Baltic Tour

David Rowland

Marilynn and I sing in the University of California Alumni Chorus. Periodically they go on tour, and this year (2004) the destination was the Baltics and Russia -- Helsinki, Tallinn, Riga, St. Petersburg and Moscow. We had never been to any of those places, and Tallinn and Riga seemed like Brigadoon, the legendary town that vanishes for a century to reappear for one day. We had no preconceptions except that they might be rather drab and backward - far wrong as it turned out.

We flew Lufthansa from San Francisco to Frankfurt and spent four hours in repose at the airport. The group included about 45 alumni singers, several non-singing friends and family and 16 members of the student a capella group "Perfect Fifth", called P5 for short. They were one and all a delight and very earnest, studying their music while the rest of us read or slept.


After a four hour flight over north Germany and the Baltic Sea we landed in Helsinki. From here on we were in places neither Marilynn nor I had ever visited. Our first encounter with the exotic was a stuffed reindeer in the airport.

We arrived on the day of graduation from high school. The city was full of students wearing white caps, a tradition, we were told. They appeared everywhere. An unofficial part of the tradition, we assume, were the shouts and breaking glass we heard during the night.

The hotel, the Ramada, was quite nice. It was generally clean and well run, but the windows along the corridor badly needed cleaning. The hotel had a motto, in English, "Everything Except Excess" - so Scandinavian.

Helsinki is a handsome city. Our hotel was not far from the railroad station. Just beyond is the Esplanade where the priciest shops and restaurants are. It leads to the harbor where there is an outdoor market. The weather was good, but it did rain occasionally. The most prominent building is the Lutheran cathedral. Nearby is an Orthodox cathedral, and just past it is a district with many "jugendstil" apartment buildings. The doorways were often ornate, and the pastel colors gave a freshness to the area. view

Finland has more than its share of great architects. Alvar Aalto was one. The guidebook said his Academic Bookstore was notable. It is part of the Stockmann department store. The exterior was nice, but I wondered why the building was thought special. Two days later I was inside. There is a ground floor and two mezzanines, then those great skylights. The vertical surfaces are marble. I can imagine that in winter it would be even more welcoming. There is a coffee bar. The stock of books is huge, including many titles in English.

We also visited the Sibelius Memorial. It is very earnest and very modern, but we could not help horsing around a bit. It is also unnecessary. Sibelius was one of the great composers of the 20th century. He wrote his own monument.

Our concert in Helsinki was done as part of a Sunday afternoon church service (in English) at The Church in the Rock. The church was finished in 1969. The interior is about 80 feet in diameter, carved straight down into a rock dome. The walls are rough cut rock, the floor is painted concrete and the roof is a copper disc supported by slim struts that let light through between them. A unique building which I loved. There was an Åckerman & Lund organ from Sweden. P5 guys before the concert. Caitlin and Jody.

A friend in Berkeley had given us the name of a young woman in Helsinki, Emmi Knuutinen. She came to our concert and invited us to her apartment for tea. She plays the kantele, a traditional Finnish instrument like a zither. It comes in many sizes. The right hand uses a pick to play single strings or strum. The left fingers rest on certain strings to damp them, like an autoharp. It is a demanding technique, and she was excellent. A few weeks after our visit she was accepted to the Sibelius Academy, the major music school in Finland. The Finns have an enviable system of music education in their schools.

Emmi told us about an a capella singing group called Rajaton, three men and three women. They have an interesting repertoire. The texts are often folk poetry, but the musical arrangements are very modern. You can see and hear more at Rajaton.

Leaving Helsinki for Tallinn on a tour boat, we had to wait to board. P5 filled the time by dancing. The city looks even better from the water. view view view


Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were for centuries under the thumb of Russians, Germans and Swedes (and long ago, Danes) until they became independent after WWI. In 1939 they were swallowed by the USSR and were occupied during the war by Nazi Germany. They became independent again in 1991, peacefully, as the Soviet experiment collapsed.

We had no idea what to expect. We did not go to Lithuania, but what we saw in Tallinn and Riga were lively, up-to-date cities and peoples determined to become firmly a part of the European economy. The three countries entered the EU on May 1 this year. In a few years they will adopt the Euro as their currency.

