Sunday, 23 October 2016


10th Oct 2016

The Lithuanian Flag

As mentioned previously, Vilnius is such a pleasant city which tastefully merges the old with the new. Smart little boutiques line old medieval streets with excellent wine bars and restaurants intermingled with many ancient churches and other historic buildings, and all so impeccably clean without being over-manicured. The place has a prosperous feel to it and most of the local citizenry appear well-heeled and  remarkably civilised.

Right: An example of one of the dozens of churches of various denominations. Perhaps Russian 'Orthodox', which seem to feature prominently. Didn't notice any 'Unorthodox' ones, or mosques for that matter...or muslims.

Left: An example of another typical little cobbled street leading down to Cathedral Square.
Right: Across this little square is the Amber Apple, a delightful brasserie which I frequented on a couple of occasions. Good nosh and good value. Talking of amber, the Baltic region is renowned for amber jewellery. Loads of shops sell it. The difficulty is knowing whether the stuff is genuine amber or cheap amber coloured plastic. There are ways of telling; one of which is to hold a flame to the stuff when genuine amber will give off a characteristic resinous smell. Having said that, if cheap plastic imitations look exactly the same, why pay a big price for the genuine article?

On down to Vilnius Cathedral (left) or more correctly known as the Cathedral of St Stanislav and St Vladislav. The belfry to the left dates back to the 13th century. It also houses a clock, the original mechanism being made in 1672. The clock face only (intentionally) has one hand and a bell is struck on the hour.

You can climb up inside the belfry, which of course I did. The last three stories are reached by a wooden ladder-like structure. In the top floor are the old, and replacement, mechanisms (right).

....and from which you get a good view of the city. Left: The view to the north-east over the Cathedral towards Gediminas Castle, on Gediminas Hill. The castle dates from the 13th century and was ruined during the Russian occupation between 1655-61. As you can see, it has been restored.

There is a good zig-zag flagstone path up to the castle which houses a museum of medieval armour and weaponry. If you are feeling idle there is also a funicular railway to take you up.

The castle and surrounding fortifications protected the original city from the unwelcome attentions of Teutonic and Tatar raiders.

Left: A view of the city up the hill to the south. My hotel was somewhere near the top.

Right: Looking west along Gedimino Prospektas along which is the ex-Gestapo/KGB HQ (see previous blog) and at the end of which is the Lithuanian Parliament building. Some very upmarket shops as well.

Left: Looking west along the Neris river from the castle. To the north (right) of the river is the newer commercial district.
In the summer there are gondoliers and other touristy boat trips on the river.

Legend has it that the city was founded in the 1320s by Grand Duke Gediminas after he had a dream concerning an iron wolf, or something like that. I listened, but got a bit lost in the detail. He probably played a part, but the site had already been settled in some form for the previous 1000 years.
At the east end of the Cathedral Square, ouside the Palace of the Grand Dukes, stands his statue (right). Looks like he has just been unseated and his horse is about to push him off the edge.

Left: The Palace of the Grand Dukes. Repeatedly re-modelled, destroyed and rebuilt over the centuries, it now houses a large museum displaying artefacts from the history of the Palace and city. It was a Monday when I was there and it was closed. 

Right: To the north-east of the city is the Three Crosses monument, erected in the 17th century in memory of some monks who were murdered by pagans many years previously. In fact the Soviets bulldozed the original monument and this is a replacement. I didn't walk up there.

Left: At the western end of Gedimino Prospektas is the Soviet built Lithuanian Parliament. It must keep the window cleaners busy.

Right: Nearby, the National Library.

Across on the northern side of the river are some flash high-rise hotels, commercial buildings and several very modern and well appointed shopping centres. I went into this one (left), called the EuroCentre (I wonder who paid for that?). Lots of top designer shops in evidence and good eateries. I had a delicious, and inexpensive, lunch there at a trendy place called 'TakeWay' which specialises in Oriental cuisine. Strongly recommended if you pass that way.

Right: The Vilnius equivalent of London's Boris Bikes. They are sponsored by Aviva, and were being well used. I couldn't work out how you pay for them, so I didn't try one out.

Altogether I was much impressed by Vilnius. A great place for a 'getaway' long weekend, if I may suggest.

