Russia and the Baltics

May 3rd to 21st, 2012

Joan and I went on a great tour of the Baltic countries of Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia as well as a quick day trip to Helsinki, Finland.  We then continued into Russia to visit St Petersburg and Moscow.  We used Overseas Adventure Travel for the 6th time and thoroughly enjoyed the trip.  We had 14 other congenial fellow travelers in our group and became good friends by trip's end.  We had a little problem getting over to Vilnius, our first stop due to some weather issues in the northeast.  It actually turned out to be better for us, as we got a nonstop flight to Frankfurt from Philly to hook up with our Lufthansa flight to Vilnius instead of a quick hop to Newark to get a Lufthansa flight flight from there.  Others in our tour had bigger problems as flights were cancelled and ended up losing a day and luggage for several days.  What was great was that we were all experienced travelers and there was no bitching and moaning.

Vilnius, Kaunas and Klaipeda, Lithuania

We set out to explore Vilnius with a walking tour of the old town, a home hosted lunch in a small village 30 miles outside of Vilnius that looked like Anatevya from Fiddler on the Roof and a sobering visit to the KGB museum back in Vilnius where we walked through the original KGB jail used by the Soviets.  The next day we went to Trakei, the first capital of Lithuania.  The royal castle dates from the 11th century, but has been restored recently.  We ate lunch at a Karaim restaurant in Trakei.  The Karaim are interesting in that they came from the Crimea in the 14th century when Vytautas the Great brought them to Lithuania to become palace guards. The community believes in the Old Testament, but do not consider themselves Jewish, and in fact were allowed in the Czar's armies, when Jews could not.  For dinner, we went into Uzupis, a self-proclaimed independent republic of bohemians and new age hippies right in Vilnius.  It was a cross between Greenwich Village and Haight Ashbury.


              Gediminas Tower - all that remains of the old fortress from 1409                      The view of old Vilnius from Gediminas Tower

                      Dining in old town Vilnius.  Lots of pork!                                                                Trakei - the old royal castle

As we left Vilnius on our way to the Baltic coast, we stopped about an hour west at an outdoor museum of reconstructed 19th century homes, churches and shops from the different parts of Lithuania.  Also at that museum was a small earth and wood structure called a jurter, which was a replica of one that Lithuanians lived in when they were deported to Siberia by the Soviets in 1941. What was really impressive was that the guide at that structure was one of the survivors of the deportation who lived on the Arctic Ocean at a camp for 20 years. She had horrendous stories of deprivation from her time there.  In fact, a book was written about these deportations and this very person was one of the people that the characters were modelled after.  Joan downloaded the book while there and read about her.  It's called: "Between Shades of Gray".

We then went on to Kaunas, the old capital between the world wars and home to Joan's maternal grandfather.  It was from Kaunas where Abraham Cohen emigrated to the US in the late 1800's.  Although all signs of 19th century Lithuanian Jewish life are gone, we did enjoy walking around the in town and seeing the old buildings that he saw as a youth.

Next was a drive to Klaipeda (Memel is the old German name), the only Baltic port in Lithuania and home to the amber coast, where a good deal of the Baltic amber washed ashore.  We spent the day on the Curonian Spit - a sand penninsula that is lies across from Klaipeda harbor and fronts on the Baltic Sea. The Jersey-ites would see it as looking like Long Beach Island on the Jersey shore. We took a ferry over from Klaipeda, but not before we saw the remains of the 14th century fort built by the Teutonic Knights, a military order that evolved into Prussia and then Germany.  The first adventure was searching for amber on the beach. We found a small piece among the shells, as did others. It was great fun. We then went to the Hill of Witches, where the Soviets commissioned artists to make wooden sculptures of various Lithuanian fairy tales along a trail in the pine forest of the Spit.  After lunch we went to an amber museum where we all sanded raw amber and made necklaces from it. Next was a drive up to the top of the highest dune on the Spit, where we were able to see the Kaliningrad part of Russia, which is physically separated from the rest of Russia by the Baltic countries.

On our way to Latvia, we stopped at a handicapped day care facility in Lithuania and worked among them doing crafts as the social workers explained what they were doing to assist disabled people in a society where they were formally either institutionalized or family usually took care of them - and sometimes not that well. It was very uplifting. This center is being sponsered in part by OAT, our tour company. We then went to the Hill of Crosses, a remarkable place where Lithuanians have put up tens of thousands of crosses to commemorate the victims of their numerous fights for independence.


