Monday, July 3, 2017

Backpacking through the Baltics - Finland

We arrived in Finland early in the morning having taking a ferry across the Baltic Sea from Estonia.  The first thing we did was to walk to our hotel (with our backpacks - it was quite a walk!)  We were too early to check in, so simply left our packs and headed out to explore Helsinki.


Helsinki was established as a trading town by King Gustav I of Sweden in 1550 as the town of Helsingfors, which he intended to be a rival to the Hanseatic city of Tallinn.   After Russia annexed Finland in 1809 the town began to develop, especially when Alexander I moved the Finnish capital to Helsinki in 1812 to bring the capital closer to St. Petersburg.   The downtown area was later rebuilt in the neoclassical style to resemble St. Petersburg.



First we wandered across to the station.  It was a hugely ugly building!  Then we walked down to the Esplanade and along to the harbour, where there was a market.  We then climbed up the hill to the Uspenski Cathedral where we sat on the steps and had some lunch.  The Cathedral  is the largest orthodox church in Western Europe and the views over the city were superb.  We were lucky to see a baptism taking place in the church while we were there.


 


From the harbour area we wandered back towards Senate Square.  On the way Rachel found a seal sculpture - apparently there are 40 of these sculptures, almost 7 feet tall, which have each been decorated by Finnish artists.  They are placed around the city to remind people of the need to protect the Baltic Sea.




Senate Square and its surroundings make up the oldest part of central Helsinki. Landmarks and famous buildings surrounding the square are the Helsinki Cathedral, the Government Palace, main building of the University of Helsinki.  There's also a statue of Emperor Alexander II in the centre of the square, surrounded by figures representing law, culture and peasants.  During the Russification of Finland from 1899 onwards, the statue became a symbol of quiet resistance, with people protesting against the decrees of Nicholas II by leaving flowers at the foot of the statue of his grandfather, then known in Finland as "the good tzar".  After Finland's independence in 1917, demands were made to remove the statue. however nothing came of this and today the statue is one of the major tourist landmarks of the city and a reminder of Finland's close relationship with Imperial Russia.


 The cathedral at the top of the steps is the Lutheran Cathedral, it was built by Tsar Nichalas I and was knows as St Nicholas' Church until the independence of Finland in 1917.  It's a hugely impressive building on the outside, but quite bare inside.  




In the evening Rachel and I went for a walk up to the Sibelius Monument north of the city centre, near the old Olympic Stadium.  It was amazing to see how quickly we got out of the city and into an area that felt quite rural!  On the way back to the hotel we also visited the Botanical Gardens.  It was a lovely sunny evening and we had a pizza in one of the outdoor cafes in town.




Our last day in Helsinki threatened to be rainy so we decided we'd go to visit an art gallery.  As it turned out it was great because there was an exhibition at the Amos Anderson gallery called Generation 2017, which is an exhibition of work by Finland's young artists aged 15 - 23.  Some of the work was really amazing - my favourite being the wooden hawk. The exhibition had works by 42 artists selected through an open call that generated over 1000 proposals. 


We wandered some more - and saw some more seals before catching the bus to the airport for the end of our Baltic adventure!





Sunday, July 2, 2017

Backpacking through the Baltics - Estonia

After two days in Riga we set off for Tallinn.  We'd noticed that as we moved further north things were becoming less Germanic and more Russian - and in Tallinn we saw a lot more evidence of this with many signs in Russian.  The food definitely had a Russian flavour as well - bear stroganoff anyone?


Tallinn definitely has its charm, but Rachel and I probably liked this place the least of the 4 cities we visited.  Rachel described it as being a bit "fake" with people dressed up as medieval publicans and peasants - and certainly it was the most touristy of all the places we went.  For me I think the rain might have had something to do with it as well - in Vilnius and Riga we had blue skies and here they were mostly grey.

 

Our hotel was right in the middle of the Old Town, however, so it was easy to get around and to dodge the showers by visiting cafes and museums.


We took a walk through the Old Town and up Toompea, a limestone hill in the central part of the city of Tallinn, to the Orthodox Cathedral.  The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral crowns the hill of Toompea . The cathedral was built during the period of late 19th century Russification and was so disliked by many Estonians as a symbol of oppression that the Estonian authorities scheduled the cathedral for demolition in 1924, but the decision was never implemented due to lack of funds and the building's massive construction. As the USSR was officially non-religious, many churches including this cathedral were left to decline. The church has been meticulously restored since Estonia regained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.


