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Our time in Slovenia started inauspiciously. Giddy on the high emotions of the refugee solidarity protest, we had thrown caution to the wind and indulged in four-euro kebabs for dinner. Almost a week later, we’re still regretting that decision. We awoke at 6am in Vienna, and our bleary two-mile walk to the station was livened up with some particularly agonising stomach cramps. The seven-hour journey to Lake Bled was an ordeal, although greatly improved with free entertainment courtesy of the three British girls sharing our train compartment. Their erudite remarks ranged from the conflict in Syria (caused by that notorious Syrian dictator, Colonel Gaddafi), to religious extremism (‘Aren’t ISIS like, really Catholic?’) to the divisions between Sunni and Shia groups (apparently an invention of the Western media). I’m sorry to shame them on the Internet, but I’m sorrier that they have the vote*. Slumped against the train window in the throes of nausea, Jason tells me that my ill-concealed derisive snorts provided reassuring signs of life. ’Twas a low point.
When we arrived at Lake Bled, the sunshine bathed the glassy surface of the lake in warm light. Or it probably did - I was occupied with the task of vomiting into a bin at the time of our arrival. Jason fared slightly better (although rest assured, he was pretty wretched the next day), and went for what he assures me was a charming walk by Lake Bled. We slipped into a queasy sleep, with the last of the evening sunshine drifting in from the balcony.
We awoke the next morning very well-rejuvenated, with rain battering the windows. We cheerily dismissed the precipitation as a brief blip - and indeed, it soon eased off into mere leaden cloudiness. At the first opportunity, we flung ourselves into the serenely transparent lake. The waters of Lake Bled are rumoured to have healing powers. We saw our food poisoning as an excellent opportunity to put these powers to the test: alas, we were not miraculously healed. Everything that I will describe about Lake Bled was viewed through the lens of miserable food poisoning. However, we did emerge from our time at Bled with clear skin and shiny hair, and in remarkably good spirits considering our indisposition.
Lake Bled is comprised of layers of beauty, any one of which would render the scene idyllic by itself, but the combination thereof lends it an almost ludicrous charm. It sits in the lushly forested foothills of the Alps (Layer 1), against a backdrop of larger, more imposing mountains (Layer 2). The surface of the lake sits on the edge of total stillness, broken only by the occasional tremble of a swimmer or rowing boat (Layer 3). The middle of the lake hosts a tiny island, just close enough to be reached from the shore by more determined swimmers (Layer 4). As if that weren’t enough, on the island is a frigging Baroque church (Layer 5). I’ve never seen a building so staggeringly impractical and so extraordinarily beautiful. You look at it and imagine the doggedness with which its builders must have rowed over the tonnes of stone, for no better reason than a love of beauty and the landscape.
There’s not really a lot going on at Lake Bled apart from swimming, rowing, paddle-boarding (you get it - the kind of things that you do on bodies of water). Our host let us borrow his rowing boat, and we spent most of our time happily Famous-Fiving around the lake. Our first rowing trip to the island left us stranded in the first of many downpours. Having rowed ourselves successfully to the swimming platform on the island, we leapt into the lake, filled with youthful glow and lust for life. It started to rain. Never mind that, it started to pour. You could hardly tell what was lake and what was air. By the time we’d swum back to the island, our clothes were drenched, so we started to row back to shore clad only in our swimsuits. A nearby boatload of Japanese tourists were enchanted by our bedraggled half-naked appearance, and we found ourselves the subjects of dozens of camera shutters. We gazed at them stonily, and they waved happily back.
We didn’t really see the sun after that. That was okay - Lake Bled is so calm and mild that even a night-time swim is perfectly comfortable, and the cliffs around the lake are beautifully lit up. We lazed and chatted, drank Slovenian wine on the (covered) terrace of the pizza place, and honed our rowing skills from the shocking to the merely dire. It was low-key, idyllic, cheap. Even Lake Bled - the tourist highlight of Slovenia by all accounts - is relatively unspoilt. There are a couple of restaurants, and a lovely cafe on the island. Despite adverse weather conditions, Lake Bled is my ‘hot tip’ for a cheap and charming tourist destination in Europe. We had a grand old time.
However, at no point did we, or our clothes, properly dry off.
*If they ever read this, a few points: a) Syria is not in North Africa b) the Gulf War and George Bush’s invasion of Iraq were separate conflicts c) Bin Laden was found d) the moment of Saddam Hussein’s death was not shown on the BBC d) The Pacific Ocean isn’t between Africa and India e) Britain doesn’t ‘own’ South Africa. Come on, guys.
We were in the audience for the opening concert of last week’s Jewish Cultural Festival in Budapest, seated in the beautiful Dohány St. Synagogue and listening to the Budapest Klezmer Band. Klezmer is a traditional Eastern European Jewish folk music, commonly played by a live band at simchahs (weddings, Mitzvahs both Bar and Bat) - think Fiddler on the Roof at a party, or the sound of big Jewish families tripping over each other after too much schnapps. Though I’m a casual listener and not a connoisseur of the genre, I understand the Budapest Klezmer Band to be one of the foremost modern bands in this space.
Inside, the synagogue is stunning: ornate, elegant, and as striking as some of the best cathedrals in Europe. The bimah (altar) draws every eye, and the twenty-foot Aron Kodesh where the torahs are stored is cloaked in a simple but beautiful blue. The dozens of wrought-iron fixtures throw soft yellow light on the dark brown benches, numbered with centuries-worn brass plates. Two stacked balconies add hundreds more seats, not a single one left empty for the concert. At first, the cool inside air is a refuge from the scalding Hungarian sun, but as the synagogue fills with hundreds of tourists and local concert-goers, the temperature rises to a hearty bajillion degrees. We patiently fan ourselves with the tickets through the opening speeches (the Hungarian Minister of Something and an important Israeli dignitary make what were probably quite moving speeches - we occasionally understood the word Zsido or Fesztival) and applaud the musicians onstage.
The band is comprised of a haggard pianist in a fedora and piano-key suspenders, a clarinetist with an equally dramatic hat, a violinist with a furrowed brow, a jolly accordionist, and a young hipster trio of trombone, bass, and drums. The start the first song before any introduction - just the way I think a concert should start - and the opening number pulls no punches. The music is fast, strong, and cheerfully wry, and all of the players are “digging in”. All of the elements we know of to be Klezmer are there - the furious gypsy violin, the sweeping clarinet glissandi, and the stride piano, with a healthy dollop of the “wind-up” accelerating tempo changes - paired with a contemporary rhythm section (it could have been the mix, but the drums sounded like they had been tuned for “stadium rock”). It’s a sound I’d never really heard before, and it caught me off guard; once I adjusted to listening to the Phrygian dominant melodies, I really enjoyed the arrangements.
The band hit a very healthy mix between the tongue-in-cheek hits (Fiddler on the Roof medley, anyone?) and what must have been their original material, never straying from their core sound. If this is a band defining the current state of Klezmer, they’ve done a great job defining themselves first - there was never a moment which felt doubtful or experimental. It was the kind of concert which is both superficially enjoyable, with fun, foot-stomping romps (Klezmer is, after all, a folk music primarily for dancing), and which stands up to virtuosic critique. The “feature” tunes, where the clarinetist or especially the violinist would take a commanding lead of the melody, were a particularly enjoyable display of those musicians' talent, and I felt as wowed by some of their licks as any great jazz or classical feature (where I have a better understanding of the repertoire).
