Friday, August 1, 2014

Keep Your Eye on the Baltics

July 11th - July 24th. Three countries in 14 days! That isn't how the Senior Nomads usually experience countries and their capital cities - but we were rolling towards the finish line and couldn't pass up the opportunity to visit this fascinating part of Eastern Europe.

Our destination sits above Poland and across the water from Finland. The Baltic States are made up of three countries: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. We wanted to visit these three countries to learn how they survived a Russian occupation before WW II, a brutal German occupation during WW II and another terrorizing Russian occupation from 1945 until they all gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

It was incredible to see the transformation from occupation and oppression to active membership in the European Union and NATO. The countries may be small (their combined population of 6 million + is about the same as Washington) but they are very proud of their heritage and are now fiercely independent. And they love to sing!
This poster visually sums up the power of song and the part  it played in Baltic Independence
I won't go too deep into the politics, but if you have a chance Google "The Singing Revolution" you'll  learn how in part, these countries sang their way to freedom. In August of 1989, approximately two million citizens formed a human chain stretching 600 kilometers starting in Tallinn, snaking through Latvia and ending  in Lithuania. This amazing effort brought the world's attention to their plight as occupied nations. In 1991, after continual (and mostly peaceful) protests, all three countries gained Independence. 

Join us on our journey:

Tallinn, Estonia: This was a grand city featuring a postcard perfect UNESCO Heritage Site old town. It was a merry mix of medieval towers, ramparts, stone walls and narrow alleys, teetering houses and towering churches. But just outside the stone walls there were stark reminders of Soviet occupation. Depressing Communist block apartment buildings and severe gray government offices surrounded imposing squares where massive statues of Soviet leaders once stood (more on that later).

Our view of the lovely old town of Riga.
My new strategy for short stays - if it's on a postcard it's worth a visit!
It was a decent bowl of soup - and there was a 20 minute wait to prove it.
Our apartment was huge! We often stay in places under 400 square feet - so this 700 sq. ft beauty was palatial in comparison. It even had a sauna - an unexpected treat. Here's the link:
I found President Clinton in a souvenir shop  presented as a Matryoshka doll. He is in good company! And yes, that is Ms. Lewinsky peeking out of his jacket. I opened him up and found Monica, another lady friend and finally a very small but angry Hillary. I didn't dare open Stalin or Putin!
In our quest to keep costs down, we were always on the lookout for free entertainment - and we scored in Tallinn. We were looking forward to being in Riga, Latvia for the 2014 The World Choir Games during our next stop. As it turned out, two groups, The Linn-Benton Community College Choir (Albany Oregon), and Australia's Gay and Lesbian Choir (Sydney), were both giving free performances as they worked their way to the games. 

Riga, Latvia: We enjoyed a scenic four hour bus trip to Riga. The apartment we chose to call home was very nice. It was small, but since it was owned by an art-director and architect couple it was well designed and decorated with a lovely view towards the city.Here's the link:
This was our street - we had a bad feeling about this one!
The apartment building itself was in total disrepair. If we hadn’t already braved some fairly sketchy entryways during our travels, we might have turned right around at the sight of this one! But once you got past the five flights of stairs, a faint waft of urine, the peeling paint and broken windows – hey, it was fine. At this point in the "new order" people can now own their apartments. So often times terrible buildings have lovely homes inside, but there are no funds to renovate the exteriors and common areas.That should right itself in the future. 

Michael at the front door of the building. I will spare you the stairwell.
A stunning Art Nouveau building down the street just waiting for some love.
We were near a tram and bus line so getting in to town was easy. We took a walking tour with an interesting Australian guide who fell in love with Riga twenty years ago as a younger "bloke" and stayed on. His was a good perspective since he wasn’t personally mired in the occupation era. 
Another lovely old town was just a short tram ride away and a church the Soviets turned into a torture museum!
As we continued to learn more about the history of these countries we found it hard to imagine what life was like under such oppressive occupations. We visited the KGB museum in an apartment building that was first the Gestapo’s headquarters and then became home to the KGB when the Soviets arrived. We also took a guided tour of the Occupation Museum. Heavy stuff.
We had some great meals during this last leg. The buildings may be falling down,
but the restaurant scene was on the rise!
On a lighter note – attending several concerts during The 2014 World Choir Games was one of the major highlights of our trip. We could attend free concerts from morning to night as hundreds of choirs competed in over a dozen categories. We had no idea there were over a dozen types of choral music. The games were attended by 460 choirs from 74 countries with a total of 24,000 singers! We even caught the Linn-Benton College Choir again. 

