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.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Backpacking through the Baltics - Lithuania

This summer Rachel and I decided to take a week backpacking through the Baltic States from Lithuania to Finland.  We started our trip in Vilnius.  We flew on a Monday evening and arrived quite late (almost midnight - though only just getting dark), so set off the next day to explore the city.

We started at the Town Hall square where we had breakfast, and then wandered through the streets to the Vilnius Cathedral.  The Town Hall was built in 1799 and has remained unchanged since then - now it's used during state visits, for example when Queen Elizabeth and George Bush visited.

The Cathedral is the main Roman Catholic Cathedral of Lithuania.  It's in the Old Town just off the Cathedral Square.  The coronations of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania.   Inside the cathedral there are many works of art dating from 16th to 19th century.  During the Soviet era the cathedral was used as a warehouse.

In the cathedral square is also the monument to Gediminas, one of the first rulers of Lithuania.  Nearby is a small stone making the place where the human chain of the Baltic States was started linking Vilnius with Riga and Tallinn, an event that marked the beginning of the liberation of the Baltic States from Russia.  


We wandered through the Old Town which you get to through gates.  These one above are the Gates of Dawn.  As we went through we came across the Russian Orthodox church.  We went inside - it was really beautiful.  The church was built around 1750 when Vilnius was part of the Russian Empire.  It's built in Baroque style with a Roccoco interior.  In the church are the remains of saints Anthony, John and Eustathios.   

The Old Town was full of amazing buildings including the one below.  For our evening meal we sat in the cafe right next door to this!

We walked around several other parts of Vilnius including Uzupis.  This word means "the other side of the river" in Lithuania.  It's an area that has been popular with artists and in 1997 the district declared itself an independent republic.  In 2002 a statue of an angel blowing a trumpet was put in the main square.  This became the symbol of the revival of the area.  Before this a sculpture of an egg stood in its place.  The egg was sold at auction and now stands on another street.

After wandering through the streets of Uzupis, we walked through the Bernadine Gardens and then up the hill to the Three Crosses.  The original monument was torn down by the Soviets in 1950, but then a new monument was erected in 1989.

On the way back into Vilnius we climbed up to the Gediminas' Tower.  This gave us a good view of the Hill of Three Crosses as well as over Vilnius.  

Walking back into town again we passed the presidential palace.  The palace dates back to the 14th century.  In 1812, both the Russian Tsar Alexander I and the French Emperor Napoleon used the Palace as their residence.

The following morning, before setting off to catch the bus to Riga, Rachel and I wandered around looking at various sculptures and street art around Vilnius.  It really is a city rich with culture - including the monument to Frank Zappa.

Vilnius used to be known as the "Jerusalem of the North" as it had more than 100 synagogues.  The Jewish population was almost entirely eliminated during the Holocaust, and today there is just this one synagogue left.

After two days of exploring Vilnius, we were ready to set off north - to Riga in Latvia.