Part II: Travels in the Baltic: Emerging beyond gray peas and curdled milk, we make our way to Riga in LatviaThe last you heard from us, we were headed for the Via Baltica, the 405-mile major artery between Vilnius, Lithuania, and St. Petersburg, Russia.
By: Dave Wood, columnist, River Falls Journal
The last you heard from us, we were headed for the Via Baltica, the 405-mile major artery between Vilnius, Lithuania, and St. Petersburg, Russia.
Guide Stephan Luscevic pointed to storks on the roofs of buildings at the roadside.
“The stork is much loved in the Baltic,” said Stephan. “It’s Lithuania’s national bird. Of course, we believe that storks bring babies. “Unfortunately Lithuanian storks are not very diligent. Thus our population has declined 10% since independence.”
So Stephan begins his lecture on Baltic statistics. The lecture is a “good thing,” because there’s not much to see in the countryside before we reach Riga: Lots of pine trees; flat surfaces, perfect for Russian and German tanks to rush across.
And, despite the fact the Via Baltica is a major thoroughfare, we see very few cars.
It reminds us of a trip we once took on to Marquette, Mich., during which we saw more deer than cars, if that helps any.
As we race along, Stephan shows us a film about the Russian occupation of the Baltic states and delivers himself of a lecture on Latvian cuisine, saying that one of its most popular dishes is “gray peas over which curdled milk has been poured.”
That doesn’t augur too well and, before we know it, we’re parked in front of the St. Ana Hotel on the unpronounceable Pulkvesa Brieza Street in downtown Riga.
Most of our merry group rushes off to a church a mile away. It’s 9/11 and Riga is memorializing the American tragedy with a concert featuring musicians from Riga’s formidable music school plus guest singers from around the world, including the U.S.
The church is packed and our group returns to dinner at the hotel, visibly moved. No sign of gray peas and curdled milk.
On the morn we’re treated to a tour of this magnificent city, the largest of the three countries.
We walk through the huge Central Market, the biggest food purveyor in Europe. It’s made up of six huge dirigible hangars built by the Germans during World War I.
Each hangar has a different specialty. One has fresh meat, another vegetables, another candy, another exotic fruits that have to be grown far away from this chilly seacoast metropolis.
While my colleagues go on a walking tour, I hobble over to the Museum of Occupation, a wonderful display of how the Soviets took over Latvia a few years after its independence, how the Germans chased them out, how the Soviets came back in 1944 and stayed for 50 years. It’s a beautifully laid out museum in four languages.
And it’s free.
That night we dine in a Latvian restaurant. Grace, a fellow tourist, insists on eating the native fare wherever she goes.
This time she orders a “Zeppelin,” a potato dumpling smothered in pork drippings and shaped like a dirigible.
Grace decides to share. I take a slice remembering my mother’s Norwegian Potatiskorv, thinking that was a tad heavy. Mom was an amateur.
Zeppelins gave new meaning to the title of famous rock group Led Zeppelin. How about “Lead” Zeppelin?
In the morning we were off on a remarkable tour.
At the turn of the last century, Riga, thanks to its seaport, was one of the richest cities in the Russian empire.
To celebrate its 700th birthday, a building craze ensued and today Riga boasts 900 Art Nouveau buildings.
Talk about a feast for the eyes. Most have been restored and made into apartment buildings for the wealthy.
My favorite was a very elaborate structure designed by Michael Eisenstein, father of movie director Sergei Eisenstein (“Potemkin”), which just blows you away with its fanciful façade of gargoyles and heroes of ancient times.
Later, we visit the apartment of one of the architects responsible for the Art Nouveau revolution back in 1900.
That night, Ruth, the Suleruds and I dine at a posh restaurant, Armenia, where we partake of shaslik, rack of lamb and other delicacies. No gray peas.
But what hair I have turns gray when I see the bill. The menu prices hadn’t mentioned the 22% value added tax (VAT).
So there are some downsides to capitalism.
After three days in beautiful Riga, we head for Estonia, the smallest of the three countries and, by all accounts in stories in the New York Times and elsewhere, it’s the most successful, most advanced.
Estonians can vote from home, they can pay their taxes on their computer and they enjoy full membership in the European Union because they’re in fine financial shape.
We checked into Talinn’s Radisson Blu, probably the fanciest hotel I’ve ever stayed in and a credit to Minnesotan Curt Carlson and his minions.
So far so good.
Curiously, Talinn was my least favorite of the cities we visited. To be sure, it’s beautiful, not having been ravaged by World War II, but its Old Town, which is original, has a Disneyland feel about it.
Fortunately, as I was about to leave for the fancy hotel and say goodbye to quaint medieval buildings, Ruth and I stumble on a Russian Orthodox church.
Sounds came from inside. We walked in. A service was going on in this golden temple of worship with priests in gold chanting and parishioners standing before the altar.
That experience was worth the trip to Estonia.
NEXT WEEK: Berlin and Helsinki.
Dave would like to hear from you. Phone him at 715-426-9554.
Buffet breakfasts provided by SmarTours in the four-star hotels where we stayed more than made up for the mediocre “free” dinners I mentioned last week.
In every hotel, the buffets were huge, beautifully laid out and delicious. At each hotel we had three to four hours in the morning to tuck in to a literal groaning board of treats.
Start with four kinds of fruit juice, mineral water — both still and sparkling — delicious coffee, and tea (I can’t speak to its deliciousness.)
Porridge lovers bellied up and sprinkled their cooked oats with lingonberry jam. This was followed by huge platters of gravlax, the sugar and vodka cured salmon, smoked mackerel, pickled herring and pickles.
Hungry for cackleberries? Each hotel served both boiled and scrambled eggs, as well as very fine bacon, two or three kinds of sausage, frikadelle (the delectable meat cake made with baking soda).
Then came cold cuts: Salami, bologna, and braunschweiger both smoked and fresh, not to mention several types of cheese, from camembert to Bond-Ost style mild cheese.
For holders, you had a choice of several very hearty and very crusty breads from black to snow white, still in loaf form for your personal slicing.
Oh, I forgot the layer cake every morning and flaky pastries that shattered at the touch.
If I had a minor complaint it was the fancy unsalted butter that I deplore and everyone else seems to adore.
And if you were still hungry, there were crepes, waffles and more lingonberries, as well as watermelon and other fresh fruits.
We tried to limit ourselves to two trips to the table, but sometimes failed. Whatever the case, our breakfasts usually held us until dinner at eight.