Tour the Baltics In the Path of the Northern Crusades
Tour the Baltics and discover Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia and along the way see medieval towns, fairy-tale castles, and wild sea coasts.
With Professor John France
Why travel on Tour the Baltics?
- See six UNESCO World Heritage Sites
- Learn about the survey points that established the size and shape of our planet
- Wander the cobble streets of historic Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn
- See a multitude of fabled Crusader castles
- Imbibe local fruit wines in a private tasting
- Cruise Riga’s canals on a historic vessel
- Become versed on the northern Crusades
Travel & Tour The Baltics – Daily Itinerary
Day 1: Depart the USA
Day 2: Arrive Vilnius, Lithuania. Old Town walking tour
Day 3: Vilnius tour
Day 4: Trakai Castle. Kernavė
Day 5: Kaunas.
Day 6: Klaipėda. Curonian Spit. Nida.
Day 7: Hill of Crosses. Cross into Latvia. Rundāle Palace. Bauska.
Day 8: Riga.
Day 9: Venspils. Jūrmala.
Day 10: Turaida Castle. Āraiši Lake. Cēsis.
Day 11: Vestseliina Castle. Tartu.
Day 12: Narva.
Day 13: Haapsalu Castle. Tallinn.
Day 14: Return to the USA.
The Baltic States have been fought over by powerful neighbors for hundreds of years. During the Middle Ages, these pagan lands, known today as Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, were caught between two powerful Christian rivals – the Orthodox Church to their east and the Catholic Church to their west – who wanted to forcibly impose their religion on the inhabitants. And in 1195 Pope Celestine III proclaimed a crusade to Christianize the Baltic heathens which led to decades of religious wars. Originally founded in 1190 in Jerusalem, the Teutonic Knights took up the pope’s gauntlet as defenders of the faith, and the mighty citadels that they built can still be seen today.
Far Horizons proudly presents a 14-day journey that crisscrosses these three fascinating countries on the shores of the Baltic Sea. Delightful medieval towns, fairy-tale castles, lush, verdant forests, and wild coastlines with shifting sand dunes await us at every turn. And along the way, we will learn about and witness the interesting local traditions and taste luscious cuisines inspired by the multitude of civilizations that have streamed across these lands.
John France is Professor Emeritus from Swansea University in Wales and is a renowned specialist on the Medieval Period. He has published numerous articles, and is the author of The Crusades and the Expansion of Catholic Christendom, Western Warfare in the Age of the Crusades, and Victory in the East: A Military History of the First Crusade. Additionally, he has edited several important books including Medieval Warfare, Warfare in the Dark Ages, and War and Peace in Ancient and Medieval History. As a result of his research covering this period, he has compiled an electronic database of lives of saints prior to the year 1000. He is also an editor of the Journal of Medieval History. Dr. France was a featured scholar on the History Channel’s impressive two-part documentary, The Crusades: Crescent & the Cross.
The Baltics Tour Itinerary
(B) breakfast, (L) lunch, (D) dinner
Day 1: Depart USA.
