EQUESTRIANS IN ESTONIA
'52 Riders also visit Baltics and Poland
by: J.C. (Chips") Chester
This year, the class equestrians consisting of Messrs. Collins, Jiranek and the author--having survived our 50th--participated in Equitour's manor-to-manor ride in Estonia for seven days and then visited Latvia, Lithuania and Poland as tourists. A brief summary follows of all stops along the way:
Our principal hostess and maximum leader was Merike Pallas, an efficient and attractive young lady who owns a horse farm just outside of Tallinn, the Estonian capital. Together with her two sons and a part time groom, she runs the Equitour program in that country. The ride took place exclusively in Lahemas National park, which consists of some 370,00 acres of (mostly forest-land, located in the north-central region. One of our overnight stops was in a small village on the Gulf of Finland. Estonians are ethnically related to and share the culture of the Finns, their northern neighbors. Their language even sounds like Finnish (and Hungarian), although the two groups cannot actually communicate in a common language.
This time, we had the luxury of sleeping in a bed each night, rather than in a tent or on the ground, as was the case in South Africa and Mongolia. The accommodations were more than adequate and even included an authentic Finnish sauna on one occasion, which was a welcome treat after a long day's ride
Just to backtrack a bit, it so happens that we did not have an auspicious start on our first evening in Tallinn, when we were on our own. After dining in the historic and quaint "old town" (all Baltic cities seem to have well preserved old town sections), we headed back to our hotel through a park. The sun does not set in this part of the world until almost 10:00 P.M., so there was plenty of light. Suddenly we were assaulted by a group of young toughs who were after Art's wallet, which stuck out of his back pocket. They tried to hold and distract first Art and then Bob while one of their numbers reached for the wallet. Fortunately, it fell to the ground and I was able to grab it. At that point, they must have realized that there were three of us, instead of just one, and they ran away. I cite this incident as representing a notable exception to the warm hospitality and friendliness exhibited by all other Estonians we met along the way. But no matter how friendly the natives are in a given country, visitors should be warned not to have anything of value protrude from a rear pocket. Just a tip!
In last year's report on the Lapalala game preserve in South Africa, I noted that despite our advancing age, we could still move with dispatch in the opposite direction of a hostile black rhino. Well, this year Bob did the honors in the acceleration department, when his horse was spooked by a barking dog and backed into an electrically charged fence. The fact that he managed to stay on board was a singular accomplishment, as our leader observed.
Our guide picked us up the following morning and drove us to our stable, after a walking tour of Tallinn's old town. We were joined by two companions, Barbara Clarke and Jackey Rabb-Passanesi, both members of the Smithtown hunt on Long Island and both very experience riders. As a result, we had some fairly long canters on trails through the forests and covered quite a bit of ground. The horses Merike provided were first rate--mostly of the "warmblood" variety, combining a (mostly) thoroughbred with a draft. (My mare was a cross between a Ukranian "paint" and a trekainer, a large German breed. She was named "Fantasy" and for me, that is what she proved to be, although I promised my family I would not bring home another horse from this program, as I did on two previous occasions.)
During our week on horseback, we visited several historic manor houses (actually small castles) in various stages of reconstruction. Kolga Manor, where we spent the first night at a nearby inn, was the largest, but with the most work still to be done--owned by a Swedish family. The other two, Sagadi and Palmse, were smaller, but in better shape, Sagadi had been owned by a German Baron vonFock and his descendants from 1687 to 1919. Palmse was also owned by a German family, the von der Pahlens from 1510 until the takeover by the Estonian Republic in 1923. The most famous of the Pahlens are Carl Magnus von der Pahlen (1779-1863) who fought for the tsar against Sweden and Turkey, and his son, Alexander, who initiated the building of the Tallinn-St. Petersburg- Russia railway.
On Sunday, June 23, we drove from Tallinn to Riga, the capital of neighboring Latvia. Riga considers itself the "Paris of the Baltics", which may be a slight exaggeration. It is, however, a large (5000,000 pop.), bustling, seacoast city which is a "fashion capital" in addition to the other industries it supports. Like its two Baltic neighbors, Latvia has been conquered and annexed by numerous marauding hordes, from the Danes to the Swedes, the Germans and Russians. The three countries were only independent between World War I and II. In 1939, the infamous Molotov-Ribentrop pact gave the Baltics back to Russia (then the Soviet Union) in return for the Germans getting approximately half of Poland. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the three nations regained their independence in 1991.
Independence has brought a kind of renaissance to the Baltics: The old historic monuments and castles are being conserved, renovated and reconstructed. The work is proceeding at a rapid pace, and National pride is reflected everywhere. The main problem in all three countries is what to do with the Russians who were originally imposed upon them by Stalin. Most Russians living in the Baltics have nowhere else to go.
While Russification was the goal under Soviet occupation, now the situation is reversed: A Russian resident can become a citizen of Latvia or Lithuania, but learning the language is a prerequisite. Both Latvian and Lithuanian languages are strictly local and obscure--supposedly derived fro ancient sanscrit. They have no relation to any other language or, in fact, to each other. The Latvians cannot understand Lithuanians and vice versa. As a result, most of the educated people are multi-lingual.
