Travel logs
2015 Baltics
July 9, arrival

Everyone (and their baggage) arrived on time in Vilnius, which made the 1.5 hour-drive to Kaunas easier and more enjoyable. On the bus, our historian-guide gave us a first taste of Lithuania and the Lithuanians, from their unusual, ancient language to specialties that we must not miss, from agriculture to personal observations. Upon arrival in the second largest city of Lithuania, Kaunas, we had just a few minutes to get into our hotel (rated the best in Lithuania) before taking an orientation walk in the old city center. Thanks to the intercession of our guide, we were able to visit Perkuno namas - the House of the God of Thunder. It’s the oldest house in Kaunas, built in the 15th century during the period when Kaunas was a part of the Hanseatic League. We learned that this town was especially rich in those days, thanks to trade in beeswax and other goods. One of the rooms on the upper floor is now a memorial to Romantic-era poet Mickevicius aka Mickiewicz – claimed by three nations (Poland, Belorussia, and Lithuania). Dinner at the hotel was light and easy on the system, following the long journey: forest mushroom soup, pike perch in mushroom sauce, and Lithuanian cheesecake.

July 10, Kaunas

For our walking tour, we managed to avoid the rain but not the wind and substantially cooler weather. We started our in the riverside park leading to Kaunas Castle, learning about key historical data and events in Lithuania’s history, from its pagan past to the strong duchy of the 15th and 16th centuries, from Polish rule to the Napoleonic era, from Russian czarist rule to independence in the early 20th century, followed by the Nazi occupation and then Soviet years.  Strategically placed at the confluence of two rivers, the Neris and Namunas, Kaunas is a city bustling with students, cafes and little shops, and a great cultural life. It was quite fascinating to find out that there were 90-100 synagogues here before WW II, and that book smugglers risked their lives to bring books in the Lithuanian language, printed in Prussian Kaliningrad, into Lithuania when even speaking the language was banned during the czarist era of oppression. We looked into two churches – St George, opposite Kaunas Castle and long abandoned, is gradually being rebuilt, while the opulent Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral is a fascinating combination of Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, and Classicist architecture. We wound our way to the Freedom Monument surrounded by wooden crosses – a tribute to those who sacrificed their lives for Lithuanian independence – before sitting down for lunch at the town’s most famous restaurant. Venison stew was just what this hungry bunch needed in 60-degree weather! In the afternoon, folks pursued their own interests, whether amber shopping or taking in the variety of museums.
July 11, Kaunas and surroundings
We were all on our own this morning: some chose the unique Devil’s Museum, others went to the Ninth Fort, which functioned as a concentration camp during World War II and later as a communist prison, or to the Ciurlionis Museum, dedicated to that painter/composer. We gathered in the afternoon for a short ride to Pazaislis Monastery, a beautiful 17th-century Baroque church built by Italian craftsmen for the Camaldolian monks.  Set near the sea of Kaunas, a big artificial lake, the monastery complex today houses the sisters of St. Casimir, but in Soviet times it was used as a mental hospital and later as a branch of the Ciurlionis museum. On the façade of the church, one can read “Reginae Pacis,” which can be interpreted in two ways: the Queen of Peace, of course, or as the Queen of the Pac Family – an allusion to the all-powerful Polish noble family who founded the monastery. Inside the church we admired the Palloni frescoes depicting the life of St. Romuald, the founder of the Camaldoli order of monks.  Then we hopped on the bus again and drove to Zapyskis, a beautiful Gothic church in a bucolic setting, to attend “Lost Love Songs” – a mixed chamber music program of Spanish music organized under the aegis of the yearly Pazaislis Music Festival.
July 12, Vilnius and Trakai

