The Baltics – Ühesõnaga

That word in the title is Estonian for “in a nutshell.” Estonians know that it signals a really long explanation is coming.

Clay and I decided that this trip we wanted to go somewhere we had never been before.  We wanted the place(s) to be different from the usual vacation spots we go (& others, too).  Our other criteria included being cooler than Austin, Texas in the summertime (easy one), affordable (to make up for Norway, Finland, and Denmark), and have an interesting history that would expand our knowledge of the world.  The Baltics met all our criteria, so we began the process of learning about traveling there.

baltic capitals

We decided to visit the three Capital cities in the three countries, and perhaps take day trips from there as well.  The three are:   Tallinn, Estonia;  Riga, Latvia; and Vilnius, Lithuania.  Travel between the countries is very easy (via bus!) and affordable (about 10-15 Euros each).  We booked our Airbnb using our criteria which is easy to filter on the Airbnb Web Site:  Our place must have good reviews, be affordable (easy in the Baltics), have a washing machine, be close to public transportation, and a have bedroom that’s separate from the living area.  I read every review before making a decision on where to stay.

I asked an Austin friend who had traveled to the three Baltic countries about her favorite.  She liked all of them, but seemed at a loss to pick her favorite.  Now, I get it.  I struggle with that myself when I was trying to pick “my” favorite.  At the end of this section, I will tell you my favorite and ask Clay to do the same, but it really (of course) does depend on what you like.

Here are the positive and negatives of visiting the three cities in my opinion:

Tallinn:

  • Beautiful old town
  • Affordable
  • Excellent Museums
  • Beautiful Parks and Palaces
  • Good public transportation
  • Incredible Maritime Museum
  • Wonderful food at affordable prices
  • A little too Touristy (cruise ship people make old town hard to navigate)
  • Locals not as friendly as I had expected

Riga:

  • Beautiful Old Town
  • Affordable (slightly more affordable than Tallinn)
  • Public transportation – outstanding!
  • Live music (best of the Baltics!)
  • Outstanding Art Nouveau architecture (wow)
  • Outstanding Auto Museum (see earlier blog)
  • Great restaurants at affordable prices

Vilnius:

  • Beautiful Old Town
  • Incredible number of outstanding churches
  • Extremely affordable (lowest of all 3)
  • Public transportation (good but not outstanding)
  • Outstanding Museum of Genocide Victims (wow!)
  • Good restaurants at extremely affordable prices
  • Not so many tourists! (not a port city)
  • Friendliest People in the Baltics
  • Museums good, but not the quality & number of Tallinn & Riga

Now, I would have to say that all the places were fun and entertaining.  We never left a place that we were happy to be leaving.  I have to say that Riga was my favorite, edging out Vilnius by a very small margin.  Tallinn was great, but just too touristy, but after the cruise ships left, the city became my favorite!

I will let Clay have the last word and get his thoughts on this subject.

I’ll add on to what Maggie said about our favorite cities: Riga was our favorite city as far as things to do: interesting history and art museums, entertaining night life, nice (and affordable) restaurants – it’s all there.

That said, our favorite people were the Lithuanians. Estonians and Latvians are helpful and earnest, but they are very reserved. Out in public, they simply don’t acknowledge a stranger’s presence unless it’s absolutely necessary. Likewise, they don’t make their presence known in public unless there’s a really good reason. Lithuanians are a totally different breed. People would smile back at us when we smiled at them. They would say hello. They seemed to be having more fun than anybody else. Vilnius has a lot of churches, but it’s not big for art and history museums, but the people more than made up for that.

The Baltics – Ühesõnaga

Lighten Up Yourself, Užupis Style*

Lithuania is unique in having increased the penalties for marijuana possession.  Currently, possessing even small amounts, with no intent to distribute, will land you in jail for up to two years – where just a few years ago, the police would have let you off with a beating. In the “Republic Užupis” – the section of Vilnius that’s across the river – they decided to let their feelings be known by having the statue of their guardian angel light up. Slideshow follows:

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Thanks to Brendan Harding for keeping us posted on what not to miss – on either side of the river.

∗With apologies to Bob Marley

Lighten Up Yourself, Užupis Style*

The Republic of Užupis

We arrived in Vilnius, Lithuania, but didn’t stay long. Crossing the Vilnele River, we left the capital city and entered the Republic of Užupis, a small but fiercely independent country completely enclosed by Lithuania. It has a population of 7000, of whom 1000 are artists (meaning that the unemployment rate is one out of seven, a distressingly high figure for these times). It has a president, a flag – actually four flags, one for each season, and a patron saint: Frank Zappa.