Estonia shares a culture with Finland and speaks almost the same language. It is evident that they look to the Finns as a model for their own economic progress. Estonia covers about 45,000 sq kilometers, a little larger than the Netherlands. Its population is 1.34 million. The Netherlands' is about 16 million. The guidebooks describe Estonia as "uncrowded".

A shadow over all this is the very low fertility rate, 1.39 children per woman. That translates to a population drop of about 30% in one generation. One explanation we heard was that young Estonians relish the freedom their parents did not have to travel and try new enterprises. They don't want to settle down yet. Latvia, Lithuania and Russia have even lower rates, and Italy, too, is losing numbers. Estonia has a policy of encouraging families to have children by giving one parent a year off at full pay for each child. Population dynamics are very unpredictable, so who knows what will happen?

We stayed at the Reval Olümpia Hotel, built for the 1980 Moscow Olympics. The boating events were held in Estonia. The hotel is 26 stories high and has a nice swimming pool on the top floor. P5 stayed at a youth hostel which made life difficult by offering them a single large room for the group. Ben Nowell told Marilynn that he was too old to do that, and he paid the extra for a private room.

Our tour guide was excellent, and I took away two points. One was that Estonia's rulers were Baltic Germans, Swedes and Russians. There is no native Estonian nobility. Estonians are all descendants of farmers and fishermen and proud of it. The second point was the importance of song in Estonian history. That is described on a web site by the Estonian Foreign Ministry that gives the history of their song festivals. They eventually used the singing of national songs as a political statement, but during Soviet times they sang the songs written to glorify the USSR and communism while hating both. The guide was candid. "You may think it's hypocrisy, but it was what we had to do."

The center of Tallinn is the old town. It includes a hill, which is the oldest part, and an area below, all surrounded by a wall. Most of the wall is still intact, but the moats and outer defenses were removed long ago. The Orthodox Cathedral, a reminder of the Russian past. Estonia is largely Lutheran. Old Tallinn is incredibly charming. It has many tourist shops and restaurants, but it is also the center of government. view view view view

Two girls Marilynn photographed. Marilynn taking a welcome rest.

Note that one must have street smarts everywhere. "NB"? Think Latin.

The town square

Marilynn and I and Mark Sanford rented bicycles and went to the harbor and northeast up the coast. We passed the song festival site and came to a huge, cold war memorial built in soviet times. The guide books tend not to mention it, and I was not inspired to take pictures. Sorry. On the way back we went through a district with many old wood houses. They are in poor shape and cry for renewal. Since it is quite close to the town center, I understand that people are beginning to buy them and restore them. The "bones" are good, and that area may someday be very attractive. view view view

We made an excursion to an open air museum near the sea called, for some reason, Rocco al Mare. It is a lovely forested area with old farmhouses, barns, stables and a church brought from elsewhere and set up here. Marilynn rented a bicycle because her foot was bothering her. A traditional swing. An opportunist cat.

Marilynn and I had lunch at a good Italian restaurant in old town. We returned there for dinner with Mark and Debbie Sanford. Debbie's manner, bright eyes and wide smile would charm anyone, and that (I guess) happened while we were waiting to be seated. At the end of our meal the waitress told us the tab had been paid by an Estonian man Debbie had spoken with. I believe that the Baltic citizens are still unaccustomed to seeing many foreigners and are especially flattered by attention from the wider world.

We were able to attend a rehearsal by the Estonian Male Choir, sixty professional voices.

Our concert was in the Church of the Holy Spirit. The interior. It was sparsely attended, though we enjoyed the singing, of course. Afterwards we walked a few blocks to the much larger St. Nicolas church. We were able to do some unplanned singing there, and the acoustics were marvelous. P5 went first, and the rest of us were entranced by the beautiful sound.

The premier chorus in Estonia (and some would say, the world) is the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir. They have issued many CDs including much music by Veljo Tormis, who has dug up folk songs from the region and given them modern settings. His music is very interesting and often quite haunting. To hear selections from "Baltic Voices I" by the EPCC, click here. I especially like the first of the Psalm settings by Cyrillus Kreek and the "Spring Song" by Veljo Tormis. Tormis' "Forgotten Peoples" is a 2 CD album of folk-derived songs, very listenable and interesting.