Day 2: Arrive Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. After checking into the hotel, tour the winding cobblestone streets of the UNESCO World Heritage historic center. This delightful city is located at the meeting of the Neris and Vilnia Rivers. And there is archaeological evidence that the area has had settlements since Paleolithic times. But the city was formally founded in the early 14th century by Gediminas, Grand Duke of Lithuania and a Lithuanian hero. After that, it was the political center of the Grand Duchy until the end of the 18th century. At this time, the city quickly developed into a commercial center. The marvelous architecture mirrors its diverse, multi-cultural history. During our walk we will view many of the highlights. The Gate of Dawn is the only remaining entrance through the battlements that once encircled the city. Today it is an important Christian pilgrimage sight due to its iconic statue of the Virgin Mary without baby Jesus. Founded in 1579, Vilnius University is considered the oldest university in the Baltic States. St. Francis and St. Bernardino Church is an important example of Gothic architecture. Overnight for two nights in the luxurious 5-star Hotel Pacai, housed in a 17th century building in the heart of the Old Town. Gather for our welcome dinner this evening. (D)
Day 3: The Church of St. Peter and St. Paul is considered a baroque masterpiece. After walking through its simple façade, gaze upon a richly adorned interior with over 2,000 luminous white stucco religious depictions and figurines. Located a few miles outside Vilnius, Medininkai Castle is one of the earliest enclosure castles in Lithuania. It was first mentioned in 1402, when the Grand Commander of the Teutonic Order failed in his attempt to capture Vilnius. Restored in the 1950s, one tower now houses a small museum with a permanent exhibition of archaeological finds. Included within is an explanation on the development of brick castles in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Our afternoon visits include more of the city’s interesting sites. The Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fighters is located in the former headquarters of the KGB. The institution is dedicated to thousands of Lithuanians, including Jews, who were murdered, imprisoned or deported by the Soviet Union from WWII until the 1960s. The 13th century Cathedral Basilica of St. Stanislaus and St. Ladislaus of Vilnius was constructed on the site of a pagan temple by Grand Duke Mindaugas. This was the man who united all the lands in Lithuania and established the first independent state soon after he converted to Christianity. The coronations of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania took place within the cathedral. And inside, the crypts and catacombs contain burials of some of Lithuania’s leading historical figures. The Pushkin Museum contains a literary exhibit of the poet’s works in Lithuania. And finally, we will climb a hill to Gedimina’s Tower, the remaining part of a 15th century castle, for an unobstructed view of the old town. (B/L/D)
Day 4: Depart for mythical Traiki Castle, stunningly placed on an island in Galvė Lake. Original construction was in the early 14th century by Grand Duke Gediminas. The bastion suffered major damage during an attack by the Teutonic Knights in 1377. But in the 15th century it was rebuilt and became the residence of Lithuania’s royals. After lunch in a traditional Lithuanian restaurant, drive on to Kernavė, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Here, a series of five hill forts created a formidable defense system that spanned millennia from the late Paleolithic Period to the Middle Ages. Kernavė was the capital of Lithuania until 1321. But after an attack by the Teutonic Knights in 1390, the town and fortifications were totally destroyed. Thus, the cultures which had thrived in this valley for thousands of years came to an end. The onsite museum contains artifacts collected by ongoing archaeological excavations. Drive on to Kaunas where we will stroll through the city’s medieval Old Town. Kaunas was an important trading town during the time of the Hanseatic League. This organization founded by German merchant communities abroad to protect their mutual trading interests. Overnight for one night in Kaunas, in the four-star Daugirdas Hotel, housed in a beautifully restored 300-year-old building in the Old Town. (B/L/D)
Day 5: Our day is filled with captivating sites as we explore Kaunas. Begin in Kaunas Castle, built in the 14th century to defend against the onslaught of Teutonic Crusaders. It was the first defensive fortress and the only double-walled castle in Lithuania. Dating back to 1408, St. Peter and St. Paul Cathedral is the country’s oldest and largest Gothic church. It was built for Camaldolese monks in the 17th century under the supervision of Italian masters from Florence. And Pažaislis Monastery is the most splendid example of Italian Baroque architecture in the country. The walls of the majestic interior are of black and pink Polish marble and are bedecked with colorful frescoes. A short distance outside Kaunus, Raudondvaris Manor is an elegant residence constructed of red brick that is an excellent example of 17th century Renaissance architecture. For four centuries the luxurious manor was owned by several noble