The only low point was a tune entitled “Shoah” (the Hebrew word for the Holocaust), which didn’t strike any significant chord (despite our recent visit to Auschwitz), and ended with a slightly naff chorus of two vocalists whispering Shoah repeatedly. I don’t mean to say that they shouldn’t have written about the Holocaust, only that other contemporary composers have, in my opinion, done the job a bit better; it felt like an attempt to compose the definitive Shoah memorial song, and I think Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time would be a better candidate.
While I wouldn’t recommend a multi-hour stretch in a 30-degree house of worship to many, I’d agree with the mystery internet referee: a Budapest Klezmer Band performance stands with the best concert experiences around, for hearing the modern frontrunner of the genre or for just enjoying an energetic gig. The timid listener could pick up an album or two on iTunes, or just fly to Budapest for the weekend (from London, probably not much more expensive) and grab some great food while you’re there.
Budapest has always had a slightly mythical status for me. My mum lived there before the Iron Curtain fell, which is ineffably cool of her, and was one of my inspirations for casting my travelling net further afield than the boundaries of the District Line. Of all the cities on our trip, I was maybe the most excited about Budapest, even with the changes of several decades and a political regime between me and Mum’s stories.
Budapest is undoubtedly one of the great European cities, a city to hold its own against Prague or Paris. It just isn’t as widely known, which is why everyone should see if for themselves (and also why I rather selfishly hope they don’t). The Baltic capitals were great, and I’d move to any of them at a moment’s notice, but Budapest was the first city on this trip that really worked its way under my skin. For one thing, it’s beautiful. For another, it’s got a rich cultural life and a strong intellectual tradition, and I admire the bloody-minded individualism of a language that bears no relation to virtually any other. It’s also youthful and cool, in a way that doesn’t make youthful cool feel exhausting.
We stayed less than five minute's walk from Parliament - a gloriously spiky Gothic hedgehog of a building, which puts the Palace of Westminster to shame. It sits poised above the Danube on the Pest side of the river, nodding across the green water to Buda’s hilltop complex of palaces and churches. We kicked off our trip with a lazy coffee at Cafe Europa - one of those beautiful Central European cafes/patisseries that drop you about sixty years into the past, the kind of place where great poetry is probably scrawled on the back of napkins and wry-faced intellectuals debate the state of humanity over champagne and lobster.
I was served the most enormous chocolate croissant I had ever seen in my life; consuming it was a long and arduous task which left my face heavily smeared with ganache. It had to be done though - if I hadn’t eaten it, it would almost certainly have eaten me. Jason’s cheese and ham croissant was similarly sturdy - in fact, it had almost exactly the same dimensions and weight as a brick. We were well-fueled for our ‘brief wander’ around the area, which turned into an day-long climb up the castle hill, followed by a hike from one end of the city to another.
Throughout our visit, our most frequent haunt was the old Jewish quarter. Although home to several synagogues and the occasional kosher shop, it’s primarily a rabbit warren of hipster boltholes: vintage markets, bike shops, coffee shops that take themselves very seriously, and studiedly un-serious bars. Budapest’s hipsterdom is mostly an affection - unlike the Baltics, where youthful cool generally went hand in hand with a serious regard for sustainability and responsible living. The trendy ‘ruin-bars’ of Budapest, constructed from found objects, are more a testament to an eye for the theatrical than a deep-seated commitment to recycling. Nonetheless, we spent several happy hours at the Szimpla ruin-bar, swigging local beer and palinka (a ruinous Hungarian fruit spirit that would work well as paint thinner).
Public thermal baths are something that every city should have (although in the UK they’d probably be overrun with toddlers and cretins, which is why we can’t have nice things). The Szechenyi thermal baths are a series of twenty or so pools, each at a different temperature and infused with a different salt. They’re frequented by tourists and locals alike (the locals comprising mostly of old men with expansive guts and airs of wisdom, playing chess). I can’t give any scientific testament to the baths' healing properties, but the sequential soakings in hot and cold pools were glorious (and, despite having walked twelve miles around Budapest that day, we left feeling as though our feet and knees had been freshly laundered and ironed). We basked for around two hours and felt the accompanying serene cosiness for much longer, rendering our trip to the baths twenty euros well-spent.
For some traditional Hungarian food, our AirBnB host gave us stern orders to avoid Vací Utca, the main tourist street, and to make a booking at Hungarikum Bistro. They could only fit us in for a noon sitting, which meant that by one thirty we were exhausted from the effort of digesting goulash soup, freshly baked bread, braided pork (I didn’t know you could braid pork - I can barely braid my own hair) with tiny potato dumplings and paprika sauce. We were also slightly sozzled on fresh draught beer and homemade palinka, which Jason characterised, perhaps not inaccurately, as prison hooch. No longer fit for human interaction, we dragged ourselves to the local cat cafe*, finding kindred spirits in its determinedly indolent feline residents. Unlike most cat cafes, it wasn’t busy at all, allowing for plenty of quality cat-cuddling time (the iced coffee was also half-decent).
We rounded off our trip to Budapest with a Klezmer concert at the Dohany Street Synagogue, which I thought was good and nice, and reminded me a bit of Leonard Cohen. Jason will recount the experience with far more panache, technical knowledge and general competence in another post.
I’m pretty certain that our three-day visit didn’t do Budapest justice. Sometimes when I’m in a city I really love, I’m loathe to try and squeeze too many activities in. Taking in Budapest at a breakneck pace would feel like an admission that I only have one chance to get to know it. We ticked off the main tourist tasks and occasionally found our way slightly off the beaten track. But if we didn’t comprehensively ‘do’ Budapest, that’s just fine. We’ll be back.
* It should be noted here that we had decided to find a cat cafe after a bizarre episode in Helsinki. We came across, and had opportunity to enter, a Finnish cat cafe; trouble ensued. Jason: Walking along the street, Jess suddenly gasped and froze in place - she had seen a cat. I offered for us to go in, and Jess squealed/grunted. I chatted briefly with the host (they take reservations, but there was just enough space for us), while Jess panted softly - eventually, the pressure was too much, and Jess turned and sped off like a Scooby-Doo villain, having been far too unprepared for the pressure of a cat cuddle. I was…confused.
We visited two museums in Kraków - three, if you count our trip to Auschwitz - that dealt with Poland’s Jewish history. The Oskar Schindler Museum and the Museum of Galician Jews could hardly be more different - and I’d suggest that only one of them is worth the visit.
The museum converted from Oskar Schindler's old factory is, quite frankly, a tacky cash-in on the Oscar-winning film. Despite never having seen Schindler’s List, I heartily slagged it off once in a university tutorial, and on reflection I do admit that this was very unfair. We watched the film while we were in Kraków, and actually thought it was pretty good (although if you wanted to read a thoughtful critique of the film's relationship to historical fact, I thought this essay was pretty interesting). Anyway, we had assumed that the museum would tell the story of Schindler, and of the Jewish workers that he was able to help.
