Riga: 23 May

We cooked breakfast at the hostel this morning. It was good, but couldn’t match those fresh croissants in Vilnius.

We made the most of morning sunshine because rain was supposed to come in the afternoon–and it did.

Riga is known for its Art Nouveau buildings. They are indeed everywhere. We do not pretend to be architectural scholars, but we enjoyed taking photos:

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The Greek Orthodox Cathedral was magnificent. No photos allowed inside, but it was as elegant as the exterior:

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We visited an Art Nouveau museum:

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We also visited a merchant’s house. This piece is from the 1500’s:

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This beehive was repeated above every window on a building’s exterior.

A building dating from the Stalinist era:

The “Monument of Freedom” unveiled in 1935. We are impressed that neither the Germans nor the Soviets destroyed it:

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It has an honor guard:

Tomorrow more Riga, then late afternoon flight to Norway.

Categories: Latvia | 1 Comment

Vilnius to Riga: 22 May

The best thing about today is that it ended well. The trouble started when I put on my pants. As I always do, I checked for my wallet and it wasn’t there. It didn’t take long to realize that it was lost.

Yesterday, I wore rain pants all day. These pants are a real pain because they have no access to the pants pockets underneath except through the elastic waistband. Therefore, I know I was not pick pocketed. The only thing I can figure is that I thought the wallet went into the pocket but missed.

That doesn’t explain the missing change, though. Our hostel host went with us to the nearby grocery where we had made our last purchase. Surveillance cameras clearly showed me taking out change and returning change to my pocket. Yet this morning the pocket had no change in it either. I simply do not know what happened.

The loss was driver’s license, debit card, and about 200€. That card is now cancelled and a replacement is on its way to Bergen, where we will be next week. In the meantime, Roger’s card still works. As for the Euros, that’s life. In our years of traveling, overall we haven’t lost much.

The next adventure of the day was the 275 km bus ride to Riga. We were pleased with the bus we took to Vilnius, so we chose the same bus line. Nice, clean bus, free coffee and tea, quite comfortable–except the driver was about half there.

We were sitting up front, so we recognized his maneuvers to try to stay awake, like pinching himself and resting his head on his hand.

The first half of the trip was on 4-lane divided highway. He kept running onto the shoulder. Two women passengers came up several times and screamed at him.

The second half of the trip was on a busy two-lane road. He seemed more awake, but then we had the excitement of passing maneuvers

and tailgating at 65 mph.

We were greatly relieved to arrive safely in Riga.

Vilnius was sedate. Riga is “Wow.” Full of young people with too much to drink. Full of beautiful buildings and streets, but no ice cream or gelato stands.

A few photos from our evening stroll:

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Tomorrow Riga

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Trakai and Panerai: 21 May

Like yesterday, today was a slow starter. For one, we had good conversation with our Lithuanian host. For two, we needed time to savor these:

Then we hopped on the train to Trakai, totally modern and spotless:

Trakai was the seat of power in the 14th century when the Lithuanian dynasty stretched all the way to the Black Sea and almost to Moscow. Over the last 100 years, the castle was carefully researched and rebuilt. Besides being a tourist attraction, it appears to be a significant point of pride for Lithuanians. Foreign dignitaries are hosted in the Great Hall.

The castle sits on an island and there was a moat around the keep.

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The walls of the Great Hall are original:

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This guy was probably glad he wore his armor that day:

My favorite place was the courtyard of the keep:

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While there, we tried kibinai, a fried meat pie that dates back to the Lithuanian dynasty–supposedly, the Warriors ate them:

It was OK but we don’t need another.

On the way to Trakai, we stopped at Paneriai, a place in the forest where the Germans shot as many as 100,000 people and let them fall into pits. These pits, conveniently for the Germans, had already been dug by the Soviets for eventual placement of liquid fuel tanks. Later, they forced prisoners to dig up the bodies and burn them in another pit. The present peaceful manicured setting belies the horror that happened here.

Tomorrow an afternoon bus to Riga, Latvia–after one last breakfast of croissants.

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Vilnius: 20 May

It was rainy and cold when we awoke, so we stayed in bed until breakfast was served at 9. Hostel breakfasts are normally mundane–bread, cheese, jam, maybe ham and boiled eggs. This one was different: croissants fresh out of the oven!!! We ate so much that we weren’t hungry again til late afternoon. We also had good conversation with the hostel host, mostly discussing life under Communism.

