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It’s the Baltics not the Balkans… Tallin, Estonia & Vilnius, Lithuania

Greeting once again!

We just completed a visit to the upstart countries just emerging from behind the Iron curtain - Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.  Torn between east and west, the Baltics are once again spreading their wings.

Perhaps just a little history to better appreciate the current situation and the sometimes contradictory facade.  The three countries have fought foreign oppression throughout the ages.  Estonia, the farthest north, was the gateway to the Baltic Sea, and heavily fought over by Russia and Sweden. Lithuania's history is very much intertwined with Poland's.  All three enjoyed independence in the interwar years of 1918-1940, but as a casualty of WWII, they found themselves deep behind the Iron Curtain, as new republics in the Soviet Union.  The scars are very evident, though they are working hard to erase them.

Each country is slowly reverting  to their true persuaded us to make our visit to

Highlights:

Tallinn - An incredibly preserved medieval town. The quintessential medieval fortress surrounded by the remmants of its protective wall and bastions (towers that break the wall at certain intervals.)  Inside the walls, is a still thriving community hidden among winding cobblestone streets that date back to the 14th century.  Aimlessly wandering among the streets, we saw Protestant churches, a gothic town hall, and even a Russian orthodox church that seemed out of place. We highly recommend a visit here, definately the hidden jewel of Europe and primed to be the next 'in' place to go. The Benetton was packed!

Back in St. Petersburg, we had made the acquaintance of Emma, an Aussie traveler that had a very similar itinerary.  It was great to run into her once again in Tallinn and share a Saku (estonian beer).

We left Tallinn and travelled off the beaten path to the Hill of Crosses in northern Lithuania. What a journey. We travelled by bus because the train system is apparently in shambles, and if it is running, it takes twice as long as the bus. Taking the night bus to Lithuania, we were dropped off in Siauliai, a small town near the Hill at 3:00 am in the morning. At this point, it's pitch black, there is no one around, and the bus station is closed. Oh yeah, and its about 35 degrees, COLD!  We spy just up the street, a freestanding glass ATM booth.  Hurrying over, Doug runs his card through the lock and we jump inside to stay warm and wait, and wait and wait.  Imagine, if you will, a glass enclosed ATM with Neon lights in the middle of a dark town.  We felt like fish in a bowl.  Huddling to stay warm, we sat under our KLM airplane blanket, hoping that we wouldn't get thrown out by the local police for being homeless.

Thankfully the bus station opened at the crack At, 8:00, the bus leaving towards the Hill finally left.

The Hill of Crosses -

A small hill that represents the faith of a people in their struggle against oppression. It is completely covered, literally, by millions of crosses in all sizes and shapes. Large, ornately carved wooden crosses were strung with smaller rosaries.  Small, intricate crosses next to large simple pipe crosses, even crosses made out of stones and flowers.  

 

 

When we arrived, the hill was eerily quiet, with only the sound of the tinkling metal and wood crosses swaying in the breeze.  After the short hike from the roadside, we were the first ones there and had the hill to ourselves.  Small pathways have been beaten through the hill allowing you to thread a path through the multitudes of crosses, stopping to admire a particularly beautiful carving, or a photo, or an altar. 

 

 

Even the pope left a cross, although his was a very large marble cross out front. The largest crosses on the hill reached 25 feet into the sky.  Many were left to commemorate loved ones but most as an expression of nationalistic religious defiance against the Soviet regime.  In fact, the hill was bulldozed three times during the Soviet occupation , and every time the crosses reappeared, more and more each time.  

 

After an hour of quiet reflection amid the serenity of the Hill, our cue to leave came. It pulled up in the form of a tour bus full of German tourists and they invaded the hill, an army of clicking cameras.  

Our next destination, Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. After the hill of crosses, we boarded a day bus to Vilnius. A relic from Soviet era, the rickety, grimy bus slowly made its way across Lithuania. Our 'express' bus stopped in almost every town, picking up and dropping off a variety of people, at one point even doubling as the local school bus. Kids are the same everywhere. There is always a group of boys that rush to the back of the bus, and takeover the entire row along the back.  We got into a staring, face-making contest with them, that ended in laughter and shared, slighty stale cookies, though we spoke not a word of each other's language. They did recognize Michael Jordan's name however and the Chicago Bulls. I guess that is pretty universal. 

Vilnius: City of a 1000 churches Looking forward to a religious extravaganza, we unfortunately found them almost all under reconstruction, and a good part of the city behind scaffolding.  We did managed to get to the Hill of Martyrs, a stark assembly of three towering crosses overlooking the city. Nevertheless, we enjoyed the spirit of the city, especially in the outdoor cafes, rich with people lounging at all times of the day, drinking, eating and enjoying the company.  

One day, as we were lounging, with Emma, our Aussie friend that we met up with again, a girl sitting alone in the table next to us, recognized our accent and called out to us. We invited her to join us. Turns out, Laura is an actress from states I guess.  Must be on after Xena, though I had never heard of it. Laura was all things bad about America, completely self-absorbed and utterly ignorant of her surroundings, though I hate to bolster the stereotype. We listened in fascination to her descriptions of this charming town, we found ourselves in. BORING, no parties, no Americans, no cute guys that speak english, but then again, language should not have been a barrier to her activities. We turned down a very enticing offer to party with the cast, no doubt, other fourth-tier actors pitifully lonely in a far away city and not quite what their agent described so thrillingly as Europe.

 

Besides the wonderful churches, we visited the KGB Museum, another scar from the Soviet past. The building housed the interrogation and torture chambers used by the KGB against 'enemies of the state' the Lithuanian partisans.  It was a very sobering experience.

To wrap up the baltic experience, it was an eye-opening journey through a fascinating region at just the right time, when they are savouring their independence. Not an area of world most people see or travel to, but once there, the rewards are great.  One last funny incident, on our bus jouney from Vilnius into Poland, we got our first in-route movie.  It was US Marshalls dubbed in Russian of all things. Hilariously, they use a single montone male voice for the entire movie. It made for very interesting love scenes. 

Also, at the border, in the middle of the night, the guy next to us, was taken from the bus and his belonging searched repeatedly for over an hour.  Finally, his stuff on the bus was taken off, and we journeyed into Poland without him.  We wonder what happened?

over and out

ann and doug

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