Nope. The museum tried to tell the whole story of Kraków at war, and it did so in the most bizarre, haphazard fashion possible. The museum’s collection of historic artefacts is extensive, but the pieces on display had little to no interpretation. By contrast, the walls were filled with endless written information, loosely assorted into a timeline that frequently broke with its own chronology. Moreover, Schindler's original factory is actually converted into a modern art museum, consigning the Oskar Schindler museum to a modern extension which was organised into a weird, labyrinthine series of tunnels, with no relationship whatsoever to Schindler's factory.
Despite not being particularly full of visitors, the museum felt heavily congested due to bottlenecks. Cheap AV effects of bombs dropping and women screaming failed to build any sort of mood, but rather were distracting. There was very little information on Schindler, or his Jewish factory workers (apart from a film, which was less a cohesive documentary and more a meditation on the fragmentation of postmodern consciousness, i.e. it made no sense whatsoever). I came out of the museum feeling like I knew less than when I went in, and frankly a bit ripped off. On the whole, Schindler’s Factory is one to skip. Go, take a photograph of the famous gates, and then leave (don't even stay for a coffee - the cafe's overpriced and looks like Steven Spielberg's shrine to himself).
By contrast, the Galicia Jewish Museum is must-see, and costs a fraction of the price. Small and simply-conceived, the permanent exhibition, Traces of Memory, documents photographer Chris Schwarz’s twelve-year project of meticulously finding, photographing and documenting the physical traces of Poland's Jewish history. The resultant pictures are displayed alongside thoughtful and incisive written interpretation by Professor Jonathan Webber. The exhibition is rooted in the often-neglected fact that Poland's Jewish community dates back to the twelfth century; by understanding how fundamentally Jewish life was stitched into Polish culture, one can appreciate the brutality with which it was torn out. The exhibition documents these narratives dutifully and extensively, and comments on the ongoing processes by which Poland’s Jewish history is simultaneously commemorated and erased.
There was a side exhibition contrasting the historical commemoration of Jewish Galicia in Poland with that in Ukraine (titled An Unfinished Memory: Jewish Heritage and the Holocaust in Eastern Galicia). In practice, this served to highlight the hard fact that however problematic and shaky forms of commemoration can be, the alternative is a harsh resolution to ignore the past. Overall, the museum was sobering and respectful, without ever feeling mawkish or gratuitous.
I don’t want this to read as a sanctimonious judgement that austere museums = good, museums that embrace multi-media = bad: that just happened to be the case with these two. However, I do think that the Galicia Jewish Museum was a great case for a strong, simple concept that doesn’t try to do too much, and is a thousand times more poignant as a result of its steady focus.
We went to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau. According to the signs at tourist information, that’s what you do when you visit Kraków (you can even combine your trip with a visit to the salt mines for ~400 zlotys). We went because it would feel odd to act like it wasn’t there, and I’m writing this because it would feel odd to act like we hadn’t gone. There are no photographs accompanying this post, because we didn’t take any.
I’m not really going to talk much about how sobering it was, or how important it is to remember the Holocaust, because neither of those are new insights. The horror of it was unspeakable, and so I won’t attempt to speak of it. I’m not sure whether I feel that way because it’s the only appropriate response, or just because it’s easier.
What I can try to offer, however, is an idea of what it means to visit the site of Auschwitz-Birkenau in 2015. For me, just the idea of taking a coach to the camps, wandering around a bit, and going home, was problematic. It’s an act of tourism, and creating a tourist industry out of genocide is obviously laden with issues. I’m not saying it shouldn’t be done, but I do think it needs to be approached with great caution. And, frankly, it sometimes wasn’t.
For those who don’t know (and I include myself in this, prior to our visit), there are two camps: Auschwitz I, and Auschwitz II-Birkenau. Auschwitz I was originally constructed as an Austrian and Polish army barracks, which was later used by the Nazis to house Polish political prisoners. It’s where the gate is with the sign Arbeit Macht Frei, which you often see in movies. It has a small gas chamber (where the use of gas was tested) and an execution yard, but for the most part it’s a work camp, not a death camp. Auschwitz II-Birkenau is 3km away, and it was built for purpose as an extermination camp. The most widely recognised image of it is the railway line leading up to the watch tower. A lot of films take artistic license in depicting the gate and the railway line as if they were on the same site, but that’s not actually the case.
All tours start at Auschwitz I, which is a much smaller site. That’s where the coach park, the coat check, the bag search, the concession stands, and the tourist information are. The camp is made up of a series of two-story stone barracks, some which have reconstructed cells, but are largely used as museums. Most of the main signage is in English, Polish, and Hebrew.
When you first walk in, the barracks that you immediately encounter are given over to an exhibition titled ‘The Martyrdom of the Polish Nation’. It gives an account of the occupation and detention of Polish citizens, but focuses almost solely on what it refers to as ‘ethnic Poles’ - that is, not Polish Jews. Walls and walls of information are given over to the stories of Polish political prisoners in Auschwitz, and the name of every ‘ethnic Pole’ killed by the Nazis is recorded in a large binder. Seemingly as an afterthought, it then mentions the ‘manslaughter’ (hopefully a bad translation, although most of the English text was very high-standard) of the Polish Jews. There isn’t an exhibition about the Polish Jews, or Jews of any other nationality. Their names are not recorded.
Other barracks are given over to exhibitions on Hungarian political prisoners, Roma, Austrian political prisoners. The exhibition on the liberation of Auschwitz by the Russians is all grandiose audio-visual effects and declamations of ‘valour’ and ‘freedom’. It’s a high-concept museum that could be anywhere.
There’s no interpretation at Auschwitz II-Birkenau. However big you imagine the camp to be, it’s probably about five times bigger; most of the wooden barracks were destroyed by the Nazis, who abandoned the camp as defeat became inevitable. A few buildings are left standing - barracks where some prisoners who were too sick to be marched into Germany were left, the building where inmates were processed upon entry to the camp, and the large brick sewers. The SS packed the gas chambers and crematoria with dynamite, so only rubble remains. Of the large sheds which served as barracks (each housing approximately 400 people) most have been destroyed, with only their chimneys left standing. The forest of chimneys and barbed wire stretches on almost as far as the eye can see. It takes about an hour to walk from one end of the camp to the other.
Discussions of the Holocaust mostly defer to the idea that the only correct response is a respectful silence. I’m not sure that that’s completely true; I think there have to be a variety of responses (although I myself didn’t feel that I could have visited Auschwitz in any other way than walking around in silence and seeing what was there). I don’t think that everyone should have exactly the same experience that I did, but I do think that it’s important to identify the fact that some elements of turning Auschwitz into a commodified tourist attraction create major issues.
For one, there’s the way that so many people treated the trip to Auschwitz as a day out for all the family. It’s simply not appropriate to take small children. They don’t understand where they are, and it’s very distracting to have them running around. Likewise, bored adolescents, clearly dragged along by their parents, do not respect the significance of the place. It’s hard not to be disconcerted by how many large groups are wandering around chatting, grinning, making jokes; people sit on the grass outside the gates to the camp eating ice creams or slices of pizza. From about 10am onwards, the site of Auschwitz I is overrun with coach groups. Few people go on to Auschwitz-II Birkenau, fewer do anything more than take a photo of the railway and watch tower before leaving again.
