Rundāle Palace: The Versailles of Latvia

During my recent trip to the Baltics, I was lucky enough to have a few days in Latvia. While most of my time was spent in Riga, there was one other place I was glad I had the chance to visit while en route to Lithuania.

In the south of Latvia, about 20 km from the Lithuanian border is Rundāle Palace  — an enormous 18th century baroque palace. For those that that have seen BBC’s latest adaptation of War and Peace, you will know that the miniseries is set in Moscow and St. Petersburg during the 1800s. What you may not realize is that the majority of the filming actually took place in Lithuania and Latvia, including at Rundāle Palace.

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Known as “the Versailles of Latvia,” The palace has 54 rooms, including a 1770s-era billiards room, ballroom and a library. The palace was originally built as a summer home for Ernst Johann von Biron, the Duke of Courland and Semigallia. Biron was a favorite courtier and likely lover of Anna Ioannovna, the regent of the Duchy of Courland (a state of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania) and later the Empress of Russia. Biron was a powerful figure at court due to his influence over the Empress. This reached new heights when Biron convinced the Empress to name him regent of Russia when she was on her death bed.

The Throne Room
The Throne Room
The Duke's Bedchamber (featured as Pierre's room in War and Peace)
The Duke’s Bedchamber (featured as Pierre’s room in War and Peace)
Dining Room
Dining Room

It was through Biron’s position that he was able to line his pockets and build incredible homes for himself such as Rundāle Palace. Eventually Biron was usurped and exiled to Siberia. Some time later Imperial Russia absorbed Courland and Semigallia and Rundāle Palace became the property of the Russian Crown.  The estate would later be gifted by Catherine the Great to the brother of her lover. From there, it passed to a few other noble families until World War I when it was used as a hospital by the German army.

The ballroom
The ballroom
Anti-chamber off the ballroom
Anti-chamber off the ballroom
The Duke's study
The Duke’s study

From there it was used as flats for military veterans and then as a grain storehouse. When the Soviet Union took over the Baltic States after WWII, Rundāle Palace was used as a school with the Dukes private quarters being transformed into a  gymnasium. It wasn’t until the 1970s that restoration began and it was eventually turned into a museum.

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Today,  Rundāle Palace is one of Latvia’s most visited sites. The Palace itself as well as the park around it which features a French style garden complete with fountains and amphitheater  are well worth a visit.

 

How Basketball, the Olympics and the Grateful Dead Forever Changed Lithuania

The Other Dream Team is a 2012 documentary that illustrates the importance basketball has played in Lithuania’s history and culminates in their participation in the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona.

Last week the Lithuanian Men’s basketball team was knocked out of the group round at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio. They wouldn’t continue to the semi-finals and had lost out on their shot at a 2016 Olympic medal. I watched my husband come home from work looking absolutely defeated at the news. I knew most other Lithuanians, which had undoubtedly watched the match, were experiencing similar feelings. While other countries might just be disappointed in the loss, basketball is the pride and joy of Lithuania. So much so that it is called the “second religion” of the small country and there is nothing bigger than competing in the sport at the Olympics.

Basketball became popular in Lithuania during the 1930s when a Lithuanian-American named Frank Lubin was invited to coach basketball there. Lubin had just competed on the national U.S. basketball team at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin where the team had won the gold. Lubin moved to Lithuania and led the country to two Eurobasket championships in 1937 and 1939. The country was officially hooked on basketball and it was a passion that would carry on for decades.

When Stalin invaded Lithuania towards the end of WWII, the country endured horrible treatment under the Soviet Union. Over 30,000 Lithuanians including women and children were sent to labor camps in Siberia where they were barely fed or given water on the long journey there. If they survived the trip, they would often spend over a decade at these camps where conditions were harsh. Most Lithuanian families, even today, can count at least one immediate family member that perished in Siberia. The citizens that were able to avoid being sent to the gulags were under constant scrutiny by the KGB who tortured and imprisoned anyone who spoke out against the Soviet Union. Lithuanians were robbed of any hope of ever being an independent nation again. All children were made to learn Russian in school and were not permitted to be educated in the Lithuanian alphabet. Even sports were dictated. Under the Soviet Union, all Lithuanian athletes were forced to play in international competitions (i.e. the Olympics)  under the banner of the USSR.

