Tag Archives: Scandinavian Travels 2016

Old town in Tallinn, Estonia. Photo by Madelyn Given.

Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, Part 3

By the time I reached Tallinn, Estonia, having driven from Poland through Lithuania, Latvia, and part of Estonia, I had developed a nice feeling about the Baltic Countries. The countries are beginning to prosper and there is so much history. According to my guide, the Baltic States were the last to be “barbaric.” Estonia is the smallest state, and Tallinn, on the Baltic Sea, is the capital. I enjoyed seeing the friendly people, busy with their daily lives. Some were farmers, some were craftsmen, others were professionals; all seemed happy with life in their Baltic States.

From the time I left Vilnius, Lithuania until I reached Tallinn, Estonia, I kept being reminded of the historic Baltic Chain of Freedom. It was a peaceful demonstration, held on August 23, 1989, against the rule of the Soviet Union. Approximately two million people joined hands to form a human chain spanning 419.7 miles across three Baltic States. In 1989, this human chain drew global attention for the independence and solidarity of the three countries. Can you imagine the emotionally captivating and visually stunning scene? Within seven months after this demonstration, Lithuania became the first of the Soviet Republics to declare independence. August 23rd is now an official remembrance day in the Baltic Countries and the European Union for victims of Stalinism and Nazism.

In Tallinn, I stayed in the tallest building, a restored former KGB headquarters. There is a trendy three-story mall attached to this high-rise. Across the street was the entrance to Upper Town and Old Town, with ancient walls, narrow cobblestone streets, and buildings with great character. There were museums to visit, cafes with great hot chocolate, and tiny shops with many souvenirs.

For dinner one evening, our guide arranged for us to go to an interesting place, as he called it.  That night, we decided, was the time to dress more elegantly.  The ladies had on open-toed shoes and even stilettos, with their silk scarves on bare shoulders, and the men were in dress shoes and ties. To our surprise, our driver drove us far out into the country and parked at the end of a muddy dirt road.  We walked to this little farm with a few chickens, a pig pen, and a few cows out in the pasture.  We went into a quaint rustic building and sat down on old wooden benches and were served a humble, so-called Viking dinner. After a while we began to laugh about this unexplained situation. And as we swatted flies and sat with muddied feet, we created our own entertainment. It was an evening to remember.

Soon it was time to leave the Baltic Countries and say good-bye (Head-aega in Estonia) and thank you (Tänan).

(posted January 23, 2017)

Open Air Museum, Latvia. Photo by Madelyn Given.

Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, Part 2

Our small group and guide traveled from Lithuania, north through Latvia, to the Baltic port and capital of Riga, where we stayed several days. Riga is almost completely surrounded by the Daugava River. The city center is Old Town, and they also have an Art Nouveau Quarter, in addition to the new city with its high rises and modern living.

An hour’s drive from Riga is the Latvian Open-Air Ethnographic Museum established in 1924. Built in an alpine forest on the shores of Jugla Lake, it is one of the oldest and largest open-air museums in Europe. The museum is beautiful, as you can see in my photo at the top of this blog. There are 118 old buildings from all the historic districts of Latvia. It’s fascinating to examine the farmsteads, craftsmen’s sheds, and fishermen’s shacks with their tools and antique interior furnishings. I spent part of a day walking around and studying early pioneer life.

Riga is an old city; in 2001, it celebrated its 800th anniversary. Many of the Hanseatic Guild Houses buildings have been restored. Old Town is small and easy to see on foot, as it’s separated from the rest of the city by canals. I walked across the boulevard from my hotel and though an existing ancient gate and I was in Old Town. Along the sidewalk, many florists had set up their business, and the displays of colorful arrangements were waiting for customers to take home. It was my favorite place to pass by.

There were many landmarks to explore: the Powder Tower, now the Latvian War Museum, and the Riga Castle, which was built in the 15th century, then destroyed and rebuilt. Along the Daugava River is the History Museum, as well as the President of Latvia’s residence, a large structure with beautiful grounds. The Freedom Monument (1935) is more recent, and in the next block, there used to be a statue of Lenin, but it has been torn down. In any of the three Baltic States, anything to do with Russia is taboo. They fear an invasion by Russians and are not happy to be neighbors and openly speak about this situation.

