Each era brought new building styles, many linked to the various forms of Christianity. Some highlights are the Kadriorg Palace of Peter the Great and the cottage he used whilst waiting for the Palace to be completed, the contrasting Orthodox and Lutheran churches and the museum of maritime history. In the Soviet era Tallinn was the USSR’s biggest grain-handling port. We could see the extent of the harbour after the long climb up the steps of St Olaf’s church tower, and we sailed out of it on our day trip across the Baltic to Helsinki.
During our day in Helsinki, in a country with a much longer history of independence, we saw our first examples of Art Nouveau architecture, the spectacular Senate square, the under-hill church of Temppeliaukio and the imposing architecture of C.L. Engel. Back in Tallinn, we walked along the Baltic shore to Pirita, yachting venue for the Moscow Olympics and site of St Brigid’s convent and spent a wonderful day walking in the Lahemaa National Park with its Beaver Trail and erratic boulders in the sea at Kasmu.
Then on into Latvia, one of Europe’s fastest-growing economies, and its lively capital Riga, where once again we were inspired by the Art Nouveau buildings and a museum we found on the top floor of one, by the Dom cathedral with its organ recitals, the huge Central Market, the Museum of the Occupation and our favourite restaurant, Salve. We went out of town to walk in the hills of the Sigulda National Park and another day in the historic Kemeri spa and National Park, where boardwalks help you explore the lakeside swampland, and stopped at the seaside resort of Jurmala on the way back. The Open-Air Ethnographic museum proved a great day out, not only for its buildings and culture but also for the variety of birdlife there on the lakeside. I also went to the Concentration Camp memorial at Salaspils, a stunning tribute to the 194,000 Jews imprisoned there in 1941-44, with a metronome that ticks constantly beneath a huge black slab.
Lithuania seemed poorer and flatter until we reached the beautiful city of Vilnius, where an evening walk showed us the floodlit city centre and inspired us to explore many of its corners the next day, where the influence of Polish Catholicism, and Judaism are clear. It has two great hills, one named Gediminas after the city’s legendary founder and the other the Hill of Three Crosses. On walks to two cemeteries we found the burial place of the heart of the Polish hero Pilsudski, the graves of the Lithuanians killed in the protests prior to 1991 independence, a mass French grave from the Napoleonic war and graves of many nationalities from the Second World War, when all three Baltic states were occupied first by Nazi Germany and then by the Soviet Union.
We went out of town to the Trakai National Park with beautiful lakeside and forest walks and in town we visited the old KGB prison. I shall not forget the jewellery in the fine Art Museum, the house of Pushkin’s son or the great selection of beers at the Apple Bar.
All in all, an amazing fortnight. Certainly one to be repeated.