families. Antanas Juška was one of the most famous lexicographers, folklorists, and musicologists in Lithuania, and his brother, Jonas, was an educator and linguist. They collaborated on a publication of a collection of Lithuanian folk songs and a dictionary of the Lithuanian language. We will visit the Jonas and Antanas Juškai Ethnic Culture Museum near Kaunas, housed in the oldest remaining building in the Vilkija region. Lithuania’s climate is not conducive to grape vineyards, but there is a dynamic production of Nordic-style wines made from apples and wild berries. When we stop at a local winery, we will imbibe on several different types of wines. Overnight in the town of Klaipėda where we spend two nights in Michelson Boutique Hotel. This lovely inn is housed in a restored 18th century warehouse overlooking the Dangė River and Klaipėda Castle. (B/L/D)
Day 6: Established on the edge of the Baltic Sea in the 13th century by the Teutonic Knights, Klaipėda is the oldest city in Lithuania and the country’s only port. Our explorations will take us through the historic Old Town to the remains of Klaipėda Castle. The Teutonic Knights built this fortification. It is also known as Memelburg or Memel Castle and is now an archeological site and museum. In the afternoon, we will drive to the westernmost point of the Baltic States, the UNESCO World Heritage Site called Curonian Spit. The 50-mile-long, narrow peninsula divides the salt water of the Baltic Sea from the freshwater of the Curonian Bay. And it is famed for having some of the highest sand dunes in Europe. Archaeological studies have shown that human habitation here dates back to prehistoric times. We stop in Nida, a fishing village for centuries located on the Spit. It became an artists’ colony in 19th century. Today the town is a popular holiday resort. Nida’s graceful Evangelical-Lutheran church, dating from 1888, is a red brick Gothic sanctuary containing handsome stained-glass windows. However, the cemetery is the purpose of our visit as the burials feature carved wooden grave markers. Called krikštai, they are footstones instead of the usual headstone plan. We will walk to see Parnidis, a shifting sand dune. The intrepid may want to climb the tallest, more than 150 tall. Return to Klaipeda in the late afternoon. (B/L/D)
Day 7: As we head for the Lithuanian-Latvian border, we stop to see the incredible Hill of Crosses, a Christian pilgrimage spot where thousands of metal and wooden crosses have been placed on a small hill. After crossing into Latvia, visit Rundāle. This magnificent 18th century palace was established for the Dukes of Courland. The stately manor is the centerpiece in an elaborate French style park with lush rose gardens and lavish fountains. Our final stop is at Bauska Castle standing on a narrow peninsula formed by the confluence of the Mūša and Mēmele Rivers. The Livonian branch of the Teutonic Knights raised the first stone fortifications here to strengthen the Order’s power over local tribes. It both protected the border and controlled the trade route from Lithuania to Latvia. Overnight in the capital city of Riga and UNESCO World Heritage Site for three nights in the 4-star Neiburgs Hotel, stylishly created within an Art Nouveau era structure in the heart of Riga’s Old Town. (B/L/D)
Day 8: Riga, Latvia’s capital, was founded in 1201 and is a former Hanseatic League member. The city is a captivating blend of urban architectural styles that depicts its historic past. Founded by German crusaders at the beginning of the 13th century, the Germanic traditions of the Hanseatic League are still seen. And the city’s Jugendstil, or elegant Art Nouveau façades are on display. We begin in Riga’s Central Market located in the heart of the city, and one of the largest marketplaces in Eastern Europe. Drive to the Ethnographic Open Air Museum of Latvia, just outside Riga. Here we will observe displays of Latvia’s ethnic groups along with historic buildings from all over the country. Then it’s on to the Museum of Occupation, established in 1993. It was created to educate the public about the 51-year period from 1940-1991 when Latvia was successively occupied by the USSR, by Nazi Germany, and then again by the USSR after World War II. After lunch, spend the afternoon walking through Riga’s pedestrian-only Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Like most towns created in the Middle Ages, Riga was once protected by stout walls. Most of the fortifications are no long standing. However, remnants remain along with the Powder Tower, one of the strongest barbicans, and the 17th century Swedish Gate. The principal square is dominated by the Town Hall building and the historic House of Blackheads Guild Hall. The Hall was originally built in 1334 to host events of the Brotherhood of the Blackheads, an association of local unmarried merchants and ship owners. Nearby, the storied Cat House, a mustard yellow building ornamented with two black cat statues on the roof, presents a blend of both Medieval and art deco styles. In the late afternoon, we will board a vessel to cruise along Riga’s canal system to view many of the city’s most memorable landmarks from the water. Dinner is on our own to search for one of Riga’s superb restaurants. (B/L)
