Driving from Birzai, Lithuania, to Valga, Estonia: unexpected treats, Turaida Castle, and a quirky hotel

A favorite photo from our cross-Latvia roadtrip

Leaving Birzai, Lithuania, we soon crossed the border again into the Latvian town of Skaistkalne and instantly came across our first surprise roadtrip treat when we spotted a lovely old church on a hill just overlooking the main road. This is exactly why we love exploring the roads less traveled and the freedom of a car. Winding our way up the steep drive, we passed a woman working on the church flowerbeds, but she paid us no heed and we wandered into the empty church on our own. We were blown away by the baroque interior and magnificent altar of the church which a sign proclaimed to be the tallest in Latvia. It turns out this church, Skaistkalnes baznīca–dating to the late 1600’s–is one of the largest churches in rural Latvia and the second most popular pilgrimage site. I left payment at the honor-system counter for a wooden rosary for my Catholic nephew, in green, his favorite color. What a lovely chance stop!

Beautiful Skaistkalnes baznīca

Continuing on our rural cross-country, we passed plowed fields (and lots of storks) before stopping for lunch in an eclectic little roadside eatery about 45km past Skaistkalne. Its sign named it only “Krodzinš” which basically means “inn,” so not much help there.

Rural central Latvia: plowed fields and storks

The sole waitress spoke no English, nor did anyone else in the place, but we got by with the aid of Google translate and a few words of German although Russian would have been a lot more helpful. Things were made extra-easy by the fact that a large portion of the menu wasn’t actually available. Oh well, we enjoyed what they had.

An eclectic interior
Lunch was cheap and good…once we figured out what was on the menu

My one sight-seeing goal for the day was Turaida Castle and the Turaida Museum Reserve in a forested national park northeast of Riga. We arrived in early afternoon to find ample parking in the nearest lot in front of a big restaurant and just across the street from the entrance to the castle and open air museum. We paid €1.50 to a lady watching the lot. Although it was off season and the restaurant was closed, a market of open stalls across the road was open and bustling.

Turaida Castle, like so much in this part of the world is largely rebuilt. The work was well-executed and the castle, surrounding buildings, and period-costumed docents give a glimpse of a bygone world. A adjacent sculpture park offers another scenic stroll. Adult entrance fee for the castle, outbuildings and sculpture park was €3 each. This is the winter fee and goes up to €5 in the summer peak season.

Approach to the castle inside the preserve grounds
View of Turaida Castle courtyard and the Gauja River from the castle tower
Fish tanks for breeding and harvest
Turaida blacksmith

Pine trees dominated the terrain around Turaida and beyond as we continued on our northeastern path. Logging trucks lumbered along the roads, piled high and slowing down our progress.

Logging trucks are a common sight in northern Latvia

Still, we made decent time and rolled into the Estonian college town of Valga by early evening. Once again, my TravSIM data SIM card transferred seamlessly as we crossed the border from Latvia into Estonia, so I was able to do a little quick hotel research and (for €68 euros including breakfast) book online what reviews promised to be the nicest hotel in town. Hotel Metsis is a distinguished small mansion of a building which sits across the street from a city park. The hotel lobby and restaurant are literally overflowing with an incredible collection of taxidermied animals. If this bothers you, you’ll want to avoid the place. We just found it quirky if a touch on the macabre side. I grew up in a Texas hunting family and am plenty familiar with domestic and foreign hunting trophies, but Hotel Metsis took things in a direction and to an extent I’ve never seen.

Hotel Metsis in Valga, Estonia

We enjoyed a very good dinner at the Hotel Metsis restaurant for €58 including a bottle of Chilean wine.

Dinner at Hotel Metsis
Hard to know what to say about this piece of taxidermy at the Hotel Metsis

The main street in front of the hotel was nearly devoid of cars and the town had a sleepy feel. We explored the park across the way and found only a few other people there. Walking into the residential neighborhood on the other side of the hotel we came across some some people playing ball in a small lakeside park. It was a quiet place, though, and we slept well that night in our pretty, comfortable room under the slanted roof of the hotel.

Park across from Hotel Metsis

Our included breakfast the next morning was served in the same restaurant as dinner and was good and ample, even if the various dead animals lurking over the buffet were a little off-putting.

