Estonia, Latvia & Lithuania
“A Baltic State of Mind”
The three Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are relative newcomers to the cherished status of independence, having lived under the shadow of Soviet rule until quite recently. Nowadays these three small countries are more European Union than Soviet Union, although the echoes of the past resonate loudly everywhere.
This was a cultural peregrination through three small but very different European countries. Quiet roads meander through a landscape of rivers, lakes, and forests of tall pine trees. Travelling from north to south this sojourn encompassed the 14th and 15th century buildings that adorn the old town of Tallinn in Estonia; the magnificent Art Nouveau buildings that grace the streets of Riga in Latvia and the beautifully restored Choral Synagogue in Vilnius, Lithuania, which echoes its former rich Jewish heritage. The three Baltic States are a haven of architectural excellence, rich in culture but still generously endowed with a labyrinthine history from which they are only just emerging.
A Brief History
Although there are obvious linguistic and cultural differences between the three countries, their histories have been inextricably entwined.
The earliest evidence of settlement in the Baltics dates to around 6000 BC when the region was inhabited by Finno-Ugric peoples who migrated from southeast Europe. Fast forward to the 9th century AD and the Vikings had made the short voyage from Scandinavia to become a presence in the Baltic region.
With all three countries having their western borders backing onto the Baltic Sea, they have been hemmed in by the historical great powers of Russia, Denmark, Sweden and Germany who have meddled in their affairs for over 800 years.
In 1201 the German Crusaders arrived in Latvia, swiftly followed in 1219 by Danish incursions into Estonia. The Livonian Wars (1558-83) between Russia and Sweden resulted in the carving up of the region between these two rival warring powers. The Great Northern War (1700-21) between these same two regional powers resulted in Russia occupying Estonia and Latvia, a foretaste of what the future held in store for all three of the Baltic States. In 1795 Russia also absorbed Lithuania into its expanding empire.
The First World War (1914-1918) saw the Germans seizing control and occupying Latvia and Lithuania. The culmination of the war and Germany’s ultimate defeat saw the Soviet Union reign back the Baltic States into their sphere of influence. Within two years of the wars end, by 1920, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania had achieved their independence - the first time in almost seven centuries that the land belonged solely to the people of the Baltics – a short lived status that would last for barely twenty years.
The Soviet-Nazi Pact of 1939 relieved the Baltic States of their ephemeral independence and once more carved the region up amongst two bellicose regional powers. The Second World War (1939-1945) cut deep and painful scars across the Baltic landscape that still resonate today. In 1941 the Germans initiated Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union. The Baltic States were unceremoniously crushed underfoot by Hitler’s rapid advance across the region. Millions were slaughtered in their wake or deported to extermination camps. By 1944 the tide of the war had turned as the Soviet army pushed the Germans back across Eastern Europe. Once more the Soviets reoccupied the Baltics; mass reprisals and deportations to Siberia heralded in the brutal Stalinist era that would engulf the region for the next half a century.
With the disintegration of Soviet influence across Eastern Europe in 1989, culminating in the implosion of the Soviet Union, the three former Soviet republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania finally regained their independence in 1991. Membership of NATO and the European Union was attained by all three countries in 2004.
This wonderful journey begins in Tallinn the capital city of Estonia, which is the smallest and least densely populated of the three countries. The old town is designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and as such is beautifully maintained with clean neat streets bedecked with typical middle European style architecture. Toompea Hill dominates the city skyline, and legend has it that this is the burial mound of Kalev the giant who founded Tallinn. Toompea Castle dates to the 14th century and is now home to Estonia’s parliament. Nestling beneath the imposing walls of Toompea Castle is the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral – constructed between 1894 and 1900 – this imposing edifice is the focal point for Tallinn’s Russian Orthodox community. Built as part of a campaign of Russification of its outlying provinces, even the name of the church, Alexander Nevsky, was a homage to the Russian military leader who won a famous victory in the Baltics in 1242. The wonderfully named Kick in de Kok is a 36 metre high circular defensive tower built in 1475, and served as the garrison quarters for soldiers. Today this medieval tower operates as a museum portraying the development of Tallinn and its defensive capability from the 14th through to the 18th century.
