Monday, May 19, 2008

A Tale of Two Cities

I still have a day to spend in Riga but as I am sailing from here to Stockholm and am not sure of my internet connection in that city. I will post now and add any more exciting developments from my last day in Riga when I manage to comment on Stockholm.
Following Davis's comment on my last post regarding the sin of envy I am tempted to describe things like panicking as to whether one is really on the correct platform for the train to Lithuania, dragging a heavy bag for 15 minutes across cobblestones in Riga or the nightly need to choose a restaurant, choose a meal and stare at some inane tv program for 15 minutes suntil it arrives. However these are the things which experience tell me fade in one's memories and so should not be put into print.
My final long train journey across Europe left Warsaw at 7.20am and arrived in Vilnius at 6pm (5pm Warsaw time). I had done my homework and knew there was no refreshments on board so had bought fruit, biscuits, fruit juice and a thermos of coffee. I also knew that only some of the carriages went to Sestokai in Lithuania so made a mad dash with bags down the platform until I found one with Sestokai on the side. This was after the panic as I was not sure if the 1 on the timetable referred to the platform number or the section of the platform (there is a difference) Lots of relief when Sestokai came up on the indicator board. It is necessary to change from the Polish train at Sestokai for the final few hours into Vilnius. Once settled the journey was fairly uneventful across the plains. After a few hours I found that not only did I have the compartment to myself, but I was the only person in the entire carriage. However at Suwalwy, the last stop in Poland, a lot of people transferred from the carriages which were disconnected there and I heard an Aussie accent. Roger and Glenda from Brisbane had not done their homework but fortunately the conductor moved them before they were stranded. I spent the next few hours chatting with them, Glenda is also a teacher-librarian. We had to show our tickets before boarding the Lithuanian train and the conductor wrote notes on the back. However several times on the rest of the journey she came to check those tickets again and her notes. I do not know if she thought we might have climbed in through the window. Just getting up the steps into the carriage with ones bags was a major feat.
Arriving Vilnius I bought bus tickets and as advised boarded trolley bus number 5. I knew to validate my ticket which usually means putting it into a machine which stamps date and time on it. Very amusing to find you put it into a punch machine on the wall and literally punch holes in it. Roger(from Brisbane) had told me he was sick of old towns and churches so I do not know how he has coped with Vilnius and Riga. In Vilnius I must have entered more than a dozen churches and became confused as to which were Catholic and which were Russian Orthodox. Their interiors were very ornate. Most were being renovated on the outside which I guess is a good although not for my photography. The Vilnius cathedral is set in a large square. It's interior is belowOne of the more ornate churches was the baroque church of Sts Peter and St Paul.The only remaining gate to the city is called the Gates of Dawn built in the 16th Century and on top is the 18th Century chapel of the Blessed Mary which is a leading site for pilgrimage
Behind the cathedral they are rebuilding the Royal palace but the upper castle is on Gediminas Hill. the guide books showed a walk to the top but this was closed with instructions to use the new funicular. The top gave good views of the city.
My second day concentrated on the new city along Gediminas Avenue. Grand Duke Gediminas founded the city in the 1320's.
At the other end from the cathedral is the parliament which was a focus point of the stand for independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. The memorial in front depicts the barricades which were erected against the Soviet army at that time.
I spent well over an hour at the Museum of Genocide Victims which is located in a building originally built as a court house at the beginning of the 20th century but used by the Soviets (KGB) and the Nazis for interrogation, torture and execution. I think this is misnamed. The whole display is about Soviet times. I did not see more than a passing mention of the treatment of the Jews. Today I have been to the Museum of Occupation in Latvia which is much better displayed, does have a section about the Nazi treatment of Jews and admits many Latvians ignored or even facilitated the Jewish genocide. Unlike the museum in Vilnius, it is free.
The Vilnius Museum does lead down to the cellars, torture rooms and execution chamber.

My last afternoon in Vilnius saw me climbing the hill of Three Crosses which were in memory of three monks who were crucified on this spot. The original crosses were knocked down in the Soviet era and still lie below the rather impressive new ones. More good views of the old town and its many churches were gained from this spot.

I travelled by bus for four hours to Latvia and the city of Riga. My hotel is located within the old city, hence the cobble stones for my bag. It is very picturesque and located beside the Daugava River. I have finally found a Sunday in which I have remained in one town and there is an Anglican church so I attended St Saviour's for the Eucharist. Was surprised when, with a dozen people in the pews ( a few more came later, typical Anglicans), another dozen young ladies came out and sat in the front. They stood and sang beautifully in (I presume Latvian).
However when the hymn was announced they were silent and the priest was the only voice clearly audible. I learnt they were visiting and not the usual choir. They also sang during the offertory, communion and finally at the end. I think they did not understand much of what was happening and felt a bit sorry for them. I did like that we all went to the front, received communion from the lay helpers and then a blessing from the priest before all returning to our seats together. A bit difficult if there are 100 or more in the congregation. The priest shook my hand but did not ask where I came from. I went down to the crypt for coffee and spoke to an American couple from Boston, he is on a Fulbright scholarship. Was surprised at the number of Latvian speakers present.
Continuing my wandering in the old town, I went up the tower of the Church of St Peter for a very good view of the old town.
The tower of St Peters is in the next photo and the House of Blackheads is on the right.The Cathedral is very impressive, Evangelical Lutheran and apparently they were about to start a service in English in the chapel. It has one of the largest organs in the world. I toured the House of Blackheads, a horrible name for a very ornate building which was destroyed during the war and completely flattened by the Soviets but rebuilt in 2001. There is a museum of archaeological finds in the foundations and beautiful rooms upstairs.
As mentioned I went to the Museum of Occupation in Latvia which is well presented wit hthe story, photos and items from 20th century history. To be brief, the Baltic countries were under the Russian Empire, became independent at the end of the first world war but were occupied by the Soviets with German agreement in 1940. The first terrible executions and deportations were carried out until the Germans marched against Russia in 1940. Although the Germans mainly attacked the Jews, many Latvians were deported as war workers to Germany. At the end of the war in 1945, their expectations of freedom were dashed as the Soviets took control again and deportations began to Russia. However there was a partisan army in the forests up until the mid 50's always hoping the west would come to their aid. Things slightly improved after the death of Stalin in 1953 and then the fight for independence really began with the arrival of Gorbachev but was not achieved until the time of Yeltsin.
At one stage 2 million people joined hands from Tallinn through Riga to Vilnius in protest at Soviet occupation.
During the German occupation, propaganda depicted the hated Soviets as Jews which provides some explanation though not an excuse for the fact that few Latvians assisted them during the Holocaust. However the Museum does honour the few Latvians who sheltered Jews, most being executed as a result. There are very few Jewish people in the Baltic countries today.

Tomorrow I will concentrate on the new town and perhaps a river cruise before boarding the ship in the evening to Stockholm.

1 comment:

Doorman-Priest said...

If I miss you before you get to Tallinn, please visit the Holy Spirit Church in the old town where I am doing my parish placement in August. If you meet Canadian-Estonian Pastor Gustav, please pass on my best wishes.