Arrive at the airport for your flight to Rīga. On arrival, we transfer by coach to the four-star Avalon Hotel, where we stay for three nights with breakfast and dinner. This evening, we have an informal gathering with your tour manager and fellow travellers before enjoying a welcome dinner at the hotel.
Since its founding in 1201 by German knights, Rīga has prospered under Polish-Lithuanian monarchs, Swedish kings and Soviet commissars. Today Latvia’s capital is an exhilarating city with traces of the past flavouring its cobbled Old Town, a UNESCO site bounded by the River Daugava. 800 years of history is expressed in diverse architectural styles and notably, the world’s largest collection of Art Nouveau buildings. A distinguishing feature of Rīga’s skyline are its church spires, topped with golden cockerels that serve both as vigilant defenders against evil according to Christian tradition, and as weathervanes reminding us of the city’s significance as a seaport. Its world-class museums, colourful galleries and brewing gastronomy scene earned it the title of European Capital of Culture 2014. This morning we explore the Old Town’s tangle of atmospheric streets on foot with a local guide. At its heart is the medieval Town Hall Square, the city’s administrative centre for centuries and where we’ll see many distinctive landmarks, such as the exquisite House of Blackheads. Spot the cockerels atop Rīga’s oldest churches including Dome Cathedral, the largest medieval church in the Baltics and St Peter’s, a striking symbol of the city. We’ll see the foliage-covered Powder Tower, once part of the city’s defences and now home to the Latvian War Museum. Afterwards, you’re free to explore as you wish. Wander where your feet take you and identify the flamboyant Art Nouveau buildings for which Rīga is renowned. Of the many excellent museums in the area, the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia is superb and a chilling testament to more turbulent times. Perhaps stroll through Bastion Hill park and admire the Freedom Monument, the revered symbol of Latvian identity, or simply watch the world go by in one of the many convivial cafés. Dinner is included tonight at a local restaurant.
After breakfast, we take a short drive out of the city to the Latvian Ethnographic Open-Air Museum. Spread across 213 acres of lush woodland are over 118 homesteads, churches and windmills from all across Latvia, which provide a fascinating insight into centuries of rural local life. The exhibits are organised according to administrative regions, drawing attention to variations in building design and living arrangements. Keep an eye out for the Usma Church, a rare example of a wooden church, as most were replaced by stone buildings in the 19th century. We return to our hotel after our visit, with the remainder of the day at leisure to unearth more of Rīga’s gems. A stone’s throw from your hotel are the five former Zeppelin hangars that form the bustling Central Market, a cavernous treasure of smoked fish and fresh vegetables. If you’re feeling adventurous you may wish to pause at a tavern to try some black balsam, a traditional herbal liqueur so potent it was rumoured to have cured Catherine the Great of a terrible ailment! This evening we dine at a local restaurant.
We depart Rīga after breakfast and head south to Rundāle Palace, one of the most spectacular palaces in the Russian Empire. Once the summer residence of the Dukes of Courland, it was designed by the architect Rastrelli, whose other chefs-d'oeuvre include the Peterhof, Winter and Catherine Palaces. We join a local expert for a tour of this opulent Baroque-Rococo masterpiece. Marvel at the ostentatious Duke’s bedroom, the throne room with its decadent use of golden stuccos, and the all-white ballroom with intricate stuccos depicting pastoral scenes. It’s astonishing to realise there were periods under occupation when the palace doubled as a hospital, school and grain storehouse! Within the 178-acre grounds are the impeccably kept French Baroque and rose gardens, which are lovely to stroll through. Afterwards, we continue south across the border to one of Lithuania’s most awe-inspiring sights, the Hill of Crosses. Here on an unassuming hillock, thousands of crosses seem to sprout from the earth, interspersed by poignant statues of the Virgin Mary, carvings of Lithuanian patriots and effigies left by Catholic pilgrims. They began appearing after the suppression of the 1831 uprising against the Russians, who made several attempts to bulldoze the site but the crosses kept reappearing. Over time the hill has become a symbol of hope and peaceful resistance against hostile invaders – and certainly a sight you won’t easily forget. Later we journey further south to Vilnius, where we stay for three nights with breakfast and dinner at the four-star Radisson Blu Hotel Lietuva. Tonight we enjoy dinner at the hotel’s riverside restaurant, which serves international dishes.
