Karo Lifestyle Road Trip – Summer 2015 Destination The Baltic States
The second half of our summer trip through the Baltic States was a decidedly different experience from our sojourn in Scandinavia.
Travelling through Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania was markedly edgier and the divide between the have’s and the have-not’s was much more apparent.
This was brought home to us in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, where the old town was overrun on the one hand with designer fashion stores, expensive, flashy sports cars and smart cafes, restaurants and bars, and, on the other, with beggars both young and old. Too much for my liberal tendencies to feel comfortable with!
Vilnius Old Town
But to backtrack, we left the lovely city of Tallinn and drove to Riga, the capital of Latvia and its largest city with a population of over 600,000. Riga also has Europe’s most impressive, and, according to Lonely Planet, the largest collection of Art Nouveau architecture.
Riga Art Nouveau Buildings
At the risk of repeating myself, I do tend to look at places I visit from a design point of view. How do people co-exist (or not) with their natural environment and how have politics, social changes, governments and immigration (an important topic at the moment) contributed to changing the natural landscape of a city or country and, indeed, people’s attitudes and integration.
Riga Old Town
Obviously, the Soviet Occupation of the Baltic States had a huge influence, not only on the social structure of the cities, but also on the mindset of the people.
In Latvia and Lithuania, while the younger generation was open, welcoming and inclusive, I felt that the older generation, having grown up under strict Soviet domination, still seemed reticent and slightly suspicious of openly conversing with us. And, while by and large the people were welcoming, there was an undercurrent of malaise, especially in the vast open-air market in Riga.
Having lived in the Soviet Union in 1981, I could well understand and empathise with this reticence. You could never know who might denounce you to the authorities.
Riga Central Market
This vast Art Deco style Central Market, which together with Old Riga, was included in the UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998, was built between 1924 and 1930. It covers 72,300 square meters and has over 3000 trade stalls.
During the Soviet occupation, the market was renamed Central Kolkhoz Market and was extolled in the Soviet press as ‘one of the best markets in the Soviet Union.’
Latvia Railway Station
Speaking of the USSR, as it then was, I have never had the absolute distaste for the architecture that some critics have. Architecture should not be held ransom to politics, in my opinion. Some of the buildings and monuments of that era are impressive and iconic. This was architecture for the people – evocative of the workers’ struggles and to commemorate the Revolution. There is so much to learn from this period.
Brutalist architecture burgeoned in the 1950s through to the mid-1970s throughout the world. From the French term for ‘raw’ the term was used by Le Corbusier to describe his preferred choice of material ‘beton brut’ or raw concrete.
I find these huge, unadorned and angular buildings quite beautiful in their own way!
Interestingly, this severity of architecture took on a whole new meaning at the Memorial Park outside Riga en route to Vilnius and dedicated to the memory of all those who had suffered under the Nazis and the Soviets. The most poignant of memorials are usually situated within natural landscape of great beauty and this was no exception.
Memorial Park Riga
It was incredibly moving, made all the more so because the haunting nature of the architecture and the monumental sculptures in the Park. This was one of the sites that will stay with me for a long time.
Memorial Park Riga
Memorial Park Riga
From Riga to Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. This journey seemed to take us to memorials dating from both the Nazi and Soviet occupations. On a green and leafy residential street, in a beautiful 19th century Neo-Classical edifice once used as a Court building stands The Museum of Genocide Victims. As the memorial plaque in front of the house states:
‘ Throughout the Soviet era (1940-1941 and 1944 to 1991) the building was occupied by the Soviet repressive institutions such as the NKVO – NKGB – MGB – KGB while during the period 1941 to 1944, the Gestapo reigned in the building…
The basement of the building served as a prison for the Nazis, while the Soviets used it as a prison with an execution chamber inside.’
Museum of Genocide Victims
It was horrible to think of the countless many who suffered here but so necessary to preserve such buildings so that this may not happen again…
From Lithuania to Poland and the vast fields of corn, seemingly everywhere we looked. Our next stop was Treblinka but we decided to detour through the countryside and find a tranquil place to stay overnight.
Getting lost is often, for me at least, is simply one of the great pleasures of travelling! Not being tied to a route… exploring the countryside… finding small villages off the beaten track – and we found just such a place called Lapy.
Is this a dog or a small horse?!
Unfortunately, this delightful little place had no beds for the night but in true inimical rural fashion, the young girl at the bar phoned a friend who had a friend…
And so we ended up staying in a not yet opened B&B. the young married couple had spent many years working hard in Belgium with the dream of returning to their homeland and opening up a small hotel.
In these days of fear of ‘hordes of immigrants taking over countries’, this came as a timely reminder that people want to work hard and make a difference for their families.
And so to Treblinka…
Treblinka – a place of untold horrors. On the main train line station from Warsaw, It was opened in 1942 and all but destroyed by the Nazis in 1943 so no one would know the atrocities that took place here. It is believed that up to 900,000 Jews and 2000 Romani gypsies were killed in its gas chambers. Apart from Auschwitz, more Jews were killed at Treblinka than at any other extermination camp.
As with so many of the sites we visited, it was the silence that spoke to me more than anything. It is so important to continue to bear witness.
Our final destination in Poland was Warsaw. This now sprawling city with its very different architectural styles – from the neoclassical to the Soviet era blocks and new skyscrapers – has a feel very like Berlin. It has pockets of quiet residential streets boasting hip restaurants as well as the ubiquitous city centre.
Warsaw suffered greatly during WWII. With the imminent approach of the Soviet Army in –, Hitler ordered the entire city to be razed to the ground – in fact 85% of the city’s buildings were destroyed. In fact, so proud of there cultural heritage were the Poles, they lovingly restored the old town to its pre-war appearance.
Warsaw Old Town
We treated ourselves and stayed in the Rialto Hotel in a beautiful residential area – beautiful that is, until you notice the bullet holes in the walls along the street! Could these date from the Second World War or from the Polish uprising during the Soviet period? We were not able to find out… but we did have a fascinating chat with a waiter on our last night. For me, he epitomised the admiration I have for the Poles – their resilience, gregariousness and ability to look to the future with optimism.
Museum of Jewish History, Warsaw
And so to the final leg of our journey – Berlin. I am very fond of this unified city and, indeed, have a huge respect for the German people. What they have managed to achieve not only politically, economically and socially in the years since WWII, I think, is amazing.
Berlin is edgy, it’s hip, and it’s full of history and takes an uncompromisingly frank view of its own part in that history.
One of the most poignant pieces of architecture is The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, also known as the Holocaust Museum close to the Brandenburg Gate and designed by the architect Peter Eisenman. The 2711 concrete slabs organised in undulating rows.
Hidden beneath the slabs is the Place of Information that lists all the known names of the Holocaust victims.
From a design point of view as well as from the point of view of how memorials are constructed, I find this site intriguing. With it being in an open space, people sit and rest on the slabs, or stelae, children clamber over them. This lends it an air of a public part.
Yet, the different heights of the stelae create an eerie and haunting experience as you walk though them.
In this way, the Memorial works on different levels of perception and made me, for one, think about the role of design and architecture can subvert the nature of memory.
Can buildings be symbols of defiance? Can they refute a system of beliefs?
Driving through the Baltic States and Poland, this was a question often on my mind, and walking through the Holocaust Memorial, brought it home to me.
This vast Memorial is reminiscent of a graveyard but at the same time, its inclusivity set in the heart of the capital is also a place for people to come together and ‘occupy’ the slabs different ways. It is an interesting take on a traditional memorial.
To finish on a lighter note, we found a fabulously kitsch Vietnamese restaurant near our hotel in Berlin. This was design that made me smile and delight in the originality of its creator!
Fabulous Food and Design at District Mot in Berlin
Karo Lifestyle September 2015