Finnish fun

Part of why I booked us a session at the Löyly sauna was because I thought I might be desperate for bloggable material, desperate enough to try roasting myself and jumping into the freezing Baltic Sea. 

Not that there’s anything to dislike about Helsinki. Here was our first view of it, approaching on the ferry from Estonia:

But it’s not much older than San Diego and looked perhaps less interesting. On our first full day (Friday, Sept. 23), Steve and I followed our pattern and roamed the streets, guidebook in hand. The weather was nippy but dry, and we spent more than five hours taking in many of the major sights.

A striking contemporary church called the Temple of the Rock draws a steady stream of tourists.
Helsinki residents have an enormous music center…
Lovely parks…
And waterfront food tents offering inexpensive and interesting snacks.

It was all pleasant, but not much to write home about, nor did our outing Saturday to the island fortress known as Suomenlinna provide any of what you might call excitement.

You reach it via a short ferry ride.
The fortress didn’t much impress us, but we enjoyed strolling around the islands.

On Sunday, our last full day, we did a test run on the tram from our apartment to the central train station, a magnificent building to which fast airport trains connect frequently.

Helsinki’s central train station matches any we’ve seen elsewhere.

Then we walked to the central library nearby. It opened less than three years ago, and I can attest: both its design and contents are spectacular; it’s no mere book repository but rather a comprehensive cultural center.

You can borrow musical instruments and experiment with them in a sound-proof studio. Or play video games with your friends, or work on sewing projects, or fabricate a prototype.
Readers can luxuriate on a celestial upper floor.

It made me briefly imagine moving to Helsinki just to get a library card. Instead we walked to the National Museum of Finland a few blocks away. The exterior looked almost grim. But inside we found the polar opposite of that boring grand ducal museum in Lithuania. The Finnish institution grabbed our attention with one clever exhibit after another. In a room that focused on medieval times, for example, the push of a button showed what x-rays had revealed about each of the carved wooden religious statues in the room — which trees they were hewn from, the original paint job, etc. Pushing a button in another gallery devoted to portraiture transformed some of the portraits into our (sort of) doppelgängers. (That’s Steve in the middle; I’m on the right.)

Some effects were simple but moving: a scroll of photos taken of individual Finns every single year from 1900 to the present.

In other rooms we learned about the Finnish love of coffee and the passion for heavy metal (along with headphones with which to listen to some of the country’s most famous headbangers.) Another video montage let visitors watch how the landscape around Helsinki evolved over centuries, compressed into just a minute.

We would have lingered but had to hustle to our sauna appointment. Steve, who hates both extreme heat and cold, had to be talked into this, but acceded, a good sport as always. I thought a sauna visit was important because saunas are such a big deal in Finnish culture and elsewhere in this part of the world (particularly Estonia). I’d read all my life about how these far-northern Europeans enjoy getting overheated then jumping naked into snowbanks (while beating themselves with birch switches?!) I’d always dismissed this custom as being somewhat deranged. When would I ever have a chance to get more insight into it?

Visiting a sex-segregated facility, where the ladies and gents (usually naked) swelter separately seemed creepier than patronizing a sauna where Steve and I could don bathing suits and sweat together. The upscale Löyly offered this option. Housed in a low-slung wooden building on the waterfront, it took about 20 minutes to walk to it from our flat. An inviting bar and restaurant takes up a big chunk of the complex.

But we went inside and from the front desk, we collected towels and a locker key, then followed the instructions to each enter the changing room designated for our sex. After donning our swimsuits and showering, we met up and found the first of the facility’s two sauna rooms. 

We pulled on a clear glass door and climbed up a steep set of steps to find a dimly lit L-shaped space lined with two levels of benches. I was startled by how packed it was. I’d had to make a reservation for 3:15 precisely, which I’d assumed was intended to control overcrowding. But the benches were so full it was hard for us to find a space to squeeze into. Once we did, I sized up the folks around us in the gloom. The vast majority looked to be in their 20s or 30s, with young men outnumbering the women. Some exchanged short comments with each other, and we heard some British accents, but clearly this wasn’t a conversation space. In short order, I started sweating, and the heat intensified whenever someone threw a dipper of water into the heating contraption at the base of the steps. After maybe 5 minutes, I was ready to get out.

We knew Löyly had two types of saunas, one “Finnish-style” (where the heat is produced with electricity) and a more traditional wood-fired one. The smell of burning wood in the second made it clear which was which. The wood-fired sauna felt at least as hot as the first had been, and it was even darker. Again we groped to find a perch. This time we struck up a conversation with the girl sitting next to us, an Ohio native who worked for a Finnish company and was visiting Helsinki for a business meeting.

She’d already gotten into the sea a couple of times, she told us; her evident survival inspired me. When I felt close to fainting from the heat, I signaled to Steve I was ready to take the plunge. At Löyly, you don’t literally jump into the Baltic (actually the Gulf of Finland); rather you walk to the end of a platform and descend a ladder. Normally, I’m someone who can’t enter a 75-degree swimming pool without shrieking. But this water was so cold it belonged to a different realm.

Unlike any swimming pool, there was no getting used to this cold — so intense it would suck the life out of anyone who lingered long. To the extent my brain was functioning, it registered amazement I was still breathing. I even treaded water; took a few strokes. After maybe 15 seconds I climbed out and stumbled back to the wood-fired sauna, which warmed me up as efficiently as it had the first time. After a while I went outside and re-entered the ice-water. Steve wouldn’t immerse himself, but at least he put his feet in.

I would have cycled between the heat and cold a few more times, but we had to shower, dress, and move on to our final dinner before starting the journey home. Steve ordered sautéed reindeer, while I savored little whitefish known as vendace, breaded, fried, and served on a mound of buttery mashed potatoes.

Both were delicious, as was virtually every meal we ate in all four countries on this trip. I felt so relaxed it was almost surreal, and it was hard not to credit the sauna for that. It took a little while, but I had learned something I didn’t expect, and not just about saunas.