I was expecting visitors to Auschwitz to be grim-faced and largely silent - something like the Anne Frank Museum, maybe. They weren’t - they were mostly pretty jovial. Perhaps the difference is that people feel able to connect to Anne Frank and her story, whereas it’s hard to connect to the systematic slaughter of millions of innocent people. I’m still stuck on the response that all you can do in the face of such a tragedy is acknowledge your own inability to articulate it. Compressing Auschwitz into a tour or a photograph feels like a crass attempt to cut it down into a manageable size.
I wrote this post with the idea of collecting my thoughts on the idea of how I might answer the question: ‘Should I go to visit Auschwitz?’. In my mind, out visit turned one of the most terrible chapters of human history from an abstraction into a reality. Knowing that millions of innocent people were killed is one thing, seeing where it happened is another. For me, turning an abstraction into a reality is the process needed to create empathy, whether it’s for something that happened long ago, or current events in far-off places. So I would say you should visit the camps, if that’s what you think is right - in off-season, or in the early morning before the coach groups arrive. Be aware, however, of how ‘Auschwitz as a tourist destination’ shapes our understanding of ‘Auschwitz as a reality’. Turning Auschwitz into #Auschwitz - an Instagram post, a photo album on Facebook, a fun family day out - is a way of forgetting, not remembering.
This isn't a turn that we particularly expected this blog to take, but we thought it was important to share.
This photograph was taken this morning outside Keleti Station in Budapest. Hungary is a highly developed country - wifi in every public place, an impeccable transport system, and a thriving tourist industry. There is a refugee camp in the square outside the international train station, of which the above photo only shows a small part.
People have come here from war zones, many risking their lives and those of their families to make the journey. Once they get here, they're deposited on the station floor like human rubbish without so much as a pillow to rest on the marble ground. Men sleep on their jeans, children sleep on blankets and towels. I didn't see any of the women sleeping, just watching over their children. The tents are full of children - maybe eight in each. People wash in the fountain and hang their clothes to dry on the wrought iron of the station doors. Commuters skirt around them on their way to work.
On our way to Vienna, we shared our train compartment with three men. I figured they were displaced and seeking asylum - most people don't wear several shirts, one on top of the other in thirty-five degree heat, unless they're just carrying whatever they can.
When the train conductor came round, we handed him our tickets. The men simply looked up at him - there was a silent exchange: of course they didn't have tickets. He silently, but not rudely, gestured for them to get up. We assume that they were ejected from the train at the first stop.
Later on, we were joined in our compartment by a Syrian couple, travelling with their five children (who, by the way, were very sweet and behaved perfectly throughout the hot, tiring journey). They had tickets. They had come from Syria via Turkey, then Greece, to Hungary. Now they were on their way to Germany. The father spoke English - we chatted for the rest of the journey, playing Peekaboo with their baby daughter. He told us that he had been a political prisoner in Syria, and that the family had escaped. When they'd arrived in Hungary, the whole family had been imprisoned for several days without proper food, water or sanitary conditions. When we told him that our train had crossed the border into Austria, he laughed with elation and relief.*
Seventy one people were found suffocated in a lorry last week. It shook me to the core to know that it could have been any of the people we'd seen at the station. I don't have a solution to the 'migrant crisis', but I do know that a humane solution won't be found unless we treat people as more than a problematic statistic. I suspect that Angela Merkel is right - there needs to be a Europe-wide immigration policy. As long as there are wars there will be displaced people. Forming a coherent EU policy to handle this seems only rational.
I can't fathom fleeing a war zone, but there's no good reason why it's not me sitting in a camp in Budapest, or Lebanon. Whatever your views on immigration, compassion is essential: the difference between being the commuter hurrying through the station and the displaced person sleeping on the floor is a roll of the dice.
*If our friends from the train ever read this, we hope you'll forgive us for sharing a few facts from your story. As you told us, it is impossible to understand the war in Syria from the news alone, and we hope that telling our family and friends what you have told us will help people to understand. We are thinking of you, and wish you all the best for your new life.
Postscript from Vienna, later the same day: We were looking for somewhere with wifi to upload this post, when we stumbled across what we initially thought was a small procession. We gradually realised that everyone was dressed in white, and many were holding banners. It was a solidarity protest against the treatment of refugees, and the inhumane border laws that led to 71 people suffocating to death in the back of an illegal trafficking lorry.
There were tens of thousands of people marching. They carried banners stating ‘Refugees Welcome Here’ and ‘Mensch Ist Mensch’. People carried babies, wheeled bikes, cheered, beat drums. Walking against the direction of the procession, it was more than half an hour before we saw the tail end.
This doesn’t change the body count in the Middle East, and it doesn’t change the existence of refugee camps in Europe. Furthermore, a wave of initial goodwill may well turn sour when times get hard and asylum seekers become a convenient scapegoat. Still, this morning we saw maybe a thousand people ‘housed’ in terrible conditions, others removed from a train which they’d boarded in search of a better life. Two and a half hours away by train, we saw maybe twenty thousands Austrians marching and declaring, in no uncertain terms, that the inhabitants of Keleti Station transit camp are welcome here. It’s not a solution, but it looks like a start.
The flat we're staying in is Soviet. Not in the flippant sense of being a bit basic, but in the literal sense that the mailboxes are labelled in Russian. The wallpaper definitely predates Lithuanian independence, and the thirty-year old fridge provides a soundscape of hums, grumbles and mutterings, like an elderly, arthritic man. Sometimes it stops altogether, and then reawakens with a startled snort. The bed is a blue vinyl sofa, and there's no bathroom door, just a curtain - an excellent opportunity to put your relationship with your beloved under test*. We can hear wee scrabbly critters scampering under the floorboards, which we tactically agree are probably curious, adorable squirrels from some nearby woodland.
Vilnius itself is fantastic. Definitely more run-down than Tallinn or Riga, but also more spectacular. Unlike Estonia or Latvia, which are mainly affiliated to Lutherism, Lithuania wholeheartedly embraced Catholicism. Its architectural influence is clearly present in dozens of church spires, which twirl into the sky like elaborate frosted confections. Crumbling streets share space with chic hipster cafes (why is it, by the way, that wherever in the world you go, hipsters love beards, cycling, and pretentious coffee, and hate… everything else that crosses their line of vision?). In the two days we’re there, the city hosts a 5K run and a cycle ride which close off the main streets of Vilnius, which gives the impression of an admirably healthy, sturdy-legged Lithuanian lifestyle. In the trendier parts of town, the profusion of sushi restaurants and pizza places seems to suggest that traditional Lithuanian cuisine is not the fare of choice for the young and hip of Vilnius.
