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.


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.


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!


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.




Observations: The People of Riga

One Darned Thing After Another


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

Favorite things in Riga

So many things to do in Riga!  We even managed a couple of day trips from Riga as well.  Here are a few of our favorites!

Beautiful Parks

Walking was our preferred method of getting around town because of the beautiful paved paths for both pedestrians and bicyclists.  It was less than a mile to Old Town Riga from our apartment with 4 different trams running almost at our apartment’s door step.  Sometimes we would just walk!  Take a look at these photos from our first full day in Riga – sunny and warm (if you call low 70’s as warm).

Latvian National Museum of Art

The biggest surprise in Riga was our visit to the Latvian National Museum of Art.  We didn’t know a lot about art from the Baltic region.   I discovered an artist that I love, and truthfully had never heard of before. His name was Janis Rozentāls (1866-1916). He was one of the first famous Latvian artist who achieved success outside of Latvia in both Russia and France. He was born in Russia but moved to Riga when he was 15. Check out some of his paintings!

The museum building was built in 1905  It just underwent a major renovation and is absolutely gorgeous. Inside you witness the development of art in Latvia, the Baltics, & Russia from the 18th century until now. That lovely man below in the lobby of the museum is Clay.

clay at museum

Riga Art Nouveau District

We had a sunny day to cruise around the Art Nouveau section of Riga.  These people were seriously nuts.  There’s decoration on every part of the buildings, including the bottoms of the staircases and the glass in the windows.  These are just two examples, but about a third of the city center is done in this style.  Later after visiting more areas of Riga, we learned that this Art Nouveau is not just in the city center, but in the suburbs as well.  Stunning.

Riga Central Market – Foodie Paradise

Riga’s Central Market is nothing short of amazing. Not only is it the largest market in the Baltics, but it is the largest market in Europe! The main structures of the market are five pavilions constructed by reusing old German Zeppelin hangars. (see aerial view). Each hangar has a specific market for example the fish is all in one hangar, meat in a separate hangar, etc. Behind the hangars are yet more veggie and flower markets.

While at the Central Food Market later in the week, we had a delicious lunch at a local pelmeni (ravioli or dumpling) restaurant in one of the hangars. The pelmeni is not traditional Latvian food we learned, but Russian. It is served in many places across Riga. This one had a Trip Advisor “stamp of approval”. Maggie and Clay agreed.  I had the meat (beef and pork combo) pelmeni, and of course how could I pass on cold beet soup. It was full of chopped cucumbers, green onions, & celery. (next to the last photo) Regardless, it was delicious.  Clay had the cheese pelmeni and lamb soup (last photo).


Day Trip #1 to Jūrmala

Took a field trip to the beach community of Jūrmala.  It was about 68 degrees and the water was 61, so no swimming for us, and not many other people, either. Still a nice trip through the countryside to a pretty place. Maggie had a traditional Latvian lunch: Perch sausage with gray peas (which weren’t gray, but so dark brown they were almost purple). No food pictures today – we gobbled it all down as soon as the plates hit the table.


Day Trip #2 Cēsis

Day trip via bus to Cēsis (population 18K). Cēsis is known for their Medieval Castle, We arrived mid-morning, and headed straight to the visitor center to get a walking tour map. We decided to see the Medieval Castle, after we had a nice long walk and lunch. Attached are some photos from our walk around the city. Tuesday was a perfect day to go because few tourists and sunny & high 71 degrees.


The hilltop Russian Orthodox church of Transfiguration (above), which the von Sievers built at their family cemetery (like many Germans on Russian service they converted to Orthodoxy)

The next photos we saw on our walk were of the local kindergarten on left, and St. John the Baptist Church on the right.


After lunch we headed to the 12th century castle which is the #1 reason tourists come to Cēsis.  It was fun taking a lantern through the dark places and trying to not use our cell phone.


The young man above was making a die, using techniques that predate the castle.

Folkklubs ALA Pagrabs

One of our favorite places in Riga is a music venue/restaurant called Folkklubs ALA Pagrabs.  Live music every night, and good food – Latvian home cooking at it’s best.  One of our favorite bands was Retro Limited – a fun and energetic group to say the least.  They describe themselves as gypsy jazz.  Clay asked the question –  how do you describe a band that plays, “All Of Me,” “The Mario Brothers Theme Song,” and “Smells Like Team Spirit the same night?  We went to this place 4 times in our 2 weeks stay in Riga.  I think that sums up our experience.  If you go you must have the the traditional Latvian meatballs made according to grandma’s recipe served with baked potatoes and sauteed sauerkraut and a rich onion-tomato cream glaze.   Or, perhaps the traditional battered chicken fillet with mushrooms, caramelized onions, pickled cucumber and goat cheese topping –  served with green pea-potato mash and brown onion cream sauce.  YUM, YUM!


