It was zero hour at midnight. Not really freezing up north in this part of the globe, but a snappy cold hung in the air — like a prickly lover sticking around, refusing to talk. The cobblestones in the street glistened a wet metal black. A couple younger to me by at least two decades (how lucky with time on their side!) sauntered by, drawn by the lure of a promising weekend, hands in pockets and cigarettes dangling from their lips, walking unhurriedly in locksteps, as lovers do, a faint aroma of cheap tobacco trailing them.
I sat slightly shivery on the concrete stubby stump of an ancient goalpost by the archway of my guesthouse courtyard that would have been easily missed in the soft dark by a stranger. Twenty minutes later a taxi turned into the street and stopped before me. Miran, my son, stepped out. We embraced in the shadow of the looming baroque All Saints Church, its pale pink façade accentuated by the moonlight.
Miran had just flown in from Barcelona and our Baltics adventure, a father’s footloose gift for completing his Master’s, had just begun at midnight from Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania.
The plan was to start here and gradually head up northward to Riga in Latvia and Tallinn in Estonia, and from there to the Nordic troika of Finland, Sweden and Norway. While flights are inexpensive and frequent in the region, travelling between the Baltic capitals by train or bus (average three to four hours) is convenient, comfortable and cheaper. So that’s what we did.
Each country has their own beguiling sights and exotic culture on offer and exploring the three states in one trip has its many rewards, as we discovered.
The Baltic states are three smallish European countries that live in the company of giants — endless Russia in the east, expansive Scandinavian states in the northwest and palatial Poland in the south. On the west they share shores with the Baltics Sea. They have a shared tortuous history of occupation and resistance by neighbours but surprisingly diverse cultures that hold distinct identities.
All three Baltic countries were among the first to break away from the clutches of a collapsing Soviet Union in 1990, and worked hard to earn full membership of both the EU and NATO. Today they mix their past and present with panache rather than pain.
Next morning, we started our exploration, as I often do, with a guided walking tour of the historic town. There are a variety of free walking tours in most European cities that take you through streets, nooks and crannies that one would otherwise miss, coupled with native stories and a people’s perspective of local history, while at the same time, visiting the key landmarks of the city.
The heart of Vilnius is one of the largest surviving medieval old towns in northern Europe. It is a stunning UNESCO World Heritage Site, known for its winding cobblestone streets, picturesque churches, and historical buildings. The main street, Gediminas Avenue — where to my delight, I discovered an old man selling Lenin philatelic items to add to my collection of Lenin stamps — is partially located in the Old Town. The main squares are the Cathedral Square and the Town Hall Square.
We started off, as most visitors do, from the picturesque Cathedral Square with its neoclassical marvel, the 18th century aloof bell tower with the Gediminas Hill and its 15th century gothic castle in the backdrop. The tower and the hill offer stunning views of the city’s myriad orange roofs, the city laid out before your eyes like a jewellery set.
We then walked to the Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania, once an ancient seat of power but now refurbished and converted into a space for art and music.
Close by is the President House with its open access and beautiful manicured lawns. Adjacent to this is the imposing University of Vilnius, with its 24-hour massive library open not just to students but also the public. From here we continued walking to arrive in the Jewish Quarter, a particularly pretty part of the old town, its charm masking its dark history. At the end of town, there is the 600-year old Gate of Dawn, one of the only surviving entrances of an ancient town revered by Catholics for its association with Virgin Mary. Many come to Lithuania just to pass under its arch.
But perhaps the quirkiest part of Vilnius is its playfully ‘Independent State of Uzupis’ — a neighbourhood in the Old Town ringed by a stream that is accessible by some bridges but requires a ‘visa’ to enter. The ‘visa’? A smile! You can’t get in if you’re not smiling. The place has a bohemian ambience with its kaleidoscopic street art. Strolling through the colourful neighbourhood, we heard stories of how Uzupis allures musicians, artists and poets. From here we exited through a bridge and made our way back to the Town Hall Square.
Since the day was a weekend, the Square, ringed by pastel shaded baroque buildings and bespoke boutiques selling artisan treasures, was hosting a family gala and a crafts exhibition. Music bands played, acrobats defying gravity atop high poles offered breathtaking magic, street food vendors fed the hungry. In one corner of the square, couples performed waltzes at an outdoor wedding reception. In another corner exhibiting art, a girl in blue was adding finishing touches to a large painting. Unbeknownst to her, there was a little daub of colour on her nose. I thought of telling her but held myself back to let her be in her universe.
In an adjacent tent full of brash abstract paintings, I was intrigued by some people putting on the headset of an audio system and staring hard at some paintings. When asked, I was told by the painter that his team had developed a software that used quantified data from colours of individual paintings and converted these to categorised sounds — ‘converting paintings into audio’. Hain? This was new for me. I put on a headset and for five minutes listened to an eerily haunting soundscape that painted a picture with sound. Oddly beautiful.
We arrived here by a luxury bus from Vilnius. It was sunny but the river breeze softened the warmth. Riga, the Latvian capital, is set on the Baltic Sea at the mouth of the River Daugava, which shimmers dark blue at all times of the day.
Considered the most vividly cultural of the three Baltics states, the city is dotted with museums, concert halls, parks, wooden buildings, art nouveau architecture and medieval Old Town main attractions. The pedestrian-only Old Town has many shops and restaurants, and is home to the busy Livu Square, near where we stayed, with bars, nightclubs and massive shopping malls.