But, something started to take shape in the early 1980s. Lithuania’s basketball club in Kaunas (the second largest city in Lithuania) was called Zalgiris. The name refers to an old order of Lithuanian knights. Zalgiris would frequently compete against CSKA Moscow which was and still is the club team of the Red Army. CSKA pulled the best players from all over the Soviet Union and was often the foundation for the national team. But, whenever CSKA competed against Zalgiris — they consistently lost.  Lithuanians saw how their athletes from a small country of 3 million people were constantly beating the Red Army’s team with players pulled from a population of over 200 million. It became apparent that this wasn’t just about basketball anymore, it was political.  Arvydas Sabonis, the center for Zalgiris and NBA Hall of Famer, later recalled that beating the Red Army at basketball was Lithuania’s chance to “bite the red bear in the ass.” Zalgiris gave hope to Lithuania in these games and begun the stirrings for what would become Lithuania’s independence movement.

At the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, the Soviet Union took home the gold medal in men’s basketball. Four out of the five starting players were Lithuanian. There was a secret sort of pride for Lithuania during this occasion, as it felt more like their own victory rather than a win for the USSR. The win only stoked the country’s determination to become independent. Two years later on March 11th, 1990 Lithuania became the first Soviet state to declare their independence.  Less than a year later, the Soviet Union withdrew their military from the country.

Even though Lithuania had broken away from the Soviet Union, they were struggling to regain their place in the global community and separate themselves from the image of being a Soviet state.  The 1992 Olympics in Barcelona was the first opportunity they had to compete under the Lithuanian flag. But, the chances of getting to the Olympics were not optimistic. After declaring independence, Lithuania found themselves bankrupt and attempting to rebuild after so long under Soviet control.  Šarūnas Marčiulionis, one of their legendary basketball players had emigrated to the U.S. where he was playing for the NBA. Marčiulionis, along with several other basketball players vowed to help get Lithuania to the Olympics in any way they could. Progress was slow until something entirely unexpected happened.

The Grateful Dead had read about Lithuania’s plight and offered to fund the basketball team’s journey to the Olympics.  They also sent a box of tie-dye t-shirts in Lithuanian colors to the entire team.  Newly  independent, funded by the Grateful Dead and sporting tie-dye shirts — this was how Lithuania made their long awaited return to the Olympic games.

The Soviet Union had been dissolved by 1990 but 12 of the 15 former Soviet states including Russia entered the Olympics under the “Unified Team.” The three countries that did not participate under this banner, aside from Lithuania, were Latvia and Estonia (the other two Baltic states) who had by this time also declared their independence.

Lithuania’s basketball team competed well during the group rounds and progressed to the semi-finals. But, they suffered a loss when they went up against Team USA who was famed that year for having the Dream Team roster with the likes of Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson to name a few. This put them in their final match to take home the bronze medal. In a very epic turn of events, their last game to determine if they medaled was against the Unified Team. For Lithuania, this was a defining moment to fully break away from their past with the Soviet Union and distinguish themselves as Lithuania to the rest of the world. The game was close the entire four quarters but at the end,  Lithuania beat the Unified Team with a score of 82-78.

It was Lithuania’s first Bronze medal at the U.S. for men’s basketball. In the following years, they would earn two more bronze medals at the Olympics in addition to numerous wins in international basketball championships. Basketball has continued as a time honored tradition in Lithuania, with the country’s passion for the sport becoming internationally renowned. Today, basketball is as much a part of Lithuania as ever. For them, basketball is so much more than just a game.

Surprises in Riga

I am thrilled to report that I am posting this from the road, as I travel through the Baltics. It has been nearly two years since my first trip to Lithuania to see my in-laws and this time it was great to be able to get out and see more of this part of the world. The first stop on my journey was Riga, the capital of Latvia. Riga is the largest city in the Baltic states (Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia).

Located in the west of Latvia with access to a large port and situated on the Daugava River, it has been an important trading city over the centuries. Initially settled by the Baltic tribes (pagans), they were later forced into Christianity by German crusaders (little known fact, the Crusades extended to the Baltics) and taken over intermittently by the Polish-Lithuanian Empire, the Swedish Empire, Imperial Russia and finally the Soviet Union before gaining independence in 1991.

