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Russian Glories, Baltic Treasures - Pre-tour

Our 11th trip with Tauck!  This one will take us to Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, a quick stopover in Helsinki, Finland, and then on to St. Petersburg and Moscow in Russia (with the requisite layovers in Frankfurt on both ends). Why go to Russia at a time like this, you may ask?  Well, we were scheduled to go prior to the Crimean incident in 2014, so we switched to Turkey (and glad we did given the current state of affairs there).  We really wanted to visit these destinations; so we set up this trip about 9 months ago and away we go. By the way, for readers who follow Wendy's donut adventures, there will be donuts!

We love having you along with us as we explore the culture, architecture, history, and of course, the food of these countries.  If you're new to our blog, know that you'll get all the advantages of travel plus some attitude--with none of the jetlag, packing, immunizations, Montezuma's revenge, or expense.  So, welcome aboard!

Tuesdy and Wendsday, August 7-8, 2018
Laba diena (Hello) from Vilnius, Lithuania!!! This is the capital and largest city (540,000) in the country.

As usual, we arrived a day earlier than the start of the tour. This is to account for possible travel delays plus give us time to ward off jet lag, and to give us the opportunity for a pre-tour tour (more in a moment).

We got into Vilnius around 1:00 and were out of the airport in 10 minutes (having gone through a cursory customs check in Frankfurt). Our Tauck driver made a point of mentioning how clean the highway was, showing obvious Lithuanian pride.

After a quick stop in the room, we headed out to explore (and keep Morpheus at bay for a few hours). It was in the upper 70s, and except for a brief but intense shower, the weather was perfect.

Our hotel, the Kempinski, is right in the center of the Old Town. And this really IS the Old Town, containing many buildings that are centuries old. Many, many churches (so many saints!), and the University of Vilnius, which was founded in 1579! Here are some buildings from one of its 13 courtyards.

At the edge of the Old Town is Cathedral Square, dominated by the Vilnius Cathedral (full name: Cathedral Basilica of St Stanislaus and St Ladislaus of Vilnius - two saints!) ,which will be visited by Pope Francis next month.

(internet photo, since the front is currently covered by scaffolding for
repair and renovation prior to the Pope's visit)

The Cathedral's clock / bell tower

Then...time to sample our first taste of Lithuanian food. There are many restaurants along Pilies, the main street in this part of town. It appears that tourism is big here! We found one that was busy (took that as a good sign) and ordered from an amazing menu that had photos of each dish and Lithuanian and English descriptions. What was also very interesting is that the dishes were divided into three sections: The Ancient Kingdom - featuring dishes from the 19th and early 20th centuries; The Inter-War - dishes from 1918 - 1940 which introduced more international flavors; and The Slumber Land - dishes from the last half of the 20th century - "...the saddest period of Lithuanian history..".

We chose to share Vistiena su keptu kopustu (chicken with roasted cabbage and potatoes and cowberry sauce) and Apkeptas didzkukulis (fried potato dumpling - sort of a pear-sized tater tot stuffed with mystery meat). Both were delicious!!!

Then back to our hotel. Passed this street sign along the way. Never saw one like this before!!

(Wednesday) We had arranged for a Jewish day tour with Milk and Honey Tours. Our guide was Svetlana. Yes, blond and Lithuanian. Yes, Jewish. She told us that during the 50 years of Soviet occupation of the country, many children were given Russian names!

She first took us across the street to the Cathedral. As we walked in the plaza, she pointed out a meter wide strip of red bricks that zig-zagged across; this represents the part of the wall that surrounded the original town. Outside this wall is the new part of town - from the 1700s!

Near the Cathedral is a statue of Grand Duke Gediminas, who built the town as a result of a dream. At that time, Lithuania was much larger, and included parts of present day Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine. In fact, Bialystok (where Wayne's family is from) was also included in that domain!

In Gediminas's time, the social order of the country was Lords and Serfs. He thought a middle class was needed, so he issued a proclamation and sent it to other kings in Europe inviting Jews to come and live in Lithuania tax free! Over the next century many did come and settled there; thus the beginning of the Litwaks. The Litwaks were considered to be quite learned and observant.

