Saturday, August 18, 2012

Old Squares, Crosses, and the Living Memory of Occupation: Exploring the Baltic States

Riga, Latvia
If you have read any of our blogs then you would know that I have always been fascinated with history.  As living case studies of political transition from authoritarianism to democracy, post-Communist Eastern Europe has always been a fascinating region to visit.   When the occasion came up to attend a friend’s wedding in Estonia we took the opportunity to extend the trip and visit neighboring Latvia and Lithuania, thereby hitting all three Baltic states.  At this point I would say I have done a decent amount of travel around Eastern Europe so I had a good idea of what to expect, both good and bad.  The surrounding environs leading into Riga were defined by the familiar sight of non-descript, drab Soviet- era tower blocks and roads and highways designed to maximize transportation efficiency without regard to pedestrians or the general aesthetics of the surrounding areas.  However, once you arrive in the Old Town of Riga it gets much more interesting and you are again struck by the duality that permeates most major post-Eastern Bloc cities.  These cities always seem to encompass contradictory and conflicting characteristics and Riga was no different; European, but post-Communist; democratic, but not without its dose of corruption; decadent, but cheap; Western, but uniquely Russian.   Pleasing on the eye with plenty of drinking and dining options, it revealed itself as the perfect destination for Stag parties and that becomes even more obvious as soon as the evening arrives and the music begins.    

I commenced the trip in Riga, but also used it as a base to explore the Hill of Crosses across the border in neighboring Lithuania before moving onto to Tallinn to meet up with the rest of our friends for the wedding in Estonia.  Riga itself is small, requiring no more than two days to take it all in.  Anything beyond that and I would highly recommend either a beach day in nearby Jurmala or an excursion into Lithuania to put another country on your personal travel map.    

My main impressions of Riga was that it was compact, very quaint and charming, and extremely cheap.  Although a couple or individual traveler could find plenty to do to stay entertained, it did seem that it was the perfect destination for a “lad’s trip”.  With some of the best examples of Art Nouveau architecture in Europe and a fascinating history that would rival any other in the region, I do wonder whether its reputation as a destination for party goers is doing the city enough justice.  Although conducive to clubbing and bar hopping, it does seem that there could be a bit more that lies beneath the surface which is worth exploring and maybe worth embracing while still retaining its lively atmosphere.

Unlike its neighbor to the north, Estonia who shares more in common with Finland ethnically and linguistically, Latvia is largely Russian and it is common to hear Russian spoken as the primary language.  Conversations with some of the locals even indicated that their first language was indeed Russian over the local Latvian.  Although the language was familiar to me because of my own travels in Russia, I did find the general disposition and friendliness of the average Latvian to be different from their Russian counterparts.  Perhaps this can be the result of being a much smaller country which has retained its own identity and history through the years, albeit influenced by, but distinct from Russia’s            
A must do and one of the main highlights in Riga would be the Museum of Occupation which traces the period of Soviet, then Nazi, and then Soviet rule again in Latvia from 1940 to 1991.  Similar to the House of Terror in Budapest and the Museum of Wartime Krakow located at Schindler’s Factory in Krakow, this is a high quality experience for anyone interested in wartime and political history.  Better yet, it’s free, but well deserving of a generous donation given its impressive displays and informative exhibitions.  Although not as large as its counterpart museums in these other cities, the building itself is an imposing and modern structure which seems to meditate on and reflect the darkness of the period through its physical design.  Depending on your pace and mood, you could spend anywhere from two to three hours exploring the museum.     
Hill of Crosses & Šiauliai, Lithuania
Although charming with plenty of great pubs in which to pass the time, it is nice to venture out of Riga for at least one day trip.  Instead of heading to the seaside retreat of Jurmala, which is also highly recommended, I decided to cross into Lithuania for a day trip to the famous Hill of Crosses near the small Lithuanian town of Šiauliai. The bus ride is approximately two and a half hours from the Riga bus station and it drops you off in the Šiauliai bus terminal, near the city center.  From here you have to take another short bus ride of approximately twenty minutes to a stop identified by a big wooden cross from which point you walk the rest of the twenty to thirty minutes to the Hill of Crosses through fairly barren countryside, but lined with extremely interesting stork nestsMy reason for making the trek out here was primarily due to my pure fascination with the place, and my efforts did not disappoint.  Initially built as the spot of Catholic pilgrimage, the site transformed over the years into a symbol of political opposition against Soviet occupation as attempts to tear it down by the Soviet army were consistently met with the defiance of the pilgrims who simply rebuilt the site again and again.  The result is an astonishing and infinite array of crucifixes of all types and sizes piled one on top of another in an almost endless and dizzying fashion which has come to symbolize the resilience and political will of the Lithuanian people in the face of unrelenting oppression.  

After spending between one and one  and a half hours strolling through the site, it is wise to make a move and head back to Šiauliai in order to catch the bus back to Riga.  Overall, the excursion is about six to seven hours roundtrip, including wait times for buses.  It is not necessarily quick, but worth the journey and at least you have the evening to spend back in Riga (it doesn’t even seem to get dark during the summer months up here). Šiauliai tself did not seem to offer much in the way of sightseeing, but if you do have some time to kill, the bus terminal is attached to a fairly large modern mall with plenty of food options for a late lunch before slugging it back to Riga.  

I do need to offer a couple of tips about the excursion to the Hill of Crosses, because it is not clearly obvious until you are well on your way.  You will need cash and there are bank branches inside the Šiauliai Mall which is attached to the bus terminal.  It is worthwhile stopping into one of these banks to exchange some currency for the bus ride and lunch in Lithuania as they will not accept Euros or Latvian currency.  Lithuania is extremely cheap, perhaps the cheapest country I have visited in Europe, so use discretion and only get enough cash that you will need for the day.  Also, once you arrive at the Šiauliai bus terminal, be sure to go inside and ask for a time table for the shuttle bus to the Hill of Crosses as they do not come regularly and you could find yourself stranded by the roadside on your attempt back to the bus terminal if you haven’t planned properly and given yourself ample time to walk back to catch the bus to town.  Finally, bring your passport just in case you need it.  Although there was no passport check from Latvia into Lithuania, I boarded a bus on my way back to Riga which had originated in Kaliningrad, Russia; therefore there was a passport check when we crossed into Latvia from Lithuania.    

Arriving back in Riga I was pretty knackered from the last couple of days so I finished off the night and my time in Riga with a light dinner as I had yet another very early bus ride to Tallinn the following morning.  Next stop on my Baltic tour, Estonia! 

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