The journey that Kay and I recently undertook from Istanbul to Helsinki — with stops in the cities of Plovdiv, Sofia, Brasov, Bratislava, Krakow, Gdansk, Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn — lasted a month and became a test of endurance. At one point, in Tallinn, Estonia, I seemed to be failing the test when my body told my mind, “Enough, already” and refused to keep up the pace. It took a couple of days of long afternoon naps and long nights of sleep before I felt myself again.
In all, we explored ten cities in eight countries, got confused in eight different languages, coped with eight different currencies, and endured five trains, four buses, one ferry and two planes. We left Istanbul by bus with no master plan.
We knew only that our first city would be Plovdiv, Bulgaria and that we would eventually arrive in Helsinki. Originally, we had hoped to visit St. Petersburg but had given up that notion, not only because of the time it would have taken to get a visa but also because we felt that the richness of Peter the Great’s burg on the Neva needs a separate and dedicated visit to be explored and savored properly. We’ll save it for another occasion. (We did it in 2016)
Although we had no master plan, it soon became apparent that we needed to make some choices if we were to accomplish our journey in a month’s time. We considered traveling through Belgrade and instead chose Bratislava as being more direct. Later on perhaps, we can visit the countries of the former Yugoslavia on a separate trip. As for making travel arrangements, the division of labor we evolved was for Kay, working on the Internet, to secure accommodations in the next town while I arranged the next leg of our transportation, usually by standing in line at a train or bus station and wondering if the ticket clerk would understand me when it was my turn. By the way, technology has made traveling in this improvisational manner a lot easier than it used to be. By using one of the Internet accommodation sites like hotels.com, Kay was often able get a sizable reduction off a hotel’s rack rate. And the wide availability of ATMs not only means a better exchange rate but also that a person no longer needs to carry large amounts of cash or travelers’ checks.
By now, after such a long set-up, some of you must be wondering why we made this trip at all. What was the point? The answer, for want of a better reason, is curiosity. For a long time, I, perhaps more than Kay, have been curious about the countries we visited, all of which except Finland were for most of my life shrouded behind the Cold War’s Iron Curtain. Like our childhood notions of Africa as the Dark Continent, the Iron-Curtin countries were, until 15 years ago, terra incognita for most of us.
What was Sofia like? Wouldn’t it be fun to visit Transylvania some day? How about those Baltic states? These are some of the random thoughts I’ve had over the years. Well, now since it’s possible to freely visit them, why not visit them all? And yet, if a lovely Finnish woman named Tuula, whom I had met once many years ago on the occasion of a student visit to Helsinki, hadn’t reconnected with me a few months ago, spurring my interest in revisiting the land of my ancestors, our trip might not have happened when and how it did. Tuula was the catalyst.
Now don’t worry. I’m not going to give you a moment-to-moment recitation of a month’s worth of adventures and mishaps. I’ll limit myself to describing a few highs and lows that should give you the flavor of what was a most interesting series of travel discoveries.
To begin with a low point, the border crossings from Turkey into Bulgaria and from that country into Romania are not efficient. Perhaps because they haven’t yet adopted EU standards of efficiency, crossing from these countries seemed pointlessly long and involved. Each one took nearly two hours and came in the middle of the night. Going from Turkey into Bulgaria, if I remember correctly, our passports were scrutinized four times.
Another unpleasant discovery is that there is a big difference between Eastern and Western European standards of train travel. On two occasions we booked first-class sleeper compartments which had apparently been designed to be air conditioned but weren’t. The windows opened only part way, just enough to let in soot but not much air. On one all-night train ride from Sofia to Bucharest, the train stopped because something had gone wrong with our sleeper car. We lay in our bunks and listened to men shouting and banging on one of the car’s wheels with a sledge hammer for what seemed like an hour only to be told at last that our car would be taken out of service, and to take ourselves and our belongings to a second-class coach. There we found places among other weary souls and sat up till morning trying to keep the compartment door closed against the stench of a filthy nearby toilet.
Despite these inconveniences, when we got to where we were going, we found beauty and historical interest in abundance. In every city we visited the pre-communist past had been restored and preserved. All the more surprising given that some of these places, Gdansk for instance, were heavily bombed by the Allies during the Second World War. Prior to our visit, all we knew of this Polish city on the Baltic was that it contained a shipyard where an electrician once sparked a protest that became a movement that freed a country from Communism. Although we had been told, by our friend Bartek among others, that Gdansk was worth a visit, we were astounded by the size and ostentation of the city’s medieval quarters.