At one point, 40% of the people in Vilnius spoke Yiddish (pronounced "Iddish" in Lithuanian/English by Svetlana). Here is a street sign with the name in Lithuanian, Yiddish, and Hebrew.

For those who may not know, Yiddish is a language that originated in Europe, is based on German, but uses the Hebrew alphabet! In fact, Svetlana explained that the Yiddish spoken and taught in Vilnius is the "true Yiddish."

Every so often, Svetlana would pull out a photograph from 75 - 100 years ago that showed the view from the same spot we were standing! Most of the buildings were still standing, though now the original stoned walls have been plastered over. This area suffered little damage in WWII, as the people initially welcomed the Germans as liberators over the Communists.

In the 1700s, there was a brilliant Jewish scholar who lived in this part of town: Elijah ben Solomon Zalman. He is better known as the Vilna (which is how the town is pronounced here) Gaon (which means "genius" in Yiddish).

He lived a simple life that was dedicated to learning. But, unlike the rabbis who focused exclusively on Torah and Talmud, he also included the sciences and history; a more well-rounded education. Others began to follow his model and came to Vilnius to study, thus making it a center of European intellectualism for decades.

This statue of the Gaon was erected about 25 years ago. Ironically, the remaining Jewish citizens are not happy with it; the sculptor who made it did not put a kippah on his head!

Near to this statue is a Soviet era building used as a school. But it sits on the grounds of what was the Great Synagogue in the Gaon's time (actually built in the 1630s - the first in the country to be made of stone - and destroyed in 1957 by the Soviets). The interesting story of that building is this: When it was being designed, there were two rules that had to be followed. First, traditional law said no building could be higher than the town's church. But the Talmud says that a synagogue should be the most prominent building in the town. How to reconcile these two opposing rules? The building was built as high as could be allowed. But......the foundation was built two stories deep below ground. So the actual inside was huge and lofty (up to 3,000 men could be seated for worship)! Problem solved. Archaeologists began digging here in 2016 (the bimah was actually "discovered" 3 weeks ago!) and plans are for a partial restoration and memorial.

A few blocks away is the current Vilna Choral Synagogue, which was built in 1903. Quite ornate! Choral synagogues stand out from the other more traditional synagogues in the shtetls, and were started in central and eastern Europe during the Jewish enlightenment.  This was the first choral synagogue we have visited, even though we spent 2 weeks in Central Europe in 2012. 

And upstairs, in the women's gallery, is something we've never seen before: a 20 foot long matzo making machine!

Of course, there is a controversy attached to such a machine; you can read about it here.

And, as we have seen in many other places, this once vibrant and fully integrated community of Jews was almost completely wiped out in WWII. There are only 3,000 left in the country.

Thus, our final stop of the day was Paneriai Forest, the site where 70,000 Jews (and many Red Army soldiers) were murdered from 1941 - 1944. This was the most stunning and memorable part of the day.

Unlike Jews in other parts of Central and Eastern Europe, the Jews from Vilnius and other large cities in Russia were not killed in concentration camps. Most of them ended up here. Prior to the war, the Russians had begun work to turn this forest into an airport (and it was right alongside the railroad tracks). In doing so, they dug 7 huge pits which would be used to store fuel. When the Nazis took over the country, they realized that this area would be ideal for the mass slaughter they had planned.

Taken in trains or buses, the Jews were told they were going to the forest-- which, for some had been a summer vacation spot in better days. Many believed this was a way station on the journey to be relocated somewhere. However, once there, they were told to place all their suitcases and belongings in one pit, then they were led to another and summarily executed (shot).

The forest is rarely visited and today was no exception. Only one other person was there besides us. It was eerie and almost serene; we stopped at several chilling memorials.

Svetlana told us the inspiring story of a Polish journalist who had moved to the neighboring town when he had to leave the journalism field to start a carpenter business. Apparently, he caught wind of what was going on in the forest, and could actually see the executions from his rooftop. He documented it fully but his reports were never sent out. He was killed near the end of the war, and the Russians took his notes. They were not made public until perestroika in the late '80s.

