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Baltic beauties Add to ...

They are at once both dowagers and debutants -- three Baltic beauties with rich and storied pasts, reintroducing themselves to the world.

Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn -- the capitals respectively of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia -- blossomed in the Middle Ages and Renaissance as centres of trade, politics and religion, then withered during centuries of subjugation by more powerful neighbours. But their historic centres -- each designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO -- survived relatively intact. Now they are shining examples of a new Europe waiting to be discovered.

The cities were backwaters of the Soviet Union in 1989 when up to two million Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians formed a human chain to protest five decades of rule from Moscow. Two years later, taking advantage of chaos within Russia, each of the countries won its independence, something last enjoyed between the two world wars.

In the years since 1991, massive restoration projects have cleared away the grime and restored dozens of historic churches, guildhalls and merchants' houses. With their cobblestone streets and storybook architecture, Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn now rival Paris and Prague as dream cities for tourists who love to do their sightseeing on foot.

And rest assured, these are not museum cities. Street musicians fill the air with music. And the rebirth of capitalism has plopped restaurants, shops, hotels, night clubs and even strip bars into ancient, vaulted cellars. The service is sometimes slow, an aftermath of Soviet rigidity. But the locals are welcoming, so slow down and enjoy the leisurely pace. And don't miss out on the wealth of cultural activities. Opera, ballet, concerts and theatre, fostered if occasionaly censored in the Soviet era, continue to flourish.

Still, a sense of melancholy lingers. Intellectuals and dissidents from all three countries were deported to Siberia under Stalin starting in 1940. Hitler's forces followed, launching a systematic massacre of Jews. Then the Soviets returned -- initially with more deportations -- and stayed. Emigration to Western nations also reduced the populations.

I visited the three capitals on a small-group tour offered by Adventures Abroad of Richmond, B.C., one of the few North American tour operators with a Baltics package. The guides, both Canadian and local, were well-informed, and there was a good balance between free time and organized sightseeing.

The foreigners we met were mainly Westerners with family ties, business travellers, and, in the case of Tallinn, daytrippers from neighbouring Finland. But the expected avalanche of tourists has been slow to materialize. Now, suddenly, every travel magazine you pick up seems to be extolling the wonders of the Baltic capitals. Plan to visit soon. The crowds won't be long in coming. Vilnius The architecture overwhelmed us, even as we missed the names, dates, facts and figures spouted in a low voice by our guide, Albana. Those we could always look up in a guidebook. But her asides, which we did hear, told us a lot about Lithuania's return to freedom.

"In the Soviet period, we were told many things," she said. "We came to realize that when things were written in black and white, we had to understand the white."

Or: "We have a saying. What wasn't done by the Nazis, the Soviets did."

But mostly she talked about the massive restoration projects, still under way, that are returning Vilnius to the grandeur it enjoyed in the 14th-through-16th centuries. Back then it was the capital of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania's sprawling empire.

A day earlier, I had followed a footpath up Castle Hill, then climbed to the open roof of Gediminas Castle -- a pretentious name for the single red-brick tower that remains from 13th-century fortifications. Viewed from above, Old Vilnius was a neat patchwork of soaring spires, domes, red roofs and pink, yellow and white buildings.

Now, walking its cobblestone streets, I saw it was still a work in progress. Historic buildings on the main tourist streets were scrubbed and polished; others, a few blocks away, remained grimy and pockmarked.

Lithuania is a staunchly Catholic country, so it was not surprising that many of the refurbished buildings are churches. Each comes wrapped in layers of history.

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