In Old Riga is the Navigation Museum. Latvia has a close association with the sea. I wished my husband, a classic car enthusiast, was with me when I went to the Riga Motor Museum, the largest antique car museum in the Baltic Countries. The Kremlin collection, which was Stalin’s personal collection, is kept here. Riga Cathedral is one of the largest churches in the Baltic States with an organ of 7,000 pipes. I sat and listened for a few minutes as it was played.

Back outside, the Swedish Gate, part of the Old Town wall, is very beautiful.  For the best view of the city go to the Television Tower: it is 1,211 feet tall, the highest building in the Baltic States. The Observation platform is 325 feet.

It was fun to see and experience the Baltic States. I enjoyed the clean restaurants and good food in the cafes. Fish, potato, and cabbage dishes are popular, and Karums are favorite cheese snacks. The three countries are prospering and are happy to be part of the European Union. Since the 1990s, they have rebuilt their countries from scratch, taking them from outdated to very modern. The people are happy, thankful to be free from Russia, and hardworking. It was a great experience to travel to these three beautiful and safe countries.

(posted January 12, 2017)

Madelyn Given with some local art in Lithuania.

Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, Part 1

In July, I traveled to the small Baltic countries of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. It was only quite recently, in 1991, that they regained their independence. Each has its own language and culture. They are part of the European Union. Lithuania is the largest and most southern of the three countries. Leaving Warsaw, Poland, I traveled north through the countryside to Vilnius, Lithuania. The weather was warm and pleasant. Driving on new highways, it was difficult to imagine that the three countries were without any network of highways until the 1990s. Everything is new here. I arrived in Vilnius in the evening and enjoyed a traditional dinner of borscht (beet soup), cepelinai (stuffed potato dumplings), and other Lithuanian dishes.

The next day, with a native guide, I went on a walking tour of Vilnius, the picturesque, historic capital of Lithuania. Vilnius has been named a European capital of culture. We began on Castle Hill—from Gedimino Tower, there is a great view of the city.

In 1988, the flag of Lithuania was raised again after decades of Soviet control. In the near distance is the Hill of Three: crosses erected in the 1600s, torn down by the Soviets, and re-erected in 1989. The old university, now part of the University of Vilnius, has baroque architecture, with beautiful courtyards and ornate chapels. It was founded by Jesuits in 1569 and it includes St. John’s Church and the domed Church of St. Casmir, the patron saint of Lithuania. Nearby is the Ausra Gate, the last remaining part of the old city walls.

Vilnius at one time was the seat of the mighty Grand Duchy of Lithuania, and the area is still a lovely place.  Our walk continued to the Cathedral Square, through winding narrow lanes from the old city, to newer sections of grand city built in the early 1900s. In one large office building the KGB set up headquarters after WWII. It is now The Victims of Genocide Museum. The Jewish population here was decimated during the war: 70,000 Jews were killed, reducing their population to about 800. Paneriai (also in Lithuania) was the site of another WWII death camp, where more than 100,000 Lithuanians and Poles, mostly Jews, were murdered by the Nazis. It is a very sobering experience to visit these sites of such a tragic part of history.

In Vilnius, we enjoyed a good walk to Vingio Park, a large grassy area where anti-Soviet protest meetings took place. During the Dairu Svente (Festival of Songs), a choir of 20,000 voices performed at the open-air theater in the Park. It is now used for concerts and many world-famous performers have come here. A track meet was happening when I was there.

There are many other museums in Vilnius including the Amber Museum, a chic modern place where amber can be purchased. The Lithuanian Museum has folk art, native costumes, and archaeological exhibits.

Hill of Crosses, Lithuania. Photo by Madelyn Given.

Hill of Crosses, Lithuania

After my visit in Vilnius, the scenic drive went north by the Nervis River, through a landscape of dark forests, swamps, and lush pastures. There were many people carrying baskets and picking mushrooms. On the way we stopped at the Hill of Crosses memorial site, a Lithuanian pilgrimage destination known for the thousands of crosses of every size, made out of all sorts of material. There were busloads of tourists stopped here, but it was still an amazing place. Many lanes and paths for walking went up and down the hill that was covered with crosses.

There is so much history in the Baltic countries that is tinged with tragedy. Yet today the people there are ambitious and intelligent, creating a happy society.

(posted December 27, 2016)