Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Vilnius (Lithuania)

Lithuania is well known to we Scots as the source of the ill-fated, some would say downright corrupt, Russian-Lithuanian Vladimir Romanov, who used his bank Ukio Bankas (now bust) to fund a takeover then oversee the club’s collapse. He’s what’s commonly known as a ‘chancer’. Interestingly, went to change some money at the bus station and saw that there were two arte, one for UK, the other for Scotland – guess which one was lower (portent of the future?). I also have a slight knowledge of the town through its basketball team, as Brighton played and won away from home but were beaten at home in a fantastically rowdy match, which I attended, in the Brighton Centre.
Arrived by bus, the excellent Ecolines with wifi, electric sockets and coffee, to a rather drab bus station on the outskirts of town but the walk in was down through its medieval centre in the sun. Found the hotel then headed into town for dinner at an Italian called Pomodoro.
KGB Museum

Next day we started with the KGB Museum. Like the superb ‘Terror’ museum in Budapest, it is housed in the building sued by both the German Gestapo and the Russians KGB. In the second world war the Russians invaded but were driven back by the Germans only for the Russians to return at the end of the second World War, and there they remained until 1990, the last troops leaving in 1993. Napoleon also famously stopped here on his march to Moscow. The ‘Museum’ had dozens of cells in the basement. It started with two tiny holding cells, barely big enough to take one step, windowless and terrifying. 
But the padded cell with its straightjacket was the most frightening image of all, as the people placed here were not mad, but driven mad by torture. 
Then an astonishing two cells with small circular plates, about the size of a small tray standing up in the middle of the floor. These cells were flooded and the inmates forced to balance on the metal plate. In the winter the water would freeze. But worse than this was the story of Vilnius’s Jewish population, literally annihilated by being ghettoised, then marched to the outskirts of town and executed by the Germans. The Russians arrive, exhume bodies then start a reign of terror on the Germans and Latvians responsible for such crimes, but also much more. They deportation tens of thousands to Siberia and the continued surveillance and harassment by the KGB. Some managed to return in the 50s but it was a tragic story, the story of a small nation, repeatedly terrorised by large Empires from North (Sweden), South (France), East (Russia) and West (Germany).
Despite all of this, it seems a remarkably self-assured little nation with polite people and Vilnius is a fine European-like town, marked by its Neo-classical and Baroque architecture.
Frank Zappa!
Found a statue of Frank Zappa in a small park, his head upon a tall pole. Local artists decided to test the limits of the authorities censorship and submitted the proposal, and were astonished that it was accepted. So a 70 year old sculptor of Lenin statues was commissioned in 1993 and here it stands.
Baroque churches
If Riga is Art Nouveau, Vilnius is Baroque. These are worth the walk, even the Peter and Paul Church, which is some way out of town, a huge church with white reliefs covering ever surface.
Gothic masterpiece
Despite the dominance of Baroque, the finest church, if not building, in town is a small Gothic masterpiece, supposedly coveted by Napoleon when he passed through here on his ill-fated tour of the Baltics. Unusually, it’s made of brick with sinuous ribbed structures forming a mock face on the façade. Inside the Gothic ribbed roof is just as finely executed.

Note here for the cuisine but the receptionist in the hotel recommended XXXX and it was excellent – chicken stuffed with prunes and a pork stew in a tomato sauce. Bread ice-cream for dessert.

Riga (Latvia)