Traditional Lithuanian cuisine is, however, brilliant for when you’re hungry. And we are hungry. Jason's lovely friend Skaidra, who is of Lithuanian extraction, has recommended the Fortos Dvoras restaurant, which serves twelve variations of the local speciality, the brilliantly-named zeppelins: enormous boiled potato dumplings, stuffed with meat, dipped in sour cream, crackling and butter sauce. That is to say, a carb coma stuffed with a heart attack, dipped in obesity. They arrive - pale-yellow, bloated monsters. I poke one, dubiously. It doesn't respond. Maybe it's sleeping (or just biding its time). Perhaps Skaidra has concocted an elaborate hoax at my expense. I take a mouthful. It tastes like a nap by the fire on a winter's day, followed by a cuddle with a unicorn. Skaidra, you goddess.
Post-zeppelins, we wander, shellshocked, through the streets of Old Vilnius. We decide to climb the castle mound in the central square, because when you eat too many zeppelins you develop a colossal sense of shame and feel the need to balance it out with some hard-to-access culture. We got to the top, and declare the view good. Too zeppelined-out to wax further lyrical on the subject, we descend the mound and wander through a beautiful park.
Now here’s another odd thing about Vilnius: in the space of one afternoon we come across maybe a dozen weddings. It’s hard to tell whether it’s a special holiday, or Lithuanians just cherish a particular mania for holy matrimony. Every time we round a corner, it prompts an exclamation of ‘Bloody hell, there’s another one!’. Brides seem to crawl out of the woodwork wherever you look, in dresses so meringue-like that seeing them makes your teeth hurt. As we try to find a pub, our path through the city is blocked by a hundred or more Hells Angels. Perhaps they’re going to a wedding (or perhaps the brides are going to a Hells Angels’ convention).
Our enormous dinner (which consists of dumplings, ham and cheese pancakes, and a cold pint apiece) costs us about eight euros. In Our taxi home is another three euros (getting the bus would have cost two). In Europe, it doesn’t really get more dirt-cheap than that.
Arriving back at the flat, we digest our dinner lying huddled on the blue vinyl sofa in the bedroom. This is primarily because the main room has very little furniture, apart from a prickly sofa, and frankly it’s a bit eerie - although the wifi is excellent, so the flat scores points for that**. The blankets smell slightly musty, but the potato-based cuisine has a soporific effect, and it doesn’t take us long to drift off into a heavy sleep, dreaming of zeppelins.
Vilnius is absolutely wonderful. Of all the Baltic cities, I think it probably has the most to offer visitors: its modern cool is tempered with a healthy amount of grit, its heritage sites are spectacular, and its history is fascinating (see our post on the sobering Black Ribbon Day for more on that). I sincerely recommend that you go. I’m sure that if you don’t book your accommodation the day before arriving, as we did, you’ll even be able to find somewhere with a bathroom door.
** As a general rule, I found the Baltics to have the most widely-available high-speed wifi of anywhere I’ve ever been.
It has been my great pleasure to enjoy the delicious fresh, cheap, and widely-served pilseners, weissbiers, and pale ales of the Baltic states. In each sip we've found a taste of the local countryside, and indeed a taste of ourselves.
Please enjoy this vicarious "petit voyage" of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania as you join us on the search for refreshment...and humanity.
Design: It looks very much like a light beer, with that distinctive yellow-brown colour that people associate with beer.
Build Quality: In brief testing it stood up to normal use.
Compositions: My guess is that it's an original recipe, but if it's a cover tune, it'd be most related to Peroni or Stella, with a fresh twist - that is, being fresh, not shipped in a crate across an ocean.
Availability: Very good, lots of umbrellas advertising it.
Tuning: We found the pint glass to resonate at approximately a C#. Pleasing.
Price Point: At roughly £1.25 a pint, it sits competitively between an English ale (~£5.00 in London) and a penny sweet (~£0.20, adjusted for inflation). The market for a beer at this price is under-served in London - a recent Guardian article evaluated the price of getting a round at the pub against the cost of flying your friends to Riga for a drink.
Liner Notes: The label was not very descriptive, and gave me no indication of the artist's intent. It was indeed in Lithuanian, but that's hardly an excuse - as with dinosaur life, the true musician finds a way.
Software Performance: Virtually non-existent, barely deserves a mention. At least it didn't come pre-loaded with manufacturer bloatware.
Mouthfeel: Didn't know beer people measure this, but...coarse?
The beer in this part of the world is some of the best I've had anywhere. The freshness, staggering low price, and widespread availability (why doesn't the UK have draught taps in cafes?) makes for a great beer experience. The first cold sip of any one of these beers makes me feel like one of the happy, carefree, flowing stalks of barley depicted in their adverts.
Thanks, Baltics, for some lovely beer; you'll surely be missed. Who even likes room-temperature beer?
On August 23rd, 1939, the Germany and the Soviet Union signed the Nazi-Soviet pact (a non-aggression agreement also known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact). The pact also agreed a secret protocol, dividing Poland, Romania, Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania into Nazi and Soviet ‘spheres of influence’ in anticipation of political upheaval in Europe. Seventy-six years later, today marks Black Ribbon Day, or the European Day of Remembrance for Victims of Stalinism and Nazism. I’m glad that we were in Vilnius today. Our time in the Baltics has shown that if you scratch the surface of society here, you’ll find a history of violence and oppression. This coexists, however, with a tenacious narrative of the will to self-determine.
To mark the occasion, entry was free for Vilnius' Museum of Genocide Victims, which occupies the building which once housed the city's KGB headquarters. The Museum was originally known as the KGB Museum, but its scope has clearly been expanded to include commemoration of victims of the Nazi occupation.
The amount of material that the Museum exhibits is vast, yet the its curators have clearly kept a steady eye on the task of remembering, as far as possible, the human stories within the historical facts. Vast numbers of photographs, notebooks, personal trinkets and letters are on display, as well as KGB books and documents (it seems there’s a training manual for pretty much every aspect of totalitarian brutality). The tone of the exhibition was dignified and professional, trusting implicitly in the visitor’s engagement and presenting large amounts of potentially unwieldy information. To exhibit and interpret such a colossal amount of the material is a massive undertaking, but I got the impression that the exhibitors felt duty-bound to give a comprehensive account of the building’s - and, therefore, Lithuania’s - twentieth-century history.
The KGB prison in the basement is largely preserved, and some parts are sensitively reconstructed (a striking contrast to Patarei Prison in Tallinn). As with Patarei, it's the details which are profound. One sign notes that the cell walls received eighteen different coats of paint - the KGB's ongoing efforts to stop prisoners communicating through scratched messages on the prison walls. The methods of solitary confinement are harrowing - prisoners were forced to stand for hours on small stools in cells flooded with icy water. The execution chamber shows a short film, depicting how condemned prisoners passed through a Kafkaesque bureaucratic process, before being shot in the head, their bodies disposed of through a chute and piled on a cart like so many bales of hay. You want to call it inhuman, but it was humans who did it.
As well as depicting the KGB executions, there are exhibitions dedicated to the Nazi slaughter of Lithuania’s Jews, and a separate tribute to the genocide of the Roma people under the Nazis - a narrative which is too-often left out of discussions of the Holocaust. At this point, it seems worth taking a moment to mention that there are still narratives of the Holocaust which remain widely untold, and were not mentioned in this museum: the persecution of groups including homosexuals, Jehovah’s witnesses and the mentally ill.