Among the numerous medieval architectural highlights in the Town Hall Square is the Town Hall Pharmacy. This establishment is one of the oldest continuously operating pharmacies in Europe with records dating back to 1422. Some of the medicinal preparations sold here in centuries past include minced bat, burnt bees and powdered unicorn horn. Tallinn’s largest medieval structure is the egregious St Olav’s Church which dates back to the 13th century. The strenuous climb to the top of the 124 metre high tower is rewarded with a literally breath-taking view across Tallinn’s townscape.
The Museum of Occupation and Fight for Freedom is a graphic representation of Estonia’s crushing oppression by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union during the period of 1940 to 1991. Museums of this genre are conspicuous in all three of the Baltic States, a painful and cathartic reminder of the not so distant truculent history of the region.
The Tallinn Song Festival Grounds are a vast open air arena, the song festival itself alternates around the Baltic States and is held in Tallinn every 5 years. The festival attracts approximately 300,000 spectators and 30,000 participants, with choirs travelling from all over the country to participate. This is a part of the world that takes the Eurovision Song Contest extremely seriously!
This morning we drive to Virtsu and catch the ferry across to the island of Muhu, one of the 1,500 islands situated off the coast of Estonia. The Muhu Museum is an open air exposition comprising a collection of authentic stone buildings with thatched roofs, contained within the buildings are displays of how life was lived in this region in the 1800’s. Our journey continues across a 4km long causeway that connects Muhu with the much larger island of Saaremaa. For a small unassuming island, Saaremaa has quite a lot to offer the few foreign visitors who venture here. The bijou 14th century Karja Church is one of the oldest in the Baltics, whilst the five remaining 19th century Angla Windmills are the bygone anachronistic remnant of some 800 windmills that once provided power, and that with the introduction of electricity subsequently became redundant. Kuressaare is the islands only sizeable town and is home to almost half the islands population. Our tour guide here tells us city dwelling visitors that if you see five cars together on the island then this is a traffic jam! The Episcopal Castle is town’s main attraction and its raison d’etre. This late gothic style edifice is the only entirely preserved medieval stone castle remaining in any of the Baltic States.
Estonia is a world leader in e-commerce; government departments, medical practices and the tax office to name but a few, all conduct their business paperless on line. The country has progressed rapidly to becoming an information society, even declaring internet access a constitutional right. Programs like Skype and some NATO defence systems were developed here; such is its prowess in this field that the country is nicknamed e-stonia.
We catch the ferry back to the mainland stopping briefly in the spa town of Parnu, in the past a favourite haunt of the Russian Tsars and their families, who flocked here for their summer holidays. The old town is ripe with structural curiosities including a couple of 18th century churches, some beautifully preserved 17th century buildings and the remnants of the towns original 14th century fortifications. The long beachfront and the numerous parks are wonderful places to take a stroll, whilst the town’s cafes and bars provide a break and some welcome refreshment.
After a long days drive we arrive in Tartu which is the second largest city in Estonia after Tallinn. Tartu’s old town is resplendent with many 18th century neoclassical buildings, churches and statues that adorn the expanses of green park areas of the city. The most quirky of Tartu’s neoclassical buildings is the Leaning House. Built in 1793 on marsh land that subsequently dried out, it now leans substantially to the left; it currently functions as an art gallery. The KGB Cells Museum is housed in the town’s original KGB headquarters of the 1940’s and 50’s and situated in the basement are 15 detention cells that now contain the exhibits of Estonia’s history under the oppression of the KGB, which depict the torture, repression and struggle for freedom.
Toome Hill Park looms over the old town and is home to a collection of interesting buildings and statues. The early 19th century Observatory at one time housed the world’s largest refracting telescope. The monumental passé ruins of the Gothic Toome Cathedral - originally built in the 13th century but partially destroyed in the Livonian War (1558-83) - dominate the skyline. This roofless structure with its majestic flying buttresses is reminiscent of a Hammer Horror film set and is a most evocative subject to photograph. A most enjoyable day drew to a relaxing conclusion in the late evening sunshine with an outdoor concert of Brazilian samba music.