Day 9: Today we move west of Riga to Venspils, the Latvian port city on the Baltic Sea. Venspils’ 13th century Castle of the Livonian Order of Knights is one of the oldest and most well-preserved strongholds still standing. During its existence, it has served as fortress, residence, barracks, and prison. Today it is home to the Ventspils Museum with exhibits on the citadel and the Venspils’ region. While we are here, we will wander the cobblestone streets of the Old Town, and view 17th-century storehouses. As we return to Riga, stop in the resort town of Jūrmala known for the wooden seaside villas built in the 19th century and its spectacular beach. (B/L/D)
Day 10: We leave Riga this morning and head for the Turaida Museum. Within this preserve, a fairy-tale castle dominates. This fort was built in the 13th century for the Liovonian Order of the Sword. It was an important economic hub for the archbishops of Riga throughout the Middle Ages. Inside the castle’s 15th century granary is a museum with an historic narrative of the Livonian federation from 1319 to 1561. After our visit, move on to the remains of a thousand-year-old fortified settlement on the island of Āraiši Lake. This was home to the Latgalians. Little is known about this eastern Baltic tribe who apparently gradually assimilated into other Baltic tribes due to the wars of the crusades. Eight hundred years ago the charming town of Cēsis, with its stone lanes and red-tiled buildings, grew around the iconic medieval castle. Constructed for the Livonian Brothers of the Sword, the redoubt is one of the most impressive in the Baltics. Set within the same garden landscape, Cēsis Castle Manor House was built in the 18th century as part of the castle fortification system. Today it houses the Cēsis History and Art Museum. Our final stop will be at historic St. John’s Church, built in the 13th century to serve the Livonian Order. Within, it contains the final resting place of the order’s grand masters and top bishops. Overnight for one night in the 3-star Hotel Cēsis in the town of the same name with dinner on our own. (B/L)
Day 11: Our morning drive takes us into Estonia and to the picturesque remains of Vestseliina Castle. This immense fortress was erected in 1342 by the German knights of the Livonian Order to defend the border of Old Livonia against what is now Russia. Continue on to Tartu, a thriving member of the Hanseatic League 800 years ago. Tartu is home to one of Northern Europe’s oldest universities. The school was originally founded in 1632. And it is celebrated for its Old Observatory, one of the survey sites for the Struve Geodetic Arc, a UNESCO World Heritage property. The entire chain of survey stations stretches across Europe, from Norway to the Black Sea through ten countries and over a thousand miles. Thirty-four of the original measuring points are known to exist and three of them are located in Estonia. In the first half of the 19th century, the astronomer Friedrich Georg Wilhelm von Struve measured a length of meridian that helped to establish the exact size and shape of the planet using this Arc. The building now serves as a museum and belongs to the University of Tartu. This afternoon will be spent rambling through the narrow, pedestrian streets of Tartu. Then, we depart Tartu and drive northeast along the vast Lake Peipus to Narva, located on the eastern border with Russia. Overnight for one night in the 4-star Noorus Spa Hotel. (B/L/D)
Day 12: Narva is where two cultural worlds meet, the Catholic European North and Orthodox Slavic East. Hermann Castle was built by a 13th century Danish king on the Estonian side of the Narva River to guard the channel crossing. On the other side of the waterway is Russia and the formidable citadel of Ivangorod. The Danes sold Hermann to the Livonian Order in 1347 when it became the northernmost defensive point of the Teutonic Order. After visiting the castle and its museum, we will stroll through Narva’s historic area. In the afternoon, drive to Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. Overnight for two nights in the Telegraaf Hotel, a 5-star property from the 19th century located within walls of Tallinn’s fabled Old Town. Dinner is on our own. (B/L)
Day 13: Our morning outing is to Haapsalu Castle, built in the 13th century to be the residence of the bishops of Saare-Lääne, a small semi-independent prince-bishopric. Attached to the rampart is the Dome Church, an impressive mix of early Gothic and Romanesque. After our visit, return to Tallinn to explore this lovely city overlooking the Baltic Sea. The historic center is another UNESCO World Heritage site. The center is divided into two areas – the lower and the upper towns which were once separated by a wall. In the upper town, 15th century Toompea Castle is now home to the Estonian government so we will only see the outside. The lower town is an enchanting labyrinth of cobble-stone passageways lined with enchanting gabled houses, secreted courtyards, and elaborate churches. Overlooking the municipality, the artillery tower of Kiek in de Kok was constructed in 1475 to protect the town from aggressors. Still-visible 16th century cannonballs in the walls of the turret demonstrate that the defense worked. Gather this evening for our gala farewell dinner. (B/L/D)
Day 14: Return to the USA. (B)
CALL (per person, double occupancy) includes all hotels; meals as noted; ground transportation; entry fees; and gratuities to guides and drivers.