What’s hard to fathom is that, for Lithuanians, the Nazi occupation between 1941 and 1944 was really a brief interlude between periods of Soviet occupation. The mass incarceration, forced resettlement and murder of Lithuanians under the Soviets stands at odds with a simplistic narrative of Nazism as the worst thing to happen in Europe during the twentieth century. The total numbers of those deported and forcibly resettled, primarily in Siberia, between 1944 and 1955 has been estimated at 124,000 in Estonia, 136,000 in Latvia and 245,000 in Lithuania.
Our British and Canadian educations taught us that the Second World War ended in 1945, but for the Baltic states the defeat of Nazism in Europe was something of an irrelevance: the Soviet occupation had resumed a year earlier, and many years of fighting and oppression were still to come. It’s also important to note that the occupation of the Baltic States was implicitly sanctioned by Western powers’ decision not to challenge Soviet occupation of the sovereign states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Perhaps they had no choice - I don’t know enough to say. But it is true that in ending our war, we allowed another to continue. A long fight across the 1940s and -50s was waged between Baltic partisans and Soviet occupiers, and it wasn’t until 1991 that the Baltics regained their independent sovereignty.
I’m not a historian, and I don’t feel comfortable trying to write a primer on the history of the occupation of the Baltics. It’s complicated and painful, and sits in the living memory of so many people that it would be crass to try. I’ve not been able to offer much more than a handful of incomplete impressions, but that’s a pretty accurate reflection of my understanding of Baltic history.
I’d like to end this post by sharing an image of the Baltic Way, which occurred 26 years ago today. Approximately 2 million people formed a single human chain which stretched from Tallinn, through Riga, and all the way to Vilnius - a total of 675.5 kilometres. The protest marked the 50th anniversary of the Nazi-Soviet pact - fifty years of resistance to being a pawn in someone else’s game. Maybe it’s mawkish or simplistic to end on the symbols of human triumph, rather than the staggering body count. But Tallinn to Vilnius is a bloody long way, and 2 million people is a lot of people. We’ve got so much joy out of our travels in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, and so it seems appropriate to end on a note of admiration for the Baltic States.
We arrived in Riga, on a very comfortable coach from Tallinn, at around midday. The afternoon, however, was a write-off; apparently we can handle a nineteen-mile trek around Helsinki, but a plate of traditional Latvian fare was enough to render us comatose for several hours. The meat, rye bread, potatoes and beer diet seems to divert all energy to the digestive tract, so we were pretty useless for most of Thursday.
On Friday, however, we thought it best to get our act together. The trip so far had been wonderful, so we thought we’d better even things out a bit, with a dutifully masochistic 7am run to the Art Nouveau district. Jason complained for the whole run, and I had a full-blown hyperventilation attack over a litter of kittens that we found in the street. Despite this generally pathetic display, we were pleased with ourselves for having undertaken physical exercise and appreciated fine architecture, all before breakfast. Consequently, we rewarded ourselves with fresh cinnamon rolls from the food market.
Oh, the food market. It’s really more a food armoury - five vast hangars, each allocated to meat, fish, dairy, fresh produce and dry goods. We bought ourselves a fresh catch for dinner from the seafood pavilion (not quite bold enough to try the live carp, which swim in tanks at the counter, awaiting their grim fate, or the whole smoked fish, arranged like bunches of flowers in buckets). In the meat pavilion, steaks and endless varieties of sausages share space with pigs’ heads and long, pale beef tongues, sheets of anaemic-looking tripe. Everything’s gloriously fresh, so nothing smells. Our fish fillets cost us a princely eighty-four cents.
On the recommendation of a work colleague, we decided to head a little out of the city to Jurmala, a beach town half an hour’s train journey from Riga. It’s a popular destination for Russians in the summer, where several miles of golden beach stretch out along the serene Baltic coast. Serene - and frigid; we tolerated about ten minutes in the chilly water before admitting defeat and returning, shamefaced, to the relative warmth of the shore. The beach is dotted with bars, which deal mostly in stiff drink and blare out disco remixes of Lana del Rey’s more morose back catalogue. Old ladies in bikinis walk briskly up and down with Nordic walking poles, and scarlet, corpulent Russian men in minuscule Speedos lounge in the sun, legs akimbo.
Neither of us are really beach-lovers, so a couple of hours in the sunshine (circa 20 degrees) was sufficient. After a smaller, but no less exhausting, Latvian lunch, we made our way back to Riga on the train to visit the Museum of the Occupation. It’s a small brutalist building in the shadow of the medieval cathedral, with entry by donation - forty minutes is perfectly sufficient. More details will come in tomorrow's post on the Soviet occupation of the Baltics, but suffice to say that it was a very sobering experience. One third of the museum is dedicated to the Latvians who suffered in the Russian gulags, a further third to Latvia’s Jewish population, which was all but obliterated during the Nazi occupation (all but 1500 Jews were killed or exiled). The last third was slightly unexpected but nonetheless fascinating - the Baltic role in opposition to the Berlin Wall, with much of the focus on the role of political graffiti.
In the name of research, the evening was occupied with diligent field work in the bars of Riga. Going to multiple bars is a thing you can actually do in cities where a round of drinks doesn’t cost the rough equivalent of a week’s worth of food, so we sampled a variety of local beers in a lazy progress around the city until after 1am. Although I remain Not a Beer Person, the beer was fresh and delicious, and the cost was negligible (not quite to the extent of Prague, where beer is cheaper than water, but cheap enough to render it a thrifty and healthful alternative to all manner of sugary soft drinks). We elected not to move onto a club, partly because we’re not qualified to comment on its relative merits, partly because we had an early coach to catch to Vilnius - mostly because we knew that we wouldn’t enjoy it. Instead, our revelry concluded with a measure of Baltic Balzams - an evil-smelling black liquid, which looks and tastes like something that a Victorian charlatan would peddle as a cure for gout.
On our way home, we stumbled upon the excellent Delisnack, a 24-hour hipster burger joint in the Old Town (almost as if to prove his hipster credentials, a staff member showed up to start his shift on a skateboard, beard flowing in the night wind). Renovated by potato-based sustenance, we wended our way home through Riga’s streets, which were still buzzing and cheerful at two in the morning.
Riga is still a fairly well-kept secret in the UK, aside from the occasional cluster of relatively clued-up Lads On Tour©. The drink is cheap, the food formidable, the architecture beautiful. It’s filled with beautiful design shops, cool bars, anarchic juxtaposition of the old and the new. Go, before it’s ruined.
An 05:30 start, a two-mile walk and a two-hour ferry got us to Helsinki for 09:30. We were even renovated by a snooze, courtesy of a smooth crossing on a waveless Baltic sea. I won’t say too much about Helsinki in general - it’s one of those places that best serves the people that live there, not tourists. It’s more expensive than Tallinn (three euros for a coffee, six for a beer), but we ate wonderful, reasonably-priced salmon soup at the market on the marina, overlooking a glittering bay. We walked almost nineteen miles in the day, crisscrossing through the historic centre, the design district, ending with a meditative iced coffee and pastries in the charming Cafe Ursula (above), sitting mostly in silence and staring out at the lagoon.
