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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.

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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."

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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.

Take the St. Casimir's Church. Dedicated to Lithuania's patron saint, it was a place for Catholic worship when it opened in the 17th century. Later, under Czarist domination, it sprouted onion domes and became Russian Orthodox. When the Germans invaded in this century, the church went Lutheran. During Lithurania's first period of independence, the domes were replaced with St. Casimir's gold crown, now an Old Town landmark. After the Second World War, the Soviets converted St. Casimir's into a museum of atheism. Relenting in the Gorbachev era, they returned it to the Catholics.

Even St. Casimir himself wasn't immune from conquering powers. His remains were relocated when the Soviets closed Vilnius Cathedral, turning it first into a truck-repair factory and later an art gallery. Now his tomb, located in a showy baroque chapel, is again the central focus of a functioning cathedral. Votive offerings, shaped like miniature hearts and legs, attest to believers who have petitioned the saint for restored health.

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Elsewhere in the Old Town, elderly women creep up a flight of steps on their knees to pray before Our Lady of Vilnius, a Renaissance painting of a dark-skinned Madonna, said to have miraculous powers. The chapel that houses it sits inside the Gates of Dawn, the last remnant of the city's 16th-century walls.

The list of must-see churches also includes St. Anne's, built in high gothic style using 33 different types of brick. Guidebooks say it so impressed Napoleon that he wanted to bring it home in his palm. But Albana told us the rest of the story. What he actually did was make it a horse stable.

More than churches have been spiffed up, of course. Many of the city's restaurants and shops are in restored cellars with arched brick ceilings. Lokys, which specializes in game, comes highly recommended. And while amber jewellery can be purchased in all the Baltic capitals, Vilnius offers the widest selection. A Vilnius primer: Lithuania's population is 3.7 million with 580,000 in the capital. About 80 per cent are Lithuanian, the rest mainly Russian or Polish. The Lithuanian language has the same roots as Latvian and is distantly related to Sanskrit. The Radisson SAS Astorija Hotel, phone (370) 222-0110, is an international-class hotel in a restored turn-of-the-century building in the heart of the Old Town. The Centrum, phone (370) 223-2770, a 15-minute walk west of the historic area, caters mainly to business travellers. The Lokys restaurant, offering game dishes in a cellar setting, is in the Old Town at 8 Stikliu. Canadians do not require a visa for Lithuania. Lithuania's embassy is at 130 Albert Street, Suite 204, Ottawa, K1P 5G4, phone (613) 567-5458. Riga Like much of Riga's Old Town, the Hotel Konventa Seta is a historic monument restored and rebuilt for a new life in a rejuvenated city.

The complex of nine medieval buildings -- originally a religious community -- sits in the heart of Riga's historic core. By staying there as a guest, I felt like a city resident. To reach my room, I walked along the cobbled walkways of this city-within-a-city and unlocked the street-level door to my own building. My room had modern plumbing, phone and amenities, but from the outside, the hotel was a study in 13th-century architecture.

Riga is the largest of the Baltic capitals, but its historic centre seems the most compact. The steeples of three churches dominate the skyscape: St. Peter's (take the elevator up its spire for a panoramic view), St. Jacob's and the Dome. Founded by German crusaders in 1201, the city plans celebrations for its 800th anniversary next year. That deadline has hastened the pace of restoration.

One building reconstructed from scratch is the 14th-century Blackheads House, a gothic and Dutch Renaissance guild hall with a fantastical façade. Damaged by German bombers, it was later demolished by the Soviets. Now tourists can't walk by without taking its picture. At the opera house, originally built in 1863, renovators have turned the horseshoe-shaped interior into a sparkling jewel. Performances by the Latvian National Opera are a fitting match for the spectacle.

Riga Castle, on the edge of the Old Town by the Daugava River, has special significance for Canadians. It's the official residence of President Vaira Vike-Freiberga, a former Montreal professor returned to the land of her birth. While her duties are mainly ceremonial, she is responsible for finding a new prime minister whenever a government collapses, as happened earlier this year.

Latvians take politics seriously, by the way. The country has 100 members of parliament and 23 political parties. "When two Latvians get together," our guide Ievay told us, "they form three political parties."

Riga offers visitors a double bounty. Along with its masterpieces of medieval and Renaissance architecture, it also boasts Europe's greatest concentration of art nouveau -- jugendstil in German -- buildings. The style, popular from 1890 to 1910, features flowing lines, floral patterns and building façades festooned with carvings of faces and mythical figures. Some of the best examples are in the downtown core on Alberta, Elizabetes and Antonijas streets.

As always in the Baltic capitals, the ambience of the ancient streetscape is counterbalanced by memories of a more tragic recent past. The full story of Latvia's sufferings under Stalin, Hitler and the Soviets again, is told in the Occupation Museum, a stark bunker-like structure operated by a Latvian American. A short drive outside the city lies Salaspils, a moving memorial on the site of a Nazi concentration camp, one of 23 where the country's Jews were slaughtered.

