Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia & Estonia
August 13 – 29, 2012
Jim & I did this trip with Overseas Adventure Travel from Aug. 13 – Sept. 4, 2012. The name of the trip is “The Baltic Capitals & St. Petersburg”. We did a pre-trip to Kiev, Ukraine and a post-trip to Moscow, Russia. (I will feature the conclusion of the trip, which includes St. Petersburg and Moscow from Aug. 29 – Sept 4, in a separate travel post to follow.) There were sixteen travelers in our group, and a fine group it was. Enjoyed our travel friends.
This was our 30th trip with O.A.T., and we were led by excellent program director, Vesma. (This map is from the O.A.T. website.) Jim & I have never been to the Baltic countries and it was a great experience. The country of Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union, but became independent in 1991 when the Soviet Union dissolved. The Baltic countries of Lithuania, Latvia & Estonia were also part of the Soviet Union and broke away in 1990 – 91. All the countries have had a turbulent past. It has certainly made us appreciate the freedoms we have always experienced as Americans.
Save Money: If you decide you’d like to go on this or any Grand Circle Travel or Overseas Adventure Travel trip, and you are a first time traveler with them, they will give you $100 off any trip if you mention the name of my travel blog and my customer #561413. New travelers instantly receive $100 off the cost of the trip, and I will receive $100 when you depart on your trip.
Ukraine: About 85% claim Ukrainian ethnicity and 12% Russian. Their official language is Ukrainian and the currency is the Hryvnia. Ukraine received its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Their government is unitary semi presidential republic. The President is elected by popular vote for a 5 year term. The legislative branch includes a 450 seat unicameral parliament. Ukraine is not a member of the European Union.
Kiev is the first city we visited. It is located on the Dnieper River, and it is the capital and largest city of Ukraine. It is a culturally rich city of gold-domed cathedrals and historic churches. Kiev has emerged from the Soviet era with a vibrancy.
We stayed four nights in a 5 star hotel in a great area of Kiev and did most of the highlights of the tour by foot. Premier Palace Hotel: 1.Lobby 2.Breakfast Room 3.View over-looking city from Breakfast Room.
1.National Shevchenko University 2.The Golden Gates of Kiev in the ancient city fortress 3.National Opera House
St. Sophia’s Cathedral: The oldest remaining church in Kiev, dating back to the 11th century. It has an interior of rich frescoes and mosaics, many of which are still intact almost a millennium later. St. Sophia’s is a UNESCO world heritage site and well worth the visit.
St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery: While standing in St. Sophia’s square gazing at it’s golden domes, just turn around and there are the golden domes of St. Michael’s and the Mikhailovsky Cathedral. St. Michael’s is a working monastery that goes back to the 12th Century. It was devastated during Soviet rule and restored in 1997-98 following Ukrainian independence.
St. Andrew’s Church: Constructed in 1747-1754, It is situated on a steep hill called Andriyivskyy Descent, with over-looks of the lower town and the Dnieper River.
Monastery of the Caves or Kiev Pechersk Lavra: Cave Monastery is an Orthodox Christian Monastery which was built around the year 1015 and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is a sprawling active monastery complex with a magnificent bell tower, cathedrals and underground caves. Monks that worshipped here lived in caves where they were also buried upon their deaths, and their mummified remains are still there. (No pictures were allowed in the caves.)
Motherland Statue and War memorials – Kiev was pretty much destroyed during the invasion in WWII. This a memorial complex commemorating the German-Soviet War. It was opened on May 9 (theVictory Day), 1981, by the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. The memorial is centered around the now famous 200 foot tall Motherland statue. Near the Motherland Statue are examples of classic Soviet-era memorial statuary and hardware. There is an alley of sculptures and they depict the defense of the Soviet border from the 1941 German invasion, terrors of the Nazi occupation, partisan struggle, work on the home front, and the 1943 Battle of the Dnieper.
Cherobyl Museum: We went to a Museum in Kiev which is devoted to the 1986 disaster at the Chernobyl atomic station. A guide walked us through the museum and told and showed us a depiction of events that occurred at Chernobyl atomic station. The highlight was listening to a first hand account from a survivor. Chernobyl disaster is widely considered to have been the worst nuclear power plant accident in history. The official Soviet casualty count of 31 deaths has been disputed, and long-term effects such as cancers and deformities are still being accounted for.