Here I am on the coast getting ready to look for amber.  Most people in the group found small amber pieces in the sand, including Joan and me.  To the right is the Hill of Crosses

Riga, Latvia

On our way to Riga we visited a beautiful castle called Rundale - pronounced run-da-lay. It was designed by the same Italian architect who designed the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg. It was stunning sitting out in the middle of Latvia all by itself. The owner was the Duke of Courland, the name of the area before it became Latvia. The duke was one of the favorites of Catherine the Great of Russia and was given the land and the castle. It's all about who you know!!  We arrived in Riga in the evening and had a scare when one of our pieces of luggage got misplaced by the hotel porters and we went to bed without all of Joan's clothes and meds. We got it early this morning, so all was well.

We set out on a walking tour of Old Town Riga. We walked through the old town for 3 hours, visiting churches, castles, old guild halls and ramparts. There's a beautiful park and canal bordering the old town that was the old castle moat. It's a great old city and we enjoyed how well it was restored.  We also went to their market, which is housed in 5 old dirigible hangers from WW1. It was immense with many shops manned by Russians. We saw a lot of Russian written here in Riga as a result of a huge push to bring Russians to Latvia from other areas of the Soviet Union during the post WW2 period. When Latvia became independent in 1992, there were more Russians than Latvians. Many left after independence, but many still remain.  After lunch of Latvian cuisine (a lot like Lithuanian cuisine), we took an elevator to the top of St Peter's Church where we had a spectacular view of the city.  After a brief rest, we had a discussion with a young Latvian govt official about political, social and economic facets of Latvian life.  We had dinner at a great Italian restaurant called Fellini's.

Old town Riga from St Peter's church bell tower

The next day we turned to architecture and visited the art noveau areas of Riga. There were fantastic examples throughout the downtown and we ended in a museum that was resurrected from a 1902 art noveau house that was used during Soviet times as a communal house and was trashed. After a great lunch at an Armenian restaurant, the group got together and had a little party in one the rooms with each of us buying a little something from the deli. In the evening we went on a boat ride around the city with another couple and ended the day with an ice cream on the main drag.

On our way out of Latvis we stopped at Cecis castle, which is a well preserved ruin of a 14th century castle of the Germanic Knights of the Livonian Order, who ruled the area that is now Latvia for several centuries. We walked up to the top of the tower and then played medieval bowling with the group. I won and bought another Tee Shirt here to celebrate. 


Cecis Castle

Tallinn, Estonia

We crossed over into Estonia and finally got Euros, before having a rest stop in Parnu, a seaside resort that looked like Avalon in the early spring before the crowds come. The last part of the bus ride was watching a great documentary on the DVD player of the Estonian liberation movement, called the singing revolution in which no one lost their lives.  We entered Tallinn in the evening.

The next day we spent the day touring Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. First, we went through the old town on foot with a city guide. It's a beautiful medieval city with walls, towers and ramparts surrounding beautiful old buildings that survived the world wars intact.  After that we went to lunch in a Starbucks-like cafe that also served great food and then saw more of the town, including a small palace built by Peter the Great and a modern art museum. We then took a tram ride back to the hotel and had a discussion with an Estonian social scientist about life before and after independence. After a dinner in old town at a restaurant specializing in Estonian food, we called it a night. I had wild boar and a couple of sea thornberry shots mixed with vodka. Very tasty.


Views of medieval Tallinn

Helsinki, Finland

To our great delight, the tour guide arranged for us to take the hydrofoil across the Baltic to Helsinki, Finland. This was not part of the tour, but we made a free day by combining 2 half days in Tallinn yesterday to free today for this possibility. She did not tell us beforehand since we needed calm winds to take the hydrofoil and one is never sure until we get there. The regular ferry takes 3 hours each way and we would have no time in Helsinki. The hydrofoil only takes an hour and a half each way, so it is doable for a single day. The crossing was smooth and we arrived in Helsinki with plenty of time to walk the city. We went to the tourist office and got a walking tour map and spent next few hours seeing the old town, with its churches, mansions and university. It had very pretty architecture and we loved going up and down the streets seeing the old buildings. It was interesting that street and highway signs are written in Finnish and Swedish, even though Swedes only make up 3% of the population and haven't ruled Finland for over 200 years. The hydrofoil we were going to take back was "peruttu" (cancelled) so we had to take a later one which got us home around 9 PM. Nevertheless, it got us great memories of a new country, another pin in the map and another tee shirt for me!

