INTO THE HEART OF EUROPE.
The MINI Grand Tour team move south from Finland, through the three Baltic states.
Latvia has a classic case of middle child syndrome. Wedged between its two Baltic sisters, it’s an obvious blend of them both: the pseudo-Scandinavian swagger of Estonia and the older Eastern European echoes of Lithuania.
But this middle sister has plenty to say for herself too - not least her pretty capital, Riga, the largest city in the Baltics. Here, a gastronomic revolution is underway, with ambitious young chefs flocking from across Central and Eastern Europe to join the fray.
At one of these newer foodie outposts, Biblioteka on the edge of picture-perfect Vermanes Park, the menu is a quirky fusion of old ingredients and new ideas. Think Baltic herring served inside a block of ice, stuffed mushrooms cooked in Latvian honey and, perhaps most outlandish of all, a delicious carpaccio starter - of ostrich meat.
It’s day nine of our MINI Grand Tour, covering 30 European countries in 30 days, and today we’re driving through all three Baltic states. We’re doing so in style too: breakfast in Estonia, lunch here in Latvia and later, dinner in Lithuania, at restaurants in the three nations’ respective capitals: Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius.
Our morning began, fittingly enough, at the Three Sisters hotel, in Tallinn’s fairytale old town. A favourite of the British Royal family, the Relais & Chateaux property does a superb signature Estonian breakfast of smoked salmon and potato pancakes, which the Queen enjoyed when she stayed here and we tuck into in the property’s pretty cobbled courtyard.
From Tallinn, the morning’s drive to Riga is both swift and pleasant. It’s here too, that we notice our trusty MINI Clubman causing more and more of a stir. British number plates and right-hand drive cars - especially those with Union Jack wing mirrors - are clearly an oddity in these parts, and our chili red Clubman is becoming a minor Eastern European celebrity, judging by the amount of locals wanting to take selfies with it.
Five hours after leaving Riga we’re settling in for dinner at the outstanding Stikliai, one of the best restaurants in Vilnius, where Daniel Craig was a recent visitor and specialities include “Zeppelins”, the traditional potato dumplings stuffed with meat and served with local curd.
Today has been a perfect microcosm of our whistlestop itinerary, designed by adventure travel gurus The Flashpack. Poland beckons tomorrow, but today we've made it to three countries in comfort and style, enjoying the similarities and contrasts between them - and their respective cuisine - en route.
Which Baltic state was our favourite? Cut a brother some slack - that would be like picking between three sisters.
OUR SECOND WEEK ON THE ROAD.
From Stockholm, we sailed with Aferry.co.uk to Mariehamn in the rugged Ã land islands, situated half way between Sweden and Finland. Here we stayed at picturesque Havsvidden, before continuing our journey East to mainland Finland, and the countryâs pretty former capital, Turku. Next we drove across southern Finland to Helsinki, catching yet another ferry - across the Baltic Sea to Tallinn. From the Estonian capital we turned south through Latvia and Lithuania in the same day, then onto the Polish city of Lodz, Europeâs street art capital. Finally, from Poland we pushed into the Czech Republic, making for the countryâs picturesque second city (and the ancient capital of Moravia), Brno.