Archive for February, 2010

Tourist Tips: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania

After traveling to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, I would highly recommend visiting this interesting corner of Europe.  February is certainly not high tourist season for these chilly locations, but there was something very nice about the typical Baltic pastel buildings peeking out from the white snow.  I would never recommend rushing through several countries but I felt satisfied with a day or two in each city, especially in the winter.  My time was limited on this trip, but if I went back I would try to explore some smaller towns, especially in Lithuania.  I would like to provide a list of tips for backpackers or students traveling to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania on a budget.

Vilnius, Lithuania

Transportation: Coming from Poland, I took a night bus with Eurolines from Warsaw to Tallinn.  This is not the most efficient way to travel to Estonia, but the ticket was very cheap with my student discount (225 PLN one way, or 56 euros).  Another option is to try to find a cheap flight to Riga.  My friends took a ferry from Helsinki which they said was really enjoyable. Once in the Baltics, the cities are an easy bus ride apart.

BUS TICKETS:

  • Warsaw to Tallinn – 225 PLN (about 21 hours)
  • Tallinn to Tartu – 140 EEK (about 2.5 hours)
  • Tartu to Riga – 168 EEK (about 4 hours)
  • Riga to Vilnius – 9 LAT (about 5 hours)
  • Vilnius to Warsaw – 95 Litas (about 10 hours overnight)

TALLINN, ESTONIA
Tallinn, the capital city of Estonia, is situated on the Baltic Sea and has an enjoyable city center.

Baltic Sea - Tallinn, Estonia

My favorite three sights/activities:

  1. Soviet War Monument: Take a stroll along the Baltic Sea to search for this leftover memorial that was erected over the graves of German soldiers during the Soviet occupation of Estonia.  (Pirata tee)
  2. Museum of Occupations of Estonia: Occupied by the Soviet Union, then briefly by Nazi Germany before another four and a half decades of Soviet occupation, this museum presents the 20th century history of Estonia through memorabilia and videos.    I also quite liked the architecture of the building itself.  (Toompea 8)
  3. Free walking tour from tourist information center:  The tourist center offers free 2 hour walking tours of the center and the guide explains the legends and history of Tallinn.  She will also ask for a tip at the end.  Check the office at Mundi tanav 2 for details because the times change seasonally.

Food: I did not have great luck with Estonian food so here are other recommendations.

  • Reval Café (Vene 1)  Sit next to a cozy fireplace as you eat reasonably priced omeletes, salads, and light dishes in the center.
  • KehrWieder (Saiakang 1)  With a few locations throughout the city, this was the best coffee I have had in a long time.
  • EAT Dumpling and Doughnut Café http://www.eat.ee/ (Sauna 2)  Visit this modest café to eat dumplings priced by weight with local students.

Accommodation: I stayed in two hostels in Tallinn, and Tallinn Backpackers Hostel (Olevimägi 11) was far better than Euphoria Hostel.  The place was conveniently located in the Old Town, the staff was friendly and helpful, and the rooms were clean.  Because the hostel is multi-leveled, you can be social if you want or go to bed early.  80ish EEK/8 USD for a dorm bed.

View of Tallinn, Estonia

TARTU, ESTONIA
Tartu is the university city of Estonia and only a short bus ride from Tallinn.

Town Hall - Tartu, Estonia

My favorite three sights/activities:

  1. Toomemagi (Cathedral Hill): Take a walk past quaint bridges, through thick woods, and discover a ruined gothic cathedral.
  2. Tartu Ulikool (Tartu University):  The city centers around these academic buildings and the student-life within…
  3. Estonian National Museum: This museum tracks the history, life and traditions of the Estonian people.  There are displays of holidays, costumes and crafts.  (Veski 32)

Food Recommendations:

  • Crepp: Quiche, soups, and meals with fresh ingredients and a cool ambiance.  (Ruutli 16)

Transportation:
Tartu to Riga – 4ish hours, 168 EEK

RIGA, LATVIA
Riga was my favorite stop during this trip for the interesting architecture and vibe of a bigger city.