We knew we were in good hands when we saw Užupis’ guardian angel, ready to sound the alarm if there was anything amiss.

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Passing down the street, we took the obligatory stop to review the Constitution of Užupis, conveniently posted on the street in 23 languages, including Yiddish, Sanskrit and Hindi. It contains the Užupian motto,  “Don’t Fight, Don’t Win, Don’t Surrender” and a list of 38 unalienable rights and responsibilities. Among these are:

“Everyone has the right to live by the River Vilnele, and the River Vilnele has the right to flow by everyone.”
“Everyone has the right to love.”
“Everyone has the right not to be loved, but not necessarily.”
“A dog has the right to be a dog.”
“Everyone has the right to understand.”
“Everyone has the right to understand nothing.”
“Everyone is responsible for their freedom.”
“No one has the right to make another person guilty.”
“Everyone has the right to be individual.”
“Everyone has the right to have no rights.”
“Everyone has the right to not to be afraid”

Needless to say, Maggie and I fit in right away. We met an Irish writer in a bar (where else?) who told us to not follow the guidebook, but wander around and make some new discoveries. Good advice. So far we’ve discovered a hall of graffiti  art, where to get the best croissants, and two wine stores that have a huge selection of wines that we’ve never heard of. Lots left to discover.

Gotta go – as a payment for his good advice, we promised to leave terrible reviews of the bar on TripAdvisor, so no more tourists will come in.

The Republic of Užupis

Vilnius, Lithuania

Arrival in Vilnius

Well, the bus ride from Riga to Vilnius was amazingly uneventful, given our previous experiences in the Baltics with some dare devil drivers .  It took four hours to make the journey, and the bus had all the modern conveniences including WiFi , and a bus attendant offering food and drinks for sale.  Nice touch for less than €10 each.  Lots cheaper and more convenient than flying.

Vilnius is the Capital of Lithuania and its largest city.  The population is just over 500K, but feels much smaller to me.  We got a cab from the airport to our apartment, and wondered in route how we would like our new place.  It was incredibly inexpensive – about half of the price of the apartments we had in Riga and Tallinn.  Opening the door we saw that the apartment had  hand-made “folk-style” furniture, wooden statuettes, and lovely  bamboo floors, and we instantly felt at home.  Take a look at a few photos of the interior.

 

Our apartment was located in Old Town, right in the middle of Užupis.  Clay is going to write a separate section describing this unique region.   Our apartment is a very quiet place with an inside private courtyard.  Away from the street, it provides us with a cool and quiet place to sleep –  even with all the windows open.  Below are a few photos from the courtyard.  In the first photo, the front door to the stairway leading to our 2nd floor apartment is on the right.  The second photo shows the way we exit the courtyard, via the small gate on the far right.  We do not have a car, nor do we want one.

our court yardgate

Food on our Minds

As soon as we unpacked for our week’s stay in Vilnius we immediately headed to the local grocery store just down the street.  We are getting good at grocery lists for short stays, I might add.  We usually eat out only once per day to try and control food costs so breakfast is almost always at “home”.

Eating out our first night in Vilnius, we decided to go traditional and find a local restaurant which served what was advertised as “traditional” Lithuanian food.  Cepelinai, probably the most traditional of all Lithuanian food, is a potato-based dumpling.  Besides potatoes, locals eat a lot of beets, rye bread, berries, mushrooms, and greens.  One of the most famous restaurants of this type was the Forto dvaras restaurant.  Of course I had to have the potato dumplings (photo on left), while Clay chose the grated potato pancakes with bacon (right) – kind of like his mother used to make, but bacon wasn’t part of her recipe.  Check our main courses out below.

Of course, Clay had to have a little fun with the wild mushroom soup that both of us ordered as a starter.  Clay finished his soup first, and proceeded to eat the bread on the bottom and make a fool of himself, I might add.  (Can’t take him anywhere!)

Wild mushroom soupclay with hole in bread

You probably noticed the stone walls of the restaurant.  We ate in the basement of the building, which was built in the 16th century. With the candles it is a very romantic place to dine (except when Clay ruins the atmosphere with his rye spy glass).  Check out the stone arches throughout the basement.

clay at restaurant

Enough about food, it’s time to hear from Clay and what he thinks of the unique place that we’re staying in.

 

 

 

Vilnius, Lithuania

Sad to Leave Riga

Saturday we will get on a bus from Riga to Vilnius, Lithuania. We’re excited to be off to a new destination, but sad to leave one of our favorite places.

