New beat in the Baltic

With a song in his heart, Adrian Bridge revisits Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia 20 years after independence.

It was somewhere on the road from Sigulda to Tartu that Ugo burst into song. It was a jaunty little number called Problem, My Big Problem - a song, he told me, that Latvians had sung for centuries to keep their spirits up.

"We would leave our problems under a stone, and go and sing ... Singing is good for the heart; it is good for the soul."

I'm travelling with Ugo, a choirmaster who doubles as a driver, as part of an extended road trip through Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia timed to coincide with the 20th anniversary of September 6, 1991 - the day the former Soviet Union formally recognised the independence of the three Baltic states on the new map of Europe.

I'm also retracing a journey I undertook in the region in 1992, when the scent of freedom and discovery was still fresh in the air. I want to see what has changed - for better and for worse - and to explore what these three countries on the northern tip of mainland Europe have to offer the traveller today. Here are some highlights.

Lithuania: Mud and Frank Zappa

Vilnius was the first Baltic capital I saw in 1992, and I was impressed. With its magnificent baroque and Gothic churches, grand old university, green hills and cobbled old town, it had an almost Italianate feel - though decades of Soviet neglect meant much of it was rundown. Back then I paced it on foot: today I fly above it in a hot-air balloon.

The city has been spruced up and that extensive old town is now UNESCO World Heritage-listed. But many of the rough-and-ready edges that lend authenticity remain. I particularly like the bohemian Uzupis district - a self-proclaimed "independent republic" with a constitution stating that "every dog has the right to be a dog".

I also like the fact that after Lithuania regained independence, permission was granted for a statue of Frank Zappa to be erected in a city square. The late, zany American musician had no connection with Vilnius, but what, after all, was freedom for? I run into the familiar faces of Lenin, Stalin and Marx in Grutas Park in southern Lithuania, the final resting place for many of Lithuania's Soviet-era statues. It is close to Druskininkai, a spa town that for more than 200 years has been enjoyed by Polish noblemen, Tsarist dukes and Soviet workers.

The town is also, after years in the doldrums, undergoing a revival. Out are the old Soviet-style sanatoria; in are modern new premises, such as the Spa Vilnius, which has western European-style standards and services - at eastern European prices.

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Here I experience a mud bath and a pummelling of my neck, back, feet and hands with a variety of buckwheat applications, and drink several glasses of mineral-enriched salty water from one of the resort's 12 natural springs. It tastes vile - I just hope it's doing me good.

The drive from Druskininkai to Kaunas extends through flat territory on straight roads bounded by pine forests with occasional glimpses of lakes, traditional wooden houses and the remnants of collective farms. But few cars. I imagine this is how driving around western Europe might have been in the 1950s.

Linus, a gardener, tour guide and driver, reveals that although he celebrated the rebirth of Lithuania, freedom and membership of bodies such as the European Union have brought their own difficulties. In Kaunas, a city that served as capital in the first period of independence in the interwar years, about 80,000 people - nearly a quarter of the current population - have left since 1991 to seek better lives elsewhere.

One family staying put is that of Jurgis and Danute Zabaliunas, a couple who run the Nemunas B&B. Twenty years ago it would have been impossible to have stayed in the homes of ordinary Lithuanians; now you can sit up all night chatting and drinking Svyturys beer in their living rooms. "Things are much better now. I can vote, I am not afraid to speak and for creative types there are many more possibilities," Jurgis says. "Life is good."

Latvia: Art-nouveau nirvana

There is only one place in the Baltics that can properly be called a city: Riga, capital of Latvia. It's a symphony of Teutonic-inspired steeples and spires and some of the most fantastical art-nouveau architecture in the world.

In 1992, despite peeling facades, I recognised a work of art. It was a revelation that something as architecturally rich could have existed in the Soviet Union. I always liked the buzz of the place, too - and the frisson that is added by the city's considerable Russian population.

Edgars, the man I meet at the border with Lithuania, seems to have adjusted well to capitalist life. As we speed towards Riga he spends half his time wheeling and dealing on his mobile and the other telling me about some of the country's attractions.

"Latvia is great for stag parties," he says. "You can shoot Kalashnikovs, ride on bobsleighs, have a go in a flight simulator."