It is unfortunately sad and numbing that in our travels we have visited several of Hitler's extermination sites.  They are all awful.  The juxtaposition of this one's natural beauty with the knowledge of what actually transpired here was horrifying beyond words.

Tonight the tour officially starts with the Welcome Dinner. And tomorrow we will explore Vilnius (again) and then visit a castle in the country.

Until then,
love, w&w…………..

Vilnius Part 2 and Trakai

Thursday, August 9, 2018

The first official day of touring! We started early and took a bus ride to the southern end of the Old Town. Our first stop was at the Gate of Dawn and the Chapel of Mary. Built in the early 1500s, this is the only remaining gate and part of the wall that used to surround the city. Many people, from all over the world, come here specifically to worship at this shrine.

The gate / wall from the outside

The Shrine of Mary is above the arch on the inside.

Today Lithuania is 80% Roman Catholic, but it was the last pagan country in Europe.

Much of what we saw today was a repeat from yesterday, but without the Jewish focus. Of course, our guide did cover the Large and Small Ghettos and the thousands of people who were killed during the war.

We passed many linen shops. Flax is a major crop, and Lithuanian linen is highly prized throughout Europe.

Also saw many intricate woodcarvings. That, too, is one of the local highly skilled hand-crafted products.

Yes....carved wood!

And like Starbucks in the US, there was at least one (and sometimes several) big churches on the corners of every major intersection. Here is a sampling: was quite hot today!  And in a bizarre juxtaposition, these kinders were playing right across the street from our next stop: the KGB / Genocide Museum. This building formerly housed a KGB prison during the Stalin and Khruschev years. Many political prisoners were brought here, and sometimes tortured before being sent to one of the gulags. We saw the cramped, cement-walled cells, and read about some of the tactics that were used. We left with two thoughts. First: the Lithuanians really don't like the Russians (see note below). Second: nothing changes. Some of the photos and descriptions reminded us of scenes from our own prison at Abu Ghraib.

We spent over an hour walking through the prison, and both felt it was something that could easily have been omitted from the itinerary.

Note: There are many signs around town celebrating "Lithuania 100".  This refers to Lithuania's independence from Russia in 1918. has been 100 years, but apparently they are ignoring the period when the Russians were back after WWII!!!!!!!!

After that it was back on the bus for a 45 minute ride west to the old (1300s) town of Trakai. This beautiful area is dotted with lakes and many of them contain islands. On one of these islands stands Takai Castle.

Begun by Grand Duke Kestutis, and finished by his son, this complex was designed to be a fortress (to defend their territory), and not a "palace" in the opulent sense

Here is a rare picture of the Duke and Duchess:

The building was besieged many times, but always stood its ground until the mid-1400s. It was then used as a summer residence for a few centuries (!!!) until it was abandoned in the 1700s. Restoration began after the War, and continues to this day. Currently it is used as a concert venue! What would old Kestutis think of that?

Then the long ride back to Vilnius. We had an option at that point to either go to the hotel, or partake in a beer-tasting session. As enticing as the latter sounded, we both agreed that it would be foolish to do that and then try to go to the restaurant we had reservations at. About a third of the group did go however. No word on how it went.

After freshening up, we headed out on a 1.4 km walk to our restaurant. We knew it featured "fresh fish from the Baltic" (note: Vilnius is on a river; it is nowhere near the Baltic!), and were very excited to try local specialties. Our waitress came over with the menus and said "You will see that our menu is very narrow". Uh oh!  She was right! Here it is in toto: First course: Fish soup. Appetizer: Choice of fish with potatoes or fish with zucchini. Entrée: Bream ribs.  Whoa! When she asked about our drink preference and mentioned that they do not serve beer, that was our cue to graciously grab our things and head for the door. This is not something we do very often!