We sauntered through the Vecriga, the historical town with its art nouveau architecture best embodied in the lavishly intricate House of the Blackheads, originally a 14th century headquarter serving as the guild of unmarried ship merchants, ship owners and foreigners. Even back then the building was the star attraction of the town. It suffered heavy damages when the Germans bombed the city to ruins by the Germans in 1941. Its remains were demolished in 1948 when the Soviets rolled in and occupied the Baltics. It was rebuilt in 1995. Today it serves as the Presidency.
Close by are two landmarks — the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia, commemorating the brutal Soviet occupation in the backdrop of World War II; and, my favourite, the striking larger-than-life red granite statue of three men, the Riflemen Monument. It comprises three fused tri-directional men in long coats and hats, facing outward with their backs to one another. It commemorates the Latvian resistance against the Germans during World War I, to defend all the Baltic territories, not just Latvia.
Riga sprawls from its old town into the Art Nouveau District with its stately buildings in pastel shades guarded by fanciful angels, partially clothed caryatids or stylised vines. We learnt that Riga is popular as a city that welcomes stag parties and students, so visitors won’t want for nightlife here. Apparently, the Estonians come down to Latvia in droves for the cheap beer and liqueurs — the weekend swells up with them — while the Scandinavians come to Estonia where it is cheaper for them compared to the Nordic countries! The Riga Black Balsam is the city’s favourite liqueur.
Magnificent churches, architectural masterpieces, romantic cobblestone lanes, squares bursting with summer life and art exhibits and much more can overwhelm you if you’re not careful. In one of the large squares, we stumbled across stunning global art exhibit sponsored by the UN, comprising 200 life-sized bears daubed in national art with a chosen artist from each country painting their ‘bear’. The ‘Pakistani bear’ was beautifully painted by artist Mohsin Zaidi.
After spending the better part of the day through the Old Town, Art Nouveau District, Riga Central market — the largest in Europe dominated by five zeppelin hangars — Lady Liberty Square and the impossibly imposing Doma Cathedral, we entered an open park with a stream running through it. We dipped our legs in it and watched the occasional boat and the plenty of swans float by. It is an incredibly balming experience with the bustling city barely yards away but hidden by copious canopies of green.
Ah, Tallinn! Born at a crossroads of medieval trade and, I felt, the jewel in the Baltics crown. The Estonian capital effortlessly combines 18th century ambiance with the best of modern sensibility. It is tantalising in its contradictions. Well-preserved medieval fortifications ring an old town with its unending cobblestone streets boasting modern boutiques. Old Town Tallinn is more than a medieval beauty, however. Wi-fi is readily available in all of Tallinn, and its nightlife is fully modern.
Artisan shops selling handicrafts and jewellery dot its main drags or are hidden within courtyards. To my delight, I found philately shops and bookshops selling Soviet-era Society first editions. Within spitting distance of our communal resthouse, we found Tallinn restaurants ranging from cozy cellar affairs serving up sauerkraut and sausages and more sophisticated restaurants with large varieties of local wines, hand-produced chocolate and their wonderful honey beer and thickly sweet Vana Tallinn, a liqueur that can be drunk straight, as an addition to coffee, or in a cocktail.
Again, we started off with a walking tour, with our exuberant, chatterbox of a guide, a girl in red in her 20s, showing us the best of the town in a four-hour walkathon. We started off with the Kiek in de Kök, a 15th-century defensive tower and its Gothic Town Hall with a tower that sits in historic Tallinn’s main square. The adjacent St Nicholas Church is an 800-year old wonder of ecclesiastical art.
From here we made our way to the leafy, slopey Bastion Park with its mysterious passages where earthwork fortifications were built along with bastions 300 years ago, which now have been converted into a sprawling park.
On then to the Toompea Castle, an old stronghold site that has been in constant use for over 1,000 years, and currently serves as the houses of the bicameral Estonian Parliament! Facing it is the 140-year-old incredibly beautiful Alexander Nevsky, one of the world’s best specimens of the Russian Orthodox cathedrals.
The Estonians have a hate-relationship with the era dating to its occupation by the Soviets and several times attempted to pull down the church but failed each time as the costs is prohibitive. Today the aggressively atheist society of Estonia maintain its dozens of churches only for tourists. There are virtually no worshippers!
We capped off our beautiful sunny day at the Kohtoutsa Viewing Platform on the northern side of Toompea hill. Serving a function that Daman-e-Koh does in Islamabad, it provides absolutely stunning views over the red roofs and towering spires of the Old Town as well as of the gleaming highrise buildings in the new parts of Tallinn. The sight carries across to the harbour hosting massive ferries with the gleaming Gulf of Finland also visible. Unforgettable views are guaranteed all year round, whatever the weather.
Endings can also be beginnings. Miran and my Baltics tour was over as we headed the next morning for our ferry ride to Finland to serve as the start of our Nordic run. But that’s a story for another day. One of the books, on poetry from the Baltics that I picked up in Tallinn included the following poem by Lithuanian poet Tomas Venclova. Titled ‘Ended Journeys’, it brilliantly captures the spirit of Baltics:
As if in a photograph,
It is spacious and dangerous.
The skies pull back from the rooftops
Having consumed the white plague of the city,
The early freeze penetrates our words,
Singeing our mouths and lungs
In the empery by the imprisoned seas.
The past provides no signs.
The blackened sun beats against the floor,
And our journeys finally end
Where our birthplace, deadlock, and burden Adnan Rehmat
Become irreparably severe
And the columns of Paestum sink into the marsh.
Clear weather. Near winter.
The lowlands press against the Finnish shores
And surround the harbor.
Perhaps then or perhaps earlier
The hour ruptured above the river
And time transfigured into gesture.