Russia & The Baltic
- Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, Russia1 of 7
- Winter Palace, Russia2 of 7
- Riga Old Town, Latvia3 of 7
- Toompea hill, Estonia4 of 7
- House of the Blackheads and St Peter's Church, Latvia5 of 7
- Gdansk Old Town, Poland6 of 7
- Royal Chapel, Poland7 of 7
Russia & The Baltic
Considering that Russia is the largest country in the world, covering over one eighth of the world’s inhabitable space, it should come as no surprise that this often misrepresented and misunderstood country contains multitudes. Myriad different versions of ‘Russia’ collide in this geographically massive country that has one of the richest histories in the world, and continues to this day to be as controversial as it is seductive. With a past intricately intertwined with that of Russia, the Baltic countries of Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Northern Poland form a fascinating counterpoint to a visit to Russia, illuminating some of the more controversial aspects of Russia’s history as well as hosting stunning regional architecture and an individual, welcoming attitude all of their own. When you think of these countries you may very well think of brittle winds, icy streets and a chilling history but you may very well be surprised by the warmth of the welcome, the beauty of the seaside cities and the richness of the cultural history all of which combines to make this a truly inspiring part of the world to spend time in.
St Petersburg is without question one of the most visually alluring, and aesthetically enthralling cities in the world. A riot of neoclassical and baroque buildings, St Petersburg is one for the architecture lovers; stuffed to the brim with churches, palaces, excessively grand ‘summer homes’, museums and laced throughout by a system of canals, St Petersburg and its inhabitants fancy themselves as the more sophisticated citizens of Russia than their brothers and sisters in Moscow, and it was ever thus. Having been built by Peter the Great as Russia’s gateway to the West, St Petersburg was the home of much of Russia’s bourgeoisie, whose middle class pretensions manifested as a fascination and obsession with all things French. This can be seen in the architecture, but is most obvious still in the many, many French paintings which call St Petersburg home; in fact it is home to more French paintings than anywhere else in the world outside of France, a fact which makes this a city ideal for art enthusiasts and culture vultures alike. The Winter Palace which contains the State Hermitage Museum is a must-see, as is the divine Catherine’s Palace which was intended as a Summer House and glitters proudly in its magnificent blue stucco and majestic gilt façade. But St Petersburg has also always been at the forefront of change and revolution, something which its gilded architecture belies. This is where the Russian Revolution began as well as the move toward democracy in the 20th century, imbuing the city with a sense of history, place and change that is unparalleled elsewhere in either Russia or Europe. Wander the streets of this fine cosmopolitan metropolis whilst contemplating its past, present and future as well as admiring the famous feature of the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood with its onion domes, gilded edges, and multi-colored frontage. But be sure not to miss out on lapping up some of Russia’s most on-trend movements for fashion, food and culture, for in city in which the past is preserved so beautifully it’s easy to forget how contemporary and forward looking its citizens are. Two other cities in Russia which offer opposing views of this varied country are Novorossiysk in the south on the shores of the Black Sea, where Russians like to summer and Murmansk in the north which is the only city above the Arctic Circle. Novorossiysk simmers with Ancient Greek heritage and shimmers with the beauty of the Black Sea on a summer’s day whilst Murmansk displays its folkloric heritage proudly, with foraging festivals and an excellent Museum of Regional Studies.
Riga is Latvia’s capital city a busy bustling place with as much stunning architecture as St Petersburg, on a more pedestrian friendly scale. The best way to experience Riga is on foot, wandering the simply stunning Old Town which is the site of more than one UNESCO World Heritage Site. Brimming with German Art Nouveau architecture, the buildings themselves tell the story of a city and country embedded with fascinating history which has been embroiled in some of the most fascinating events of the past century. Having suffered in both the Second World War and the immediate aftermath with Soviet takeover, there is no denying that Latvia has had its fair share of tragedy, but the city’s citizens show great strength with facing the future with optimism and verve, as well as honoring their past with such beautiful preservation of the city’s architectural history. This is a city which lives and breathes history, where you can be served coffee in an architectural gem or grab a drink in a Jugendstil, but be sure not to miss out on the Historic House of the Blackheads which also houses the tourist office, or the majestic St. Peter’s Church which dates back to 1209, despite being a mismatch of Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque architecture. At the heart of Tallinn, Estonia’s regal capital city, is Toompea Castle, a medieval citadel on a hill which overlooks the rest of the attractive cityscape. Winding up towards this great fortress are the cobble stoned streets of the Old Town betraying the medieval roots of this fine city. Like Riga in Latvia, both the country and the city have had more than their fair share of history, much of it difficult and controversial, but Tallinn dates back as far as 1154 and is, therefore, the oldest capital city in Northern Europe and it wears its history, age, and heart on its sleeve like a badge of honor. With St. Olav’s Church and Tower, the Town Hall Square and Alexander Nevski Cathedral to visit, which range from the 13th to the 19th century there is much of note packed into this small city. But there is a young heart to this obviously aged city as well and you’ll find it in its legendary bars and nightclubs which make it one of Europe’s biggest and most popular nightlife hotspots.
In Lithuania Klaipėda may not be the nation’s capital but it is a brilliant place to start exploring this beautiful Baltic country. With historic buildings and artifacts aplenty, Klaipėda has as much history as Riga and Tallinn but is a much quieter city in which to get to know the past and present of these Baltic states. Here you can honor the Jewish dead who were dealt a tragic blow first by Nazi occupation during WWII and then during Soviet rule when all their cemeteries were ruined and razed and there is now a memorial in place of such cemeteries to pay respects. You may want to get away from the city’s hustle and bustle after such a visit, and a great way to blow away the cobwebs and catch your breath is with a walk in The Kuršių Nerija National Park, which comprises the spit and narrow stretch of dune that divides the Curonian Lagoon from the Baltic Sea. Gdansk, formerly known as Danzig, is one of the most important ports in Poland and with a history as long and varied as that of either Riga or Tallinn it is a great city to spend time in and get to know both Poland and the Baltics. A highly influential port of great seafaring significance during the Medieval and Renaissance periods, it went on to be a highly importance city during the Second World War as well. The city has its roots in the depths of history, having, it is believed, to have been originally founded in the 980s when Mieszko I of Poland built a stronghold. Sightseeing in this port city is, therefore, a lesson in Polish and Baltic history in and of itself, and is helped by the fact that it is truly stunning and has had the benefit of being beautifully restored since being damaged during WWII. So beautiful and well maintained is Gdansk that it can feel like a living museum, which in a part of the world so saturated and rich in fascinating history cannot be a bad thing.
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