Art Nouveau
Latvia? Again, I had no preconceptions. Actually, this is not quite true, as I was drawn to Riga by its Art Nouveau architecture. Brussels is full of the stuff, as is Prague, but it’s only in Riga that you can see street after street of the stuff.
Walked from the bus station to our Art Nouveau Hotel, the Clarion Collection Valdemars. The owners had to flee the Germans to Sweden but had their property returned in 1991. It’s not the finest piece of Art Nouveau in Riga but it’s great to be staying here.
An architectural walk is a great way to see a city as it takes you to places you may not have considered. So it was with these walks. Riga is a hugely under-rated city. You soon recognise the asymmetries, huge doorways, odd-shaped towers on roofs, vertical lines and ornamentation. We literally spent two days looking at this stuff and got nowhere near exhausting its riches. Turn any corner and there’s more. Why so much of the stuff? Well, it was decided to relax the laws on building in stone outside of the old city at the same time as trade was booming and the Art Nouveau movement was sweeping Europe, at the turn of the century. It was a movement that allowed artists to draw in local and national cultural motifs, as well as experiment in form, as well as decoration. Apart from Glasgow, we have nothing like this in the UK.
First thing to spot is the ‘perpendicular’ movement, with strong lines that rise vertically across several floors.
New Romantic
The ‘new romantic’ movement, leans more towards national motifs, steep roofs, rustic stone effects and so on.
Sex scams
There’s a very large Russian population here and one consequence is the Russian mafia activities in its bars and nightspots. The guidebooks and web are full of warnings about predictable scams. Guess what, single man gets approached by two girls, they seem nice but he ends up being vastly overcharged for drinks and then beaten for his pin number. As the free local guide says, If you don’t look like Brad Pitt and girls approach you in the street, assume the worst. As a couple this is hardly a problem and went drinking in the old town, watched Jazz one evening and a great soul singer the next.
Zeppelin market
This is a must as you get a double dividend, great industrial, historic architecture – five huge German Zeppelin hangers from the First World War and a view of what the Latvians eat. One hanger had fish, huge stalls of salmon, eels and every other imaginable cold water species. The next had fruit and veg, much driven here from southern Russia. Another is meat as the local cuisine is well… meat.
Walked back from here along the canal than winds its way through the centre of the city.
Museum of the Occupation

A specially built, and rather brutal block of a building, houses a harrowing account of the liquidation by the Germans of Latvian Jews. It was brutal, marched out of town to the forest and shot at the side of specially dug pits. There is also the pairing of fascism with communism, and an account of the brutal occupation by Soviet Russia until its independence in 1991. I’m not sure about calling these places ‘Museums’, as they’re much more than this. This is the recent past and there are people in this town who witnessed all of this, many lived through the Soviet era. It’s something htat needs to be experienced, not exposition.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Helsinki (Finland)

What do I know about Finland? Lapland, reindeer, Nokia and a world beating education system. I can’t name a single famous Finn (Santa doesn’t count). So off we set across the Baltic to Helsinki, not without trepidation, as the previous day we had come across a monument in Tallinn to the nearly 900 people who died in 1994 in a Tallinn ferry disaster. It was as calm as a monk but Gil still preferred to stay on the top deck. The ferry had a quirky duty free selling Vodka laced with gold leaf, Japanese whisky, Liquorice Pipes, Fisherman’s Friends and a huge range of beer and spirits. Some passengers bought ENORMOUS amounts of alcohol. Some even had a palette when they disembarked.
Art Nouveau
For me, this was a chance to see another fine Art Nouveau city. I have a penchant for Art Nouveau architecture as I like buildings that put on a show, that wear their character like their best clothes. Art Nouveau does this but without the predictability of Neo-classical or pomposity of Baroque. It’s enormous doors, reliefs, balconies and decorations are designed to do nothing but make the structure look interesting. It’s also great fun, as it gave the architects the chance to let their creativity rip. Many more people will see a building from the outside than live in it, so why put all of the expense on the inside? This is especially true in cities, where the buildings are a public spectacle.
Helsinki railway station is a great example, with its huge arched entrance, flanked by huge figures holding lamps. It’s this sense of ‘entrance’ that Art Nouveau embraced. Inside it has a huge entrance hall with fantastic candelabras. If there’s one buildi8ng in a city that needs to be done well it’s the railway station.
On the left, the ticket office must be the nicest of any railway station in the world, with its lamps and wooden desks. It’s like entering a high class hotel. None of the officious glass windows and severity of other ticket offices.
On the right, a café with a central, circular serving bar. It’s big, it’s bold and has these wonderful vertical, orange lights. Every station needs a fine café and this is as fine as it gets.
The Kallia Church, which looks down a long boulevard from a hill some way out of the centre, is worth the walk. It’s the centrepiece of a whole district of Art Nouveau apartment blocks.
Ate some small fried fresh water fish, salmon and potatoes near the docks where we met some Australians, who worked in mining. The whole city is really a set of small peninsulas, so you’re never far from water.
In the centre is the rough hewn P building with its bears, wolves and owls. This rustic look is a feature of a number of the Art Nouveau buildings in Helsinki and harks back to the fortified buildings of rural Finland.
What I really liked was the warrior image on the corner tower. Look closely and you’ll see the helmet and eyes. Macintosh used the same idea in Glasgow.
The door is flanked by pairs of grotesque faces with three toes. A door is rarely a door in Art Nouveau. It’s a statement, often a grand statement, even out of proportion with the rest of the building. Again, it’s this external messaging.
Art gallery
Went to the Gallery of Modern Art where there was an exhibition by the Russian Art Collective AES+F, all about the end of ideology. The images are full of references to old masters, computer gaming, fashion photography. Happy End? was the other show, less impressive but a lively set of manga figures, images of school shooters and brand commentary.
City of the north