Babi Yar: Is a ravine in Kiev and a site of a series of massacres carried out by the Nazis. The most notorious and the best documented of these massacres took place on Sept. 29-30, 1941, wherein 33,771 Jews were killed in a single operation. Victims of other massacres at the site included Soviet POW’s, communists, Gypsies, Ukrainian nationalists and civilian hostages. It is estimated that between 100,000 and 150,000 more lives were taken at Babi Yar.
“All yids of the city of Kiev and its vicinity must appear on Monday, September 29, by 08:00 a.m. at the corner of Mel’nikova and Doktorivska streets (near cemetery). Must take with them documents, money and valuables, also warm clothing, linen etc. Those of yids who won’t follow this order and will be found in other place, will be shot. Those of civilians who enter the dwellings left by yids and plunder stuff, will be shot.”
— Order posted in Kiev in Russian and Ukrainian, on or around September 26, 1941
Lithuania: Lithuania is located in northern Europe and is the largest, southern most, and most populous of the three Baltic states. Their official language is Lithuanian and about 84% of the people are ethnic Lithuanians. They have had Soviet occupation in 1940, German occupation in 1941, and a second Soviet occupation in 1944. Lithuania was the first occupied Soviet republic to break free from the Soviet Union and receive its Independence in 1990. They are a republic with a representative parliamentary democracy. In Lithuania, the president is elected by popular vote along with the members of parliament. The currency is the Litas. Lithuania is a member of the European Union, joining in 2004.
We flew from Kiev, Ukraine to Vilnius, Lithuania. We spent three nights in Vilnius, then drove on by coach to Klaipeda, Lithuania were we spent two nights. Really liked Lithuania and all the things we got to see while we were there.
Our hotel was located just off of Cathedral Square across from the main Roman CatholicCathedral of Lithuania in Vinius Old Town. A pretty sight, as we looked from our little hotel balcony at the church and town square.
We were walking across the Cathedral Square one evening and some young people were launching a little hot-air balloon.
Vilnius Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Even with the turbulent times in the 20th century, its historical buildings have survived. We walked the cobbled streets of the Old Town and admired the carefully restored Baroque buildings and saw the medieval charm.
Peter and Paul Cathedral: The church is decorated with over 2,000 religious depictions and has magnificent stucco sculptures.
Museum of Genocide Victims: This Museum is located in Vilnius and commonly called the “KGB Museum.” For much of the 20th century, Vilnius was under brutal, communist Soviet occupation, both before and after a three year Nazi occupation during WWII. We viewed exhibits that serve as a memorial to the victims of the atrocities that took place here, including a walk through the prison where the KGB held dissidents and freedom fighters. Hey folks, our freedoms in America are precious!
Trakai Castle: It’s an 15th century island castle located in Trakai, Lithuania on an island in Lake Galve. Trakai was one of the main centers of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the castle held great strategic location to fend off German knights. The castle has been reconstructed in the 15th century style and the major part of that reconstruction was finished in 1961. This was a fun castle to see.
Gediminas Tower: It is the only remaining part of the upper castle of Vilnius Lithuania. The first brick castle was completed in 1409. Gediminas Tower is an important historic symbol of Lithuania. It is depicted on the national currency and is mentioned in numerous Lithuanian patriotic poems and folk songs.
Okay, if you look closely you can see the red Tower in the center of the picture above the church. It is possible to climb to the top of the hill or take a funicular. (The hill is truly higher than this picture appears.) Really! Of course we couldn’t find the funicular so ended up walking forever to the farthest entrance on the far side then up, and up. However, when we came back down, we found the close entrance-exit and we ended up right behind the church. Good exercise I guess.
Rumsiskes: Traveling by coach from Vilnius to Klaipeda we stopped at Rumsiskes, an open-air ethnographic museum. We saw 18th & 19th century rural dwellings and gained an understanding of history and lifestyles of Lithuania’s four main regions.