Hotel Metsis breakfast buffet and stuffed/skinned animals

 

Latvia to Lithuania roadtrip: countryside, a palace, and a quest for unique beer

A windmill in rural Latvia

We got up bright and early to head out to the Riga Airport to pick up the Addcar rental car I’d reserved for eleven days. We were excited about the chance to get away from touristy Riga and the freedom to explore the Baltics on our own that only a car could offer.

Our first destination was Rundale Palace, a Versailles-like palace in the south of Latvia near the town of Bauska. I planned to head on from there to spend the night in Birzai, Lithuania, the “capital” of a special beer region in the north of Lithuania. Since we planned to drive back across Latvia to Estonia after visiting northern Lithuania, I navigated us to the westernmost route suggested by Google Maps so we could take a more easterly route when we headed north again and not have to retrace our path.

A short time out of Riga, we found ourselves driving through green fields, farms and small villages. The road was excellent and uncrowded. Our first detour was to check out the old windmill pictured in the top photo above. Not far from the town of Jelgava, we detoured again at Eleja where the ruins of an old plantation manor beckoned.

A headless sphinx, one of a pair guarding the ruins of Eleja Manor with the steward’s house to the left

A multi-lingual sign provided photos of the old manor building and informed us that the Russian Army had burned down 18 of the plantation buildings, including the main house, leaving only the steward’s house and a servant’s house. It’s a familiar story of pillage and destruction that we found repeated all over the Baltics and Belarus. The ruins at Eleja aren’t a major site, but they are part of a bigger picture that we would have missed without a car and the time to wander and stop.

Sign offering information about Eleja

A short distance beyond the Eleja ruins, we reached our first major destination of the day: Rundale Palace (Rundāles Pils). Rundale Palace is one of two opulent palaces built by the dukes of Courland, an independent duchy that once occupied a portion of modern day Latvia, but no longer exists. As with so many of the sites in the Baltics, it was heavily damaged by wars, but was restored. The extensive restoration spanned the years from 1972-2014 and was finally completed in 2015. The results are the impressive Rundale Palace and Museum.

David at the gates leading to the courtyard of Rundale Palace

Before starting our visit to the museum, our stomachs demanded food. We enjoyed a traditional lunch (and beer, of course) at Bālta Māja, a rustic restaurant situated between the parking lot and the palace entrance. Our friendly waitress spoke enough English to get us by. At €5+ for lunch and €2 for beer, prices were very reasonable.

Bālta Māja
Bālta Māja interior
Latvian lunch at Bālta Māja
Latvian lunch at Bālta Māja

Pleasantly full, we continued the short walk from Bālta Māja to the palace museum.

Rundale Palace courtyard from the main entrance
Stork and nest on the roof of the palace

With prices starting at €4 for adults, the Rundale Palace and Museum is a bargain. We had the option of the €4 “short route” or the slightly more expensive €4.80 (€6 in high season) “long route.” We opted for the long route and were glad we did since that added living quarters to the state rooms which comprise the short route.

The Gold Hall
Duke’s bedroom
The Rose Room in German Rococo style
Hand-painted tile stoves provided heat to most rooms

After exploring the palace, we headed outside to visit the extensive formal gardens. They promise to be spectacular in bloom, but were austere this early in the season. There’s an oriental “folly,” an open-air theater, gazebos and more.

Gardens viewed from Rundale Palace

With plenty of time left in the day, we retrieved the car and set out for Lithuania. Driving through Bauska and onto the A7, we were at the border in half an hour. Northern Lithuania is very rural and our main reason for going to the area was to try kaimiskas, a unique style of beer brewed only in that region. In making kaimiskas, the wort is never boiled and that’s just plain weird. We desperately wanted to try it. The town of Birzai claims title to the beer capital of Lithuania, so I booked us a hotel room there with plans to try a large brewery with a tasting room and restaurant in town. En route, though, we hoped to find some of that elusive local beer to try.

Having read about lots of small farm brewers with no discernible address, I decided we should try a larger outfit, Butautu Manor Brewery, located in a country manor house used as a party venue and also housing a small brewpub. I tried emailing with them about tasting, but never got a response. Knowing it was a gamble, we decided to chance a drive to the brewery anyway.

Just across the Lithuanian border, GPS steered us off the A7 highway and onto a dirt farm road. We probably should have turned around right then but the lure of rare beer pulled us on. The road degenerated with every turn until we found ourselves in flat, open fields. With only a mile or two to our destination, we came upon a wide, muddy patch in the road. Not wanting to concede defeat, David got out to test whether we could drive into the field and around the mud and water. I’ve done my share of rural driving and was shaking my head. If we stuck the rent car there, it was a long, long way to help and good luck finding someone out here who spoke English. Even David the Beer Lover had to admit we were thwarted. Making about a 15-point turn, we head back the long, winding, muddy way back to the highway.