Helsinki is a city for design-lovers. That’s not to say the architecture is particularly grandiose - it’s not a Florence or a Prague. Everything is simply brilliantly conceived, whether it’s a cycle superhighway, a lamppost, a block of social housing. In cafes and restaurants, furnishings are high-quality, simple and striking. It’s modern, but it doesn’t make any brash claims to owning the zeitgeist. You just want to sit there and soak up the cool.
It’s ironic that in Helsinki, the historic cathedral is one of the city’s least remarkable buildings. Helsinki Cathedral (known as St Nicholas’ Church for Tsar Nicholas I of Russia, to whom it was dedicated), until Finland gained its independence in 1917), sits on a pedestal of stone steps, occupying one side of the Senate Square (referred to in my guidebook as ‘a triumph of nineteenth-century town-planning'). Nineteenth-century town-planning is a good, useful thing, but it doesn’t inspire any particular awe. The mid-nineteenth century neo-classical cathedral is austere inside, but its simplicity creates a sense of architectural competence rather than spiritual asceticism. It was a pretty sight for two or three minutes, but there was nothing to pull you in, to invite you to sit, linger, be still.
The Uspenski Cathedral, perched on a stoney hilltop half a mile or so away, is the largest Russian Orthodox church in Western Europe. More or less contemporary to Helsinki Cathedral, despite being the polar opposite of the latter, it curiously produces the same non-impression. Its red-brick facade and golden onion domes seem to call across the valley to its Lutheran counterpart, whose spire reaches just a little higher into the sky. The lavish Byzantine interior conjures up the feeling of being whacked over the head with the stick of ecclesiastical opulence. But still, nothing, no sense that Uspenski Cathedral has a higher purpose than bickering with its Lutheran brother.
I had higher hopes for the Church of the Rock (Temppeliaukio Church), a late 1960s effort by the Suomalainen brothers. The church is hewn from solid rock. The unworked stone walls stretch into a circular series of supports, which together suspend a colossal copper dome. Between the walls and the dome, a clear slice of blue sky fills the church with natural light. All this sounds, and is, quite remarkable, and you can definitely see what the architects were going for. All the disparate components evoke an ancient relationship with nature, perhaps aiming to recall a more elemental time in Nordic theology. Yet something about the church feels cartoonish. Maybe it’s the squillions of tourists and their bloody selfie sticks, or the almost comically melodramatic organ music. Maybe the raw rock face of the walls is not best served by floodlights. Certainly the scaffolding on the dome didn’t particularly help. Although the noise and bustle of tourists is never the ideal ambience for seeing a church, I think the best spaces somehow transcend that. The Church of the Rock was cheapened by it, and that was a shame.
The church that really did it for me in Helsinki was the smallest, the simplest. The Chapel of Silence in Kamppi (completed in 2012 by K2S Architects) is tacked onto the end of a shopping centre, rearing up from the ground as an odd, organic structure of golden timber. Like the Church of the Rock, natural light pours in from above. Unlike the Church of the Rock, there’s no line of vision to the outside. In the chapel, all you see is the curved, unbroken surface of the timber walls. The unvarnished pews are made of the same material, and look so fresh that they could have just been finished. A simple metal cross adorns a green-clothed altar, which is flanked by a single candle on one side, a couple of fern fronds on the other. The magic of the chapel emerges from the simplicity of its premise: it’s silent. Just as the eye can rest on the pared-back altar, the background buzzing of everyday life suddenly falls away. You suddenly notice how rare it is to enjoy a moment of total quiet.
Our visit to Patarei started at the world’s most incongruous beach bar, nestled between the outer wall of the nineteenth-century fortress, and a stretch of barbed wire which separates the sand from the sea. We nibbled at a couple of the ubiquitous Estonian cheese pastries, washed down with supermarket cola and stale coffee, under an unbelievably blue sky. Then we paid a couple of euros each to enter the prison, foregoing the KGB memorabilia on sale at the ticket office.
I don’t know what the entrance fee was for, but it wasn’t for upkeep. The hospital/prison, which was most notoriously used by the Soviet secret police as a halfway house for political prisoners (before they were sent onwards to gulags), is almost completely abandoned. There have been various schemes for the building’s use since the hospital closed in 2005, but nothing has come to fruition, and it’s largely been left to rot. Based on the speed with which it has fallen into ruin, it seems unlikely that Patarei could have been in an inhabitable condition ten years ago.
Inside, the prison is chilly and abjectly silent. There’s no signage, no barriers, no markers of a curated response. You’re left to swallow a piece of painful history, in all its uncompromising humanity.
There isn’t a square inch of paint that isn’t peeling. The floor is littered with broken glass, yellowed pages of unreturned library books, miscellaneous rags. Rusted gurneys sit in the corridors, a sheepskin jacket still hangs on a hook. The cell walls are still papered with pages from magazines - faces and bodies of beautiful women whose fame has outlasted the tenure of their admirers: Demi Moore, Naomi Campbell - and cutouts of the Virgin Mary. Medicine bottles are left, shattered, and the wooden guards’ walkway above the courtyard is beginning to rot away. Nothing tells you to watch your step, and in the gloomy stairwells we were glad of our iPhone torches.
In a city as scrupulously and picturesquely maintained as Tallinn, the disrepair of Patarei reads as a kind of disavowal. It’s not a museum, because the word ‘museum’ implies interpretation. The most drastic interpretation that you can make of a historical object is to put it in a glass case, put a sign next to it and tell people that it’s worth looking at; museums are as much a record of how we choose to remember things as they are a repository of history. In Patarei, a decision not to care or commemorate is recorded in the rusty beer cans on the floor, the graffiti, the stubborn cheeriness of a beach bar that shares its sea vista with decades’ worth of ghostly prisoners.
Most ghoulish of all is the hanging-room (incidentally, the only signposted room in the whole complex, marked with a handwritten scrap of paper). It’s just off the courtyard, in the basement of the building. Around the edge of the room are shallow benches - maybe for spectators, maybe for victims-in-waiting. In the centre, a trap-door, with its edges rotting, is the only indication of the hanging-room’s purpose. It is a callous and unceremonious place for ending lives, just as the rest of Patarei is for living lives. Perhaps, without the patina of reverent commemoration, this is what all of history’s bleakest moments are like: a dreary underground room, a shallow pit, a scribbled sign.
Unlike Patarei’s inmates, we got to leave when we’d had enough. Only a couple of hundred meters away is Tallinn’s new maritime museum - beautifully fitted out and creatively interpreted. It takes you back to the Tallinn of precisely maintained hedges, cold draught beer and clear sunshine. It’s hard to reconcile the two museums, despite their physical proximity: one seems to show a loving respect for history, the other a disregard which verges on the contemptuous. Patarei Prison is simply, prosaically, a site where human beings did terrible things to each other. It does not commemorate, or curate a response. If you want to smash the windows or squat in the cells, nobody’s going to stop you. It would be a stretch to say that Patarei really showed us anything. It’s just there, a crumbling fortress by the sea, edifying the morbid curiosity of tourists for a couple of euros apiece, waiting to disintegrate and be forgotten.
