Latvia and Estonia: Changing with the times |

Latvia and Estonia: Changing with the times

Story and photos by Morgan Smith

“The victors aren’t those who win the battles, but those who never surrender,” our guide, Irene Lääan tells us. With a powerful sweep of her arms, she seems to symbolize the lengthy struggle of these two Baltic countries, Estonia and Latvia, to achieve independence.We’re in Tallinn, Estonia, visiting the newly opened General Laidoner Museum. The dynamic Irene tells us how Laidoner commanded the Estonian forces who fought the Germans for independence at the end of World War I in 1919. (The war continued in the Baltics well after the Germans had surrendered to Western Europe.) Her remarks seem fitting now that these two countries not only have their independence, but are about to become members of the European Union.

This is the last leg of a one-week trip to Latvia and Estonia organized by Martin Randall, a British tour company. These two tiny countries are less than half the size of Colorado, have a combined population of about 4 million people and, to date, have received few American tourists. The only guidebook we could find was the excellent “Baltic Capitals,” by our tour guide, Neil Taylor. Even so, we were totally unprepared for the astonishingly rich history, beautiful monuments, extremely rapid pace of modernization, fine guides, hotels and restaurants, and the number of people, especially in Estonia, who spoke English. In fact, there is so much to see that I’m only going to describe the highlights from the two cities.The tour began in Riga, Latvia, a city of about 800,000 people that celebrated its 800th anniversary in 2001. We stayed in the Hotel Gutenberg, named after Johann Gutenberg, the 18th-century German who invented printing and is best known for the Gutenberg Bible. The hotel was a German printery from 1880 to 1990 and, in addition to being comfortable and well located, is a veritable museum about printing.

A few minutes from the hotel is the Riga Dome Church (“Dome” comes from the German word “Dom,” or cathedral), noted for its organ music. Construction was begun in 1211 and completed in 1226. Although the first organ was built in 1600, a German company was hired in 1884 to build the world’s largest organ with 6,768 pipes. (During those years, Riga was one of Europe’s major ports and industrial centers and, thus, very wealthy.) Unfortunately, the Dome Church only held the record for a year. (The largest organ today is the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City with 30,000 pipes.) Now the church is used as much for organ concerts as for religious services.What I found most striking were the deepish blue stained-glass windows made in Munich. Other windows made in Riga and Dresden simply couldn’t match the depth of color of those from Munich.

Another indicator of Riga’s former wealth is the large section of art nouveau or Jugendstil buildings. There are some 800, more than the better known Barcelona, but similar in that they were the status symbols of Riga’s wealthy shipbuilders and merchants just as Barcelona’s symbolize the rich Catalan merchants who made their fortunes in Cuba.A third stunning visit was to the Pils Rundale, or Rundale Palace, a few miles outside of Riga. Built as a summer residence for the Duke of Courland, Ernst Johann Biron, in the mid-1700s, it is like a slightly smaller, but much less cluttered and more elegant Versailles. We visited on a bright sunny Saturday and watched three wedding parties in progress.

One odd feature: The bed in the master bedroom is very short. Our guide told us that there was a belief that you would die if you were to lie down full length to sleep. Thus these short beds in which you would sleep sitting up!Another unique and very recently restored building is the House of the Blackheads. The Blackheads were a group of prosperous but unmarried businessmen, who were a powerful force in Baltic life over the course of several hundred years. They derived their name from their early leader and patron saint, Saint Mauritius, who was black. As we ascend to the second-floor ballroom, our guide says, “Newlyweds come here to dance their first waltz.”

We went by bus from Riga north through forests and farmland to Tallinn, Estonia, an uneventful trip except for two stops. The first was the Naval Museum in a small Latvian house just south of the Estonian border. Outside, I spotted three boys playing soccer and asked if I could take their picture. Surprisingly, one spoke near-perfect English, the other two almost none. It turned out that the English speaker lived just over the border in Estonia where learning English is a very high priority.The second stop was at a tiny wooden house just across the border, where a famous shipbuilder, Jacob Markson, once lived. An animated, middle-aged woman with a wide straw hat and an armful of dolls rushed out to greet us. She was Markson’s great-great-granddaughter and had spent her life preserving this little house.

In Tallinn, we stayed at the Grand Hotel, with its spacious rooms, helpful staff, excellent breakfasts and good, if slow, dinners. Tallinn, like Riga, is restoring churches and monuments, improving its museums, and developing a wide array of good hotels and restaurants.For us, the high point was the Toompea hill, with its various towers, from which you can look out over the city.

On Aug. 23, 1989, a human chain started at one of these towers, Pikk Hermann (Tall Hermann Tower), and stretched all the way south through Latvia to Vilnius, Lithuania. Two million people were involved, protesting the 50th anniversary of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, whereby Russia and Germany carved up much of eastern Europe, Russia taking Estonia, Finland and Latvia, and Germany getting Lithuania and most of Poland.One remnant of Russian rule is Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, which dominates the Toompea skyline with its many towers and crosses. Nevsky was a military leader who conquered Estonia in the 13th century, and for Russians, clearly second-class citizens today, this building is a symbol of their former power. This hilltop, with its vistas over the city, narrow streets, musicians, tiny restaurants, artists displaying their paintings, and Russian women selling souvenirs, is a wonderful place to wander.

Down below, the Town Hall Square is the center of activity, a wide plaza full of outdoor restaurants and surrounded by newly restored buildings. The highlight is the Town Hall itself, the administrative center of the city that dates back to the 15th century.The extraordinary energy and pace of change in these two cities will only continue, as they become a part of the European Union. Now is the time to visit before they become too “discovered.”

Morgan Smith is a former Aspenite and part-time Barcelona resident. He can he reached at

When and HowSpring and fall are the best times to visit. Winters can be tough and, in summer, there will be hordes of tourists from Finland and surrounding countries.British Airways has some five flights a week from London, a short two-and-a-half to three-hour trip.HotelsHotel GutenbergDome Place, 11050 Riga, Latviawww. hotel@gutenbergs.lvGrand Hotel TallinnToompuiestee, 2710149 Tallinn, havent put in prices for either hotel, because they seem to vary widely depending on the season and whether youre with a tour group.)Reading MaterialsBaltic Capitals, by Neil Taylor, who was our guide, is the best book available. In addition, Taylor is now updating it, which is important, because both cities are changing rapidly museums and monuments are being restored, hotels improved, new restaurants appearing.Riga has a good weekly magazine in English called Riga This Week. Tallinns counterpart is Tallinn This Week, The Baltic Times is a weekly paper that contains information about events in both cities. City Times is also in English and excellent ( All the museums and churches in both cities have signage and brochures in English. In addition, many people speak English. In fact, the American staff at the U.S. Embassy in Estonia said that they couldnt practice their Estonian because everyone wanted to speak to them in English.CurrencyEach country has its distinctive currency, the lat in Latvia and the kroon in Estonia. (Signs in Estonia often use the word eek rather than kroon.) Euros, however, are beginning to be accepted more and more. Both cities have plenty of ATMs.Tour GroupsMartin Randall Travel Ltd.Voysey House, Barley Mow PassageLondon, England, W4 4GFTel. 44-20-8742-3355Fax 44-20-8742-7766E-mail tour cost about $2,000 per person, which included airfare from London, six nights in excellent hotels, all breakfasts, about half of our dinners, tour guides, local transportation, entry into all museums and other monuments, and the excellent guidance of Neil Taylor.

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