Lovely old Europe, once vibrant, feels dog-tired, swamped by tourists and in need of a good lie down. But not the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania that embrace the east coast of the Baltic Sea.
Like the Baltic white storks that return in spring from their African sojourn believed to bring good fortune and happiness, so these little republics, a scant 25 years after independence from the Soviet Union, are experiencing a miraculous renewal. It's like Western Europe 40 years ago – upbeat societies, still tackling problems but awash with exuberance, optimism and a deep appreciation of the freedom that has cost them so much. The result - a convivial traveller experience.
Which other Western European port cities are so delighted to receive cruise tourists they have welcoming brass bands on the dock? (Estonia). Or whose customs/security people double as postal workers, sending for nothing the free postcards the city hands out? (Estonia). Or who organises street buskers to materialise on our walking tour to play Waltzing Matilda? (Latvia). Or whose citizens rush to assist visitors, or whose government encourages migratory population renewal? (All of them).
"Slowly, we are learning to smile again," says our Lithuanian guide, who was born during Soviet occupation "For years we trusted no one. Now we are free. Our economy is stronger. Life is getting better. We can travel, study in foreign countries, have a business, choose our work and tourists are coming back."
We are experiencing these pearls of the Baltics on our 15-day, 11-country APT Hebridean Sky small ship cruise from Stockholm to Dover. At its heart are the three Baltic States - Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania - all rising powerfully from the ashes of totalitarianism and genocide.
They are among the EU's smallest, least populous nations with a combined population of about six million – marginally bigger than Singapore's. Though tiny, they have borne a terrible burden imposed by twin tyrants – the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany.
The Nazis massacred more than 95 per cent of Lithuania's 210,000 Jews during World War II, according to the Jerusalem-based Yad Vashem Holocaust Remembrance Centre. The end of 1941 saw most of Latvia's 74,000 Jews murdered. The Nazis declared Estonia "Judenfrei" in January 1942 – all 4550 were murdered. Then, as if the suffering were not enough, the killings, torture and mass deportations to gulags continued under the Soviets. The Baltic diaspora is large – people fled to safety in the US, Canada, South Africa, Israel and, of course, Australia.
Perhaps the deepest scars produce the greatest regeneration. Resilience is the key for those who have endured horror. You won't find much cynicism in these Baltic States when discussing their hard-won freedoms (especially since there is still concern about Russian belligerence).
It's the embracing of their future, along with the architectural and natural beauty, the relatively modest visitor numbers and pride in their distinct Baltic cultures (suppressed under communism) that contributes to such a pleasing visitor experience. Part of this renewal is teaching visitors about the past. Not one guide neglected to illuminate us. As Lithuanian Diana Yomantaite says, "If you want to know a country, you need to know its history."
Before Soviet occupation, the three Baltic States were highly developed European nations, enjoying Scandinavian standards of living. For 50 years, the USSR exploited them, destroying their societies and economies. The enthusiastic renewal is inspirational. Yet every August 23 - Black Ribbon Day - they honour the victims of Stalinism and Nazism, rejecting extremism, intolerance and oppression. There's strength in remembering.
STOCKHOLM TO TALLINN
611 NAUTICAL MILES
Central Stockholm's grand buildings. Photo: iStock
The relatively shallow Baltic Sea fringed by a host of countries and fed by a web of navigable rivers and highways has long been a trading mecca. It's fitting then that our Baltic sweep starts in Stockholm.
Consummate traders, the Vikings had a hand in its early development and the city rose to prominence under the Hanseatic League's Baltic trade. Our trip reveals the influence of the league in the architecture, art and customs of ports like Gdansk, Riga, Wismar, Klaipeda and Tallinn. At its height between the 13th and 15th centuries, the league comprised 200 powerful Northern European trading cities.
We thread the web of Sweden's Baltic Sea archipelago, striking out eastwards through rough seas towards "the Daughter of the Baltic", Helsinki, on the Gulf of Finland. The gulf is the Baltic Sea's easternmost arm extending between Finland and Estonia. Major gulf cities are St Petersburg and Tallinn.
We arrive in Helsinki just after sunrise to sail through the city's six-island protective girdle. Swedish occupiers built the UNESCO heritage-listed Suomenlinna Sea Fortress in 1748 to defend against Russian expansionism. Helsinki is only 179 nautical miles from St Petersburg.
