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Summer in the Baltic


When I arrive in Stockholm, Gay Pride is in full swing. Roads have been cordoned off, the taxi can’t take me as far as the hotel, and I have to scramble under ropes and across blocked-off streets,  map in one hand,  suitcase in the other, arriving mildly frazzled at last on Strandvägen.


The Hotel Diplomat is the epitome of Gracious Tourism, with Art Nouveau architecture, geraniums at the window, and a stunning view across boats and water and a couple of islands. But there are drawbacks. To operate the very grand lift, you have to insert your key card, and it rarely works.  The wifi password has to be re-entered several times a day. Still, there are free M&Ms.

Kathy arrives in the early evening, and we walk over to Gamla Stan, on the next island across. Stockholm was founded in 1252 and flourished as a Hansa town for centuries. At dusk the Old Town is charming. We eat Swedish meatballs in a restaurant on Stortorget, the main square, where a Danish bloodbath took place in 1520. A balloon sails over the city in the deep blue twilight.

Sweden has a warlike past, and the ship that was built in 1628 to dominate the Baltic is on view at the Vasamuseet. Intended to be the most powerful warship of its day, it keeled over and sank within minutes of its launch. The centre of gravity was placed too high, and it carried twice as many cannon as normal ships. The cannons were recovered around 1660, but the Vasa itself was only raised from the seabed in 1961. The Baltic is too cold for wreck-eating shipworms, and the ship is remarkably well preserved.

Next door to the Vasa Museum is Skansen, an open-air museum that aims to re-create Swedish village life with period buildings staffed by people in traditional costume. The structures are akin to those of Central Europe: barns, church, windmill, belfry. A man sits in a typical 1930s parlour, an ironmonger stands behind the counter of an old-fashioned shop. But it starts to rain, so we take the tram back into town. One-trip tickets have to be bought in the Seven Eleven, used within 75 minutes of purchase, and checked by a controller. Is this really efficient?

Over to trendy Södermalm on a literary pilgrimage (I’ve been re-reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.) Unlike Strandvägen (too grand) and Östermalm (too chic), it’s an area that feels lived in. We track down Mikael Blomkvist’s house on Bellmansgatan, admire the views over Gamla Stan, and then dive into a pub called The Bishop’s Arms just in time to avoid the next downpour. It’s Sunday night, the specials have run out, but the pub has a vast selection of Scotch whiskies that I cannot resist. Prices are high and doses are small, but when Kathy (a non-whisky drinker) sees how cheered I am by a shot of Caol Ila, she joins me in a second round. A trendy couple with sea-green Mohawks stalk past on the cobbled street.

Gamla Stan

By daylight, the charm of Gamla Stan is severely diminished.  The cobbled streets and souvenir shops bulge with wall-to-wall tourists. It feels like the Mont St. Michel. After a tour of the quieter streets, and a quick lunch of shrimp sandwiches, we head back to the Grand Hotel for a pre-booked boat trip. Halfway there, we are shocked (shocked!) to realize that, in the confusion resulting from slow table service and the Byzantine procedures involving the key to the ladies’ room, neither of us has paid for lunch. But pragmatism wins the day!  there’s no time to go back.  For the rest of our stay we steer clear of Gamla Stan.

The boat trip takes us round the islands, under the bridges, and through the locks. It’s a wonderful blue day. The sun shimmers on the water. Stockholmers on holiday mess about in boats. At Slussen, passing through the lock that separates Lake Mälaren from the Baltic Sea, we’re enchanted to discover that the word “Slussen” must mean sluice gates, in other words locks. We’ve been trying to decipher the language, with mixed results. The lady sitting next to us is taking her elderly mother on a day out. She recommends a restaurant called the Bla Dörren (we eventually work out that this must mean Blue Doors), but she doesn’t know the address. Take the tunnelbana to Slussen, she says, and anyone will direct you. We find it in the end, though it does not have blue doors. The food is average, but they serve great homemade schnapps. Mine is made with raspberries, and Kathy’s with ginger.

The evening ends high over Slussen in a tower that we originally took for a crane (Slussen is an unsightly amalgam of rail lines, flyovers, and construction works in the city centre). It turns out to be a restaurant called the Gondolen. The gilded youth of Stockholm hang out in the bar, and their elders have dinner one floor below. It’s a good place to watch the sun set over Gamla Stan.


Stockholm was supposed to be the three-day prelude to a guided tour of the Baltic States, but the package was cancelled due to lack of participants, leaving us to fend for ourselves.   This is the reason we are cramming five countries into a twelve-day period. It’s not the best way to see things, but what can you do? On Tuesday morning, there’s time for a quick but rewarding visit to the Architecture Museum before we fly to Vilnius. The temperature rises.  Stockholm was breezy, but in Vilnius it’s over 30C.