The locals lay out fresh flowers daily at riverside memorials to two filmmakers, Gvido Zvaigzne and Andris Slapins. They were shot by Soviet troops in 1991 while covering a bloody crackdown against freedom demonstrators. There is also a sprinkling of flowers at the Old Town's Freedom Monument, erected during Latvia's first period of independence (1921-1940). The Soviets talked of destroying it, then relented because the woman on top resembles Mother Russia. Today there's no ambiguity about what the soaring lady represents. A Riga primer: Latvia's population is 2.5 million with 850,000 in the capital. Of the three countries, Latvia has the highest Russian-speaking population (40 per cent), while 57 per cent speak Latvian. The Latvian language has the same roots as Lithuanian. The Hotel Konventa Seta, phone (371) 708-7501, is in a restored, historic complex in the heart of the Old Town. The best place to sample Lativan dishes is Alas Seta, 6 Tirgonu, a cafeteria beer hall in the Old Town where you can point at what you want. Canadians require a visa for Latvia, which is also accepted by Estonia. For details, contact the Embassy of Latvia, 112 Kent St., Suite 208, Ottawa, Ont. K1P 5P2, phone (613) 238-6868. Tallinn Estonia's capital rewarded us with two Old Cities in one: a Lower Town, originally home to prosperous merchants and tradesmen, and an Upper Town on the rocky hill above it, once peopled by aristocrats.

Today's tourists flit from one to the other along two short, steep pedestrian walkways -- Luhike Jalg (short leg) and Pikk Jalg (long leg). But during seven centuries of German domination, these were separate, feuding communities. The nadir point in relations came when an Upper Town landowner recaptured an escaped serf in the Lower Town, carted him home and had him tortured to death. A Lower Town magistrate reacted by having the aristocrat brought back and executed. Only in the 1880s, were the two towns united.

A fairy-tale wall sweeps around one side of the Lower Town, punctuated by red-roofed watchtowers with names like Fat Margaret and Peep in the Kitchen. A mandatory McDonald's is next to one of the gates. It's magical to walk beside the wall through the exterior gardens, even if the public walkway atop the wall is closed for repairs. Also off-limits at the moment, and draped in a tarpaulin during restoration, is the Town Hall, a landmark on the Lower Town's main square. But enough churches and trade centres have been scrubbed clean and refinished to provide hours of delightful sightseeing.

Raekoja Plats, the Lower Town's graceful central square, is dotted with sidewalk cafés and lined with cozy restaurants. Try Balthasar (where most dishes are fortified with garlic, right down to the ice cream) and Karl Friedrich (don't miss the escargots with Gorgonzola cheese). Open-air concerts and celebrations are common in the square, especially in early June and before Christmas.

Not to be missed nearby are the ornate merchants' houses and guildhalls on Pikk street, built when Tallinn was a Hanseatic League trading centre, and the 14th-century Holy Spirit Church.

Tallinn's Upper Town is dominated by the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, a throwback to Czarist times. Tourists thrill to its billowing onion domes, but architectural critics say it lacks originality. Better loved by Estonians is the nearby Toompea Castle. The massive fortification built by German Teutonic Knights, along with a palace wing added by Catherine II of Russia, have become symbols of the country's independence. The Estonian flag flies proudly from the 14th-century Tall Hermannn Tower, while the country's parliament meets in Catherine's pink palace.

A popular stop outside the Old Town is Rocca al Mare, a collection of 100 historic farm buildings, and the venue, from time to time, of ethnic-dance shows. Two other far-flung sites are important for the patriotic feelings they inspire in Estonians.

One is the Song Festival Ground, where gatherings of choirs, held every five years, were closely linked with the independence movement. The Soviets stopped short of banning them, but decreed that Russian choirs take part, that anti-Russian lyrics were forbidden and that songs praising Lenin had to be included. Last year's festival drew 30,000 participants and 200,000 spectators. The next gathering will be in 2004. In the meantime, the festival amphitheatre is home to concerts by the likes of Tina Turner, Alice Cooper and Canada's Bryan Adams.

Tallinn's Forest Cemetery, with its graves in a woodland setting, is also dear to the Estonian soul. Here lie the country's heroes: Paul Keres, chess master; Georg Ots, baritone; Lydia Koidula, poet; and Konstantin Pats, Estonia's 1930s president who died imprisoned in Siberia. Graves in the cemetery are spaced far apart, perhaps in reaction to centuries spent under foreign domination. Our guide Evelyn summed it up this way: "Estonians don't want nieghbours, even in death." A Tallinn primer: Estonia's population is 1.5 million with 430,000 in the capital. Sixty-five per cent speak Estonian, 32 per cent Russian. The language is related to Finnish. Golden Tulip's five-star Park Consul Schlossle, (372) 699-7700, is in a 15th-century complex in the heart of the Old Town. The Olumpia Hotel, phone (372) 631-5315, is within walking distance of the Old Town. It was built for sailing events during the 1980 Olympics. The Balthasar and Karl Friedrich restaurants are both on Raekoja Square. Canadians need a visa for Estonia, but one issued for Latvia is accepted. For details, contact the Embassy of the Republic of Estonia, 2131 Massachussetts Ave. NW, Washington, D.C., 20008, phone (202) 588-0101. Adventures Abroad offers a nine-day tour of the three capitals and other Baltic tourist sites. It starts in Vilnius and ends in Tallinn. The price is $1,976 a person sharing a room. Future tours are on Sept. 17 this year and on May 6, June 10, July 15 and Sept. 16, 2001. Contact Adventures Abroad, 2148-20800 Westminster Highway, Richmond, B.C., V6V 2W3, phone (800) 665-3998 or (604) 303-1099, e-mail .


Visas for Estonia are issued in Canada by the Consulate of Estonia, 958 Broadview Ave., Suite 202, Toronto, M4K 2R6, phone (416) 461-0764, fax (416) 461-0353. Visas for Canadians are not issued in Washington, D.C. Visas issued by the Consulate are valid for Latvia as well. Incorrect information appeared last Saturday. (Saturday, July 29, 2000. Page T2)

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