Like Vilnius, Riga’s Old Town is a designated UNESCO heritage site due to it’s beautifully preserved architecture. Neo-classical, baroque and gothic buildings line winding cobblestoned streets in this part of the city. Walking through this bit of Riga gives the impression of traveling back in time. But, then you turn a corner and see a T.G.I. Fridays and that illusion is quickly destroyed. Yes, there is a T.G.I. Fridays in Old Town along with a Tokyo Sushi, Charley Pizza and a Japanese owned Texas-style steak house called Steiku Haoss (you read that right). These chain restaurants are a reminder that Riga is a popular tourist destination. In spite of the modern distrction, the Old City is well worth a visit.

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Live music seems to come from every corner, something Riga is known for. You can hear everything from classical musicians performing on the streets to modern country music ballads being sung in the bars.  On a side note, Damien Rice was also in town to play a sold out show while we were there. We nearly bumped into him on the street and I regret not running after him to see if there was a chance to get extra tickets.  Sadly we missed out on seeing Damience Rice, but we did manage to pay a visit to Folkklubs Ala Pagrabs, one of the most accessible places in Old Town for live music and a great place to go for local Latvian beer.

The Baltics have a proud beer culture and finding the best local brew is not only an obligation for travelers, but a point of pride for many bars and restaurants. “Alus” means beer in Latvian (and Lithuanian). This term is how you can quickly identify the bars and taverns in Riga.  Sadly, we only had two days in Riga and didn’t manage to get to some of the breweries and local pubs we wanted to visit.

However, we were happy to find that Riga has a growing craft coffee scene. Rocket Bean, a local coffee roaster and cafe is one of the influential coffee companies that have opened up in Riga over the last few years. After accepting that the best we could hope for in terms of coffee was the typical Lavazza — it was a pleasant surprise to walk into Rocket Bean and get a fantastic pour over with our own choice of beans. In a country of just under 2 million, it’s easier to change how people view coffee —which is exactly what Rocket Bean is striving to do. By showcasing their quality of beans, offering everything from flat-whites to Aeropress they are already converting many locals.

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While Riga is a big city in a very small country, two days is not nearly enough time to spend there. I already have a laundry list of things I want to do the next time I go back. Until then.

Three Bars in Three Cities

If there is one thing anyone can rely on when traveling in most parts of the world — it’s that there will always be a bar. When traveling, bars are not just a place to get a drink but a place to meet other travelers on the road and swap stories.  In my experience, it’s a place to meet the locals who can tell you more about the area you’re visiting and maybe even give you some good recommendations for getting off the beaten path. These are the places (drinking or not) that you start experiencing more of the place you’re visiting rather than just being a casual observer.

Budapest, Hungary — Szimpla Kert

I had heard about Szimpla long before I was even considering going to Budapest. Friends of mine from Germany, the U.K. and not to mention my Lithuanian husband had all been to Szimpla on their own respective trips to Budapest. So by the time I took my own maiden voyage to Hungary in October — I had high hopes for the bar.  Ruin pubs are unique to Budapest and they sound exactly like what they are, which is old buildings that are turned into bars. Szimpla is the ultimate ruin pub — it’s a massive old factory that has no roof (so everyone can smoke inside) and  multiple levels which include numerous bars. The place is covered in spray paint over it’s dingy walls, bath tubs cut in half serve as couches and old rusty bicycles hang from the walls tangled up in Christmas lights. I had never been to a bar quite like it. But, it lived up to expectation. When we were there we made friends with other pub goers who were from all over the world. People from Chile, U.K, Somalia, Romania, Italy, and of course Hungary were all happily sipping beer, sharing cigarettes as well as  stories. It was a fantastic place to go if you were looking for a friendly bar in Budapest.

Prague, Czech Republic — Hemingway Bar

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Hemingway Bar could tie first with Szimpla but it is a completely different type of experience. Hemingway was a huge highlight for my friends and  when we visited Prague in the fall of 2012. After a day of sightseeing we came upon a speakeasy style bar near the Vltava on the Old Town side of Prague.  This was a bit of a surprise as I’ve never seen speakeasy bars outside the U.S. and I admit I was skeptical. I rarely drink cocktails when I’m outside of the states because they often are over priced, way too sugary and just not as good. But, Hemingway won me over. They made a fantastic gin fizz and one of my friends couldn’t stop raving about his Manhattan which we all agreed tasted “magical.” In addition to great cocktails, Hemingway Bar offered a wide variety of cigars to enjoy with your cocktails. The atmosphere was incredibly laid back and we enjoyed our Cuban cigars and drinks on plush couches and chairs at the back of the bar.

