For the year 2017 Vilnius, Lithuania, was voted the place to go. For me the Baltic states seem quite exotic and they were part of that less-traveled road, so we eagerly decided to discover Riga, Tallinn and Helsinki after the reunion.
We arrived in Vilnius quite late in the evening, flying in from Paris. A reserved taxi was waiting for us at the airport and we were brought to the apartment complex where Meng Tayag-McTavish was waiting for us. Meng, a seasoned traveler and big boss of Angeles International Travel had arranged the whole trip for us. We were billeted in newly renovated apartments in the Old Town, apartments to which were assigned other members of the ''barangay'' Meng brought to Vilnius. We were a big party of 18!
Beside this apartment complex was a simple and unpretentious restaurant whose clients were basically locals. This was our first introduction to Lithuania. Unforgettable was the cepelinai, huge meat dumplings shaped like a zeppelin, thus its name. My husband, Marc, wanted some local wine, and we were given some strong brew whose name and unfamiliar taste I cannot recall. On the restaurant wall was a world map and there were colored tacks in a small saucer on the table. We stuck the first red tacks on the Philippines and were immediately rewarded with more of the magic brew! To us, Vilnius had gaily announced itself!
Being in the Old Town had the advantage of discovering Vilnius on foot. It is a small city but with a big historic past. We learned that there was in the past, a harmonious co-existence of Lithuanians, Germans, Slavs, Catholics, Orthodox, Jews, but due to its tumultuous history, the population today is in majority Lithuanian, with some Poles, and the country is 90 percent Catholic, a percentage higher than that of the Philippines.
Like in many medieval cities, most of the structures were of wood in old Vilnius, and fires leveled these buildings to give way to the Baroque-style predominant in Vilnius churches. While the exteriors may be relatively sober, church interiors had writhing angels and putti, loops of golden festoons and wreaths hanging from marble columns, cornices and mouldings in all colors of God's creations. The surprising exception was the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul. Yes, the angels, the putti, the wreaths and festoons were there, but they were immaculate white and the interior shone with a kind of spiritual lightness.
One small chapel is the site of pilgrimage and adoration as it is in the Chapel of Divine Mercy that the original painting of Christ of the Divine Mercy is displayed. This painting was commissioned by a Polish nun, St. Faustina, who had visions of the Merciful Christ. She described the rays of red and white light emanating from Christ's heart to the Lithuanian painter who had executed the image. The Christ portrayed here uncannily resembles the face in the Turin Shroud.
There are still a few of the Russian Orthodox churches in use. We visited one with an ageless babushka seated at the entrance. Of over a hundred Jewish synagogues only one today has sadly remained.
From the robust almost peasant fare of the restaurant near our apartment, we graduated into fine dining at Lokys, known for its game dishes. Being a large group, Esther Velasco and Madel Sadili, the organizers, had reserved the basement dining room for us. It was decorated with velvet panels hanging behind each chair and the walls were of rough multi-colored slabs of stones. Thinking that the basement was exclusively for us, there was another table occupied. Esther and Madel complained to the management who, for the misundertsanding, offered three bottles of champagne quaffed with delight, drowned the complaint and went very well with the grilled boar and venison.
We went on a walking tour of Vilnius, meeting our guide Lucas at the Cathedral Square practically under the equestrian statue of Gediminas, the mythic Lithuanian hero. Lucas brought us to the not-to-be-missed sites of the city such as the lovely, very old (15th century) Gothic brick St. Anne Church, which charmed Napoleon on his campaigns when he passed Vilnius. We were led to the Presidential Palace, a sober but gleaming no-nonsense edifice. Nearby was the Vilnius University and we posed in front of the bronze doors of the Library. Like the Town Hall, the Vilnius Cathedral is of the Classical style. While the Town Hall is simpler and unadorned, the monumental Cathedral has saints perched on the the roof and its tympanum is decorated with stucco reliefs.
Walking through the cobbled streets, as it was a Saturday afternoon, we met brides and bridesmaids dressed in red, not white! We went to the Uzupis district and lingered in Constitution Street. It seems that Uzupis had declared itself an ''independent republic'' and had plastered constitutions in different languages to emphasize its sovereignty! We crossed a couple installing a new constitution plaque, perhaps in Serbo-Croatian or in Bambara, and gently chided them for not hoisting one up in Pilipino!