Basking in Culture
One day we took a side trip to Jurmala, the Baltic equivalent of the riviera, with many handsome buildings and estates of the Latvian affluent near the Baltic Sea. That same day we drove to Rundale Palace, seemingly in the middle of nowhere in a remote rural area. It was built originally for a commoner with the German name of Ernst Johann Biron, who became a favorite of the Russian empress Anna Joanova, and later of Catherine the Great who brought him back from exile in Siberia to die in his summer palace. By then, he had the title: Duke of Courland. What is remarkable is that Rundale in such a remote spot was designed and built by the world famous architect, Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli, who designed both the Hermitage and Tsarskoye Selo in St. Petersburg, Russia. What is even more remarkable is that the Latvians, despite their fragile economy today, have restored Rundale to a higher level than both the Hermitage and Tsarskoye Selo. The Latvians used artisans from St. Petersburg and with better results. Perhaps this says something important about Latvia's emerging democracy.
Another car took us from Riga to Vilnius, the traditional capital of Lithuania . I say traditional because the capital moved to Kaunus during the interwar years. Vilnius then belonged to that part of Lithuania which joined or was annexed by Poland. Baltic history is not always easy to follow
Lithuania is the most agricultural of the three Baltic nations, but much of the land remains uncultivated. The land which was nationalized under the Soviets can now be returned to the original owners or their descendants, but often the latter have declined to press their claims as they have to buy the buildings which have been constructed on their land during nationalization; and many don't want to pay the price.
While Estonia and Latvia are eager to join the EU, Lithuania is evidently split almost 50-50 on the issue. The peasants are wary of the EU farm lobby, especially if they will not receive the same large subsidy accruing to West European farmers. Another condition if EU membership is the closing down of the Chernobyl type nuclear power plant which provides an enormous amount of cheap power. Replacing it with non-nuclear plants will be very costly.
Unlike Estonia and Latvia, where the reformation converted most churches to Lutheran denomination, Lithuania is mostly (80%) Catholic. Consequently, we visited numerous churches, cathedrals and castles built by Poles and Germans. Trakai castle on an island in the middle of a lake outside Vilnius was particularly impressive.
One example of the Lithuanian's religious fervor was the famous "hill of crosses" which we visited briefly on our drive from Riga to Vilnius. It is estimated that there are up to a million crosses of all sizes and descriptions located on that hillside--often in memory of some individual or family. During the Soviet occupation, the authorities tried to take the crosses down periodically, but more would reappear the following day. At last the Communists gave up the effort and considering it futile.
Continuing on, we traveled from Vilnius to Warsaw by train. Our accommodations were supposed to have been in the "luxury' category, but consisted of 3 bunk beds on top of one another, with no room to sit down. And there was no dining car. It was something like being on a submarine, which I sailed on just once in my life and vowed never to do again. But then, we always adjust to necessary conditions.
Warsaw, we discovered, is an entirely reconstructed town--from ground up. It was totally destroyed during World War II except for two palaces which we visited;both were used as German military headquarters and were therefore spared. Hitler once ordered that the only thing he wanted to remain in Warsaw was the name, and in this respect he was successful. Given those circumstances, the reconstruction has been remarkable. The historic buildings have been replaced in the general style of the era if not always in specific detail.
Finally, there was Krakow, perhaps the most authentic, quaint and attractive European city I have ever seen--with the possible exception of Prague. Krakow served as German headquarters during World War II and was never bombed or destroyed during the war.The Germans had to evacuate the area ahead of schedule and never had a chance to blow anything up. Consequently it is a tourist paradise. The main square, where our Wentzel Hotel was located, is the largest one in Europe--even bigger than piazza San Marco in Venice--and very beautiful. The main church of St. Mary's dominates the area and tolls the hours by bell. Then a trumpet blasts by a real living trumpeter (every hour of the day or night)--representing the 13th century equivalent who warned the local citizenry of the imminent arrival of the Mongols.
On the afternoon of our arrival in Krakow, we hired a taxi and drove (about an hour) to the infamous Auschwitz I and nearby Auschwitz-Birkenau II. Given all of the recent publicity about the holocaust, there is no need to provide further details here. It was not a pleasant experience, but perhaps a necessary one if you visit Krakow. I should add that this visit has been "balanced" in Vilnius by a tour of the KGB museum, which also included torture and execution chambers. Both the Nazi & Soviet machines represent unbelievable forms of inhumanity in the history of the human race.
A Serious Purpose
While in Krakow, I dragged my classmates to the local Children's Hospital, which turns out to be the largest and most prestigious pediatric hospital in Poland. One "center" of the hospital--and a focal point of the extended building--is dedicated to my late former boss, Rep. Clement J. Zablocki, Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. My own memoirs happen to include a major section of Zablocki "memorabilia", so I presented a copy of the book to the hospital director. He accepted it with enthusiastic good grace, although it is doubtful he will ever find the time to read the full text.
This is about all I have time or space for. Daniel Webster once said of Dartmouth: "It is, Sir, a small college, but there are those of us who love it." One might say the same of the Baltics. If you ever have the opportunity to visit them, by all means do so.
That is my last word, except to wish all classmates and their families a happy summer.
Most improved: Arthur Collins (He has no where to go but up!)
Most Knowledgeable: Robert Jiranek (He talks even better than he rides.)
Most Unique; Jackey Raab-Passanesi (The only Estonian who does not eat smoked fish.)
Most Didactic; Barbara Clarke: (The only person with more rules that Merica.)
Fantasy's only fantasy: Chips ( His traveler's checks were a complete fantasy.)
Most Passionate: Merica (She vowed Estonians are more passionate than Princetonians.)