Riga Motor Museum

Another favorite was the Motor Museum. This one not only has cars, but plenty of films and interactive displays to keep the non-car buffs entertained: like a bus ride out to the country, where you could sit in a bus and watch a 1950’s landscape roll by, or an ottoman where sitting in front of a race car activated the sounds and vibration of an auto race. The displays start with horse-drawn carts, move on to early bicycles, but quickly get to cars, cars, cars.

They show the development of the first cars and motorcycles, showing bad ideas, like the 1904 Overland, which was fueled by acetylene – the idea was to get the whole tank replaced every time you went in for a fill-up; or the 1920’s Selve, which went out of business when Mr. Selve ran off with another woman, possibly forgetting that Mrs. Selve was the primary financial backer.

The unique part of this museum was the display of Russian cars, contrasting the simple, boxy cars made for “the people” (not that everybody could buy one) and those for the Communist leadership: mountains of metal, menacing even when they were standing still.

On a related note, they had two BMW 326’s from the 1930’s, one of which had been owned by a man in East Germany who kept it in running order by replacing parts with whatever was available from other cars, trucks and even tractors. Over the years, there was very little left of the original past the BMW logos on the front and back.


We also like the display of cult cars: the Citroën 2CV, East German Trabant, and of course the Volkswagen Beetle. Maggie had to tear me away from the loop of VW TV ads from the 60’s. I remembered every one, and could even say some of them along with the announcer. Very annoying to people around us.


Žanis Lipke Memorial

Our last thing to report on from Latvia: the Žanis Lipke Memorial – a tribute to a Latvian man, a smuggler, a non-Jew, who saved at least 50 Jews from extermination during the Nazi occupation of Latvia. He built a hideout for escapees under his shed at home. He then got a job with the Luftwaffe, transporting workers from the Jewish ghetto to the airplane factory in Riga. As he was transferring workers, he would substitute escapees for workers and workers for escapees, and one by one, he, his wife Johanna, their children and other helpers would stash people away into their network of hideouts. The Nazis counted the number of people he brought in and out, but didn’t keep track of their identities, so with trickery and bribes, he was able to distract the guards long enough to make the transfers.

That went on until the Soviet Army recaptured Riga in October 1944. The detained people were free of the Nazis, but Žanis was questioned by the Communists for years. They couldn’t believe that he did all of this for nothing – they kept asking him about the Jewish gold he must have retained as payment. Finally in frustration, he shouted to the Soviet interrogator that  the Communists were the same as the Nazis, except Nazis shoot you while looking you in the eye, but Soviets shoot you in the back. Instead of getting shot himself, he earned the respect of his interrogators, and they never questioned him again.

In the end, Žanis and Johanna and the network saved 50 Jews out of the 400 to 500  Jews who were saved in Latvia, out of the nearly 20,000 who were killed. This was at the cost of several people being captured, questioned and tortured, and at least two members of  the network killed by the Nazis. For that, Žanis was named “Righteous Among the Nations” by the state of Israel, an honor for non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust.

Here are pictures of the memorial and a recreation of the shed, below which is a recreation of the hideout. On the floor of the hideout is a video of an interview with Johanna. In this frame, she talking about watching people starve and asking, “What could we do?”



Favorite things in Riga

Goodbye Tallinn!

Goodbye Tallinn! Hello Riga, Latvia

Tallinn – you are without question one of our favorite places to have visited. The beauty of Old Town, the well documented history here, and don’t forget the numerous museums and summertime festivals. Ah, lest I forget – the weather. Highs in the 60’s and low 70’s with lots of sunshine for our entire 2 weeks! On to Riga!


Baltics for idiots

Last Meal in Tallinn:

Clay and I waited to the last day in Tallinn to go to the restaurant next door to our building. Our landlady had highly recommended it. We went today for a late lunch/early dinner, and after the most amazing meal – went on Trip Advisor and learned that it is the #5 ranked restaurant out of 780 restaurants in Tallinn – the Vaike Rataslaevi 16.  We were stunned by the food and the value for our money. Wine prices were moderate as well. The service was excellent – Peeter was our waiter, and if you go, you will be lucky person to have him as your server.