It was fitting, then, that we headed to the Museum of Genocide Victims–the Nazi-KGB headquarters. We’ve seen several of these museums in formerly Communist countries–this was probably the best, though “best” doesn’t seem the right word to describe these horrific places.

I was impressed by the number of young women who died fighting for freedom.

Holding cells for incoming prisoners. The seat was added post-Stalin:

Cell that might hold 15-25 prisoners at a time:

Hallway:

Solitary confinement:

Padded cell with strait jacket:

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Eavesdropping Room:

Stairway to execution room in basement:

They rigged a ramp to shove the bodies out the window:

There were also a number of exhibits about the resistance movement and people exiled to labor camps.

As a fitting conclusion to that part of the day, we found on the Cathedral Plaza the stone marking one end of the 2-million-strong protest line which reached from Vilnius to Riga to Tallin in 1989, the 50-year anniversary of the Hitler/Stalin Pact of 1939, under whose terms the Soviets gained control of the Baltic States.

By then, the weather was improving, so we did a bit of sight-seeing.

The river around town that served as moat for the castle:

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Street scenes:

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This city is dripping with churches:

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Tomorrow, hopefully a day trip if weather allows.

Categories: Lithuania | 2 Comments

Vilnius: 19 May

It is disconcerting to stand on the side of the road waiting for a bus that is late with no indication whatsoever that a bus might stop at this place.
Mind you, this is no puddle-jumper but a double decker that runs from Stuttgart to Riga, Latvia. As it turned out, there were four buses somewhat in tandem. Ours stopped about 400 feet from where we thought it would, but all’s well that ends well. We stopped at several more inconsequential places.

We had an excellent view from the front seats, top deck, but the quantity of dead bugs on the windshield made nice photos hopeless. This two-lane road is packed with 18-wheelers and our penthouse seats gave us good views of how tight some of the passing maneuvers are. The other drivers just take it in stride and make room for the miscreant.

The border crossing from Poland to Lithuania was not even a stop. The rolling well-cultivated fields and dense forests continued. However, the farther we got into Lithuania, the more familiar things began to seem. Often, except for the foreign language, what I was seeing seemed quintessentially American.

and even the foreign language could give way to English:

However, in the U.S. We don’t have lighted walking/biking trails along the highways:

and we don’t have communist-era apartment blocks:

We will stay 3 nights in Vilnius. This evening we had dinner at a place known for its regional foods. The food was good and cheap, but we didn’t expect them to be playing “Pink Panther,” Country Western and Texas Two-Step.

We walked around a bit and found our fresh milk before hitting the sack. We are finding Vilnius a pleasing mix of narrow winding streets and large open areas/parks. English is widely spoken.

A few photos:

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Memorial to the lost Jewish community:

Tomorrow more Vilnius.

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Addendum to L’viv

You may or may not remember that in L’viv, Roger visited a memorial to a leader of the Ukranian Insurgency Army. He has since learned that that man was the leader of a faction of the Ukranian Insurgency Army responsible for extensive ethnic cleansing of Polish villages in what became Southwestern Ukraine.

Heroes are in the eye of the beholder.

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The Wolf’s Lair to Augustów: 18 May

We were up early this morning and had the Wolf’s Lair to ourselves. I erred in yesterday’s post: what I labeled as Hitler’s bunker was not–Hitler’s is even larger. This is the part of Hitler’s bunker with the most intact walls:

To the right, it was partly demolished:

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To the left, it was more thoroughly demolished:

and that standing wall is no longer monolithic:

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What is amazing is to go behind that wall and find yourself standing within what was the bunker:

That is a part of the ceiling I’m looking at:

This was part of the outer wall:

A peek inside:

Then we were off on another pleasant train/bus ride after a taxi into nearby Kętrzyn, whose freshly renovated train station pays homage to its Prussian past.

This part of Poland abounds with open fields farmed with modern methods. Rich loess soils without rock. Plenty of moisture. Impressive and beautiful:

There are also many lakes:

and attractive churches:

Augustów is prettier than we expected. It seems laid-back at the moment, but probably bustles with water sports in the summer. It is on a still-functioning canal built in the early 1800’s that runs into Belarus.