Adventures in house-trading, Nordic edition

Home-exchanging first came into my life back in 1990, when we traded our house in San Diego for a spacious ground-floor apartment in Paris’ tony 16th arrondissement. Our exchange partners had three young boys; we had a five-year-old and a toddler. We loved saving money by paying nothing for the lodging, and we loved pretty much everything else about the experience. In the years that followed, exchanges all over Europe and North America made our travel much more affordable, and we felt it gave us deeper insight into where we were.

Over time, we got more adventurous. In the summer of 2000, I found accommodations for us in the Shibuya neighborhood in Tokyo. Ten years later, when our sons finally stopped accompanying us, a white South African couple let Steve and me stay in their big house in a Cape Town suburb in exchange for the mere possibility they might get to San Diego sometime. (They never did.)

We only stopped trading when we started traveling in countries where exchanges didn’t make sense; either because they weren’t available (e.g. East Africa) or where we wanted to move around rather than basing in one place (Peru, Southeast Asia, Ethiopia). But during those years the home-exchanging model was growing in complexity. Whereas in the beginning all the trades were direct (you were in my home at the same time I was in yours), trading platforms like HomeExchange.com added a twist in which you could let someone stay in your home for “guest points” that you could later use to stay somewhere else. Because of the flexibility this enables, I’ve started dabbling in house-trading again — never more successfully than for this current trip.

Using our Guest Points, I secured a three-night stay in Vilnius, four nights in Tallinn, and four in Helsinki. Only in Riga did we stay in a hotel (3 nights). We saved a bunch of money, and as in the past, the trades made our visits more interesting.

Mind you, this mode of travel is not for everyone. It’s like having a friend or relative let you use their place when they’re off somewhere else. The spaces usually are more cluttered than any hotel would be. But home-exchange makes us feel less like tourists. It’s more of an adventure — starting with the challenge of getting in the door.

Our hostess in Vilnius, Eva V, had told me in advance she would leave the keys to her place at a hair salon just down the street from her building — not the one immediately next store, she cautioned. Her hairdresser, Daiva, was scheduled to be working when we arrived.

From the Vilnius airport, our Bolt driver quickly got us to Eva’s address. While Steve stood in front of the gate with our suitcases, I darted down the street to the salon that obviously matched Eva’s description. The inside was empty except for two stylists, neither of whom spoke English. “Daiva?” I inquired. They both looked baffled. I think one of them asked me Lithuanian if I wanted a beauty treatment. (After the trans-Atlantic flight, I certainly needed one.) All I could do was bray, “Daiva? Keys?” They women seemed to shoo me toward the salon down the street — the one Eva had clearly said wasn’t the right one. But I apologized and exited. I was halfway down the block when one of the two women ran after me, embarrassed and laughing. She clearly had forgotten she was supposed to hand Eva’s keys over to a foreign visitor. Why she didn’t instantly acknowledge her name indeed was Daiva I’ll never know.

Keys in hand, Steve and I got through the gate, even though the electronic code that opened it wasn’t working. (Eva had texted me that it was acting up and instructed me in how to open it by pushing a hidden button.)In an inner courtyard, we used the key from Daiva to get into the correct building, and up on the third floor, the key functioned perfectly to admit us.

There was no elevator and inside Eva’s place, we had to lug our suitcases up yet another flight of stairs to reach the master bedroom. But that was really the only drawback of the place. The colors and design choices were extraordinary; making it perhaps the most elegant trading house we’ve ever stayed in.

The kitchen was small but chic. It worked for us.

The master bedroom

In the days that followed, we also appreciated how central the location was; we could easily walk to almost everywhere from there.

For our stays in Tallinn and Helsinki, I found something unusual: a woman (I’ll call her Lina) who had apartments to trade in both cities. In fact, she also appeared to own two additional places, one on an Estonian island (where she and her husband would be staying) and a flat on the French Riviera. I arranged to stay in both her Tallinn and Helsinki digs. Since then I haven’t learned much more about her (like her nationality), except I can tell you she is not a native English speaker, a fact that complicated our interaction from time to time.

To enter the Tallinn home, Lina gave me the street address and the code to get through a gate into an inner courtyard. There we should look for some bricks under a balcony, she instructed. We’d find the key under one of the bricks. Miraculously, all this worked fine.

The gate to our place in Tallinn was between the two big buildings.

The inner courtyard with the balcony that marked the spot!

Bingo!

We were in…. er….Almost.

The key gained us entrance into the doorway with the number that matched her address. Only then did we realize Lina had not mentioned which of the five apartments inside the building was hers.

I tried frantically calling her phone number but got no answer. I messaged her. Nothing. I was pretty sure it was one of the three units on the second floor, but none of them were marked with any names. Finally Steve just tried the key on one of them. A startled young man opened that door. (He said he’d just moved in an had no idea which of the other units was Lina’s.)

Happily, it was the next door on which we tried the key (something Lina confirmed when she finally messaged me back a minute later.)

The living room

And the kitchen/dining area.

We did encounter a few more glitches. The switch that clearly should have turned on overhead lights in the kitchen only resulted in crackling noises with an occasional flash. The overhead lights in the bedroom also appeared to be broken. “I haven’t had a possibility to be there still to make those well,” Lina messaged.

Her written house instructions (a universal fixture in trading homes) were pretty bare bones, and Steve struggled to operate the insanely complicated Bosch washer/dryer. When we asked for Eva’s help, she wrote, “Only thing what I know is that the door is not correctly closed 🙂 then there is a small door light.” Steve somehow managed to get a load washed and more or less dried. (After first freaking us out by saying the drying cycle would take 12 hours, the dryer finally sobered up and actually took only about three hours.)

Another complication arose a day later, when Lina sent us a photo of an envelope with my name and her Tallinn address on it. Her message stated, “Hope all is good in Tallinn! My cleaner made a mistake and took the keys with her so I need to send you my key here from Saaremaa!” From this I deduced she was talking about our tool for gaining entrance to the Helsinki apartment, our next stop. Lina said she would mail us a key, and the followed exchange between us ensued:

As things turned out, it was FAR from easy to figure out what a postautomat is and where it was lurking at the market. The envelope also didn’t arrive for two full days. But we didn’t mind because it was so interesting to learn about this cool Estonian mailing option. Tucked inside a lonely nook outside and in back of the stylish market, the “omnimat” looked like this:When Lina finally texted me the six-digit code, I keyed it into the screen and one of the little doors popped open. Voila! There was the envelope containing the house key.