Clay had the Braised Elk roast with cauliflower cream, carrot, parsnip, and blackcurrant sauce.  I had the Grilled Pork Tenderloin with broccoli, potato cake, and mustard sauce (one on the right).


For a starter I had the beet soup with elk meat, red lentils, sun dried cherry tomatoes (on right), and for dessert the frozen bluecheese cake with carrot and buckthorn sauce. (on left).

 It was a great way to end our visit to Tallinn!
Goodbye Tallinn!

Tallinn, Estonia

Museums and Festivals

If you have seen our almost daily updates on Facebook, you might want to skip to the next section, because many of the same photos were on Facebook.   With two weeks here in Tallinn, we had a chance to tour many museums and a couple of festivals.

TV Tower and Life in the Soviet Union:

Our last visit to a museums in Tallinn was to the famous TV Tower, which also houses an excellent museum of life in the Soviet Union.  It was billed as a “Time machine” to Soviet-controlled Estonia in the 70’s.  Clay and I agreed that it didn’t look that much different from our homes in the 50’s and 60’s.  I do remember my Mother having a hand cranked washing machine on our back porch in the 50’s, but it was much larger than the one below.

This was a more light-hearted look at their history, to a time when you had to be Party member to buy a car or eat in a restaurant. There were two kinds of bicycles to buy: men’s and women’s. The TV played commercials for products that didn’t exist. The top women’s fashion magazine sold 30,000 copies a month – they could have sold more, but they weren’t allowed to buy more paper than that. The examples went on and on. It was sad and funny at the same time.

Below are a couple of additional photos from the museum.  The first is a photo of “Uncle Uno’s” car. He couldn’t buy a car, but there were no restrictions on buying parts – so “Uncle Uno” made his own car. The body is fiberglass, made in a concrete mold in a big hole that Uncle Uno dug in his back yard.  The second photo is of a homemade motorcycle. Want a motorcycle? Make your own, out of a bicycle, a chain saw motor and some other spare parts.  By the way, the chain saw was invented by an Estonian man while in a prison in Russia as a political prisoner.

Uncle's car



Kadriorg Palace and Park

On a beautiful cool, sunny day in Tallinn, Estonia, and we thought it was a perfect day to visit Kadriorg Park (about 175 acres) and museums. We started first with the Kadriorg Palace, which was built for Catherine I of Russia by Peter the Great. We had lunch at an outdoor café in the park, and then wondered through the grounds. Hope you enjoy a few photos from the day.

Walking back through the park to catch the tram back to Old Town, we heard beautiful music (opera) coming from our left. Investigating, we found it was the start of the annual Flower Festival. Pure luck to find it and enjoy the music, flowers, and people watching – one of my favorite activities.


Some additional photos as part of a slideshow:

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Estonia Maritime Museum (Seaplane)

I swear, we’ve been to so many maritime museums lately, you’d think we were blue water sailors. We’re definitely not, but we are learning a lot – mostly, no matter how big a ship seems in the museum, it’s tiny out on the water.  Below are some photos from our day at the Maritime Museum.

The photo on the left shows the inside of the museum. Looks as if Jules Verne had written Alice in Wonderland.  On the right is me making my way through the large submarine on display there. 

The museum building is a seaplane hanger; built by the Germans, used by the Russians, but now the only seaplane (photo on left) here was built by the British.  On the right is a ship that was built in 1943 in Duluth, MN for the U.S. Coast Guard and given to Estonia in 1997. She’s been a buoy tender, ice breaker (notice the dents), research vessel, training ship, patrol and rescue ship. The old girl’s really gotten around.

Kumu Art Museum:

Another day trip was to the Kumu Art Museum. We got a good feel for what art was like in the various stages of Estonian history. Artists were comparatively free to explore under the Czar; but art of the 20’s and 30’s was filled with foreboding; During WWII there was almost nothing but interior scenes, with a couple of landscapes of devastation. After that, it was all Soviet Realism all the time, except for work that was hidden away. There were a few lapses in surveillance under Breznev, and things loosened up under Gorbachev, but in general artists didn’t get to fully rejoin the world until Estonia regained its independence in 1991. Who knows what the future holds now? Nothing to do but play while you can.  Some of our favorites:

Kumu one

Johann Köler, Lorelei Cursed by the Monks – 1889. Lorelei was a nymph who sang by the Rhine River, luring sailors to their doom. The monks are trying to consecrate the rock to stop her singing, but Lorelei is rescued by other nymphs and the Rhine itself.

