Friday, October 21, 2011

Lithuania & Latvia

Both of these countries are quite petite, so I'll be putting them together. Both of them have somewhat similar histories, especially in modern times. Both suffered under the whims of both Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia.

Latvia, once part of the medieval Teutonic state, is now seemingly in collapse. As my cab-driver turned off his meter and drove around, completely lost, I talked to him about how Riga was today. The population is dwindling, the economy ground to a standstill, and unemployment at a new time high. But the cab-driver had started work only the day before, and was a cheery man, in complete contradiction with what Riga seemed like. The city mainly reflects a lot of Soviet-style thinking, concrete apartments and uniformity down the way.

It was only in the Old Quarter of Riga that I was able to enjoy myself, looking at the remnants of what was supposedly the trading capital of the Baltics. Several of their medieval rulers boasted 'he who ruled Riga ruled the Baltics', and while this isn't true of modern day Riga, the spirit of old Riga was quite touching, even though it seemed to have been sold to the small hordes of tourists and the million kebab shops (Which by the way seem to dominate all of Europe by now.)

Lithunia and Vilnius, while smaller than Riga, actually felt livlier to me. This might have been the location, but they struck a strange balance of the new high rise glass facades, and, across the river, the older sights such as the Gediminas castle and the crosses upon the hill. (Though due to a misplaced sign I hiked up a small mountain to find not large crosses, but instead a large sports arena occupied only by a lone man running along the track. This would have been funny if it wasn't such a huge hill.)

Lithuania I quite enjoyed, if only for the oddities it presented. I visited just as Eurobasket 2011 was finishing, being held in the very same country. Lithuanians it seems are almost as fanatical to basketball as the Spanish are to football, going as far as to put a basketball on their coin, not to mention the many advertisements for it. It also contains what is so far the strangest food item- a pizza shop celebrating Eurobasket by having a pizza for every country in it. The English pizza contained eggs, bacon and the like, the German one sausages, but I found most curious the Israeli pizza, containing horseradish, chicken and pear!

Food aside, the Baltics were much easier on my nerves than Russia, aside from the small hiccup of one coach company refusing theirs was the only bus to Vilnius, going as far as to deny the existance of other companies  in  order to sell me a ticket. Other than that, and the church visits becoming nearly identical (They're all starting to look the same to my stained-glass memory.), the Baltics were pleasant enough.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Saint Petersberg

I've only just now recovered from the shock of having more than five people read my previous post.

Russia as a whole seems uninviting to tourists, though you'll never go wanting for lack of interesting things to see, particuarly churches. Especially churches. The church of the Spilt Blood, in St Petersberg, is worth a special note here. Built exactly over the site of a Tsar's assassination, this Church takes inspiration from St Basil's in Moscow, and in some respects improves on it, using building materials from all over the world, in combination with those eye-catching domes seen on all the tourist guides.

Moscow might be the physical and economic capital of Russia, but St Petersberg would be the cultural one. Even the railway stations are designed as works of art, and the Hermitage, once the winter palace of Peter the Great, now houses a monumentally huge art gallery within the arched rooms. I guess my only problem is that my interest in the more recent history is hard to satiate. Russia, it seems, prefers to gloss over most of the USSR regime, with the exception of the few souvenir shops willing to sell anything with a hammer and sickle on it. (Or Babushka dolls featuring the faces of American politicians.)

It's a shame though that a lot of the material I saw could never be satisfactorily explained. Beyond the lax Siberian trio of women minding my hostel, and the American teacher and her dog, there wasn't much interaction at all. What is this strange sport with throwing a pole at wooden columns? Why is my meal hot water with leaves floating in it? Why was I asked to give my opinion on some obscure ruler to a street wandering journalist? I have no idea.