Bouncing Around the Baltics - July, 2017 | Travel Blog

Bouncing Around the Baltics - July, 2017

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July 19th 2017
Published: July 20th 2017
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Bouncing Around the Baltics – July,2017

My feet are getting itchy. Cabin fever is building. It’s time to pack a bag, grab my passport and blow this Nevada joint. Feel the need to walk in new pastures, discover interesting back alleys and bars. And where should I do all this, you ask? Why in the Baltics of course! This upcoming trip will add four new countries to my portfolio….. more stamps for the passport, just what I need. It’s my usual morning routine getting to the airport via Super Shuttle, and boarding the various Delta flights for the first stop on my latest adventure: Estonia. I even get to try out a new airline – Air Baltic – probably a local rinky-dink crop duster, held together with tons of duct tape and good wishes but what the hell, I’m always up for a new experience. So long as there are no gaps in the aircraft floor, giving me views of the earth from a mile up, I can fly on just about anything.

Despite an hour’s delay in Amsterdam, finally touched down in Tallinn just before 3pm local time – the brisk 50f climate was a pleasant relief after being entombed in recirculated air over the past 2 days. It’s a very small airport and the plane arrived just a couple of gates away from baggage claim. No customs or immigration to deal with now that I’m in Europe (I cleared immigration at Schipol), so I had collected my bag and met my limo driver within minutes of deplaning. To match the airport, which just happens to be in the downtown area, the city is equally small and within 8 minutes of drive time, we arrive at the Hilton Tallinn Park. It is an impressive smoky-glass tower just a year old, built across the street from a lovely park and less than a 20-minute walk from the famous Old Town. I went straight up to the 11th floor to check in at the executive lounge – this is one of the prettiest lounges I have seen in quite a while. Ceiling to floor glass walls along the entire length of the room, with sweeping vistas of the city. A glass of chilled champagne was brought while the receptionist completed my paperwork – now this is the way to get a hotel stay started!

Keycard in hand I enter my accommodations for the next week – whoa, did someone say fantastic? A corner one-bedroom suite had been assigned to yours truly….can’t tell me brand loyalty doesn’t pay off…and the living room is nothing but glass and chrome, with a massive 65” flat screen tv built into the wall, separating living room from bedroom. A plate of fresh fruit and sparkling water awaited my attention on the coffee table, but first I took in the sights from my ceiling to floor glass walls. The church spires from Old Town grace the horizon; the park’s fountains sparkle in the afternoon sunlight and the nearby harbor beckons me to come visit. I checked out the bedroom – yet another 65” flat screen tv at the foot of the king bed, and more ceiling to floor windows complete with blackout curtains. The massive bathroom is pure delight and I even have a separate dressing room! Geez, I could live here permanently, I just might relocate. Quickly unpacking my toiletries, I took a hot shower and changed out of travel-stained clothing before heading back to the executive lounge for an early dinner. Grabbing a table by the window and along with a second glass of champagne (Moet & Chandon Brut – no cheap brands here), I enjoyed a selection of hot and cold entrees….did I mention they had eclairs for dessert? I had just died and gone to hog heaven. A solid night’s sleep is next up on my agenda and first ensuring the blackout curtains were tightly closed, I hit the hay and am asleep almost instantly. Tallinn is the one of the world’s most northern capitals which, especially this time of year, means it never really gets completely dark here…sunset is close to 10:30pm and then it’s just dusk for a few overnight hours, but remains light enough that street lamps are hardly necessary. I woke up close to midnight and could easily see across the city to the waterfront. It’s almost surreal. No people on the streets this late at night, just flashing traffic lights at intersections where no vehicles await – northern twilight gloom highlights a slumbering city.

After a great night’s sleep, I climb out of bed and throwing back the bedroom drapes sunlight floods the room, but heavy dark clouds on the horizon promise rain soon. Time to investigate the onsite restaurant, The Able Butcher, located on the 2nd floor and open for breakfast, lunch and dinner every day. As the hotel is still so new, everything from the carpets to the cutlery are fresh, clean and pristine and after being shown to a window table, I settled in for a delightful breakfast experience. First the waiter pours a cup of outstanding coffee – dark and thick enough to get even my weary eyelids open wide – and fresh squeezed orange juice, cold enough to make my back teeth ache… far, so good. I’m invited to peruse the selection of hot and cold entrees spread out over 4 different stations, and after giving the chef my omelet order, I’m hard pressed to decide on yogurt, fruits and breads. They have all the fixins’ of a complete English breakfast: mushrooms, baked beans, Irish bacon, fried tomatoes, country sausages, and yes, even kippers! UK visitors here will feel totally at home. This is definitely one of the better buffets I’ve had at a Hilton property in quite a while. It’s simply fabulous.

