By Matthew Holt
There are probably many reasons to visit Lithuania and Latvia, though none had crossed my mind till I came upon the Baltic Run - a rally of sorts through Poland and the Baltic states, taking place over New Year. Flying into Kraków, the event’s starting point, I picked up my vehicle – a somewhat battered Nissan Terrano arranged by the organiser, Attila the Hungarian. ‘This is one of our most reliable,’ Attila assured me, which was good to hear, since I’m not renowned for tinkering under bonnets. Soon, my navigator, Mandy Ramsden, arrived – sans satnav or GPS, but with some luxurious artificial-fur hats that made us look like Mötley Crüe.
That evening, we met some other participants in the imaginatively named House of Beer. It was a small, though competent field. There was a middle- aged German couple in a new Audi 4WD, who had scoped the route the previous summer; a Belgian called Dirk – whose Land Rover had been converted into a mobile workshop – paired with a Latvian, Kaspars, who’d designed the route; a cheery Danish trio, who wore just T-shirts, even when it was snowing; the gloomy-faced Hungarian couple, whose Jeep sported stickers from rallies around the globe; three Indians in a rented Land Rover, who looked almost as hapless as us; and an English couple from Oxford, who were still on their way, having broken down en route.
Meanwhile, Attila was travelling with the event’s media officer, a rather fetching young Bulgarian woman. The Indians and us aside, the other teams were driving their own cars, involving return journeys of several thousand kilometres – but they seemed to exist for, and in, vehicles.
The final stage was from Tartu to Tallinn in a full-on blizzard, replete with slanting snow and freezing fog.
The next morning, the rally got under way. There was no dropped flag, dash for the cars or high-octane charge into the first corner. Rather, we left the hotel in dribs and drabs, once we had finished our breakfast, carrying all our suitcases. Our ultimate destination was Tallinn in Estonia, some 1 340 km as the crow flies, though our route would zigzag in nine daily 300 km-ish stages.
Setting off in a flurry of light snow, we ignored all of the standard tourist attractions, such as Oskar Schindler’s enamel factory and the underground salt mines, instead visiting a garage to stock up on de-icers, window scrapers and a snow shovel; and then a shop for Mandy to buy extra woollen clothing and a pair of Sorel boots capable of withstanding -40°C weather. Although there wasn’t much snow on the ground, the forecast was disconcerting. Plus, by now, we’d discovered our car’s heater, odometer, speedometer and fuel gauge weren’t working.
Out in the open countryside, we crossed a landscape of frosted fields, matchstick trees and small medieval towns with cobbled squares and high- steepled churches. Whereas the other teams were dependent on their GPSs and satnavs, we opted for the more traditional tools of road maps and gut instinct. Inconveniently, however, our map was the size of a double-bed sheet, and couldn’t be fully unfolded inside the car, and what on paper looked like bridges over the Vistula River turned out in actuality to be summer ferries, prompting a circuitous route to the first overnight stop, Kazimierz Dolny, which we reached at 6 pm in a snowstorm.
The second day’s destination also took a bit of finding. Hidden in the Masurian woods, Wilczy Szaniec – or ‘Wolf’s Lair’ – had once been Adolf Hitler’s wartime headquarters and was where he’d narrowly survived Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg’s assassination attempt. Most of the concrete buildings were now just dilapidated shells, but the former guards’ barracks had been renovated into tourist accommodation, albeit without too many frills.
Negotiating snow-and ice-covered roads is the order of the day on the Baltic Run.
On the third day, we crossed over into Lithuania. There were no fences, watchtowers or sentries, just an open road leading through the forest and a sign announcing ‘Lietuvos Respublika’. During the rally, we criss-crossed four countries without ever stopping at a frontier, and the only time we had to proffer our documents was when we were pulled over after overtaking the same unmarked police car three times in 10 minutes while lost on a dirt road near the Russian border.
As we headed up north, the forests became thicker, the snow even deeper and the days shorter still. On leaving Poland, the clocks went forward one hour, but the sun still didn’t rise till after 9 am and was gone again by half past three. Indeed, by now you may be wondering whether January is a good time to visit the Baltics, and the answer is probably not. But who wants to just spend every New Year’s Eve drinking bubbly at the beach?
As it was, we spent it in Vilnius, once one of Europe’s finest cities before Lithuania was gobbled up by its Soviet neighbours and wiped off the map, re-emerging as an independent nation when the Baltic states walked out on the ailing USSR in the early 1990s. At the former KGB headquarters, in a basement chamber, a documentary recreated what it was like to be dragged in and, shall we say, persuaded to talk. More cheerily, we were able to count in the New Year watching fireworks in Cathedral Square.