We felt mild irritation over some of these things, but it dissipated quickly because the good aspects of staying in Lina’s home were so good. We could walk from the flat to the heart of Tallinn’s Old Town in less than 15 minutes; the immediate surroundings were a hipster hotbed. If some of the lights didn’t work, the heating in the bathroom floor tiles did, and we loved that. Even more wondrous was the built-in sauna!Lina’s scanty home instructions said it could be warmed up in 45 minutes. I had every intention of using it until Miina (our private guide on Tuesday) said the newspapers were reporting that heating up a home sauna just once would cost 50 euros (due to the sky-high cost of electricity.) I felt so kindly toward Lina by then that I resisted cranking up her sauna.

Now that we’re installed in her Helsinki flat I feel even more grateful. It’s much bigger than the one in Tallinn and in an even more beautiful and central location.

It’s located on a beautiful street.

It has a spacious office off the large living room.

The view from the office into the living room.

Armed with the key that I received in the omnimat, we had no trouble getting into the building or the apartment, which to our amazement, has a double set of doors (for protection against noise? Cold? We have no idea.)

I’m writing this post sitting at the big round wooden table in the well-lighted kitchen. It’s not home, but it feels like what a Finnish version of that would be.

Bolting around the Baltics

This part of the world may be flat but it’s a metaphorical Tower of Babel, so complex I never considered trying to learn any of the local tongues. The folks in Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Finland each have a different language. We were told that Lithuanian and Latvian are sufficiently related that folks speaking each at least can guess what the other is saying. The same is true for Estonian and Finnish, which belong to the “Finno-Ugric” language family. Still, here’s how you say “Thank you” in each.

Lithuanian=Aciu (with lots of diacritical marks that WordPress can’t accommodate).

Latvian=Paldies

Estonian=Aitah

Finnish=Kiitos

Learning this, I moved Google Translate to the first page of my iPhone.

We’ve heard a lot of Russian in all four countries, and sometimes that’s the other language you see on public signs. Sometimes you see English, but not always. Despite all this, it’s been remarkably easy to get by because so many folks in the service sector (restaurants, museums, etc.) speak at least some English. And to my delight, getting around has been easier still.

In the cities we became enthusiastic patrons of Bolt, a ride-sharing service I had never heard of before we went to Vilnius. Created in 2013 by an Estonian high-school student who developed the first version of his app with 5,000 euros borrowed from his parents, Bolt today operates in more than 500 cities in at least 45 countries (according to Wikipedia) and has more than 100 million customers globally. I particularly loved how it showed up on Google Maps as an an alternative to walking, driving, or public transportation.

Bolt cars seemed far more available than Ubers. They rarely took more than 5 minutes to come, wherever we summoned one. And they typically cost about $5 or $6 a ride (including a big tip.)

To move between the countries, we used Lux Express buses, one of several alternatives. I bought those tickets online before we left San Diego. These vehicles proved to be spotless and comfy, with amenities that included TV screens in the seat backs, a decent onboard toilet, and free hot coffee. The journeys from Vilnius to Riga and then from Riga to Tallinn each took less than 5 hours, gave us a look at the countryside, and cost only $26 a person for seats in the “premium” section of the bus. The rides were smooth enough for me to work on my blog posts.

It was even cheaper and faster to take the ferry from Tallinn to Helsinki — only $22 a person for the two and a quarter-hour transit across the Gulf of Finland. Our ship was the Finlandia.

The weather was fair and the sea was calm. But it was nice to know the Finlandia carried at least a few lifeboats.

The boarding process was fast and efficient.

Our last view of Tallinn, Estonia

Disembarking from the ferry, we were back in a country with American-style transportation prices. The Bolts and Ubers in downtown Helsinki seemed to be few and far from our ferry terminal, so we got into a regular taxi driven by an African who spoke good English. The ride to our apartment here took less than 20 minutes, but it cost $21. It made me feel nostalgic for those former Soviet republics.

A peek inside the hobbit hole

For all the fun we’ve been having, something has been missing: any substantial contact with Lithuanians, Latvians, or Estonians. It’s so easy to get around the Baltic states (more on that in a short post coming this way soon) we haven’t felt any need to hire a driver/guide. (In addition to driving and guiding, such folks are usually a rich source of local insight.)

We’ve seen plenty of city tour groups marching en masse over the cobbled streets, but we haven’t signed up for any. God knows we’ve enjoyed some excellent walking tours over the years. But they can also serve up excessive amounts of questionable history, and on this trip that somehow hasn’t appealed.

So after arriving in Tallinn (Estonia’s capital) Sunday afternoon and settling into our apartment there, we spent the next day doing what we did in Vilnius and Riga: following a self-guided tour through the medieval city center and prowling around in it. Tallinn matches its sister capitals to the south. A high stone wall studded with iconic towers surrounds streets that don’t look all that different from what they must have been like half of a millennium ago; the whole quarter has been declared a UN World Heritage site.

The Russian Orthodox cathedral on the hilltop in the Old Town is quite spectacular.

We found an interesting twist inside this Lutheran Cathedral: few religious objects but a plethora of wonderfully ornate coats of arms of the noble families buried here.

Like Riga, Tallinn has its own KGB museum. Note how the basement windows have been bricked in, to keep passers by from hearing the screams of those undergoing interrogation.

Signs of support for the Ukraine were easy to find.

That night we identified the museums we most wanted to visit during our remaining two days. But I also chanced upon a paragraph in my guidebook in which Rick Steves sang the praises of three Tallinn locals offering private guiding services. On impulse, I shot off emails to all three, asking each if he or she might be able to fit us into their schedules. Two of my queries paid off.

Miina Puusepp messaged that she was planning to visit her boyfriend in the seaside spa town of Parnu but would be happy to walk and talk with us for a couple of hours starting at 10 am Wednesday morning. We met her at the entrance to the big, hip marketplace 5 minutes from our apartment. Wearing a (faux?) snakeskin coat and a royal blue hat adorned with a felt flower, Miina immediately challenged us to explain the significance of the Estonia flag we could see in the distance. We were clueless. Turns out that the top (blue) bar represents the sea, the black in the middle represents all the suffering Estonians have historically endured. And the white stripe at the bottom stands for hope that the future will be better. “Under the Soviets, if you wore those colors, that was grounds for being arrested,” Miina stated.

