my train journey to the baltic states

Think of those great train experiences, the classic iron-road odysseys that fill your heart with joy. Forget for a moment that the Orient Express doesn’t really go east these days and that the Flying Scotsman might involve a replacement coach service. Modern train journeys can still have magic. 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 want to go from London to the Baltics by train before it all becomes sleek and fancy (the line is due to open in 2028). I want the smell of the Soviet era, a little bit of what the Germans Ostalgie. And having recently travelled from London to Marrakech by train, I know there is no rush and that there is extra joy to be had in well-chosen stopovers. I grab a map.


In recent years, Europe has seen an explosion of new rail services, driven in part by environmental regulations 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 overnight trains connect Amsterdam to Austria and Paris to Berlin. Stockholm is directly connected to Hamburg and Berlin, making London reachable within 24 hours.

Related: A Guide to Vilnius, Lithuania: Best Bars, Culture and Cheap Hotels

As I study the map, I begin to feel excited. My target is clear: the Suwałki Gap, the narrow strip of land where Poland meets Lithuania, the only terrestrial connection between the democracies of the Baltic states and Western Europe. On one side of this 70-mile-wide divide lies Belarus, and on the other, Russia’s heavily militarized enclave of Kaliningrad. This cannon-lined gap has long been strategically vital: Part of Napoleon’s Grande Armée marched through it in June 1812, only to be sunk six months later in the opposite direction, leaving half a million dead. Now the war in Ukraine has drawn attention to it again.

There is, I discover, a railway line that winds its way from Warsaw to bypass the Belarusian border and then stops at the Lithuanian border town of Mockava. There passengers must cross the platform and take an old Soviet railway line to Vilnius. It sounds irresistible.

I start at London St Pancras, a modern station neatly merged with George Gilbert Scott’s 1876 neo-Gothic masterpiece, now the Renaissance Hotel. I depart on the Eurostar at 8:15 and arrive in Brussels-Midi by lunchtime. This station doesn’t set my heart racing, but I have an hour to kill, so I head outside and discover the Midi Market, which does. This is the place to do my grocery shopping: samosas, olives, and giant punnets of fruit for a few euros.

Wrocław’s railway station alone is worth a visit, with its mix of Indo-Saracenic towers with wooden kiosks and vaulted ceilings

Several security guards board the Cologne train with me, which is reassuring: the last time I experienced this service, my bag was stolen and the German police reassured me with: “That happens all the time.” This time I pay more attention and get off in Cologne for a quick visit to the cathedral, the largest church facade in the world, begun in 1248 and completed only six centuries later. By late afternoon I’m on the Berlin train, headed for a real modern highlight: Hauptbahnhof, a geometric splendor of trains, elevators and shops on multiple levels. After a night in a hotel near the station, there’s time for a power walk to the Reichstag and the Brandenburg Gate before taking the train to Poland.

After a full day of travelling, I slow down, determined to spend time exploring new-to-me cities. First up is Wrocław, which the train conductor tells me is pronounced “vrot-swaff”. The station alone is worth the stop, a 19th-century Silesian masterpiece that somehow combines Indo-Saracenic towers with wooden kiosks and vaulted ceilings. This was once the German city of Breslau, where William Stern coined the concept of IQ and Hitler gave a speech from the balcony of the Hotel Monopol. Much of the old medieval city centre survived the Second World War and it is here that I am staying. It is this part that makes the visit worthwhile, meandering the cobbled streets past towering merchant houses and 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 massive electrical storm shrouds the towering Stalinist Palace of Culture and Science in veils of rain. By evening, though, it’s all cleared up and I walk the Royal Route, stopping at the Church of the Holy Cross to see where Frédéric Chopin’s heart is buried, and then half a mile past the Presidential Palace to the statue of the 16th-century King Sigismund III Vasa, who made Warsaw the capital before marching on to conquer Moscow (that Suwałki Corridor comes into play again). The city feels lively and upbeat, full of interesting bars, cafes and restaurants. I eat at Alewino, tucked down a little side street, and sleep at Hotel Polonia.

The next day at 7.45am I’m ready for the final stretch, with a reserved seat. We head east, passing engineers busy building the new Rail Baltica line before we enter deep forest. I see deer as we cross the Biebrzański National Park. Belarus is hidden behind the pines. And then we slip into a rural bliss. There are storks nesting outside picturesque old farmhouses with crooked barns. Dusty paths wind through woodland meadows full of flowers. We stop in Mockava and everyone gets off the train, blinking in the sun. We wait. A cuckoo calls. The Lithuanian train arrives, not a steam-belching Soviet-era monster, but a sleek, modern edition that leaves on time.

Upon arriving in Vilnius, one of the most beautiful capitals in Europe, I walk outside and see a city developing into a peaceful prosperity

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

The next day I visit the former KGB headquarters. It lies in a quiet side street, behind an elegant neoclassical façade. Inside is a sobering lesson in the horrors of totalitarianism and a reminder of why the Baltic states have so determinedly turned their backs on it. The banality of the upper offices leads to the cells, then the torture chambers and finally the execution chamber, where discarded shoes still litter the floor. Along the way is a heartbreaking collection of cruelty and injustice told in artefacts, photographs and storyboards.

Two hours later I stumble back outside and meet Lina, my guide for a bike tour of the city. “My grandfather spent a year in jail there,” she says.

“What was his ‘crime’?”

She shrugs. “He was a successful farmer. They sent him in a cattle car to Siberia. Many didn’t survive the journey. When he was released in the late 1950s, he wasn’t allowed to go home, so my grandmother went and they settled in Kazakhstan.”

We mount our bikes and set off, stopping at the beautiful 15th century Church of St Anne to admire its flamboyant Gothic towers. Couples stroll by, café lattes in hand.

“What did your other grandfather do?”

She smiles ruefully. “He worked for the KGB.”

I follow her to the river and we cross the Free Republic of Užupis. In the 90s, when the communist dictatorship fell, there was chaos, but there was also an explosion of creativity and self-expression. The rebel artists of Vilnius came here, graffitied walls, made music, took drugs and lived by the ethos written on the walls: no one has the right to violence. Their heroes were Zappa and Lennon, both of whom have statues. At the time, no one seemed sure whether Užupis was a counterculture joke or a genuine claim to independence. The ambiguity remains.

Lina and I sit as backpackers by the statue of Jesus and the rest of her family saga comes to mind. For me, this is the fascination of the Baltics: the stories behind the facade, the epic dramas of ordinary lives. And Lina’s story is just one of many I will hear as I travel north through Latvia and Estonia. The next day I go to the bus station – the railway line is still under construction, unfortunately.

Train travel provided by EURail. A four-day pass costs £245 (27 and under: £183, over 60s: £220). Further assistance is provided by Marriot Hotels, Visit Berlin, Poland Travel, Go Vilnius

Part two of Kevin’s Baltic journey will be published in print and online on Saturday, July 13

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