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Baltics' stalwart beauty

After dark times under Nazi and then Soviet rule, the capital cities Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius court the future with a steady eye on the past.

April 09, 2006|Beverly Beyette | Times Staff Writer

Vilnius, Lithuania — THE turrets, the ancient city gates and the cobblestoned streets -- these are the fairy tale images of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania, known collectively as the Baltic States.

Since gaining independence in 1991, these northeastern European neighbors, occupied by the Germans during World War II and later forcibly annexed to the Soviet Union, have been bidding to become big-time visitor destinations.

The capitals -- Tallinn (Estonia), Riga (Latvia) and Vilnius (Lithuania) -- have well-preserved old towns. Charming boutique hotels have opened; so have good restaurants that shy away from such regional specialties as jellied pork, blood sausage and groats with fried fatty meat and cater increasingly to international tastes.

But like most fairy tales, this one has a dark side. Those picture-postcard images of the Baltics sometimes are crowded out of my memory by reminders of decades of oppression: a dank torture cell in the Museum of Genocide Victims in a former KGB prison in Vilnius. The Museum of Occupations in Tallinn. And the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia in a windowless black slash of a building adjacent to Riga's Town Hall Square.

As they move forward, the Baltics don't want the suffering and losses of the dark days to be forgotten. My visit in late September tells me they shouldn't -- and they won't.

I arrived in Tallinn after an overnight train journey from Moscow, where I had disembarked from a Russian river cruise, and checked into the nearby Merchant's House Hotel, steps from Old Town Square, the heart of the old city.

I bought a ticket for Tallinn City Tour's hop-on, hop-off sightseeing excursion on a red double-decker bus. It has English audio and during the nearly two-hour ride, proved a good way to see the green suburbs and the forgettable modern city.

We drove to Kadriorg, a tony residential suburb where we glimpsed the Baroque summer palace of Peter the Great (now an art museum). And we passed the Song Festival Grounds, where every five years the Songfest -- a national obsession since 1869 -- attracts up to 35,000 singers in folk costume and 250,000 spectators. (The next one will be in 2009.)

Soon we came upon Lasnamae, a hideous mini-city of '70s- and '80s-era apartments, built to house workers from the Soviet Union who were encouraged to immigrate and Russian-ize Estonia. They're now privately owned condos and home to almost a third of Tallinn's 400,000 residents.

Having seen as much of modern Tallinn as I needed to, I went to the tourism office and rented a self-guided audio walking tour of the old city, the focal point of which is the 600-year-old Town Hall and its green dragonhead gargoyle drainpipes.

A small museum inside offers a glimpse into life in Tallinn. In the Middle Ages it was called Reval and was a major port of call on the Hanseatic trade route.

In one corner of the square is the 15th century raeapteek, or apothecary, where the infirm once bought such "cures" as black cat urine and fish eye powder. There's a little apothecary museum and, next door, an antiques shop where I bought a couple of Soviet-era replica posters but passed on a framed color portrait of the ill-fated Czar Nicholas II and family and a pocket watch with Adolf Hitler on its face.

For serious shopping, countless jewelry stores on Viru and surrounding streets sell amber in numerous shades and shapes. Linens, marzipan and Russian dolls are ubiquitous. Along Muurivahe Street, street vendors sell knitwear and juniper wood kitchen utensils.

By sheer luck, I stumbled on little Katariina Kaik, a narrow lane between Vene and Muurivahe streets, where Katariina Gild artisans make and sell textiles, leather goods, jewelry, glass and ceramics.

Old Tallinn, which has more than 80% (about 1.1 miles) of its old city wall intact -- including 20 towers with pointed red roofs -- is a delight to explore on foot. Redevelopment was halted during Soviet times, which spared some buildings. The upper level of the old town, Toompea, is where the movers and shakers once lived; the lower town was home to merchants.

Two paths -- the very steep short leg and the long leg -- connect the two. Toompea castle, now home to the Parliament, flies the tricolor flag of Estonia.

In 1894, the Russians, to the displeasure of Estonians, chose a site opposite for the Orthodox Alexander Nevsky Cathedral (finished in 1900). Its five onion domes punctuate old town's skyline.

Through decades of occupation by foreign powers, hope has lived in the Baltics. In 1989, Balts linked hands in a human chain stretching 375 miles from Tallinn south to Vilnius to protest Soviet rule, a watershed moment.

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