After my time exploring Estonia, I took a bus to Latvia and Lithuania. I didn’t know much about the area beforehand, similar to most of my stops on this trip. It’s always more exciting having no clue what to see or do when you arrive in a new place. I had about a week for both capital cities, so I had to make the most out of my short time!
When I arrived in Riga, Latvia, I was surprised at how bustling the lifestyle was. My hostel was near the main train station, so life moved very quickly as people headed through their day. The weather was also beautiful and one of the first sunny days I had in Europe at that point, so I headed to the quaint beach town of Jūrmala to soak up some sun. So many people were sunbathing and walking along the incredibly peaceful waters. The water and the sky melted together in a calm mix with quiet ripples and bird conversation.
Riga is also home to both an old town and post-Soviet area of the city. I did a walking tour of both parts, and you can definitely notice the contrast between the two styles of architecture, culture and history. I met a very kind woman from my hostel room who showed me some of her favorite local spots as we chatted about our travels. I splurged on some famous local delicacies as well, such as goulash, a plate of chicken and rice, and black balsam.
Next, I headed south to Vilnius, Lithuania. The city was hosting a folk festival, so there were people in the streets in their traditional clothing singing and dancing. It was very interesting to see a glimpse of the past mesh with the present. Vilnius has a piece of long history with the European religious conflicts, so there were areas to memorialize the Jewish community and others killed in the Holocaust. Lithuania had a large portion of secret police in those times, and I was able to visit an old prison within the KGB headquarters. It was a very eerie sight to see, but crucial in getting to know the background of a place.
After Lithuania, I made my first stop in somewhere that was more familiar to me. When I stayed in Budapest last year, I immediately fell in love with it. My hostel attracts many solo travelers from around the world, and you quickly make great friends and even better memories. There were quite a few Americans staying in my hostel room, so I was able to have some conversation about life at home. I walked around the city with some of my new friends and we visited the underground labyrinth. There is always something exciting and interesting going on in Budapest, so the time flew by!
For the last leg of my trip, I am doing a guided group tour through Eastern Europe. I didn’t realize how spread apart Europe actually was, so I largely underestimated how much time we would spend in the bus and within the border control checks. It’s beautiful to see the countryside, because it gives a deeper glimpse into the lifestyles of people beyond the city borders. We’ve stopped in the cities of Dubrovnik and Split, Croatia, Kotor and Budva, Montenegro, Tirana and Gijrokaster, Albania, and Meteora and Athens, Greece in the past week.
I have gotten to check more things off my bucket list, such as swimming in the Adriatic Sea, climbing to the top of several hills to get the best views, watching the sunset in Athens, and trying lots and lots of traditional food. My personal favorites have been the gyros in Athens and seafood pasta in Kotor. It’s also been really neat to see all of these things with a fun group of people who are just as passionate about travel!
This part of the world is drastically different from the more touristy destinations. While driving through the small towns and countryside, you see abandoned buildings and people living with the most basic items that we take for granted. There are decaying sights in the middle of bustling cities, possibly due to past conflict over the area or the lack of funds for the upkeep. Small markets and handcrafted goods are more crucial to the economies than commercial purchases; tipping and tourism is one of the main resources for many of these places. Yet they are still mostly off the grid for the typical tourist. It has been a very humbling part of my trip to see how not all of Europe is Eiffel Towers and London Bridges. It’s the artisan making concrete portraits, the children playing on gravel fields, the musician with an open guitar case, the graffitied monuments and the political opinions. It’s seeing things with an open mind, not worrying about the little luxuries, but focusing on the bigger picture that this is our world, our home, and our people. We can’t take things for granted, and we should always support one another, no matter what the past was like or future will be.
It’s hard to believe that I am on the last 2 weeks of my trip. I will be making stops with my tour group into North Macedonia, Bosnia and Serbia. Then I head to London for a few days to recharge before I’m back home!