House of Blackheads - Riga, Latvia

My favorite three sights/activities:

  1. Museum of the Occupation of Latvia: The museum explains the tumultuous history of Latvia from 1940-1991 through powerful displays, memorabilia and one room with a reconstruction of gulag barracks.  Free with the suggestion of a donation. (Strēlnieku laukums 1)
  2. House of Blackheads and other architecture…  The city is known for its art nouveau style architecture, among other influences.  Take a walking tour and start in the center at the House of Blackheads.
  3. Market Hall:  Browse through this enormous market hall near the bus station to get a feel for every day life in Latvia.  There are five connected pavilions selling everything from meat to souvenirs to underwear. Definitely worth taking a walk through or pausing for something to eat.  (Negu iela 7)

Food/Accommodation Recommendations:

  • Dome Pearl Hostel: This hostel was the nicest hostel I have ever stayed in and felt more like a hotel.  Centrally located, the place is clean and is operated by an endearing Russian grandmother who offered us coffee and tried to set me up with another traveler.  (4 Tirgoņu iela) http://www.dome-hostel.com
  • Lido Restaurant: This is a chain Latvian restaurant with several locations and lob cabin interiors.  The food is served buffet style but prepared and grilled in sight. A great way to taste hearty Latvian food and its relatively cheap for the portion sizes.

Transportation:

Bus Riga to Vilnius – 9 Lat

Riga at Night

VILNIUS, LITHUANIA
The largest and capital city of Lithuania and contains the largest Old Town in East Europe.

Art in the Center of Riga

My favorite sights/activities:

  1. Lithuanian State Jewish Museum/Centre for Tolerance:  Vilnius once contained a flourishing Jewish community and this museum explains its very interesting and difficult history.  The museum also contains an eclectic art collection of Jewish artists in all media.  (Naugarduko gatve 10/2)
  2. Uzupis district: The Montmartre of Vilnius, this artist district of the city has a bohemian feel with many galleries and cafes. In 1997, the residents of the area declared a Republic of Užupis, with its own flag, currency, president, and constitution which is posted in several languages near the main square. They celebrate this independence annually on Užupis Day, which falls on April 1st/April Fool’s Day when they stamp people’s passports upon entering.

Uzupis

I recommend seeing these three countries together in one trip.  I had a great time and hope that some of these suggestions are useful for other travelers and backpackers to the Baltics.

Child of a Dictator

While reading the news today, I wondered…how does it feel to be the son of a former dictator, a leader so cruel that he was despised and executed?  Valentin Ceausescu, the only surviving child of Nicolae Ceausescu still lives in Bucharest today, solely bearing the burden of his family’s destruction.

Nicolae Ceausescu was perhaps the most brutal dictator of the former communist bloc.  He completely bankrupted the country for personal gain, and the 23 million citizens were extremely impoverished. The noteworthy feature of Romania’s political power in the 1980s was the cult of personality surrounding Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu. Following Ceausescu’s rise to power in 1965, Romanians enjoyed a short-lived period of liberalization, as the new leader sought to gain genuine popularity among his people. By 1971, however, the regime had reasserted its Stalinist legacy in all economic and cultural matters.

Nicolae Ceausescu

Meaningful reforms failed to materialize and Ceausescu maintained power with an ideological hold on intellectual and cultural life.  The media portrayed Ceausescu as a “creative” communist and political leader whose thought and direction were the source of all national accomplishments. His time as president was known as the “golden era of Ceausescu.” The media praised him as the  “guarantor of the nation’s progress and independence” and “visionary architect of the nation’s future.” In the 1980s, the personality cult was extended to other members of the Ceausescu family. Ceausescu’s wife, Elena, also held a position of prominence in political life. By the mid-1980s, Elena Ceausescu’s national prominence had grown to the point that her birthday was celebrated as a national holiday, as was her husband’s.

Elena Ceausescu

Meanwhile, Romania had a lack of basic goods, food rationing, and power cuts so that heat, electricity and hot water were luxuries.  Ceausescu even banned contraception and abortion in order to create a population boom.  Romania was full of orphanages of unwanted children and streets full of stray dogs.  Today, the name Ceausescu is associated with suffering.

Twenty years ago, Valentin Ceausescu was arrested on Christmas Day 1989, the same day that both of his parents were executed by a firing squad.  Valentin spent eight months in jail and then was released into a completely different country.  He believes, along with many other Romanians, that a group of communists conspiring against his father and seeking personal gain orchestrated the revolution, and afterwards presented themselves as the “National Salvation Front.”  The NSF repeatedly blocks information about what really happened in 1989.