A day-trip to Vilnius started at a panorama viewpoint atop one of the three hills of the city, from where we admired the diversity of churches in Lithuania’s capital – 50 all in all! The first to be visited was the Church of Saints Peter and Paul, where we got in just before Sunday services began. The Italian Baroque church boasts 2,000 stuccoes of great diversity and intricacy – figures (putti, religious saints, soldiers), floral and animal motifs, and various other objects. There is also a memento mori: a skeleton (grim reaper with a cloak and a large scythe dancing on symbols of both secular and religious power) reminding us that death is no respecter of rank. We took a little break in the artists’ quarter of Uzupis, where a bizarre constitution was drawn up of the so-called “artists’ republic.” We had a good laugh at some of the rules, and then we marched on to the churches of St. Ann and of Saints Francis and Bernardine. We started our Old Town tour at the Cathedral – a huge church reflecting additions of several centuries, together with a very bizarre bell tower. We learned that Jesuits had nothing to do with the church yet they were given statues on the exterior north side of the building in recognition of their great contributions to Vilnius. In 1579, they founded an academy which later became the University of Vilnius, and are credited for the first printing house in town. We strolled by the President’s Palace and wound our way to the Jesuit Church of St. Casimir and the Holy Spirit Orthodox Church with its magnificent electric green baroque iconostasis. We ended our walk at the south gate of the Old City, aka “The Gates of Dawn.” In the Chapel surmounting the gate is a famous 17th-century painting in Renaissance style of the Virgin Mary, Mother of Mercy, which is said to have miracle-working powers. We had no time to test this theory as Trakai was waiting for us on our way back to Kaunas. The 15th-century island castle was a stronghold of the Duchy of Lithuania, destroyed in the 17th century, and rebuilt in five stages during the 20th century; it's worth noting that the most substantial reconstruction was undertaken during Soviet era. The Trakai voivodeship (15th-18th centuries) was a multicultural state that accommodated not only Lithuanian Catholics, but Karaims (Jewish people from Crimea), Muslim Tatars, and Orthodox Russians as well. Particularly interesting among the interior exhibits were incised lead sticks: the first “coinage” of Lithuania.
July 13, Siauliai and Rundale

On our way from Kaunas to Riga, we stopped at two very different places: the Hill of Crosses at Siauliai and Rundale Palace. The former is a very unusual site of more than 200,000 crosses of all shapes and forms – once symbols of peaceful rebellion, first against the Russian empire and more recently against Soviet domination, now more of a pilgrimage site. After crossing into Latvia, we stopped at Rundale, a magnificent baroque palace built by the famous Italian architect Rastrelli for Ernst Johann Biron, bringing together the artisanship of Berlin stucco craftsmen and Italian master painters to produce the gorgeous interior decoration, which we discovered room by room. This was summer residence of the duke of Courland and Semigallia – a vassal state of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth that existed from the mid-16th century until the Russian annexation of the area in 1795. Following lunch in the former kitchen, we visited many of the state and private rooms of the palace, which in Soviet times functioned as a granary and an elementary school (the family dining room served as a gymnasium!). They have been meticulously restored to their former glory over a period of many years – the Grand Gallery and the Library having been completed as late as 2014. In fact, our guide was among the team of restorators, having worked on many elements over a 40-year career at the palace. Following our tour, we enjoyed a stroll in the wonderful park and formal garden of the palace, with green alleyways, fountains, a lovely little theater, and a large new rose-garden. A leisurely drive took us into the heart of Old Riga for three nights in the Latvian capital.
July 14, Riga
We started our Riga tour just outside the Old Town, at the 19th-century neo-classical Latvian National Theater and the lovely city park along the City Canal that, as we discovered, has a small bridge over a pond that is covered with love locks – in fact, that is where our guide proposed to his wife! Cutting the park into two, across the bridge over the Canal is the Statue of Liberty – a monument erected in the 20s, just after independence, symbolizing Latvia and its three regions. It survived the Soviet era by being conveniently reinterpreted as Mother Russia holding up the three Baltic countries. We walked into Old Town Riga along the second fortified wall, which was built by the Swedish in the 17th century – the period in which the city grew exponentially. Old Town abounds in buildings and churches of almost all architectural styles, from medieval merchant houses to Art Nouveau and a few Soviet-era edifices. One of the several humorous stories we heard in connection with buildings in Old Town is about a Latvian rich man who was not allowed into the guild of merchants, because he was not German. So, he had a huge palace built in Art Nouveau style facing the powerful guild, with statues of two cats on the roof turning their backs –with tails up – toward the merchants’ guild building. This obstinacy eventually had its reward, as he was allowed into the guild, on the condition that he reverse the position of the cat statue closest to the guild – which he, of course, did! The winding narrow streets took us past several buildings of the so-called National Romantic style, a rather austere variant of Art Nouveau, all in grey, and the beautifully restored 15th-century House of the Blackheads – an association of rich, unmarried German merchants. We finished our tour at the Lutheran Cathedral, a church with Romanesque, Gothic, and Baroque architectural features, and a great late-Romantic German pipe-organ. We stayed for the daily 20-minute “concerto piccolo,” today featuring organist Karlis Metra performing works by Bach, Mozart, and Reger. The afternoon and evening were open for everyone to follow their own interests.
July 15, Riga