She talked fast, and I spotted the hallmarks of a great guide: strong opinions; deep local knowledge; a sharp sense of humor. Lithuanians, she said, were always harping on their grand ducal history. “If I had a euro for every time I’ve heard about how their country once extended all the way to the Black Sea, I’d be rich,” she said with an eye roll.

She contrasted pretentious Lithuanians with her fellow Estonians. “We’re hobbits. Just leave us alone. If we bump into you in the street we don’t apologize. We hope you didn’t notice.” Within less than 5 minutes, we had a clear fix on Miina’s opinion of Russians (both those in the gigantic country to the east and the hundreds of thousands who are permanent residents of Estonia). Loathing is not too strong a word.

I felt like I could ask her anything. “If you’re born here, does it still bother you when it’s dark almost all the time?” (Just one of the many things I had been wondering.)

“I hate the sun,” she shot back. “I could never live in California. So bright all the time.” She shuddered, then ticked off some of the delights of living where the sun barely appears for months every winter: you can wear a lot of nice clothes; turn your home into a den of uber-coziness; read (which Estonians reportedly do more than any other people on the planet); enjoy the saunas.

From the look of the produce stands all around us, at least in the summer and early fall Miina and her fellow countrymen have access to agricultural bounty that rivals that of SoCal.We took it in for a moment, then whizzed through the market in her wake as she showed us all manner of quirky stuff for sale: the distinctive felt hats folks wear in the sauna to keep their heads from overheating. Reflectors that everyone is legally required to affix to their clothing in winter as a safety measure.

Miina said you could be ticketed if you didn’t sport at least a small reflective patch.

We did so much with Miina in the three hours that followed I won’t try to describe it all. But highlights included taking a city tram to the enormous Kadriorg Park created by Peter the Great for his beloved Catherine (the First).

The park includes a beautiful palace that today displays international art.

Behind the palace is the official residence of the Estonian president. It’s Estonia’s White House (except it’s pink.)

We happened to arrive just before the changing of the guard. Those are the ONLY guards around the residence, by the way.Also charming are the white boxes on the front lawn. They’re bee hives. (Miina said the president is into apiary.)In another part of the park, she led us to the Kumu art museum, a striking limestone, glass, and copper structure that houses the country’s biggest collection of Estonian art.

Miina wanted to photograph us on these Instagrammable “armchairs” in the lobby, but I’m embarrassed to report I couldn’t get up on one. The seats are almost shoulder high.

Steve and I would have been happy to part ways with Miina and explore the place. But she had other ideas for what we should do. She led us through more of the park to reach Tallinn’s famous song-festival grounds. We actually were thrilled to see this, as we’d learned what a pivotal role it played in Estonia’s drive for independence from the Soviets in the late 1980s. Unlike its neighbors, the country has an deep tradition of choral song. These are singing hobbits — people say the passion continues today, shared by Estonians of all ages.

In August of 1989, the intensity of people’s hunger for independence drove them to ignore their fears of arrest and gather at the site of a singing festival started 100 years earlier. About 300,000 people filled the festival grounds, about a third of the entire population of Estonia. Attendees complied with the government’s orders and mouthed the requisite musical paeans to Communism, but the program ended with all those voices swelling in a tribute to their love of Estonia — a stunning act of defiance. It didn’t instantly bring independence; that came two years later. But it was the spark.

An idealistic 20-year-old at the time, Miina was in that crowd, and the emotions of the day played across her face as she told us about it. Then it was time for her to catch the train to the seaside. We said our goodbyes, not before she instructed us in what else we should do that in that afternoon.

One of our stops after we parted was a history museum stuffed with interesting Estonian tidbits.

One of the outdoor attractions was an exhibit of famous Communists, many of which barely escaped being melted down for scrap metal.

Steve and I loved every minute of our time with Miina. We learned so much I suggested we probably didn’t need to meet the next day with a second guide named Mati Rumessen. He’d been tied up with other work Tuesday but said he’s probably have a couple of free hours Wednesday morning. I wondered aloud to Steve if anything remained for him to show us — we’d already covered so much ground. But Steve was adamant we should get another informed perspective; see if Miina was an outlier in her hatred of the Russians. Get Mati to show us something other than the posh parts of town.

So it was that we climbed into Mati’s black Mercedes Benz van Wednesday morning. Fifty-five years old (born two years before Miina), Mati turned out to be just as entertaining. Maybe he was a tad less blunt than Miina in expressing his hostility to the resident Russians. But the two covered the ground and obviously had similar feelings. Many Russians who marched in to defeat the Nazis stayed, and over the decades, Soviet strategists sent in literal hordes to further “Russify” Estonia. Today Russian and Estonian-speaking residents attend separate schools. A large percentage of the Russians have no interest in learning any Estonian (according to Miina and Mati). As a result, they can’t become citizens or vote, and they resent that. At least Mati could articulate the attitude of many of the Russian Estonians: “My grandfather came here and fought to free you guys from the Nazis! I was born here. This is my country too. Why should I leave?” That widespread attitude combined with Putin’s expressly stated dreams of restoring the historic boundaries of Greater Russia send shivers down Miina and Mati’s spines.

Mati seemed only a bit taken aback by Steve’s request to see some of Tallinn off the tourist path. He gamely drove us into one of the fast shrinking areas that were pillaged and all but destroyed as the Soviets packed up and finally left in 1994.

Criminal Russian gangs occupied wrecks like this one.

Mati was just starting out as a taxi driver back then, and he told us how he and his fellow drivers all carried loaded guns to protect themselves against assailants. We drove down streets where every house has now been completely renovated. Now they look great.

A typical example of a Tallinn style building: mostly wood surrounding a (fire-resistance) stone core.

Farther from the town center, Mati showed us huge apartment complexes built under Brezhnev to house the Russians sent to Tallinn to work on the 1980 Olympic sailing competitions. Shoddy when built, they’ve also been rehabilitated. Now they house middle-class Russian-Estonians, and they look pretty nice too.