Turns out that Gdansk (under its German name of Danzig) had been one of the greatest of the trading centers of the Hanseatic League, the powerful German trading association of the Middle Ages whose member cities were often accorded semi-autonomy and other privileges. To imagine this city’s former pride and greatness it was only necessary to walk a few hundred meters down the Long Street and take in the facades of what must once have been the fanciest digs in town.
The German burghers who built these town houses vied with each other to make the biggest architectural splash their builders could imagine. Also in Gdansk, along a waterfront that was once lined with warehouses, there is a giant 15th century wooden crane, once the largest in Europe, capable of hoisting up to 2000 kg. In the day, it was powered by groups of men walking inside of huge treadmills shaped like the wheels in hamster cages. Amazing!
Architecture is always a major theme in our travels. Access to the historical past is often easiest through the buildings and monuments of former ages. And the way those buildings and monuments are restored, maintained and honored today shows the importance of that past for the current generation. The communists didn’t have much use for the past. Their eyes were on the future when, through the dialectical process, social classes would disappear and society’s controls would be in the hands of the people. Artifacts from the past would only exist to show what the world had been like before the communist miracle. So communist governments neglected the monuments of the past even as they built new ones to themselves. It’s instructive to observe that only fifteen years after the fall of the East European communist regimes, the monuments that are restored and revered are those of past centuries while those of the communists have mostly disappeared.
It was in the churches of Eastern and Northern Europe that we found expressions of nearly every architectural style, sometimes carried to aesthetically painful extremes. I can’t imagine a more exuberant gothic interior than that of St. Mary’s in Krakow (c. 1320).
By contrast, there is the starkly pale gray interior of Aarno Ruusuvouori’s ultramodern Lutheran church in Tapiola, Finland whose only Christian symbol is a plain metallic cross set above a plain, black marble altar slab.
On the topic of churches, in Bratislava we discovered the Church of St. Elizabeth. Designed by Odin Lechner and built between 1909 and 1913 it’s simply known as the “blue church” because of its blue concrete exterior with recessed white details. Alongside the overblown rococo ornament of the city’s large baroque churches, the blue church is an art nouveau gem that, in our experience, is unique.
Unbeknownst to us before this trip, several of the cities we visited have collections of art nouveau buildings, none greater or more playful than Latvia’s capital, Riga. These are large buildings, apartment houses mostly, whose details range from restrained and elegant to wildly whimsical. Naturally, I photographed them with glee
Anyway, at another time perhaps I’ll tell you about our experience in Romania, a country we must explore in more depth sometime. It has some wonderful scenery and castles galore, one decorated very much to our taste with lovely art nouveau art, glass, and furniture. (Yes, we did visit Bran Castle, billed as Dracula’s even though Vlad Tepes, Bram Stoker’s inspiring model probably never lived there.) We’ll also tell you about the charm of Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, an inland city and never a great trading center. It was famous instead as a place of science, learning and spirituality.
Before signing off, I must tell you about a bit about our visit to Helsinki. It was our final destination and, for me, it had a special personal significance. I mentioned above that I had reconnected with a relation by marriage. When I wrote to Tuula that Kay and would be coming to Finland, she invited us to stay with her in Espoo, just outside of Helsinki.
Tuula’s house has contemporary art on the walls and a huge personal library of books in several languages. Tuula and her husband Matti are cultured, well-traveled people, as is my cousin Paivi, who we also had the good fortune to spend time with.
Together, we visited the studio/museum of Akseli Gallen-Kallala, a great Finnish painter.
We also visited Tapiola, a planned, suburban community, where I had stayed with another cousin during my student visit so long ago.
The following day, Tuula took us to their country home for a traditional Finnish summer afternoon. There was the lake, the pine and birch trees, the sauna and a wonderful al fresco lunch. We also got to meet Tuula’s son and my cousin Timo and his family.
In the course of the weekend, I also learned additional facts about my Finnish ancestors. These events, plus the followings three days Kay and I spent on our own in the lovely and very livable city of Helsinki made me very proud of my Finnish heritage.