The capital of Lithuania has a manicured town centre with lots of fresh paint and green parkland. The main pedestrian street, which is called Pilies, meaning castle, is lined with open air restaurants and souvenir shops selling local linen and Baltic amber. We are staying at the Hotel Narutis, halfway down the street.  Perfect location, perfect wifi, a lift that works, and chocolates at bedtime. Collapsing on canework sofas in the bar across the road, we sip our wine and watch the tourists go by. Some of the women are very done up, in a Baltic kind of way, and it looks as though most of the visitors are from Eastern Europe. After Stockholm, prices are ridiculously cheap, and the Chardonnay is not bad at all.

Lithuania was the first of the Soviet republics to declare independence from Moscow, in March 1990, and in the past twenty-five years it has done its best to rid itself of Russian influence. The population is 85% Lithuanian, which makes things easier. Street signs are in Lithuanian and English. Marks and Spencer has a shiny new store on Gediminas Avenue. In the centre of the city, the Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania, demolished by the Russians in 1801, has been pointedly rebuilt, and used to receive heads of state during Lithuania’s presidency of the European Union. (The three Baltic states joined Europe in 2004.) The Castle which gave our street its name is on the hill behind the Palace, but it’s too hot today to walk up there.

The building that once served as the headquarters for the Gestapo and the NKVD has been transformed into a KGB Museum, unforgivingly curated with the Nazis on one floor, the Soviets on another, and the KGB prison in the basement. Memorial stones on the outside of the building commemorate young partisans who died in 1945 and 1946. The Lithuanians have done an excellent job. Auschwitz is the worst place I’ve ever been, but this comes in a close second. The execution chambers are particularly harrowing.  “This is how it was,” says a red placard near the end of the exhibit. “We are showing all this so as not to allow it to sink into oblivion.”  It’s a relief to emerge into the hot sun outside the museum and listen to a group of French tourists discuss their luggage and their lunch (“j’ai une petite faim”).

Nous aussi. After a sustaining lunch of grilled steak and sweetcorn in the park by the Cathedral, we continue our research. The exhibition in the Palace provides an exhaustive account of Lithuanian history from its pagan beginnings. In the Middle Ages, the Lithuanian-Polish alliance was a force to be reckoned with, and the Palace was at one point the nerve centre of an empire that stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Sadly, the avalanche of details about obscure Grand Dukes, victories over Teutonic Knights, and incursions of Swedes and Russians is too much for us (even Kathy, who is half Polish), and we give up halfway through. The guards stare reproachfully as we leave the museum and head over to Pilies for a drink.

Lithuania was the last country in Europe to convert to Christianity, in 1385, and paganism seems to be a valued component of the national soul. According to Viktoria, the guide who escorts us on a half-day excursion to the castle of Trakai, the summer solstice is more deeply felt and more energetically celebrated than anywhere else. We don’t argue. The word Trakai means “glades,” and the castle stands on an island in a lake. Built as a fortress in the fourteenth century, restored (oddly enough) under Soviet rule, it’s a romantic sight. Tour groups flow over it in multilingual waves. Viktoria shows us a stash of coins minted during the brief period when Lithuania had its own Mint. A neat Korean lady trips past, wearing dainty pale pink gloves despite the heat.


Returning mid-afternoon to the blazing streets of Vilnius, we set out past the candy-coloured facades to the Gates of Dawn at the top end of the Old Town. It must be 35C.  We’re drooping, having missed lunch, so we stop in a shady café for a sugar fix:  Coke and cake.  The Grand Dukes used to make their ceremonial entrance into the city through the Gates and proceed down Pilies to the Palace. These days Pilies is thronged with tourists, buskers, drunks and beggars. Eating dinner the previous evening at a Lithuanian pizza joint, we were besieged with panhandlers speaking in tongues – especially after Kathy gave one of them five euros and word got around. Tonight we avoid the pedestrian street and opt for the more elegant Saint Germain restaurant, down at the end of Literatu past the tattoo parlour, where the food is more inventive and the beggars stay away.


So that was Vilnius. If this is Friday, it must be Riga. Air Baltic operates a rather small propeller plane with miniature baggage compartments between the two Baltic capitals, and makes us pay forty euros each to check our luggage. Kathy talks to a young Ukrainian musician who is en route to Oslo, and has plans to travel round the world. Otherwise, he says, he could be drafted to fight Russian separatists in East Ukraine.

