Thursday, August 27, 2015

The Beauty of the Baltics - A Road Less Traveled

Angie & Hugh have been traveling to Sweden for decades to buy everything from clocks to furniture to paintings. Sometimes they would spend a week and other times they would spend a month, shopping, buying and shipping the entire time. They always said that one of these trips they were going to hop on a plane and visit the Baltics. Unfortunately it never happened. A couple of days was never enough time and whenever a week became available something would always come up. Last month they finally found their way to the Baltics.

Rather than hopping over from a trip to Sweden, they flew straight to Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, 60 miles south of Helsinki across the Gulf of Finland.  Although on a map it looks like you might be able to see Finland or Sweden from the shores of the Baltics, in reality you can’t. But one thing you might see on the shores is amber, as the Baltics are home to one of the largest deposits of the stone in the world. Although amber is usually seen as yellowish in color, it can also be red or even black, depending on what was in or around the tree sap from which the stone was created.

Hugh & Angie weren’t quite sure what to expect from the Baltics. Would they resemble Prague, which held relatively few scars from decades of Soviet occupation or would they more closely resemble Berlin, which emerged from the Soviet empire sheathed in drab, lifeless concrete buildings? They were pleasantly surprised. What they found were three beautiful countries that, while quite modern, had the unmistakable stamp of Old Europe. From glorious churches that had been repurposed under the atheist Soviet regime to architectural details that very much give the feeling of Scandinavia, the trip was a visual delight. And there was much time for delighting as the summer days in the Baltics are quite long with the sun rising at 4:30 and not setting at night until about 10:30.

Tallinn is home of one of the best preserved old towns in the world, with many buildings originally built during the Hanseatic League period, a trading confederation that dominated the Baltics between the 15th and 19th centuries. From Tallinn they traveled to Riga, the capital of Latvia, where they visited the Neo-Byzantine styled Nativity Cathedral, built in the late 19th century. During the Soviet period the cathedral was turned into a planetarium but today it’s been restored to its prewar glory. Finally they ended their trip in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania and home to the Užupis district, a Paris like area populated by bohemian artists.

While the capitals were the main cities, they visited quite a number of small towns along the way and one quickly notices the absence of suburban sprawl that is found in many places in Western Europe. Once one exits the city you quickly find yourself in the rural countryside or heavily wooded forest. In the little towns that dot the countryside you could usually find something good to eat… as long as you like pork & potatoes … which seem like the national food of three different counties! Of course in the cities it’s easy to broaden your palate’s choices, as like much of Europe today, most have large numbers of Italian, Chinese and various other ethnic cuisines.

The museums were sometimes like passing through a time capsule, featuring volumes of period pieces of 17th century Italian Baroque and 18th Century French styles, displayed in beautifully carved rooms. Many of the antique shops carried inventories that were similar to those in Sweden, and a number of them featured jewelry and crosses carved from the original skin of a 16th century cathedral that had its steeple replaced. And then of course there are the centuries old buildings themselves, many wooden, whose exteriors seem to defy the ravages of time. Finally, in addition to everything antique one might imagine would be captivating, possibly the most fascinating visits of the trip had nothing to do with antiques or art or architecture. In each of the three capitals they visited a building from which you were able to “see Siberia”. It wasn’t equipped with a powerful telescope however. In each city the KGB had a headquarters, each of which is now a museum. During the occupation, if one were unlucky enough to enter through its front door the next place you would likely see was someplace in Siberia.

Below are just a few of our intrepid travelers’ favorite shots from their visit across the three countries that like their flags, are very similar, but have their own unique styles.

The Alexander Nevsky Orthodox Cathedral in Tallinn, Estonia

Windmills in Estonia.  Although the windmills are original, the arms are new. During the Cold War the Soviets tore down all windmill arms in the Baltics as they were concerned that they could be manipulated by spies to transmit codes.

The remains of the Tartu Cathedral in Tartu, Estonia. The foundations were built in the 13th century with extensive modifications made in the 15th century only the see the cathedral fall into disrepair in the 16th and 17th centuries. Today within the ruins sits a three story library that was built between 1804 & 1807.  

These are examples of the exquisitely decorated doors that are found throughout the Baltics.  

The sign of a music store in Tartu.  

A knight's castle in Cesis Latvia.

Gardens and castle on the road to Riga, Estonia.  

An extraordinary doorway in Riga, Estonia.

A fresco and a grandfather clock sitting in a niche, in a merchant's home in Riga.

A painted ceiling in that same merchant's home.

A Russian Orthodox church in Riga.

A Lithuanian government building in Vilnius. During the Cold War this building was a KGB outpost... from which anyone brought in was said to be able to see Siberia. In addition, it made a great vantage point from which spy on those attending church across the street... which was problematic for careers as the USSR was officially atheist.

This is the home of the Brotherhood of Blackheads... an association of local unmarried merchants, ship owners, and foreigners that was active from the 15th century until 1940. These buildings are the reconstructed replacements in the exact style of the originals, which were destroyed during WWII.

An Art Nouveau facade of a building in Riga.

A lower level of the same building...

And its neighbor building.

The Rundale Palace in Pilsrundāle, Latvia on the way to Lithuania. Built between 1734 & 1768, today the palace and its gardens are a museum and on occasion some of its many rooms are is used to host foreign delegations during state visits.

This is a ceramic stove that heats one of the rooms in the Rundale Palace. It is fed through holes in the walls of the rooms that connect with this room. Once hot these ceramic stoves can give off heat for many hours after the fire has gone out.

A Rococo console and chair in the Palace.

An exquisite 18th Century Rococo chest in the Palace. This is a slightly more ornate version of a chest we have in our shop.

Begun some 200 years ago, the Hill of Crosses in northern Lithuania is said to have over 100,000 crosses and crucifixes planted on it as well as countless rosaries, carvings of Lithuanian patriots and statues of the Virgin Mary. With as many meanings as there are crosses, the Red Army bulldozed the site three times in 50 years but each time the citizens would immediately begin replacing the crosses.

Not far from the Hill of Crosses is the Hill of Witches, which was begun in 1979 and includes a great variety of totems that depict characters from Lithuanian folklore and pagan traditions.

Saint Peter Paul Cathedral, Kaunas, Lithuania

Saints Peter and Paul’s Church in Vilnus, Lithuania.   

Altar with the reliquary in the Church of St. Anne, Vilnius, Lithuania. It was hidden from the Soviets during the occupation, but today it shines like a beacon to believers.  

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