An hour later I returned to my suite and with a clap of thunder overhead, the heavens open and the rainfall begins in earnest. It is coming down in buckets as I write this, and with the desk right next to the windows, I have a front row seat to the storm. I’m a long way from Vegas baby! While my room was being cleaned, I headed up to the lounge to sip on a cappuccino and watch as the storm rolled out into the Gulf of Finland. Finally, the skies clear, the sun breaks out and it’s turning into a lovely day. The lounge windows offer marvelous harbor views which stretch for miles – so close to the hotel – a large luxury cruise ship is in port and various ferries zig zag across the waters. There is much to see and do here…..sightseeing and exploration begins tomorrow via my perennial favorite, the HOHO bus.

For a relatively small city, Tallinn’s HOHO bus system is quite extensive with three separate routes totaling 18 stops: red for the main city center including Old Town; green for the historic suburbs and blue for the open-air museum line. All this can be had for 1-day ticket costing 20 euros, or 3-day ticket for 23 euros – kids ride for a mere 7 euros but alas, no senior deals. The nearest bus stop is a few blocks away on the far side of the park, just a few minutes’ walk from the Hilton. The first bus starts rolling at 10:30am and runs until 5pm – plenty of time to experience all three drives. Leaving the hotel after breakfast I strolled thru the park, with the wind chilly enough to keep me from people-watching from one of the many benches, set back under the lime trees. The tour bus arrived promptly and of course I headed up to the open top deck, more than ready to capture Tallinn in all its glory with my camera. This first bus was the green line which transported me a few miles outside the city, to the beach area of Pirita. This is a mile-long sandy beach used extensively by locals during long summer days. Close to the beach are the original Olympic Village buildings (now converted into a hotel, spa and boutique shops) which were built for the 1980 games – yes, those games, the ones the USA and many other countries boycotted. Russia at that time, didn’t have the necessary facilities to host the yachting competitions but Tallinn did, and now it’s the Olympic Yachting Center, attracting sailors from around the world. Next up was the TV Tower, one of the tallest structures in the city (stands some 1,031’) with 360-degree views, and a café/viewing deck 558’ above ground. Would have been a great place for coffee, but time is of the essence with HOHO schedules.

Heading back towards town, the bus swung thru the commercial and passenger ship terminals down in the harbor – must have been at least 8 large liners in port, and those passengers scurried around like fire ants on a mission. Quite a few boarded my bus and we were off to the Seaplane Harbor Museum. This was located in a massive Quonset hut, not that interesting, but right next door were the ruins of a Soviet prison – talk about doom and gloom – this building typified that in spades. It radiated a sinister, menacing vibe, and the peeling grey paint with crumbling walls only added to the sensation.

Back in the center of town, I jumped off my bus and prepared to board the blue line. This would take me out to the Open-Air Ethnographic Museum but my hopes were dashed, when I was told most of that route was closed, due to road construction. So, Plan B – a red line bus pulled up and I grabbed that one instead. This is the most popular route which encircles the entire Old Town section of Tallinn, with stops at the Russian Cultural Center (who knew Russkies had culture and a fancy-ass building to prove it? I thought they were a bunch of vodka-swilling Oligarchs – I swear, I learn something new every day on these gigs), and then the famous Toompea Castle complete with moat – dry now thankfully – imagine the mosquito problem otherwise. The most famous of Old Town’s edifices would be St. Olaf’s Church. Once the world’s tallest building (from 1549 – 1625), the 407’ church spire can be climbed during summer months. Apparently, the views from the top are stunning. The jury is still out, as to whether I make this climb during my upcoming Old Town exploration. I had to delay this until later in the week….only an hour left before the HOHO buses stopped running and I needed at least four or five hours to really visit the place. Not to mention it was time to head back to the Hilton – happy hour up in the lounge was calling my name. Bright sunlight had pushed the mercury up into the mid 70’s, so I thawed out during my return stroll thru the park. It had been really cold up on those open decks – I damn near had icicles hanging from my fingertips. No doubt, a couple of shots of Estonian vodka with bitter lemon, will melt those in a heartbeat.

Parallel with HOHO buses, Tallinn has excellent public transportation consisting of trams, buses and trolleys – all of which use the same ticketing system. Like many major cities, a Smartcard can be purchased for a 2-euro deposit and topped-off as needed in kiosks available just about anywhere. The best bet for any visitor is to purchase a Smartcard based on number of days it will be used: 3 euros/1 day, 5 euros/3 days, 6 euros/5 days and even a 30-day card is available for 23 euros. This enables unlimited travel on clean, air-conditioned and very comfortable vehicles. They even throw in free Wi-Fi to keep everyone happy!

My last day in Tallinn was spent exploring the upper and lower parts of Old Town. Without a doubt, one of the most beautiful medieval walled cities I have had the opportunity to experience, and one I won’t soon forget. Cobbled streets, gothic architecture, gourmet restaurants and funky pubs….once home to wealthy merchants settling from Germany, Denmark and beyond, today are all enjoyed by locals and visitors alike. The original cobblestone streets are dotted with medieval churches and grandiose merchant houses, barns and warehouses many of which date back to the Middle Ages. You could walk around for a week, and still not see everything there is here.