We didn't fail to visit the Amber Museum as Vilnius has amber everywhere! In the museum, aside from amber being sold as jewelry, we were informed of its medicinal uses too. I was fascinated by the displays of fossilized insects caught in the sticky saps while amber was still liquid eons ago.
Vilnius too has stepped into the 21st century and the tour bus took us to see the proud shiny buildings of industries and businesses at the outskirts. They all seem to be under the watchful eye of the Gediminas brick fort dominating high up on its hill.
Vilnius has the river Vilnia flowing through it. Its banks had been cleared and in some areas were looking almost like gardens. On one bank were plants spelling out ''As tave myliu'' (I love you). The opposite bank sweetly responded, ''I love you too!''
We left Vilnius early, our minibus loaded with effervescence, excited chatter and cracklings of butong pakwan (watermelon seeds) as we were on our way to new discoveries. But before leaving Lithuania, we had one solemn stop at the Hill of Crosses a short drive north of Vilnius. In a field outside Siauliai was this low hill bristling with crosses of all shapes and sizes. Some had rosaries hanging on them, others had images of Christ or the Blessed Virgin, some looked like they have been there for ages, others spanking new. The number of the crosses believed to be about 200,000 is truly awe-inspiring. It seems that in the early 19th century, Lithuanians protesting against the Russian Tzar's occupation simply disappeared. With no bodies to recover, family and friends started to erect these crosses in their memory. The tradition continued as later Nazi then Soviet atrocities exacted a painful toll on the population. The KBG had razed the hill a couple of times, but the crosses came back with resilience. Today it is a place of pilgrimage and in 1992, the Polish Pope Jean-Paul II erected a cross, a testimony and tribute to the Lithuanians' resistance and unwavering faith.
A Grand Welcome to Latvia
It was September and autumn rains arrived as expected when we stopped for lunch at the Runsdale Palace. From the parking lot we walked through tall trees which had not yet shed their leaves and through trees in an orchard with pale, almost white apples, heavy on their branches. As we entered the immense courtyard the palace seemed imposing with rows of what seemed to me hundreds of windows ; but it also felt embracing, beckoning us to enter from the rain. We went through yellow bordered arched corridors to a relatively small but elegant dining room for lunch. For starters there was a steaming – again yellow – mushroom soup, most certainly from the girolles of the season, that was delicious and comforting. The choices of salmon or pork dishes were presented quite artfully and we asked for more of their interesting and different flavored breads.
On the way out, we had a glimpse of the formal French gardens as the palace's park is as grandiose as the building. Unfortunately we couldn't linger as we had more unusual stops and a long way to go.
We checked in at Europe Royale Riga hotel, an elegant mansion which used to be the social, artistic and cultural center of Riga, our guide Maria informed us later, as it was formerly a wealthy family's home. The rain had slightly abated so we went to the nearest shopping center all new, shiny, glittering, with top designer boutiques, restaurants, a well-stocked supermarket and everything that can be had in the West.
The next day, after an incredibly varied and sumptuous breakfast, we took a walking tour of Riga, reputed to have the highest concentration of Art Deco sites. It was windy and raining so hard we weren't nostalgic for Manila's typhoon season! Our umbrellas were not enough and we ducked into the supermarket spotted the night before, buying all the plastic raincoats in sight. Our courage and determination were dampened by so much wind and rain, all of us wet to the bones that we stopped our tour only at the medieval sites of Riga. Dripping, we walked through the street of merchants where we huddled by the walls of a medieval tavern hoping to have a glimpse of the interior. It was closed. It was a big disappointment for me not to have chronologically gone up to the Art Deco period, disappointment shared by our guide, Maria, who wanted so much to show us the city she loves.
The minibus was waiting and we had an appointment in the middle of the forest outside Ligatne. There is a Rehabilitaton Center supposedly for therapy that had hidden for decades a Secret Soviet Bunker. We had booked an English-language tour and our guide Regina was the pretty Soviet party member you don't mess around with! This is a site that's really far, way far off the beaten track. It is a Cold War relic worth the trouble of seeking out, and we felt we were in a time warp or part of a vintage spy movie. Regina explained that the bunker was 9 meters underground, meant to house the Soviet nomenclatura of 250 persons in case of a nuclear war. So under the Rehabilitation Center, there were lead plates, a thick layer of concrete, heavy steel doors, curved deflecting corridors as well as gas masks which one could buy from their souvenir shop! (Ah, Western capitalist corruption had sneaked in...)