It seems that most countries tend to tell jokes about their neighbours and the Baltic States are no different, Estonia being the butt of the humour of Latvians and Lithuanians. Here is an example that our guide relayed. An Estonian border guard stops an Audi Quattro with 5 passengers on board. The guard says that as this a Quattro only 4 people can travel in it and that the 5th person must get out and walk. A long argument ensues as the German passengers try to explain that Quattro is just the name of the car and not how many people it can carry. After an hour and a half has passed the frustrated passengers request to see the border guard’s supervisor. The guard says that this is impossible as his supervisor is extremely busy dealing with 3 Italians in a Fiat Uno!
Today we leave Estonia and cross into Latvia, our first stop is in the small town of Cesis, home to many quaint buildings, a church or two and a medieval castle. The town’s real claim to fame is that it houses Northern Europe’s oldest brewery that has been in operation since 1590.
A short distance south of Cesis is Turaidda Castle, consisting of the remnants of a medieval red brick fort and a tall round tower, all that remains of a much larger defensive complex that was damaged when the castle’s gunpowder store was struck by lightning in the 17th century. Inside the castle is a gallery and a small museum that charts its historical legacy. The real attraction of this site are the 26 stone sculptures that are displayed in the adjacent park, these fabulous artworks make for amazing photographic compositions.
Riga is the largest and arguably the most beautiful city in the Baltics with a population of around 700,000, with an amazing diversity of things to do and see here. Here can be seen wonderful Gothic structures and Baroque architecture all juxtaposed with extravagant Art Nouveau buildings. The city orientation tour gives a tantalizing taster of what Riga has to offer the adventurous visitor. The two days spent in Riga were not nearly enough time to appreciate all the wonderful attractions that the city has to offer.
Livu Square is named after the Finno-Ugric people who founded a fishing village here, today the square is populated by buskers and tourist touts, as well as housing some beautiful architectural gems. The magnificently restored Jewish Synagogue is the only place of worship that survived the Nazi occupation of Latvia, and today serves Riga’s small remaining Jewish community. Nearby the Three Brothers are an attractive group of merchants’ houses, they are the oldest buildings in the city dating to the 15th century. There are numerous churches, the fascinating Latvian Photography Museum, the historic House of Blackheads, Riga Castle and innumerable other amazing places to visit in the short time available. The Occupation Museum was an incredibly emotional and didactic visitor experience, charting Latvia’s plight under Nazi and Soviet occupation from 1940 to 1991. The graphic displays document life as lived through the oppression, deportation and murder that engulfed the country during this period. There was a substantial section dedicated to Latvia’s once thriving Jewish population, 70,000 of whom were murdered during the Nazi occupation of the country. Riga’s commercial area is an extremely swish and affluent affair, replete with outlets like Georgio Armani, Burberry and Ermenegildo Zegna to indulge any retail therapy needs. Expensive cars cruise the streets, whilst the well to do shoppers promenade in their Sunday best and take coffee in the numerous cafes.
Riga’s undoubted highlight is to be found in the streets around the Elizabetes iela district which is a metropolis of extravagant Art Nouveau architecture, a virtuoso fireworks display of architectural form; if ever there was a photographic heaven here it is. Saturated in magnificent detail, a synthesis of rationality and ornament; these buildings flamboyantly display dramatic idealised human figures, rhythmic floral motifs, animal forms, extravagant wrought iron work and mythical creatures. Approximately one third of Riga’s buildings are in the Art Nouveau style and have been designated UNESCO World Heritage status.
Our final stop in Latvia was the imposing Rundale Palace. Constructed in the mid-18th century to the design of the Italian architect Francesco Rastrelli (1770-1771), world renowned for his architectural prowess in the construction of the Winter Palace in St Petersburg. Built in the Late Baroque style, Rundale Palace, set in a manicured landscaped garden, is a sumptuous and majestic 138 room extravaganza of a building with intricate stucco decorations, lavish period furniture, ornaments and paintings. Renovation of the palace has been ongoing since 1972 and has so far cost 8.5 million Euros.