Close to Tallinn’s wide, sandy Pirita Beach, Mati motored past mini-mansions all owned by Russians and all worth more than a million euros apiece. He said Russians own half the property in the Old Town.

We gobbled up all of this, but my favorite parts of our time with Mati were two quick stops toward the end of our time together. One was at the city’s television tower, scene of a frightening standoff in August of 1991 between Russian troops and defenders of the brand-new Estonian republic. Mati was there; he still vividly describes how twitchy the scared young Russian soldiers were, fingers near the triggers of their Kalashnikovs.

After that stop, we entered a wooded area. I asked if it was a park but Mati replied it was a place where all of us will wind up sooner or later — a cemetery. Most of us won’t wind up in any cemetery like this, however. Miina had told us the previous day that Estonians bury their dead in the forest. But I had no idea what she was talking about. Now we were driving through the middle of one. I asked Mati if we could stop so I could take a photo. Now I can say: this is what it looks like.

There may be another place on earth where people find spots among the trees for the remains of their loved ones, but I’ve never seen it. I’m glad we didn’t miss this glimpse of how the hobbits of the far north do it.

The rain in Riga stays mainly on the internet

We took the bus Thursday from Vilnius to Riga (the capital of Latvia). The weather looked threatening when we set off at noon, and during sections of the four-and-a-half-hour ride, rain smashed down hard on our vehicle. When I checked the weather on my phone I found this:

I was horrified; rain would be disastrous in Riga, which is most renowned for its architecture, much of it created about 120-130 years ago in a flamboyant style known as Art Nouveau. Topping my To Do list there was a self-guided walking tour to see that.

After checking into our hotel and targeting a dinner spot, we found the streets wet, but nothing was coming out of the sky, a situation that persisted throughout the evening.

The next morning, as clouds flirted with sunny blue patches overhead, we dashed out early to squeeze in our touring before more bad weather descended. I can now confirm that the city’s reputation is well-deserved. I’d never heard of Art Nouveau before, but it’s worth going out of your way to see it. The movement apparently sprang from the pages of a Munich magazine that promoted the idea of a youthful new building style, one that embraced, even glorified, wild levels of ornamentation. Bustling, energetic Rigan architects took the idea and ran with it. Today the city counts something like 750 examples, more than anywhere else in Europe. Here’s a peak at what we stopped and gawked at:

Some of the facades are more simple.

Some are fantastically complex.

You could spend a lifetime photographing all the faces.

After our architectural prowl, it didn’t rain as we cut across one of the city’s beautiful parks……and meandered through the twisting streets of the medieval old city……a compact area crammed with ancient churches and more Art Nouveau treats and a stirring monument to Freedom that somehow survived the decades of repressive post-war Soviet rule.

By mid-afternoon, rain seemed so unlikely we caught a little boat that putted down the wide Daugava River and up the canal winding through the center of the old city.

We walked home that night from our Russian dinner (at a restaurant called Uncle Vanya’s), without once opening our umbrellas. Along the way, a demonstration supporting the Ukrainians also was undeterred by any threat of rain.

A sizable crowd was gathered in the distance to listen to speeches and music.

Saturday morning the forecast on my phone still looked bad, but the skies were clear enough to embolden us to head for a grim former Soviet tower that’s today topped with an observation deck.From it we drank in excellent views of this oh-so-flat part of the world. Near the tower we could see the former World War I zeppelin hangers that have been turned into a huge central market — our next stop.

Lots of great looking produce, cheese, meat, and more.

The only disappointment of our entire stay in Riga came after lunch, caused not by weather but by my underestimating the appetite here for insight into the recent bad old days. Riga has at least three museums (probably more) dedicated to the Soviet and Nazi occupations and the heroic resistance to and eventual victory over them. The one I most wanted to visit is known as the Corner House — former headquarters of the various incarnations of brutal police enforcers.

It’s a nice looking building, but in the bad old days, you NEVER wanted to get anywhere near it.

Inside, we were able to visit a room filled with posters documenting the reign of terror directed and carried out from this building: arrests, interrogations, torture, executions. But the 1 pm guided tour of the cells where the KGB carried out the darkest parts of all this was sold out, and we didn’t feel like standing around for two hours to wait for the next one.

Instead Steve and I walked back to our hotel for a break before our final sightseeing outing of the day: a small museum devoted to explaining more about the Art Nouveau movement. By 4 pm, when we set out for that, it was finally raining! But just a little, and the museum was only a few blocks away.

Housed in the private home of the man who designed more Art Nouveau wonders than anyone (Konstantins Peksens), it was great fun to visit, filled with both technological breakthroughs (a flush toilet! a refrigerator!) and objects of beauty.

I’m writing this now on the bus to Tallinn, capital of Estonia, our third and final formerly Soviet Baltic country. My phone says it may be raining some on Tallinn. I’m not too worried.

The power of expectations

Never before has so much time passed between my leaving San Diego and producing a post for this blog. Steve and I set off from home 8 days ago (9/7). But we began with a five-day detour through the Midwest to take part in the long-anticipated wedding festivities of a niece. We didn’t board our Finnair flight to Vilnius till Sunday evening (9/11); we settled into our home-exchange apartment in the Lithuanian capital this past Monday afternoon.

Our place was located in the medieval heart of the city.

Since then, my fitness trackers tell me we’ve walked close to 20 miles, trying to cram in as much as possible. As we’ve done so, I’ve been mulling over the power of expectations.

Observation #1: Overly high hopes can lead to grumpiness.

I’d expected our visit to the Palace of the Grand Dukes of Vilnius (yesterday afternoon) to be a highlight of our stay. My Lonely Planet guidebook declares, “If you only see one museum in Vilnius, make it this one.” The palace dominates the grounds of the country’s grandest plaza, Cathedral Square, and its origins go back almost 700 years. I figured it would give us a crash course on the juiciest chunks of 11,000 years of local history.

What a letdown! We paid a euro each for audioguides to “Route #1” — one of four programmed pathways through the giant complex. We are conscientious little tourists, so we hit the buttons at dozens upon dozens of numbered stops, staring glassy-eyed at sections of ruins in the basement, models of the palace grounds, chipped stove tiles and other trinkets from hundreds of years ago.The narrator droned on and on but never mentioned any of what sounded like the really fetching parts of this history: archeological finds that go back to 9000 BC; pagans who roamed these forests and were the last hold-outs in all of Europe against Christianity; epic casts of bloodthirsty grand-dukes. We glimpsed these things from wordy posters on the walls. But they were almost indigestible.

After about two hours, exhausted in a lonely section of an upper floor, we found panels that stopped us, open-mouthed. They explained that the grand-dukes centuries ago began spending most, then all, of their times in Krakow (Poland was part of The Grand Duchy of Lithuania back then.) The ducal digs in Vilnius fell into ruin, and around the beginning of the 1800s, when a Russian tsar conquered the territory around Vilnius, someone tore the whole palace down and sold off the bricks. Only after Lithuania regained its modern independence in 1991 did folks start talking about rebuilding the complex to regain and celebrate their ancient heritage. From what we could tell, they only finished up about 2018. So everything we were seeing was a modern re-creation.

I felt a bit less frustrated when I learned that. It’s all so new! Maybe over time the folks here will get better at sharing their story with visitors.

Observation #2: Low expectations can lead to unexpected delights.

I didn’t expect the Baltic region to stun me with its wonders. Unlike Turkey (which did), Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania were never countries I lusted to visit. But it’s a corner of the world about which Steve and I know almost nothing. Its recent history is intriguing: free for 30 years after so many years of occupation and oppressive overlords. In two weeks (all the time we had) we could cover a lot of ground. I figured it would be… interesting.

Held to that low bar, Vilnius did a fine job of entertaining us. A horde of eye-popping churches dot the old city center (the only part we explored).

Despite the constant threat of rain, we managed to walk for hours, including to Uzupus, a quirky artists’ enclave that declared its (unofficial) independence in 1998. Its “Constitution,” engraved in more than a dozen languages, adorns one of the streets. The English version makes for amusing reading.

In Gediminas Castle, on a hilltop at the heart of the ancient settlement……I stumbled upon a couple of delights. A case set in the floor in one niche housed the skin of a strange creature studded with silvery needles. When I asked a guard if she spoke English, she looked embarrassed and said she didn’t know much. But she knew the creature’s name: wolf.

An audiovisual display on another level showed me that someone in Lithuania knows how to make history interesting. Huge panels that looked like the tower’s windows displayed what appeared to be panoramic scenes from the castle’s history: a fiery battle; views of the growing town.

But it was a single paving stone in the vast Cathedral Square that moved me the most, almost to tears. It bears the impression of two bare feet. No placard explains it. You have to know the story; know that it marks the end of the human chain that formed in 1989 and stretched north from here across Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, ending near the coast there. Something like two million people formed it by holding hands in solidarity and defiance of their Soviet overlords.

It could have ended in bloodshed, become a Slavic Tiananmen Square. Instead it kicked off the drive to independence that liberated all three of the Baltic states a few years later. Proving yet again that sometimes things turn out better than you might expect.

We took pictures of each other, standing on those footstep.

For our next trick

Summer finally arrived in San Diego this weekend with sweaty, thuggish force, but Steve and I will soon be heading north. We won’t quite get within spitting distance of the North Pole, but we’ll be closer to it than we ever have before. We will travel via the Midwest, where we’ll first attend a family wedding September 9. We have to be back to the West Coast less than three weeks later, to prepare for and drive to Reno for another important wedding.

Could we go somewhere interesting in between? Our thoughts turned to the Baltic Sea, an area Steve and I flew over years ago on the way to St. Petersburg. Three plucky little countries line its eastern shore: Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, all occupied by Stalin and his forces after the Second World War. By all accounts, they were grim sad places until the early 1990s, when the Soviet Union broke up, they gained their independence, and began to flourish. Steve and I have long been curious about them.

Now we’ll find out what’s there. From Chicago, we’ll fly next Sunday (9/11) to Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. We’ll spend three nights there then make our way north, first to Riga (in Latvia), then on to Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. Finally, we’ll take a ferry across the Gulf of Finland to stay in Helsinki four nights before starting the journey home.

As usual, I plan to report on things I find interesting. I assume we’ll find some. That’s why we go.

Bye Byzantium

I had such ambitious plans. After we left Cappadocia and flew back to Istanbul on June 1, we checked into a hotel in the heart of the old city. I’d prepared a jam-packed itinerary, figuring into those last two and a half days we could squeeze several walking tours from the eighth edition of Rick Steves’ Istanbul guidebook – rambles that would take us to dozens of sights we’d missed at the start of the trip when we were staying on the Asian side.

I was deluded. The city is so old, so stuffed with wonders large and small, ancient and contemporary, we could only gobble up a fraction of what I’d hoped to take in, let alone digest it all.

A bit like the classic Turkish breakfast — too many delicious morsels to eat it all up.

Or the choices on one of the innumerable streets full of restaurants — you wish you could try them all.

We did make it to our foremost sightseeing targets.

We devoted a big chunk of our second to last morning to visiting the Hagia Sophia, that gigantic 1500-year-old Christian cathedral-turned-mosque-turned-museum. Now it’s a mosque again (thanks, President Erdogan!)

We taxied out to where sections of the fabulous walls built by the Roman emperor Theodosius II still stand…

They protected the citizens from invaders for a thousand years.

They stretched for almost 12 miles.

We spent several hours walking around the so-called “new district” – starting with Taksim Square then meandering along Istiklal Street, today a crowded, buzzy pedestrian shopping street.

From high-end clothing and jewelry to cheap snacks, you find it all. Istanbul’s ice cream vendors are part-servers, part-entertainers, performing tricks with their long metal scoops I’ve never seen anywhere else.

We descended into a renovated ancient cistern, one of hundreds that once allowed Constantinople’s residents to enjoy more watery pleasures per capita than Americans consume today.

As we did these things, over and over I was reminded of what I’ve learned before in my travels: no amount of reading or looking at pictures or films can prepare you for being in certain places. All I’ll say about entering the Hagia Sophia is that I felt a bit like a dolphin. In that golden ocean of space and encapsulated history, a sort of psychic sonar made my puniness palpable. But only actually being there can trigger that magical pinging.