The Lithuanian capital is an alluring beauty that has retained a confident charm despite devastating wars, invasions and fires. The Old Town is recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage site for its profound influence on the cultural and architectural evolution of much of eastern Europe. Countless church steeples pierce the skyline, while Gothic and neo-Classical structures complement some of Europe’s finest Baroque architecture. The austere façade of Vilnius Cathedral belies the dazzling Chapel of St Casimir within. Occupying a large part of the historic centre is the impressive Vilnius University, eastern Europe’s oldest and Lithuania’s largest, with an astonishing 13 courtyards. After breakfast, we enjoy a guided tour of the Old Town by coach and on foot to see many of its highlights. The remainder of the day is at leisure, so take the opportunity to delve deeper into some of the sights of this morning, or relax in one of the city’s many green spaces. Why not visit the exceptional Church of Sts Peter and Paul? Over 2,000 intricate stucco figures adorn its breathtaking interior, while gilded accents lend a truly divine touch – some would say this is undoubtedly the finest Baroque jewel of Vilnius! This evening we dine together at a local restaurant.
Today we head west to a picture-postcard area of Lithuania, where far-reaching verdant landscapes are broken up by crystal-clear lakes speckled with leafy islands. Atop one such island sits a red-brick Gothic castle straight out of a fairy tale, complete with wooden footbridge and moat. We visit the splendid island castle of Trakai and discover its origins: it was built during the reign of Grand Duke Vytautas and completed just before a crushing victory over the Teutonic Knights. The castle museum showcases an impressive range of weaponry and artefacts, such as coins, tankards and tiles. You’ll encounter cobblestones and many steps when visiting various parts of the castle complex. For a more relaxing way to appreciate the castle and scenic surroundings, you may wish to follow the encircling path that hugs the shore of the island, or take a break at the castle’s café and admire the lovely views over the lake. Perhaps visit the attractive town of Trakai and see the distinctive wooden houses of the Karaim, a Turkic-speaking community that was resettled here from Crimea. Later we return to our hotel in Vilnius, where there’s time to relax and enjoy the hotel’s facilities before dinner tonight at the hotel’s restaurant. Should you wish to venture out, the bohemian neighbourhood of Užupis on the other side of the River Neris is a trove of fascination. The artists who set up home here declared it a ‘republic’ with its own flag, constitution and independence day, which falls curiously on the 1st of April! The narrow streets here are lined with inviting cafés, art galleries and hidden courtyards waiting to be explored.
After breakfast we depart Vilnius and travel northwest to Kaunas, arguably the most intriguing of the Baltic region’s second cities. Nestled at the confluence of two rivers, the city was the temporary capital of a newly independent Lithuania in 1919. Today the tree-lined Liberty Boulevard, flanked by shops, pavement cafés and restaurants, leads from the modernised New Town to the atmospheric Old Town. Here, a local guide takes us on a tour of Kaunas’ highlights, which include some fine examples of Renaissance and Baroque architecture. We’ll see the elegant Town Hall, known to locals as the ‘White Swan’ for its slender tower, and the 14th-century Kaunas Castle, now a dramatic venue for theatre performances. Nearby is the sublime Cathedral of Sts Peter and Paul, the country’s largest and only Gothic church with a breathtaking Baroque interior. Kaunas also has a varied collection of museums, offering intriguing insights into the Lithuanian character. We then journey further north back into Latvia and the enchanting coastal city of Jūrmala, a beloved seaside resort for over 200 years. Originally a cluster of fishing villages, genteel Jūrmala now showcases a unique collection of ornate timber cottages and contemporary masterpieces. We stay right on the shore at the superb four-star superior Baltic Beach Hotel & Spa. This evening we meet at the hotel’s sea-view restaurant for our farewell dinner, a fitting way to conclude a most memorable tour.
Transfer to the airport for your flight home.