This morning was dedicated to Art Nouveau architecture in Riga. Discovering the local characteristics of this architectural style – in the words of our guide – in a “crescendo,” from the less ornate to the grandiose ornamentation of buildings designed around 1910 by Eisenstein was truly an eye-opening experience. We started with the horizontal and perpendicular Gothic of the German tradition, moved to examples of the simple and rational Latvian interpretation in grey, and ended with Eisenstein’s buildings featuring an eclectically rich decorative vocabulary and colorful glazed bricks.  Lunch was at the most famous restaurant in town, frequented by heads of state, royalty, opera stars and dignitaries – from Queen Elizabeth to George W. Bush, from Ban-ki-moon to Christine Lagarde, from Montserrat Caballe to Mstislav Rostropovich. The gourmet meal was accompanied by carefully selected wines and and attention to detail was over the top (three varieties of all-natural butter, imported from Bordeaux!) -- truly an unforgettable lunch! In the afternoon, we took a short ride to the open-air Ethnographic Museum, set in a beautiful coniferous forest. We explored just one section of the large museum that exhibits traditional Latvian houses and other rural edifices (windmills, barns, churches, etc.) from late 17th to early 20th century – not reproductions but the real “thing,” just moved from their original sites to the outdoor museum. The sunshine and warm weather really made this visit a perfect way to spend the afternoon. In the evening, we returned to the Cathedral for a full-length organ concert by a 25-year-old multiple-prize-winner, Johanna Soller. Her program juxtaposed German and Portuguese works, bookended by massive late works by Bach and Reger. Despite the rather opaque acoustic of the building, which obscured passagework and interior lines, one came away impressed, both by the skills of the organist and the power of the instrument.
July 16, Turaida

On our way to Estonia, we stopped at the beautiful Gauja National Park – a land of luscious green forests and meadows, cut across by the meandering Gauja River. Set amidst this breathtaking landscape is Turaida Castle – the local administrative residence of the archbishopric of Riga in the Middle Ages. Built in the 13th century, and abandoned in the 17th, it underwent several reconstructions in the 20th. We learned about a young girl known as the “Rose of Turaida,” whose story could very well be adapted to opera: a heartbreaking tale of love, jealousy, and tragedy. An interesting display of Livonian artifacts acquainted us with the culture of Livs or Livonians, a Finno-Ugric population, now extinct. Several of us trudged up 200-some steps to the top of the watch tower, from where we took in splendid views of the valleys below, bathed in full sunshine – and the pictures testify that it was well worth the effort! We enjoyed a hearty lunch at a nearby eatery before forging on to our destination, the Baltic Seacoast resort of Pärnu. In the evening, we all gathered for a concert at the Pärnu Music Festival conducted by Paavo Jarvi, currently head of the Orchestre de Paris, formerly music director of the Cincinnati Orchestra, and soon to take on that post with Japan’s NHK Symphony Orchestra.
July 17, Pärnu

Being in a spa town, this morning we took the opportunity to rejuvenate: relax, walk on the beach, or enjoy the many spa facilities offered by the hotel. Lunch was at the fanciest place in town: a grand villa in early Art Nouveau style, displaying its original painted decor (restored, of course) and gorgeous period furnishings – an amazing collection of the style, in situ. The courses were very innovative, guaranteed to satisfy all taste buds, accompanied by carefully chosen French wines. We all staggered back to the hotel for a couple of hours of rest before attending the Pärnu Music Festival Gala – a showcase of mixed, very unusual repertoire for a variety of chamber ensembles of young musicians.
July 18, Tallinn