A little bit of history:

Estonians resisted the assaults of Vikings, Danes, Swedes, and Russians before the 13th century. In 1346 the Danes, who owned northern Estonia, sold the land to the Teutonic Knights of Germany, who already possessed Livonia (southern Estonia and Latvia). The Teutonic Knights reduced the Estonians to serfdom status. In 1526 the Swedes took over, and the power of the German (Balt) landowning class was reduced. But after 1721, when Russia succeeded Sweden as the ruling power under the Peace of Nystad, the Estonians were subject to a double bondage—the Balts and the czarist officials. The oppression lasted until the closing months of World War I, when Estonia finally achieved independence after a victorious war (1918–1920). However shortly after the start of World War II, the nation was occupied by Russian troops and incorporated as the 16th republic of the USSR in 1940. Germany occupied the nation from 1941 to 1944, when it was retaken by the Soviets. Talk about being dominated!

Estonia doesn’t have to struggle to find a point of difference - it’s completely unique. It shares a similar geography and history with its neighbors Latvia and Lithuania, but culturally it’s very distinct. Its closest ethnic and linguistic buddy is Finland, and although they may love to get naked together in the sauna (do I detect cheering from the peanut gallery?), 50 years of Soviet rule in Estonia have separated the two. For the last 300 years Estonia’s been linked to Russia, but the two states have as much in common as a barn swallow and a bear (their respective national symbols). With a newfound confidence, singular Estonia has crept from under the Soviet blanket and leapt into the arms of Europe. The love affair is mutual. Europe has fallen head-over-heels for the charms of its capital city and its UNESCO-protected Old Town. Simply put, Tallinn is now one of the continent’s most captivating cities. And in overcrowded Europe, Estonia’s sparsely populated countryside and extensive swathes of forest, provide spiritual sustenance for nature-lovers.

If anyone reading this is laboring under the misconception that ‘former Soviet’ means dull and grey and that all tourist traps are soulless, Tallinn will delight in proving you wrong. This city has charm by the bucket load, fusing the modern and medieval, to come up with a vibrant vibe all of its own. It’s an intoxicating mix of ancient church spires, glass skyscrapers, baroque palaces, appealing eateries, brooding battlements, shiny shopping malls, rundown wooden houses and cafes set on sunny squares – with a few Soviet throwbacks in the mix, for added spice.

Despite the boom of 21st-century development, Tallinn remains loyal to the fairy-tale charms of its two-tiered Old Town – one of Europe’s most beguiling walled cities. That wasn’t always the case. For a while it appeared to be willing to sell its soul to become the Bangkok of the Baltic: attracting groups of young men with the lure of cheap booze and rampant prostitution. That’s calmed down somewhat and although sleazy elements remain, the city seems to have realized that there’s more money to be made from being classy than brassy. Hence an ever-expanding roster of first-rate restaurants, atmospheric hotels and a well-oiled tourist machine that makes visiting a breeze, no matter what language you speak. Increasingly sophisticated without being overly sanitized, forward-focused while embracing the past, it is a truly fascinating capital city.

Time to move on some 200 miles south and follow the Baltic Highway to Latvia. Leaving the hotel at 9:30am, the bus drove thru the outskirts of Tallinn and out into the countryside, which for the next 3 hours, was nothing but thick Baltic Pine forest as far as the eye could see. Glimpses of the Baltic Sea could be had between the trees at times, but the monotony of this drive was only broken during an hour’s lunch stop at the border between the two countries. It was here I found a fascinating display of chocolate bars with the weirdest of ingredients, i.e. garlic, peppercorn, onion but the one which caught my eye, was the Cannabis seeds. This I had to try. I grabbed the last two bars on the shelf and headed out the door.

Arriving in the capital city of Riga just after 3pm, I checked into the Radisson Blu Latvia hotel which in its heyday, was considered the best hotel for westerners (and the only hotel during Soviet times they could stay in), as the KGB had all guest rooms wired with microphones. Rumor has it, the top floor was off limits to everyone, as that is where the agents sat and listened to guests’ conversations. Very centrally located and close to Old Town, it is an older building but well maintained. The rooms are adequate, the Wi-Fi is free but the a/c is “iffy” - I can deal with that.

Dinner that evening was at the Bierhaus, a small basement-type restaurant on a side street, just a short walk from the hotel. Unfortunately, the food did not equal the ambiance – I ordered beef stroganoff but what arrived on my plate was a puddle of mystery meat (dog maybe?), in a tasteless sauce and no noodles. The dessert was fine, ice cream and fresh fruit, but then, how could a chef screw up something that simple which requires no cooking?