Russia claimed it in 1809, holding it until Finnish independence in 1918. During the Cold War, Helsinki was Europe's second busiest spy city after Vienna and our Helsinki guide points out that the massive US and Russian embassies still bristle with equipment. Helsinki's spires glitter as we moor at heart of this civilised city, a pleasing fusion of Neoclassical and National Romantic-style architecture blended with Finland's innovative contemporary design. One of Europe's youngest capitals, it truly is the "city of architecture".
Across the gulf at the elegant canal city of St Petersburg, we moor at English Embankment on the Neva River's left bank, historically one of the city's most fashionable precincts. From here we negotiate stern Russian customs officials to experience the Romanovs' Imperial capital, known as the "swamp of bones" for those who died building it.
Three packed days offer us the Hermitage Museum, an evening of Swan Lake, the "Russian Versailles", Peterhof Palace, Catherine Palace, Peter and Paul Fortress, churches, canals, enough matryoshka dolls to people a small country and even one of St Petersburg-born Vladimir Putin's favourite restaurants.
TALLIN TO PARNU
169 NAUTICAL MILES
"The people of the Baltics really appreciate being free," says our shipboard guest lecturer, Kenneth Park. This question of freedom lies at the heart of our bike tour of Tallinn. Guide Tommy weaves a complex tale of Estonia's capital, only 200 kilometres from the Russian border, once an important Hanseatic port.
Tommy tells of how on August 23, 1989, two million people from the Baltic States joined hands to form a 600-kilometre-long peaceful human chain from Tallinn through Riga to Vilnius.
"The Baltic Way" was an important step towards renewed independence. Tommy says the fear of the Russians returning is "like a small hammer in my brain". He's comforted that the Baltic States - classified high on the Human Development Index - are now members of NATO, the Eurozone, the OECD and the EU.
We cycle to the Petrine Baroque Kadriorg Palace, a Romanov remnant, now a people's place, housing the Kadriorg Art Museum. We are allowed to cycle to the door of Estonia's "White House", the pink Presidential Palace and pose for photos with the guards. One rule – don't lean bikes against flagpoles.
There's Tallinn's tyrant Soviet statue graveyard where abandoned effigies of Lenin and Stalin lie as a reminder of a brutal ideology, while close by is the future: The cool grassy amphitheatre and modernist Alar Kotli-designed stadium of the Song Festival Grounds is where Estonia's culture is proudly celebrated every five years with the Estonian Song Festival. "Estonianism" is on the rise.
We pass the crumbling 1960s Soviet World War II obelisk, stopping at the moving Memorial to the Victims of Communism, finished in 2018. It depicts Estonia's difficult journey to the "home garden" and is inscribed with the names of 200,000 people who lost their lives to the communist regime.
Estonia's "human losses" during Nazi and Soviet occupation between 1940 and 1991 when communism collapsed were about one fifth of their one-million population.
Finally Tommy takes us into Tallinn's perfectly preserved world-heritage-listed Old Town. In the main town square is a celebratory gala to the new Estonia – 34 national organisations representing the Estonian Union of National Minorities perform their vibrant folk dances.
This is one of Europe's most complete walled cities, yet this historic place is a world-leader in digital technology, while Estonia is Europe's number one hotspot for tech entrepreneurs. Three Estonians developed Skype, for example. It is this kind of innovation that is driving the three Baltic economies.
PARNU TO RIGA
91 NAUTICAL MILES
South along the coast in a sheltered bay, we dock (to brass band fanfare) at Estonia's summer capital of Parnu, rightly proud of its pristine white beach, "warm" water (average 19-degrees in July) and shallow bay. This was where Russian aristocrats came to holiday and take the waters and where the Soviets sent favoured apparatchiks for sun, sea and spa treatments. Now it is simply a beach paradise.
Parnu's Museum offers us 11,000 years of history, plus tastings of local specialties, including pig ears and chocolate "dog". There's a fascinating Soviet artefacts section that includes a large pair of Soviet undies. Independence clearly couldn't come soon enough. The pretty town centre with its pastel 19th-century timber villas is where we find a perfect flat white and pastry at Cafe XS. Ask for it; it's not on the menu. And don't forget to walk the seawall. A couple will stay together forever if they hold hands and walk to the end to kiss.
Latvia's capital, Riga, sits like a perfect piece of amber near the mouth of the River Daugava. This exquisite city is full of history, told through its richly reconstructed Hanseatic buildings, world heritage-listed medieval Old Town, flamboyant Art Nouveau quarter, Soviet-era and KGB buildings.
