Pat and I decided to visit the Baltic countries this year, with stops in Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. After these, we extended our vacation into Poland and Slovakia (covered in another post). We planned the trip for the full month of September. We left Salt Lake City on September 1st and returned on September 30th.
Helsinki, Finland (2-6 Sept)
We arrived in Heksinki about 5:30 PM, after a 5 hour layover in the Amsterdam airport. We bought HSL 72-hour, public transport tickets (covering buses, trams, local trains and a ferry to Suomenlinna) at a convenience store before catching a train into the city. The signage on the train platform was confusing, but a helpful worker helped us get to the fastest train into the city.
From the train station, we had an 8-minute walk to the Klaus K Hotel. This hotel was very convenient to transportation, restaurants and things we wanted to see.
Kamppi Chapel– We visited this chapel on our first full day in Helsinki. Two things lured us here: an entry in Atlas Obscura and the presence of a geocache (GC5JWYJ – Kamppi Chapel of Silence Traditional Geocache), which we did find. Although no photos are permitted inside the chapel, you can see the interior in the image, scanned from a postcard we purchased. The building is not really a chapel for services but more of a meditation setting for small events. The curved wooden exterior contrasts quite a bit from the surrounding modern buildings.
Temppeliaukion Church – Another interesting site from Atlas Obscura was this church. The article convinced us we should visit this place. It beautiful and well worth the long bus ride. As a Lutheran Church it was surprisingly modern and unique rather than the usual simple interiors. We also got to walk on top of the dome through the garden paths
Alexander II Statue – As we were walking by the Senate Square, where we joined a “free” walking tour, we saw this statue in front of the Helsinki Cathedral and in the center of a huge open plaza. Alexander II was Tsar of Russia and Grand Duke of Finland. He was assassinated in 1881. Because the Finnish people respected him, this statue was eventually finished in April,1814. It is the work of Walter Runeberg, although the figure of Alexander was designed by Johannes Takanen, who died before he could start the work.
Helsinki Cathedral – This Lutheran Church was originally built by Nicholas 1, Russian Tsar, and finished in 1852. It was named St. Nicholas Church. When Finland gained independence from Russia, in 1917, it was renamed Helsinki Cathedral. The two smaller building on either side were added later when the church wanted to add bells to the building. However, because the original building could not handle the weight of the bells, the building on the left was built for the bells. The building on the right is a chapel and also to give the whole group of buildings symmetry.
The National Library of Finland – This building, just west of the Cathedral, has a beautiful interior and is open to visitors. Built in 1640 the majority of the items within are in digital format so the interior rooms are filled with film readers. We walked past rows of digital newspapers – NYT and The Guardian were what we spotted.
Daybreak – While on our walking tour, we stopped to admire this sculpture which is casually standing along the side of a building. Our guide asked us what we thought it represents. Many thought she was warding off an attack or protecting herself but actually she represents reacting to the return of sunny skies after months of darkness.
Lyhdynkantajat [The Lantern Bearers] – These 4 sculptures flank the main entrance to the main (central) train station. We never saw them at night so are not sure if the globes they hold are lit up. Very powerful.
Uspenski Cathedral – “The Uspenski Cathedral is the main cathedral of the Orthodox Parish of Helsinki and the Diocese of Helsinki – their center of worship.” (from the cathedral website)
Neighborhood Markers – In Helsinki, many of the neighborhoods are marked with signs on corner buildings. We found several, each naming a neighborhood with an animal, real or imagined. The use of animals as neighborhood indicators goes back years to make it easier to know where you are. The animals are also easier than the long Finnish street names.
Suomenlinna Islands – To get to this island, we needed to go by boat. Fortunately, the one we went on was part of the metro system, so our transport passes covered the trip. When we got off the boat, we turned the wrong way to get to the fortress, the major highlight of the island. Instead, we ended up in a residential area that not many tourists visit. There we found the remains of a bunker complex with old armaments still in place.
Lansi-Mustasaari is the westermost island of the Suomenlinna fortress. The landscape of the island is shaped by the rocky shores and barracks built in the 18th century.
The fortification works began on Lansi-Mustasaari in 1749. Although the western defence front was already completed at the beginning of the 1750s, the work on the eastern defenses had made very little progress. Three barracks and a bakery were built on the island in 1757-1762.After the Finnish Declaration of Independence, the barracks were transferred to the use of the Finnish Defence Forces, until they were converted into apartments for the workers of the Valmet Shipyard in 1946-1951. The barracks on Lansi-Mustasaari and the bakery building remain in residential use, as does the wooden house from the 19th century, originally built as an ammunation workshop. The buildings are currently managed by the Governing Body of Suomenlinna.
In the 1860s, embankments covered with earth and cannon batteries were built on the western shores of Lansi-Mustasaari. The island was to be protected by two Russian breech-loading coastal guns made in 1877 and 1878. The guns are still in place on granite carriages. At the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, new types of concrete-reinforced gun platforms and concrete shelters were built on the north-western end of the island. An anti-aircraft gun dating back to the 1920s stands on the northern end of the island. – from signs on Lansi-Mustasaari
Tallinn, Estonia (6-9 Sept)
We arrived in Tallinn, from Helsinki, on the Viking XPRS ferry. This was a very pleasant way to travel the short distance between Tallinn and Helsinki. This was one of several ferry companies that make this crossing.
From the ferry terminal, we walked to the St. Olav Hotel. This hotel is just a few minutes walk to the Old Town Square. Our only problem with this hotel was our room was on the 2nd floor – no elevator. The hotel is a warren of hallways and stairs and twists and turns. With the weather warmer than we packed for, each trip to/from the room was not fun. And carrying our luggage, when arriving and leaving, was exhausting. The room, its self, was comfortable. We found a fan in the closet that was especially nice.