The following morning brought rain and windy with a plummeting temperature, and of course yours truly did not bring an umbrella – great way to start the day, huh? First a stroll thru the famous Art Nouveau neighborhood. I could admire the incredible sculptures adoring the various buildings, while getting soaked to the skin in the process, but it’s a good thing I’m waterproof. However, I did wear damp clothing for the next couple of hours. Then the obligatory walk thru Old Town (does every single city in the Baltics have one? Thoughts to ponder for sure), and of course this Old Town did not disappoint, any more than the previous two had, and I did get some terrific photos. Around noon the skies finally cleared, the sun came out and the city took on an entirely different appearance. At the entrance to Old Town is the Freedom Monument and it was here that I spotted the Riga Canal, a manmade waterway which encircles Old Town and connects with the Daugova River. Moored close to the bridge was a historical art nouveau-style boat “Darling” built in 1907, and for the princely sum of 18 euros, I spent the most delightful hour slowly cruising the entire canal and parts of the river, while enjoying the sun and drying out. The cruise lasted an hour and motored past 14 major points of interest and tourist attractions enroute. It was the perfect photo opportunity and the weather cooperated the entire trip.

Back on dry (no pun intended) land, it was time for a bite of lunch, and walking down yet another new street, I happened upon the Georgian Tbilisi sidewalk restaurant – a true Caucasian gastronomy gem. The waiter was more than happy to explain the strange-sounding entrees on the menu, and suggested a dish which, when it arrived along with a glass of red wine, was simply fantastic… other way to describe it. A bowl of peppers, onions, tomatoes baked with pork pieces in natural juices and seasoned to perfection….I could smell the deliciousless before it hit the table! Sitting outside and watching the world go by, while eating a sensational traditional dish and drinking wine, what better way to spend a couple of lazy afternoon hours? Made it back to the hotel just before it started raining again, so up to the Sky Bar once more for pre-dinner cocktails and watch the dark clouds roll across the city and sweep it clean with rain.

I was ready for another culinary experience for my last night in Riga, and I certainly found that at the Riviera, a white and blue style restaurant located in the posh embassy district. It is reputed to be the hottest spot for local bohemians and businessmen alike. Yummy, mid-range priced Mediterranean meals, served by fast, knowledgeable waiters who really demonstrate their understanding of customer service. This is a place where any menu selection is done right and doesn’t disappoint. I ordered crab tempura and chicken soup with quail eggs….hell of a combination I agree, but it both met and exceeded my expectations. Fantastic way to say goodbye to Latvia.

A little bit of history:

A tapestry of sea, lakes and woods, Latvia is best described as a vast unspoiled parkland with just one real city – its cosmopolitan capital, Riga. The country might be small, but the amount of personal space it provides is enormous. You can always secure a chunk of pristine nature all to yourself, be it for trekking, cycling or dreaming away on a white-sand beach amid pine-covered dunes. Having been invaded by every regional power, Latvia has more cultural layers and a less homogenous population than its neighbors. People here fancy themselves to be the least pragmatic and the most artistic of the Baltic bunch. They prove the point with myriad festivals and a merry, devil-may-care attitude – well, maybe a subdued Nordic version of it.

The Gothic spires that dominate Riga’s cityscape might suggest austerity, but it is the flamboyant art nouveau that forms the flesh and the spirit of this vibrant cosmopolitan city, the largest of all three Baltic capitals. Like all northerners, it is quiet and reserved on the outside, but there is some powerful chemistry going on inside its hip bars, modern art centers, and in the kitchens of its cool experimental restaurants. Standing next to a gulf named after itself, Riga is a short drive from jet-setting sea resort, Jurmala, which comes with a stunning white-sand beach. But if you’re craving solitude and a pristine environment, gorgeous sea dunes and blueberry-filled forests, begin right outside the city boundaries.

With over two decades of freedom (and a renewed status as Latvia’s capital) under its belt, Riga is reclaiming its rightful title as the cosmopolitan cornerstone of the Baltic. Sitting at the crossroads of the great empires that wrote the pages of Europe’s elaborate history, Riga was – for centuries – a strategic linchpin in the annexation of important lands, until it was smothered into obscurity when the Iron Curtain fell. Today, the city is unrecognizable - chic, lively and overflowing with architectural gems.

Over the past few years, hip cafes have spread like wildfire throughout the city center, sweaty pork-and-potato dinners have been swapped for savvy dishes inspired by the New Nordic movement, and hundreds of crumbling facades were restored to their brilliant, art nouveau luster – all in time for Riga to earn the long-deserved honor of being named European Capital of Culture in 2014. A generous infusion of EU funds further protected Riga’s UNESCO-protected castle core, while audacious attempts at civic, sculpture-like architecture have given the culture capital a certain 21st-century flair.