We cross over into Lithuania, the largest of the Baltic States, the only evidence of the border is a bank kiosk for changing money into the local currency of Litas; Lithuania is the only one of the Baltic States not using the Euro. Our first stop is at the Hill of Crosses near the town of Siauliai, probably the most well-known site in the Baltics. The Hill of Crosses gained recognition throughout the world in September 1993 when Pope John Paul II celebrated Holy Mass in front of 100,000 people who had gathered there. A forest of hundreds of thousands of devotional crosses of all types and sizes completely cover the hill and cascade down across the surrounding area. People flock from all over the world to add their crosses, rosaries and other religious offerings. The site is nothing short of awe inspiring, a compelling paradigm of the power that faith can inspire. The numerous stalls at the site retail all types of religious accoutrements for the faithful to append to the ever burgeoning site; it appears that faith is not only infectious but is also presents quite a profitable economic opportunity.
The Curonian Spit National Park is a quick 7 minute ferry crossing from the port of Klaipeda; this narrow stretch of land, no more than a mile wide, runs from Lithuania 98km south to the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. Formed by the action of the wind some 5,000 years ago, it is geologically the youngest part of the country. Between the coastal spit and the mainland is a lagoon, consequently the whole area is a haven for wildlife; numerous birds, moose and wild boar are amongst the many animal species that thrive here. The parks real gem is the Witches’ Hill, an expansive forested sculpture park established in the 1980’s by a group of local sculptors. Filled with carved wooden fabled figures depicting gods, devils and witches; they recall myths, legends and fairy stories about love, handsome princes, spells and sorcery. This magical setting is a playground for the imagination of adults and children alike. The town of Nida is situated at the southern end of the spit just before the border with Kaliningrad. As the only sizeable conurbation, it is a focal point for the thousands of visitors who frequent its hotels and restaurants.
As important buffer states of the former Soviet Union – their window on the west - the Baltic States were recipients of its monetary largesse donated towards infrastructure projects. Estonia and Lithuania spent their subvention mainly on road construction, whilst Latvia invested theirs in building factories. With the demise of the Soviet Union - the main market for the goods produced– the Latvian factories subsequently went bust, severely affecting the Latvian economy in subsequent years.
Back on the mainland and we head towards Kaunas, the third largest city in the Baltics and the commercial centre of Lithuania. The heart of the city is Town Hall Square and here can be found some elegant 16th century merchants houses. Freedom Avenue is the city’s main thoroughfare; this 1 mile long pedestrianised street is lined with shops, cafes and restaurants and is where Kaunas’ residents love to stroll along and socialise. As in keeping with elsewhere in the Baltics there are no shortage of churches in Kaunas, the standout one here being the neo-Byzantine Church of St Michael the Archangel. Built in 1893, this shimmering white multi domed building with its beautiful frescoes and stained glass windows is a popular choice for couples wishing to get married. Both the interior and exterior of the church provide a wonderful photographic canvas for those special wedding day photographs.
The imposing edifice of Kaunas Castle rises up from the banks of the River Neris. Built in the mid-14th century, its walls are 3.5 metres (7ft) thick and over 13 metres (43ft) high. Ironically down the centuries it was not invading armies that undermined the castles defences but the River Neris which eroded the ground, eventually causing the walls and the defensive towers to collapse. Today only part of the original castle remains, supplemented by some modern sympathetic reconstruction.
Approximately 4 miles southeast of Kaunas is Lithuania’s baroque masterpiece, the Pazaislis Monastery. A collection of 17th and 18th century buildings - including monastery houses, a hermitage, cloisters and servants quarters - at the heart of which stands the Church of the Holy Virgin Mary’s Apparition to Elizabeth. Completed in 1674, the rather plain exterior is in sharp contrast to the sumptuous interior which is clad in Italian marble, with ornate plasterwork, revetments and mouldings. The Israelites crossing the Red Sea, Balthazar’s Feast and Mary’s Coronation are just some of the numerous splendid frescoes that decorate the ceiling and walls.