Single Supplement: CALL. Should a roommate be requested and one not be available, the single supplement will be charged.
Cost does not include: International air to Vilnius, Lithuania and returning from Tallinn, Estonia; passport or visa fees; airport and/or departure taxes; food, alcoholic beverages and other drinks not on the regular menu; a separate check for $150 to a donation project (to be designated); excess baggage charges; laundry, telephone, fax or email charges; necessary vaccines or tests; and other items of a personal nature.
Fuel Surcharges: Far Horizons must pass on price increases when additional fuel charges are levied.
Donation Checks: As a tour company that benefits from the cultural and natural riches of our destinations, we have a policy of donating to the scientific projects and museums we visit. This has created a bond with the academic community that has helped us establish an extensive list of lecturers and contacts at each of our destinations. For this trip, we kindly ask you to make your $150 donation checks out to the “Heritage for Kids”, the newest project for Heritage Watch International designed to raise awareness in the younger generation of the importance of the environment and heritage preservation. Please note that your donations are considered part of the trip cost and are non-refundable.
A deposit of $750 per person is required, along with a completed and signed registration form. Final payment is due 120 days prior to departure. Upon receipt of your deposit and registration form, you will be sent pre-trip materials. Click here to download our Registration Form.
Cancellations and Refunds
Cancellations received in writing at least 120 days before departure will receive a refund less a $450 per person administrative fee. Cancellations received less than 120 days before the departure date will not receive a refund. If for any reason you are unable to complete the trip, Far Horizons will not reimburse any fees. Upon registering for the tour, the purchase of travel protection with both trip cancellation and emergency evacuation is strongly advised. Insurance recommended by Far Horizons can be reviewed by clicking HERE.
International flights are not included in the cost of the trip. If you do not arrive or depart on the scheduled days, you are responsible for all transportation (including airport transfers) to join the group. If Far Horizons must change the trip dates or cancel the trip for any reason, Far Horizons is not responsible for any air ticket you may have purchased. Please send your complete air schedule as soon as you have it. NOTE: Please contact Far Horizons if you would like for us to handle your air ticketing.
Private Tours of Archaeological Sites
The private tours of archaeological sites and talks by specialists are scheduled in advance and include a donation to each. Specialists working at these sites are excited about showing their work to interested enthusiasts. However, please be aware that there may be times when the director or a member of the staff may not be on site when our groups arrive due to other commitments.
Note about Travel in this part of the World
This tour is not considered strenuous. The tourist infrastructure in the Baltics is well developed. However, the group will be walking into and around sites extensively, including on cobblestone streets. You will be on your feet for much of the day. All participants must be physically active and able to walk independently for distances that may exceed three miles or more each day. Keeping up with the group is each participant’s responsibility; please do not expect assistance from the other group members or staff. Hotel rooms will be ‘European’ size, which means small. If you would like to be upgraded to a larger room or suite at an additional cost, please contact the Far Horizons office. By maintaining an adaptable attitude and sense of humor you will soon be captivated by the beauty of the natural scenery, the hospitality of the local people, and the fascinating archaeology and historic sites. Your flexibility and patience will be appreciated.
This Archaeological Tour to the Baltic States is limited to 14 participants