As with the other Baltic States, there is the resolve to "never forget". On our city walk, we pass the Freedom Monument, symbol of Latvia's freedom, independence and sovereignty. The Soviets wanted to demolish it but backed off.
The Museum of the Occupation of Latvia, established in 1993 in a Soviet building built in 1971 to commemorate Lenin's 100th birthday, documents the 51-year period when both the Soviets and the Nazis occupied Latvia. It is currently being renovated. The infamous KGB "corner building" on Brivibas (Freedom Street) has also been preserved as a museum. The joke went that its balconies were the only ones that offered views of Siberia. The Latvians joke a lot – it's how they've survived.
A memorial states: "During the Soviet occupation the state security agency/KGB imprisoned, tortured, killed and morally humiliated its victims in this building." The museum focuses also on people's disobedience, resistance and heroism and their mental strength to survive and return their country to the world.
In stark contrast is Riga's fabulous Art Nouveau quarter – 800 multi-storey buildings decorated in the "flaunting modern" style – fluid wrought iron, polychromatic masonry, carved concrete figureheads, peacocks, lions' heads, gargoyles, swirling decoration.
A third of Riga's central-city buildings are Art Nouveau, making it the city with the world's highest concentration of Art Nouveau architecture. Built between 1904 and 1914, Art Nouveau sprang from a desire to abandon the 19th-century's historical styles. Riga has a unique style too, divided into Eclectic, Perpendicular, National Romantic and Neoclassical.
It's hard to tear ourselves away from the magnificent city but before we leave we visit Riga's huge UNESCO-listed Central Market. This is how a grim past can be refashioned. Five old German Zeppelin hangars have been repurposed to incorporate Neoclassical and Art Deco styles.
RIGA TO KLAIPEDA
242 NAUTICAL MILES
Our next port is Klaipeda, "city of the winds", Lithuania's historic third city, once called Memel. It's the foremost ice-free port in the Eastern Baltic, located on Lithuania's 99-kilometre coastline.
The Nazis and Soviets almost destroyed Lithuania, the southernmost Baltic State, whose name means "country of rains". About 456,000 people, or one third of the adult population (including the Holocaust victims) suffered and died. About 500,000 Lithuanians were forced into exile.
The crimes against Lithuanians constitute what our guide Diana Yomantaite calls "a bloody page in our history". Her birth town, Kretinga, near Klaipeda, through which we drive, was a Jewish town. There are no Jews left, just mass graves and grief. First the Soviets terrorised and tortured, then the Nazis rounded Jews up, murdered them, razed the synagogue and burned half the town.
Diana represents the face of a new Lithuania. She never forgets, but can also imagine a bright future. "I was born while we were still in the USSR," she says. "We had no freedom. Churches were closed, people hid to worship, I was five when I first tried a banana. I was six when independence came and the Soviets sent tanks. We were afraid but we held hands and sang."
Diana is referring to the Singing Revolution that began in Estonia between 1987 and 1991 – a non-violent revolution that overthrew a violent occupation, using singing as a weapon of choice.
The Hanseatic city of Klaipeda was 60 per cent destroyed in World War II. The Soviets rebuilt it in Soviet style, keeping the kitchens in apartments purposely small to deter political gatherings. The city is renovating them. Some of the large houses reflect rapid societal change – after independence some got rich fast, built huge, redundant houses that now house university students.
We drive almost two hours from the coast to Plokstine Missile Base Cold War Museum, the Soviet nuclear weapons site whose massive underground missiles were aimed at Western countries during the Cold War.
En route to this terrifying place, Diana tells us about Lithuanians – how they compete to be the best gardeners, adore bread and potatoes and basketball and still value their pagan rites, despite their religion. They also long for Lithuania's national bird, the lucky white stork, to nest near their houses. Their exports are growing and their language, once forbidden, is being nurtured. They now feel happy and free again.
Even mushroom gathering is worthy of a Lithuanian joke: "We don't have any poisonous mushrooms in Lithuania," Diana says. "You can eat all mushrooms, but some only once." Surveying the gravel road, she says, "The municipality says next year they will fix the road. They just don't say which next year."
Back in Old Town Klaipeda, she notes that Lenin's statue "now lies at the bottom of the museum" and the little "Ann von Tharau" statue in central Theatre Square, removed by Hitler for "turning her back" on him during a speech, has returned.