There were choir performances of every size from 74 countries!
Riga is home to one of the largest indoor markets in all of Europe. Every imaginable food stuff is on offer in five restored Zeppelin hangers – each one with a different speciality; Diary, Meat and Poultry, Fish, Produce and a Clothing and Housewares pavilion where you could really feel the Russian influence. There was another half-acre of outdoor stalls with seasonal offerings. I was in heaven for almost an entire afternoon. 

Just one of five massive market halls.
The outdoor stalls were overflowing with seasonal produce.
There were stalls and stalls of clothes just like this! Hard to pass up this leopard number!
Vilnius, Lithuania: Back on the bus for another four hour journey. The train system throughout the Baltic’s hasn’t caught up with the need so bus travel is the most popular transportation choice. We weren't sure what to expect when we booked these two bus trips. Peasants? Crates of chickens? But it turned out the buses were cool. This time we were on a LUX Bus.There was plenty of leg-room, free Wifi, an entertainment system, free espresso drinks and a WC! 
This was our bus to Vilnius. Front row seats, movies, Wifi and free espresso!
Lithuanian Litas. One of only 5 currencies in addition to the Euro we used on our trip.
Our host Alius met us at the station and drove us to his flat. I have to say it was one of my favorites of the entire journey, so I am glad it was our last. It was also in a building that had seen better days, but repairs and renovations were underway so it didn’t feel quite as hopeless as our Riga dwelling. Here's the link:

Our apartment was the one with the first balcony.
The view down the street - a lovely bride and groom heading to church during a brief shower.
Once again, the owners work in creative fields. Alius is a film production manager and his wife Alana is an interior designer and together they have created a great space for their airbnb guests. Lots of interesting antiques, tons of books, a lovely balcony and an awesome kitchen. We were steps away from the center of Old Town and smart shopping streets.
Again, the scars of German and Soviet occupation were still visible – but there was a vibrancy to this city that was authentic. Tallinn was a bit touristic and Riga was still covered in Soviet dust, but it felt to us that Vilnius was truly breaking free from the past. Oddly, it is the last of the three to switch it’s currency to the euro. That happens in January and the feeling is it will be smooth sailing. 
There was a lot of construction in Vilnius and most of it was renovation work. I was glad to see new cobblestones being installed instead of paving over them with asphalt.
Of course we took the walking tour and continued our education. Of the three countries, Lithuania lost the most Jews during to the holocaust during World War II. From a thriving population of 70,000 that filled almost half of the city, only 4,000 Jews remain in the entire country. 

On our last day we took a two hour bus trip out of Vilnius to Grutis Park - also known as Stalin World. This private park houses a huge collection of imposing statues and memorabilia from the Soviet era. All three countries had huge monuments dedicated to the glory of the regime and the communist ideal, and each disposed of them after independence in there own way. In Lithuania, a millionaire mushroom magnate was granted permission to purchase statues and other memorabilia destined for the scrap heap. The idea was controversial, but in the end a successful, if not unusual venue was created. It was surreal to wander woodland paths and pass 20 foot statues of Lenin, Stalin Marx and many other USSR "heroes" reposing in the woods instead of staring down on the proletariat in city squares. It was a great end to our adventure - and now we have an enlightened perspective on the Lenin statue in Fremont!
Just another day in the park with comrade Lenin.
Who knows what Stalin has in his hands! 
A tapestry no home should be without!
I know it looks like I stole the Lenin tapistry - but I was wrapped in a scarf and a towel trying to stay dry at our forsaken bus stop!
The people we’ve met in these countries have been so friendly and are very willing to talk about politics past and present. Michael enjoyed some very lengthy and interesting conversations that have truly satisfied his eagerness to learn more about life here. 
Here's Michael teaching a new Russian friend about the "Selfie". In the background is another example of a statue moved to a remote military cemetery outside of Riga.
We've been home for a week enjoying friends family and sunshine. Amazing as it sounds, we are not sure what's next. We liked being Senior Nomads so much that we rented our house through June 2015 so we will continue to be homeless in Seattle (by choice) for another year. We attended an event in Europe we are considering starting in the Pacific Northwest - while on the other hand, we have talked about getting back our on the road for places unknown.

We are here for the next couple of weeks then heading to Canada until the end of the month. We'll be back in Seattle for most of September but after that, we may feel the itch to catch a flight to somewhere. More blogs to come on how it all came to be! Thanks for joining us!

I am happy to be in a QFC. But I don't want to let go of my regional, seasonal, don't buy more than you need sensibilities. Not easy in this land of plenty.
 Happy Summer everyone!

Debbie and Michael Campbell
Senior Nomads 2014