Then highlight of the ethnographic museum was meeting Lina, a survivor from being deported to Siberia by the Communists. There is a book written about her by Ruta Sepetys, “Between Shades of Gray”. And I quote from the back cover of the book: Lithuania, June 1941: 15 year old Lina is preparing for art school and looking forward to summer. In the dark of night there is a knock at the door and life is forever changed. Soviet secret police arrest Lina, her mother, and her younger brother, tearing their family apart. The three are hauled from their home and thrown into cattle cars, where they soon discover their destination: Siberia. Lina embeds clues in her drawings and secretly passes them along, hoping they will reach her father’s prison camp. In this dramatic and moving story, Lina desperately fights for her life and the lives of those around her. But will love be enough to keep her alive?
With Vesma, our tour director interpreting, we listened with tears in our eyes to Lina’s story. She was fifteen years, barely able to survive in the extreme cold, lack of shelter, lack of food and etc. Anxious to read the book. Below are pictures of a cattle car, a hut like she built while in Siberia, and Lena. I think she told us she was there eleven years. I’m anxious to read the book.
This is what the Communist did to a once beautiful church in a small town in Lithuania. So far, they haven’t had the money to repair it.
Klaipeda Lithuania: We stayed in Klaipeda for two nights. Is the third largest city in Lithuania, is situated at the mouth of the Dane River where it flows into the Baltic Sea, and provides a usually ice-free port. It is the only port in Lithuania. Again we were fortunate to have a nice hotel in the old town. Across from our hotel is the shop called “Autentic” where I purchased some nice amber jewelry for our three girls. Jim & I also walked down to the port which was only a short distance.
Curonian Spit: Is a UNESCO World Heritage Site shared by Lithuania and Russia. It is 60 miles long and varies from 1/4 mile wide to 2 1/4 mile wide. There is a single road that traverses the whole length of the Curonian Spit. The Curonian Spit is an outstanding example of a landscape of sand dunes that is under constant threat from natural forces (wind and tide). It is home to the highest moving (drifting) sand dunes in Europe. It has been reclaimed by massive protection and stabilization works begun in the 19th century and still continuing to the present day.
It was a delightful day out with nature. First we went to the beach side and searched for amber. Amber is fossilized tree resin (not sap) and it washes up on this beach. And amber we found , even though most of it was pretty small.
Raganu Kalnas or Hill of Witches: Located on a forested sand dune on the Curonian Spit. Begun in 1979, it now contains 80 wooden sculptures along a series of trails. The pieces depict characters from Lithuanian folklore and pagan traditions. Fun!
Hill of Crosses: Since the medieval period, the Hill of Crosses has represented the peaceful resistance of Lithuanian Catholicism to oppression. From 1944 until Lithuania’s independence in 1991, the area was a part of the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic of the USSR. During the Soviet era, the pilgrimage to the Hill of Crosses served as a vital expression of Lithuanian nationalism. The Soviets repeatedly removed Christian crosses placed on the hill by Lithuanians. Three times, during 1961, 1973 and 1975, the hill was leveled, the crosses were burned or turned into scrap metal, and the area was covered with waste and sewage. Following each of these desecrations local inhabitants and pilgrims from all over Lithuania rapidly replaced crosses upon the sacred hill. In 1985, the Hill of Crosses was finally left in peace. Amazing!
Latvia: Situated on the Baltic coast, Latvia is a low-lying country with large forests and an environment rich in wildlife. The official language is Lativan, with about 59% of the people being Latvian and 29% Russian. They have had Soviet occupation in 1940, Nazi German occupation in 1941, and Soviet occupation again in 1944. They received their independence from Russia in 1991. They are a republic with a parliamentary democracy. The Latvian 100-seat unicameral Latvian Parliament, is elected by direct, popular vote every four years. The president is elected by the Parliament, also every four years. There currency is called Lats. They joined the European Union in 2004.
We drove by coach from Vilnius, Lithuania to Riga, Latvia. Before arriving in Riga we stopped at the restored 18th century Baroque Palace of Rundale, Rundale Lativa. It was built between 1736-40 as a summer residence for the Duke of Courland. The palace was designed by the architect of St. Petersburg’s Hermitage, Bartolomeo Rastrelli. (Pictures were not allowed inside.)
