Insight Guides: Estonia, Latvia & Lithuania
On the cover of this book, the people at Insight Guides have promised stunning photography, in-depth features on history and culture, and detailed maps. They make good on these claims. This book looks gorgeous, full of vivid colors and details, including a bit of help for those seeking to pick up at least a few words in the endangered local languages of the region. Yet while this book is easy on the eyes, and certainly among the most pleasant travel books one can flip through, reading the book is not necessarily as pleasant an experience. Some of this is due to minor errors, such as the way that in at least one case the authors mistake the mini-map for the islands of Estonia (like Saaremaa) for the coast of Western Estonia. These minor errors will likely be corrected in future editions of the book. Part of it is due to a different worldview, in that the authors glorify the survival of heathen ways among the people of the Baltic states, which is something that tends to make me deeply uneasy. Even more so, though, the book consistently calls the people of the Baltic states Baltics, which is something that I have read elsewhere tends to upset the people of those nations, who rightly feel themselves to be very distinctive from each other despite their geographic proximity. It bothers me to see a book that is designed to educate others that uses language that upsets or bothers those people. I am not sure whether this was done out of ignorance or laziness, but if I can spot that other people dislike a name that they are called consistently by the makers of a guidebook, that guidebook is teaching its readers something in error, something deeply in error, and that troubles me.
In terms of its contents and organization, it follows its own distinctive pattern, but there are a lot of similarities to be found, as would be expected, with the body of literature I am familiar with concerning the nations of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania . The book opens by promoting its application, and then show what it considers to be the best of the three nations, along with some information about the Baltic states and their people. Then there is a chronology of decisive dates and a discussion of the shared history of foreign rule and oppression faced by the three nations. After this comes a section of features that shows life today, religion, culture, folklore, nature and wildlife, outdoor activities, and food for the Baltic states. After this, the bulk of the book is taken up by a discussion of the places to visit within Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, which are presented in that order (the standard order for such presentations), where each section begins with a discussion of how the country was formed culturally and historically, and focuses first on the capital and then on other regions. For Estonia, this means Tartu and the south, the West Coast, the Islands, and the Eastern part of the country going towards Narva and the Russian border. For Latvia, this means the west coast of Kurzeme and the regions of Latgale, Zemgale, and Vidzeme. For Lithuania, this means a focus on Lithuania’s second city, Kaunus, as well as Aukstaitija, the South, Zemaitija and the coast. Interspersed with these are various insights on Russians, Timber buildings, the singing tree, the wired nature of Estonia, Art Nouveau architecture, basketball, and amber. After these sections comes information on transportation—how to get there and how to get around, mostly on buses—as well as a pick of restaurants, tourist activities (festivals, the arts, nightlife, family friendly places, shopping, sport, and tours), as well as an A-Z that includes more focused information like dealing with accidents and emergencies or exploring family genealogy in the region, with some basic language tips at the very end, totaling up to a bit under 400 pages in all.
The verdict of this book is a bit mixed. On the one hand, it is gorgeous and gives a very good visual perspective of traveling to the Baltic nations. It also seeks to encourage readers as far as the beauty to be found in unexpected cities, although the focus of the information is on large cities and towns, and not very small and obscure villages. The authors appear to assume that readers will mostly want to stay on the beaten track. The authors also clearly assume that readers will want to enjoy saunas, visiting churches and Soviet-era relics, and visit castles as well as beaches. So long as readers remember to properly avoid referring to the people of the region as Baltics, and respect the differences between Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, the book provides enough knowledge that someone ought to be better informed than if they did not read the book at all, although the presence of misinformation is something to be concerned about.
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