As we travel towards the Lithuanian capital Vilnius there are a couple of interesting detours along the way to break the journey. Trakai Castle - built in the 14th century by the Grand Duke Vytautas – is scenically located on an island on Lake Galve; this picturesque setting makes it apparently the most photographed place in Lithuania. The castle was severely damaged during the war with the Duchy of Moscow in the 17th century and was left to gradually fall into disrepair thereafter. The five storey red brick fortifications that stand today have been undergoing reconstruction and renovation piecemeal since 1952. The castle environs are where the local populace come for a day out, to visit the castle, take a row boat out on the lake, have a picnic, or enjoy a meal in the many lakeside restaurants. Situated some 6 miles southeast of Vilnius is the unassuming forested area of Paneriai. During World War II, between July 1941 and August 1944, Paneriai became the mass murder site where the Nazis massacred approximately 70,000 Jews from Vilnius and the surrounding areas. The site of the massacre is commemorated by a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust and a small museum.
Vilnius has one of the largest old town centres in Eastern Europe, resplendent with numerous baroque churches, some elegant 17th and 18th century houses, cobbled streets, antique shops, and a wide choice of cafes and restaurants to gain some respite from the ardours of touring the city sites. The morning was taken up with an organised tour of the old town including the ubiquitous churches (church overload approaching rapidly), the university complex and the Town Hall Square with its 18th century Town Hall. The only remaining original city gate, the Gates of Dawn, is a 17th century edifice bedecked with religious icons and votive offerings, it is a site where the faithful believe miracles have taken place.
Vilnius University was founded in 1570 and sprawls across a large area of the city. Amongst its myriad of buildings is a unique collection of frescoes secreted away in the Philology Centre. Here a room is entirely covered with images of mythological themes illustrating a chaotic and anarchic world order; it is a stimulating feast for the eyes, the mind and the camera.
The most impressive of Vilnius’ churches is the neoclassical Cathedral built in the late 18th century. Its imposing exterior boasts a portico of six doric columns, baroque statues of Moses, Abraham and the four evangelists adorning the façade; a 52 metre high stand-alone Belfry Tower completes this magnificent site. This religious ensemble is a distinctive landmark and constitutes an impressive architectural statement.
Vilnius was once known as the “Jerusalem of Lithuania”, where prior to the Second World War Jews made up nearly half the population. Jews originally settled in Lithuania in the early 14th century, but over 600 years of rich cultural heritage was all but decimated during the Nazi occupation of the country in the Second World War. Today all that remains of this past is a few museums, one synagogue (there used to be over 100 at one time) and a few hundred remaining Jewish residents.
The Museum of Genocide Victims displays a similar theme seen in each of the other Baltic States; a grim catalogue of the atrocities committed during the years of occupation by the Nazis and the Soviets. Based in the same building used by the Gestapo and the KGB, there are prison cells, torture rooms, padded cells, graphic pictorial displays and video footage of the inhumane crimes that man is capable of committing on his fellow man. It is extremely hard to describe the emotions generated when you visit an institution like this, and almost impossible to comprehend how regimes can perpetrate such crimes for so long and on such an industrial scale. A visit here is the most potent motivational fuel to learn hard lessons from the past, sadly something we seem increasingly unable to take on board.
This journey through the Baltic States was a wonderful experience, far greater than I ever had expected. Yes there were lots of churches, but there was also a fantastic array of different and varied experiences to be indulged in. From the open air ethnographical museum on the island of Muhu to the Curonian Spit National Park and on through to the incredible Art Nouveau cityscape of Riga, this was a journey that provided surprises at each and every turn. The Baltic States were a classic example of a destination that, as far as I was concerned, had no ‘stand out’ world renowned sites, in fact pretty much nothing at all that I had any particular knowledge about prior to my visit. But once I arrived there the holiday really delivered in terms of cultural and historical interest, amazing sites and wonderful photographic opportunities. Add great weather, delicious food and value for money into the mix and this was a most memorable condign adventure.