After enjoying a wonderful 4 days in the Estonian capital of Tallinn, our next stop was Riga in Latvia. The 2 cities are about 300 km apart and our challenge was how to find the best (and most interesting) way to travel from Tallinn to RIga with 5 of us and all our luggage. You can take the various planes, trains and automobiles approach but for us the plane was too expensive, the train was perhaps a bit complicated (there’s no direct train) and I didn’t want to drive myself because I would miss out on enjoying the scenery of these amazing countries.
After a bit of searching on the Internet, I found the Tallinn to Riga tours of Estonian Traveller Tours, an independent tour company from Tallinn. This sounded right up the From Real People street, so read on and find out about probably the best way to get between Tallinn and Riga (or the other way round). Not only will you learn more about the awesome places we visited but you can also hear all about the wonderful people at Tallinn Traveller Tours.
Tallinn Traveller Tours – The Best Way from Tallinn to Riga
The From Real People blog is not just about travel. The main initial idea for the blog was to bring specific focus to independent businesses thus encouraging people to support the local communities they travel to. Tallinn Traveller Tours is a great example of a local business who rely on your custom and support.
The company was officially founded in 2011 by Ulane and Kalev, which was when they started running a range of day trips. They started out many years before (they think it was back in 2008) when they began operating the Tallinn Free Walking Tour just as a summer project. Keeping Ulane and Kalev on the straight and narrow is manager Marii, who was so kind in answering all my questions about them for this article. They have a whole bunch of extremely knowledgeable guides who love nothing more that sharing their passion for the Baltic region with tourists like us.
The main wish of the team at Traveller Tours is to show the culture and history of Estonia through the eye’s of locals. More recently they have expanded into Latvia and Lithuania as well. Their day trips run with small groups so that they can give their customers a very personal touch. They don’t just show the “must see” attractions but also try to show local life and to tell people our personal stories about our family and friends.
For our tour from Tallinn to Riga we had the amazing Kaetlin as our guide. We quickly learnt that she was from a place called Kanama, which nicely translates into English as Chicken Land. She had an encyclopedic knowledge of the places we visited as well as the history behind everything. I don’t want to spoil anything in case you take the trip yourself but it was Kaetlin that really made our trip not just the places we visited. If you are thinking of taking a tour while in the Baltic region, look them up and you really won’t be disappointed (this post is not sponsored by them in anyway – we just had a really awesome time).
#1 – Medieval History in Viljandi
The meeting point for the tour to Riga was really easy to find. Something we were extremely thankful for at 8.30 in the morning. We met up with our guide Kaetlin just south of the Town Hall Square. Armed with coffee and breakfast from our new favourite Tallinn coffee house, Kehrwieder Chocolaterie, we set off towards Viljandi. This enchanting town lies in the forests of Southern Estonia. First references to Viljandi date back to the 1200s and the Castle, whose ruins you can see in the picture below was built in 1224. The castle was badly damaged in the Polish-Swedish wars in the early 17th century.
Today Viljandi Castle is a magical place to explore. When we visited there was a medieval festival going on. Between the smell of hog roast and the sound of lutes playing a medieval music, it was literally like we had been transported back in time. Just beyond the castle we walked back across the 50 m long suspension bridge. It was built by the lord of the Tarvastu Manor, Karl von Mensenkampf, in 1931 to make it easier for his family to visit the chapel in the ruins of the castle. Rebuilt in 1995, the bridge is now a key symbol for the people of the town.
As we headed back towards the stunning white facade of St John’s Church, we came across another symbol that is important not just in Viljandi but to people all across Estonia. One thing we found out first while we were in Tallinn was that singing is an enormous part of Estonian culture. The first Estonian Song Festival was held in 1869 while the country was part of the Russian Empire. This festival was a key part of the Estonian national awakening, which led to a new tradition. The restoration of independence of Estonia and the other Baltic states is often termed the singing revolution after the spontaneous mass night-singing demonstrations on 10–11 June 1988. Today, most Estonian towns and villages have public singing grounds and it was great to hear about this tradition in Viljandi.
