Bolting through the Baltics
It was a demanding, exotic and occasionally painful schedule. On the Sunday I was embalmed in hot Estonian mud; on the Monday I accidentally gave myself a high-speed Latvian enema; and on the Tuesday I scaled a Lithuanian sand dune worthy of the Namib desert.
An intense dose of the Baltics might sound like a contagious East European virus, but it was rapidly turning into one of the more stimulating breaks of my life. It had started out as a slightly breathless, four-day drive through three of the new member states that have joined the European Union — a road trip to gladden a Eurocrat’s heart.
My first night was spent just 350m from the walls of Tallinn’s Old Town.
It’s here, in Estonia’s capital, that three British men have found a niche in the market. Paul Taylor, Michael Pilkington and David Heir headed east to establish a hotel in Estonia — and, by the end of this year, they will have opened others throughout the Baltic.
Exploiting a market dominated by bland three-star accommodation, the clean contemporary design of the UniqueStay hotel has proved very popular since opening last June.
The three Britons have performed major surgery on Tallinn’s former sauna and science institute. The buildings are now a cool mix of bleached limestone, glass doors and dramatically uplit corridors. UniqueStay’s Zen rooms have Nasa gravity-free chairs, Thai silk throws and natural stone bathrooms. All rooms have flat-screen computers and Internet access.
“We wanted to do something fashionable, not just functional,’’ says Taylor. “By the end of the year, we’ll have opened in Riga and Vilnius.’‘
I was heading in the same southerly direction. My target, an hour’s drive away, was Parnu, a coastal town that explodes into life for three months each summer. Out of season, it is quiet and unassuming, except for its main drawcard: mud — gallons of it. Visitors flock to Parnu’s sanatoriums to be pummelled, tweaked and immersed in the local, mineral-rich, black sludge.
I checked into the glass and concrete Tervis Sanatorium, which had a slight feel of a mental asylum. Outside the treatment room, I discovered that I didn’t require my swimming trunks and the grim reality dawned: I was facing full-frontal nudity with a stranger. Within minutes, I was stark naked and horizontal in front of the no-nonsense Luule Raat. She turned on a large industrial hose, coated me in warm gooey mud, wrapped me in plastic sheets and retreated to snigger behind a wall. After 25 minutes of gentle basting — at about 104Â°C — Luule unwrapped me with professional flourish.
I showered and re-entered the world with pink, tingly skin and a strangely beatific smile. But while Parnu might cure its visitors, a brisk walk offered ample evidence that the town has caught a dose of Texas-itis: the need to make wildly competitive claims. It is Estonia’s summer capital! It has the Baltic’s largest beer hall!
After checking out the beer hall, where a local leg of Miss Estonia showcased one competitor kick-boxing to techno music, I spent a night at the Ammende Villa, a gorgeous art nouveau mansion.
The next morning a two-hour drive took me across the Latvian border to the town of Salacgriva, which offers a fascinating slice of post-Soviet rural life.
The Brize hotel offers excellent salmon fishing. It has its own country house nearby offering mushroom- and berry-picking trips along with my favourite, a special ring for mud fights. I opted for a Sharko treatment in the Brize’s mini spa. Not an orchid petal or aromatherapy candle in sight, just Sveta and her water cannon, expertly blasting my skin an even deeper shade of pink.
Suitably refreshed, I left the flat coastal plain for Sigulda, “Latvia’s Switzerland”, which stands on the steep sides of the Gauja river valley. It provides an opportunity to experience a typical day out for a local family — hurtling at 104kph down the sheet ice of a bobsleigh track originally built for the Russian team.
The bobs, which run on wheels in the summer, are driven by athletes from the Latvian team. I sat behind Tomass Dukurs, who has a world championship victory under his belt, for one heart-pumping minute.
Day three of the trip, and the pace was relentless. I headed west to Jurmala, the “Soviet Riviera”. My guide, Ivo, described it as “posh cars, posh women, posh everything”.
Set between the Lielupe river and a long sandy beach, Jurmala’s conservation area — street after street of ornate, brightly coloured wood houses — sits cheek-by-jowl with the obligatory grim Soviet buildings.
I couldn’t leave Jurmala without visiting Livu Akvaparks. The Baltic states are caught up in a water-park war and Livu, opened at a cost of nearly Â£11-million, claims to be the biggest. It offers ludicrously fast slides, particularly the five-second red run.
My eyes still watering, I headed south-west towards Lithuania where a late-night border crossing put me in pole position for a final morning on Lithuania’s Curonian Spit, a 100km long, 4km wide sandbank, with dunes rearing to 66m.
The lagoon side has four villages of attractive German houses — a legacy of Prussian ownership before 1914.
After climbing Witches Hill, a forest path littered with unnerving carvings, I crossed to the beach where waves slam in from the Baltic. But it’s the extraordinary grey dunes that are the most spectacular feature: towering walls and deep ravines of wind-blown sand. It sounds a bit pretentious but the dunes reduce you to silent contemplation.
But I had little time to be philosophical. I headed back into the interior, where I was informed Lithuania plans to open three new water parks — chew on that Latvia! —Â Â