This is a city of the north, with lots of light, surrounded by water but it’s not a beautiful place, more functional. The ferry back was more sedate, as there was less mass purchasing of alcohol. Internet access on ferry, as there was on every bus, café, terminal and hotel. No passwords, just lots of open access.

Tallinn (Estonia)

Curious mixture of sex shops and mock medieval restaurants in the old walled city, whi8ch is what it must have been like in the Middle Ages. It’s now one of those wander the cobbled streets and alleys sort of place. Finns galore as it’s only a two hour ferry ride from Helsinki but no real signs of the Brit stag party brigade. Outside of the old city you’re into wooden houses and soviet blocks of flats. Inside, there’s an astounding number of restaurants with serving wenches promising mead, meat and sauerkraut. Amber’s everywhere, although its charms escape me. But it’s the sex clubs and striptease bars that produce the great contrast. The local freebie guide describes them honestly enough as rip-off joints, some ‘where anything goes’ others offering ‘whole body massage’ and girls who have ‘expert hands’. There’s even limousine rides that ‘you’ll never forget’ and a ‘torture room’. It’s all pretty grotesque and geared up for the hideous British ‘lad’. I’m sure the girls of Estonia know exactly how to extract their cash.
Nazis and Soviets
Eastern Europe has only just emerged from the opression of the Soviet era, withthe fall of teh wall in 1989, with some taking several more years to become independent states. Every city has, therefore, a museum or at least 'place' where one can see for oneself the continuity of methods between the fascism of both the far right and far left. Having travelled extensively in Soviet Russia in the late 70s and seen East Germany and other states under the soviet blanket, it's heartening to see a pepole and places flourish when they're given their own heads. However, it's not quite true. The Baltic states are being heavily subsidised. You see the EU flag on capital projects everywhere. Sure infrastructure's important for inward investment and growth but it's not enough in itself. 
What you see in the Museum of Occupation in Tallinn is the explict link between fascism from the West and the East. Interestingly, Tallin seemed to be rather Scandinavian, as it's only a two hour ferry ride from Finland, but the Russian presence in terms of people, langiage and political threat is still here.
There's the inevitable cell doors but also interesting tableaus on the partidsans and dissidents who fled to the woods and operated well into the 1950s. They were largely ignored by th west but held the flame of independence and are much revered by the locals, now that it has been achieved.
Estonia, or E-stonia, far from being a backwater, is one of the most wired countries on the planet with electronic voting, even mobile voting, in elections. There was a presidential and political programme to put technology in every school over four years. This has paid off. On the downside, Russia has attacked its internet infrastructure with a vengeance. Doughty little country this.
Cuisine seemed ordinary until we got a recommendation for an establishment down near the port – Neh. Fantastic Estonian food – pickled root vegetables, smoked lamb, smoked fish, fish pate, chicken liver pate – the works, with four types of bread and raspberry vinegar and rape seed oil dip. Then wild boar stew with honeyed vegetables and mushrooms and beef. Dessert Spruce Shoot Posset. Faultless.
Only two hours on the ferry to Helsinki, so decided to do an unplanned trip across the Baltic