Another long 5-hour drive the next morning south to Lithuania, and at last I arrived in the capital city of Vilnius just after lunch. In this city I’m staying at the Novotel in the central area….can’t go far wrong with this hotel chain, they rarely disappoint. The afternoon was scheduled to be spent at the KGM Museum, which is also known as the Genocide Museum, and considering how many people disappeared from this building, very aptly named. The outside of the building was attractive, white sandstone and art nouveau carvings very typical for the city, but inside was, as they say, “a whole ‘nother story”. Just stepping thru the doorway and into the dank tiny reception area was enough to give me the creeps, and once I descended into the basement where the torture rooms and cells were located, it really brought home just what a terrible time it was during “the Soviet Times”, as the locals refer to the years of occupation by the USSR. Tiny cells, so small only possible for one person to stand up in, must have been the ultimate in claustrophobia, not to mention sheer terror. The very walls seem to have absorbed the misery, the hopelessness, the desperation of the unfortunates who made it down into this Soviet hell. After 20 minutes, I was more than ready to return to the sunny gardens of the outside world. Embedded in the outside walls, are stone slabs inscribed the names and dates of the people who never left this location alive….a sobering reminder of man’s inhumanity to his fellow man.

Upon returning to the Novotel, I found that my trusty laptop would not connect to their Wi-Fi system. Horror upon horror – I can’t function without being online anywhere I go, so down to the reception desk I went, looking for IT assistance. As much as I travel the world, I have yet to not be able to logon when there is a reliable internet connection, and this simply made no sense to me at all. The front desk manager went as far as calling the hotel’s IT support desk, but they had no clue either….this was not looking good. Finally, we resorted to going the hard-wired route, and the hotel loaned me a computer cable for direct network access. Considering I will only be here for a couple of nights, I can live with the workaround.

Next morning it was another round of exploring a Baltic capital city and visiting yet another Old Town section with a local guide. The weather was holding but the dark grey clouds on the horizon promised a storm before the day was done. And this was to be the case. After a couple of hours of wandering the cobblestone streets, just made it back to the tour bus before the heavens opened and the rain came down in buckets. According to the guide, Lithuania is known as the rainy country, and it’s not uncommon for these deluges to happen throughout the year at very inconvenient times.

Final afternoon in the third of the three Baltic States, and despite the inclement weather, it’s off with the same local guide to visit Trakai Castle which is in Trakai Historical National Park, just an hour’s drive outside of Vilnius. This national park is one of five located in Lithuania and is the smallest overall. The park was established in 1991 and the castle sitting on an island in the middle of a large lake, is the only castle in Eastern Europe to be surrounded on all four sides by water, and is known as “Little Marienburg”. The actual castle buildings do not resemble what most people would think of as a castle per se, but it follows along the lines of a European medieval manor house, with the red brick walls and dark red tiled roof tops and turrets. It’s an extremely scenic area, but the pouring rain, rolling black clouds and cold wind did not add much to the surroundings, unfortunately. But at least I got to see it and photograph it….really that’s all that matters for me.

The rain continued to fall on the drive back into the city, but with the rush hour traffic (after 5pm by the time) it was slow going, creeping block by block until we arrived at the Novotel. The temperature had dropped, the wind had increased – I’m staying put this evening and having dinner right here.

A little bit of history:

Vilnius, the baroque beauty of the Baltic, is a city of immense allure. It easily tops the country’s best-attraction bill, drawing tourists like moths to a flame with an easy, confident charm and a warm, golden glow that makes you wish for long midsummer evenings every day of the year. The capital may be a long way north and east, but it’s quintessentially continental, with Europe’s largest baroque old town at its heart. Viewed from above, the skyline – pierced by countless Orthodox and Catholic Church steeples – looks like a giant bed of nails. Adding to this heady mix is a combination of cobbled alleys, crumbling corners, majestic hilltop views, breakaway states and traditional artists’ workshops – all in a city so small you’d sometimes think it was a village. It's been a Lithuanian center of power for centuries, going back to the days of the Lithuanian dukes, but successive waves of Polish, Russian and Jewish influence have lent a cosmopolitan flavor that other large Lithuanian cities lack.

It has not always been so happy here, though. Those reminders of loss and pain, from the horror of the KGB’s torture cells to the ghettos where the Jewish community was concentrated before being literally wiped out by the Nazis. Yet the spirit of freedom and resistance has prevailed, and the city is forging a new identity, combining the past with a present and future that involves world cuisine, a burgeoning nightlife and shiny new skyscrapers.

An early start the next morning for a long day’s drive south to a country I have long wanted to explore – Poland. A little less than 300 miles but not always on freeways, at least half the drive was on local roads which made for a total of 7 hours driving time. My butt was totally numb by the time we arrived to check in at the Radisson Blu in downtown Warsaw, just after 4pm. Despite being seated for the majority of the day on a tour bus, I was more tired than I would have been walking around town exploring, so it’s an early night for yours truly.