We left Tallinn by bus for Riga. It was a great day, and we went through flat, quiet, green farm country. We stopped for lunch in Pärnu, a seaside resort town. It looks southwest into the Gulf of Riga, so it has a warmer, calmer coast than the rest of the country. It's been a popular resort for Estonians and others (Russians) for 150 years. Being a resort town, it has casinos. No "sacred" Indian land is needed as an excuse here. Ben, Arjun and Brett in the casino. As in Helsinki it was graduation day. The students here dressed like 7 year olds.

We had to wait at the border with Latvia for about 30 minutes while passports were checked. Someone brought out a soccer ball that had been bought in Helsinki, and we had an impromptu practice.

The Hotel Riga, ah yes, The Hotel Riga, jewel of the Baltic. It was actually a very decent place, but what a farce was checkin. We all flocked in the lobby while they assigned us rooms. After a considerable wait, we were told it would take even longer. We went to the bar for the beer we were offered. There we encountered 16 men from England who had come to Riga for a bachelor party. They had reservations but even so had no rooms. The hotel bussed them 20 km. from town to a seaside hotel that was empty except for them. Since they had planned to be in Riga with its entertainment they were not pleased to be assigned to the Hotel at the End of the Universe.

Eventually some of our group wound up at the other hotel. The story seemed to be something like this; Latvia was to have a soccer game with Azerbaijan. Someone booked both teams at the same hotel. Someone else realized that would not be a good idea and moved the Azeris to the Riga. Others with less political pull were bumped, including the Brits and some of us.

For some reason I found the corridors gloomy. I mentioned that to Kathy Hardy and she said, "Soviet, soviet".

Our guide the next day made a few remarks and then said, "Now let me show you Riga, the most beautiful city in Europe". We smiled at that, but discovered that she had a plausible case. It is a bigger city than Tallinn, but like Tallinn it has an old center that has been largely restored to "medieval" condition. Outside the oldest central part there were many jugendstil buildings. I did not take many pictures there, but this web site has some excellent views.

The Soviets moved many Russians into the Baltics. On independence, these populations were a potential problem. Some chose to move back to Russia, many chose to stay. The new dispensation is that they must blend into the new national culture. There seems little overt trouble, but there was a small incident. Two boys about 10 years old were begging. They had very pale skin and their faces were screwed into a pained, pleading expression. I wondered if they wore makeup. The guide shooed them away and said, "Oh, those Russian boys." It seemed that, depending on circumstances, the Russians would be accepted or looked down on. The Latvians, even more than the Estonians, made it a point to call the Soviet years "the Occupation". We were in Riga when Ronald Reagan died. The guide told us in the morning, though most of us had already heard. She added, "We admired him very much." Being a group from Berkeley we perhaps had less admiration, but I realized that Reagan's "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall" speech in Berlin had enormous resonance behind the Iron Curtain.

The Latvian language is Indo-European but in a group of its own, neither Germanic nor Slavic nor Romance. Lithuanian is the only other member. Since there was little hope of learning much Latvian, menus were often a puzzle. A cafeteria can solve that. If the words "Latvian cafeteria" don't sound encouraging, let me recommend Vermanitis, 65 Elizabetes iela. It is nicely decorated, has a big selection of Latvian dishes and is inexpensive.

Coming into the hotel lobby I ran into Ben who was carrying the soccer ball. "Practicing?" I asked. He said, "I was kicking it in my room, and it went out the window and fell on the awning of the restaurant across the street. They were kind of ticked off".

Our performance was at the music academy, sponsored by the Juventus chorus. Afterwards there was a buffet dinner and some mutual singing. Their director. Some of P5: Lily, Sabrina, Arjun, Caitlin, Kristen, Brett.

Not far out of town is an open air museum much like the one in Tallinn. There was a wonderful old painted Lutheran church. There were farmhouses, interesting fences, entertainment and lots of stands selling food and handcrafts. Flax is a traditional crop in this part of Europe, and there were beautiful woven linen scarves, napkins, tablecloths, bedding, etc.

