers. With children, compromises have to be made, especially when something “harmonious” such as a McDonald’s or a teashop comes to light.
To our amazement, all routes leading from Hungary to Slovakia, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia really had opened up freely, without restrictions, as we were to prove. Only once were we asked at random for passports at a border crossing (I forget which one). It was as if there were no coronavirus crisis at all, or it was just a minimal concern.
With promising conditions and much enthusiasm this car cruise was “stairway to heaven”, and a holiday in itself compared to driving around much of crowded England and Western Europe. In brief, yes, with high spirits and much gratefulness I drove Eszter my wife and children Judy, Suzie and Vincent with relative ease 1700 kilometres from Budapest, eventually following the “Elk” road signs to Tallinn, Estonia’s capital.
When finally arrived, there was no road further northwards other than to take the ferry to Helsinki or Stockholm. With St. Petersburg close by, our journey had taken eight days to achieve, with four stopovers. Our adrenalin levels decreased and looking back southwards seemed very light and straightforward. Now we were comfortable, for the going would be far easier for the rest of our holiday.
Our first stop from Budapest via the north-eastbound M3 had been to Szentlélek, deep within the splendour of the Bukk valley near Miskolc. This relatively short journey (one tenth of the way to Tallinn) was a “warm-up” and prepared us very well for this mind-over-matter venture. After two nights there, seeing a friend, lunch at Lillafüred, adapting to new conditions and overcoming some apprehension about what might or might not be, it was time to move on.
A drive past Kosice and Presov then through the wilds of north-eastern Slovakia took us to Sandomierz, a pleasant heritage town in southern Poland, similar in dulcet ambience to Szentendre. Although conveniently en route, it was too tame for the likes of us (me), as the road northwards was continually calling out.
To stay on schedule, a very lengthy drive took us to Bialowieza, a small border town facing Belarus and surrounded by vast primeval forests all within the Bialystok region. This remote, natural parkland, also known (perhaps to tourists only) as “bison territory”, is one of Poland’s national “treasures” and was a dramatic change of scenery from all else so far. It is so green, so full of trees and so unspoilt that it was unlike anything else I had seen for a long time.
From this latitude onwards we never saw night-time skies until we passed through again on our return journey.
There is a desire always to get going but not push the family too far too fast. In remarkably good weather we packed the car and saw an exquisite deep-blue Orthodox church in nearby Puchly before driving into Lithuania in the direction of Kaunas. This, the country’s second city after Vilnius, lies in the middle of the country and for us was conveniently en route to the Latvian capital, Riga.
Sweeping agricultural plains led eventually to the delightful “Sunny Nights” campsite. This children-friendly setting was a shady orchard very near Lithuania’s legendary “Hill of Crosses”, a distinct landmark that Pope John Paul II visited in 1993.
This hallowed ground is a symbol of defiance to Soviet rule as well as an intriguing pilgrimage site. Anyone may respectfully place a cross. Each one seems to tell a story. Some are clearly devotional, others are memorials to those deceased, such as lost Siberia deportees, 9/11 victims or casualties of the ongoing Ukraine-Russia war. As of last count there were some 250,000 crosses. Whether you are a believer or not, one can surely appreciate this unique landmark with its very powerful presence.
There was plenty to see and do but the temptation not to bother driving onwards struck me a few times. Fortunately, our impulses took charge as we continued to drive through Latvia (with the intention to see the country later). We spent much of the day passing delightful pine trees on the main Riga to Tallinn E67 road in pleasant, cool weather similar to a mild Budapest spring. Despite the euphoria of having reached Tallinn we were burned out. It was time to stretch and to have some needed rest.
Tallinn, with its delightful array of various coned rooftops in the quaint old town, is an elegant and charming city. This also came with unspoilt coastlines, an abundance of forest, gusty sea breezes and fishing villages, all very rewarding for us. To seek real escape from it all, a visit to the Altja coastline 70 kilometres east of the capital, where there is less than expected human activity, came to our attention. Then it was obvious we had to turn the car around and proceed in a southward direction, but at a far lighter pace.
Our next sortie took us to a charming town called Haapsalu. The main highlight of this sleepy marvel is the splendid train station, like something out of the classic film “Dr. Zhivago”, and if you have an affinity for this bygone era, then make your way there and step back into the 1920s.
Further on, a short ferry ride from the mainland took us to Saaremaa Island. Once again, a delightful, unspoiltness awaited us. This tranquil setting, ideal for seal-spotting, has high windswept coastlines, dizzying clifftops, windmills and lighthouses. Saaremaa Island is splendid in every sense. The capital, Kuressaare, is fairly built-up and provides all the essentials.