Vilnius, Lithuania — Alinė Leičiai

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I am always on the hunt for a good home-brewed beer when I visit a new country. I find its a good cultural experience — especially if the country you’re in is renowned for it’s brew. My husband had been telling me for ages that Lithuanians make good beer and often win international brewing competitions. So when we visited his old stomping grounds in Vilnius, I was anxious to see if he was right. Leicai (pronounced Lay – chay) is a brewery in the old town of Vilnius that serves their signatures brews (light, dark and everything in between) as well as traditional Lithuanian food. Leicai is more of the perfect place to meet up with old friends (which is what we were there to do) than to go for a big night out. It’s a  place to relax and have a couple of beers and maybe a cheese/meat plate (which was enough to stuff three people).

What are some of the best bars you have been to?

Photo Credit: Aline Leiciai photo from Aline Leicia’s Facebook page; Hemingway Bar photo from Hemingway Bar photo’s Facebook page

Old Town Vilnius

My first four days in Lithuania were spent visiting my in-laws at their home in a small town called Alytus. Despite the fact that Lithuania has a lot of natural beauty (Alytus being no exception) with many lakes and forests — it is in stark contrast to the lifeless cement buildings that fill the towns.  Unfortunately, these depressing grey buildings are left over from the Soviet era and are common in Lithuania. It wasn’t until we left for Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital, did I truly realize just how grey the town was.

It took over an hour to drive from Alytus to Vilnius and I had fallen asleep on the way there. When I woke – all I could see were vivid red, pink and orange buildings everywhere.  Buildings in so many different styles — gothic, baroque, neo-classic — lined up the banks of the two rivers (the Vilnia and the Neris) that run through the city. Large looming churches that were centuries old created a cluttered skyline. It felt like waking up in technicolor.  Vilnius was so different to the plain cement town I had been looking at for days. I felt a little bit like Dorothy after having fallen asleep in Kansas and waking up in Oz. But, in reality I had awoke to Old Town Vilnius.

Old Town is considered the most beautiful part of the capital. This area of the city is one of the largest surviving medieval old towns in Europe and is inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Pilies Street is the main road in Old Town and translates as “Castle Street.” This could have something to do with the fact that Gediminas Tower, the last remaining vestiges of a castle, stands on a steep hill directly overlooking the road. Pilies Street is a popular place for locals and tourists to buy souvenirs or gifts from the numerous shops selling amber jewelry or from the vendors at the market. In fact, I picked up all my souvenirs from Pilies street including an amber ring, a lambs wool snood, an artists tea cup, hand knit lamb wool socks and a 1915 coin from Tsarist Russia. The last two items were from market vendors.

In other parts of Vilnius, the recent history of the Soviet Union is still as plain as day. But, Old Town serves as a reminder of the rich culture that pre-dated Lithuania’s period as a Soviet state. The House of Signatories, located on Pilies Street, is where Lithuania re-established itself as an independent state from the German Empire in 1918. Numerous plaques throughout Pilies Street name famous Lithuanian scholars, philosophers or authors that lived or worked in Old Town. The oldest academic buildings that serve as facilities for the University of Vilnius are in this area. Given that the university has been in existence since 1579, it’s no surprise much of it is in the Old Town.

Nearby is Literatu street which is an area that is dedicated to anyone of the literary world in Lithuania. The street is covered with wall paintings and ceramics showcasing literary works.

Unfortunately, the time spent in Vilnius was short and there is so much of the city I didn’t get the opportunity to explore.  I’m already making a list of things I need to see in Vilnius the next time I visit my in-laws! While Old Town is vast, there is a more modern side to Vilnius to see as well as the famed Uzupis, which is considered Vilnius’ version of Paris’ Montmarte neighborhood. Until next time…

Trakai Castle: Lithuania’s Medieval Capital

IMG_0384Trakai Island Castle was one of the sites I wanted to visit the most on my first excursion to Lithuania. Trakai was at one time the capital of Lithuania and served as a major center for the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (Lithuania only ever had one king and then was ruled by dukes onward). The castle was first built in the 14th century and is unique as it sits on a small island in the middle of Lake Galve. Trakai Castle’s location gave it strategic importance during wars and military campaigns as it was very difficult to capture.