How does it feel to be the child of a dictator?  I asked this question once before, when I attended a lecture by Alina Fernandez in Virginia, illegitimate daughter of Fidel Castro. Although her parents were not married, Fidel Castro is the only father she will ever have and a huge part of her upbringing.  Today she lives in Miami and is highly critical of her father’s regime, through the radio, a book, a movie, and lectures at places like my former university.  When I heard her lecture I was struck by how distantly she spoke about Fidel, devoid of any emotion and seemingly well rehearsed, as if he were only a political leader and not a dad.

Valentin Ceausescu

Valentin Ceausescu (61 years old), on the other hand, grew up in luxury but leads a quiet life in a suburb of Bucharest today.  He has no limousine or bodyguard and rarely gives interviews.  Despite trying to keep out of the limelight, I notice him in the news today.  He is suing the producers of a play about his father now onstage at the Odeon Theater in Bucharest, on the grounds that he owns the rights to the name.  The play, which opened in December, recounts the story of his father’s trial and execution.  Valentin Ceausescu argues that he owns the name “Nicolae Ceausescu” which is registered at the National Trademarks Office.  His attorney states that any book or movie with the name Ceausescu need to obtain the rights from the family.  The funny thing is that there are 35 living Romanians with the name Nicolae Ceausescu.  The producers of the play argue that the name of a historical figure cannot be the property of anyone.

I suppose Valentin is attempting to save his family’s name from further ridicule but surely this play cannot be the first time the story is retold.  Romania still bears the marks of Ceausescu’s destruction, and memories of his regime are fresh in the minds of Romanians today.  I am not sure which is the better path- to speak out critically like Alina Fernandez who is probably making a lot of money selling her upbringing in Cuba, or to keep out of the spotlight until the family needs defending, like Valentin Ceausescu.   Twenty years after the death of his parents he is still trying to protect his family legacy, despite their undeniable cruelty.  Certainly it’s not easy to be the child of a dictator…

Majority Rules: The Education System in Bosnia

Recently, I expressed my interest in the education system in Bosnia.  Here is an excerpt from an essay I wrote:

In the Republika Srpska, problems arise when Muslim Bosniaks return to their small towns that were ethnically cleansed during the war. In these communities, education policies primarily reflect the domination of the Serbian majority group over minorities. Minority children are allowed access only to education organized to serve the needs of the majority students and the atmosphere is hostile in some schools.  The Serbian curriculum has a Serbian world perspective and is taught in the Serbian language and the Cyrillic alphabet. Students learn of the symbols, struggles and sacrifices of the Serbian people neglecting to explain the other perspectives in Bosnia. For example, in music class students learn patriotic Serbian songs, and in religion class only Orthodox Christianity is considered.  Vague references to “our country” implicitly refer to Serbia and not to Bosnia and Herzegovina.   Although the education system in Republika Srpska is centralized and the administration functions more smoothly than the system in FBiH, schools fail to incorporate minorities.

In FBiH, education is less centralized with many decisions delegated to the local level.  Much tension exists between the Bosniaks and Croats, as evident in their schools, and many parents will drive their children to a school farther away in order to receive instruction with their own ethnicity.  In the five cantons with a Muslim majority, education is taught from a Bosniak perspective in the Bosnian language.  Literature focuses on Bosniak authors, and does not include authors from other ethnicities in the region.  History textbooks heavily emphasize aggression and genocide attempts against Muslims specifically . In the two cantons with a Croatian majority in FBiH, the study of language means instruction only in Croatian without any references to the other languages of the region.  The wars in the 1990s are referred to with the theme of defending “the homeland.”  The history books focus on a Croatian perspective and neglect the “non-Croatian population.”  Bosnia and Herzegovina is referred to like a foreign country such as Serbia or Macedonia and textbooks are published in Zagreb .

Religion, as one of the main distinguishing features of ethnicity in Bosnia, is specifically a sensitive issue in education.  The constitutions of FBiH and Republika Srpska explicitly guarantee religious freedom while implicitly referring to a separation of church and state.  However, with the importance of religion in the last few decades, an American-style separation of church and state is impossible in Bosnia .  Religious education was introduced in all public schools in the 1990s yet only the religion of the majority is taught.  Authorities explain that it is not possible to provide teachers to represent each religious group, reflecting the political divisions in the country .  Technically religion education classes are optional, but in reality, students who opt-out of these courses face discrimination in some school districts.  In some schools if students do not attend the religion classes, they are forced to sit in the hallway .  This method of dealing with multiculturalism in schools only emphasizes and strengthens differences between ethnicities.

