Letter from Down South

Detail from a mural on a building facade in the self-proclaimed Republic of Uzupis, Vilnius. (ERR News)
11/21/2013 9:06 AM
Category: Features

Patric Coudenhove, who moved back to Tallinn last year, recently returned to the two southern Baltic states after 16 years, family in tow, to see how much has changed there. 

Haute Riga

With a month and "change" to go before the new euros are introduced and Riga becomes European Capital of Culture, the capital city looks magnificent.

With its Parisian avenues and all that fanciful Art Nouveau facade work, the place is very high-maintenance. If it is allowed to decay, if those porcelain cherubs turn into gargoyles and start missing limbs and wings, things can quickly turn very bleak indeed. But with the curtain about to be lifted for next year, the Latvians are at some kind of peak. Es zinu, kas ir modē - I know what's in fashion - say the models on outdoor media lining the grand boulevards, and the only possible response to that, really, is to look starstruck and nod, "yes, ma'am, you do - as do your colleagues."

The spit and polish in 19th century RIga extends to Riga's Old Town. Vecriga tends to be less fairy tale and mysterious than Tallinn's Old Town but it is also lacking another thing as well. Strip clubs and amber.

It's comfortable and clean here, with no seedy patches (note: we did not do scan every street for seed or encrusted sap). The majority of the action, including possibly unlicensed outdoor action, is concentrated in the area around the central market, train station and bus station (note to Tallinn: the city has combined all three of these busy areas in one location, then thrown in a Stockmann. Well-played).

Think of Latvia and many still remember the bad press it got during the recession, including from its own people, in blogs like "Failed State: Latvia." But it shook off the downturn and roared back, much like Riga's mayor (if nothing else, said to be competent) who lay in a coma for weeks after suffering heatstroke in 2011, then returned to full form.

There's no evidence of failure in Latvia, just greater amplitudes of recession and recovery, and also of relative income levels. Poverty is, as so often, almost invisible but not quite concealed. We saw it just once. There's a good supply of hotel space, and quite a bit of luxury apartment footage to be had at rock bottom prices. Our well-appointed two-bath, three-room apartment in the Old Town cost 40 euros for the night. I wonder how much of it the pensioner cleaning woman saw. She was waiting behind our door from 11am with two plastic bags, which seemed to not only hold cleaning supplies but her worldly possessions. She stood there as motionless as one of the guards at the Freedom Monument, waiting for us and our kids to clear out. With her meek, "I exist to serve" demeanor, I hope she had the courage to take the lats we left on the table.

A Demonstration

We also saw a demonstration that Thursday morning. A real one. If you had seen it, you would quickly realize that Estonia has not seen one in recent years. It was scary. There is a running disagreement in my family as to whether kids should attend demonstrations. Most of us, being old union people, say yes - the more the better. But even though these demonstrators were middle-aged, and there was a line of relaxed-looking police, I saw the wisdom of the cautious dissenting Coudenhoves. For these people were angry. The continuous sound of whistles clenched in the protesters' teeth added to the ominous mood. Somewhere within the mute Neoclassical walls of the ministry, some of the message had to be getting through. A policeman told me the demonstrators were teachers.

T & B 

Of course, Latvia has that reputation as the most Russian of the Baltics - the most Russified, and also having had the biggest prewar Russian population. Fringe views are more prominent than they are in Estonia. Just this month, a radiologist from the American Midwest took out a full-page ad in The Baltic Times. It wasn't very smooth copy, but the message could be summed up as "Russians go home - now." Latvia also a big Soviet monument that is causing tensions, and a fairly recent unsuccessful referendum on Russian as second official language -  viewed by many as an insulting and futile exercise.

I steeled myself for divisions, but tension was not in evidence on this day. We expected it to be more stark since we arrived in Riga after a leisurely ramble through the Gauja national park, one of the cradles of Latvian culture. But central Riga has far less Russian text visible than Tallinn, for one thing, almost none on outdoor media and signs. Apart from one supermarket announcement in the chic, somewhat tonier-than-Solaris Galerija shopping mall. Aimed at tourists, perhaps?

Over at the Freedom Monument, slender Milda still towered gracefully with her three stars. Ah, how much less stodgy than Tallinn's Das Kreuz. The changing of the guard (a very distinguished tradition that should be instituted by the Vahipataljon at the Freedom Cross in Tallinn, I think) has become less Teutonic. The helmets were gone, but the marching style was still the same. But they were good. When a man clad in patchy clothing approached the watchmen, making erratic movements and muttering into his palm, I tensed, expecting trouble or harassment, but it turned out to be a Zemessargis in camouflage fatigues and holding a walkie-talkie, a national guardsman reviewing his men.

