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Latvia and Lithuania: the fairytale filming locations for War and Peace

Latvia and Lithuania: the fairytale filming locations for War and Peace


The Baltic states of Latvia and Lithuania provide a stunning backdrop to the BBC’s ongoing series, War and Peace, finds John Gimlette

Latvia and Lithuania: the fairytale filming locations for War and Peace

"At Trakai the sky was filled with another stupendous structure – this time a crimson castle, on an icy lake" Photo: AP/FOTOLIA

Lineta Miseikyte is only now recovering from the Battle of Austerlitz. I met up with her earlier this month at Dine, a snazzy Vilnius wine bar. Lithuania, she told me, has been making films for years. Usually it plays the role of Russia, although it’s also been Tudor England (Elizabeth I) and even Sherwood Forest (Robin Hood). Lineta, now a production manager, is an old hand in the business, but it’s War and Peace, the BBC’s latest commission, that visits her at night.

“It was so complex! They had a list of a hundred locations: country estates, battlefields, Moscow, palaces… A few scenes were shot in St Petersburg, but for the other 17 weeks they were here and in Latvia. We had to make more than 1,000 costumes, and at 'Austerlitz’ there were 300 extras on set for 10 days – plus 40 horses! And it was only a sheep farm with a muddy track for all our trucks…”

“And what about the forest scenes?” I asked.

Lineta laughed. “Easy. You only need to drive out of town and it looks like 1812.”

I began my tour of the 1812s – both old and new – in Riga, the best place to appreciate the magnificence of these two small countries. Latvia and Lithuania are each only half the size of England, and yet, at various times, they’ve enjoyed conspicuous wealth. I only had to step out of my hotel to be enveloped in pastel and art nouveau. This, it’s said, is the “Paris of the North”.

Latvia and Lithuania: the fairytale filming locations for War and PeaceRiga: Paris of the North  Photo: AP/FOTOLIA

The scent of old commerce – pine, wax and resin – still lingers over the city, and down in the market they sell badger pelts and enormous hairy skins. Rigans even make a special drink, Black Balsam, that looks and smells like Baltic pitch. I once saw an advertisement for a shooting range (“Try our Kalashnikov!”), and so I rang the number. “Sorry, can’t speak now,” came a woman’s voice, “I’m in the forest, hunting.”

Latvia and Lithuania: the fairytale filming locations for War and Peace"The landscape became so flat and frozen that I could almost make out the curve of the Earth, defined in snow"  Photo: AP/FOTOLIA

I’d have been happy to stay for weeks in such a sumptuous, red-blooded city, but before long my driver, Aldis, appeared. He would drive me down to Latvia’s southern border, a task of about an hour. But although the journey was short, it was rich in anecdotes and spectacle. The landscape became so flat and frozen that I could almost make out the curve of the Earth, defined in snow. Aldis told me that the oak trees – now filigreed with frost – had magic properties, that his family had farmed this land, and that the Soviets had sent them to Siberia for owning eight cows.

• St Petersburg in winter: 'Like stepping into a Russian novel'

We parted at Bauska, near the Lithuanian frontier. Nearby was the first of the BBC’s locations, the Rundale Palace. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a startling structure: a vast, saffron-yellow Versailles. Its construction, beginning in 1730, had involved 1,000 artisans, and – each day – 433 wagon-loads of materials (including three million bricks, 15,000 planks and 36,000 saplings). Eighty-two years later the real Napoleonic army appeared, and you can still find the names of the French soldiers gouged in the plaster of the Gold Hall.

Latvia and Lithuania: the fairytale filming locations for War and Peace"I don't think I?ve ever seen such a startling structure: a vast, saffron-yellow Versailles"  Photo: AP/FOTOLIA

It took me most of the afternoon to wander, slightly dazzled, through its 40 state rooms. Despite a history of rude intrusions (Napoleonic, Nazi and Russian) and a short spell as a Soviet granary, the 18th century had somehow reappeared. Here were Chinese vases, brocatelle wallcoverings, ostrich feathers and cupids firing muskets. I even spotted an original Liotard, and a tiny secret compartment where the countess kept her maid. It was perfect for War and Peace, and the Natashas and Nikolais had been here for a fortnight.

Rather less opulent were Rumsisk es’ farmsteads, across the border and two hours south. I had a new guide now, a Lithuanian called Linas. Amusing and generous, he was a peerless advocate for his country, for Baltic holidays and for the eating of pigs’ ears. Rumsiskes, he said, was used for all the country scenes, and the bits involving peasants. But it was also beautiful in its own way: a collection of old buildings from all over the country – including windmills, churches and hives – now rearranged over a scattering of hills.

From now on, there was always more war than peace. In June 1812,Napoleon had reached Kaunas, and, from a point high on the banks, he’d watched his Grand Armée crossing the Nemunas. Two centuries on, we climbed the same little hill (Napoleono Kalnas) and, way below us, the river snaked through the city, steaming in the cold. Happily, Kaunas had recovered from its battering, and was now all spires and pantiles again.

Latvia and Lithuania: the fairytale filming locations for War and PeaceKaunas: all spires and pantiles  Photo: AP/FOTOLIA

It was even better close up, if slightly eccentric. Among the Gothic buildings and spires, I found statues of trolls, and a Museum of Devils. Meanwhile, the old baroque square was being overwhelmed by a Christmas tree so enormous I could walk around inside. Linas also took me to a funky little doughnut shop (Tres Baltes Kaves) left over from the Seventies. Elsewhere all trace of the Soviet era had been removed, except the carcass of a concrete hotel. Across the top, someone had daubed the longest word in Lithuanian. It translates as “You will not be able to pick the bunny cabbage anymore”.

