Category Archives: Baltic

RIGA, LATVIA – the travelling university of life

Riga’s spectacular art nouveau Alberta Street is crammed with clumps of senior tourists, trailing behind leaders who hold aloft ping pong bats with numbers… 15, 9 and 27. Every morning monster cruise ships dock in the harbour, and each disgorges tour groups for a quick whip around Riga’s main attractions.

I’ve often regarded such tourists with patronizing pity – those poor old people (or foolish young ones) who are too lazy or ignorant to organize their own travel. But now I’m one of those poor old people myself, having joined a 20-day Odyssey Travel bus tour , ‘The Emergence of the Baltic States’. It’s been an eye-opener, with my fellow travellers and the trip’s organization challenging my preconceptions.

I always assumed that package tourists got only sanitized, superficial experiences. They gawked at architecture, but didn’t understand it. They met few local people, had no interest in local culture and they preferred McDonald’s and Starbucks because of the familiar food and clean toilets. In short, their travel didn’t teach them much about the world. Continue reading

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HILL OF CROSSES – a Mecca in Lithuania

The faithful, the curious, the believers and the photographers flock to an extraordinary site 12km outside the town of Siauliai in northern Lithuania, where a small hill is covered with crosses. There are over 100,000 of them. Some say 500,000, some claim it’s closer to a million. I didn’t attempt to count them. This is not a cemetery, but it commemorates the departed. It also commemorates Lithuania’s struggle for political and religious freedom under the Soviet yoke.

The exact origin of the tradition of visitors placing crosses here is disputed, but the first ones seem to have appeared after the November uprising against the Russian Empire in 1831.

Its symbolic importance grew when the Soviets tried to stamp out religious icons, bulldozing the hill in 1963 and 1973. But under cover of darkness, the crosses always reappeared, a peaceful protest against the oppressors.

After Lithuania gained independence, a visit from Pope John Paul II in 1993 confirmed the Hill of Crosses as a place of pilgrimage not only for Lithuania’s Catholics, but also for tourists from around the world. I was impressed to find a Jewish monument between all these Christian symbols.

Anybody can add a cross to the collection, and naturally you can buy one in the gift shop if you forgot to bring your own.

The writer was the guest of Odyssey Travel.

TRIP NOTES:

Odyssey Travel runs guided tours of the Baltic States, including a visit to the Hill of Crosses. See odysseytravel.com.au

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TALLINN, ESTONIA – the Olde Town is Newe agayne


Sprinkled around Tallinn’s Old Town are wooden carts, from which pairs of young Estonians sell packets of sugared almonds. The merchants are dressed in medieval robes and gothic lettering on the awning above them reads ‘Gourmet Monk’. But below the hems of their garments I can see jeans, designer sneakers and Crocs, and they take calls on their mobile phones. Tallinn may flog its medieval credentials for tourism purposes, but this is a 21st century city.

Our group arrives in Tallinn late in the afternoon, leaving time for a pre-dinner stroll into the Old Town. The sun sparkles on church spires and the turrets of the city walls, bounces off ornate weather vanes above terracotta roofs and backlights the cobblestones on the steep narrow streets.

I haven’t seen a place this pretty since I last visited Bruges, but Tallinn is far less crowded, and locals have time to chat.

Silvi is a business management student, and though selling almonds to tourists brings in useful kroons, she mostly does it to practice her languages. French was her best subject at high school. It was mine too, but I keep quiet about that. If Silvi hears my French the reputation of Australian education will be in tatters. Her English is excellent and I bet her German and Russian are also passable.

On a temporary stage in the lovely square in front of the 14th century town hall, a band is doing a sound check for their performance in the ‘Old Town Days Festival’, while colourful street performers draw a crowd with a display of drumming and energetic flag waving. There’s no reason to think Estonia has ever been anything but settled, prosperous, open and fun-loving.

It is only when I learn more of the region’s turbulent and tragic history that I understand what an extraordinary change has come over Estonia since the break-up of the Soviet Union. In an introductory lecture organized for my Odyssey tour group, local historian Kristi tells how little Estonia (population 1.3million) was subjugated for centuries by Danes, Swedes, Teutonic knights and Tsars, before enjoying brief independence between the World Wars.

Then in came the Russians, the Nazis and the Russians again. ‘Who was worse?’ Kristi gives a wry smile. ’ You can’t choose between bubonic plague and smallpox.’ Between them they exterminated or deported a huge proportion of the population, including nearly all Jews and most educated, landed and business people.

Today relations between resident Russians and ethnic Estonians are sometimes strained, we’re told, with Russian reluctance to learn the Estonian language and the recent removal of a hated Soviet monument being bones of contention. Our Estonian guide Rita is quick to advise us against buying the babushka dolls we see in the window of every souvenir shop. ‘They are Russian, not Estonian, Russian! ‘ That yellow jewellery is not genuine Estonian produce either; it is Latvian or Lithuanian amber. So I buy a pretty scarf made from local linen. ‘We have our own factory here in Estonia,’ I’m proudly told.

We tourists also benefit from Tallinn’s new-found freedom. It seems that all young Estonians speak English as confidently as Scandinavians do. The coffee and focaccias are first rate. Prices are quoted in Estonian kroons, but also in euros, due to be introduced in 2011. IT is a boom industry here and travellers should be eternally grateful to the Estonian computer programmers who invented Skype.

