Baltic Buses

In my last post, I wrote about St Petersburg. But what I didn’t say, was what happened next. That was just the first half of our holiday and it was all about imperial grandeur and revolution—the second half was very different.

We went to visit my son who lives in Latvia, and decided to travel by overnight bus. I love the idea of going to sleep in one country and waking up in the dawn light of another one—and somehow, I managed to persuade my husband that this would be fun. So, on Sunday evening, after four busy days in St Petersburg we made our way out to the Ecolines bus stop on the edge of the city. Three buses to Minsk arrived and eventually we climbed aboard our bus to Riga. We then had several hours of bumping along narrow roads through isolated Russian settlements where wooden houses stood at odd angles as though they’d been dropped randomly on the ground. Around midnight we reached Narva on the Estonian border and the landscape changed. The first thing we saw was a floodlit medieval castle.

By dawn, we were in Latvia and got to Riga in time for breakfast. It has the highest concentration of Art Nouveau buildings in the world so there was plenty to see, as well as taking in Orthodox churches, walks by the river, and reminders of Latvia’s troubled history and multiple occupations. It’s a very attractive capital city. On the third day, our alarm went off early and by 7am we were on another bus—this time going to the coastal town of Liepaja where my son lives. The Latvian language has no word for ‘mountain’ and the flat countryside is all about deep forests and countless little lakes. One of the joys of travel is spotting things that you don’t get at home, and I loved seeing storks with their long legs and big untidy nests perched in unlikely places. My son told me proudly that Latvia is the storks’ favourite country. Obviously no one has interviewed them about this but it seems to be true as there are more white storks in Latvia than in every other European country put together. People put up high posts in their gardens to encourage nest-building. Latvia likes the storks—and the storks like Latvia.

As we passed the dark pine forests I started thinking about the animals that might live there and remembered some of the stories my son has told me. One was about Ruhnu island off the coast of Latvia. About seventy people live on it, and a few years ago they were joined by a large brown bear. No-one knew how it got there as the nearest land is forty kilometres across the Gulf of Riga. The most likely explanation was that it floated across on a piece of ice. It didn’t cause any trouble, and then it just disappeared. Presumably, it simply took an ice floe back home again. To commemorate this event, a Latvian confectionery company made a forty kilogram chocolate statue of the bear and presented it to the islanders. It took them eight months to eat their way through it.

Another tale that came to mind, is the unlikely but true story of a deranged rodent. A Latvian man named Sergei was walking in the forest one evening when a beaver darted out, bit him on the leg and pinned him to the ground. He did his best to escape but it was hopeless—the beaver was determined. After a while, Sergei managed to get through to the police and told them that he was being held hostage by a beaver. They put the phone down. Next, he called some friends and after some initial ‘oh yeahs’ on their part, was able to convince them that he really was in rather an awkward situation. They set off to help as fast as they could, but unfortunately got pulled over by the police, for speeding. They explained that they were going to help their friend who was being attacked by a deranged beaver. This didn’t go down well but they persisted, and eventually the police officers agreed to accompany the rescue party. They arrived to find Sergei still on the ground with the beaver standing guard over him. I’m not sure exactly what happened next, but I do know that Sergei lived to tell the tale.

After three hours, we arrived in Liepaja which turned out to be an attractive old town. The beach is gorgeous with pale sand, tall pines, and open-sided cafés.  But, it was shocking to learn that up until 1991 this beach had a watchtower, manned day and night and that soldiers would constantly rake the sand, tracking the footprints of anyone who tried to escape the Soviet occupation.

Photo: Werner100359 via Wikimedia Commons

We spent the final night of our holiday in Lithuania as we were flying home from Palanga. A minibus service, noisy and packed with locals, took us on the ninety-minute journey. Like Liepaja, the beach at Palanga is clean and attractive. There’s a long pier and people stand along it, and watch the sun set.  We were there during the ‘white nights’ season when the evenings are long and the nights short. It was overcast but when the setting sun did break through, it shone on the dark sea, creating a golden stairway to the beach. It was magical.

The next morning we arrived at the airport in plenty of time for our flight. It’s so small that there are only two gates—‘left’ or ‘right’. Unfortunately, it was also so small that our incoming Ryanair plane couldn’t land in the fog and we hung around for several hours waiting to discover where it had gone. Eventually, we learned that it was in Kaunas, over two hundred kilometres away. An efficient, young employee had the unenviable job of passing on this news and was immediately surrounded by vocal passengers, demanding instant compensation from Ryanair. A less confident person might have crumpled under this onslaught but not her.  “My name is not RyanAir – my name is Monica” she said, with a great deal of dignity and just a hint of exasperation. Everyone laughed and returned to their seats.

Nothing much happened for a while and then our Baltic holiday managed to pull one final bus journey out of the hat. Around lunchtime we all trooped out to a line of minibuses that had been provided to take us to Kaunas. “Oh well,” I thought. “At least it’s a chance to see some more storks.” I kept a careful watch as the bus sped across Lithuania and we all munched on sandwiches that had been thoughtfully provided by Monica. But try as I might, I didn’t see any at all and so must draw one conclusion–they really do like Latvia best.

