Latvia’s another country you don’t hear much about. It’s very similar to Estonia in terms of landscape and history. The people speak Latvian, some speak Russian, but many also speak perfect English. Did you know that there are no curse words in the Latvian language? The biggest insults in Latvian is to call someone a pig or a cow, so Latvians use Russian curse words when they want to cuss.
Although we are only a week and a half in, traveling through Eastern Europe has been a cake-walk. It’s so easy to get around and communicate! The cities are extremely clean and orderly and the transportation has been comfortable, quick, and reliable so far. The bus rides have been only a couple hours, as opposed to the 20-30 hour bus rides we often took in South America. Some of the drivers are still pretty crazy here though. It’s not uncommon for drivers to go 3-wide on 2-lane roads. The hostels are clean, comfortable, and full of information for travelers. Though not as many hostels in Europe seem to include free breakfast (most South American hostels did). The last hostel we stayed in cleaned their bathrooms every hour and gave us a free beer and breakfast. Europe is definitely a good easy place to get into the backpacking groove for first-time travelers. There isn’t much of a culture shock going from the U.S. to Europe. I think I’m going to get rather spoiled during our three months in Europe and be in for quite an adjustment when we head to the Middle East and especially sleeping in a tent for four months in Africa (stay tuned for likely frequent “Kristin breakdowns”).
Speaking of traveling through Europe, something important we just learned about is the Schengen Treaty. This treaty allows US travelers to travel through the countries of the European Union without a visa for no more than 90 days within a 6 month period. We somehow timed our 90 days in Europe down to the day. October 13th is our 90th day and it’s also the day my parents fly home after spending a week in Germany with us. That day we will fly to Istanbul, Turkey. I was pretty disappointed that there is no passport control between countries in the European Union – which means no passport stamps! 🙁 And we just had 48 new pages added to our passport! I didn’t even realize we had passed from Estonia to Latvia until I saw the red and white Latvian flag hanging outside houses.
Riga, Latvia is said to be the most vibrant and cosmopolitan of the Baltic capitals. There is drastic juxtaposition between the old and the new. There are antique-looking metros beside countless new Mercedes, BMWs, and Land Rovers. The towering, state-of-the-art skyscrapers stand on the other side of the river from the old wooden homes of the suburbs and the 13th century churches, stone walls, and towers in Riga’s Olde Town. Riga openly embraces its bright future, while still appreciating and learning from its past. Like Estonia, Latvia suffered greatly under the power of the Soviet Union and the Nazi Regime. They also just gained their independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991 and then began to flourish.
Despite its bright future, Latvia’s troubled past should never be forgotten. One of the most eye-opening and sobering experiences we’ve had on this trip so far was visiting the Museum of Occupation in Riga, Latvia. We aren’t usually big museum people, but parts of this museum are fascinating. During the Soviet and German occupations, Latvia lost over a third of their population. 550,000 Latvians were murdered, killed in war, deported, displaced as refugees, or disappeared without a trace. This left Latvia with a short supply of intellectuals and productive workers. In two days of horror (November 30 and December 8, 1941), 25,000 Jews were killed during the Rumbula massacre. The Nazis burst into their homes and forced them into the Rumbula forest where a mass grave was dug. They forced them to lie down in the grave where they were shot at close range. They were forced to lie down on a pile of the dead who had just been shot, many of whom were still twitching and bleeding. Families (including children), lied down on top of the dead holding hands and awaiting their execution. What a horrific image. Almost all of the Jewish Synagogues in Riga were burnt down then too. Only one Jewish synagogue survived, only because the Nazis didn’t want to burn it down due to its close proximity to other city buildings. In school, we learn about this period with numbers and dates. You don’t hear the real story with the gruesome details of these atrocities against innocent people. I have a feeling we are going to learn a lot of the real stories behind World War I and II period as we continue our travels through Europe.
As soon as we left the somber yet enlightening Museum of Occupations, we were greeted by an example of Latvia’s forward-thinking mentality. Right beside our hostel and the museum, we came across a huge crane beside an elegantly set dinner table. Crowds of people were watching and trying to figure out what was going on. A woman came up to us and offered us last-minute (literally, it started in 5 minutes) half-price tickets to “Dine in the Sky.” A gourmet, Finnish chef would be a serving a gourmet four-course meal with drinks as the entire dinner table was hoisted by crane, 150 feet above the city. Bryan and I are all about trying unusual experiences that come our way, especially when they are half price! (See our Antarctica post for our best example of this) So we decided to bust our daily budget and dine in the sky. They strapped us in harnesses like we were riding a roller coaster. We ate tiny appetizers and drank wine as we were lifted high above the city. We hadn’t even finished our appetizers when they lowered us and one lady got off. She was dizzy and scared. I’m sure her husband was thrilled to throw away 100 Euros for her meal! He stayed onboard though. The appetizer was two tiny crackers with mushrooms and a little rye roll, the main course was baby lamb with a smidge of mashed potatoes, followed by a dab of lemon-ginger sorbet to “cleanse the palate.” My favorite part of course was the espresso-chocolate cake and mousse. I really love baby lambs so I wasn’t a big fan of the main course. I ate some and if I wasn’t thinking about the cute, frolicking baby lambs we pet in Ireland, I’ll admit the meat was juicy and tender. The experience was awesome, the views were great, but Bryan and I both think the food was nothing special; even though the Finnish chef said he had been preparing it for two days. Bryan even said he’d prefer a big plate of Hamburger Helper over that meal. But the novelty of the experience was worthwhile. 🙂
About an hour outside of Riga is the peaceful town of Sigulda, known as the Switzerland of Latvia. It’s a great place to get outside of the city and hike, explore the castles, and see the gorgeous, picture-perfect countryside. After spending a day there, it was time to move on to Lithuania.