A non-singer in our group was Donna Stoering, fiance and now married to bass Andy Anderson. She is a concert pianist and was preparing for a program in Pskov, Russia. She did a run-through for us at the Academy of a Rachmaninoff sonata in three long, demanding movements based on the Faust legend. Donna is an exceptional performer, and it was a privilege to hear her.

Saint Petersburg

We took an overnight train from Riga to Saint Petersburg. I wondered what the accommodations would be. They turned out to be fine. Four of us shared a compartment. It was cramped, but comfortable and clean. The bunk beds were long enough for me. The quality of track was very high, the journey was quite smooth. The only problem was the border crossing into Russia about 1 am. You have to wake up and go through the do-se-dos and roundabouts of passport control. The Russian border guards were unsmiling but polite and quick. Then back to sleep but awake by dawn.

St. Petersburg just celebrated its three century anniversary. It has had a lot of attention, and tourism is running high. Our travel agent had some trouble getting our large group into anyplace near downtown. The final choice was the Kievskaya. The place was adequate but not more. The rooms were all right, but the hot water sometimes did not run well. In the lobby were two bulky young men in suits. These torpedoes were always there, but their job did not include helping with luggage or much of anything. They must have been security.

The thing that caused the most comment was the kitchen. As in all the other hotels we stayed at, breakfast was included, but the Kievskaya's idea of breakfast included serving the coffee in small cups at the end. Imagine 65 Americans forced to wait for their morning coffee.

St. Petersburg is magnificent, but it is uneven. Because of the tercentenary the big public buildings have been restored and look fabulous. But step down a side street and you see the way most of the city must have looked until recently - the Arctic Museum, for example.

It is a big city, and with the good weather we walked a lot. Nevsky Prospekt, the main shopping street, is 2 1/2 miles long. We were up and down it several times. Some shots from around the city: St. Isaacs's, Ligovsky subway station, platform in the station, canal next to the Hermitage. The subway system is impressive. Because the city is built on a river delta, the subways are uncommonly deep. Some of the platforms are 150 meters below street level. The escalators seem three times longer than anything in BART.

Thinking about that and looking around, I was even more impressed. Though the soil must be soft there seemed to be no subsidence. The buildings were all true and level. Compare Mexico City. The embankments along the river were made of miles of huge granite blocks. The city was built for the centuries.

Here is a panorama from the point on Vasilevsky island. Scroll to see all of it -- Peter and Paul Fortress, Troitsky bridge, Winter Palace, Hermitage, Admiralty. Notice the big Russian made hydrofoils at the embankment. More scenes from around the city: sculptures on the Anichkov Bridge. another. The Fontanka canal. A street of shops near the Academy of Arts.

Nothing needs to be added by me about the Hermitage. It is a lavishly decorated complex of buildings and one of the major museums of the world. Although it was crowded getting in, the people dispersed through the place, and one could see what one wished without much trouble. Highlights are the age of Rembrandt and the impressionists, (the Red Room by Matisse). And, of course, the building itself; entrance hall, stairway, stairway. We went to a wing with exhibits about prehistoric peoples of Russia, including the Scythians, who were great horsemen. Marilynn was fascinated by the burial mask of a horse, the saddle and the mummified horse. The museum has an excellent web site with "virtual" tours of most rooms -

Peterhof was the summer palace on the sea west of the city. It was begun by Peter the Great and much expanded by Catherine. Like the Hermitage it is extravagant beyond belief. What looks like gold is gold. What looks like marble is marble. What looks like lapis lazuli is lapis lazuli, and so forth. A special feature is all the fountains. We were also struck by the floors (sorry, I should have taken pictures). They were parque wood in a thousand patterns. Some were images of the ceiling above.

We went to Peterhof by bus, passing through the suburbs. One hears that Soviet apartment blocks were ugly, gray and badly built. When communism collapsed the residents were able to buy their apartments. Today many of them looked quite pleasant. The buildings were well maintained, there were shops on the ground level and greenery and parks nearby. I did not see the interiors, which may have been quite small, but from the outside I was reminded of Scandinavia.

