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.

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.