The end of the road for us

But wait! Back on the highway, GPS found a re-route that wasn’t as far as I feared and we were back off. In less than thirty minutes we arrived at Butautu only to find the manor house and restaurant beer pub closed. Aargh. Oh well, it was pretty and we got to see more storks. So, we headed on to our nearby destination for the night, Birzai.

Butautu Manor brewery

About 20-25 minutes later, we pulled into Hotel Tyla just outside the town of Birzai and overlooking a scenic lake and inland. Fishermen in small john boats were just pulling in across the street when we arrived. The area and Hotel Tyla were set up for outdoor sports and recreation, but things were slow this time of year. We loved the quiet and the smell of the clean, fresh air. At around $55/night for a bedroom with balcony overlooking the inlet and including breakfast and free parking, we were happy. (Using Topcashback, we had another 4% rebate coming, too. Small change on this one-night stay, but Topcashback rebates add up to hundreds of dollars for me on travel and other purchases.)

View from our balcony at Hotel Tyla
View of the inlet from Hotel Tyla’s gazebo

After checking in and dropping off our luggage, we headed back into Birzai to visit the Alaus Kelias restaurant and brewery. They’d been great about responding to my emails, so I knew we wouldn’t be disappointed. We were surprised, though, at the pleasantly upscale restaurant and the extensive beer tasting on offer. There’s also a free small museum of the brewery upstairs.

Alaus Kelias restaurant

Despite the menu describing an 8-beer tasting, their special-made beer platter is set up for and provided 9 beers to taste. A written tasting guide was all in Lithuanian, but Google Translate helped us get the gist of things. The so-called “mini” tasting also came with a plate of assorted snacks.

Alaus Kelias “mini” beer tasting
Appetizers/beer snacks with our mini tasting

And, finally, we got to try a kaimiskas. No, we weren’t in a little farmhouse, but it was kaimiskas nonetheless, unboiled wort and all. It was like no beer we’d tried before: apricot yellow and so cloudy as to be completely opaque; tangy and low in carbonation, it tasted predominantly of fresh straw. I wouldn’t want to drink it all the time, but it was interesting and certainly not bad. I’m glad we got the chance to try it.

Rare, strange kaimiskas-style beer

Practical stuff re Addcar: I researched lots of rental options and found Addcar to offer the best value in the Baltics with unlimited miles. It also had good reviews for its Baltics operations. We used Addcar both for a 4-day rental in Vilnius (€68) and this 11-day rental from Riga (€180 rental+€15 cross-Baltic-border fee = €195 total). We were happy with Addcar both times and had absolutely no problems with the vehicles or the service. They did take a €450 security deposit charge on our credit card which they promptly refunded upon return of the car. The Addcar location at the Riga airport is just off-site, so requires a free shuttle. Since I didn’t have active phone service and was having some issues making the local call necessary to summon the shuttle van, I paid the Tourist Info office in the airport a small fee to make the call for me. In minutes, a van arrived to take us the short distance to the rental office and lot.

Kaunas, Lithuania: Ninth Fort and Old Town

 

The enormous Ninth Fort memorial to the more than 30,000 Nazi victims killed there. David is standing substantially in front of it, so the scale is not immediately obvious.

Now that we’re back from our Baltic ramble, I’ll be catching up on Wanderwiles. We were just too busy and too much on the move for me to want to spend much time live-blogging. – Tamara

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Our second day trip out of Vilnius was to Kaunas, the second largest town in Lithuania. It’s an easy 1h 15m drive on the E85, a well-maintained highway between the two cities. The main attraction for me was the Ninth Fort, one of a chain of a Lithuanian defensive forts that had been commandeered by both Soviets and Nazis over the years. The Nazis used it as a prison and deportation camp as well as a site of execution. There’s an enormous memorial there (see above) to the more than 30,000 victims of fascism who died there as well as a museum. At least 10,000 Jews were taken from Kaunas by the Nazis and executed there in what became known as the Kaunas Massacre.

Approaching Kaunas on the E85 from Vilnius

The weather wasn’t looking too good, but we decided to go for it anyway. Despite some rain on the drive over, our luck was good and we got sunshine when we most needed it at our outdoor explore of the Ninth Fort.

