Falling in love with the weird and wonderful Baltics
The smell of burning hair filled the air. I was a little tipsy on champagne and I didn’t really understand what our captain was saying to us, but as he smeared mud on my forehead and pulled me up off my knee to embrace me, I knew this was the best way to end a trip through the Baltics.
Our morning had begun at 5 a.m. Our driver picked us up from a swanky hotel on the edge the old city center of Vilnius, Lithuania, and drove us to the middle of a field. The sunlight was just starting to spear the belly of the fog that clung fiercely to the grass.
In front of me lay the deflated outline of a hot air balloon and the promise of adventure. Our captain explained that the first two men to fly in a hot air balloon actually had fallen out as the basket landed. One of them hit his head on the ground, the other burned his hair on the burner. Both of them had champagne spilled on them as they tried to toast their success.
So, to celebrate a successful flight, the captain now baptizes his customers as the first aeronauts were baptized: with fire, earth, and wine. His accent was thick, but we began to understand that he meant to light a bit of our hair on fire, smear some dirt on our foreheads, and then pour champagne on us.
Viewfinder Tip: In Tallinn, make sure you visit Ill Draaken, the medieval themed bar and restaurant. It’s weird and old and fun. That’s why we love it.
Just a week before, Tawny and I started our adventure through the Baltics in Old Town Tallinn, Estonia. The medieval town is everything I love about the Baltics. There are castles everywhere, the beer is amazing, the food is a blend of rustic wild game and savory butter beans. The best part? It still appears to be relatively undiscovered by tourists.
All of the amazing satellite countries that make up the Baltics have redefined their national identities since the end of Soviet occupation and have become destinations ripe for exploration. Our particular journey took us from Estonia to Latvia, and ended in Lithuania.
In Estonia, Tawny and I had discovered the thrill of bog-walking. Yes, you read that right; in the heart of a lodge pole pine forest, we strapped on what looked like snow shoes and trekked across a bog.
A bog, we discovered, essentially is a spongy, moss-filled lake with depths of up to 30 feet or more. The bog shoes prevent you from sinking all the way to the bottom, and allow you to explore the wildlife preserve safely from atop the squishy upper layer of moss. Tawny fell in love with foraging for cranberries, which grow naturally on the surface of the bog.
Oh, also, and it was just outside of Tallinn that we first tried the local delicacy, beaver.
Beaver was sort of a theme for us as we explored the Baltics. Just a couple of nights after our bog-walking experience, Tawny and I were on a guided kayak tour of Riga, Latvia, at night. We deftly maneuvered our kayak down the canal that runs through the heart of the medieval city.
Our kayak was almost silent as we slipped under bridges brightly lit with blue and pink lights. All along the shore, we scanned for the lumbering shadows of beavers snacking on clover and bark. If we were quick we could catch a glimpse of them slipping into the water as we approached. Our days were filled with castles, beavers, and genuine warmth from everyone we met.
Of course the Baltics bring some unexpected thrills. I tried to remind myself of that as I watched our hot air balloon captain bring the lighter to Tawny’s hair. This was a tradition. Unexpected to be sure, but a memory I would hold dear forever. Our hot air balloon traced an arc across Lake Galve and over the commanding Castle Trakai, which is perched on an island in the center. We noiselessly drifted across fields dipped in spring sunshine as deer grazed ibeneath us. Then we lazily sunk down and landed in a soft patch of tall grass.
When we climbed out of the basket the balloon captain pulled out a vintage black leather briefcase. At this point, I was skeptical. When he opened it, he revealed a bottle of champagne, some champagne flutes, and the lighter. He meant to go through with it!
If you asked me a week before that moment if I would ever have allowed a man to burn my hair (albeit a very tiny portion), I would have thought you were crazy. But there, in the middle of a field, having just landed in a hot air balloon with a very concerned horse eyeing us, it seemed, well…right. We had kayaked through a medieval city seeking beaver, we had trekked across a bog, we had traveled through a part of the world that was celebrating its own identity again for the first time in a long while, and the unusual had become the norm for us. So I took a knee and let this Lithuanian hot air balloon captain sear a tiny bit of my hair before extinguishing the smoldering end with champagne.
This was adventure, pure and simple. This was the magic that made me fall in love with the Baltics. This is why I know we’ll be back.
What is the weirdest place you’ve ever visited?
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Chris and Tawny have had articles and videos published on USA TODAY TRAVEL, BBC Travel, Matador Network, as well as appeared as guest stars on TLC Asia's Fun Taiwan television series. When not on the road, you can find Chris and Tawny nestled in their home in Tacoma, Washington fueling up on coffee and cat cuddles while planning their future adventures. You can follow their travels on their blog, Instagram, and YouTube