Riga is an odd mixture of architectural styles. The area I’m staying in is filled with nineteenth century buildings, this and their state of dilapidation reminds me somewhat of Budapest. But walking further and one comes to the Art Nouveau district, which is rather more reminiscent of Brussels. The walls on the Eisenstein designed buildings here are encrusted with owls, dragons, peacocks and sphinx like faces. The Art Nouveau museum here is especially lovely, with a sweeping spiral staircase and Stained Glass Windows filled with Irises. There’s a slightly strange exhibition about early Twentieth Century musclemen, showing their medals.
I then got for a walk in the nearby parks, starting with the nearby Russian Orthodox cathedral. The interior is covered in gold and is full of people even outside services (something I notice repeatedly with Orthodox churches but not the Catholic or Lutheran). A sign asks for donations for the restoration of the cathedral after its time as a Planetarium in the Soviet period; it doesn’t seem to be doing too obviously bad though given the sheer weight of gold coating most of the interior. Riga’s parks are rather lovely, with a canal winding through them and follies like a lighthouse, a Chinese pagoda, a statue of Mirzo Ulugbek and a statue of Pushkin donated by Russia. There’s also an odd series of installations, like a black metal cage releasing steam into the air and a ‘Brexit booth,’ which would probably have been funny if it hadn’t been so depressing.
When you walk into the centre of the city, the contrasts continue with the medieval gothic cathedral sitting on the same square as the Nineteenth Century terracotta bourse and the Twentieth Century Latvian Radio building. I’m left slightly confused by the presence of an Armadillo sculpture. The medieval House of the Blackheads (actually a Frauen Kirche style hyperreal reconstruction) with its astronomical clock and sculptures of King Arthur and St George stands near to the quasi-Cubist Latvian riflemen monument. The Blackheads building has a lot of the original statues inside along with a contemporary Silver collection. The frequent representations of African men leave me somewhat ambivalent. There’s an uncomfortably cartoonish and stereotypical quality to a lot of them but it equally seems extraordinary for a medieval guild to take a black saint as their emblem. Walking out of the centre leads to a series of Zeppelin hangers now used as a market, a Soviet skyscraper and a wooden Russian Orthodox church. It’s pretty noticeable that when you get into this ‘Moscow district’ that it gets noticeably rather more down at heel than the other city districts.
The following day I visit the Castle, which like Dublin Castle or the Tower of London was started as the seat of occupation but which now serves as a Government building. I then visit the Cathedral, with its beautiful Stained Glass showing scenes from the city’s history. Its cloisters offer the appearance of a junkshop, being filled with old weathervanes, statues, bombs and the Head of a Pagan Deity. I go for a walk by the dark waters of the Daugava. The river is lovely, with very little on the other bank save a few recent skyscrapers. I then walk to the medieval churches of Saint Peter and Saint John, both extraordinary instances of brick Gothic. St Peter’s has an exhibition of paintings and woodblocks of Saint Petersburg. Lastly that day, I visit the City History Museum, with its wooden statue of Saint Christopher, gilded medieval reredos, and a drumming automaton.
The next day, I visit the Nineteen Thirties Freedom Monument and the Laima clock from the same period (albeit intended to advertise chocolate rather than celebrate national liberation). I then visit the Art Gallery in the old Bourse. There’s a wonderful Art Nouveau exhibition (with England somewhat awkwardly represented by William Morris and Burne Jones), an oriental gallery (filled with Indian Ivory, Indonesian Shadow Puppets and Masks) a porcelain gallery (with a small version of Pompon’s Polar Bear) and a paintings gallery (I like Blomstedt’s Archer and there’s a small number of works by the likes of Ruisdael). In the afternoon, I visit the Latvia National Gallery.I discover that one the advantages of not really knowing many of the artists is that you can look at the paintings without many preconceptions. There are some beautiful Winter Landscapes by artists like Johans Valters and Vilhelms Purvītis, a series of Revolutionary era collages by Gustav Klucis, Cubist paintings by Jazeps Grosvalds and the rather fun Madonna with Machine Gun by Karlis Padegs. There’s also an exhibition of Nicholas Roerich’s paintings, mostly showing Tibetan landscapes but also some of Russia.Later, I visit the Mentzendorff House, an 18th century Merchant’s House, which retains jolly wall murals and stained glass windows. Finally, I visit the small porcelain museum, which is mostly noticeable for its Soviet section, with plates showing Red Square and Lenin’s speeches, alongside a vase of Stalin where one of the figures on his side has very clearly been painted over (the Commissar always vanishes).
There’s not much time to do anything else on my final day in Riga, save for a quick visit to the rather beautiful Synagogue. After that I board a coach for Tallinn. It’s a very quiet trip, mostly on long roads through the forests and countryside. The road is very quiet, with only other coaches and lorries on its rather than cars. There are also more than a few deserted buildings (give or take a giant wooden beer tankard), with storks using them for nesting. The suburbs of Tallinn are rather pretty, filled with painted wooden houses surrounded by trees.
