SUBROSA
Number 38    September - October 2004
                 

THE BALTIC STATES AND NEAR NEIGHBORS

By Marge Telleen

For almost two weeks this summer, we accompanied Professor Tony Kluszewski, a political scientist at the University of Texas-El Paso, through the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, as well as Poland, Kaliningrad and Bylorussia. We experienced wide-ranging architecture, lovely farmland, meticulously restored medieval cities, great food, and friendly, outgoing folks.

The peoples of the Baltic countries are all making efforts to preserve and restore their heritage and customs, weakened or prohibited during the occupation by the USSR. One of Estonia’s contributions is to host a GIGANTIC songfest each spring. Thousands from the Baltic region attend the outdoor performances, many dressed in beautiful handmade clothing handed down from grandparents. Attempts to regain a sense of their own history are made more difficult by the fact that, in some cases, 40% of the population were killed or sent to gulags and replaced by ethnic Russians who brought their own language, Orthodox beliefs, and customs. The fact that some street names remain in Russian, still today, is resented, particularly by older folks.

Said to be the “purest medieval” city in northern Europe, Tallinn, Estonia is located on the eastern arm of the Baltic Sea. Its heavily fortified historic district gains additional protection by sitting atop a steep hill—steep enough, in fact, that one watchtower is called “kiek in de kok” or “peep into the kitchen” as the tower is nearly encircled by the path climbing the hill! Though the city experienced a great deal of fighting between the trading companies of the Middle Ages, it largely escaped massive wartime destruction. Its cobbled streets and gabled roofs and its monastery, still a pilgrimage destination, are largely intact. Costumed young people, market carts and cafés add to the ambiance in the large square. Happily, like all the northern European cities we visited, it is free of the enthusiastically boisterous crowds of cities farther south.

A long day, though a favorite of mine, began with the departure at 7:30 a.m. from our hotel in Klaipeda, Lithuania for a ferry trip across the Courland Lagoon to Neringa Spit. Formed over a 5,000-year period, the spit extends 200 miles, narrow enough in places that the view seeps from the Baltic Sea, a few yards beneath your feet, to the Lagoon just across the road. Prevailing winds are sufficient to have caused recent relocation of a small resort town whose nearly buried tile roofs were visible as we stood atop a grassy dune-scape. This day—cool, misty—also was made-to-order for a visit to Witches Hill! Winding through several acres of fern, birch, conifers, and berries, the hiker rounds a curve or tops a small hill to be surprised by a wooden carving, sometimes tree-trunk sized, of fabled Lithuanian characters, singly or grouped like totems, guarding the legends of the North.

Vilnius, Lithuania, a newcomer in those northern climes, was founded in 1323 by the Grand Dukes as a cultural center and so it remains. Vilnius University is nearly as old. There studies of astronomy, navigation, and alchemy were renowned. Today architectural drawings and paintings are helpful in authentic restoration.

Riga, capital of Latvia, was founded in 1158, another of the Hanseatic League towns made wealthy by trade—and sometimes a bit of piracy. One delightful result is an entire city block designed by the famed architect Mikhail Eisenstein (1867-1921), each ‘art nouveau’ façade more elegant and involved than its neighbor! No sign indicates that many are now condos; all are resplendent with gargoyles (a favorite decoration), lions, and mythical northern gods painstakingly restored in carved plaster to their 18th century glory.

A day trip to Minsk, capital of Belarus (Byelorussia, White Russia) demonstrated a less happy restoration. Completely devastated by WWII, it was rebuilt during the USSR occupation in “Stalinist Baroque” or “Soviet Realism”. However, streets are wide, paved, and straight. People are most friendly. We had a hilarious beer and sausage lunch in a basement tavern, anticipating the 4th of July.

Warsaw, Poland is now a thriving modern city though with a multi-layered history of tragedy and heroism. Many green parks surround monuments: to Chopin, to heroism, and to the six million Jews and three million Christians exterminated by Nazis. Our Professor Tony, standing beside a life-size bronze memorial depicting his comrades climbing down a manhole related his own experience: “At sixteen, I was in that sewer, sent to fetch more petrol for Molotov cocktails during the 1944 uprising when all my buddies were killed…”

Polish optimism is perhaps best indicated by a large plastic palm standing at a major downtown intersection, looking at that tree almost makes one think one is a little warmer in those brutal winters!

The royal palace and gardens, magnificently restored with marble staircases, intricate inlaid floors, and gold embroidered hangings, are used for meetings and concerts and houses a marvelous restaurant.

Malbork Castle, between Warsaw and Gdansk, built by the Teutonic Knights in the early 14th century, during their years of conquering and converting northern Europe, is considered the finest example of defensive architecture. Its massive towers and walls enclose elegant reception halls, murals, and windows of handmade glass opening above the sun-sparkled Vistula River.

Gdansk (Danzig), Poland—enchanting! The City Hall displays photos of complete destruction, hardly a brick left in place. Yet, thanks to woodcarvers, stonemasons, artists skilled in wrought iron who came from many parts of Europe, amazing rebuilding has taken place following the breakup of the USSR. Lovely small hotels and restaurants are behind the medieval facades fronting the square.

Sherm and Marge Telleen stopping over in London on their way home from the Baltics

We mingled with medal-bedecked “old soldiers” at a street fair in Krakow, then toured the Wieliczka salt mine, descending 400 feet by stairway and ramp. Never a gulag, this operation has continued for seven centuries! The beauty of Wielczka’s elaborately decorated underground chambers is indescribable! Do not miss this if you are in the neighborhood.

Day-long trips by train here and there through lovely, fertile farmland, some fallow and crowded with wildflowers, some hand-scything, few farm machines; church spires; new subdivisions; even in Riga, a very upscale area of custom homes on large lots overlooking the sea were a part of our experience.

There is a lot to be optimistic about for these countries, and we surely enjoyed our exposure to the lives of these people.

Marge Telleen, Garden Overseer and Docent

 

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