Many Americans know something about Poland, and some have traveled there. It is probably a safe wager, however, that most couldn’t name all three Baltic States, their capitals or even their locations.
My daughter Erin Eggland and I were among those who could not, and we wanted to learn. (The Baltic States are Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – north to south. Their capitals are Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius, respectively. And they border one another on the eastern shores of the Baltic Sea across from Scandinavia in northern Europe.)
We recently returned from a 12-day journey beginning in Tallinn, Estonia through Riga, Latvia and Vilnius, Lithuania, and to Warsaw and Krakow in Poland. Traveling with a small multicultural group of interested explorers, there was ample opportunity to learn much of the culture, politics, economy, sociology and history of each of the four countries.
Tallinn, Estonia’s capital, was and is a simultaneously quaint and modern city. Winding cobblestone streets and soaring spires of 14th century churches are reminders of its ancient past. Several layers of history are evident at Peter the Greats’s Kadriorg Palace with its splendid royal gardens, along with the private cottage he occupied on his visits.
Estonians are singers, and proud of it. We visited their Song Festival grounds, and the stories associated with their singing heritage were fascinating. The facility was a huge hillside amphitheater designed to accommodate thousands of singers at once. We only wish it would have been occupied during our visit.
Latvia’s Riga is situated at the mouth of the Daugava River on the Baltic coast. Having by far the most beautiful and varied architecture of any of the Baltic cities, Riga showed us wonderful examples of Gothic, Renaissance, Romanesque, Baroque and more. Most were unharmed through several centuries of military conflict in the region.
While most European cities embrace many and expansive markets, Riga has the largest and best we have seen! It is housed in five huge indoor pavilions that were once used as Zepplin hangars. Every imaginable variety of meat, fish, produce, flowers, liquor, gifts, souvenirs, clothing and jewelry are available to locals and visitors.
We spent an afternoon just outside of Riga visiting an open-air museum. It was made up of 72 restored buildings depicting 18th century Latvian farm life with costumed actors demonstrating daily activities from bygone times. (Certainly worth seeing!)
After more monuments, castles, cathedrals and statuary, it was on to Lithuania.
Vilnius is among the oldest and largest cities in the Baltics. It is a university city with a beautiful “Old Town.” The most scenic and memorable event during our two-day stay there was a short trip out of the city to the impressive red brick Trakai Castle on Galve Lake. Surrounded by water, it was built by Lithuanian Dukes and once served as their well-protected residence. The castle includes a museum with an extensive array of medieval exhibits from the time. This is not to be missed on a visit to the region.
We skipped the KGB museum in Vilnius, recognizing that the much more impactful Auschwitz was later on our itinerary. One negative, reflective experience would be enough for this trip. Estonians see the building as a symbol of 50 years of Soviet occupancy, the site of the Gestapo and later the control of the KGB – not to be revered or forgotten.
Post-Soviet independence of the Baltic States
The Baltic States each and all became independent during the Soviet Union breakup in 1991. The movement was not without some turmoil and has required a great deal of adjustment. The States all now embrace some variation of democracy with fairly stable economies. Examples of free market economics are evident everywhere. Examples of entrepreneurship are ubiquitous. There is no shortage of goods or services.
Among the most interesting post-Soviet economic questions was how to deal with the huge collective Soviet-era farms. The answer seemed to be that groups of individual farmers joined together in partnerships to cooperatively own and manage large agricultural enterprises.
The people of the Baltics were friendly, curious, polite and inviting. There was little evidence of crime or poverty. The hotel accommodations were the best. The food, not so much – at least after breakfast. It has been said that a well-tuned Harley-Davidson motorcycle makes the sound of “potato potato, potato potato.” That pretty much describes many meals, several with abundant potatoes plus carrots, beets, turnips, parsnips, onions and more. All quite tolerable.
On to Poland
Next, and finally, we traveled south to Poland and Warsaw on the banks of the Vistula River. An exploration of Warsaw included a walk through the cobbled streets of the well-known Warsaw Ghetto to see the memorial commemorating the Uprising. Later, there was a stop at the Royal Castle, the former home of Polish Kings which was restored after its destruction during World War II.
But Warsaw is all about beloved Polish composer Fryderyk Chopin. An afternoon visit to the wonderful dedicated Chopin Museum was most enjoyable. We found it complete and interactive, including recordings of many Chopin compositions. This was followed by probably the highlight of the trip – a Chopin piano recital in the Music Library of Porczyusk Gallery. The pianist was a professor at the Chopin University of Music in Warsaw – Maria Korcka-Soszkowska. She played several of his well-known etudes and the popular and recognizable Grande Polonaise. Excellent.
Next was Auschwitz – a necessary, obligatory, solemn, reflecting and sad experience. We had both visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. and Dachau in Germany, but we weren’t prepared for the sobering chronicle of the enormity of the atrocities committed by Hitler. It is the largest of the concentration camps. Upwards of 1 million Jews, Poles, gypsies, homosexuals and dissidents were methodically exterminated there. Grisly remnants of jewelry, shoes, clothes, hair and suitcases were reminding proof. We shall never forget!
Krakow was the final city stop. Needing uplifting, it was helpful to visit its 16th century Wawell Hill and Royal Castle and cathedral where Pope John Paul served. The bustling, enormous Market Square overlooked by St. Mary’s Church with its noon-time trumpeter was downright fun.
This was a most enjoyable and educational trip. When Erin was asked by a fellow traveler, “How did you and Dad choose this trip?” she replied, “We were running out of countries.” If you are running out of countries, we suggest you visit and explore the Baltic States and Poland.
Steve Eggland is a retired University of Nebraska professor, president of the Viking Foundation of Lincoln and an enthusiastic traveler. His daughter, Erin, is a case manager at a Denver benevolent non-profit agency and shares his enthusiasm.
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