On a boat trip along the canal that runs through the heart of the city I spot the dazzling opera house that was a wreck in 1991 but is now one of the city's prime cultural attractions. The Dom (Riga cathedral) is famed for its organ concerts and the Stalin-esque Academy of Sciences is still a feature of the Riga skyline.

Beyond the capital there is Rundale Palace, the "Versailles of the Baltics"; Sigulda, a scenic hilly spot with mediaeval castle and bobsleigh track; and Jurmala, the 32-kilometre stretch of white-sand beach on the Gulf of Riga that was the favoured summer playground of the Soviet elite - including Nikita Khrushchev, Leonid Brezhnev and Boris Yeltsin.

Jurmala is reinventing itself and is now popular with Finns and Swedes, fans of bracing sea air, massages - and a racy atmosphere.

I check into the Jurmala Spa, a hotel that still has a bit of a '70s concrete-block feel but inside has pleasing contemporary touches. Attitudes on the reception desk have been transformed too: the old "nyet-can-do" approach has been replaced with genuine smiles and good English.

I spend the next three hours swimming in the Gulf of Riga, enjoying a massage and strolling around a town centre that has restaurants offering everything from tacos to sushi.

Suitably fortified, I am ready to hit the road to Estonia with Ugo, the choirmaster, who is going to perform en route and explain how, rather than using guns, Latvians took on Moscow by gathering in vast numbers, singing folk songs.

Estonia: Mediaeval magic and Villa Margaretha

I learn a new word in Tartu: vaim. It means the feeling, the spirit, the soul.

I pick up the spirit as I head to the city's favourite meeting spot: a statue of two lovers kissing beneath an umbrella. It's a celebration of love and life and a far cry from all those sombre statues I had seen in Grutas Park.

Tartu is an attractive city of green hills, a river (the Emajogi) and a culture of learning that dates from 1632. Its university was established by the Swedish King Gustavus Adolphus, I learn during a tour with Karl, a chemistry student and a walking encyclopaedia.

Tartu also has some diverting museums , streets of colourful wooden houses and an observatory containing what was once the largest refractor telescope in the world. The city is also home to the Villa Margaretha, a hotel with art-nouveau flourishes; the nicest place I have stayed in by far.

The final leg of my mini-odyssey through the Baltic states is the 200 kilometres from Tartu to Tallinn. Ivo, my last driver, is a guest-house owner and tour guide who has thrived as a result of the visitors coming courtesy of cheap flights and cruise ships. He waxes lyrical about the coastal resort of Parnu, the serene islands of Saaremaa and Muhu, and, of course, Tallinn's fabled mediaeval city on a hill.

We get a good view of those 13th-century city walls and the onion-shaped dome of the Alexander Nevsky Russian Orthodox church driving in along the coast road. It remains an impressive sight

What were not part of the skyline in 1992 were the shiny tower blocks that are known as the "Tallinn Manhattan" - testimony to the speed with which this country of just 1.3 million has embraced change and built one of the most internet-friendly "e-societies" in the world. (Skype was invented here; at the start of this year Estonia became the first Baltic state to adopt the euro.)

Today the cobbled streets of Tallinn's old town heave with tourists (there are two cruise ships in port), Finns (there are regular ferries from Helsinki) and visitors here to enjoy the special buzz the city is generating during its year as a European Capital of Culture.

We stop for lunch in Komeet, a restaurant on the top floor of a shopping centre opposite the main opera house. Komeet is a newish venture masterminded by Anni Arro, a former model and chef referred to as the "Gordon Ramsay of Estonia" (she is a lot more attractive and considerably less foul-mouthed).

It is all very slick, professional and civilised and somehow symbolises how far this country and region has moved on. It's only 20 years since the Baltic states regained independence but this feels light-years away from the Soviet Union.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Lufthansa has a fare to Riga or Vilnius for about $2005 low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney, including tax. You fly a partner airline to Singapore (8hr), then Lufthansa to Frankfurt (13hr), then to Riga or Vilnius (about 2hr). This fare allows travel via other Asian cities and to fly out of another European city.

British company Baltic Holidays runs tailor-made tours, city breaks and group tours, including a nine-day trip following the author's route from £799 ($1217) a person. The price includes flights from Britain (into Vilnius; out of Tallinn), two nights' accommodation in Druskininkai, Kaunas, Jurmala and Tartu and transfers; see balticholidays.com.

- Telegraph, London

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