Ninth Fort

The mammoth memorial is visible from the highway. Be advised that Google Maps directed us directly to the memorial (rather than the museum) and the road in that direction spans a pretty intense, but short, stretch of serious potholes. There is a small parking lot at the end of that road which is located perfectly for visiting the memorial and walking directly to the fort. Tickets are required for access to the fort’s interior, though, and those need to be purchased at the museum . [€3 for adults; €1.5 for students and seniors; children under 6 are free. There are also guided tours available for an additional fee.] Access to the memorial and the exterior portions of the fort and its extensive grounds is free.

Exploring the exterior of the Ninth Fort

Interior courtyard of the Ninth Fort
Tribute to a group of prisoners who escaped the Ninth Fort and were able to bear witness to Nazi atrocities there
Ninth Fort grounds. If you’ll look closely at the memorial in the background you’ll see a young man standing atop it. (One of a group of young Spaniards we met, not displaying the best of judgment.) Anyway, he gives an idea of the scale of the monument.

After the Ninth Fort, we headed to Kaunas’ Old Town for lunch and a little explore. The weather quickly changed on us and we waited out a sudden snow/hail flurry in a parking space before walking to Avilys, a restaurant and brewery on the main street of Old Town that we’d read about. Avilys boasts vaulted brick ceiling and walls, copper beer tuns and a varied menu. It’s a cosy restaurant and we enjoyed excellent food and good beer brewed on site. Arriving late on a weekday, we had the place to ourselves for lunch until another party arrived mid-way through. Brewery tours are available. Avilys is located at Vilniaus g. 34, Kaunas 44287, and is open 7 days a week from noon. +370 655 02626

Interior of Avilys gastropub in Old Town Kaunas

By the time we finished lunch, the sun was out again. We wandered down the main street, stopping to visit the Kaunas Cathedral Basilica before heading to the main square.

After lunch, the sun was back out in Kaunas Old Town
Interior of the Kaunas Cathedral Basilica
Main square in Kaunas Old Town with the Kaunas City Museum in the white former town hall

Old Town Kaunas is charmingly restored with many shops, cafés and restaurants. It’s definitely worth the stop and offers a restorative break after the grimness of the Ninth Fort which is only a 15 minute drive away. Pay for street parking permits at meters scattered around Old Town.

 

Lithuania’s island castle of Trakai

One of Lithuania’s most famous and picturesque sites, Trakai Castle, lies an easy 40-minute drive from Vilnius. Like most historic sites in Lithuania, the castle has been rebuilt. The restoration was well-executed and visitors are free to wander throughout most of the castle where museum displays tell the story of the castle and preserve artifacts relating to its history.

Inside Trakai Castle ward
This type of coin/medallion decoration was very popular
The museum is spread out over many rooms on various floors of the castle keep and in the outer ward of the reconstructed castle

Trakai was once a major power hub, but the city dwindled to a small town and island castle fell into ruins. Old paintings in the museum show the castle ruins looking like a romanticists fantasy. Wars and economics halted the reconstruction many times, but it’s now complete and worth the visit.

Old paintings depict Trakai Castle in ruins

The town around the castle is charming with pastel-painted wooden houses. Stalls and shops line the lake front around the foot bridge that leads to the castle island. In warm weather, row boats and paddle boats are available to rent and there’s a larger tour boat that goes out to the island.

We had lunch in a pretty Italian restaurant with big picture windows facing the lake and castle. In warmer weather, we’d have enjoyed the outdoor seating.

Entry to the castle and museum is €3 per adult. Pay for parking on the street around the castle using the meters. Insert coins and put the timed ticket on your dashboard where it is visible through the windshield. Parking is vigorously enforced and the fine is €80 so be warned. In off season, we had no problem finding convenient parking, but I’ve read it can be trickier in the summer high season.

Houses, shops and parking along the street leading to Trakai Castle: Be sure to feed the parking meter and display your timed ticket or risk a hefty fine!

Highways around Vilnius are in good condition and well-marked and GPS worked perfectly for us.

