From Norway, we took a quick flight to Helsinki, “the daughter of the Baltic”. We stayed three nights at the Hotel Arthur, near the Central Train Station (designed, by the way, in the 1910 by the father of the architect who designed the St Louis Arch, JFK terminal, and Dulles Terminal). We spent a couple of days exploring the city. We took the tram line #2, which makes a figure 8 around the city (and has a free audio guide online!) out to our furthest sight, and zig-zagged our walk back to the Central area. We saw the Flying Finn statue at the ’52 Olympics arena, the monument to composer Jean Sibelius, and the Rock Church, cut from a single huge granite boulder. Closer in town, we visited the two cathedrals (the 1832 Neoclassical Lutheran church with a statue of Alexander II in front and the 1862 Uspenski Orthodox with 13 golden onion domes), both of which are lovely inside and out. Market Square, Senate Square, Market Hall, all really nice architecture as well as beautiful in the warm sunny weather. Helsinkians definitely savor the summer months- flowers abloom, grasses are green, bikes are out, and every park has a busker with a guitar strumming a tune.
Our second night we went to dinner at Aino, one of those delightful European restaurants that serve tiny bite sized courses that are excruciatingly expensive but also quite delicious. We tried a sampler platter of Finnish vendace fish and pork pasty, ice cellar salmon with cucumber-fennel salad, creamy chanterelle soup, overnight cooked lamb neck, toast skagen, Finnish Brie cheese. For the main course, reindeer fillet with dill-butter mashed potatoes and lingonberries. Delicious, to say the least. We loved Helsinki and our only regret was not having time to get out into nature, within the islands near the city or in the lakes and rural areas further north where the Finns have their summer homes.
It’s only a two hour ferry ride aboard a huge cruise ship to Tallinn, Estonia, so we headed south. We stayed at Fat Margaret’s Hostel there, largely chosen because it is housed in an old 19th century building and it has a sauna and cold pool (and at just 40 euro per night for a private room ensuite, a break from the Scandinavia prices. Also, a much needed laundry machine). We spent the two days in Tallinn exploring the Old Town, the best preserved medieval city in Europe. Formerly ruled by Denmark, Germany, Sweden, Russia, the Nazis and then the Soviets, Estonia is now enjoying it’s 24 year independence (major exports: Skype and supermodels). The old city is full of 14th century churches, cobblestone alleyways, cafes, museums, and stone towers. Our two hour walking tour was so full of information, in fact, that we decided to use the same company to take their sightseeing bus trip from Tallinn to Riga the following day.
In Tallinn we found a Georgian restaurant, and had several dishes: eggplant, spicy cheese, khinkali dumplings, and lamb pie. And beer of course! It was so good we had to take a nap afterwards. But we returned to the Old Town in the evening and walked around in the setting sun (10 pm). Considering Estonia is the “least religious country in Europe”, they certainly have a lot of churches. The next day, seven of us took a bus tour. The tour guide really gave us a good overview of Estonian history and culture of the last 100 years. What major changes from the fall of the Soviet Union to now! Estonia is really looking to the future, with e-voting and e-residency (sometimes referred to as E-stonia) while still retaining their cultural pride and their 45% forested area. On the bus tour we stopped at the ruins of a castle built in 1245 at Viljandi, sandstone cliffs at Helme, and ate lunch at a pub in a village on the border between Estonia and Latvia.
Crossing to the Latvian side, we went blueberry and lingonberry picking in a forest, toured the medieval old town of Cesis, and climbed the Soviet bobsled track in Sigulda. Arriving in the walled Old City in Riga, we were pleased to find our Hotel Konventa Seta (a renovated 16th century convent) had upgraded us to a junior suite, with a king sized bed. Nice! The first day we took a walking tour of the Old Town, and had a traditional meal of black beans with bacon, with a glass of kefir (because, as the waiter explained, the kefir buttermilk helps the beans not “do bad things in your stomach”), and black sausage with barley. And beer. Then, of course, a nap. By the time we woke up, we had time to walk around watching the sunset at 10 pm, and then we did a moonlit kayaking trip around the city of Riga on the river and the city canal. A unique way to see the city’s bridges, which are all lit up at night.
Riga was founded in 1201 as a base for the Germanic northern crusades, and later fell under the power of the Swedes and then the Russians. The old city is fairly well preserved, but they are more well known for their large number of art nouveau buildings. Once surrounded by three moats for safety, the town finally turned the moats into a canal surrounded by parks in the mid-19th century and expanded beyond the old city. In the next two decades, when other European cities were adding a handful of art nouveau buildings, Riga built more than 700, hundreds of which still exist today. On Saturday we took a restored tram from 1901 to the suburban outskirts, where pre-war elites had beautiful summer homes, now being restored. Saturdays in July must be prime time for weddings in Latvia, because we saw no less than ten wedding parties out posing for pictures.
A quick four hours on a luxury bus found us in Vilnius, Lithuania on Sunday. Lithuania was once the largest country in Europe, stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Later part of the Lithuanian-Polish Commonwealth, it later became part of Russia, and then was forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union. Finally Lithuania gained its independence in 1990, the first of the Soviet republics to do so.
A few fun things about Lithuania:
*They had one king (1253). The later rulers were called Grand Dukes.
*Once pagan nature lovers, Lithuanians were converted to Christianity around 1250. Villagers were given a new name and a new shirt when they converted. Priests would come to villages and perform mass baptisms, naming all the men John and all the women Maria. Villagers would get baptized more than once to receive several new shirts. Now, Lithuania has a celebration every summer solstice for all the men named John.
*The previous mayor of Lithuania is quite popular on YouTube because of this video.
*Literati Street is full of plaques commemorating authors with a Lithuanian link- even just mentioning Lithuania in their book or visiting here for a few days. Number 28 is Thomas Harris, author of Silence of the Lambs- Dr. Lecter was born in Lithuania.
*A district of the capital city, Uzupis, has declared itself a republic, elected a President, and written a constitution. Their parliament meets in a bar once a month (“Barliament”).
*Trakai, an island castle in a lake about 30 km outside of Vilnius, is the only island castle in Eastern Europe. Super easy to get to on public bus, you don’t need a tour group.
*In 1989, citizens of the three Baltic nations organized a 75 km human chain of 2 million people, stretching from Vilnius to Riga to Tallinn to protest Soviet rule. Lithuania gained independence a year later.
And now, we will fly up to Sweden to spend a week with Nicole and Mark in Stockholm and Copenhagen. Check back soon!