So we headed back the way we came and looked at the menus of a few other places (one was a 7-course tasting menu., and finally decided on Mykolo-4 (the restaurant our hotel had recommended on Tuesday!). They too had a 4-course prix-fixe menu (in addition to a full a la carte selection), and it looked so good we decided to share it.

First up was Baravyku pastelas su agurkais ir juoda  rugine duona (Boletus - mushrooms - pate with cucumbers and black rye bread). Quite tasty, but pretty heavy (a lot for one person to eat! Glad we shared it.)

Then Kremine veziu sriuba (creamy crayfish soup). Our waitress suggested that we get an extra bowlful, as the one serving was pretty small to share. Good move, as this tasted like some of the best lobster bisque we've ever had.

Then the main course: Virtinis su troskintujaucio zandu jdaru, obuoliu ir saulegrazu daigu salotomis bei raudono vyno padazu (Dumpling with braised beef cheeks filling, apple and sunflower sprouts salad, red wine sauce). This was incredible! The dumpling was about the size of an empanada and was like a thick knish. It was dusted with beetroot powder.

We've realized that it is so far north here, that most of the vegetables they grow are root veggies: potatoes, carrots, beets, etc.

Finally, dessert: Vaflis (yes...waffles!) su plikytu kremu, sudyta karamele (!!) bei gervuogemis (waffles with crème patisserie, salted caramel, and blackberries). A great finish to a great meal!

But that didn't stop us from walking back to the main street and a final stop at Sopranos for gelato.


Tomorrow we have an early start as we leave this country and head to Latvia.

See you there!


Baltic Country #2: Latvija

Friday, August 10, 2018

Today was a travel day. We left Vilnius at 8:30am and, with a few stops along the way, finally got to our hotel in Riga, Latvija around 4pm (yes, that is how it is spelled on the "Welcome to Latvija" sign). Sveiki!

By the way: this is the second of 5 countries we will visit over the two weeks. And they use 5 different languages and alphabets!

So what happened between 8:30 and 4:00?

We first drove for about 2 hours. For the most part the countryside reminded us of.....Wisconsin! There are no mountains in the Baltics, and only a few hills; it is very flat. So we passed farm after farm after forest after farm.

Then a rest stop because EU rules state that bus and truck drivers must have a 30 minute stop after so many hours of driving. And if you switched out the language on the signs, this one looked like so many others we have seen, but almost an exact replica of the one in Morocco, except that it had a small zoo attached! None of our group was interested in paying the 1 Euro fee to get in.

Then another 90 minute ride to our lunch stop. We had sure worked up an appetite since breakfast! It was a fine, typical Tauck restaurant, but the best part was that it was about 150 yards from a beach on the Baltic Sea. Finally!!!!

Our next (and final) stop was in Riga. First up: the National Opera House (called locally "The White House").  This is a beautiful building, but not quite as magnificent as the one we saw in Vienna.

After we got a tour of the facilities, there was a Tauck surprise: a private 45 minute performance (accompanied by piano) by the famous Latvian opera star Sonora Vaice. (Sure sounds like a pun for "sonorous voice".) She sang arias from 5 different operas. Click here for a short video of part of it.  Wow! She hit some truly high notes!!!! Favorite sopranos--thinking of you!

From there we walked through the Old Town to our hotel, the Grand Palace, which started life in 1877 as the National Bank of Latvia. This old town reminded us a lot of the one in Prague: cobblestone streets, squares with musicians and cafes, churches, monuments, trendy shops, and lots of tourists.

One unique thing was an exhibit of Buddy Bears. Though this UNESCO Project has been touring the world since 2001, we had never heard of it! There are painted bears from 140 countries, all conveying a message of peace, equal rights, and respect for all. There was a kiosk selling mini bear figurines.  Unfortunately, one of the only ones still in stock was the USA Statue of Liberty bear.  Sad.

Soon it was time to eat again. We had a reservation at Zila Govs (meaning Blue Cow).  This restaurant features meat and fish, and every time someone goes in or out the door there is a loud "mooooo". We thought it might be kitschy / touristy, but it really wasn't. The weather was perfect, so we ate outside.  This time our menu was all in English, so you will have to translate to Latvian yourselves.