#2 – Village Life in Helme
We left Viljandi and headed South towards the Latvian border to the beautiful village of Helme. It’s a really tiny little place that has a population of barely 200 people, however there are some lovely things to see that made it a great stop off on our tour from Tallinn to Riga. Helme dates back to at least 1329 when there is the first mention of its’ church in historical records. Our first point of interest was the Doctor’s Spring, whose waters are said to have amazing healing powers. Thankfully none of us were sick so we had no need to test it out.
We then walked along the short path to the Helme caves that a layer of white sandstone on the walls that stands 3 m high. Sadly, some of the more interesting caves have collapsed over the years but this doesn’t detract from the beauty and serenity of the place. Unfortunately for cave lovers though, some of the better known caves have already collapsed. They once consisted of seven interlinked chambers and in ancient times the caves were known locally as the gateway to Hell. The caves and remoteness of the location of the caves meant they served as a perfect hiding place throughout the various wars and conflicts that have taken place in this area over the years.
We then proceeded to the ruins of the Helme Order Castle that we found easily on a steep slope by the road between Pärnu and Valga. The castle was built in the first half of the 14th century and parts of its walls remain standing today. Legend has it that a young virgin was entombed within its walls of the castle to help strengthen and protect it. Take a visit and decide whether there is any truth to the story for yourself. Before leaving Helme we got chance to try out another Estonian tradition – swinging! Not that kind of swinging! The one where you push an enormous swing by shifting the weight of your body forwards and backwards. Hard work, but great fun to try out.
#3 – Border Town with Split Personality – Valga/ Valka
Travelling further south, our final stop in Estonia was a border town or towns with a split personality. On the Estonian side the town is called Valga, which has a population of around 12,000. The Latvian city across the border is called Valka and is smaller, with a population of just over 6,000 people. Until they were separated in 1920, they were just one town. It wasn’t until 21st December 2007 that all the border-crossing points were removed when both Estonia and Lativa both joined the Schengen Agreement. The twin towns are 245 km south of Tallinn and 175 km from Riga.
Our first stop was the Valga Military Museum on the Estonian side of the border. The museum was established in the former buildings of the Regional Border Guard. There are 2 parts to the museum, both of which are quirky and interesting. Inside the museum itself there are various exhibits about the many conflicts that have been fought in the area. Thanks to Kaetlin, we learnt loads about the history of the Estonian War of Independence and the defence of the country past and present. The outside area around the museum has a huge selection of military vehicles, tanks and even a helicopter.
Before continuing our journey into Latvia we made a well needed stop for lunch at the family run Hotel Metsis. The hotel building is set in stunning parkland. It was originally built as a school in 1912 and was renovated as a hotel in 2005 in a hunting style theme. The walls are adorned with all manner of wild animals, it’s one of the most fantastic displays of taxidermy I’ve ever seen (not that I’m exactly an aficionado you understand). The food was really amazing, as you can see from the photo below of my wild boar main course. The dessert was equally amazing, all washed down with some great local beer – always good with me.
#4 – Gauja National Park
Having been spoilt with Estonian hospitality we set off into the countryside of Latvia. During the drive to the Gauja National Park we began to learn more about Latvian history and how the country compares with the divine paradise of Estonia. The fact that Kaetlin was from Estonia perhaps gave her commentary a little bias. She was very proud of the fact that the highest point in Estonia is 3 metres higher than the highest point in Lativa. Apparently, there’s no truth in the idea that some cunning Estonians keep adding some extra height to theirs.
Despite the various jokes about Latvia, Kaetlin was very extremely excited to show us the beauty of the Gauja National Park. We went on a lovely walk through the forest to the Sietiniezis Rock, otherwise known as the Bee Hive rock because of the patterns that have been left as it has eroded over time. The walk along the river was perfect after our amazing lunch. Back in the minibus we continued our drive through the Latvian countryside although nothing prepared us for the gravel roads that we encountered. A few kilometres wouldn’t have been so bad, but it was a good 20 + km on slightly uncomfortable road surface. It made the trip feel like an amazing adventure into the wilds.
