Thursday, August 28, 2014

Helsinki to Berlin and the Baltics Inbetween: August 1014











On its face, it looked like an If-Its-Tuesday-It-Must-Be-Riga tour.  Two nights in half a dozen places:  five cities and two parks.  Well, one was really a combination:  Klaipeda was an interesting city at the entry to the Curonian Split, shared with Russia.  And that's another story.

Our tour group consisted of three plus the Intrepid leader.  All guys but me.  A obnoxious  Aussie, a  delightful  German and a knowledgeable  Brit as  guide. As is the practice on Intrepid tours, local transport and budget accommodation is used.  So  ferry, bus, and train.  Only once were we in a private van. We stayed at two to three star hotels, guesthouses and a home stay.

Starting in Helsinki, we went to Tallinn, then to Riga followed by  the Curonian Split which included Klaipedia, then  Vilnius and onto   the Aukstaitija National Park homestay, then Warsaw, ending  in East Berlin. Sounds more overwhelming that it actually was though several days were spent more traveling than sightseeing.

You could track the tour  by the graffeti:  Little in Helsinki and Tallinn, then an increase in Riga, Klaipeda and Vilnius,  moving right along in Warsaw and then, the mother of all graffeti in East Berlin.  In Latvia and Lithuania, I was told it was related to soccer but not in Poland and Germany.  Most of it was meaningless though there a a few bits of creativity in Warsaw.  The old Berlin  Wall was decorated with  art work,  then marred with  taggers' scrawls. 

 Helsinki seemed a bit different:  I couldn't find my way about town and didn't find the cafes and other landmarks I remembered.  But everything was pristine clean throughout the Baltics. 
Tallinn hadn't changed that much since I was there in 1995, nearly twenty years ago. More people but the same ancient buildings. Tallinn was the smallest and most medieval - full of charm.  Also full of tourists who ferry over from Helsinki for the day, as I had years before.

Riga was a bit larger and very middle Europe.  Old Town  was more spread out .  Here there was a local guide who had served in the Forces for seven years, including a year at language school in Texas - proudly wearing the Western style belt purchased while there.  A real charmer. I spent one evening at the local ballet, a sad version of Othello, very bad Russian styling.  But a lovely Opera House and an appreciative audience. 

Next was Klaipeda and the Curonian Split:  Klaipedia, once Prussian,  had been one of the Hanseatic Ports in the old days. Port was still active.   A five minute ferry ride took us over to the Split, where, with a local guide lead us, via local bus, to two of the resort villages along the way.  The Split was formed over centuries and encloses a large lagoon.  It ends at just above Kaliningrad.
A delightful and scenic area. It was our guide on this excursion who offered the most unique solution to the possibility of Russian incursion:  Latvia should declare war on Sweden and then promptly, surrender.  

Villnuis was larger and more modern with a good sized Old Town of churches and shops.  Maybe, my favorite city.  Watched the  change of flags before the main government building:  three flagpoles which normally  had flown   three Lithuanian flags, now flying the European Union banner and NATO's emblem in addtiton to the National flag.  Had time here to walk into the main part of the city.  Sat in a plush hotel to listen to the pianist.  Good restaurants.  Great ice cream.

Off then to the unpronounceable Aukstaitija National Park where we slept and ate in a local guesthouse.  The guys did a Kayak ride about the streams and lakes.  Three of us did  several serious walks the following day, necessary to work off the  marvelous meals.  A glorious peaceful break in the in the schedule.  Grandparents, helped by daughter and granddaughter from Vilnius, ran the homestay and were gracious hosts.

From here,  a long trip to Warsaw, an newly built city done in the old style.  For it had been decimated by WW2 bombings.plus damage from the Uprising, when the Poles fought the Germans while the Russians waited.    The Uprising Museum was extraordinary:  you felt you were in the midst of the conflict.  I was teary eyed, watching the films from that era.  That particular museum gave you a feel for the time, more than most.  The Ghetto Museum was large rand more modern but not as griping.  That last night in Warsaw, three of us enjoyed a jazz quartet - really great!

Finally was an evening in East Berlin before an early morning flight.  Wandered down to the old Wall and Checkpoint Charlie, neither as authentic as when I last saw them.  A rather rough but safe neighborhood.  Had a good dinner several blocks up the way - would like to return.

One of my interests was the reaction of residents to the tensions with Russia as I had been in the Ukraine rather recently.  The Estonians and Latvians seemed more concerned about their internal Russian speakers, some
of whom had power within the existing government.  One guide commented on a ethnic Polish representative  who  identified with Russian policy.  Lithuanians seemed more concerned with possible external moves, feeling quite secure internally and supportive of their Prime Minister. 

Everyone I talked with was apprehensive of any Russian involvement: they had enough of them in the past.  All three cities had KGB Museums of one sort or another, testaments to past Russian  rule.  In Tallinn, it was the bugging system at the main hotel; in Riga a building used by Russians - and Germans - for interrogation and detention, in Vilnuis a combination of KGB with the Genocide Museum and finally, the outstanding Uprising Museum.  Berlin had the Wall.           

As always, as I become familiar with a city and can find my way around, I leave!

Accommodations  All very comfortable and well located -  some better than others.  But mainly 3* and several with superb breakfast buffets. Some computer access.  Ones I would choose to stay in were I traveling independently.  The Tallinn hotel was combined with a gym facility, available to hotel guests.  In Riga, the hotel was part of a good sized office complex and served not only breakfast, but lunch. 

Food:  Cafes were excellent and reasonably priced.  And with atmosphere!  Our tour leader did                 well by us.  

Costs:  Fifteen Day Intrepid Tour, inclusive of breakfasts and homestay meals,  was $2236 which                 included extra hotel night in Helsinki and transfers, including a no show in Berlin. Food and             extras ran about $350.
 
            Airfare:   SFO to Helsinki; Berlin to SFO.  $1655.  And I should comment I was upgraded for             the final leg of the fight from NY to SF.

               Local shuttle from Airport to Home:  $55.

                Sam/house care:  $620.

Next trip:  London and Oxford in September 2014.

Baltics 14-Helsinki commute traffic R1-08629-022A.jpg
Baltics 14-Jo @ Klaipeda port.jpg
Baltics 14-Jo @ Riga.jpg
Baltics 14-National Park.jpg
Baltics 14-Warsaw Building ArtR1-08630-007A.jpg
Batics 14-Cops and Bicyclist.jpg
Baltics 14-Warsaw Graffetti.jpg

               
 



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