Near Peterhof is the Peter and Paul Cathedral, built about 1890 in the old Russian style. Marilynn took some very nice photos inside. view view view view

Our concert was at Smolny, built as a girl's school and convent. Today it is a museum and performance hall. It is a very important historical site. Lenin and the Bolsheviks were headquartered here during the Revolution, and it was here they seized power in 1917 from Kerensky and his provisional government. The California connection is this; Kerensky escaped to Finland, then France and finally came to the US. He spent his last years at the Hoover Institute at Stanford, dying in 1970.

The hall was very big and had a long reverberation time but also great clarity. When we stopped the sound would go on as though there was another chorus behind us. The concert was well attended, and it may have been our best during the tour. It was the one I enjoyed most.

Vodka the Russian way - straight up and ice cold.

Marilynn and Joyce Putnam had lunch one day at an outdoor cafe on Nevsky. Joyce put her handbag at her feet, and when she was ready to leave it was gone. Robbers and sneak thieves are thick in Russia. Ed Eng was almost mugged but sensed the setup and was able to avoid it. Having to watch out all the time is a trouble but nothing compared to suffering a loss. It took Joyce days to get a replacement passport because the weekend was beginning. The consulate has seen too much of this to get very upset about one more. She had to stay behind in St. P. while we went to Moscow but caught up two days later.

Almost as bad as a theft was what happened to Karen Moore. Several of us went to the bus station on the first day in St.P. to get cash. In a second of inattention, Karen failed to push the right button and the ATM ate her card. Not knowing Russian, how do you even begin to straighten that out?

The last night in St. Petersburg was the last night of the trip for most. Some of us went on to Moscow. Dinner that night was a farewell. Kristen, Judy, Sabrina, Darcy. view P5 in a clutch with Mark lost in the middle. Dinner ended about 10 pm, and we debated whether to go back to the hotel or... This was early June, and the "white nights" had arrived. We decide to take a boat trip through the canals. There were too many for one craft, so we got three. The long, late twilight makes the city especially dramatic. view view view view. This was about midnight.

Those remaining were able to have another day in St. P, always welcome. I found an internet cafe on Nevsky Prospekt and did some emailing. We checked out of the hotel but left the luggage in a spare room. That evening we picked it up, went to the train station and boarded the "Krasnaya Strela" or Red Arrow. It is the first class train to Moscow. The cars were almost identical to those on the Riga train. The schedule in the station indicated that trains left for Moscow about every 15 minutes. Russia has an extensive railroad network. The huge map on the wall ran from Warsaw to Novosibirsk. I noticed a locomotive on the end that looked like the French TGV. The guide said, yes, Russia was building a high speed service as well. We slept---well, I slept very well. The track was amazingly smooth. Dawn as we approach Moscow.


We arrived about 8:30 am on June 12. It was "Russia Day", a national independence holiday. "Independent from what?" we asked. "Each other", said the guide. It was the day on which the Soviet Union ceased to exist and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) was created. There was a holiday celebration in Red Square, and we could not go straight to the hotel which was only a block away. We were taken on a quick tour of the city. Novodivechy Convent. The Arbat, a pedestrian street that is full of shops, some of them unusual. We had lunch at MacDonald's, just to be perverse. We did not eat at the My My cafeteria (pronounced moo moo), though I had dinner at another in the chain and was very pleased. When we finally got to the hotel the ceremony was over and people were leaving. They must have had a lot of kids dancing. We saw them leaving wearing red, white or blue outfits and acting like teenagers anywhere. The girls, the guys.

The Rossiya Hotel is immense, 3000 rooms. It has no more character than one would expect in a Soviet building from the sixties. However, the rooms were clean and comfortable, the hot water was copious, the staff were not outright hostile. Only the peculiar layout and long distances were a drawback. If you made a wrong turn you might add a quarter mile or more to your journey. In August I heard that it had been decided to tear it down. When it was built they were barely able to save some old churches next to it. No doubt they will be preserved and given more space. It will be interesting to see what kind of hotel they create.