The castle unfortunately fell into disrepair sometime after the 17th century and it wasn’t until the late 19th century that preparations were made to start restoring it. It took over a hundred years to complete the restoration due to both world wars and funding. The restoration was complete by the early 1990s and today is one of Lithuania’s biggest tourist attractions. The castle has been turned into a national museum that features various artifacts from the castle as well as other items that likely would have been used there during its time as a royal residence and fortress.

For those looking to visit Trakai, it is a 30-minute drive outside of Vilnius. There are several rustic restaurants nearby where you can find Kibinai (a traditional Lithuanian pastry, not unlike a Cornish pasty). It’s easy enough to hire a boat to take you around the castle’s island as well as the rest of the lake. Lastly, there are several kiosks selling various postcards and souvenirs — including Lithuanian amber (the country’s biggest export). I did stop and pick up several postcards and considered picking up some amber jewelry but found that I could get the same quality of amber in Vilnius for a cheaper price.

I’m Meeting My Lithuanian In-Laws For The First Time And I Don’t Speak Lithuanian!

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Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania

For the last week, I have been umming and ahing over what to write about. I have bounced around every idea; from recollecting a trip to Venice to writing about a Victorian port town on the peninsula of Washington state. But, every time I have sat down to write —  I have been mauled by distractions. Particularly, the fact that I’m going to Lithuania in six weeks to meet my in-laws — for the first time — and we do not speak the same language!

I understand that many many many people throughout the world have been in a similar situation and somehow have managed to stumble through. My predicament is also helped by the fact that my in-laws — in a very touching gesture — took a beginners English class a few months ago. In addition, I have been attempting to learn some basic Lithuanian. But, a big reason for my nervousness is the Lithuanian language itself.

Lithuanian is a very tough language to learn. Contrary to popular assumptions, it sounds nothing like Russian or any other Slavic language. This is because it isn’t Slavic, but one of the only two Baltic languages (Latvian is the other). Lithuanian is one of the oldest languages in the world and is definitely the oldest known Indo-European language. It actually shares many of the same features as Sanskrit. So, yes it is a very intimidating language to attempt. But, the history of the language and how it has been used to define Lithuania as a nation makes it seem all the more imperative to understand.

From 1795-1914, Lithuania was under the control of Imperial Russia and their language was banned from being spoken in public, their alphabet (Latin) prohibited from being taught. This was all in the effort of Russification. The Russians expected the language would become extinct, but their actions only created a cultural resistance from the whole society. Academics began to write poems and articles in Lithuanian, newspapers were published in Lithuanian and the upper classes began to speak only in Lithuanian (previously the poor had been the only group who exclusively spoke the language). This history is probably why many Lithuanians today culturally identify themselves by their language and why there are now laws in place to protect the Lithuanian language.

During the Soviet Union, Lithuanian was still considered the predominant language of Lithuania but Russian was commonly spoken alongside it. My partner was born in the Soviet Union and grew up in post-Soviet Lithuania. He had no interest in learning Russian in school and  while he understands it well enough, he doesn’t speak it. Neither do many of his generation. While he didn’t see the worse of what his country went through under communism and another wave of Russification, he grew up in the remnants of a post-Soviet state rather than what may have been a culturally rich Lithuania. For him, and I’m sure many other Lithuanians — this is a bitter pill to swallow. It is also what makes their language that more cherished. It defines them as who they are.

Knowing all of this has only added extra pressure to learning Lithuanian. There is no way I will be able to master even an intermediate level of Lithuanian before I meet my in-laws. But, I know it’s a language I will continue to encounter and learn in the coming years. Unfortunately, there are limited available resources to learn Lithuanian as it’s a language spoken exclusively by Lithuanians (Just over 3 million people). Rosetta Stone doesn’t even have a version of it. This leaves one option — my partner giving me pained looks as he listens to me butcher his native tongue while I attempt to learn the language. Sacrifices all around!

Does anyone have any stories or advice on learning a new language, particularly Lithuanian? Please share in the comment section below!

Photo credit: Vaidotas Piekus