2017 also started with a bang. As we were leaving Vilnius, our car stuttered to a sudden halt and when I retried the ignition, the exhaust pipe blew apart, sending an elderly pedestrian leaping into the air. Kaspars and Dirk arrived to gleefully diagnose our ailment as a clogged distributor and blown catalytic converter – which was obviously all gobbledygook to me and, far more surprisingly, beyond treatment from their mobile workshop. There was nothing for it but to turn up the radio and kangaroo-hop 400 km to our next destination, Liepaja, with Dirk and Kaspars nobly chaperoning us and our vehicle roaring like a wounded lion. Miraculously, in Liepaja, a mechanic welded on a new exhaust pipe and fashioned a replacement distributor.
The town of Kazimierz Dolny in eastern Poland is the site of the first overnight stop.
Although there were deadlines for making certain destinations, along with a timed off-road section, the rally wasn’t an all-out race as such – even if the Germans made a point of being the first at the overnight stops and informing the rest of us in what order we had arrived. Rather, the majority of points were awarded for visiting and photographing curious landmarks en route.
There were some Baroque palaces and antique churches among these, but most reflected the region’s recent troubled past. There was the Kaunas Ninth Fort, where more than 30 000 Jews were executed by the Nazis; Grutas Park, aka ‘Stalin World’, housing busts of fallen communist heroes, perhaps preserving them till all of that’s back in vogue; Karosta Prison, a former Soviet punishment facility, where we spent two hours being barked at by an actor in military uniform, answering 'Yes, Commander Chief' and doing star jumps; Plokštine· missile base, deep in the Lithuanian forest, where we explored the maze of underground launch silos; and the Lïgatne nuclear shelter, where we lunched on pickled fish and vodka in hermetically sealed bunkers built for Latvia’s communist bosses to sit out Armageddon. It felt odd to me that so many places with very divisive and recent connotations had been turned into tourist attractions, but – as Kaspars pointed out – you can only work with what you’ve got.
In Sigulda, we dutifully visited three old castles, then, more enthusiastically, the bobsleigh track, where Mandy and I signed up for a ride on the ‘Taxibob’, which had a reassuring ring till we were given indemnity forms, crash helmets and a briefing. Essentially, we had to tuck in behind the driver, cling on, keep our heads upright and pray that the sleek metal sled didn’t flip while hurtling through S-bends at more than 100 km/h. We spent that evening in a sauna in Aluksne, trying to sweat the compressions and creases out of our necks and backs.
While there were no points on offer, we also climbed up the Baltics’ highest summit, Suur Munamägi, or Big Egg Mountain. A sign on the peak humbly admitted it was a healthy 8 330m lower than Mount Everest, although the shin- deep snow and biting wind made it feel convincingly Himalayan.
Cathedral Square, Vilnius, Lithuania.
Leaving the Haanja Upland, we drove along the western shore of Lake Peipus, inhabited by Estonia’s Russian-speaking minority. There, on an icy rural lane, we spotted an old man wearing a thin coat and leather-soled shoes, without a hat or gloves, floundering in a snow-filled ditch. Stopping, I clambered down and offered him a hand. ‘I do not want your help,’ he snarled in surprisingly decent English, roughly pushing me off, falling flat on his back again. After a few more similar exchanges, we drove off and left him, rather nonplussed. It was -20°C and would be dark in an hour.
As the snow continued to fall, the road conditions got quite challenging though, for a novice, I think I handled them reasonably well – excepting the one occasion we pirouetted through a junction, and the time we hit black ice and snaked down the highway at 100 km/h, staring helplessly into the headlights of an oncoming lorry.
The final stage was from Tartu to Tallinn in a full-on blizzard, replete with slanting snow, freezing fog and a gusting wind that whipped snowdrifts across the road so I could barely see beyond the bonnet. With the Nissan backfiring and stuttering, and its tail lights not really working, we slithered gratefully into the hotel parking lot down by the port. Despite the lack of a chequered flag or cheering crowd, we felt a surge of elation as if we’d won a Grand Prix – even if the Germans were quick to point out they’d beaten us in. After nine days and nearly 3 000 km, you might expect there to be a small pang in my heart when I handed back the Nissan’s keys to Attila, but there was not.
That evening, in a pub in the old town, the Danes explained how they’d repaired their headlights with chewing gum; the Indians recounted how they’d skidded into a ditch; the Germans were declared the overall winners; and we all celebrated like people who didn’t have to get up in the dark to shovel snow off the car.
The Taxibob in Sigulda, Latvia, is one of the top winter attractions for visitors.
GOOD TO KNOW
The Baltic Run is an organised annual event. The next one starts in Kraków (Poland) on 28 December 2017, ending in Tallinn (Estonia) on 5 January 2018. www.balticrun.com
There are various packages available. The most comprehensive, including hotel accommodation, local SIM card and 4WD vehicle, costs 4 650 euros for a team of two.
EasyJet and Ryanair serve Kraków and Tallinn from London.
South African citizens will require a Schengen visa. The Polish consulate is possibly the best one to contact. The organisers can assist you with the necessary documentation.
What to pack
Remember to take very warm clothes (including boots, gloves and a beanie), in case your car breaks down and it’s -25°C outside.
Source: AA Traveller