I think it is a very fashionable city, although perhaps this colourfully attired lady (left) was going a little bit over-the-top. Either that or she had just raided a trendy clothes shop.

Next, on south to Warsaw. Again, no direct rail service so it will be another bus, but hopefully of the same high standard as the previous ones. By the way, the cost of these buses is remarkably reasonable and they go, more or less, once an hour. 4 hour journeys have cost me on average (and there is a 20% dicount if you are over 60) about 16 Euros. Not bad.

Thursday, 20 October 2016


8th-9th Oct 2016

Vilnius Town Hall

It was another 4 hour bus journey south from Riga to Vilnius. Again, I didn't notice where we crossed the border; somewhere near the Latvian town of Bauska I think, with a stop for a leg stretch at Panevezys. There's nothing to tell you, such as a big sign saying "Welcome to Lithuania" or, as in the case of most British towns and villages "Lithuania welcomes careful drivers". I never quite understand the point of those anyway; as if 'towns' can actually welcome anyone, let alone careful, or even dangerous, drivers.  The countryside was still flat as a pancake, but more agriculture is apparent in Lithuania; a sort of cross between Estonia and Latvia.

I must say, these buses are really quite comfortable and supply free wifi with plugs for chargers together with comprehensive internet driven 'entertainment' consoles; something yet to catch on in many more supposedly tecnologically advanced countries. Arrived at the Vilnius bus/train station at the south of the city at 3.30pm and booked into the Panorama Hotel, very close by. It didn't look very inspiring from the outside, but proved perfectly satisfactory inside.

I took an initial wander downtown. The southern entrance to the quaint Old Town is through the Gates of Dawn. Last remaining of the five city gates, it houses a Chapel (of Mary) where miracles are said to be worked.

Vilnius, unlike anywhere else I've seen in the Baltics, so far, is not built on flat ground. It slopes downhill from the south to the Neris River which seems to seperate the old bit from the new bit.

On passing through the gates there is a large 'baroque' church, St Theresa's, of the Carmelite persuasion. I profess absolutely no knowledge of what these different religious classifications mean and, frankly, I'm not that interested. All I noticed was this enormous 'stretch' limousine parked outside. I think it was waiting for a wedding party to emerge. A stretched car-melite perhaps.

As with Tallinn and Riga, the city is packed with architecturally impressive churches and cathedrals of various denominations. They deserve a whole chapter on their own, but I will forego most of them...just mention the biggies en-passant.

Left: The view south from the steps of the Town Hall. There are lots of smart wine bars, restaurants, tasteful shops and boutiques around the area which is remarkably clean and tidy. Also some very upmarket, if small but elegant, hotels. The Grotthaus, at which I could not afford to stay, was one of these.

Moving south one passes the impressive  university campus and the Presidential Palace (right). It was used by Napoleon during his advance on Moscow and by General Mikhail Kutuzov when chasing him back to Paris. They are supposed to do a ceremonial changing of the guard here at 6pm, but I never saw any guard to be changed. Perhaps summertime only. 

I was here for three days, but on the second day it pissed down with rain, so I contented myself with indoor sight-seeing following a normally 'open-air' bus tour around town. The bus tour was fine except, due to the rain, the windows were up and closed. Lots of tourists (several Japanese) were on board and as a consequence the windows all steamed up (I don't mean the Japanese were specifically responsible for this) and, despite the audio guide and the wiping of windows, it was difficult to know where one was or looking at and photos were out of the question. I remember being told we were passing various churches with interesting stories attached. 
Also the sole of my shoe had sprung a leak which proved rather uncomfortable, but not as uncomfortable as after I bought a cheap new pair of shoes (forever the miser) in a charming and upmarket shoe shop. These caused untold pain later as my heels were rubbed raw. The suffering I go through....but pathetic compared to the appalling suffering so many citizens of the Baltics experienced under German and Soviet occupation. Silly even to mention a comparison I suppose.
Anyway, I decided to visit the building on Gedimino Prospektas, one of the main east-west drags, which housed the former HQs of firstly the Tsarist judiciary, then the Gestapo, then the KGB. It contains a museum, the Museum of Genocide Victims, dedicated to the thousands of Lithuanians who were executed, imprisoned or deported to gulags by the Soviets from WW2 up to the 1960s. Before that the Gestapo used it and were responsible for the murder and deportation to concentration camps of tens of thousands of the flourishing Jewish community. The large Jewish communities suffered terribly in all the Baltic states (as elsewhere) during WW2. It was totally inhuman and brutally barbaric behaviour by the Gestapo and the Soviets and really makes you wonder how and why supposedly even 'semi-civilised' human beings can bring themselves to inflict such cruel and dire atrocities. I can't even grasp the logic for it considering the inevitable international condemnation and repercussions. 

