my rail odyssey to the Baltics

Think of those wonderful train experiences, the classic rail-road odysseys that fill your heart with joy. Forget, for a moment, that the Orient Express doesn’t go east these days and that the Flying Scotsman might be a replacement bus service. Modern rail travel can still be magical. When I hear that a new high-speed line is being built to connect Warsaw with Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn, I know what I want to do. I’d like to go from London to the Baltic States by rail before it gets slimy and swanky (the line is due to open in 2028). I want the whiff of the Soviet times, a bit of what the Germans say Ostalga. Having recently done London to Marrakech by train, I know that there is no rush, and that there is extra joy to be gained from well-chosen stops. I take a map.


Over the past few years, there has been a boom in new rail services in Europe, driven in part by environmental regulation, but also by consumer demand for flight-free options. France, for example, has banned short domestic flights where a train journey of less than two and a half hours is available. New night crossings connect Amsterdam to Austria, and Paris to Berlin. Stockholm is directly connected to Hamburg and Berlin, making London accessible within 24 hours.

Related: A local’s guide to Vilnius, Lithuania: the best bars, culture and budget hotels

Going over the map, I start to get excited. My objective is clear: the Suwałki Gap, the narrow land corridor where Poland meets Lithuania, the only land link between the democracies of the Baltic States and western Europe. Belarus is on one side of this 70 mile wide pollutant, and on the other side is Russia’s Kaliningrad, a heavily militarized enclave. This gun-lined ginnel has long been strategically vital: part of Napoleon’s Grande Armée marched through it in June 1812, then scuttled in the opposite direction six months later leaving half a million dead behind. Now war in Ukraine has focused his attention again.

I find out that a railway runs from Warsaw to go around the Belarusian border and then stops at the Lithuanian border village of Mockava. Passengers must then cross the platform and take an old Soviet gauge service into Vilnius. It sounds irresistible.

I start at London St Pancras, a contemporary station neatly divided into George Gilbert Scott’s Gothic revival masterpiece of 1876, now the Renaissance hotel. Departing by Eurostar at 8.15am, I’m in Brussels Midi before lunchtime. This station doesn’t get my pulse racing, but I have an hour to kill so I wander off and find the Midi market, which does. This is the place to buy supplies: samosas, olives and huge fruit punnets for a few euros.

Wrocław station alone is worth a stop, mixing Indo-Saracenic towers with wooden huts and vaulted ceilings.

I have some security guards going on the Cologne train with me, which is positive: the last time I got this service my bag was stolen and the German police consoled me, “It happens all the time”. On this occasion​​​​ I take better care, jumping off at Cologne for a quick visit to the cathedral, the largest church facade in the world begun in 1248 and completed a century later. In the late afternoon, I’m on the train in Berlin, going on a modern tour de force: Hauptbahnhof, a multi-level geometric dazzle of trains, elevators and shops. After a night in a hotel near the station, there is time for a power walk to the Reichstag and the Brandenburg Gate before I catch the train to Poland.

After spending a full day traveling, I’m slowing down, determined to spend time exploring cities that are new to me. First up is Wroclaw, which the train conductor tells me is pronounced “vrot-swaff”. The station alone is worth a stop, a 19th-century Silesian masterpiece that somehow blends Indo-Saracenic towers with wooden booths and vaulted ceilings. This was once the German town of Breslau where William Stern devised the concept of IQ and Hitler gave a speech from the balcony of the Hotel Monopol. Much of the medieval town center survived the second world war and that’s where I live. This part is the most worth visiting, strolling the cobbled streets past upscale properties, then down to the islands in the Oder River, all connected by footbridges with some great restaurants and cafes.

The next morning, I’m on the train to Warsaw, arriving as a huge electrical storm wreathes the high Stalin’s Palace of Culture and Science in veils of rain. By evening, however, it’s all cleared up as I walk the Royal Way, stopping into the church of the Holy Cross to see where Frédéric Chopin’s heart is buried, then half a mile past the president’s palace to the statue of the King Sigismund III from the 16th century. Vasa made Warsaw her capital before she went out to conquer Moscow (that path Suwalki playing her part again). The city feels lively and optimistic, full of interesting bars, cafes and restaurants. Eat in Alewino tucked down a small sidestreet and sleep at Hotel Polonia.

The next day at 7.45am, I’m ready for the last leg, seat reserved. We head east, passing the engineers busy building the new Baltica Railway line before they hit the deep forest. I watch deer as we cross the Biebrzański national park. Belarus is hidden behind the pine trees. And then we slip into bucolic bliss. There are storks nesting outside beautiful old farmhouses with crooked barns. Dusty lanes lead out through wooded meadows full of flowers. We pull up in Mockava and everyone steps down from the train, blinking in the sunlight. We wait. A cuckoo calls. The train arrives in Lithuania, not a steam-belching monster of the Soviet era, but a slim contemporary edition that leaves on time.

Arriving in Vilnius, one of the most beautiful capitals in Europe, I walk out and find a city of peaceful prosperity

A few hours later we arrive in Vilnius, one of the most beautiful capitals in Europe with cool street cafes and gorgeous baroque churches. I walk out and find a city settling into peaceful prosperity. Even the infamous graffiti of Putin snubbing Trump is gone. I am very worried now. The Suwałki Gap is a rural idyll and Vilnius is a charming bourgeois café society. Where can I find my Soviet era nostalgia plate?

The next day, I head to the former KGB headquarters. It is in a quiet side street, behind an elegant neo-classical facade. Inside is a riveting lesson in the horrors of syncretism and a reminder of why the Baltic states so resolutely turned their backs on it. The banality of the upper offices descends to the cells, then the torture chambers and finally the execution chamber, worn shoes still lying around. En route is a heartbreaking collection of cruelty and injustice told in artefacts, photographs and storyboards.

Two hours later I go back outside and meet Lina, my guide for a cycling tour around the city. “My grandfather spent a year in the cells there,” she says.

“What was his ‘crime’?”

She shrugged. “He was a successful farmer. They sent him to Siberia in a cattle truck. Many did not survive the journey. When he was released in the late 1950s, he was not allowed to return home and my grandmother went out and they settled in Kazakhstan.”

We get on our bikes and ride, stopping at the magnificent 15th century church of St. Anne to see the flaming gothic towers. Couples strolling by, coffee lattes in hand.

“What did your other grandfather do?”

She gives a rueful smile. “He worked for the KGB.”

I follow her down to the river and we cross into the Free Republic of Užupis. In the 1990s when a communist dictatorship fell there was chaos, but there was also a paroxysm of creativity and self-expression. Vilnius artist rebels came here, slapping graffiti on walls, making music, taking drugs and living by the ethos written on the walls: no one has the right to violence. His heroes were Zapa and Lennon, who both have statues. At the time no one seemed sure whether Užupis was a counterculture joke or a genuine demand for independence. The ambiguity remains.

Lina and I sit next to the statue of Jesus as a backpacker and the saga of her family unfolds. For me, this is the fascination of the Baltics: the stories behind the facade, the epic dramas of everyday life. And Lina’s story is just one of many I will hear as I head north across Latvia and into Estonia. The next day, I head to the bus station – unfortunately, the railway line is still under construction.

Rail travel provided by EURail. A pass costs four days £245 (27 and under: £183, over 60: £220). Additional assistance provided by Marriot Hotels, Visit Berlin, Poland Travel, Go Vilnius

Part two of Caoimhín’s Baltic tour will appear in print and online on Saturday 13 July

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