Wendy started with her first taste of borscht! This was probably the most beautiful bowl of soup we've ever seen.

The right side was the red beets; the left was kefir with garlic and mustard! In the center were hard boiled egg slices on top of a mound of sour cream, topped with sweet potato curled chips, and julienned cucumber plus decorative pea shoots. She LOVED it!

Next, in one of the oddest moments in our almost 44-year marriage, Wendy ordered the entrecote and Wayne ordered the redfish fillet with nettle mashed white beans! (Wendy had had fish so far at every meal and Wayne had veal at lunch).

The meat was.... meaty... but delicious.  The fish was interestingly prepared and, disappointingly, , Wayne refused to imbibe in the beet flavored quinoa.  It remains to be seen whether he will actually put a beet fork (or spoon) to mouth during this trip! We enjoyed the butter fried potatoes for the second time in one day. And Wendy enjoyed a salad (eat those veggies, other than roots, in this part of the world when they are offered).

To top it off, three traditional flavors of ice cream (chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry) with fruit for dessert.  Cool and refreshing and tasty!

Saturday, August 11, 2018

The heat that has plagued Europe this summer has followed us to Riga, but today was much cooler. In fact, our city guide Olga said it was the first nice day since early June! In Riga, like much of Europe, people do not generally have air conditioning in their houses. So heat spells like this can be particularly uncomfortable.

At 700,000 people, Riga is the largest Baltic city. About 33% of all Latvians live here. We started today's tour by walking through a neighborhood particularly noted for its Art Nouveau buildings.
Though we had done our usual pre-trip reading, we had no idea that such an area existed here! The story is that in the first few decades of the 20th century the leaders (Russians) wanted to attract people to come and live in Latvia. Many responded, and, in doing so, brought new energy and creativity to the city. During this period the population increased 5-fold! One of the most famous and prolific architects of this time was Michael Eisenstein, father of Sergei Eisenstein (who was born here), the renowned film director. Here are some of pere Eisenstein's creations:

(click on the photos to enlarge and see more of the ornate detail)

Many of these started out as homes for a single family! Over the years though, they have been turned into multi-family condos or repurposed as office buildings. Here are some other wonderful examples of this fanciful and imaginative style.

Next we went to the Riga Central Market , which bills itself as the largest market and bazaar in Europe. Loyal followers of this blog know how much we really like going to markets such as these. And this one was really huge. It is housed in several different pavilions with open-air markets in between. Our guide led us through at a pretty quick pace, but we were still able to get many great pix.

The first building was the Fish Pavilion. Many cases featured dozens of kinds of caviar!

Eels!  Always a favorite!

Next, bread made by Uzbekis:

Then stalls and stalls with colorful produce (the majority of which were from Latvian farms, but there were also choices like watermelon from Morocco!):

Then into the meat pavilion:

Then the spices, etc. pavilion:

Pickled goods. Smelled delicious!

And finally, outdoors at the flower section:

After the market we continued to walk around the old town area, learning more of the 700 year history of the city and country. Unlike Lithuania, which is overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, and Estonia, which is almost all Protestant, Latvia is about 40% of each. One of the largest churches is the Riga Cathedral (also known as The Dome Cathedral). The original building was erected in 1211, but has been added onto many times since. Aside from the varying styles of architecture, perhaps its most famous feature is the pipe organ. It contains an astonishing 6,718 pipes! We had wanted to visit this church, and when Olga told us (at 11:45)  that there was a special organ concert today at noon, we chose to leave the group and take advantage of that opportunity. About 500 other people were also in attendance.  WOW! Quite the powerful sound.  The concert lasted about 20 minutes (and that was just the right amount of time).

We headed back to the hotel to get a quick lunch (well....we wanted a quick lunch, but they served at a very leisurely pace).

