Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel
Town Hall Square in Riga, Latvia, with House of the Blackheads Guild Hall. Saint Peter's Church soars in the background.

Click on title to view photo in large format. Town Hall Square in Riga, Latvia. The historic House of Blackheads Guild Hall, originally built in 1334 to host events of the Brotherhood of the Blackheads, dominates the square. Members of the brotherhood were unmarried merchants and craftsmen, mostly of German descent, who were engaged in trade for the powerful Hanseatic League. The guild house was almost entirely destroyed during World War Two, but an epithet carved over the entrance, “If I am destined to ruination, I will be rebuilt by you!” seems to have been prophetic. The structure was rebuilt in 1999 with extreme attention to architectural accuracy. Read More

Holding hands. It’s a simple act that usually signifies love, friendship, or caring. But on August 23, 1989, the simple act of holding hands freed six million people in the Baltic countries of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia.

On that fateful day in 1989, more than two million people joined hands in a human chain that began in Tallinn, Estonia, stretched 430 miles across Latvia, to Vilnius, Lithuania. The date was chosen to focus the world’s attention on the day in 1939, exactly 50 years prior, when Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. This secret agreement was created during the early years of World War II, when Germany and the Soviet Union were allies. Not only did it pledge non-aggression between the signatories, in a blatant violation of international law, it detailed how Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Romania would be divided between the two countries. The Baltics were given over to the Soviet Union.

In Vilnius, Lithuania, the Baltic Way footsteps tile is located in Cathedral Square, where the human chain began

In Vilnius, Lithuania, the Baltic Way footsteps tile is located in Cathedral Square, where the human chain began

With Russian influence neatly tied up, Germany invaded Poland eight days later, starting World War II. The Soviet Union subsequently invaded Estonia and Latvia on June 16, 1940. Though the Soviets switched to the side of the Allies after Germany attacked them in June of 1941, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact essentially remained in effect. The Soviet Union continued to occupy Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania throughout and following the war, all the while denying the existence of the secret protocols of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Read More

Colorful street in the historic Old Town of Riga, Latvia

Click on title to view photo in large format. The historic center of Riga, Latvia, is composed of three distinct districts: the Old Town of Riga, the 19th century boulevards and greensward along the City Canal, and the adjacent residential area that is home to an incredible collection of 18th and 19th century wooden homes. These combined urban areas were awarded UNESCO World Heritage status in December of 1997, and no visit is complete without a visit to all three. Read More

Street in old Jewish ghetto of Vilnius, Lithuania, displays pre-WWII photos of Jewish families who once lived there

Click on title to view photo in large format. Prior to World War Two, this street in Vilnius, Lithuania was part of a thriving Jewish community. While there are no exact numbers available, estimates of the pre-WWII Jewish population range between 60,000 and 80,000. After the German Army seized the city in June of 1941, they killed more than 21,000 Jews in a mass extermination program. Remaining Jewish residents were forced to relocate into two small areas near the historic center of the city. This became the Jewish Ghetto of Vilnius. During the two years of its existence, almost every remaining Jewish resident died from starvation, disease, exposure, maltreatment, executions, or deportation to concentration camps. It is estimated that only around 100 survived, mostly by hiding in the surrounding forests. Read More

Where next? It’s the question I hear most often from people I meet on the road. I usually get oohs and aahs and nods of excitement when I reply, but when I began telling people I was headed to Vilnius, their response was almost always, “Where?” My explanation that Vilnius is the capital of Lithuania generally resulted in blank stares, or an occasional “What?”

I’d long wanted to visit the Baltic States of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. I’d heard tales of a youthful, creative, hi-tech culture and rocket fast wifi. So when I decided to stay in Europe this summer, I did so with the Baltics in mind. Lithuania, the largest of the three, was my first goal, but getting there proved problematic.

I’d read on The Man in Seat 61 (the world’s best train information website) that it was possible to take a train from Krakow, Poland, to Lithuania. But at the train station, I was told over and over, “It’s not possible. There are no rails to Lithuania.” Buses were little better. I could get there, but every line would have required changing buses in mid-journey and would have dumped me off at midnight in Vilnius.

What to do in Vilnius, Lithuania? The old Jewish Ghetto, with attractive streets such as this one, should be high on every list

What to do in Vilnius, Lithuania? The old Jewish Ghetto, with attractive streets such as this one, should be high on every list

Getting to Vilnius from Warsaw seemed much easier, so I hopped on a train to the Polish capital and spent a few days in that surprisingly lovable city. From there I could take an Ecolines bus that would depart Warsaw at 9:30 p.m. and get me to Vilnius at 7:15 a.m. Perfect! Or so I thought, until the first text message arrived. “Estimate bus delayed two hours.” I drew my hoodie tighter around me and settled onto a low wall to wait. Read More

Woman shoots Constitution of Uzupis in Vilnius, Lithuania, through wall-mounted mirror. The reflected view is shown at lower right.

Click on title to view photo in large format. Uzupis is a bohemian neighborhood located within the historic Old Town area of Vilnius, Lithuania. Prior to World War Two, it was predominantly occupied by Jewish residents, most of whom were killed during the Holocaust. Subsequently, the abandoned, deteriorating buildings were occupied by homeless, prostitutes, and criminal elements. Things began to change when Lithuania gained its independence in 1990. Seeing opportunity in the run-down, albiet well-located district, artists began moving in. Today, more than 1,000 of the 7,000 residents of Uzupis are artists or creative sorts. In 1997, residents of the area declared their own independence, naming their neighborhood the Republic of Užupis, along with its own flag, currency, president, and cabinet of ministers. They also wrote the Constitution of Uzupis, which was translated into 23 languages and prominently mounted on a wall in the neighborhood. The “tongue-in-cheek” Articles of the Constitution of Uzupis are as follows: Read More