Tallinn is considerably less varied in its architecture than Riga. The city is essentially intact in its medieval form, with much of the original city walls still standing (and a very large cluster of skyscrapers denoting the presence of a new town outside, far more than Helsinki has). The main street in the centre runs past medieval guild houses and another Blackheads house, alongside a smattering of a few Art Nouveau houses. I get very little opportunity to explore the city centre on my first day though as the heavens open and rain descends. I decide to visit the Art Museum at Kumu. The first thing I see here is an exhibition on the work of Michael Sittow, which is essentially to write an Estonian artist back into history. Sittow mostly painted portraits, in a manner reminiscent of Holbein or Gossaert. The works exhibited range from 19th century views of Tallinn and the Baltic coast, mythological paintings of Kalev, historical paintings of war with Russia and Germany (such as a meeting of the Estonian communist party with most of them wearing Balaclavas), male nudes by Adamson Eric, modernist paintings by Arnold Akberg and Konrad Magi and political deconstructions of Suprematist designs from Leonhard Lapin. The basement allows you to see the ‘stack’s area for the undisplayed paintings.
As the weather clears I go to Kadriorg Palace in the afternoon. The main hall is a striking affair with ceiling frescoes and stucco angels blowing gold trumpets. As one would expect for Peter the Great’s palace, a lot of the interior has a distinctly Russian feel; Malachite surfaces, Faberge eggs, wooden marquetry scenes of Tallinn and Soviet era Porcelain. The gallery also has a permanent collection of paintings, including works by Brueghel, Strozzi, Repin, Shishkin Kauffmann and Cranach. I especially like a view of Tallinn by ,which is rather reminiscent of the subject of the temporary exhibition; Ivan Aivazovsky. Praised by Turner, a lot of his paintings do use a similar historical setting but the resemblance primarily resides with the depiction of light in his seascapes, showing ships in settings like Venice, Crimea, Constaninople, Valletta and Odessa. I then walk for a bit around the gardens, from the formal gardens near the palace to a Japanese garden, and then go to see the Rusalka monument on the nearby seashore. Lastly, I visit Peter the Great’s house, a house the Tsar lived in prior to Kadriorg’s construction, filled with paintings of the Tsars, model ships and maps of Europe.
The following day I visit the Kiek in der Kok tower, one of the remaining defensive towers along the city walls, which includes travelling down into the city bastions and into an underground museum of stone carvings. I for a walk along the old city walls and then visit the city’s Cathedral. There’s an exhibition of silver guild emblems, medieval wooden statues and the Notke Dance Macabre painting. I then visit the ruins of the Dominican Monastery and the Church of the Holy Ghost, with its painted clock and wooden pews with medieval paintings. The next day I visit the Estonian Maritime Museum. This is some way out of the city in an area that is semi-derelict near an old fortress and former prison. I go round a steam powered ice breaker, Suur Toll, used in the war of independence and the evacuation of Tallinn during WW2 as well as the Lembit submarine. That afternoon, I visit the city museum, with exhibits including the original ‘Old Toomas’ weathervane on the Town Hall and an Executioner’s sword (with no point at the end, as it was used like an axe). Lastly, I visit the Estonian History Museum. I especially like a private collection bequeathed to the museum, ranging from mummified hands, Aleut masks, Canopic jars, Polar Bears and Seals fashioned out of tusk, Japanese fans, Peter the Great’s boots and a document signed by Napoleon.
The last city I visit is Helsinki. I take the ferry over, which means sailing past a series of islands like Suomenlinna before arriving at the port. The first place I visit is the redbrick Upsenski Cathedral, which is probably the first Orthodox church on this trip not to have been packed by worshippers. I then walk past the harbour where there is a market and visit the Old Market (a brick building which is now rather reminiscent of Borough Market in terms of its gentrification). I arrive at Senate Square; this vast and largely empty square is lined with colourful buildings in the same sort of classical style as Saint Petersburg. Along with items like a double headed eagle on an obelisk dedicated to the Tsarina, the Russian influence on the city is evident throughout but much of the city’s style seems to exist in reaction to it, preferring dark patterned brick or rusticated walls. If it looks grittier than the other two cities this equally seems expressed in the considerably larger number of beggars on the streets. The Cathedral in the centre of Senate Square must have been rather reminiscent of Berlin in its original domed design by Engels, but the addition of four cupolas at each edge makes it appear rather more Russian in style. By contrast, the austere white interior reminds me of the Cathedral in Copenhagen. I also visit the wonderful University Library opposite, with is domed ceiling.
I then walk further inland to the train station, with its clock tower and Atlantes bearing lamps on either side of the entrance. From here I go to the Chapel of Silence, which is rather typically Nordic in its minimalism and use of wood as the sole material (although the way the light enters reminds me of the Chapel at Cuddesdon). Much the same applies to the Rock Church, with the raw rock as its walls beneath a domed ceiling. I then go the Athenaeum. Pretty much the first thing I see here is Simberg’s Wounded Angel alongside paintings by Repin, Munch, Signac, Werner Holmberg, Serusier, Zorn and Albert Edelfelt. There’s also a special section on Akseli Gallen-Kallela’s Kalevala paintings. The modern section has works by Vilho Lampi, Corbusier and Martti Ranttila. There’s also an exhibition of works of magical realism on modern Italian art by painters like Antonio Donghi, Chirico, Carra, Severini, Carlo Sbisa, and Ubaldo Oppi. Lastly, I have time to visit the Finnish History Museum, with exhibits like a Romanov throne, the shirt worn by the Russian Governor’s assassin (complete with blood stains after he killed himself), Moomins, wooden church pulpits and sculptures. I also particularly like Gallen-Kallela’s ceiling frescoes in the entrance hall, along with a bullet hole in the glass door from the civil war.