Left: This is the building concerned; a rather innocuous looking place from the outside.

Right: Along the wall on the lower level outside are memorial plaques honouring (some of) those who perished during the Soviet occupation. They were mostly men in their 20s and 30s who were executed for either real or suspected anti-Soviet activities.

Left: Inside were long corridors either side of which were  cells of varying size, together with guard-rooms, communication centre, communal washrooms etc.

Right: The exercise yard.

Left: Down in a cellar area was, most horrendously conserved, the execution chamber from Soviet days. This featured a wall with clearly seen, and most probably genuine, bullet  pockmarks in it. There was a video display, and I assume this was a re-enactment, but incredibly and gorily realistic, of the process of a series of prisoners being shouted at, shackled, man-handled into the room and perfunctorily shot through the back of the head. Blood and  brains everywhere before the place was sluiced down in time for the next victim to meet his fate. They then showed the bodies being dragged up a metal  chute and piled into a truck outside. A very alarming demonstration indeed.

Right: ...and while we're on the gruesome side, there were several montages of photos of the corpses of Lithuanian partisans killed 'in action', or shortly afterwards. There were similar photos in the Tallinn and Riga war and remembrance museums. They don't pull their punches here.

Left: Outside, a simple memorial to the Jews murdered by the Gestapo.

Right: The small Holocaust museum on Palmenkalnio Gatve not far away. More gruesome photos of mass executions and pitiful stories about families being arrested and split up before being dragged away to execution or deportation.

That's enough for a rainy day I feel. Hopefully it will be fine tomorrow for a good walk-about.....after buying some elastoplast to strap up my chafed heels.

Wednesday, 12 October 2016


7th - 8th Oct 2016

Blackheads House

Situated in the Town Hall square is the impressively ornate Blackheads' House (above). I remember there is also one in Tallinn. Originally built in 1344 it is was a meeting house for the Blackheads' Guild of unmarried German merchants (dread to think what they got up to). They got the name because their patron/founder was an African born Roman soldier. The original building was badly bombed in 1941 and then totally flattened by the Soviets in 1948. The blueprints survived and it was  completely rebuilt; completed in 2001, for Riga's 800th birthday. The statue out the front is of St. Roland. Who?!

Left: The ornate doorway with the carving of the founder, St Maurice, the Afro-Roman soldier, on the right side pillar.

There is an excellent Tourist Information office on the left side of this building....if ever you are passing.

Just to one side of this square is St. Peter's Church (right). I saw it advertised that there is a lift which takes you up the steeple and from which there are excellent panoramic views of the city. So I went in.......

The interior was rather dull and cavernous but with a somewhat weird display of contemporary art down one side, along with a few gloomy religious pictures on the walls. The only other people in there were a couple of old women in a side chapel, praying vigorously. I had the place virtually to myself. 
Ticket for the lift cost 3 Euros, sold to me by a hatchet faced  woman at the entrance and I had to climb steps for the first three floors before finding the lift ("why couldn't they start it at the bottom?", I asked myself). I was told to sit down and wait, by the lift operator. Anyway, nobody else turned up, so I got into the lift and up we went. Just me and the lift operator. I was deposited out onto a narrow little open-air gallery running around the base of the pointy bit at the top, and the lift disappeared down again. I was left alone. There was, as promised, an excelllent 360˚ panoramic view. I duly took photos, which took about 3 minutes, and waited for the lift to return. And waited. And waited some more. It was chilly up there with a brisk northerly breeze blowing. After 10 minutes waiting I was getting a bit concerned as to when the lift might return. There was no other way down. There was a metal man-hole cover bolted to the stone floor, and an iron ladder going further up inside the pointy spire. After 10 minutes I began to wonder if I had been left stranded. The lift man might have gone off for his lunch or he might have forgotten about me or, if he was waiting for more customers, I could be there all day....and all night! There was a button to push outside the lift door, but that didn't light up or seem to do anything. I pushed it firmly and often. After 15 minutes I was beginning to get rather cold and wondering what to do if nobody came, ever. I don't have a smart-phone which could connect me to the Riga Tour Office web-site. I didn't know what emergency number to ring. I was thinking I might have to call someone in England on my trusty basic 20-year-old Nokia telling them I was stranded up the steeple of a church in Riga. I suspect they might have just laughed. Perhaps I could start yelling for help at the ant-sized pedestrians below but, in the unlikely event of them hearing me, they would probably think I was one of those muezzins calling them to prayer. OK, after over 20 anxious minutes the lift did reappear....but it did seem a very long 20 minutes I can tell you. No punters got out and I was taken, shivering, back down. I suppose I got my 3 Euros worth.
....anyway, here are a couple of the pics I took.