I think we are getting extremely spoiled with all of these beautiful Eastern European cities, especially after going to Tallinn early in the trip. We didn’t find Lithuania’s cities as pretty as those in Estonia and Latvia. Lithuanian cities seem to have a problem with graffiti. And I’m not talking about the talented, artistic graffiti that we’ve seen in many places such as Valparaiso, Chile. This graffiti looks like you gave a little kid a can of spray paint and asked them to write their name. One guy named Solomon is such a nuisance that a Lithuanian celebrity offered 500 Euros for someone to catch him. One journalist found him but decided to do an interview which turned into just more undeserved attention for him.
Aside from the untalented graffiti taggers, Lithuania’s capital city of Vilnius does have a funky, artsy vibe to it. There is even a region across the river called Uzupis that declared itself an independent republic that seeks to foster open-mindedness, happiness, and creativity. As soon as you enter the district one of the rules is that you are required to always smile. Uzupis has their own light-hearted constitution, a tiny military, a government, and an Independence Day with a huge party with free beer. The area used to be very dangerous until the artists moved in and transformed it. Now Uzupis is one of the most peaceful and sought-after places to live in Vilnius. The residents are trying hard to keep the artists in Uzupis, and limiting the number of rich residents. On the bridge over the river to Uzupis, you’ll notice a common sight in the Baltic countries – a bridge covered with engraved locks. We’ve seen this on multiple bridges in almost every city we’ve been to so far. Newlyweds have a lock engraved with their names and wedding date, hook the lock to the bridge, and then throw the key in the river. It’s supposed to symbolize that they will be together forever. Every few years the bridges get full and the government has to cut off the locks. Lithuania has a high divorce rate (50% like the U.S.) so some people blame the government for this since they cut off the locks.
Like Latvia and Estonia, Lithuania is rich with recent history. Lithuania was the last pagan nation in Europe. When they were trying to Christianize Lithuania, the King of Poland offered free shirts to all those that came to church and got baptized. The shirts were fancy and expensive so droves of people went to get baptized, but they just wanted their free shirts and they kept their pagan beliefs. Eventually Lithuania did become largely Christian. The Olde Town center of Vilnius alone has 35 churches, and the city has 50. Lithuania suffered tremendously from the Soviet and Nazi regimes. They lost a huge portion of their population to the horrors during those times. One thing I was never aware of was that one of the first institutions that the Soviets did away with was Christianity. They made all of the gorgeous churches into secular places. There is even one cathedral in Vilnius that they turned into a museum of atheism, filled with weapons of torture. Priests and other Christian officials were arrested, deported, and often killed. In the center of Cathedral Square in Vilnius there is a tile with the word “Stebuklas” (meaning “miracle”). This tile marks the beginning of a 2 million person chain that Lithuanians, Latvians, and Estonians formed in 1989 to protest the Soviet regime. The chain of people stretched over 370 miles all the way to Tallinn, Estonia!
The main reason we went to the second city in Lithuania, Kanuas, is because the Red Hot Chili Peppers were playing on July 28th. Unfortunately, tickets were completely sold out online and they don’t have Craig’s List in Lithuania. Bryan spent days searching for tickets and with the help of our city tour guide he was able to score two tickets. The show was awesome! It’s a good thing Bryan found tickets because the arena was completely packed. It was a change of pace after all the serious museums and sites we’ve visited lately.
While in Kanuas we did visit an impressive site – the Ninth Fort. Originally the fort was built by the Soviets to fend off Germany, but it was also used by the Lithuanians as a jail and sadly, after the Nazis took over, as a place to kill Jews and others. It became known as the “Fort of Death.” At the time it was built, the fort was state-of-the-art and had amazing military advances such as a series of underground passageways and escapes, and walls that could withstand cannon attacks. But the fort was positioned in the wrong spot and as the Soviets awaited attack from the Germans for two weeks, all of the other nearby Soviet forts were being attacked. The Ninth Fort was abandoned and never saw a battle. It was, tragically, the site where 30,000 Jews were killed in the “killing fields” (including many children) and the place where the remains of 50,000 were buried during the atrocities of the Nazi regime. Our guide told us an interesting story about a group of Jewish fort prisoners that managed to survive. The group of 64 were asked to burn the bodies of murdered Jews at the fort; many of them bodies of their families and friends. They knew that they would soon face the same fate, so everyday one of the men drilled tiny holes in the door they went through. He kept at this for weeks until Christmas night 1943 when the Nazi soldiers were drinking and celebrating. All 64 prisoners quietly snuck out and escaped into the night. Many of the prisoners were captured and killed but others survived and went on to tell the true story of the Ninth Fort (photo shows a sketch made by one of the 64 escapees).
Something we were surprised about while traveling through the Baltic countries was the diversity in the languages. We thought that because of their close proximity, the Estonian, Lithuanian, and Latvian languages would be similar. This is not the case at all! They sound completely different and we haven’t been able to pick up much except for a bit of Lithuanian. “Aciu” (pronounced “Achoo,” like a sneeze) is Thank You. A lot of their words for things are the English word with “as” on the end – “pubas” is pub, “salonas” is salon . . .you get the idea. Compared to Finland, Estonia, and Latvia, less Lithuanians seem to speak English.
I know this blog has been a lot of history, and I hope you don’t find it too boring. I feel like I’ve learned more World History in the last seven months than I did in all my years of schooling. I love to learn about the human side of history and the real life stories of strength. We have a couple of classes out there following us so I hope you’ll remember these stories and will find your history class a little more interesting. Someday when you’re 30 years old like me and seeing more of the world, you’ll be glad you paid attention in class. 🙂