Left to right (click on photos for larger image).  1.  Lydia von Ruckteshell, Portrait of a Lady – 1886.   2.  Jaan Vahtra, Self Portrait – 1923.  3.  Elmar Kits and Evald Okas, Estonian Red Army Soldiers with Lenin and Stalin – 1952.   4. Leili Muuga, In a Cafe (The Doubters) – 1956.

Kalamaja Neighborhood:

A walk around the Kalamaja neighborhood – built in the 1920’s for fishermen and their families, it had fallen on hard times until it was discovered by artists after the Soviet Union collapsed. It’s in the process of gentrification now – most of it looks pretty nice, but Clay still likes the grungy parts.  Maggie likes the old wooden houses that have been renovated.



KGB Museum:

The former prison cells of the KGB interrogation center have been opened up as a museum. The actual interrogation rooms have been turned into apartments. The building is nice on the outside, but who would want to live there, knowing the history? So depressing to be inside the cells. Stepping inside I could not bear to shut the door in the closet or the isolation cell where they kept political prisoners. What must have it been like to be there? So sorry that the people of Tallinn and Estonia had to suffer through this period. Whenever I see older people on the street here, I feel such compassion for them, but also respect to see that they survived.

On the left is a closet that they put you in when you first arrive for a couple of days.  There is no room to sit down – you just stand there.  The one on the right you could possibly sit down, but it was the isolation chamber which was used for punishing the political prisoners.

Tall Ships Festival

How lucky can you get.  We arrived in Tallinn just in time! There were sailing ships of various kinds, music, acrobats, and of course food. Fun for the whole family.  Summer fun for the family in July!  Below is a slide show of the activities we saw!

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One of my personal favorites is the concert we attended at the festival.  It was a Polish sea shanty group that sings in Polish, English, Ukrainian, and one language that I (we) didn’t understand. Sitting in the audience in Tallinn, Estonia I couldn’t help but feel part of an world with no boundaries.




Tallinn, Estonia

The Estonian People

Sometimes, dealing with the Estonians is not easy. At first we had a hard time understanding why so many people seem to be so unhappy. They seem prosperous, the weather is nice in the summer time – sure, it gets dicey in the winter, but no worse than Norway or Sweden, and those people are pretty happy, by and large. We think the answer is in Estonia’s difficult history, and how that’s affected the different generations. Older people remember the years of war and Russian domination: from 1939 to 1944, the free nation of Estonia was invaded by the Russians, then the Germans, then the Russians again. During the brief period of Nazi rule, more than a thousand Jews, Gypsies and gays were sent to the death camps. When the Russians invaded again, they stayed for 50 years, doing their best to make Estonia a part of the Soviet Union, indistinguishable from any other part.

It was difficult for the Estonians to hold on to hope. In the years following WWII, many of them thought that the United States and Western Europe would come to their aid. There was a rumor that deliverance would come in the form of white ships that would appear on the shores. The Americans would drive out the Soviets and restore the prewar republic. The people lost a measure of that hope when the Soviet army brutally put down the Hungarian uprising of 1956, and the Prague Spring in 1968, and the West didn’t intervene. Still, they had something left. There was still a small number of the “Forest Brothers,” the civilian resistance during the war years, who remained active – not as active as they had been during the war, but still out there. Communities kept up the Estonian tradition of group singing, although they were often forced to sing in praise of the leaders of the USSR. In general, the country was a shadow of its former self. People can’t be productive, creative and energetic when stepping out of line carries the risk of KGB surveillance, deportation, prison or firing squads.

The Soviets were also bent on a policy of Russification, a sort of reverse irredentism. They relocated tens of thousands of Russian citizens into Estonia to make it more ethnically Russian, and so harder to split away again. Today about 30% of the people  identify themselves as Russian or Russian/Estonian.

All of this started to change in the late 80’s, with the general thawing of Perestroika and Glasnost. It came about in one of the remarkable stories of that time: the Singing Revolution, where a campaign of non-violent action culminated in hundreds of thousands of Estonians – a third of the population – gathering  together in the Song Festival Grounds near Tallinn to sing traditional folk songs, Estonian popular music, and especially “Mu isamaa on minu arm” (“Land of My Fathers, Land That I Love”) – the anthem of the resistance movement, banned by the Soviets. Bit by bit,  the non-violent independence movement took over even the Estonian Communist Party. In the face of this opposition, the Soviet government did not have the will to impose itself any more. Estonia was granted independence in 1991, and became a  full member of NATO and the European Union in 2004.