At dinner time we’re returned to the Middle Ages, as Rita leads us to the ‘Olde Hansa’ Restaurant. The name refers to Tallinn’s past as a trade centre for prosperous Hanseatic League merchants. ‘Olde’ in my experience generally means ‘Newe’ and ‘Kitsche’, but to my surprise this is well done and very good fun. We’re served by waitpersons in medieval costume and entertained by minstrels playing viol, tambour and recorders. And gazooks, they’re good! So too is my juniper cheese, almond chicken, ginger turnip and dark herb beer.

The Olde Hansa is doing a roaring trade with crowds of young locals making merry at long tables. Estonians are proud of their past and optimistic about their future. A return to the true Dark Ages seems mercifully out of the question for them.

The writer was a guest of Odyssey Travel.

TRIP NOTES:

Staying there: Meriton Conference Hotel and Spa has two night packages from 2450 Estonian kroons (about US$210) per person. See grandhotel.ee

Eating there: Olde Hansa Restaurant offers feasts from EEK480 per person. See oldehansa.ee

Further information: Odyssey Travel runs guided tours to the Baltic States including three nights in Tallinn. See: odysseytravel.com.au

First published – Sun-Herald, Sydney

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TALLINN, ESTONIA – the extraordinary singing revolution

There’s a hint of what is to come at breakfast in the hotel dining room. An older woman is greeted by her companions singing for her. We presume it’s her birthday. What makes the event so electrifying for us is that the Estonians sing beautifully; lilting, accurate three part harmony, conducted by one of the birthday girl’s party, with the whole room joining in. Choral singing is Estonia’s favourite pastime, and it played an important part in their drive for independence.

Just out of Tallinn’s city centre, facing a grassy slope, stands a performance shell which can accommodate 30,000 singers on the podium, according to our guide Rita. Michael Jackson once performed here, and more recently Madonna set the place rocking. But I wish I’d been here for the Estonian Folk Song Festival in 1988 when, with cracks starting to appear in the Soviet Union, a choir sang Mu isamaa on minu arm, a poem by Lydia Kodula set to music by festival conductor Gustav Ernesaks.

Singing this unofficial Estonian national anthem had meant a one way ticket to Siberia since it was banned by the Soviet authorities. However, when an audience of over 100,000 rose to its feet and joined the choir, KGB agents looked on helplessly, and the independence movement became unstoppable. Ernesaks’ statue now sits above the park, his chin in his hand. When the sculptor was asked why his subject was watching thoughtfully, rather than conducting, the answer was, ‘His work is done. Now he’s on holidays.’

For more on the singing revolution, including film footage see:www.thesingingrevolution.com

The writer was a guest of Odyssey Travel.

Extract from first publication by Sun-Herald, Sydney

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Tour de LatEst – cycling in Latvia and Estonia

Thinking of cycling round northern Latvia and southern Estonia this summer? No, I didn’t think you were, but maybe you should put it on the ‘to-do’ list for another time.

A new 1296km cycle route, the Tour de LatEst, has just opened, and it sounds very interesting. I can’t claim to have done it myself, but in the streets of Tallinn, Estonia I recognised two heavily-laden Dutch touring bikes and got talking to their owners. Brilliant trip, they said, on quiet roads with only one car every ten minutes or so.

The route connects old villages with plenty of cheap accommodation options and sights of historical interest.

I was travelling by bus myself, from Riga to Tallinn via Sigulda and Cesis, but I noticed that through both countries cycle paths, fully separated from the road, ran beside the motorways for most of their distance.

The LatEst route is part on asphalt, part on gravel, though my informants told me this was in fine condition in good weather. It would be a bad idea to tackle the route in winter – temperatures can drop to minus 30 in Estonia. Latvia and Estonia are mostly flat – the biggest mountain in the Baltic States is less than 300m high. Both countries are heavily forested, and sprinkled with attractive lakes and farmland.

Signposted routes and traffic lights for bikes.

Inspired by the Dutch riders’ example, I rented a bike in Tallinn and went out for a few hours myself, just so I could say I’d done it. Most impressed by the infrastructure, and this in a land which is supposed to be struggling economically. More ‘developed’ countries could learn something from them!

For more information and cycling routes in the area, see:
http://www.vidzeme.com/eng.php?v=&id=29

Or if that isn’t challenging enough – try the EV10 - 4300km round the Baltics via St Petersburg and Scandinavia.

http://www.routeyou.com/route/view/197209/cycle-route-hansa-circuit-or-baltic-sea-cycle-route-ev10.en

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SIGULDA, LATVIA – Turaida folk song park

Krisjanis Barons, Latvian folklorist


Regular visitors to RT’s LOTR will know I’m a sucker for any sculpture garden. Someone else has done the real artistic work, and all I have to do is point a camera at it. In the small town of Sigulda, 50km north east of Riga, is a patch of green overlooking the Gauja valley national park. It contains seventeen large works in granite, each depicting a Latvian folk song.

Krisjanis Barons was a folklorist who collected thousands Latvian folk songs, known as dainu. These short poems are impossible to translate directly we’re told, due to the odd rhythm of the language. Indulis Ranka has attempted to represent them in stone.

The stories told in song are generally melancholy, tales of lost love and the transience of life. Or they are like proverbs – ‘A golden horse may inspire, but it is just a dream.’ ‘Better to soar like a seagull than to live like a snail.’ ‘Those who respect the past will be blessed by the future.’

The park opened in 1985 and is often the venue for concerts and other cultural events.

Entry costs 1lat (roughly USD2). English-speaking guides can be arranged for 10lat per group.

The writer was a guest of Odyssey Travel. http://www.odysseytravel.com.au

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