Apart from a meteorite hitting the island many years ago, it’s difficult to find an equally undisturbed place as this. Remarkably the mention of coronavirus means almost nothing to the locals. As for mask wearing, forget it! For the two days we were there, we really left all world troubles far (as far as we could) behind.
It could be tempting to join this spot of total abandonment from the rest of the world, and remain in wind-swept paradise forever. But, reluctantly, it was time to return to reality. Back on the mainland we had a lunch stop at Parnu, also a pleasant coastal city just off the now familiar E67 road. But, as we proceeded towards Riga, suddenly trouble struck.
On a distinctly dark and stormy night, immense rainfall deluged us while driving towards Latvia, dampening our mood for wanting to put up the tent. With the campsite still far off, the windscreen wipers in full flow and three hungry kids, dashboard warning signs began continually lighting up, pointing to something going horribly wrong with the engine.
Preparing for the worst, we fortunately made it to the campsite without incident, and even more fortunately the next day we found a remarkable mechanic who spoke English most eloquently. Finally, our “Welcome to Latvia” was joyously represented by our newfound friend, who really bailed us out. He advised is that despite the continual warnings we would be able to drive safely away to complete the holiday, but should fix the problem immediately back in Budapest.
Relieved that this heart-sinker was not too serious (yet), and after only a slight hold-up, we transformed from nervous wrecks back to free, enlightened tourists, driving with cheer but caution to Riga. This city with its docks is the largest in the Baltics and comes with more verve and edge, compared to the perhaps prettier but not so challenging Tallinn and Vilnius.
The heady mix of varied architecture makes it stand out more than the two other capitals. As passers-through we could only see this city at surface level but we clearly sensed that it has much intrigue and is worth further exploration (preferably without howling kids or dodgy car). Certainly we would be happy to return another time.
The next day we wanted a countryside outing and so took a tip from our mechanic friend and went 70 kilometres eastwards to Sigulda and Turaida, in the Gauja National Park. This delightful region, similar to the Bukk Valley and surrounded by dense forests and high scenery, took us to a castle folly, a manor house and well-tended gardens. Being there really took the steam out of the past two fraught days. One last visit to Riga and we retired to the tent with the car still moderately intact.
The next day took us south/westwards to Klaipeda, a city with a port on the Lithuanian coastline. It’s clear, the association with the sea has a very strong resonance with the Baltic people, as it does with my fellow Brits. Picturesque coastlines continued. After capturing the general gist of this seaside resort we ate wonderfully well at Etno Dvaras, an exquisite and well-established Lithuanian restaurant chain, where traditional and fortifying borsch soup awaits, along with a variety of other local specialities.
Another ferry crossing took us to the enchanting and very remote Neringa Island, the southwesternmost corner of Lithuania. This UNESCO heritage site, a very long but narrow tract of land, is near a closed-off Russian border, with the Russian province of Kaliningrad only a few kilometres away.
Neringa has a similar escapist feel to Saaremaa Island, with familiar arrays of pine trees and very clean air within the shorelines. Lofty and swirling sand dunes, in similar vein to “Lawrence of Arabia”, made their way from the forests to the coasts. This was our last burst of wide open spaces and general diversions before having to leave the Baltics altogether. To keep to schedule and reduce fatigue, motorways rather than country lanes proceeded. It was a hefty and not so speedy 700-kilometre drive from Klaipeda that took us, late that evening, to the outskirts of Warsaw.
Once again, we unpacked, we ate, we slept. The following morning we briefly saw the Polish capital, which is a splendid city and “prepared” us for Budapest, before repeating this same procedure one last time in Krakow the following evening.
Although very conveniently en route to home, we, or at least I, were lacking in real stamina to take in this splendid and inspiring city. For me, the one full day and two nights there had a similar ambiance to the UK’s Ox-bridge. Here there were obvious signs that the plague was about, plus it was busier than everywhere else we had been, with at least some tourists and general life back on the streets again.
Then alas, with mixed reminiscences and relief, our time on the road was finally up. The return to our everyday lives and routines awaited. But it was not yet entirely over, the last part of our journey taking us through the glorious Polish and Slovak Tatra mountains and valleys, finally leading the way to Hungary with the border gate still open and allowing us in, ultimately, to the Zugló district.
More than 5000 kilometres were clocked up, with roughly 10 days of car travel and 10 campsites. This was a splendid, remarkable and unpredictable venture, even if much of what we saw was too brief. But it was a pleasure, as well as a test of wits, all the way. The children did very well; they may not want to give thanks to this character-building venture yet but I am sure they will ask questions later.
Although a balancing act in many ways, we masterminded the whole thing and shall return for sure, knowing there is more to see and do in all three Baltic States. Everything mentioned here comes highly recommended, as this will give us a story to tell for years to come.
For up-to-date border advice, see ec.europa.eu