Understandably, there is a real dichotomy in the population. Older people are still feeling the after effects of the years of Nazi and Soviet domination. People born after 1991 are doing their best to be European. Without a personal experience of those dark days, they know only what they read in the history books and what the older generations tell them. They’re not ignorant of their special predicament, of being balanced on the brink between Western Democracy and Russian domination – but it isn’t part of their being, the way it is for their parents and grandparents.

Maggie and I have gotten along well with all sorts of people here, but we have noticed that some people, especially older people, can be pushy. If you’re in the market, standing in front of the tomatoes (as I was), some old lady is likely to try to shove you aside so she can get hers. That happens on the street or the bus, too. At first this was irritating, but now that we’ve learned a little more, we can see how all those years of scarcity may have affected people’s personalities in ways that don’t change easily with the times. We look at the care and worries that old face has borne, and our attitude is immediately changed. We have no idea how we would have responded in similar circumstances, but we would have been hard pressed to respond as well as the Estonians did.

The Estonian People

Various subjects – all about Tallinn

Here are some random observations we’ve had in our first week in Estonia.

Information, Please…

There isn’t the same level of customer service here that there is in the U.S. That’s not just our observation. In the essay, “100 ways to know that you are from Estonia,” Number 22 is, “You are used to customer servants looking at you as if they wanted to give you a good slap.” Maggie and I haven’t really seen that. We’ve found a couple of examples, all older people: an old guy who worked in the tourist office told us that there were no ferries leaving from Tallinn to St. Petersburg – we found out on our own that the ferry goes from Tallinn to Helsinki, then St. Petersburg and back to Tallinn, but that apparently was too much trouble for him to explain. The woman at the information desk in the Peter the Great house had an answer for everything: NO. There was no map of the museum, no free lockers and no, she wouldn’t give us change for a €5.

Other than that, everybody has been friendly, welcoming and able to deal with our utter inability to speak Estonian. We’ve had several conversations with waiters, baristas, and vendors on the street. For the most part, even if their English is limited or non-existent, they smile and at least try to communicate. We talked about the very informative waitress in an earlier post. There was a young man in the ferry terminal who asked if there was anything we wanted to know. I looked at the enormous hickey on his neck and wanted to ask if it wasn’t wonderful to be young and good-looking, but just said no, we were OK.


First of all – do not even think about having a car here!  Getting around old town is primarily best on foot except for the delivery trucks and cabs, and a few adventuresome souls.  The bus/tram system is easy to use and cheap.  It costs 6 euros for a 5 day pass which you only  have to “tap on” once.  Getting to Tallinn from Helsinki on the Viking Ferry was only 37 euros each.  Just booked our bus from Tallinn to our next stop (Riga, Latvia), and it was only €9.80 (about $11) each.  Be warned that it will be slightly more for you “younguns,” because Clay and I get the pensioner’s price.  That trusty old map is getting lots of use.

There is even a “driverless” minibus that just started this year.  Neither Clay nor I have felt a need to check it out.  Regardless, Estonia is miles ahead of most large US cities with mass transportation.


 Food and restaurants

The quality of the restaurants we have tried in Tallinn have been outstanding.  We have been very pleased with our trips to local places.  Below are some of our favorite meals… far.  Will be adding more since we have another week here in Tallinn.  Also, it is cheaper to eat out here than in Austin, so no complaints from us.

Another bargain here are the buffet lunches.  We just happened to walk by a local restaurant, and noticed the buffet lunch sign, and could not believe the price of €4.75 (all you can eat, too).  In we went to investigate, and it was great food at moderate prices.  Clay had the salmon, which is always good here in the Baltic region, and I had a vegetarian dish (stuffed eggplant) which was delicious.  Lunch for less than €10.00!

buffet lunches

Grocery store prices are very low compared to U.S. prices.  However, compared to Sweden, Norway, and Finland, it is much cheaper in Tallinn.  Nice to have a few weeks in the Baltic region to compensate for our spending on our first stops.  I have included a few photos from our local farmer’s market for comparison.  Take that, Whole Foods!


The prices for the berries are in Euros/kilogram, so dividing by two gives you the price in dollars per pound.

Various subjects – all about Tallinn