The road from Riga airport goes through dishevelled industrial suburbs and mega-shopping malls. The hotel is an upgraded Soviet establishment with weird chandeliers and a discouraging bar.  It’s all slightly schizophrenic. In front of the hotel is a four-lane highway and a Stalinist wedding-cake building, but the back door leads you straight out into the Old Town. Riga was founded by the Teutonic Knights in 1201. The city became an important trading centre in the Hanseatic League, and the usual invasions of Swedes and Poles and Russians followed. Like the other Baltic countries, Latvia was briefly independent between the wars. The country still has a large Russian presence, and over one-third of its citizens speak Russian at home.

By now we’re on our third Old Town in less than a week. After a lunch of Latvian cheese and Chardonnay, we grit our teeth and set out to See the Sights. But Riga defeats us. Clearly the city is opening up to tourism, there are plenty of bars and Steak Grills and Irish Pubs, but the town is still as dilapidated and Soviet as it must have been twenty-five years ago. Unlike Vilnius, the architecture is not homogeneous. Pre-war, post-war and Hanseatic are all mixed up together. Tourists seem fewer. More Russian is spoken. After the gleaming paintwork and national drive of Lithuania, we are perplexed.   It’s not as hot as Vilnius, but it’s dusty and stuffy. I am anxious to see the Baltic, two of Kathy’s Facebook friends have recommended nearby Jurmala, so we retreat to the beach.


Jurmala is a resort set amid woodland on the Baltic Sea. It has a gorgeous sweep of white sand and warm shallow water. Failing to find the ferry from Riga Castle, we fall eagerly into the car of a Russian taxi driver who offers to take us out there for twenty-five euros. It’s a relief to be able to communicate. We managed to decipher a little Swedish (Germanic roots) and a little Lithuanian (Slavic roots), but Latvian is impenetrable. We spend the afternoon on the beach, paddle in the Baltic, admire the seaside villas, and drink ice cream cocktails in a café before heading back into town on the elektrichka.

In the morning there’s time for another brief and unsatisfactory stroll round the Old Town before heading back to the airport. We spot the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia 1940-1991, a concrete block at the bottom of Town Hall Square which doesn’t mess with dates, but there’s no time to go in. The taxi driver who takes us to the airport is a Russian-speaking Latvian who asks what we think of the European immigrant problem, and says there was a demonstration against immigration quotas in Riga a few weeks earlier. We don’t need Muslims in Latvia, he says, they bring too many problems. He’s a fan of Marine Le Pen, and claims that the elections due to be held in Latvia in two years’ time will see a victory of the nationalist parties.   What does he think of Greece and its problems? “Lazy bastards!” he says in English. He has travelled to several European countries, including Italy, Scandinavia and the UK, but he can’t get a visa for the US because in his youth he was a “khuligan.” If his deeds were bad enough to come to the attention of the visa authorities they must have been serious, but he doesn’t expand, and we can’t really inquire.


Tallinn looks how you expect a Hansa port to look. Conquered by the Danes in 1219 (Taani Linnus means “Danish stronghold”), it was recovered by the Germans in 1346, and became a major trading centre in late mediaeval Europe. We are staying in the Three Sisters Hotel, which consists of three tastefully renovated merchants’ houses built in 1362. Sightseers snap the facades as we go down to breakfast.

Crouched behind its ramparts and turrets, the Old Town is an enchanting maze of grey and blue and yellow and ochre buildings. Quiet cobbled streets bearing mysterious monosyllabic names – Lai and Pikk and Uus and Vene – lead down from the port to Town Hall Square and the Upper Town.  Tallinn is a sort of seafaring Prague. The Maritime Museum in Fat Margaret Tower gives the flavour of the place. Outside the museum is a plaque to four British admirals who helped the Estonians fight for independence in 1918-1920.


Tallinn made its fortune from salt – the white gold of the Middle Ages – which was shipped from France and Portugal into Russia. These days it seems to rely on Finnish and European investment. Ferries to Helsinki run several times a day. The business district boasts a cluster of glitzy skyscrapers. The Estonian language is close to Finnish, and listening to Finnish radio in Soviet days influenced the national mindset. Where Vilnius felt faintly Polish, and Riga still very Soviet, Tallinn feels closer to the West than the other Baltic capitals.

Tourism is plainly a major money-spinner. Town Hall Square and the adjoining streets are full of souvenir shops, bars, and restaurants that use plastic pictures of the food to break down language barriers. The tall spire of St. Olaf’s Church dominates the skyline. There are more Western tourists than in the other capitals, and a lot of groups. Germans come to explore their Hanseatic ancestry, Russians and Finns come to drink. Prices are higher than Lithuania and Latvia, but lower than in the West. Overcome by the need to shop, we buy ourselves some linen knick-knacks and invest in amber earrings.