There were some 90 rooms for the personnel, all with Spartan Eastern bloc furnishings: dreary brown-gray upholstery, tired metal chairs ; and for me it felt despairingly depressing. But I missed the point. These guys (only masculine personnel were to brought here in case of nuclear war) were here to survive. There was a functioning and extremely noisy air pump, three gigantic generators to provide electricity, huge water cisterns from a deep well and a canteen that served tinned rations to last for at least three months. The communications room had manual switchboards, red or black telephones of the ‘80s, some with dials, others none for direct communication. The large map room had a beautiful, huge representation of Latvia on the wall, another on a panoramic desk and of that room no photos were allowed to be taken. There was Lenin all over, in a bust or in photos and an interesting portrait of young Breshnev above the desk of a chief.
Like obedient school children, we kept close to our guide who would not open a door unless the past one is closed. We were advised to strictly follow her or be like the '' lost tourist'' mummified and slumped in a corner, his gas mask on. Soviet gallows humor.
It was extremely edifying to experience this secret Soviet bunker from the inside as the closest we had been was only through old spy movies. Regina further mentioned that they are maintaining the bunker as is, this time in case of a natural catastrophe. We left with only postcards and no gas masks.
By this time, the long ride through the rain washed out the landscape and the butong pakwan had left our salty lips numb. Our stomachs started to grumble and hope sprang when we arrived at Parnu, the famous seaside resort. But on a dark, rainy Sunday night, the streets were deserted, there were no bright lights, no tourists, just us and just wind and more rain. Then hope glimmered again when we saw ''Ephesus '' blinking. We knew there would be no typical Estonian dishes but on a wet night like this ; we succumbed to the welcoming and familiar arms of pizza, kebab, pork chops, fries, green salad and ketchup.
At last, Tallinn!
We arrived in Estonia's capital late at night, checking in at our hotel again astutely chosen for its location in the Old Town. Before crawling into bed, we left out to dry jackets, trousers, socks, shoes and everything else wet in that Latvian deluge.
We were met in the morning by our guide Ahti, tall, imposing and full of anecdotes and stories as we set out for a walking tour of Tallinn. We started out at the Freedom Square dominated by a huge cross honoring the heroes of Estonian independence. The cross lights up at night illuminating a huge plaza where parades and concerts take place. We walked through ruins of the Harju Gate destroyed during the fight for independence. Old medieval vestiges are stones of Harju's walls seen through a glass-covered rectangular pit.
Tallinn's historical heart is up on Toompea hill, the upper town reserved for nobility and aristocrats while the lower town was home for artisans and merchants, all of these ringed by immense defensive walls and towers. Embraced within its walls are charming cobbled streets and landscaped parks meant for a leisurely promenade.
Going up to the upper town, we climbed narrow lanes with small boutiques and picturesque local-color restaurants. The upper town is said to be well guarded by ghosts of monks long gone but whose bronze presences are still watchful. From the terrace of the upper town, we had a magnificent view of the Town Hall whose spire was supposed to be the tallest in Tallinn. A series of red tile rooftops nestled among trees led towards the horizon where we could see the busy port of Tallinn, and still beyond were boats, cruise liners, ferries.
Aside from the medieval cobbled streets, a number of architectural styles can be noted, giving visitors an idea of Tallinn's history. St. Mary's Cathedral, the oldest church established in the 13th century, is topped by a Baroque bell tower. The beautiful Orthodox Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and its exterior mosaics speak of the city's Russian past. The street signs not only in Estonian but also in Swedish are also testimonies that Tallinn was an important crossroads of commerce and culture.
We descended to the lower town where the spacious and busy Town Hall plaza is ringed by many restaurants, artisan boutiques, amber stores and charming houses. Meng Tayag McTavish, true to her Kapampangan culinary predilection, insisted that we should not leave Tallinn without having a seafood dinner. We booked this long table at the recommended Seafood Restaurant. It was truly an excellent feast for the eyes and for the palate.
The next day, after breakfast, we took a taxi to the Tallinn Ferry Terminal. The 80-kilometer, two-hour crossing to the north would bring us to Helsinki. Another discovery, another adventure.
Acclaimed artist Ofelia Gelvezon-Tequi happily lives and paints in Limeuil. She exhibits her works internationally.
More articles by Ofelia Gelvezon-Tequi