Monday, January 30, 2006

A Grand Tour Part 13 - Vilnius, Lithuania

After a most enjoyable breakfast in the Roma Hotel, we left Riga in high spirits on our way to the third of the Baltic States. What treasures we found. They may be small countries, but are full of many gems and surprises.
Yanis met us with the Volvo and carefully took us through Latvia across the border into Lithuania. Are we really doing this?? Once again, we were captivated by the history and architecture of Vilnius. We covered the old city, of course. The special bonus for us was to also visit the old town of Trakai set by the water. Once again, autumn colours in brilliant sunlight brought the place to life.
The first thing that struck us in Vilnius was beggars on the street. We were given cards that we could give to these people to direct them to centres where they could get a feed for free. This did not stop them from recognising us tourists and putting the hard word on us. Never easy.
Our hotel was well away from the old town and the main attractions, which meant more walking. However, we made greater use of public transport. It did restrict our movements to some extent. Our first glimpse of Vilnius are these views from near the hotel:Our guide in Vilnius was Erica, a University graduate who was very proud of the city's university and made sure we didn't miss it.She was very informative almost to the point of overloaded. But it was great.In the University we were amazed by some wonderful modern frescos painted in more recent times by a leading artist who has a great interest in the legends of Lithuania. These depicted scenes from the past, including legends about wolves and other things. We can't resist giving you a few of these:

Then there was this great organ in the University's graduation hall:Quite a contrast to a church we went to. It was still very dilapidated and was awaiting restoration. The organ pipes were all over the place and as you can see in the next photo (with apologies for the lack of sharpness) the church itself is in a poor state of repair. YET....this is a church that is popular especially among the younger folk and is much in demand for weddings.There are many churches in the old Vilnius, most of which were closed during the Soviet era. Erica told us that the Soviets even turned one of the churches into a Museum for Atheism! In one small area there were some five churches. Have a look at the contrast in style and architecture:

We have just shown you the interior of a non restored, but happy church. The contrast was again very stark when we visited the inside of churches with these shrines that show much loving restoration:

To conclude this series of photos:

Our walks included the city square (very quiet at this time of the year) and what the modern Vilnius looks like:

When Erica took us near a cafe, she told us that the best cakes in Vilnius were served there. Well, with all the walking we had done, we felt deserving of such a treat and were not disappointed. You can just see Erica and Carol sneeking into the place on the left of pic.Just look at the cleanliness and art work. What a setting for a decadent chocolate tort!
Having said goodbye to Erica, we found the bus station and took a bus journey of some 20 kms to Trakai. What a delightful spot. It took a bit of walking and Carol found it really tough, but neither of us wanted to miss this medieval castle on a little island:
Once we got here, our legs and backs told us that it was time to sit down and have a drink along the lake:While Carol rested for a bit longer, looking at the next view, I took off to get a closer look at this fairy-tale castle:

As we left Trakai, we passed this lovely scene. We took this photo not so much for the church as the delightful setting on a sunny day with autumn colours. Can you beat a day like this?We found our way back into the city through the Medininkai Gate above which was the St.Marie's Compassion Mother Chapel. As we said, there were certainly many churches and shrines.
We were almost too tired to go to the booked restaurant for the evening, but decided we needed to eat anyway. So we dragged ourselves to this intriguing and delightful cellar dating back to the 16th century. The atmosphere was great, the food very enjoyable and the drink very welcome indeed. It sort of took some of our tiredness away:We had a fantastic time in all the Baltic countries, are grateful for journeying mercies, delighed in the people we met, enjoyed the food etc etc. is off to Russia. St. Petersburg, here we come:

A Grand Tour Part 12 - Riga, Latvia

It was with anticipation that we drove to Riga. Our very dear Riga friend, Elmars, came from this place just after World War II and has never been back. We sort of made the visit also on his behalf and were delighted to make the acquaintance of the Latvian people.
We arrived in Riga mid afternoon and after being taken to our second hotel (we were upgraded because of an overbooking in the original hotel) went exploring this fascinating city. Almost immediately we came across the Opera House and found to our delight that the following evening there would be a performance by the Latvia Ballet Company of Swan Lake. Yes please!! We were definitely interested and booked our special seats in the balcony. More of that a little later. Here is the Opera House:Surrounded by beautiful gardens:Our original hotel was part of this quaint structure, which is an early Convent and comprised of a number of buildings. Obviously very historic and full of 'old town' atmosphere.Our second hotel was on the edge of the old town and from our restaurant we could view Victory Square where there was a monument constantly guarded by the military:Breakfast was excellent and gave us a great start for a busy day with lots of walking. Gitis was our Guide for the morning and she took us to many sites, including the promenade viewing platform of St.Peters Church Tower. Have a look at these:

Included in our tour of the Church were two significant reminders of what is was like during the war and also post war under the Soviet regime. The church was in ruins following bombing, as can be seen from this photo:
The people of Riga recovered the 'rooster' that was on top of the tower. The story was told about the builder of the first tower in this place who, when he installed the rooster on the completed tower drank a glass of champagne while sitting on the top of it. He then threw down the emptied glass with the words that the tower would remain standing for as many centuries as the number of shattered pieces. Alas for him, it fell on hay and only broke into three pieces. The story continued that after almost three centuries, the church tower was bombed! After the reconstruction took place they made sure there was no hay around and the glass was completely smashed.

The second intriguing monument related to the Soviet occupation. We are not in a position to translate what is on the plaque, but this is what is says, "DAUDZ MOCEKLU IR IZREDZETU TEV MANA MAZA TEVIJA." If anyone out there can give us the translation, please leave a comment on the blog. I would be grateful.The reconstructed Riga boasts many fine and historical buildings. Perhaps they look different from the ones Elmars would have wandered around pre World War II, but it was heartening to see the efforts made by the Latvian people to preserve their long history. We were particularly impressed with the reconstructed House of Blackheads in the old city square near the river: Equally, there were many other fine buildings, including churches that were again in use:

Then of course there is the story about the cat on top of this building. It was placed in such a way to insult a rival guild who were being difficult and failed to recognise the other.But tell me, why did I have to do the tourist thing and touch this sculpture. Don't know. It certainly wasn't anything to do with superstition.And what is Riga without its musicians? There were many who busked, and this cellist entertained us with some fine playing:
In the afternoon we had a more relaxed look at Riga. We chose to join the local families on a boat ride along the river, past the island and back. It was great and we thoroughly enjoyed the trip. Couldn't converse with the folk on board, but were able to converse and relate to the lovely scenery. Being autumn, the golden autumn colours abounded. So, from the comfort of our river boat, here are a few of the scenic shots:

Finally, the day ended with a memorable performance in the National Opera House of the Ballet Swan Lake. It was truly magic. We had great seats in the Circle; the sort that you see in bigtime movies and only the rich occupy. We felt like royalty! A never forgotten occasion as we say Good Night Riga!!