Old Town Square – We went to the Old Town on the next morning after we arrived. As you can see in the photos, below, there were very few tourists. We had booked a walking tour, but the tour guide was involved in a car accident on his way to meet us. Therefore, we struck out on our own to see the sites.
Ichthus Art Gallery – This gallery, in the basement of Saint Catherine’s Dominican Monastery, was recommended in Atlas Obscura and was open. The gallery still smelled of smoke and the walls were black from a fire. A lone artist was working on a painting. We like his art, especially the miniatures, one of which we bought.
Patarei Vangla (Soviet Prison) – “The complex was founded in 1840 as part of the defence system of Saint Petersburg, the capital of Russia (between 1710 and 1918, Estonia was part of the Russian Empire). The independent Republic of Estonia that was established in 1918 started to use the current barracks as the national central prison in 1920, and as such it was used uninterruptedly until 1940 when Estonia was occupied by the Soviet Union.” (from the website)
Skoone Bastion – This place, “…known in Estonian as Rannamägi, was the most formidable defensive structures erected at a time when Estonia was under Swedish rule, in the 17th century.”
Linnenhall – This derelict building was built for the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics, in then-occupied Estonia. It was the site of sailing events.
St. Mary’s Cathedral
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral – A Russian Orthodox church. “The church was built from 1895-1900 during the Russian rule of Estonia. It was designed by Mikhail Preobrazhensky, an architect from St. Petersburg. It is an example of Russian Revival Style and Neo-Byzantine architecture. … It took 500 soldiers using ropes to raise the 11 bells to the church tower. The bells total weight is 27 tons. The largest bell weighs nearly 18 tons. These bells came from the St. Petersburg Vassily Orlov’s bell foundry.” (from this website)
Tallinn Marathon – While waiting for our train in Tallinn, we got to watch a section of the Tallinn Marathon as it passed by the station. From Tallinn, we took a train to Riga. There were actually 2 trains involved – Tallinn to Valga (which is the last city in Estonia), then Valga into Riga. When we got to Valga, all we had to do was walk across the platform to the other train.
Riga, Latvia (9-13 Sept)
Once in Riga, we walked about 15 minutes to Hotel Hanza (the hotel elevator was welcomed after the stairs in Tallinn but we had to ask for a fan.)
Jana Seta Map Shop – What a fascinating place to visit. When we entered, the person behind the counter asked us where we were from. He then asked us if we would like to see a Cold-War Russian map of the Salt Lake City area. We let him know we would prefer to see one from Ohio. He found a folder with the appropriate map, which we subsequently purchased, along with a book, The Red Atlas by John Davies and Alexander J. Kent.
Latvian National Library – Unfortunately, the day we stopped, it was closed for the day.
Laundromat – It probably seems strange to include a laundromat in a list such as this, but it was truly different than any previous time we had to do laundry on a trip. This was completely automated and had a control center that could use Apple Pay or Google Pay. Other than the long bus ride to get to it, it was a pleasant visit to the mall it was in.
Pētergailis – We stopped here for lunch. It was an excellent day to be outside, so we chose to sit on the deck. The meal was very good. This was another restaurant recommended by our friends, Rachel and Jeff, who had been in Riga last year.
Melnā Bite – We had no specific place to eat for our last day in Riga so we were wandering around Old Town and passed this restaurant and decided to try it. It was a very good idea and a very good meal. Pat had Latvian cold soup with beet sorbet; Ray, Braised smoked pork with stewed red cabbage and Ligonberry sauce. So good!
Siļķītes un dillītes – This seafood restaurant in the Central Market was recommended by friends, Jeff and Rachel.
Hacapurija – This is a restaurant, upstairs in the Agenskalns Market, that specializes in Georgian food (the country, not the state)
Ar-Razzaq Kebabs – Not a gourmet restaurant, but we had just checked into our hotel and needed something to eat. This small spot was, basically, only carryout. We took 2 kebab wraps back to the hotel to eat. What a delicious meal we had. We would recommend this place to any of our friend who end up in Riga.
Riga Central Market – The market occupies 4 old zeppelin hangers, as well as, a substantial number of food stalls around the buildings. Conveniently, it was a 5 minute walk from our hotel and on the way to most of the things we wanted to see. Inside, there were restaurants, bars, and shops of all varieties. One of the restaurants, Siļķītes un dill, was located in one of the buildings. We also found a good place to have a beer – Labietis. On one occasion, we were surrounded by Welsh people, in town for a football (soccer) game with the Latvian National Team. I struck up a conversation with the person next to me and had a good time talking to him. (Wales won the game.)
Vilnius and the Curonian Spit, Lithuania (13-17 Sept)
To get to Vilnius we had to take a bus, as the train to Vilnius only ran on the weekend and we weren’t stay in Riga till then. The Lux Express bus was comfortable and dropped us off 10 minutes from our hotel, Ivolita Vilnius.
Curonian Spit National Park – This was a tour that lasted the entire day, because the Park was almost 3 hours from Vilnius. Our driver/guide, Marius, was very nice and most informative. His choice for lunch, Pas Jona and the smoked fish, was outstanding.
Hill of Witches (Curonian Spit) – The Hill of Witches was started in 1979, when wood-carving artists were invited to create these sculptures. As we walked through this park, our guide, Marius, explained the sculptures, as he followed the map shown on the link to the website. Each sculpture is named and an explanation of its meaning is given. This was a pleasant hike.
Parnidis Dune & Sundial (Curonian Spit)
Nations Fair & Lithuanian Folk Dancing – We were out doing other sightseeing when we happened upon this street fair with people dressed in folk costumes. This was a delightful addition to our day and we spent the next 4 hours wandering around the streets and watching the dancing.
We left Vilnius by train headed to Warsaw, Poland.