A little bit of history:

Poland is located at a geographic crossroads that links the forested lands of northwestern Europe, to the sea lanes of the Atlantic Ocean, and the fertile plains of the Eurasian frontier. Now bounded by seven nations, Poland has waxed and waned over the centuries, buffeted by the forces of regional history. In the early Middle Ages, Poland’s small principalities and townships were subjugated by successive waves of invaders, from Germans and Balts to Mongols. In the mid-1500s, united Poland was the largest state in Europe and perhaps the continent’s most powerful nation. Yet two and a half centuries later, during the Partitions of Poland (1772–1918), it disappeared, parceled out among the contending empires of Russia, Prussia, and Austria.

Even at a time of national crisis, however, Polish culture remained strong; indeed, it even flourished, if sometimes far from home. Polish revolutionary ideals formed those of the American Revolution. The Polish constitution of 1791, the oldest in Europe, in turn incorporated ideals of the American and French revolutions. Poles later settled in great numbers in the United States, Canada, Argentina, and Australia and carried their culture with them. At the same time, Polish artists of the Romantic period, such as pianist Frederic Chopin and poet Adam Michiewicz, were leading lights on the European continent in the 19th century. Following their example, Polish intellectuals, musicians, filmmakers, and writers continue to enrich the world’s arts and letters.

Restored as a nation in 1918 but ravaged by two world wars, Poland suffered tremendously throughout the course of the 20th century. World War II was particularly damaging, as Poland’s historically strong Jewish population was almost completed annihilated during the Holocaust. Millions of non-Jewish Poles also died, victims of more partition and conquest. With the fall of the Third Reich, Poland effectively lost its independence once again, becoming a communist satellite state of the Soviet Union. Nearly a half century of totalitarian rule followed, though not without strong challenges on the part of Poland’s workers, who, supported by a dissident Catholic Church, called the economic failures of the Soviet system into question.

In the late 1970s, beginning in the shipyards of Gdańsk, those workers formed a nationwide movement called Solidarity. Despite the arrest of Solidarity’s leadership, its newspapers kept publishing, spreading its values and agenda throughout the country. In May 1989 the Polish government fell, along with communist regimes throughout Eastern Europe, beginning Poland’s rapid transformation into a democracy.

Traveling around Poland, you realize this: Warsaw is different. Rather than being centered on an old market square, the capital is spread across a broad area with diverse architecture: restored Gothic, communist concrete, modern glass and steel. This jumble is a sign of the city’s tumultuous past. Warsaw has suffered the worst history could throw at it, including virtual destruction at the end of World War II – and survived. As a result, it’s a fascinating collection of neighborhoods and landmarks. Excellent museums interpret its complex story, from the joys of Chopin’s music to the tragedy of the Jewish ghetto.

It’s not all about the past, however. Warsaw’s restaurant and entertainment scene is the best in this country. You can dine well and affordably here on cuisines from around the world, and take your choice of lively bars and clubs. This gritty city knows how to have fun.

Warsaw is among the greenest metropolises on the continent, with Europe’s wildest river flowing through the center of the city. During World War II, the city was reduced to rubble, nonetheless the city was brought back to life and continues to flourish. It is a city with the tallest four-faced clock tower in the world. Its faces are 18’ in diameter, making it the largest clock of its kind in Europe. The tower sits on one of the youngest, yet one of the most prominent, symbols of socialist architecture – the Palace of Culture and Science built in 1956.
Paradoxically, Warsaw’s Old Town is only 50 years old. After World War II, it was proudly and laboriously reconstructed to its present form. In 1980, it was placed on the UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites. I had a somewhat blasé reaction to this particular Old Town, simply because I knew it was entirely rebuilt…I just prefer the “real” and “original” structures, I guess.

Monumental and lapidary socialist realism sits alongside the subtle and ethereal Art Nouveau architecture, and modern-glass skyscrapers tower over apartment buildings. Every day locals walk by the multitude of commemorative sites, and after work they relax in numerous parks and gardens. The modern office building designed by a famous architects Foster and Partners beautifully blends in with the neighboring Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which was part of the arcade of the Saxon Palace before WWII.

The historic Praga district, which for decades was in the shadows of cultural life, is going through are revitalization process and is becoming the ‘promised land’ for artists and an oasis for creative endeavors. An actual rooftop garden has been cultivated atop one of the largest university libraries in the capital. While within the historic walls of Łazienki Palace on the Lake, you can listen to hip-hop and the ever-present Fryderyk Chopin, where the famous composer himself used to play. Now that is an interesting contrast.