We walked a long way to a famous street I had somehow never been to, Alberta iela, for what is considered the ultimate Art Nouveau fix. We weaved around in the street, the only way to appreciate both sides of the frontage simultaneously. Then it was time for a different kind of hazardous road activity - driving from Riga to Vilnius.

Which turned out to be not that bad, except for some stretches of road where drivers trailed their right pair of wheels on the hard shoulder, creating an artificial center lane - one that could disappear at any time and be replaced by an oncoming truck. The narrower sections of highway where this behavior was impossible seemed much safer. The last 150 km into Vilnius were fully European-class motorway.

City of Go(l)d

Vilnius was confusing at first. Relying on the usual landmarks is no help ("look for a church with an Italianate Baroque tower…" is a useless phrase here). I had forgotten quite how many churches there are in Vilnius. Here they are built adjacent to one another so it is hard to tell which is which. It's something like the built-up sacral part of Vene street in Tallinn (Catholic church, Dominican monastery, etc.) except this occurs more or less city-wide.

In Vilnius, the faithful present an actual physical obstacle to the tourist - even on a Saturday morning, we couldn't make it past the landing on the stairs to the Gate of Dawn chapel. People were kneeling on the steps. Their average age was not as high as one might think in A.D. 2013.

Unable to gaze upon the relics, we wandered into one of the aforementioned semi-adjoining churches and were treated to the sound of a choir - a good, powerful one - rehearsing in the loft. The effect was something like wandering into a side door of the Estonia Theater at lunch and hearing some soaring Puccini aria. Spine-tingling.

After a stop at a Gothic brick church tandem (St. Anne's/Bernardines), we wandered into deepest Bohemia: the self-proclaimed republic of Uzupis. In Tallinn terms, this part of Vilnius is Uus-Maailm taken to its logical conclusion. A border sign at the bridge over the Vilnia river announces in several languages, including Hebrew, that you are leaving Lithuania. Although the first association is with Christiania, the hippie part of Copenhagen, no drug dealers were in evidence, just a desultory 1960s junk-sculptor and eccentric artist vibe.

If the Frank Zappa statue erected in Vilnius in the 1990s ever needs a better, more easier-to-find location, this would be the place. This should probably be the Republic of Uzupis's number one foreign policy priority.  

Good, Cheap Beer

From some vantage points, Vilnius is laid out like a bowl with the river at the bottom, and around the rim skyscrapers have sprouted. But the insides of the bowl are still very unspoiled and pleasantly ramshackle.

A little of it is freshly plastered, like Town Hall Square. Lithuania is, as of this year, suddenly the Baltic per capita GDP leader for the first time ever  (still waiting for an explanation here), and the square looks suitably Scandinavian, with Narvesen kiosks and a small Rimi.

One thing I was happy to see in Vilnius is that local beer is doing very well, although the most famous expat haunt in Vilnius, Ritos Sleptuve, closed a few years back and Rita is selling bar accoutrements in Chicago, a brewpub set up shop there.

Lithuanian brewpubs are a different creature from the Estonian variety. Estonian ones, like Danish role models such as Mikkeller, emphasize bottle design, clever names and a lot of hops. And high prices. The beer is amazing, but it's like you are also paying for the art on the label and often a given beer is a one-off thing. If you miss the latest release of (I'm making something up here) that double-bocked cranberry-infused IPA, it'll be months before you see it again.

But imagine if, on Viru street, you had a little beer bar tucked into a back alley, the interior looking a little like the old Slothrop's (with even a few books, albeit in Polish), and it had - count them - nine taps connected to kegs of beers brewed on the premises, all of them available and in excellent condition at all times. And unfiltered and "live," the latter referring to some probiotic quality. All for a euro or two a pint. That's Vilniaus Alus on Pilies street for you. I've buried it in the piece so hopefully few readers will find it and it doesn't become what Valli Baar now is in Tallinn.

Because seriously - keep Vilnius weird, folks. It's a relatively easy seven-hour drive away from Tallinn, and it runs a major risk of being discovered and sanitized. Apart from the questionable food, it's much more Southern European than any Baltic city has business being.

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