RigaToVilnius

Only two weeks in Riga was not enough.  Ironically, this week we met a fellow American traveler on our day trip to Cesis.  We told him we were going back to Riga, and he said that he and is wife had just come from there.  He told us that we would need only 3-4 days to see everything in Riga.  Boy, was he wrong, but we didn’t say a word.  Some people like to travel at breakneck speeds, and that is not our style at all.  We have seen several museums, but allowed ourselves the luxury of sleeping late, seeing a few movies, walks in the park,  or just hanging out at our local coffee shop. We have time to talk to people, to learn a little bit about what it’s really like to live there. We get the benefit of an education, and hope to provide a counterpoint to the impression that Americans don’t care about the rest of the world.

We stopped by our local coffee shop this morning to let our favorite barista know we would be leaving.  Oddly enough, we both felt a sudden sadness knowing we will probably never be back here.

coffee barista

Favorite things in Riga will give you an idea of the things we did here, and what we liked (and disliked) about being here.  We ranked Riga as in the top cities that we have visited. We highly recommend a visit there, whether you like history, art, good food, outdoor activities of all kinds, or just hanging out. Hope you take us up on it – but for us, it’s time to fly the coop!

Riga-BourseArtMusseum5347_n

Sad to Leave Riga

Observations: The People of Riga

Riga, Latvia is a great place for people watching.  Not as many tourists as in other Baltic or Scandinavian countries; hence a good look at the locals.  Everywhere we go, we have noticed restrained behavior, especially avoiding eye contact.  If fact, it seems to be the expected way to behave here.  Latvians appear to avoid acknowledging the presence of strangers.  This has been the hardest adjustment for me (Maggie).  It is as natural for me to make eye contact with total strangers in public places as it is to breathe.  Also, I have observed that people speak quietly in public places, which I like!  I suspect that 50 years of Communist domination plays a big role in the restrained behavior, but I will not address that here, because Clay will be covering that in his history of Latvia, which follows this section.

We have learned that customer service as we define it in the U.S. is not the same here.  It is not common to get a smile from a ticket seller at the bus station, a museum, a movie theater, or purchasing groceries.  It is their job to sell you something – not to be “polite” as Americans define polite.  In a grocery store, I asked one of the employees where the eggs were located.  She looked at me pointed and said “over there”  At home, the person would have explained aisle #10, top shelf on left, etc……,or as they do sometimes – “Let me show you”, and walk you there.  After much time, I finally found the eggs, and yes, she had been pointing in the general direction, to her credit.

When walking on the street or even standing in line, it has been common for people to bump into us.  I am positive that is not their intention, but since you are not to be acknowledged –  so bumping you is really “nothing.”   There is never an “excuse me” or a word exchanged.  A painful example was in an museum when I was accidentally bumped (hard!) by a man not paying attention.  I almost fell down and was so winded that he apologized profusely, as Clay came running from the next room to see what had happened.  The man was genuinely sorry and kept apologizing (YES!) in broken English.  This was an exception to the “excuse me” comment I made, but I think the especially hard hit was the reason.  Or, could it have been the sight of that large, muscular man that I am married to?

I don’t want anyone who reads what I have said to make the mistake of thinking that I don’t like the Latvians.  I do like them – a lot in fact!  I see acts of kindness that indicates to me that when someone needs help, they all come running.  An older lady was getting on the tram with difficulty, and a young man from the street offered his assistance.  This nicely dressed business woman already on the tram in front of us got up to assist the older lady with “tapping on” her ticket.  If the older lady had not needed help that day, all of the people involved would have been quietly avoiding acknowledging her. Hence, I have come to the conclusion that this lack of acknowledging strangers is not being rude, but simply a cultural difference.  We Americans have our space issue which may be considered rude to others, so we have to accept other cultures and try to operate to their cultural standards as much as we can when we visit.

The most important thing I have learned while traveling so much over the last two years has been that culturally, we are all different, but we are still one human race where there are lots of good people,  Riga has been wonderful to experience, and the cultural differences are there to observed and not to be judged.  Judging from the these children of Riga, the future is in good hands.

children

 

 

Observations: The People of Riga

One Darned Thing After Another

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Geographically, the Baltics (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania) are in a tough spot. They’re sandwiched between Russia, Poland and Sweden, with Germany not too far off: great powers that have invaded each other again and again, often going through the Baltics on their way. Baltic land has been ripped up, their industries destroyed and the people killed or deported time and time again. They are basically the doormat of Eastern Europe.