Left: Looking to the north-west over the Daugava River.  Riga Castle is just to the right of the bridge and Riga Cathedral in the centre.

Right: South down the river over the bus and railway stations.

Left: Those four enormous hangar-like buildings were indeed German built hangars for WW1 Zeppelins. There is a fifth just to the left. They were imported from elsewhere in Latvia. They now house the Riga Central Market, and there is more open-air market spilling out behind them.

Each hangar, five of them, and they cover an enormous area, is full of meat, veg, cheese and all other kinds of foodstuff. There are also numerous spill-over stalls to the sides and behind. One hangar is completely dedicated to fish. I just couldn't fathom out how they managed to sell so much stuff before it started to go off. There is enough food in there to supply a city twice the size of Riga for a month!
Right; This is just the fish hangar....and not that many customers.

OK, I think that is about enough on Riga. Off to Vilnius, Lithuania, tomorrow by bus because, again, there is not a feasible railway system linking them.  I noticed in my guide-book there is a hotel in Vilnius called the 'Grotthaus'. I would dearly love to have booked in there, just for the name, to complete a trio of 'Schmelly, Draughty and Grotty', but it is obviously quite smart and outside my budget. I have settled for the more modest Hotel Panorama. All shall be revealed.

Tuesday, 11 October 2016


6th - 7th Oct 2016

The Freedom Monument. 'Milda'.
The Freedom Monument, above, affectionally known as 'Milda', replaced a statue of Peter the Great in 1935. Along wth Estonia and Lithuania, Latvia has not had much freedom and independence. If it wasn't the Swedes, it was the Germans or Russians who ruled the roost here. They did gain independence between 1919 and 1940 and again in 1991. I expect they are hoping for a longer innings this time. They are now part of NATO and the EU so they should be safe...shouldn't they?

My wander starting at the Freedom Monument on the north-east side of the Old Town, took me south, then west towards the River Daugava, up the river side and to the north. The first thing I encountered on entering the Old Town at the bottom of Brivibas Bulvaris was, yes you've guessed it, that icon of Western (US) greed, gluttony and bad taste, a bleedin' Macdonald's. Not a good start.

Left: Looking south down the main drag, Brivibas Bulvaris, towards the Old Town, overlooking the Nativity of Christ Cathedral (gold domes) and the Freedom Monument at the far end of the row of trees. Photo taken from the bar on the top floor of the Radisson Hotel

As with Tallinn, I'm amazed to see so many churches of so many different denominations in these cities. Haven't a clue what they all worship, but it must keep a lot of clergymen employed. However, I have yet to see a Mosque. In fact, come to think of it, I have yet to see a Muslim.

Believe it or not the mayor of Riga, and the man who presided over it's 'Belle Epoche' between 1901-1912, was a Brit; a Yorkshireman called George Armitstead. By popular consent he was considered 't best bloody Mayor towns ever 'ad. He was responsible for 'joost abart all 't improvements, architecture and t'cosmopolitan elegance what's 'ere today. His statue, together with that of Mrs Armitstead and their dog, is outside the Opera House (right). Don't know how he got the job, but he obviously did the city 'reet proud'. The present Mayor of Riga is a Russian.

