The Baltics: Beautiful countries with bold people

Hill of Crosses near Siauliai, Lithuania. (Courtesy photo/Roxanne Rowley)

Hill of Crosses near Siauliai, Lithuania. (Courtesy photo/Roxanne Rowley)

By ROXANNE ROWLEY
Special to the News Advocate

We had no idea what to expect when we visited the Baltics recently. But we were happily surprised at the beauty of the landscapes and the down-to-earth friendliness of the people. The Baltics are three small countries in northern Europe: Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. They share a boundary with Russia to the east and the Baltic Sea on the west. And while each country is small, they leave a big impression

Roxanne Rowley

Roxanne Rowley

Lithuania has a population of about 3 million. We visited the capital, Vilnius, home to 600,000. The medieval old town, with its narrow lanes and cobblestone streets, is one of the oldest in Europe. The architecture is stunning with baroque, gothic and renaissance buildings. There are many churches, but I really liked the beautiful Orthodox Church with domes and a gilded interior. I noticed there were no pews in the church. Churchgoers stand during the services because it is considered disrespectful to sit before their God.

On an evening stroll we watched children (and some adults) splash in the fountain in a huge tree-lined park. Then we were drawn by the sound of bells to a melodic church bell concert. We sat with the locals and listened to show tunes and popular music. It was a really enjoyable evening.

We also had a chance to visit Trakai, a charming little town, to visit a beautifully restored castle from the 14th century. You almost expected knights in shining chain mail to ride by on their trusty steeds.

One of the most touching sites we saw the Hill of Crosses near Siauliai, Lithuania. The city dates from the 1200s and had a tradition of placing crosses on a hill outside of town as a way to defy foreign

Castle at Trakai, Lithuania (Courtesy photo/Roxanne Rowley)

Castle at Trakai, Lithuania (Courtesy photo/Roxanne Rowley)

invaders.

The Hill of Crosses has represented a way to peacefully resist oppression of their Catholic religion. Now fast forward to the 20th century when Lithuania was taken over by Soviet Russia after WWII. Three times (in 1961, 1973, 1975) the Soviets leveled the Hill of Crosses and each time the inhabitants replaced them. Finally in 1985 the Crosses were left in peace.

Pope John Paul visited the site in 1993 and since then it has been visited by millions of pilgrims. There are over 1 million crosses there — some are very ornate — made from beautifully carved wood or metal, while others are simple wooden crosses. I found an especially lovely carved wooden cross to honor the victims of the Armenian Genocide. It was especially moving to consider that each of those million plus crosses represented the memory of a loved one.

Next on our stop was the little country of Latvia, with a population of almost 2 million. Riga, the

Flower market in Riga, Latvia (Courtesy photo/Roxanne Rowley)

Flower market in Riga, Latvia (Courtesy photo/Roxanne Rowley)

endearing capital, has about 640,000 residents. The medieval old town has a mix of architectural styles, cobblestone streets, and many charming shops and eateries.

When we were there the main square, called Livu Square featured an exhibit of fiberglass bears from over 140 countries. Each bear was decorated to represent its county, resulting in some colorful and unique designs. Each bear was about five feet tall. It was a lot of fun to admire as many as possible.

Right across from our hotel in Riga was a large park. We enjoyed taking some walks and admired the flowers and other greenery. There was a big stage where there was a concert to celebrate the 100th re-birthday of not only Latvia, but the other Baltic states and Poland as well. In 1918, after WWI, their countries again appeared on maps after being absorbed by Russia and Prussia. The concert featured a military band and there was a big screen behind the band showing newsreel footage of scenes from WWI. It was very moving.

Bears from around the world in Riga, Latvia. (Courtesy photo/Roxanne Rowley)

Bears from around the world in Riga, Latvia. (Courtesy photo/Roxanne Rowley)

Then it was on to Estonia, with a population of about 1.3 million. Tallinn, the capital has about 414,000 residents. Tallinn is a very beautiful city. The entire old town is a UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, Cultural Organization) site. Again there were cobblestone streets with narrow lanes, as well as an almost perfectly preserved city wall. The city dates back to around 1154 and was important as a trading center.

Our hotel in Tallinn had been home to the KGB headquarters. Our guide jokingly said the hotel was made from a special kind of concrete that contained microphones. In the lobby of the hotel there was a cut out of KGB agents standing menacingly where you could have a photo taken. It was all in good fun for us as tourists years later. But the actual occupation of the Baltics by Soviet Russia for 50 years was certainly no joke.

Estonia is noted for its love of singing. There has been a singing festival since 1869. Every five years there is a huge festival of songs and singing. The next one will take place in 2019. In 1988, 300,000

Old Town in Tallinn, Estonia. (Courtesy photo/Roxanne Rowley)

Old Town in Tallinn, Estonia. (Courtesy photo/Roxanne Rowley)

Estonians (about one third of the population then) gathered on the Song Festival Grounds just outside of Tallinn and sang patriotic song after patriotic song. Just imagine the power of those 300,000 voices singing in unison. It was their peaceful way to protest the Soviet occupation of their country.

Then on Aug. 23, 1989, which was the 50th anniversary of the pact between Stalin and Hitler that resulted in Soviet occupation of the Baltics, the people of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia held hands to form what is now called “the Baltic Chain.” This human chain went from Vilnius in Lithuania to Tallinn, Estonia, a distance of 360 miles. This human chain was made up of 2 million people, bold and determined to make a peaceful yet powerful statement. In 1990 elections were held and pro-independence won. By 1991 the Baltics were free from Soviet occupation.

There were so many impressions of our visit to the Baltics, from the beauty of the landscapes and the cities to the proud and resolute people. And what powerful history is there. It was an unforgettable trip and an example of what people can accomplish through peaceful determination.

Orthodox Church in Riga, Latvia. (Courtesy photo/Roxanne Rowley)

Orthodox Church in Riga, Latvia. (Courtesy photo/Roxanne Rowley)

 

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