“Napoleon lost 11 days in Kaunas,” said Linas.

I must have looked puzzled. “This was an outpost of Imperial Russia,” explained Linas, “so it was the Julian calendar on one side of the river, and Gregorian on the other. A dateline!”

As we sped west, I was reminded of all the other things Napoleon had lost on the road to Vilnius. That morning, the landscape was sparkling with frost, and we could see men fishing on a frozen river. It was a scene of Bruegelesque beauty. But back in June 1812, it was scorching, and Napoleon’s cavalry was baked in the mud. Without even a whiff of battle, 10,000 horses were lost.

• Borodino: where Napoleon won and lost

We stopped only once, at Trakai. Suddenly, the sky was filled with another stupendous structure – this time a crimson castle, on an icy lake. In the summer, said Linas, you could rent a cottage and spend a week boating through the islands. Movie-makers love it too, and all sorts of baddies and Tudors are always bursting through the walls. But it was too red-brick for War and Peace, and was only used for a menacing indoor scene. Even that would have puzzled Napoleon because, when he marched by, the fortress was in ruins. It would be rebuilt much later, by the Soviets.

I spent my last few days in Vilnius. In War and Peace, it doubles as Moscow and several other grandiose cities. It’s not hard to see why. Although it’s only small, and the old parts are easily covered on foot, it’s bewilderingly regal. Compacted over a couple of hills are a dozen baroque churches, several monasteries, some ramparts, a university and a cathedral that looks like the Parthenon. With its cobbles and gas-lamps, Vilnius already feels like a film set.

Latvia and Lithuania: the fairytale filming locations for War and PeaceIn War and Peace, Vilnius doubles as Moscow and several other grandiose cities  Photo: AP/FOTOLIA

The BBC crew are said to have loved it here, and rented 30 apartments. It’s easy to understand their contentment. Café society is booming in Vilnius, and its people seem endlessly theatrical. They love dressing up and eating out, and have a quirky sense of design. Look out for the giant tattoo parlour on Literature Street, and the false teeth embedded in the wall. For the Beeb’s producers, only the filming was hard. “We ran out of snow,” said Lineta, “And, God, did the horses s---!”

For Napoleon, Vilnius will have held less happy memories. I recognised the town hall from a print of him, in full retreat. By December 2012, he was back in the city, filling the churches with his starving men. The writer, Stendhal, had a billet on Didzioji Gatv ee (above what’s now the bookshop), but most froze. A few years ago, contractors found another 2,000 Frenchmen curled up under the woods. Napoleon had entered Russia with more than half a million men, and would leave with just 10,000.

On my last day, Linas drove me up into the forest, above the city. There, deep in the snow, we came upon a tiny stately home, painted yellow. It was all made of wood, and had once been the home of Pushkin’s son, Grigori. It was a splendidly thoughtful place, full of dark imperial furniture. Although created 50 years after the events in War and Peace, the BBC still used it as a set. For me, it would have been perfect for that scene with Napoleon, brooding over his folly.

Poor Boney, there was a lesson here that he (like others) would learn too late: enjoy the Baltic States, go everywhere and eat everything, but best leave the troops behind.





Half-day tour to Trakai

Trakai (4 hours tour) is one of the oldest Grand Duchy of Lithuania residence and capitals. Trakai is the second capital of Lithuania.

Tour to Kernave

Kernave village (4 hours tour) located on the banks of the river Neris (35 km from Vilnius) has been known as the capital of Lithuania before Trakai and Vilnius. 

Country life museum in Rumsiskes

Country life Open Air Museum of Lithuania (6 hours tour) is a unique and one of the largest (195 ha) open-air ethnographic museums in Europe.

Baltic Highlights



Jewish Heritage tour Lithuania

Lithuanian Medieval Tour



“Lithuanian beekeeping” Tour

Beer road



Bird watching tour in Lithuania

walkable vilnius 150x150px


Vilnius is a great place for pleasant strolls. It is green, full of cultural diversity and cozily compact. So compact, that in just a few dozen steps from the gallery, you find yourself in a park, followed by a baroque church, and off to the castle after a cup at the local cafe. Thus, in a short time you get to not just see, but also hear, touch, taste and tune into the soul of the city.

Is it just us, or are you already planning a weekend trip?

Get to know Vilnius from within.

Fly & Lease of campers in the Baltic.

Camper on the road

Take a tour and discover Baltics by yourself!

You will be able to travel comfortably throughout Baltic Sates in our campers, as passengers really may feel themselves like home and take any necessary stuff with them, even their most loved cup for coffee.
A virtue of motor homes is the possibility to be in the cabin in all companionship while going from place to place.
Moreover, you will be free as you will be independent from hotels and every evening you will be able to spend in any place you wish!

Prepaid individual transfer :

no trouble with money exchange upon arrival,
no need to take care oftaxi search,
no language problems !

The driver will wait for you at arrival hall with your name on the card, will help you with luggage and will safely transfer you to agreed place.
Please fill in the Transfer Reservation and we will contact you within 24 business hours with confirmation

KIA CARNIVAL  25 EUR (max 5 persons)                                                
MERCEDES-BENZ VIANO  35 EUR (max 7 persons)

per car only!