The location is terrific. St. Basil's and the Kremlin seen from the west entrance of the Rossiya. Red Square is just beyond the church. St. Basil's does not disappoint. It is as fantastic in reality as in photos. After dinner we walked into Red Square. The flags were left from the festivities. They represent the various constituents of the Russian Federation. The double-headed eagle is, I believe, a symbol formerly associated with the Romanoff dynasty. A better symbol for Russia today might be an eagle with many more heads, each trying to find a direction for this complex country.

It is a bit strange for an American of a certain age to stand here. I thought of it as a place full of missiles and soldiers with Brezhnev and the gang reviewing from Lenin's tomb. We were there on a warm June night with hundreds of people around, ice cream sellers and so forth. It could not have been more peaceful or pleasant. Marilynn with our friend Tomislav. Lenin's tomb, by the way, is open only a few days a month. Opposite the Kremlin is the GUM store. Formerly the government store, today it's a striking arcade of expensive shops.

Tomislav is Croatian, but he works in Moscow for an American oil company. He knows Moscow well and was kind enough to spend some time showing us around. He took us to a great Georgian restaurant near Novodivechy.

The Tretyakov Gallery is an excellent museum devoted to Russian art. They have many old icons, including one of the most famous, the Old Testament Trinity by Andrei Rublev. They also have works by Russian painters I had never heard of. Ilya Repin, late 19th century, did both superb portraits, like this one of Moussorgsky, and this of Glazunov as well as dazzling historical scenes. more.. more... Another eye-opener was Valentin Serov. His "Girl with Peaches" is in the Tretyakov.

We went to Sergeiev Possad, north of Moscow. It is the center of devotion and education for the Russian Orthodox church, and it was graduation day. view view I was amused to see so many young men running around in ankle length black robes with cell phones and digital cameras. The place was full of the families of the graduates. view view

Religion was suppressed, of course, during the soviet years. Today I think most of the population is secular, but the believers are able to be public about it. Our guide was a very charming woman of about 40. I was telling her about our tour and that I thought the performance in Smolny had been our most enjoyable. "Do you think the spirit was with you?" she asked. "Perhaps" I said. "Certainly!" she answered.

Outside Sergeiev Possad we stopped at a small church. I saw a horse drawn cart on the road. It was a reminder that, while the cities we saw were very advanced, a lot of Russia is probably still relatively poor.

Back in Moscow we took the tour of the Kremlin. Did I say we had fantastic weather? Behind the wall are not only offices but churches and memorials of various kinds. And lilacs everywhere. Outside the wall is a monument to WWII, with an eternal flame and a guard. Every hour they change the guard with a brief but very martial ritual.

Marilynn and Joyce wanted to see Swan Lake at the Bolshoi. I chose to spend the evening on foot exploring the city. We went to the Bolshoi and found hundreds of people in front. As we approached, a man came up and asked if we wanted tickets. We said yes. He made a cell phone call, and in seconds another guy came running up with the tickets. They were expensive, but it seemed to be the going price so we got a pair. Their enterprise was commendable although I suspect there is a cabal that controls all the scalping at the Bolshoi and might be rough on competition.

There were hours of twilight left, so I set off walking, up past the Lubyanka, finding the Mayakovsky Museum, having dinner at a My My cafeteria. My kind of evening.

Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893-1930) was a poet active during the Revolution and enthusiastic about it. He was intelligent, dynamic, moody. He killed himself, some say because of a failed love affair, some say because he could see Stalin betraying and destroying the Revolution. His museum is unique. The interior looks like someone had thrown everything in the air and frozen it there.

On the last day we had to get up about 4 am. The flight went from Moscow to Frankfurt with a short layover and then on another plane to San Francisco. Flying is a kind of purgatory but this was no worse than most. We got to SF in the early afternoon and took BART to Berkeley. The new BART link to SFO is about 30 years late, but it is most welcome, by far the easiest, most civilized way to get to and from.

Finally, The Library of Congress has an online exhibition of color photographs taken about a century ago all over the Russian Empire. The story of how they were made is explained there, so I won't take space here. Do check it out. The pictures are fascinating and beautiful. Exhibition.