The main thing that I noticed, both on the flight over and since arriving in Tallinn, is how extraordinary-looking Estonians are. Everywhere you look, you see sheets of silvery-blonde hair, wide angelic blue eyes, complexions so clear that they declaim a lifelong diet of mineral water, fresh fish and gentle sunshine. Everyone looks incredibly healthy, and a little bit like a young Joni Mitchell. Wandering through Tallinn, one keeps stumbling across well-conceived children’s playgrounds, music conservatories, dancing schools. Classical music floats out of open windows and through church doors. The sense of design is impeccable. Tallinn is clean, to the point of feeling slightly sanitised.
I’m unsure what to make of Tallinn, maybe partly because Tallinn seems a little unsure of what to make of itself. If you were to walk across the historic heart of the city, you might think that there were only two relevant eras: medieval times (an era apparently characterised by tankards of mead and buxom serving-wenches), and the present day. Medieval Tallinn is fairytale-pretty, all impenetrable fortresses and elegant spires. Modern Tallinn is a city of prosperous, sustainability-conscious cool, with a Nordic regard for good design and civic responsibility. If you cut a cross-section of city, you’d see medieval, modernist and post-modernist architecture in street-by-street layers. The physical heritage of both medieval and modern Tallinn is beautifully maintained: the streets are spotless, the parks carefully manicured, the medieval walls so scrupulously restored that they might have been built yesterday. However, these two epochs bookend nearly four centuries’ worth of foreign occupation, first by the Swedes (from 1629), then the Russians (between 1721 and 1991)
Some reminders of Estonia’s occupied history are too large to conceal or ignore. The Linnahalli Port pier is a gargantuan, brutalist step into the blue bay, which twenty five years of neglect have allowed to sink into crumbling ruin. Not unlike the Patarei Prison, there is absolutely no indication of what the port is or how to feel about it, apart from the clear statement of disregard. The port’s imposing, harsh, beautiful, and incongruous.
In the two days that we’ve been here, we’ve yet to see a single cloud. The sky is a deep, saturated blue, the Baltic sea even more so. It’s warm in the sunshine, but the sea breeze cools the shade to create the perfect climate for long walks, with interludes of sunny basking in lush green parks.
The downside of Tallinn being a) a port and b) utterly charming is that, on any given day, it plays host to several enormous cruise ships. The centre of Tallinn’s old town is therefore filled with overpriced and geographically random cuisine, ranging from Indian restaurants to Scottish bars. Perhaps it never had a chance to develop much of a local character before the demands of large-scale tourism foisted one onto it. Our general rule is: if we see a large group of American pensioners, we walk in the opposite direction.
The consequence of this is that it’s very hard to get much of a sense of what Estonian food actually is - as the local cuisine fails to declare itself, we had to resort to Google. Estonia sits firmly in the belt of beer, rye bread, meat and potatoes, and fish where fish is to be had. I’m not a beer drinker, but the fresh draught beer here is delicious, and makes perfect sense as a compliment to simple, hearty food.
Once we’d found our way to Balti Jaam market, Estonian food was plentiful and cheap. A large hunk of the local smoked cheese ran to eighty cents, half a loaf of black bread was sixty cents, a piece of blood sausage the same again. Our restaurant meal on the first night was fifteen euros a head and nothing special, so supermarket fare seems to be the most rational culinary option. As a general rule, the young people speak beautiful English, the older generation little to none.
If you get out of the touristic Old Town, the character of modern Tallinn becomes evident: attractive, unassuming, egalitarian. Hille, our AirBnB host, pointed us towards Kalamaja with the spot on descriptor that it was ‘hipster’. Yes, it’s all reclaimed industrial space, pop-up eateries, ethically-sourced clothing and design shops - but such beautiful design, all effortlessly tasteful. It was very young and cool, but not so studiedly ironic that it left the tedious, bitter taste of British hipster-dom.
Thinking it through as I write, Tallinn starts to make sense, although it’s impossible to sum it up in anything but broad brush strokes. There’s clearly a Finnish influence, a Russian influence, a Scandinavian influence, and I’m far too ignorant to judge how they feed in to one another, or at what point they collide with what it uniquely means to be Estonian. If any Estonians happen to read this, please do feel free to tell me how widely I’ve missed the mark, and I hope I haven’t caused any offence - what I mean to say is that Tallinn has been a beautiful, memorable start to our five-week trip.
I realized the other day that some people reading this might not know what I've been up to with my life!
There's been a lot new in the past two-ish years, so I thought I might write a quick update about what's going on for me.
In July 2012, I moved to London.
I had just wrapped up a particularly gruelling year; I completed my undergraduate degree in music at York University, despite breaking my elbow only a couple months before my honours recital, all while working ~30 hours a week for Apple. I had done a very slight amount of research on the UK Ancestry Visa, which seemed like a unique opportunity (my grandfather was born in London, and we still have quite a lot of family here). I applied to transfer to the Apple Store in Covent Garden (featuring a 3am FaceTime interview), and started to pack up my apartment.
For the following two months before my move to London, I worked almost every single day, either at Apple or as a tour leader - often I'd get home from a tour to Chicago or Boston and head to Apple for three or four days before the next tour.
In my first year in London, I went on eight-ish trips abroad, to more than a dozen new cities. I ate Parisian croissants, Dutch stroopwafel, and Florentine gelato. A stranger gushed about his pride for his hometown Bologna and bought us sandwiches. We snorkelled and ate watermelon out of a Sicilian man's speedboat in the clear-as-glass Mediterranean.
My second year had some even more incredible moments. I raced a scooter around the empty roads of a Greek island:
skied in the shadow of the Matterhorn, stopping at an igloo bar:
and breathed in the sharp, cold Czech winter in Prague:
It's been a busy year, as well. Jess and I moved into a beautiful flat, and then another one six months later.
On New Years Day 2015, I wrote my first line of code: console.log("Hello, World!"). In programming I found a certain puzzle-like challenge, learning to fit together pieces and blocks to materialize an idea.
I wrote a small app while at Apple, which 100 people used every day (even for a while after I left). In April, I went to work for Hult, and wrote some code for them too.
In September, about four days after we get back from this crazy trip, I'll start an MSc in Computer Science at University College London.
I think it's safe to say that the past year has been one of the most formative I've had.
Even though I spent three summers working as a tour guide, on the road four or five days a week for twelve weeks in a row, I've never taken a properly long trip. The longest I've been away would be two or three weeks on family holidays, and even though I've travelled lots since moving to London, it's been over a dozen ~4 day getaways. This tour we go on, for five weeks through Baltic, Eastern, and Western Europe, will be the longest I've ever been on.
I should go pack.
Above you see our little planning studio. Our idea-hatching desk. The war room, as it looks.
Jess is good at writing. So I won't try and compete with her. I'll just deem her lead author on this thing right now.
I can't wait to get traveling. I want to feel the sunshine on my skin, the cobbles under my feet, and the backpack straps digging into my shoulders. I want to smell the morning dew, the fresh hops in a pint glass, and the sizzling sausage on a grill. I want to hear the whistle of the trains, the chatter of a busy market, and the chimes of wine glasses clinked in celebration.
For the most part, I'll let Jess do the writing and relegate myself to the photography and posting the articles. She gets the words, I get the, as she'd say, wires and stuff.
And now, for my part: