In Tallinn and Vilnius, the complexities of independence

Imagine a human chain of 2 million people, stretched out over 420 miles across the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, holding hands and singing songs of freedom. “My own grandparents were in there,” said Maria Jogi, the 22-year-old guide on a free walking tour I took through the Estonian capital of Tallinn. “They had a car and they had to drive a really long time to even find a place in the chain.”

My 52 Places trip had brought me to Tallinn and the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius because both countries are celebrating their 100th anniversary of declaring independence after World War I. But it seems to me that a far more significant marker was the peaceful protest known as The Baltic Way — which, in 1989, two years before the fall of the Soviet Union, stretched between Tallinn and Vilnius. It was a feat of togetherness and will at a time of division and subjugation, a wall of people that stood for a single day not to impose tyranny, but to oppose it.

“They started organizing this in July and it happened in August, so they had five weeks to get together 2 million people and there was no Facebook,” Jogi said. “It would never happen again. So this shows how much people wanted it.”

Over a week, I got my own taste of the identities of these two beautiful, complicated Baltic cities, each with movie-set-ready old towns that have been declared UNESCO World Heritage sites. Modernism abutted Soviet-era ruins and medieval churches. I found both incredible food and some disturbing lessons in political history I won’t soon forget.

The Flavors of Independence

To hear a history of the Baltics is often to hear of invasion. Both Estonia and Lithuania declared independence while under foreign occupation during World War I and had to fight to make those declarations reality. After two decades on their own between the world wars, both were annexed in 1940 by the Soviet Union, where they remained until that empire collapsed in 1991.

So it hasn’t been 100 years of independence so much as 100 years of fighting for it through periods of war and oppression. Still, who could blame the Baltic people for wanting to celebrate?

But through all that changing of hands, Baltic culture never died and one of the best ways to honor that is through the incredible food to be found throughout the region.

A multiday feast might begin with leib, or Estonian black bread, with rich butter from local cows. I had an incredibly moist version at a farm-to-table restaurant appropriately named Leib, set next to a medieval castle and a bronze bust of Sean Connery. I sometimes look back at pictures of their bright green, creamy ramson (wild garlic) soup with poached quail eggs and cured pike roe and dream about what it tasted like.

Vilnius specialties included kepta duona, fried bread covered in cheese sauce and eaten with toothpicks; saltibarsciai, bright pink chilled borscht; and cepelinai, potato dumplings filled with pork and topped with a creamy bacon sauce. Try them at Amatininku Uzeiga, a lively Soviet-era pub in Town Hall Square that’s one of the few places in town where you can get food until 3 a.m.

Possibly the best meal of this entire trip came in Noa Chef’s Hall, a subsection of the larger Noa Restaurant complex, which is right on the Tallinn coast — and makes a compelling case for the Michelin guides to expand to Estonia. For 89 euros, or about $103, I got seven sublime courses whipped up by the mind of its 26-year-old wunderkind head chef, Orm Oja, a Tallinn native. I don’t like seafood, but I loved his squid cooked in coconut milk and covered in disks of king trumpet mushroom with a cream sauce of mussels. A whole tomato stuffed with blue cheese and decorated with stripes of red, yellow and green vegetable powders was so pretty that I would have framed it had I not devoured it.

Beer is terrific in both countries, too. In Lithuania, definitely try kvass, a nonalcoholic drink made from fermented bread and cured with fruits. Save room for candy and decadent desserts. For casual bars and cafes, try F-Hoone and Must Puudel in Tallinn, and Mint Vinetu and Vijokliai Beer Garden in Vilnius. (The last is where to spot a famous mural of Trump and Putin smoking a joint.)

A Solstice to Remember

Through a series of oversights in planning — hey, it happens when you’re booking over 52 legs of travel in 11 months! — I wound up with the bulk of my time in Tallinn on the weekend of Midsummer’s Eve, the summer solstice. It’s the longest day of the year, when night lasts for around an hour and a half, and the biggest holiday other than Christmas. Very little was open for 2 1/2 days as the majority of Estonians were headed to the countryside or the beach for bonfires and barbecues.

So I missed attractions like the Kumu Art Museum and the newly opened Estonian National Museum in Tartu (five hours round-trip from Tallinn). On the upside, a trip to the tourist office got me a list of all the things that were open and alerted me to a fantastic all-night party at the Estonian Open Air Museum on the outskirts of town.

Set in fields and forests right on the beach, the museum is made up of thatched-roof farmhouses and windmills that have been transported there. On the night of the solstice, it became the site of one of the greatest music and dance festivals I’ve had the pleasure of witnessing.

Families took horse-carriage rides on dirt paths. Participants leapt over bonfires — apparently a tradition. Food carts served up sausages and beer. I saw Estonian folk dancing with women whipping around in long red skirts and an influential rock band named Ultima Thule play a blistering set to a crowd of hundreds on a stage made from what looked like the inside of a tractor-trailer. It was meant to evoke the rallies for freedom in the Gorbachev era.

Late-night stragglers wound up at a rocking dance party with the accordion-led folk-music ensemble Kukerpillid, drinking beers around a bonfire or standing on the shoreline, watching the sun set at 2 a.m.

Up in the Air

Both cities have incredible Old Towns that are UNESCO World Heritage sites and are great for a day of exploring. Where Vilnius has a tiny jump — or float — on Tallinn (terrible pun intended) is in perspective. It is one of the few European cities to allow hot air balloons to fly over it, which they do in droves, often both in the morning and at night.

You can get plenty of free entertainment, as many residents seem to do, watching the takeoff. But it is absolutely worth it to jump in one of those baskets yourself.

For at least an hour (and 99 euros, cash only) our pilot took us high above major monuments and highways. Then we got so close to the surface of a pond I could practically touch the water fauna and fish inside.

Hills and Crosses

Any cursory search of things to do in Vilnius will most likely lead you to Hill of Crosses, sacred ground a 2 1/2-hour drive from the city that is covered in hundreds of thousands of crosses, all concentrated on around an 18th of an acre of land. (Not to be mistaken for Three Crosses, also on a hill but in Vilnius proper.) I took a full-day Vilnius With Locals tour there, with Ieva Kakneviciute, an excellent guide.

“These crosses for us were like symbols of hope and liberation,” she said.

During the Stalinist period after World War II, some 300,000 Lithuanians, largely intellectuals, were deported to Siberia; 50,000 never returned. Kakneviciute first took us to a park dedicated to partisans, or Forest Brothers, young men who waged a guerrilla war against the Red Army despite the threat of certain execution and the deportation of their relatives if caught. “The Hill of Crosses was really developed because lots of people were lost, lots of people were deported,” said Kakneviciute, “and their families wanted to commemorate them and pray for them to come back from Siberia.”

For decades, the Soviets would clear out the crosses, only for Lithuanians to put them back up again. They gave up clearing in 1970. The last count was around 100,000, but now, Kakneviciute said, it must be at least 300,000. Nearly everyone who comes to the site leaves a cross anywhere they choose, whether for a loved one’s death or a newborn baby. Even Pope John Paul II made a pilgrimage in the ‘90s to leave a giant crucifix. And when a single cross falls over, it leaves a trail of broken crosses, like fallen dominoes.

The Erasure of a People

Among all this, what you may miss, if you’re not looking for it, is the absence of the people who shaped much of the city’s history and cultural life. Before World War II, Lithuania had one of the largest Jewish populations in Europe, dating to the 15th century and topping out at around 250,000. Vilne, as it was called in Yiddish, was one-third Jewish, with over 100 synagogues, and was widely known as the Jerusalem of the North.

Over 90 percent of Lithuania’s Jews were killed in the Holocaust — the largest percentage of any country in Europe with a substantial Jewish minority. And the executions were not in camps, but by shooting at mass grave sites, largely at the hands of enthusiastic Lithuanian volunteers, including those lauded Forest Brothers.

You can take a walking tour of the city’s Jewish history and go to the Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum, both of which I missed because of bad timing. The city’s state-run Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fights (known until April of this year as the Museum of Genocide Victims) is almost exclusively a history of Lithuanians’ oppression at the hands of the KGB, the Soviet secret police and intelligence apparatus. The museum’s name had become a huge point of contention for both Jewish visitors and scholars, including Vilnius-based Dovid Katz, who has pointed out many times that the KGB’s horrible acts did not amount to genocide because they were about eliminating dissidents and not exterminating an ethnic minority. Katz and others still take issue with the museum’s glorification of Lithuanian militants who started killing Jews en masse before the arrival of the Nazis. Nowhere in the city did I see any major memorial to Jewish Holocaust victims.

In Tallinn I had visited its KGB Museum, located in a skyscraper hotel used to spy on foreigners, and found the guide’s jokes about how she wouldn’t confiscate my photos pretty funny. There, Soviet agents and the spy equipment they left when they fled in 1991 are treated like cartoons. Microphones hidden in bread plates! Tiny cameras used in peepholes on picture frames! But when I heard Kakneviciute talk about the suffering of her grandparents under the KGB, those jokes felt grossly shallow.

Every year, she told me, she goes on a “patriotic mission” to Siberia with a group of young Lithuanians to interview any locals who remember the experiences of deportees. They also clean up cemeteries, then come back to tour schools with the stories they have learned. “It’s important to remember this still-living history because maybe in 10 years they are all passing away,” she said. “Lots of people are still crying around in Lithuania, ‘Oh, what a bad life we are having!’ But then just think what our grandparents lived through.”

Practical Tips

— There is no train between the two cities, but you can take an hourlong flight, a very long bus ride, or make like the locals and drive. It is seven hours and you could break it up with stops in the Latvian capital of Riga, plus Kaunas and Trakai, with its island castle, in Lithuania.

— Summertime European opening hours (and holidays) can take you by surprise; be vigilant about checking them in your planning. But there is plenty to see when everything is closed. In Tallinn, I took a fascinating walking tour from an abandoned Soviet concert venue, Linnahall, to an abandoned Soviet prison, Patarei, on the sea, plus visited a massive graffiti wall in the Telliskivi Creative City, a hip area in a renovated 19th-century railway factory complex.

— In Vilnius, I perused outdoor art ranging from a grand piano on the riverbank to a wire bra on a clothesline in the artist community of Uzupis, which declared itself an independent republic in the ‘90s. You’ll find their constitution engraved on mirrored panels in myriad languages. It includes the declaration, “Everyone has the right to love and take care of the cat.”

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(Our columnist, Jada Yuan, is visiting each destination on our 52 Places to Go in 2018 list. This dispatch brings her to two stops in the Baltic States — Tallinn, Estonia, and Vilnius, Lithuania; Estonia took the No. 16 spot on the list and Lithuania was No. 36; they are the 24th and 25th stops on Jada’s itinerary. Her next dispatch will be Megève and Arles, France.)

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