On our first night we have dinner in the hotel restaurant, which is called Bordoo (pronounce Bordeaux), which occupies a great gloomy room with monstrous chairs and a sub-mediaeval decor, and whose cuisine is not quite as exclusive as it thinks it is. The second night we end up at one of the plastic-picture places, and the third night we go for Russian: borshch, blinis and Russky Standart. The Russians took over Estonia in 1710 and have never really left. They still account for one quarter of the population. The Russian consulate and Russian cultural centre are housed in elegant premises on a street called Vene, which means “Russian” in the Estonian language, and the skyline of the Upper Town is dominated by the imposing Orthodox Cathedral of St. Alexander Nevsky.


The Hop On Hop Off bus takes us out to the Estonian Open-Air Museum. Like Skansen, it’s made up of historical rural buildings, but it’s quieter, cheaper, and more atmospheric. We see a wooden farmhouse with a well, a barnyard, and a kitchen garden. There’s a tidy schoolroom. We sit for a while in an eighteenth-century wooden church where a haunting ecclesiastical chant is playing.  An elderly lady in a checked shawl unhooks ropes and arranges flowers. We are the only people there. The place has the mystical feel of a Bergman film.

Back in the twentieth century, the Museum of Occupations at the foot of Toompea Hill is the local equivalent of the Vilnius KGB Museum.   The focus is less on Occupation than on Deportation.  Concrete suitcases stand in the forecourt.  The German Occupation of Estonia seems to have been less harsh than elsewhere – Alfred Rosenberg, the Third Reich ideologist who became governor of the Baltic States, was born in Tallinn – but the Soviets made up for it when the country was re-occupied.  Thousands of Estonians were deported to Siberia from 1944 onwards.  (A recent Estonian film called Crosswinds provides a vivid account of the deportations.) In the basement of the museum is a collection of stone heads of former great men (Vladimir Ilich and friends) who have clearly been dismantled and shoved out of the way.

The reward for Good Tourists is a chocolate shop called Chez Pierre, with a geranium-filled courtyard and a cosy interior, where we have a delicious “Aztec” nightcap of hot chocolate made with sea salt.

Back on the bus, we make for the Soviet-era TV tower, which must have been a miracle of engineering in its day, but now feels past its prime. A row of white vans with Russian plates stands in front of the tower, cabs empty, engines running. Who’s invading this time? Just Toyota. During the 1991 putsch, the Soviet Army tried to take the tower, but was foiled by four Estonians who held out on the 22nd floor. The view from up there is impressive. Arrows on the carpet tell you how far it is to Minsk or Washington. Odd-shaped multimedia screens are scattered around and glass holes in the floor show how far it is down to the ground.

Lunch is “boletus” soup in the cafeteria, followed a little later by prosecco in the courtyard of the Three Sisters. After dinner, we take a stroll through the garden festival outside the city ramparts, which has small-size houses and large-size armchairs, cut-out figures and fan-shaped scarecrows, otherworldly chess games, walkways lined with mirrors, and gigantic ants. We’ve fallen down the rabbit-hole with Alice in the soft Baltic twilight.


Time to go back to the real world. We leave Estonia on the ferry to Helsinki next morning, and are relieved to find ourselves in a place that does not have an Old Town, and whose streets are not lined with souvenir shops. We take a taxi to the GLO Art Hotel which is dark and minimalist, eat lunch in a buffet restaurant (€10 for all you can eat), and catch the ferry to Suomenlinna, the island fortress built by Sweden in 1748, captured by the Russians in 1808, and relinquished to the Finns in 1918.


The sun is shining, and the ferry is packed with locals clutching plastic bags of strawberries and sweet green peas from the quayside market.  They will spend the afternoon sunbathing on the grassy mounds of the fortress, and swimming off the rocks that line the island. The man sitting opposite, who is a dead ringer for Brody in Homeland, asks me if I’ve been to Helsinki before (I have), and comments rather acidly that we’re lucky to have such good weather. Apparently it’s been a bad summer in Scandinavia. Returning to the city in the early evening, we do a little upmarket glassware shopping in iittala, and splurge on a farewell dinner at Aino on the Esplanade.  Cauliflower soup, smoked salmon, and chocolate nut cake.

Over the Viognier we work on the Baltic Trilogy, which came into being earlier in the afternoon as we were lounging on a bench in Suomenlinna. Kathy came up with the first title, Tallinn Never Tells, followed swiftly by Riga Never Repents, and Vilnius Never Forgives. Catchy, huh? The basic plan is that a body would wash up somewhere (say the rocks below us), and an investigation would ensue. Scandinavian thrillers like to draw on the misdeeds of the past, so we can throw in SS and KGB as required. Unfortunately, there is authorial disagreement concerning our protagonist. Kathy wants a lesbian with short black hair and piercings, which strikes me as too Lisbeth Salander. Me I favour the crotchety Brody lookalike. To Be Continued.

August 2015

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