The last official touring in Riga was an optional Jewish tour. Over half of our group trudged through a light rain to the bus to start the tour. The rain and gray skies were perfectly matched to our visit of Jewish Riga. We made three stops: the former Jewish Theatre, the site of the destroyed Choral Synagogue and Rumbula Forest. Like virtually every Jewish tour we’ve taken., the story does not end well.

A "Jews in Latvia" Museum  is housed in the theatre building. It presents a comprehensive history of the Jewish presence (and near elimination) in Riga. The exhibit was well curated with documents, photos, and profiles of community leaders and righteous people who tried to rescue Latvian Jews. And it chronicles the lives of Jews in Latvia— specifically Riga— from the 16th century through the Holocaust. If we weren’t dreading the visit to the Forest so much, we may have had a richer experience at the Museum.

Next, we drove to the memorial commemorating the Riga Choral Synagogue --  burned down with 400 Jews inside -- on July 4, 1941. The plaques and recreated parts of walls were chilling.

There was also a wall commemorating the righteous who had tried to save 900 Jews. The wall symbolizes the falling down of society, and the columns, with their names listed, shows that there were those who fought against this.

These individuals truly were heroes and deserve recognition, but that recognition on this particular plot of land felt discordant.

Finally, we drove just a few miles outside of town to the Rumbula Forest (past the old Jewish cemetery which had been desecrated during the Soviet occupation but since repurposed into a park with markers—the headstones were used as building materials). Having just been at the Ponar Forest outside Vilnius, we knew what we were headed for. Again, no concentration camp in Latvia— but a planned march with mass shootings in a remote area where the crime could be hidden. Only Jews were killed here— 25,000 during two massacre dates (November 30 and December 8,1941). We learned they brought in the officer who engineered the massacre at Babi Yar in the Ukraine because  "he did such a good job there."

The memorial was extraordinary. The primary section was a Hanukkiah surrounded by many stones memorializing the names of some of the murdered families. The stones were arranged in a Star of David shape. There were also huge boulders placed in several trenches marking where the massacres occurred.

(hard to get a good photo from ground level, plus there was a steady rain falling)

Finally, there was a plaque commemorating the horrors and indicating it was placed there during the Russisn occupation when, presumably, the story was not supposed to be told. It references Fascism in three languages; the idea being that the languages represent the people who suffered the most.

You'll notice that one of the languages is Russian. Certainly they lost many people during the War but clearly not in the same way as the Jews. But Olga told us that when she was a child in school, the history they learned stressed the suffering of the Russian people. That is why she and others work so hard to make sure the entire story is told.

Normally, we are not quite so graphic in the blog about what we see. But the stories and site represent something so horrific, we can’t hold back. In this age of growing hatred and rancor in our public discourse, it is frightening to see the results of where human cruelty can lead. Never again.

Our final dinner in Riga was at the Dome Fish Restaurant. As the name implies, everything on the menu was fish-related, except for one veal and one risotto offering. But unlike our experience in Vilnius, this menu had plenty of choices. And what we chose was divine, both in flavors and presentation!  We started with an amuse bouchée  of a glimmer of kilk (like smoked trout) with a dill wisp.

Next, we shared two types of tapas: kraukskigas renges (crispy fried herring with wasabi cream and chili coconut sauce)...

...and ogles cepts kartupelis (miniature charcoal grilled potatoes - actually served on hot stones! - with sour cream and red caviar). Spellcheck anyone?

And for those of you in awe of our eating range and quantity, yes— Wayne was an equal eating partner. Fantastic. 

We moved to ceptas juras kemmites (grilled scallops on cauliflower purée, spinach and lemongrass sauce)…

 ...and dienas loms - ok....that means "catch of the day" (which was perch pike - yes, that is one fish - mild but flakier than halibut, with spring peas on a mousse of potatoes).

The presentation was gorgeous and the flavors delicately scrumptious. There was also a beautiful selection of breads in the basket with delicious flavored butters— this time one with hemp seeds. We finished with a creme brûlée with berries and sorbet.

Perfection. A wonderful meal to wrap up our Riga visit.

Tomorrow....on to Estonia!

Love,   w&w……………...