Consider this: since the Renaissance, the Baltics have been independent countries for about 50 years: 1920 to 1939 and 1991 to the present. When the sides change, they’re the next battlefield, with the people having to take sides with one invader or the other.

Rarely has there been a clear choice of what side to be on. Take Latvia as an example. In Medieval times, much of modern Latvia was ruled by the pagan Livonian Order, which was riven by internal conflicts, wars with Lithuania, Viking raids, invaders from Russia and Crusaders from the Holy Roman Empire.

That went on until the late 16th century, when the Livonian order was defeated and became part of the Polish – Lithuanian Commonwealth. The early 17th century saw thirty years of war between Sweden and Poland, the result of which was a Swedish victory, bringing Latvia under Swedish control. The 18th century started with twenty years of the Great Northern War, which made Russia the new rulers of Latvia. Russian rule established serfdom in Latvia, brought on Napoleon’s invasion (which Russia defended against with a scorched earth policy, burning farmland and wrecking cities), and sparked a series of often bloody peasant revolts.

The Russian Empire collapsed in 1917, giving Latvia a chance to become free again. The Versailles treaty ended WWI in the West, but didn’t cover the countries on Germany’s Eastern front, leaving them to fight for their own independence. In the case of Latvia, that pitted the newly formed Latvian Guards Organization, or Aizsargi, against the remains of the German army, the Red (Communist) Russians, and the White (non-Communist) Russians. After three years of fighting, the foreign armies were expelled and Latvia was again independent, after nearly 400 years.

That brief period lasted until 1939, when the Russians invaded again. Tens of thousands of people were deported to Siberia, along with the industries they worked in. When the Nazis invaded a year later, Many Latvians fought on their side, as the best bet to oust the Russians and believing Nazi promises of self-determination. As the Russians retreated, they again used the scorched earth policy, so Latvia ws devastated again.  Self determination was an empty promise; Latvia was absorbed into “Ostland” and subjected to the Holocaust, in which tens of thousands more Latvian Jews, gays and Gypsies were murdered. When the Russians advanced through Latvia in 1944, once again cities were bombed, infrastructure destroyed and people killed. Many Latvians took advantage of the chaos to flee to neutral Sweden, but most were not so lucky.

Latvia became the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic; not a satellite country like Poland or East Germany, but under the direct rule of Moscow.  In Latvia, Russification meant deportations of thousands of Latvia citizens to Siberia and the importation of tens of thousands of Soviet immigrants into Latvia. At its peak, about 50% of the Latvian population was from the Soviet Union. The Soviet system couldn’t keep up with the population increase, so two to three families were forced to share the same apartment. They would each have their own living room, but shared the single kitchen and bathroom.

That went on until 1990, when Mikhail Gorbachov’s policies of glasnost and perestroika resulted in a loosening of control. The Baltic countries tested the limits of freedom, declaring their independence from the Soviet Union. The Soviet Army responded by crashing into Lithuania in January 1991. Fourteen people were killed and more than 100 were wounded. Fearing they were next, the Latvians built anti-tank barricades out of whatever they had: rows of dump trucks were parked on the major roads; concrete blocks  were  stacked and cemented together to form walls around public buildings, the Riga TV transmission tower and telephone exchange; construction debris was piled in other places. None of these would stop a column of tanks, but they would have to blasted down. On the other side would be rows and rows of Latvian citizens, sacrificing themselves for freedom. Their only protection was the cameras of the news agencies, broadcasting every minute. In the end, twenty people were killed by Soviet militia and unidentified supporters. When 100,000 people matched in Moscow, demanding freedom for the Baltics, the outcome was clear. The Soviet army withdrew and the defenders of the barricades went home. Latvia declared full independence in August 1991.

This convoluted history is hard for us to get used to. We of the Shining Light on the Hill, the Exceptional Americans are used to preaching to the rest of the world about How We Do It – but that wears thin quickly here. After all, we’re talking to people whose recent ancestors fought bloody wars for their independence; the defense of the barricades were mostly non-violent, but involved considerable risk.  To their further credit, they forgave the West for abandoning them to the Soviets in the first place, and joined NATO and the EU as soon as they could. (Not that they had much choice, once again.)

This sounds like a story with a happy ending, but it’s not over yet. Russia continues to support anti-democratic groups all over the world, especially in the Europe and the U.S. Nothing would suit them better than to destroy people’s faith in democracy, so they could install Russia-friendly autocrats and re-establish a form of the old Russian Empire.

One Darned Thing After Another