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Baltic Blast
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Latvia

Our time in Latvia and Lithuania seems like a lifetime ago!  This will be a quick blog so we can share some thoughts and pictures.

 

Riga, the capital of Latvia is a beautiful port city of 600,000 on the Baltic Sea.  It is an old city with European flair, plenty of trees, and the wide Daugava River which wanders through it.   It is a sturdy city of old and new, much less dominated by communist era construction than the eastern Balkans.  We arrived in Riga to find a city-wide celebration underway.  Turns out it was the 800th birthday of Riga!  Bands were playing, lots of people were out and restaurants were very busy.   Definitely a reason to celebrate, and not ones to pass up a party, we joined in the fun and had dinner at an outside café.  The next day, Riga was very quiet!

Riga has the largest concentration of Art Nouveau buildings in the world due to the fact that the city experienced a financial and population boom during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, at the height of its popularity.  The result was over 800 Art Nouveau buildings!  Much of the city was destroyed by heavy bombing during WW2 but after the war, huge efforts were made to reconstruct and renovate many of the historic buildings to what we see today.  Four Zeppelin hangars, used to house the Riga central market, the largest in Europe, were acquired as war reparations from Germany are home to a very large central market where you can find almost anything food related.  Pickles, dumplings, sauerkraut, breads, smoked fish – it was all there!

 

One of the more unique buildings is the House of Blackheads, originally intended for the Brotherhood of Blackheads, a guild for unmarried merchants, shipowners, foreigners and others in Riga.  It was a place to fraternize, make connections, learn about commerce and rest.  Once you married, off to a different guild!  Anyway, the building has some interesting architecture.

Since we were at the coast, we wanted to find a beach where we could stick our toes in the Baltic Sea.  Before heading out of town however, we had to go check out the old Latvian Academy of Science building.  It is a massive structure built during the communist days as an example of Stalinist architecture, complete with hammer and sickle motif outside, but was abandoned after Latvia gained its independence in 1991. Today it has an observation area on the 17th floor to get a great view of the city.  It is an eerie building though because everything is as it was left in 1991 when you look into some of the windows.  

We rented a car to drive to Jurmala, a resort town south of Riga.  Upon arrival, we were quite surprised to find a town that looked more like Martha’s Vineyard than a beach town in Europe - beautiful big houses and gardens with lots of  higher end shopping and plenty of eateries. Our suspicion is that much of the money for the lovely homes came from Russia.  While there were very few tourists and even fewer on the beach, we had a lovely day with Bear at the beach.

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Lithuania

Next stop, Vilnius, Lithuania. We kept the rental car for the 4-hour drive. Great roads and a wave-through border crossing made the trip a breeze.  Turns out Vilnius was celebrating as well.  There was a very large square a few steps from our hotel and every night there was a huge gathering.  First, it was the 30th anniversary of Lithuanian independence, the second night was a demonstration in support their brothers and sisters in the Ukraine. There were speakers, songs, and a female drum core.  Almost everyone wore yellow and blue, draped themselves in a flag or had a flag to wave.  It was very moving, and you could tell the fear of Russia was real. It seems Vilnius is not one to give up on a party. 

 

The third night we were there, the square hosted a “Niut Blanche” festival several were serving dinner.  The attire to attend was all white! Our last night there was supposed to be a Tattoo a multi-country military band performance by several of the NATO members.  Included was a contingent from the US.  Unfortunately for us, a thunderstorm caused a delay until the next day.  We found ourselves dodging raindrops and ducked into what turned out to be one of the top restaurants in Vilnius.  Lucky for us, due to the storm, a table was free!

In wandering around Vilnius, we had the distinct feel of baroque.  Most of the 28 churches and many of the buildings were decorated with towers and symmetry. Also in our wanderings we found the section of town called Uzupis, meaning the other side of the river, a self-proclaimed republic within the city.  Apparently, in 1998, 2 guys in a bar came up with 40 rules, wrote a constitution, created a flag, has a president, and an army of 11 people.  No matter that they are recognized by other government, they celebrate Uzupis day on April 1st.  Today, the community is much like Montmartre in Paris, full of artists and galleries.

Each of the post-communist countries had some sort of revolution to overthrow communist rule.  Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia were no exception.  On August 23, 1989, approximately 2 million people, young and old, joined hands to become a human chain 430 miles long from Tallin, Estonia through Riga, Latvia and on to Vilnius, Lithuania. It was known as the Baltic Chain of Freedom and intended to draw attention to a popular desire for independence from Soviet rule.  It was the biggest demonstration in the history of the Soviet Union and the turning point in the struggle for freedom of the Baltic States.  Imaging trying to coordinate 2 million people without cellphones! For 15 minutes there was an unbroken chain – what an amazing accomplishment that changed the course of Soviet History. 

When we left San Diego in July, we were not consciously planning a 2 month post-communist tour but I’m glad we had the time to visit so many countries. The ones we skipped we had visited in the past.  All of the countries are a work in progress.  Some have managed to form more stable governments, re-build their cities and their economies.  Others have struggled to do so.  One thing I’m sure of though, is that if we revisit this area 10 years from now we will be amazed at their growth.

As our time in Europe drew to a close, so does little Bear’s vacation.  He was a real trooper changing locations, riding in planes, trains and automobiles and having to find new patches of grass frequently.  He will be spending the next few months with his friend Emily and her dog Archie.  We would spend a few days in San Diego then off to Seattle for our nephew Stuart’s (and Jess’s) wedding.  It was a beautiful wedding for a wonderful couple overlooking the Seattle waterfront.  From there, back to Moshi Tanzania and the Jamhuri primary school!

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