The Latvian National Opera Company is considered to be one of the finest in Europe, as is the Riga Ballet. Can't say I've seen either of them playing a match yet, but I'll take my informant's word for it.

Left: My meandering route took me past what I gathered are called the 'Three Brothers'. Three adjoining houses, architectural gems, in Maza Pils Iela that are from 16th, 17th and 18th centuries respectively.  They are still lived in. Small upper windows in the centre one due to property tax in the Middle Ages being based on window size.

For some unknown reason there was a group of Danish tourists standing here listening to a couple of chaps playing jolly tunes on horn and tuba. The Danes must have known the tunes because they started singing.
I'm sure I recognise the chap on the tuba. It's Bernie from Plaistow if I'm not mistaken.

Strolling on down an alleyway behind St. George's Church (13th century), I passed through the Konventa Seta (left), another courtyard containing what was a retirement home for widows of rich merchants..............

.......before turning into a little lane which led me to the Black Magic Bar (right); an 'Ye Olde Worlde' coffee shop cum bar which specialises in dispensing it's Black Magic drink...Riga Balsam.  Of course I had to try some. It is a highly alcoholic and 'warming' black liquid served in 'shot' glasses which, after swigging the first glass and having regained my sight, I seem to remember tasted rather nice. 

Left: Riga Castle on the eastern riverside. The official residence of the President. It didn't look much like a castle to me. Recently undergone renovations.

Right: The guards outside the front door on the east side of the building. They were ambling around in their hi-vis jackets and, frankly, looked rather scruffy. I think they could do with a bit of renovation.....and a good Drill Sergeant.

Along a street called Torna Ieta (Ieta being the Latvian for Street it seems) which was previously known as Jacob's Barracks (built on the orders of Peter the Great) but is now a long series of retaurants and bars. I stopped for lunch in a Latvian restaurant here and tried a local dish, grey peas and mush. It wasn't as bad as it sounds and the service, by waiters dressed as sailors, was both excellent and amusing. Then on to the Powder Tower (left).
This is (after a few rebuilds) a 14th century tower, the only one remaining of the original 18 around the city wall (which itself hardly exists now). It has served as a gunpwder store, a prison, a torture chamber, and a 'frat' house. It now houses a museum which details the military history of Latvia from medieval times to present day.

.....and what a confusing history it is. It certainly served to confuse me as to who ruled when and who was fighting who. I think the Swedes were the first to occupy the country, followed by the Russians up until the end of WW1, then a spot of independence before the Soviets took over, who were  kicked out by the Germans in WW2 when Latvians fought on both sides and after WW2 the Soviets were back again until independence in 1992. It mentioned things like the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in 1939. The same sort of story applies to Estonia and Lithuania. Anyway, this is not a history lesson. If you're that interested you can look it up. I later, the next day, went to the 'temporarily relocated' Museum of the Occupation of Latvia on Raina Bulvaris where, amongst several gruesome photos of dead guerilla freedom fighters in the Soviet days, it was all explained again. Baltic history would challenge a Mastermind Champion.

Nearby the 'Swedish Gate' (right), the only remaining gate from the 17th century when the Swedes were in power. It is set in the largest part of the original wall and not much of that left.

According to a model in the museum, this is what the original area looked like (left).

Then on up into what is known as the Quiet Centre through the neatly tended Kronvalda parks and past the City canal. Most of this area is very pleasant and would be marvellous in the summer I expect, assuming it's not too overcrowded with hung-over tourists. People were canoeing on the canal.

....over a Soviet style piazza dividing the parks....

.....and into Alberta Iela (right), named after that famous character who founded Riga in 1201, the German Bishop Albert von Buxhoeveden. Try saying that after a few Riga Balsams. This and the surrounding streets are notable for their interesting, indeed  intriguing, Art Nouveau architecture (right). So much extraordinary detail.

Left: It wasn't all charming Art Nouveau in this area. I passed through an adjoining street in which the houses looked decidedly 'Art Abandoneé'.

I was told that just nearby is the Albert Hotel with a 'Sky bar' from which one can get excellent views. I found the Albert, it did indeed have a roof-top bar, but it was closed for a private function.

This concluded my semi-planned route for the day. I will repair to Paddy Whelan's for a well deserved bit of Latvian refreshment. There are  a  few more places of local interest to visit tomorrow.