Good highways between Vilnius and Trakai make for an easy drive

Vilnius, Lithuania

Gedimino prospekt, the Champs Elysées of Vilnius

I wrote this live-time in Vilnius, but wanting to focus on our current travels and a shortage of Internet time have me posting later:

We launched our Baltic adventure with a Belgium Airlines flight from Brussels to Vilnius. We cruised through the classic train-station-like Vilnius Airport, picked up our Addcar rental (far and away the best rent car deal I found in the Baltics) and–with only a short walk with luggage in the rain to our car–we were off. Things got a little snarled after that when none of my email servers would let me send or receive the emails I needed to make contact with our AirBnB hostess’ mother. We parked behind the pharmacy she’d used as a landmark in a typical Eastern European graffiti-covered alley/parking area while I messaged our hostess, Ruta, who was vacationing in Paris to let her know I couldn’t reach her mother. Meanwhile, David wandered around asking random strangers until he actually found a co-worker of Ruta’s mom and we finally got things moving. (If only Ruta had said her mother worked in the pharmacy, there’d have been no problem at all!) In minutes, we were settled into our lovely apartment. From that moment on, things flowed smoothly. We love Vilnius!

Maneuvering into parallel parking. Typical back side of an Eastern European apartment: crowded, graffiti-covered and a touch run-down. But it’s an awesome perk to have free parking in the heart of old town! (Graffiti tends to make Americans think “crime,” but I’ve not found that to be the case in former Soviet bloc countries and think of it more as pent-up freedom of speech coming out. I always felt perfectly safe in Vilnius.)
Our lovely AirBnB apartment in Vilnius

Our apartment is just off Gedimino prospekt, a wide, elegant avenue lined with baroque buildings filled with high-end shops, cafes, restaurants and more, it’s the Champs Elysees of Vilnius. A few blocks down, Gedimino ends at the spectacular Vilnius Cathedral.

Vilnius Cathedral

The newly-restored Grand Dukes’ Palace Museum nestles right behind the cathedral. The museum preserves archaeological ruins of the palace under glass walkways at its lowest levels.

The archeological portion of the Grand Dukes’ Palace Museum

Higher floors house collections of armor and artifacts and recreate period state rooms.

Throne room in the Grand Dukes’ Palace Museum

The palace tower offers views of Vilnius and the castle tower and three crosses on the hill above the city.

Old Vilnius stretches its cobblestoned streets north of the cathedral. We loved just wandering the surprisingly large Old Town. Crazily capricious spring weather had us ducking in and out of cafes and churches as sudden rain or snow descended in the midst of a sunny day!

The most grim museum of Vilnius is the Museum of Genocide Victims, more commonly known as “The KGB Museum.” The museum occupies the former KGB headquarters just off Gedimino prospekt.

In addition to exhibits and photographs memorializing victims and resistance, restored cells and an execution chamber offer a glimpse into the terrifying world of a KGB prisoner.

KGB prisoner processing room

Two cells with sloped floors designed to be filled with freezing water and a single stool-sized raised disk in the center. Prisoners in nothing but underwear were forced to stand on the stool or in ankle-deep icy water for up to 5 days. They could not sleep or they would fall into the water.

Cell designed to be filled with freezing water

I found a chilling video in the execution chamber hard to watch as prisoner after prisoner was sentenced then dragged into the room, shot in the head, and their body shoved out an opening in one wall into a waiting truck.

KGB execution chamber

Vilnius has overtaken Budapest as Europe’s most affordable capital and we found prices to be very reasonable everywhere we went. We tried classic Lithuanian food at the schmaltzy but fun Bernelių Užeiga very near our apartment on our first night, enjoying hearty food, beer and a local music duo.

Bernelių Užeiga is a popular place with locals as well as tourists
Home-style Lithuanian cooking at Bernelių Užeiga

On other evenings, we ventured out for higher-end fare at Bistro 18 and stylish The Town on Gedimino prospekt.

Dessert at The Town
The Town promotes meats, but we found their fish to be very good as well

David, of course, had to check out a local beer bar and we enjoyed our visit to Alaus Biblioteka a/k/a “the Beer Library.” It’s a unique venue with a good selection of beers from all over the world although we were disappointed to find they did not know much about the Lithuanian “kaimiskas” farm beer that we were particularly interested in trying. They had one beer on tap we were told was a kaimiskas, but we found it to be unremarkable and nothing like the beer we finally got to try a week later when we drove back into northern Lithuania from Latvia.

Alaus Biblioteka, the Beer Library

Alaus Biblioteka uses old library tables and chairs is a cosy place to drink beer, but we found veggie potato chips (cold and like chips straight from a Terra bag back home; fine from a bag, but not restaurant-level) and a shepherd’s pie to be underwhelming.

All in all, we loved Vilnius itself and it offers some really worthwhile and easy daytrips as well. More on those later.