Our ride to Tallinn was enlivened by our guide’s telling of two legends connected to the famous Baltic Sea amber – fossilized resin of pine and spruce trees. After unloading the luggage in our centrally located hotel, we took a short walk around Lower Old Town, passing by impeccably restored merchant houses, St. Nicholas Church, and the market square with its Italian palazzo-looking Town Hall. Lunch was an indelible experience: green salad with avocados and sea buckthorn, moose braised in red wine with wild berry sauce and cauliflower puree, and molten chocolate cake with vanilla ice cream. Then we went up the “short-legged” street, passing through the second defensive wall, to the top of Upper Town where once a 12th-century Danish castle stood – now it’s the parliament building, with the rather grand Orthodox Cathedral facing it down. The second defensive wall was put up to divide the two distinct communities living in Tallinn in the Middle Ages: the merchants of the Hanseatic League (living in Lower Town) and Danish-Swedish-German nobility (living in Upper Town). We visited the Lutheran Cathedral that boasts magnificent Baroque-era coats of arms of the nobility of the Upper Town, and then we descended into Lower Town to discover the treasury of the St. Nicholas Church – which now functions as a branch of the National Art Museum. On display, the only surviving 15th-century Danse Macabre painted on canvas by the popular Bernt Notke, and one of the largest retable altarpieces in 15th century Hanseatic towns, painted by Master Hermen Rode. The sacristy contains a collection of exquisitely worked, mostly 17th and 18th-century silver standing cups, tankards, and beakers that belonged to the Brotherhood of the Blackheads and other guilds and crafts.  Truly unique to Tallinn are the deer-foot-shaped toasting goblets. We then sat down to listen to an organ recital in the church. The 1981 organ was built by Rieger-Kloss, and it displayed a cleaner, crisper sound than the earlier organ we heard in Riga. On the program, three contrasting pieces by Lindberg, Bach, and Locklair, which displayed the instrument to good effect.
July 19, Tallinn

Our walk through the narrow cobblestoned lanes of Lower Old Town introduced us to the artistic treasures in the smallest of the Tallinn medieval churches, the Holy Spirit Lutheran Church. The unusual two-nave church has a beautiful winged altar from Berndt Notke’s workshop, a late Renaissance pulpit (the oldest in Estonia) and painted upper galleries from the 17th and 18th centuries, depicting scenes from the New and Old Testament. On the exterior, there is a 17th-century clock made by skillful baroque craftsman Ackermann – credited also for the fabulous wooden coats of arms we saw yesterday in the Lutheran Cathedral. We then passed by St. Catherine’s Dominican Friary and the Great Guild Hall before turning onto the long “Pikk” street with outstanding houses of former guilds (St. Olaf, St. Canute and the Brotherhood of Blackheads), and some Art Nouveau architecture exemplified by eclectically ornamented buildings designed by Jacques Rosenbaum. An interesting detail is a comical sculpture of an old man gazing down through his pince-nez – nobody knows its real significance, if any, but plenty of stories abound. We walked all the way to the northernmost end of the Old Town to look at Fat Margaret tower, and then took a loop around the fortifications and towers back into Lower Town. We re-convened later in the afternoon for a short drive west of town to Kadriorg Palace – an 18th-century palace built by Peter the Great for his second wife, Catherine I. Having been neglected by the Soviets, it was restored and opened in 2000, and now functions as a branch of the Estonian Art Museum, mainly displaying foreign (Dutch, German, and Italian) art from 16th to 18th centuries. We allowed time for a leisurely visit of the exhibits before a charming concert of music from Catherine the Great’s time, surrounded by art of the same period. Commentary (in our honor, in English as well as Estonian) centered on the palace's connection to Catherine and to art of the period while the music was focused on the contemporary Prussian court of Frederic the Great. Appropriately, since the Prussian ruler was himself an accomplished flutist, that instrument held a prominent place in the program being featured in works by Quantz and C.P.E. Bach as well as Frederic. There were also arias from unknown operas of that era, by Johann Adolph Hasse and Carl Heinrich Graun. The ornate hall of the palace enhanced, both visually and acoustically, the effect of the stylish performances.