It’s allegedly so big Notre Dame Cathedral could fit inside it.

The Imperial Gate, once opened only for the emperor, and made of oak that supposedly came from Noah’s Ark.

Seeing Istanbul’s street dogs and cats was a similar experience. Before our trip, Steve and I watched two feature films (Kedi, about the cats, and a canine counterpart called Stray) documenting what a fixture of the city both species are. Why then did the sight of them still grab my attention; feel surprising? There they are, more of them! They’re obviously cats. And dogs. But not at all like cats and dogs where I come from. The Turkish cats and dogs saunter along…

or snooze or just hang out wherever they feel like it. They’re clearly free spirits. Nobody owns them but people everywhere feed them – communal pets in the megalopolis.

This kitten was unusually bold about requesting some of my fish scraps.

But folks seems to share enough that many of the strays need not beg for food.

Is it dog chow? Cat chow? You see little piles of both.

I had to tell myself not to romanticize them, that their lives must have rough edges. They probably die younger than do dogs and cats in my neighborhood. But they don’t look like it. They’re plump and fluffy and even the dogs act like they don’t need people.

Sometimes they allow people to pet them, but even the dogs didn’t often solicit it.

More than anything, they act like they own the place. I was jealous.

Birthday advice

To squeeze the maximum fun into your birthday, here’s a handy tip: set your alarm for 3 in the morning! This will increase the amount of time you have to celebrate. If you happen to be in Cappadocia, as I was, you can be picked up by a van that will take you to a hot-air-balloon launch site. If the weather is cooperative, as it is for more than half the year, you can clamber into a basket holding 22 people and rise above one of the weirder landscapes on earth. After the ride, you can fill the remainder of the day with other amazing activities.

It’s a good thing Tuesday (May 31) was my birthday. I’m pretty sure Steve wouldn’t have agreed to that program otherwise. He’s not 100% convinced hot air balloon rides anywhere are safe. But deeming the Turkish experience to be a birthday wish, he acceded to it and afterward acknowledged that even he liked it.

It’s very exciting to watch so many giant balloons taking shape in the dim light before dawn; to be in the thick of them as they slowly rise and jockey for air space.I had expected the major payoff of this experience to be the view of Cappadocia’s famous rock formations — towering stone columns formed by the action of wind and water on soft volcanic ash deposits and known locally as “fairy chimneys.” (They reminded us of the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon.) The views were extraordinary.But even more wondrous was the sight of so many hot air balloons in every direction.Ballooning only began here about 30 years ago, but powered by images on social media sites, it has burgeoned in the last decade or so. Our pilot Tuesday said more than 150 balloons carrying a couple thousand people now fly here more days than not.

The pilots amazingly all seemed to land on their trailers.

After the ride, Steve and I napped for a few hours and ate breakfast back at our hotel, built in a renovated cave house. For millennia, humans have been carving churches and monasteries and dwelling places into the soft gray stone that makes up most of the Cappadocian terrain. Some were carved into the fairy chimneys; others into the hillsides.

Some of the churches contain beautiful frescoes and carvings.

An enterprising 34-year-old local named Ramazan Ilgezdi a few years ago converted one of those private homes into the hotel where we stayed.

A view from the terrace outside our room.

Before doing that, Ramazon worked for years as a master ceramicist. During the pandemic, he also got his credentials to guide tourists. So it was Ramazan who drove Steve and me around for several hours after breakfast to some of the area highlights.

I won’t try to describe all we saw and did, just the one that left us slack-jawed: our visit to one of Cappadocia’s underground cities. More than 30 that have been found throughout Anatolia. Begun by the Hittites around 3000 BC, these subterranean marvels enabled women and children to hide out while their menfolk were fending off invaders — a bit like bomb shelters, but incomparably more sophisticated than anything any American ever dreamed of during the 50s. The one we visited (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) extended down seven levels, a vast labyrinth that experts think accommodated between 5,000 and 30,000 people and included a mind-boggling array of elements necessary to support months-long stays: areas for storing food and livestock…

Note the hitching post carved out of this cave wall.

… areas for cooking and wine-making and accessing clean water, worshipping and processing wastes, honoring the dead, communicating with the floors above or below one.

Here’s Ramazon next to one of the living rooms.

Claustrophobes would not be happy.

The underground refugees protected all this with an ingenious system of giant stone disks that could be rolled into place, behind which a single plucky woman with a spear could hold off a marauding horde.

Here’s one of the doors, on display in front of the entrance to the city. Note the spear-sticking hole in the center of it.

For my birthday dinner, we ate in a restaurant specializing in Turkish “ravioli.” It was delicious, like most of what we consumed. But what I remember most about that evening was our pre-dinner outing to a restored caravansary.

The old Silk Road ran through Cappadocia, down what’s now the unprepossessing strip of highway you see in this photo:

Back in the 1200s, however, traders with their camel trains followed this route to bring spices and other goods from India to Istanbul (from whence all the merchandise could be carried onward into Europe.) Along the way they stopped in caravanseries — lodgings usually built around a courtyard where the caravans could stop to rest. One of them outside the town of Avanos in Cappadocia has been beautifully restored and hosts nightly demonstrations of the whirling dervish religious ceremony.

Dervishes, also known as Mevlevis, are Sufi Muslims who follow the teachings of the 13th century Persian poet and mystic, Rumi. Their ritualistic whirling surely ranks among the most beautiful meditative practices. What Steve and I witnessed Tuesday night may have been part show, but it nonetheless felt solemn and serious. The dervishes entered, wrapped in black cloaks that symbolize death; the tall hats they wear represent the dancers’ tombstones. Someone chanted verses of the Koran, then after a while, the men shed their gloomy outer gear to reveal pristine white jackets and full skirts. To plaintive music produced on a stringed instrument, a wooden pipe, and drums, they slowly began to twirl, skirts undulating out around them in waves. One by one, their arms floated upward, above faces soft with ecstasy.

