A Traveller’s Tale – Estonia, Latvia and LithuaniaBy: By Herb Compton of Darwin (Sep 19 2022)
I have been interested in the Baltic republics for many years, especially after working with people from there at the University of Toronto Library. Then in Darwin in 1976 I worked with Cheryl Laizans, who was born in Melbourne and married a Latvian. Originally she hoped to go with him and their children to visit his homeland. She made a real effort to learn the ancient and difficult Latvian language. Finally Cheryl and I did get to Latvia.
She flew from Sydney by Lauda Air and I boarded her plane at Kuala Lumpur, refreshed by two days in the Pan Pacific Airport Hotel. In Vienna our travel agency, Artravel of East Roseville, booked us into the Novotel at the airport. So we were soon recovered from the flight and enjoyed two days seeing the old city, Saint Stephen’s Cathedral and the Hundertwasser residential buildings and museum. Cheryl even went to a concert in the baroque Schönbrunn palace on her second evening in Vienna.
On Sunday 2 May, a small Lauda Air plane whisked us over 11 degrees of latitude farther north to Tallinn. The lunch and wine on board were great, but Estonia was rather a shock after summery Austria; bright sunshine, but still only buds on the trees, and a piercing wind. Fortunately we’d paid for the comfortable Central Hotel in advance, and the young man who drove us from the airport (also prepaid through Artravel) took us a long way round to show us the harbour, scene of the yachting Olympics in 1980.
My prepaid buffet breakfast set me up for the next day, they even offered porridge and I went back for a second bowl. At 10 we met the guide for our prepaid walking tour, Kaj, an ex-librarian who now writes Estonian captions for TV programs. Estonians say they are reserved, but we both liked Kaj very much and felt an instant rapport with her. She showed us a great deal of the famous old town, Toompea, on its hilltop. After two hours my hands were numb inside my gloves. I suggested a break in a picturesque café, buying red wine for Cheryl and me and a couple of black coffees for Kaj. She went on to show us the parliament house and the Orthodox cathedral, where Cheryl lit a candle for world peace.
Tuesday we bought some amber necklaces and rings and wandered along the harbour. Wednesday Danel brought us to the bus for our 5-hour trip to Riga. As we drove south spring was much more visible, more leaves on the trees and bright flowers in every garden. I was happy to get views of the Baltic Sea, which I’d found beautiful on my first sighting in North Germany in 1958. Under Communism it became terribly polluted, but still looks beautiful. Hotel Viktorija in Riga is in a gracious art nouveau building of 1910.
At 10 on Thursday we met our second walking guide, Juris, a 25-year-old with a neat dark beard studying to be a Lutheran minister. He showed us some of the art nouveau glories of Riga’s boom days before World War I, on our way to the Freedom Monument and the old city (pictured). In the superb Nostalgija restaurant we tried Black Balsam, the national liqueur of Latvia. Juris gave us several hours overtime and I thanked him by buying lunch near the cathedral (already mid-afternoon).
Cheryl got busy on the phone and contacted her late husband’s cousin on a farm near Rezekne in Latgale, east of Riga. So on Saturday 8 May, we took a bus through the forests and stayed our first night in a hotel we chose from the phone directory.
Next day Olga drove us to the farm and fed us very well, took us for a walk in the woods and showed us the school where she teaches. The old wooden building stands beside a beautiful calm lake, which reminds me of Sweden.
I had not originally planned to visit Lithuania but we had plenty of free literature with good advice on hotels (The City paper and Vilnius in your pocket are both excellent), so we woke at 2 a.m. for a bus south. Others had got up early to go shopping, many goods being cheaper south of the border.
In Vilnius we found a delectable small hotel, Mano Liza, very close to the bus station and on the edge of the former ghetto, which was a flourishing centre of Jewish life for centuries until the German invasion in 1941. This hotel was our most expensive (a bit over US$100 per room per night, including the usual fabulous breakfast). But we were only going to be there two nights.
Then it was into another bus and back to Riga, where Cheryl had bought tickets very cheaply for the opera Nabucco one night and the ballet Coppelia the next night in the restored national opera house.
Our last full day in Latvia we tracked down her husband’s mother’s 81-year-old sister Alexandrina, living on the top floor of a suburban building with her daughter and great-grandson and a young student friend of his from the country. They put on a tempting meal for us and Cheryl learned a lot more about her family. The bilingual dictionary she had just bought got heavy use.
On Sunday 16 May, we had to fly back to Vienna, Lauda Air’s food and wine providing some consolation for leaving the Baltic. Then on impulse we took a bus from the airport to Bratislava, only a few kilometres east of Vienna but on the north side of the Danube and in a different country, Slovakia.
Thus, in less than 3 weeks I managed to visit 4 countries I’d never been in before.