Toompea is very colourful - right opposite the Cathedral is the parliament building.   Tallinn became known as the Lower Town, which grew into a flourishing Hanseatic city, while Toompea remained politically and socially removed.  The people surrounded the castle area with high walls and moats and built towers for defence.  The Gate Tower was the only exit.  

 


There are other gates all around the city and you can even walk on the walls in some sections.  The gate below was near our hotel and called  the Great Coastal Gate with Fat Margaret's Tower which was built to protect the city from the seaside, but also to impress quests arriving by sea.   We went out through this gate to catch the ferry to Finland.




Outside the city walls is the modern city of Tallinn.  Here you will find the Victory Column in Freedom Square.  This modern glass memorial was opened in 2009 as a memorial for those who fell during the Estonian War of Independence 1918 - 1920.

 

Tallinn is full of little alleyways and courtyards - many of which are now home to artists and craftspeople.  It also apparently has the oldest pharmacy and oldest pub in the Europe. 





After exploring the Old Town, we caught a tram to Kadriorg Palace which was built for Catherine I of Russia by Peter the Great. The palace currently houses the Kadriorg Art Museum, displaying foreign art from the 16th to 20th centuries.  




Our trip through the Baltic States was almost done - the following morning we had an early start to catch the ferry to Finland.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Backpacking through the Baltics - Latvia

Rachel and I took the bus between Vilnius and Riga.  It was a beautifully sunny afternoon when we arrived and after finding our AirB&B (in a cellar!) we decided to have a walk around the Art Nouveau area looking at the architecture.

 


Art Nouveau architecture in Riga makes up roughly one third of all buildings in the centre of Riga, making the Latvian capital the city with the highest concentration of Art Nouveau architecture anywhere in the world. Built during a period of rapid economic growth, most of the Art Nouveau buildings of Riga date from between 1904 and 1914, when Riga was the 5th largest city in the Russian Empire and starting to expand beyond the boundaries of the Old Town.


From the Art Nouveau area we walked into the centre of the Old Town.  The Old Town was built in medieval times when Riga was a part of the Hanseatic League.  The buildings are often very Dutch in style, showing the close ties between Riga and the Netherlands.  In fact during the Dutch Golden Age the Baltics were referred to as the "Mother Trade" and Latvia was one of the most important trading hubs for Europe during the Renaissance era.  On our way to the Old Town we walked past the Freedom Monument which honours soldiers killed during the Latvian War of Independence from Russia 1918-1920. The monument is a copper figure of Liberty lifting 3 golden stars. During the Stalinist era there were first plans to demolish it, but then there was a reinterpretation of this monument, where the 3 stars were said to represent the 3 newly created Baltic Soviet republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania being held aloft by Mother Russia!



We wandered through many Old Town squares and stopped for eating and drinking in several of them.  I thought one of the most beautiful squares was by the House of the Blackheads, where free musical concerts were taking place.







Rachel wanted to buy some artwork and eventually settled on some postcards showing images of cats.  These are based on the copper cats on the corner turrets of one of the old buildings.




 

It was a lovely evening so we continued wandering after dinner - out to the Opera House where we stopped for cakes, and then through a park back to our "cellar".  



 

The following morning we set off again for a walk through the streets of Riga.  We wandered up to Riga Castle, which is now the residence of the President of Latvia, and to a set of houses known as the Three Brothers.  







The Three Brothers are some of the oldest houses in Riga- each built in a different century from 15th - 17th.  Today they are part of the Latvian Museum of Architecture.


As it looked like rain in the afternoon we decided we would visit some museums and galleries.  The first one we went to was the Latvian War Museum in the Powder Tower.   It was much more interesting that I'd imagined.  Next to it was another amazingly decorated building.



On our way to the National Art Museum we also called into the Orthodox church, the Nativity Cathedral.   It is the largest Orthodox cathedral in the Baltic provinces built with the blessing of the Russian Tsar Alexander II  In the early 1960s, Soviet authorities closed down the cathedral and converted its building into a planetarium. The cathedral has been restored since Latvia regained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.  The cathedral has five gilded cupolas and an unusual central altar, many beautiful icons and of course painted murals on the walls and ceilings.