On Freedom / The Christmas Tree Rivalry

After the karaoke came the guitar player and the covers. The dance floor began to fill. The Stockholm Boys Choir (the adult members at least) seizing the space and encouraging others to join in. The Swedes know how to party. On the Baltic the sun never really seemed to fully set. It was a very late night.

Helsinki looks notably different from Stockholm. While there is a sense of Scandinavian style and orderliness there is also clear Russian heritage that can be seen in buildings that wouldn’t look out of place in St Petersburg. The city is clean. The city is expensive. Perhaps the most notable of the landmarks is The Helsinki Cathedral. The Cathedral is impressive from the outside but is not of any particular note on the inside although it was at least free to enter. There was an event scheduled later that day inside the Cathedral and as I went in I could hear singing. The Stockholm Boys Choir were preparing. Helsinki is small, it is not a surprise to see the same faces.

The small size of the city lends it a feeling of community I was told. Everyone knows eachothers business. This is not always a good thing. My Finnish friend told me that historically many Fins used to go on holiday to Sweden in the summer and then decided to stay, which meant that many jobs were left in Finland. This became such an issue that to this day Fins still receive an annual summer bonus to ensure that they return to their jobs after the summer holidays. What a country!

Helsinki is the northernmost capital city in the European Union and so my trip took me south. The boat crossing to Tallinn only takes a few hours and as you approach you can see the spires and towers of the charming Old Town. I went on a walking tour to see all the main sights and hear interesting facts about the town. Estonians are very proud of having gained their freedom and in honour of this have put up an unimpressive monument at great expense.

Tallinn proudly claims that it was the first city to have a public Christmas tree. Not Riga, they say. Don’t listen to the Latvians. The Latvians were the first to have a decorated Christmas tree in public, but Tallinn had the first public Christmas tree. That was clear.

The Old Town of Tallinn is particularly beautiful and it is easy to forget that the city is much more than just this area. How many tourists leave the Old Town and explore the Soviet architecture and the modern history of Estonia, I wonder? I met up with two Estonians who insisted on showing me a view of Tallinn from across the water and so I was driven through the dynamic and modern parts of the city, perhaps less beautiful but fascinating in their own right.

There are no direct trains from Tallinn to Riga. I like to think this is as a result of the Christmas tree spat but from a little research it seems more likely the result of the railways going through various public/private ownership changes and economic difficulties. The bus to Riga is the well worn route and this takes about 4 to 5 hours firstly through beautiful Estonian countryside and then wonderful Latvian countryside. Upon entering Riga you first notice the old Soviet buildings on the outskirts mainly consisting of concrete apartment blocks. The TV Tower is visible from a great distance. This was a satellite state.

When I checked in to the hostel the receptionist gave me a map and marked points of interest and good places to eat. She pointed out the place where Riga put up the first public Christmas tree and she mentioned that Tallinn likes to claim this too. I told her that my Estonian guide had made the distinction between the decorated and non-decorated histories and that he had told me to mention this if any Latvians bought it up. She laughed. The rivalry doesn’t seem to be a bitter one.

Whilst the years of Soviet occupation left their architectural mark in the outskirts, this is not the case in the Old Town, which like Tallinn’s is full of cobbled streets and historic churches. However Riga feels more dynamic here, the streets seem more alive and part of the modern world still. This area is roughly demarked by two stretches of water. On one side is the Daugava river flowing from Russia, and on the other side is a canal which was once a defensive moat for the town. These days it has been turned into a beautiful park. Riga is good at parks with several others also nearby. A central point close to all the green spaces is Latvia’s freedom monument. This powerful and moving structure has atop it a woman holding aloft three stars, she personifies freedom. The stars represent the three regions of Latvia that existed at the time, although there are now four.

For someone with an interest in architecture Riga is a real treasure. The Old Town contains many medieval buildings, the outskirts contain examples of the Soviet style and it also has a number of traditional Latvian wooden housing too. But the real gem is the art nouveau district that reminds you of Paris with some stunning examples of the style. Alberta Iela is the most famous street that showcases this style and is a must see for anyone who likes looking at pretty buildings. Near here is where the Museum of Occupation is temporarily housed while it’s permanent home is renovated. The museum runs on donations only and is fairly small, but what it achieves is of huge importance. The several rooms showcase and explain Latvian history through various reigns of occupation, from both the Nazi occupation of Latvia and the Soviet occupation. This small country, like the other Baltic nations, has had a tough history. The exhibition ends with the upbeat positivity of Latvian independence and the country’s joining of NATO and the EU in 2004. On the way back to the hostel I walked by the freedom monument again. It seemed appropriate.

 

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