What it all meant from a theological perspective, I can’t say. But it seemed somehow symbolic of my day, of this whole trip: a dizzying whirlwind that spun me up with happiness.

Trans Caucasian

I’m starting this post aboard the Eastern Express, the Turkish train that runs all the way from Turkey’s capital to Kars, near the Armenian border in the east. Travel constraints forced us to take the train westward. We flew from Ankara to Kars Friday morning (5/27) and had a couple of hours that afternoon to explore the town and its citadel on our own.

Lounging on the grass below the castle seemed to be a very popular local pastime.

All day Saturday we were driven around the surrounding area by a masterful guide, Celil Ersözoglu. The whole side trip reminded me it isn’t always true, as the adage claims, that the point of travel is “not the destination but the journey.”

Kars became one of our destinations in Turkey in part because Fodor’s Essential Turkey lists “Exploring Ancient Ani” as #4 on its list of 25 “Ultimate [Turkish] Experiences,” A thousand years ago Ani, 26 miles east of Kars, ranked along with Istanbul, Baghdad, and Horasan (between Afghanistan and Iran) as the most important stops along the Silk Road. Some 150,000 people lived there, and over the centuries they built beautiful places of worship and a massive palace, all encircled by a double set of thick stone walls. Earthquakes and invasions destroyed the place long ago, but what remains has an eerie beauty.

Some of the structures, like these, were built before Christ — perhaps thousands of years BC. A huge area remains to be excavated.

Celil made a valiant effort to explain all the history to us, but it was hopeless. I’ve retained almost nothing of the head-spinning chronicle of sieges and occupations and battles, though I can tell you geopolitical tensions still simmer here today. Celil pointed out the Russian barracks and guard towers glowering in the near distance, in Armenia.

The bloody politics should have been depressing. But I was too elated by the weather. Just days before, fierce winds and snow had pummeled the area. Yet we strolled the site in t-shirts under sunny skies. Far in the distance, clouds partially obscured the volcanic Mt. Ararat, the site where Noah’s Ark came aground, according to the book of Genesis. At 16,850 feet it towers over the other nearby snow-covered mountains — part of a range known as the Trans-Caucasus. The Greater Caucasus mountains in Georgia are even higher.

This is NOT Mt. Ararat — just one of its shorter neighbors.

It was hard to believe folks call this part of Turkey “Little Siberia” because of its winters in which temperatures plunge to 40 degrees below zero. Summers are broiling. With wildflowers swaying in the gentle breeze, to me it felt like a paradise.

I also was thrilled to find myself on a section of the map I’ve rarely looked at and don’t well understand. Armenia was close enough to hit with a pebble tossed across the river. In the photo above, Turkey’s neighbor lies on the other side of that gorge.

Here’s a better view of Armenia on the left; Turkey on the right. The gorge is actually an earthquake fault, one that separates two tectonic plates. Those and others in the area are what pushed up the mountains and created the volcanoes.

The former Soviet state of Georgia lay maybe 50 miles to the north, with Iran not much farther to the southeast. Hillsides in every direction were green but barren; invaders and armies and freezing settlers long ago chopped down every single tree. Now it’s good pastureland, if you know how to deal with the packs of ravenous wolves who routinely prey on the livestock (and sometimes humans). But Celil said local shepherds, armed with their stout sticks and massive Caucasian herding dogs, shrug off the danger.

After surveying Ani’s ruins, we drove back toward Kars, but then Celil headed for a cobalt body of water about an hour to the north. Lake Cildir has become increasingly popular with tourists from the western part of Turkey, he explained. To my astonishment, he said 3,000 such visitors had flooded into Kars every day this past winter, eager to sample the frosty diversions. The lake freezes so solidly you can drive on it. Visitors ice-fish; they zoom around in cozy sledges.

No hint of any of that the day we visited.

We saw barely a soul on our visit Saturday, except at the roadside restaurant where we stopped for a late lunch. After that, Steve and I hiked for a bit in a beautiful canyon harboring a lonely castle, then Celil chauffeured us back to town.

It would have been nice to hike all the way to the castle, but the sun was starting to go down.

We had to be on the train for an 8 am departure Sunday morning. A special tourist train also makes the same journey over these rails but it only runs a few times a week, and the schedules didn’t work for us. If they had, that choice might have been more comfortable than our ordinary passenger train. The tourist train’s WiFi might have been working, unlike ours. It might have had a real dining car, unlike the club car on ours, which offered little more than candy bars, stale-looking sandwiches, Nescafé and tea.

We had brought our own bread and cheese, so this was lunch. And dinner.

Celil had helped us buy the cheese the night before. That’s a daunting task in Kars, which has dozens of cheese shops featuring close to 40 local cheeses. With all those cows and goats and sheep roaming the surrounding grassland, Kars has become one of the world’s foremost cheese making centers.

For about $65, I was able to book all four seats in a sleeping compartment on the non-touristic train. It was reasonably clean. As always, I enjoyed being able to lie in my berth and take in the lush panorama rolling by. Because we rode on this train, I now know that a huge stretch of eastern Turkey consists of rolling wooded hills intercut with swift-running rivers. Most of what we saw from our window seemed as devoid of people as the American West.

This part reminded us of the Virgin River Valley in southern Nevada.

I would have been thoroughly satisfied if the train operators had just told us up front we would reach Kayseri (the gateway to Cappadocia, our next destination) at 5 am, and that the conductor would alert us a few minutes before arrival. The motion and long stops probably would have occasionally jolted me awake. But with my eyeshades on and perhaps a sleeping pill sedating me, I would have gotten a decent amount of sleep.

Alas, the timetable said the train gets to Kayseri at 2:37 am. Celil had warned us it never makes it that early. But who knew when it would arrive? Since I’d arranged for a taxi to meet us upon arrival, this all resulted in a fretful, fractured night. Around 9:30 pm we found a conductor, and with the aid of Google Translate, asked him to predict our arrival time. He consulted some electronic device and said it would between 3 and 4, then amended that to indicate probably closer to 4. We set our alarms for 3:30 — but didn’t actually reach the station until a few minutes after 5.

Still we connected with our taxi driver and got to Cappadocia about an hour later — in time to see all the hot air balloons hovering over the magical landscape. A good omen.