KLAIPEDA TO DOVER
985 NAUTICAL MILES
The energy of the Baltic States stays with us as we sail from Lithuania past the 60-kilometre-long Curonian Spit sandbar, and through Russian waters off their Kaliningrad enclave to Poland's breathtaking Gdansk, released from the Soviet yoke to revel in peace and freedom. After that, there's Denmark's fairytale Bornholm Island and former East Germany's Wismar and Schwerin.
We exit the Baltic Sea via northern Germany's Kiel Canal that cuts the long sail around Denmark. The surprising paucity of Kiel Canal Wi-Fi has Rugby World Cup fans gnashing their teeth as buffering interrupts play.
Our little ship pops out into the North Sea rollers with our charming Finnish Captain Henrik Karlsson warning of large swells as we head for Amsterdam. Equally, half the passengers forsake the captain's farewell drinks and dinner during our Channel crossing to Dover.
We hold on tight and toast our Baltics sojourn. It was too quick – we will return for another salutary lesson in human resilience.
FIVE MORE GEMS OF THE BALTIC
This pristine walled town set on limestone cliffs overlooking the Baltic is on the Swedish island of Gotland. Once a haven for Vikings and pirates, it is now a summer holiday favourite of Swedes who love its cobbled streets and cafes which serve coffee and saffron pancakes, a local delicacy. See gotland.com/en/
Known in German as Konigsberg, this mysterious slice of Russia is sandwiched between Lithuania and Poland. This amber hot spot with a rich Prussian past is opening up to tourism. It's not yet a cruise destination but weekend flight packages from the UK are available. See visit-kaliningrad.ru/en
This tiny speck of Danish lushness in the Baltic is a zodiacs-only destination. Just 500 metres long, with 120 inhabitants, it has abundant wildlife, including seals, puffins and eider ducks, which come to breed in spring. Cars, cats and dogs are banned. See visitdenmark.com
ALAND ISLANDS, FINLAND
This autonomous part of Finland with its own flag, laws and language is an archipelago of 6700 named islands and another 20,000 smaller islets. About 60 are inhabited. Bridges and ferries connect many, making Aland a cyclists' paradise. Bring your own bike or rent one in the capital, Mariehamn. See visitaland.com/en
KIEL CANAL, GERMANY
This 95 kilometre freshwater canal carving through Germany's Schleswig-Holstein is the world's busiest man-made waterway navigable by seagoing ships. Finished in 1895, it was later widened. It connects the Baltic to the North Sea, sparing cruise passengers the 250-nautical-mile trip around Jutland peninsula. See kiel-canal.de
BEST OF THE BALTIC REST
The Danes love to relax on Bornholm Island, also known as "Solskinsoen" or Sunshine Island. Strategically located in the Baltic, Bornholm has been fought over for centuries. The ruin of Hammershus is northern Europe's largest medieval fortress. Perfect for hiking and biking, it's also a foodie and beer-lover's paradise. Home of Queen Margrethe's favourite sausages. See bornholm.info/en
Suomenlinna sea fortress in Helsinki, Finland. Photo: iStock
Famed for fresh air, fine food and healthy, happy people. With almost 200,000 lakes and surprisingly good beaches in summer, it's a great place to embrace the Baltic outdoors. See visitfinland.com
No trip to the Baltic is complete without a visit to St Petersburg, which lies about 640 kilometres northwest of Moscow and only seven degrees south of the Arctic Circle. For two centuries the capital, it is architecturally magnificent. Just keep your eyes out for pickpockets. See visit-petersburg.ru/en/
Poland is a booming, with Baltic Gdansk the essence of a city enjoying its freedom. The old town is a pearl of bourgeois architecture. Visit the European Solidarity Centre and the Westerplatte peninsula monument remembering one of the first battles marking the start of World War II in Europe. See poland.pl
Wismar on the Baltic Sea illustrates the miracle of reunification. This beautifully restored city of cobbled streets and outdoor cafes is a prime example of a 14th-century Hanseatic port. See tourism.de
Singapore Airlines flies daily from Sydney and Melbourne to Stockholm via Moscow and daily from London to Sydney and Melbourne. See singaporeair.com
APT's 13-day Best of the Baltics small ship cruise from Copenhagen to Stockholm starts from $14,995 a person twin share, departs July 2 and July 14, 2020. Price is based on a July 2, 2020 departure (standard suite). See aptouring.com.au
Alison Stewart was a guest of APT.