We join our tour group in Krakow, Poland. With even more greenery than we have seen in other cities on this trip, Krakow is like a mini-Prague but without all the art nouveau embellishments. Since the city was used as a base for the SS, the city was spared much of the German destruction from the war.
Warsaw, on the other hand, was 85% destroyed. They have an Old Town that was meticulously reconstructed out of the rubble, much of the work just having been completed in the last decade with other projects still in progress. When we see footage of the piles of rubble and burnt out building shells that the few surviving city residents came back to, it is hard to believe that there is even a city here at all.
Not yet a destination on the typical tourist circuit, Warsaw's historical area is small and still in the developmental stage, but preparing someday for herds of tourists with souvenir shops and restaurants opening and a brand new state of the art museum, the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which was named 2016 European Museum of the Year.
The part of the city where we stay is a mix of skyscrapers, post-war buildings, and, in the case of our hotel, restored buildings. Perhaps because we were prepared for Warsaw to be a bland, dismal city merely needed for a one night stand to get from Krakow to Vilnius, we are surprised to find it more of an interesting mix of the modern with the reconstructed than we expected.
Though the locals go more for sushi or Italian food, there is a chain of traditional piroshki restaurants where we share an assortment of piroshkis (Polish dumplings) filled with meat and mushrooms, cream-cheese-parsley, spinach-cheese, and wild mushroom.
The next few weeks are a blur as we get on and off the bus -- bags out by 7:00, breakfast, back to the room to brush teeth and finish packing, then on the bus by 8:00, with lots of hurry-up-and-waiting throughout the day. What impresses us more than the sights is the history of the Baltic countries we visit. Like Poland, these people have enjoyed little autonomy over the centuries, and they have only recently broken free from domination by the former Soviet Union. The oppression, first by foreign rule, then by Nazi Germany and, most recently, by the Soviet communist government is still quite fresh in their consciousness and we hear personal stories and see harrowing photos and videos of what it was like living under the constant threat of the KGB.
We learn how Estonia's independence, known as the Singing Revolution, was fought for and won with music rather than guns, which explains why in neighboring Latvia, during a festival on the longest day of the year, much of the stage is dominated by enchanting choral performances of folk songs. Bill is eager to buy some of their CDs but they have none to sell. Apparently, free-market opportunism has not yet become ingrained in the culture, so he goes back to the hotel room in the long evening light to try to track down online some of the incredible things he has heard.
Riga, in Latvia, turns out to be the charmer of the Baltic countries. In addition to the medieval town, many of the buildings in the new part of town are art nouveau in style. Our tour takes us by many of the buildings designed by Mikhail Eisenstein. Much more low-key than Prague, Riga is less frenetic, less expensive and with fewer tourists and (almost) just as wonderful! We can take time to stroll and appreciate the architecture.
What also endears us to Riga is their enormous public market that spans five former zeppelin hangars. The bargain here is salmon roe, which, with a little fresh made sour cream (which is scooped from a large vat) and wrapped in some fresh lavash, makes for a fine picnic dinner. On this part of the trip, we have also developed a taste for borscht, which comes in many more varieties and flavors than one would expect. Surprisingly, one of our favorites was pre-packaged and came from a grocery store deli section.
Eventually we reach our last city: Saint Petersburg, Russia. The feeling here is less European and, in its own way, more “exotic” than anywhere else on this particular trip. Our first experience is a walk down the boulevard near our hotel, which is lined with stores filled with cheap Chinese clothes, grubby snack stands, and disco bars. Interspersed now and then is some mammoth palace from the 18th or 19th century that, in Los Angeles, would be one of the top 5 tourist draws, but here, it doesn’t even get a mention on our map.
Repeatedly, we encounter officious clerks who seem quite unhappy in their jobs and very irritated by foreigners who don’t follow the rules. If you are looking for joie de vivre in a citizenry, this would definitely seem to be the wrong place.
But, for whatever Saint Petersburg lacks in the warm-and-fuzzy department, it makes up for with some amazing monuments. The Imperial Family had wealth estimated at over $45 billion when the House of Romanov fell in 1917, and they sure knew how to spend it. The seemingly never-ending days (early summer is known as “the white nights” with only about 3 to 4 hours of darkness in a 24 hour period) keep us propelled sightseeing as much as we can until we have to board our Aeroflot flight home.