Warsaw is a city full of astonishing contrasts and it never ceases to amaze with its magnitude of dimensions and themes, which are there to be discovered, absorbed and understood by the inquisitive. Popularly known as tourist attractions, Warsaw’s aforementioned gems can be discovered in several different ways. On foot, by bicycle, on a tour of historic sites or going on the Chopin trail, as well as attending concerts and festivals, listening to contemporary music, club-hopping or pursuing other ambitious artistic events.

The afternoon was spent at the Wilanow Palace and Gardens,the stately royal palace at the southern end of Warsaw's Royal Route, has been home to many kings and noble families throughout history. Sometimes referred to as the Polish Versailles, it is a grand sprawling structure, with three long galleries of glistening arched windows framing a wide lawn and sculpted garden. As the palace remained virtually unharmed during the Second World War, the original structure and interior décor remain as a testimony to Poland's magnificent past.

The palace was built for King Jan III Sobieski, one of the greatest leaders in Polish history, and much of what you see today is associated with the golden days of his reign. If you look carefully, you can find details in the exterior structure and interior design glorifying the Sobieski family and the king's military victories. The architectural style is unique - it incorporates the form of traditional Polish manor homes together with Western European art and design. After the death of the king, the palace changed hands many times, and became the popular summer residence of many great Polish families. Each new owner brought about a new series of renovations, adding to and modernizing the palace, making it a comprehensive exhibit of Polish architectural style as well as a rather thorough display of Polish history. The rooms are open for viewing, and while the exquisite design and decoration alone are well worth viewing, the palace is also an art gallery, full of historic paintings. The grounds were originally styled as a baroque Italian garden, in a semi-circle surrounding the palace. Later on, a geometrically-patterned French garden was laid out, which you can wander through at your leisure or observe from the elegant upper terrace.

Located in a former stable building on the palace grounds, the Poster Museum has the largest collection of poster art in the world. It was the first museum of its kind in the world when it opened in 1968. It contains over 55,000 works of international poster art, including around 30,000 Polish posters dating from 1892-2002. A visit to the palace, a peek at Poland's great poster collection and peaceful walk through the park, makes a perfect day away from the city center.

But the real highlight of this day was the evening’s entertainment. A private one-hour piano recital of Chopin’s most well-known works, was conducted in the concert hall of the city museum. A total of 10 magnificent pieces were performed by Maciej Poliszewski….a Polish prodigy who has trained in Moscow and at Julliard in New York. The richness of the incredibly-tuned grand piano; the acoustics of this small concert hall; the awesome musical notes, all combined to transcend the small audience of about 35 people, into a different place.

Early morning departure for Krakow the next day, which is the final stop on this Baltics trip. It was a long day with a 3-hour sightseeing stop for the Black Madonna. According to tradition, the icon of Jasna Góra was painted by Luke the Evangelist on a tabletop built by Jesus himself, and the icon was discovered by St. Helen, mother of Emperor Constantine and collector of Christian relics in the Holy Land. The icon was then enshrined in the imperial city of Constantinople, according to the legend, where it remained for the next 500 years. In 803 AD, the painting is said to have been given as a wedding gift from the Byzantine emperor to a Greek princess, who married a Ruthenian nobleman. The image was then placed in the royal palace at Belz, where it remained for nearly 600 years.

History first combines with tradition upon the icon's arrival in Poland in 1382 with a Polish army fleeing the Tartars, who had struck it with an arrow. Legend has it that during the looting of Belz, a mysterious cloud enveloped the chapel containing the image. A monastery was founded in Częstochowa to enshrine the icon in 1386, and soon King Jagiello built a cathedral around the chapel containing the icon. However, the image soon came under attack once again. In 1430, Hussites (pre-Reformation reformers) attacked the monastery, slashed the Virgin's face with a sword, and left it desecrated in a puddle of blood and mud. It is said that when the monks pulled the icon from the mud, a miraculous fountain appeared, which they used to clean the painting. The icon was repainted in Krakow, but both the arrow mark and the gashes from the sword were left and remain clearly visible today.

The miracle for which the Black Madonna of Częstochowa is most famous occurred in 1655, when Swedish troops were about to invade Częstochowa. A group of Polish soldiers prayed fervently before the icon for deliverance, and the enemy retreated. In 1656, King John Casimir declared Our Lady of Częstochowa "Queen of Poland" and made the city the spiritual capital of the nation.