#5 – Cesis – A Picture Postcard Town
Having survived the gravel roads with our teeth intact our next stop was the gorgeous little town of Cesis, which dates back to the 13th Century. The are so many things to see in Cesis, it’s impossible to do it justice in this post about our road trip from Tallinn to Riga. You can read a full post on Cesis on the From Real People blog as well, here I have just a short summary. We were blessed with some amazing weather on the day we visited and spent ages wandering around the Medieval Castle and its surrounding park. Right next door was the newer Castle that was built as recently as 1777. At the centre of the town is St John’s Church, which is one of the oldest medieval architectural monuments in Latvia. The church was built in the beginning of 13th century during for the Livonian Holy Order just as Christianity came to the Baltic region.
During our tour of the town, we also came across the stunning building that you see in the picture below, the Cesis Transfiguration of Christ Orthodox Church. By the 14th Century, the main St John’s Church could no longer accommodate the number of worshippers in Cesis so St Catherine’s Chirch was built. In the 17th Century, it was left in ruins after the Russian-Ottoman Wars. Finally, in 1845 Count Karl Eberhard von Sievers, who was the owner of Cēsis New Castle ordered a new church to be built on the ruins of Saint Catherine’s Church in Byzantine style. The result is truly stunning.
We continued our walking tour around Cesis towards the lovely town square, called the Rose (Rozu) Square. The centrepiece of the square is St John’s Church that I mentioned earlier. There’s also a lovely fountain, great for cooling off any small children you might have brought with you. Or even some big children like me. The square has some restaurants and cafes, making it a great place for a rest as well as some refreshment.
Our last thing to do in Cesis was to check out the “Through the Centuries” sculpture. Also known as the Old Time man it depicts a man with a lamp, which is the symbol of the town. In ancient times an old man would walk the streets protecting the townsfolk. Legend says that if you rub his lamp you will see your future – give it a try.
#6 – Bobsleigh Time in Sigulda
After a long, but totally awesome day, our final stop before Riga was to check out the stunning scenery of Sigulda. When we stopped at the spot in the picture above, the forest lay out below us like something from another world. In fact it felt like I was in a command post on Yavin 4 waiting for Luke Skywalker to come back from destroying the death star in the original Star Wars film. Sigulda is located just over 50 km from Riga and the journey takes a little over an hour with either the bus or train. It makes the perfect day trip from Riga.
Latvia is the perfect place for adrenaline junkies and there’s loads of amazing things to do in the area around Sigulda. The local Sigulda tourist board have an amazing 10 km hiking tour that they recommend on their website. The tour takes in 3 stunning castles, Gutman’s cave, the famous walking stick park and also includes a 1200m cable car. The list of exciting activities in the area is almost endless and includes, bike tours, canoeing and even footgolf. For a proper crazy day out you can even make a bungee jump from a cable car or ride a zip line through the countryside.
The main reason for our stop in Sigulda was to check out another great adrenaline location, the olympic bobsleigh track. We arrived late in the afternoon, which meant we literally had the place to ourselves. The track is 6 floors high and over 1200 meters long, all for you to explore and wander around pretending you are some kind of olympic hero. It’s almost impossible not to pretend to be the Jamaican bobsleigh team and spend the rest of the day quoting from the film Cool Runnings. You can also sit in a Latvian bobsleigh and feel what it’s like to feel the rhythm in one of these amazing machines. If you really feel up to it, you can even feel the ride in one at certain times in the winter and get on up for bobsleigh time. In the summer there are wheeled sleds that you can take down the course. It really was an awesome experience to finish the day with.
Arrival in Riga
After a fun and interesting 12 hours, we finally arrived in Riga. There were only 2 groups in our bus, both staying reasonably close together near the centre of Riga. The great service provided by Kaetlin finished with her dropping us off right outside our accommodation. We had a great day and I would recommend it to anyone as the perfect way to get from Tallinn to Riga. Check out the Traveller Tours website for more information.