Take Five

st petersburg metro

I’ve recently returned from a four-day visit to St Petersburg—a birthday treat for my husband.  He was delighted to practise the Russian that he learned at university over forty years ago and I was delighted to visit a city that’s been high on my wish list for a long time. I knew there would be lots to see with numerous palaces, museums and cathedrals, and we did our best to scratch at the surface of this intriguing city. But my memories will inevitably fade and so, in an effort to hang onto something, I’ve chosen five ‘objects’ which represent different aspects of an extraordinary history which swoops and soars like the imperial double-headed eagle.

double-headed eagle

Our first day was spent at Peterhof. This was commissioned as a rival to Versailles and is twenty-five kilometres from St Petersburg. We travelled by hydrofoil, passing the ornate buildings that line the city’s Neva River in shades of primrose yellow, mint green and birthday cake pink. Unlike most cities which grow haphazardly, St Petersburg was always destined to be impressive. It was built on unsuitable, swampy land in the early eighteenth century and gave Peter the Great the ‘Window to Europe’ that he desired. Serfs and Swedish prisoners of war laboured with their bare hands, and the bones of over one hundred thousand lie beneath the pavements.

As we left the Neva and headed towards Peterhof, the hydrofoil picked up speed. We thrashed across the Gulf of Finland and the brown foamy sea crashed at the windows. When we reached the estate, its size was overwhelming so we wandered through the gardens, taking in the scale of the palaces and fountains. Later, inside the Grand Palace the dazzle exceeded anything I’ve ever seen before, suffice to say that there is a lot of gilt. I may have been indoors but I still needed my sunglasses. There are many things that I could select to represent this imperial opulence but as my first ‘object’ I’ve chosen the water feature which cascades down from the Grand Palace complete with sixty-four individual fountains, dozens of bronze ornaments and a huge gilded statue. We stood above it on a hot day, enjoying the cool mist and gazing down at the tiny glinting rainbows.

peterfhoffountains1

The Hermitage Museum is also unmissable. Right at the heart of the city, it’s housed in the Winter Palace which was the official residence of the Russian Monarchy until 1917. And like Peterhof, it’s vast. The building has 1,945 windows, and it’s said that it would take eleven years to see all of its treasures. We had half a day…

It was Catherine the Great who started amassing paintings and it’s now the largest collection in the world. Just about every major classical artist is represented and there are plenty of portraits of Catherine, too. She was a German princess who married Peter the Great’s grandson, nicknamed Peter the Petty Minded. It was an unhappy marriage and six months after he became Tsar, she led a palace coup that forced his abdication. He was later assassinated—probably by her lover—and she ruled Russia for the next thirty-four years. As I moved through the museum I began to recognise her…ruddy cheeks…imperious…usually seated on a horse…and for my second ‘object’ I’ve chosen something that conjures up some romance—Catherine’s carved golden state sleigh. After I’d seen it, I looked out onto the Neva from the windows of the Winter Palace. I was glad to be visiting St Petersburg in the summer, but I couldn’t help thinking how beautiful it must be when the river freezes.

catherine the great's sleigh

Photo: Shakko via Wikicommons

Everyone knows that the Russian Imperial age came to a violent end in 1917 and in The State Museum of the Political History of Russia we saw a portrait of Tsar Nicholas II. He looks regal in his military uniform but it’s impossible to ignore the great marks where it was slashed with bayonets at the start of the Revolution. This is my third ‘object’ and it hangs near some poignant, flickery film of the Russian Royal family swimming, and swinging in hammocks. This can’t have been long before they were all arrested, imprisoned and shot.

The museum is in a small mansion that was the home of the Russian prima ballerina Matilda Kshesinskaya until it was seized by the Bolsheviks. She never got it back. There’s speculation that she had an affair with Tsar Nicholas and a controversial film about their relationship is due to be released this autumn. We saw the room where one hundred years ago, Lenin worked on essays and speeches in the months leading up to the storming of the Winter Palace. And outside the window is my fourth ‘object’—the balcony where he stood and addressed the crowds of workers and soldiers, below. The museum was quiet when we visited and there was plenty of time to take in the dusty, bookish atmosphere of this room that changed the world.

lenin balcony

Another day, we spent an interesting few hours hopping on and off the Metro. St Petersburg has the deepest subway in the world thanks to its difficult geology, and is well worth a visit for its own sake. It was opened during the Soviet era and many of the stations have huge chandeliers, marble columns, statues, and mosaics. We saw tributes to Lenin, Pushkin, Russian sport, and Soviet industry. However, Narvskaya station has a particularly revealing story. It was originally going to be called ‘Stalinskaya’ but before this could happen, Stalin was denounced by Kruschev. There’s a big carved stone panel at the top of the escalator called ‘Glory to Work’. Stalin’s fall from grace meant that he was never included and so the effect is rather odd, with a crowd of people all looking towards a missing figure. The elephant in the room does nothing to mitigate the fact that he ordered the deaths of up to three million people during the Great Terror. This panel is my fifth ‘object’.

Narvskaya plaque

On our last day in St Petersburg we visited the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul and there, amidst a great deal of gilt, we saw the final resting places of some of the characters that we’d got to know during our visit. Peter the Great lies in a marble tomb close to that of his grandson, Peter III, who is next to Catherine the Great, the wife that betrayed him. And in a side chapel lie the remains of Tsar Nicholas II, Tsarina Alexandra, their five children, and some loyal servants, interred there in 1998, eighty years after their death. I’ve chosen my five ‘objects’ to represent wealth, romance, revolution, Communism, and terror.  But despite all the upheavals, it’s sobering to discover that Credit Suisse recently named Russia as the most unequal of the developed economies. It’s easy to see who benefits from the 13% flat tax rate—and it’s certainly not the poor. Churchill called Russia, ‘A riddle wrapped in an enigma,’ and that continues to be true at the centenary of the Revolution.

If you’ve been to St Petersburg then I’d love to hear which objects defined it for you. And if you haven’t visited and get the chance, then I highly recommend it—just don’t forget your sunglasses.

romanov tombs