The Virgin again came to the aid of her people in 1920, when the Soviet Russian Red Army gathered on the banks of the Vistula River, preparing to attack Warsaw. The citizens and soldiers fervently prayed to Our Lady of Częstochowa, and on September 15, the Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows, she appeared in the clouds above Warsaw. The Russians were defeated in a series of battles later dubbed the "Miracle at the Vistula." During Nazi occupation, Adolf Hilter prohibited pilgrimages to Jasna Góra, but many still secretly made the journey. In 1945, after Poland was liberated, half a million pilgrims journeyed to Częstochowa to express their gratitude. On September 8, 1946, 1.5 million people gathered at the shrine to rededicate the entire nation to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. During the Cold War, Jasna Góra was a center of anti-Communist resistance

Pope John Paul II, a native of Poland, was a fervent devotee of the Virgin Mary and of her icon at Częstochowa. As pope, he made pilgrimages to pray before the Black Madonna in 1979, 1983, 1991, and 1997. In 1991, he held his Sixth World Youth Day at Czetochowa, which was attended by 350,000 young people from across Europe. Other popes have honored the "Queen of Poland" as well. Pope Clement XI officially recognized the miraculous nature of the image in 1717 and in 1925 Pope Pius XI designated May 3 a feast day in her honor. Pope Benedict XVI visited the shrine on May 26, 2006.

Arriving in Krakow around 5pm, it was dinner at the Mercure Hotel and an early night for yours truly, in preparation for another full day of exploring. For those of my readers familiar with Steven Spielberg’s movie “Schindler’s List”, will find it interesting that the actual building is still around in the industrial area of Krakow and is a major tourist attraction. Oskar Schindler was a German industrialist, spy, and member of the Nazi Party who is credited with saving the lives of 1,200 Jews during the Holocaust by employing them in his enamelware and ammunitions factories, which were located in occupied Poland. He is the subject of the 1982 novel Schindler's Ark, and the subsequent 1993 film Schindler's List, which reflected his life as an opportunist initially motivated by profit who came to show extraordinary initiative, tenacity and dedication to save the lives of his Jewish employees.

The highlight of this day for me, was in the afternoon when I visited the Wieliczika Salt Mines. One well-traveled Frenchman observed in the 18th century that Krakow's Wieliczka salt mine was no less magnificent than the Egyptian pyramids. Millions of visitors, crowned heads of Europe and such celebrities as Goethe and Sarah Bernhardt among them, have appeared to share his enthusiasm when exploring the subterranean world of labyrinthine passages, giant caverns, underground lakes and chapels with sculptures in the crystalline salt and rich ornamentation carved in the salt rock. They have also marveled at the ingenuity of the ancient mining equipment in the mine. And the unique acoustics of the place have made hearing music here an exceptional experience. Nowadays, the mine located practically on the southeast outskirts of Krakow, has been worked for 900 years. It used to be one of the world’s biggest and most profitable industrial establishments, when common salt was commercially a medieval equivalent of today's oil. Always a magnet, since the mid-18th century, it has become increasingly a major tourist attraction in the first place. Today visitors walk underground for about 1.5 miles in the oldest part of the salt mine and see its subterranean museum, which takes about three hours.

Nine centuries of mining in Wieliczka produced a total of some 125 miles of passages as well as 2,040 caverns of varied size. The tourist route starts 210’ deep, includes twenty chambers, and ends 443’ below the earth’s surface, where the world's biggest museum of mining is located with the unique centuries-old equipment among its exhibits. It is a lot of walking, but with the level floor surfaces and more than adequate ventilation, it isn’t nearly as arduous as I expected. Some of the wall carvings are so intricate, it’s difficult to believe they were created by common miners, but evidently, genius can be found anywhere!

Occasionally concerts and other events take place in the mine’s biggest chambers.

There is a sanatorium for those suffering from asthma and allergy situated at the 3rd level at 443’ deep underground, and is fully booked most of the year. While walking thru the passages, tourists are encouraged to breathe deeply, taking in the salt-laden healthy air deep into lungs.

The most awesome of all is the Chapel of Saint Kinga, largest among underground chapels
in the Wieliczka Salt mine, and is actually a sizable subterranean church carved in rock salt and
embellished with salty sculptures and bas-reliefs. Three huge chandeliers hang from the massive roof, casting shadows across the vast cavern to highlight more wonders created by long-dead miners over hundreds of years. It is simply one of the most amazing underground structures I have ever seen.

UNESCO entered the Wieliczka Salt Mine in its World Heritage Register in 1978.

If you believe the legends, Krakow was founded on the defeat of a dragon, and it’s true a mythical atmosphere permeates its attractive streets and squares. And if you consume enough of the local vodka, dragons will be the least of your visions!

Wawel Castle is a major drawcard, while the Old Town contains soaring churches, impressive museums and the vast Rynek Główny, Europe’s largest market square. In the former Jewish quarter, Kazimierz, remnant synagogues reflect the tragedy of the 20th century, just as its lively squares and backstreets symbolize the renewal of the 21st. Here and throughout the Old Town are hundreds of restaurants, bars and clubs.

However, there’s more to the former royal capital than history and nightlife. Walking through the Old Town, you can easily find yourself overwhelmed by the harmony of a quiet back street, the ‘just so’ nature of the architecture and light. It’s at times like these that Krakow reveals its harmonious blend of past and present, an essential part of any visit to Poland.

Poland is a country of contrast….it definitely warrants a return visit in the not-too-distant future.

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