The Lutheran Cathedral in Helsinki

St. Petersburg, Russia

We left Tallinn in the morning to drive to St Petersburg, Russia. It was about 200 miles, but we took most of the day due to the poor roads and the border crossing into Russia. We ate lunch on the border at a town called Narva and then went through the myriad of steps to leave Éstonia and the European Union and enter Russia. We had to show our passports and visas and then get off the bus and bring our luggage through the crossing before getting back on and continuing on our way. It took about 30 minutes, but the tour leader said it could have taken up to 3 hours. As soon as we crossed over to the Russian side, we saw a markedly lower standard of living with many old shacks in the villages (some abandoned and some not) and large Soviet style apartment blocks in varying states of disrepair. And the roads! They were washboards and almost as bad as Nepal in some places. As soon as we neared St Petersburg, everything got modern. The city has 5 million people and is beautiful. It was built by Peter the Great in the 1700's and many buildings date from the 18th and 19 centuries and many are in great shapeAfter settling in, we went on a boat tour in the canals in the evening after dinner. The city is called Venice of the North due to the many canals and we were able to see many beautiful buildings from the boat ride. We changed our money again - this time to rubles (33 to the dollar) and it was fun to try to read the cyrllic writing everywhere. It's a lot like Greek but has enough differences to make it tough.

The next day we spent the the first of two days touring St Petersburg. For those that don't know, St Petersburg was the capital of Russia from the 1700's to 1918, when it was moved to Moscow. It is a beautiful European city with many 18th and 19th century palaces and buildings.  We did a bus tour, getting out at various locations and taking pictures and entering places.  The big stops were at St Peter and Paul fortress and cathedral, a beautiful orthodox church where all the czars are buried and which is the site of the original area where Peter the Great founded the city.  The other was the Czars' Winter Palace and the Hermitage art museum, which is housed inside the Winter Palace. We spent 3 hours touring the art in the Hermitage and only saw a fraction of what was there. There were Da Vincis, Rembrandts, Rafaels, Caravaggios and it goes on and on. These paintings were collected by Catherine the Great and her successors.  We spent so much time at the Hermitage that we had to rush back to go to our Russian folklore show in a Duke's palace and just grabbed a quick bite in a Russian cafeteria. The show was actually very good and the acapella singers were so good. I bought the CD. 


     The Winter palace, which houses the Hermitage collection    The Church of the Spilled Blood where Czar Alexander II was killed

Moscow, Russia

We left St Petersburg for Moscow via a flight on S7 Airlines (not a household name - why? Because it was formally Siberian Airlines. Yikes!) It was crazy as we stood on the tarmac as various security people came on (including a policeman who looked like someone out of a WW2 Russian army movie). They were checking a number of passenger credentials before they took some people off. No one knew what was happening and we were just hoping the flight would eventually take off, which it did 2 hours late. We arrived in Moscow late and in the rain. After an almost 2 hour trip to the hotel in the center of Moscow, the rain stopped and we marched off to Red Square via the Moscow subway. Who would have thought we'd be standing in Red Square after growing up during the 50's?

We started the next day with a bus tour around the main sites of Moscow outside of Red Square and the Kremlin, stopping to snap pictures and enter buildings. After lunch at a food court, where we had Burger King, we had our tour of the Kremlin, which is really an old fortress. Inside the walls are many buildings dating from the 11th century, including a number of old churches and palaces where the czars worked and prayed and the Soviets ruled from. Finally it is the current home of the legislative and executive branches of the Russian government. We also went in the old Armory (which has many examples of carriages, clothes, jewelry as well as armor and weapons) and the "Diamond Fund", which is the storehouse of the royal jewels of the Czars. It was amazing. We saw the 200+ carat Orlov diamond, as well as many other precious stones, gold nuggets and other items of value. After having a drink in the GUM shopping arcade, a group of us then took the metro to Arbatskaya, a pedestrian street with street musicians, restaurants and shops and had kebab dinner. After dinner we rode the metro for 12 stops in the ring line, which is world famous for having the best artwork of any subway in the world. It was amazing and true. We got off at each station to snap pics and take video and then hopped on to the next train, repeating this for the 12 stops. Since trains come every 2 minutes, it took less time than you'd expect. We finally dragged our asses back to the hotel after 14 hours of being out. Whew!


The Kremlin seen from St Isaacs                                                      St Basils in Red Square            


Lubyanka prison - home of the KGB                                                               Moscow subway station