Riga is the capital and largest city in Latvia. It is also the largest city in the Baltic states with a population of 650,000. The city is an important seaport and a major industrial, commercial and financial region of the Baltic Sea region. We spent three nights in Riga. Riga’s Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It has a collection of cobbled lanes, gargoyle-adorned buildings, and restored 17th century architectural treasures.
Lots of neat outdoor places to eat or even dance in Riga.
Art Nouveau Architectural: A century ago,Riga, just as other European cities, was swept away by a style of architecture and living inspired by longing for creative freedom and daring opulence. Forty per cent of buildings in the center of Riga belong to art nouveau, which is more than in other European cities. Riga has around 800 art nouveau buildings. We were taught by Vesma that while on our way around Riga, not too just gaze at the cobblestones and shop windows but lift our eyes. These pictures were taken in the Embassy District of Riga.
Art Nouveau Museum: This house was built in 1903, as a private property of Konstantīns Pēkšēns. The design was created by Petsens. The interior has been restored to its authentic look of 1903. We could wear period hats as we toured the museum.
Salaspils Concentration Camp: (Another sad memorial). This Nazi Concentration Camp was built in 1941 and used for 3 years during the Nazi occupation of Latvia in WWII. More than 100,000 men, women and children were put to death here. There is a Memorial to the Children. More than 12,000 Soviet children, of whom at least 7,000 were Jewish children were put to death. Most of them were tortured by pumping out their blood to supply German military hospital.
Cesis Castle: German crusaders known as the Livonian Brothers of the Sword began construction of the castle near the hill fort in 1209. It is well-preserved castle in Latvia. We were provided lanterns for our venture into the castle. A fun place!
The Cesis Castle Park was laid out in 1812….loved the black swans. The oldest brewery in Latvia dating back to 1878 is located next to the Castle.
Estonia: The most northerly of the Baltic States. Estonia is a mainly flat country on the eastern shores of the Baltic Sea, with many lakes and islands. Much of the land is farmed or forested. The official language is Estonian, with about 69% being ethnic Estonian and 25% Russians. As the other Baltic countries, Estonia also endured Soviet occupation in 1940. Nazi German occupation in 1941, Soviet occupation again in 1944 until they received Independence from Russia in 1991. They are a Parliamentary Republic, with a 101 member Unicameral Parliament. Members are elected by popular vote every four years, and the President is elected by the Parliament. The currency is the Euro. They joined the European Union in 2004.
We drove by coach from Riga, Latvia to Tallinn, Estonia. We breezed across the border and before arriving in Tallinn we made a stop in Parnu, Estonia which is a summer vacation resort.
Tallinn Estonia: Tallinn is the capital and largest city in Estonia. It’s situated on the northern coast of the country on the Bay of Finland, directly across from Helsinki. They have both Scandinavian and Russian influences in the language, culture, and architecture. Tallinn’s Old Town is listed on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list. The city was a European Capital of Culture for 2011. It is a beautiful place, loved the old town and the ancient town wall.
In 1988, 300,000 Estonians gathered at this Song Festival Grounds outside of Tallinn to sing patriotic songs. In 1989, the people of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia held hands to make “The Baltic Chain,” a human chain that stretched 360 miles from Tallinn to Vilnius, Lithuania. A blood bath was feared, but the people kept singing. After four years of singing and other acts of protest, Estonia achieved something remarkable–independence from the Soviets through a relatively bloodless revolution.
The Raeapteek: Is on of the oldest continuing running pharmacies in Europe, having always been in business in the same exact place since 1422. In Medieval times patients could buy unique remedies such as Dried Deer Penises and Dried Toads as shown in the jars below. The last picture is looking out the pharmacy window to the Old Town Square.
This was one of our favorite places to eat. Our traveling friends and us enjoyed Elk soup for 1 Euro and fried pie for 1 Euro. Located in the 15th century Gothic Town Hall, the atmosphere was great.
Décor around Tallinn.
The Tallinn City Wall and twenty-one towers was built in Medieval Times and is a marvelous sight to behold.
Our last evening in beautiful Tallinn Estonia.
The conclusion of this trip to St. Petersburg, Russia and Moscow, Russia will be included on my next travel blog. However, in the meantime, a wonderful trip to Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia comes to a close. Great times, new friends, and a huge thank you to our tour director, Vesma for going above and beyond and making this a fantastic adventure!