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Tomorrow, Vilnius

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The Wolf’s Lair: 17 May

It was a given that Roger wanted to visit the Wolf’s Lair where Hitler headquartered some during the war. He agonized over bus schedules and came close to giving up–until he found the train schedule. Suddenly, it became easy.

So today, we took our first Polish train rides. They were a delight. Totally modern, spotlessly clean–even the toilet. These were regional trains that stop even where there is no station, but they still made good time.

I delighted in spotting the terrace housing in the villages with their secondary buildings and gardens behind. The houses that have not been enlarged appear to be of a relatively uniform size and remind me of the proliferation of small, simple, rectangular cookie-cutter houses built in the U.S. after WWII. Except I’m looking at a 500-year tradition instead of 50 years.

And I never tire of looking at this:

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We are staying in the hotel that was the officers’ hotel during the war. Trails through the woods pass by the various bunkers and other buildings. Because of the high water table, the bunkers are above-ground.

Photos do not convey how huge these bunkers are. Their roofs and walls are about 20 feet thick. Some are bunker within bunker with a layer of sand/gravel between.

This was a bunker:

Some of the structures were pretty thoroughly destroyed:

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but most of the bunkers survived relatively intact. No way would I go into one:

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The Air Force command building survived what appeared one small blast:

As we were walking around some of the farther-afield ruins, we got drenched by rain with sleet. We retreated to the room to warm up and plan to take more photos before breakfast tomorrow.

Tomorrow we go to Augustów, which will position us for Vilnius, Lithuania, the next day–by public transport, we cannot get from here to Vilnius in one reasonable day.

Categories: Poland | 3 Comments

Białowieźa Forest: 16 May

We began our guided tour at 5am just as the sun was coming up:

There was only one other couple, so at least we weren’t in a crowd. Our guide didn’t speak English very well, so we didn’t learn as much as we might have.

We saw very large mushrooms that looked like shells:

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We saw lots of attractive, but not spectacular, woods:

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with some bog:

We kept looking for the BIG trees–the 400-year-old oaks the forest is famous for. Duh. We learned that trees grow slowly in Poland. This 3-ft diameter oak is 400 years old:

This carefully protected pine is 200 years old:

After the guided tour, we went on our own to the Belarus border, about 5 miles out of town. We learned that Belarus is serious about its border. Double fencing, plowed strip, cameras. We decided to be good little boy and girl and turn around.

In total, we hiked more than 15 miles today, but it was all flat ground.

When we returned to town, I turned my attention to the houses. My early observation was correct. According to a sign, this layout of “terraced houses” dates from the 16th century. House on front of narrow, deep lot with outbuildings, garden, field behind. Gabled end with two windows face the street, entrance is in side yard. I remember seeing the same arrangement in northern Romania.

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I love some of the old entryways:

These houses all started as log cabins, but many have been clad. This is common:

And many have been transformed as this one in progress:

Tomorrow the Wolf’s Lair: Hitler’s bunker.

Categories: Poland | 1 Comment

Białowieza: 15 May

We left Lublin on the 6am bus to Białystok. It was pleasant walking through a thoroughly deserted Old Town. The bus took 4.5 hours to get to Białystok, then a second bus brought us to Białowieza about 2:30pm. in Białystok, we investigated the bus situation for later and may change our itinerary.

Most of the ride was through farm country, including field after field of mustard:

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I didn’t get pictures of them, but we passed several large churches painted a brilliant blue. The style of the houses also began to change and we began to see villages of a distinctive style set perpendicular to the road. I was pleased to see that Białowieza is such a village and we are staying in one of those houses. I will take those photos tomorrow.

We came to Białowieza because it is in the Białowieza National Park, which includes one of the oldest forests in Europe. In the mid-1800’s, it was the Tsar’s hunting grounds.

This afternoon, we just wandered around the village–it was quite cold. Tomorrow at 5am, we will go on a guided tour into the forest–visitors are not allowed in the forest without a guide. Temperature will be about freezing.

A few photos from the village:

The Tsar’s hunting lodge:

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Stork:

Building with stork:

Neat old house (but not the style mentioned above):

Tomorrow the forest.

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