Still interested? Download the pdf to read the essay.  bosniaeducation

Balkan Bibliography

I am so thrilled that Kirk at Americans for Bosnia and Shaina at The Daily Seyahatname compiled  an annotated bibliography on Bosnia specifically and the former-Yugoslavia in general.  As I begin to research my MA degree, this is very helpful…thanks for your hard work!  The list can be found here and the following books are included so far:

My Favorite Presents.... Christmas 2009 🙂

A Problem From Hell:America in the Age of Genocide/Samantha Power
Aftermath: Bosnia’s Long Road to Peace/Sara Terry
Balkan Express/Slavenka Drakulic
The Balkans/Mark Mazower
The Balkans/Misha Glenny
Balkan Tragedy/Susan Woodward
Be Not Afraid, for You Have Sons in America/Stacey Sullivan
Black Book of Bosnia/Editors of “New Republic”
Blood and Vengeance/Chuck Sudetic
Bosnia: A Short History/Noel Malcolm
Bosnia: A Tradition Betrayed/Donia and Fine
Bosnia After Dayton/Sumantra Bose
The Bosnian Muslims: Denial of a Nation/Friedman
The Bone Woman: A Forensic Anthropologist Search for Truth in the Mass Graves of Rwanda, Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo/Clea Koff
The Bridge Betrayed/Michael Sells
Burn This House: The Making and Unmaking of Yugoslavia/ Udovicki and Ridgeway, ed.
Conceit of Innocence/Mestrovic
Complicity With Evil/Adam LeBor
Cry Bosnia/Paul Harris
The Culture of Politics in Serbia: Nationalism and the Destruction of Alternatives/Eric Gordy
The Destruction of Yugoslavia/Branka Magas
Divide and Fall/Radha Kumar
Endgame/David Rohde
The Fall of Yugoslavia/Misha Glenny
The Fixer/Joe Sacco
Fools Rush In/Bill Carter
From Enemy Territory/Mladen Vuksanovic
Genocide and Resistance in Hitler’s Bosnia: The Partisans and the Chetniks, 1941-1943/Marko Attila Hoare
Genocide in Bosnia/Norman Cigar
Hearts Grown Brutal/Roger Cohen
Heavenly Serbia: From Myth to Genocide/Branimir Anzulovic
The History of Bosnia: From the Middle Ages to the Present Day/Marko Attila Hoare
How Bosnia Armed/Marko Attila Hoare
Hunting the Tiger: The Fast Life and Violent Death of the Balkan’s Most Dangerous Man (Arkan)/Christopher S. Stewart
In Harm’s Way/Martin Bell
Indictment at the Hague/Norman Cigar, Paul Williams
The Key To My Neighbor’s House/Elizabeth Neuffer
Kosovo/Tim Judah
Kosovo/Noel Malcolm
Like Eating a Stone
Love Thy Neighbor/Peter Maass
Madness Visible/ Janine di Giovanni
Merry Christmas, Mr. Larry/Larry Hollingsworth
Milosevic: A Biography/Adam LeBor
My War Gone By, I Miss it So/Anthony Lloyd
The New Bosnian Mosaic/Bougarel, Helms, Duijzings
Not My Turn To Die/Heleta
A Paper House: The Ending of Yugoslavia/Mark Thompson
Postcards from the Grave/ Emir Suljagic -personal memoir, Srebrenica
Safe Area Gorazde/Joe Sacco
Sarajevo: A War Journal/Zlatko Dixdarevic
Sarajevo Blues/Semezdin Mehmedinovic
Sarajevo Daily/Tom Gjelten
Sarajevo: Exodus of a City
Seasons in Hell/ Ed Vulliamy
Serbia’s Secret War/Philip Cohen
The Serbs/Tim Judah
Slaughterhouse/David Reiff
Srebrenica: Record of a War Crime/ Jan Willem Honig and Norbert Both
The Suitcase: Refugee voices from Bosnia and Croatia/
The Stone Fields/Courtney Angela Broic
The Tenth Circle of Hell/Rezak Hukanovic
Then They Started Shooting/Dynne Jones
They Would Never Hurt a Fly/ Slavenka Drakulic
This Time We Knew/Cushman and Mestrovic
To End A War/Holbrooke
Under the UN Flag/Hasan Nuhanovic
War Hospital/Sheri Fink
The War in Bosnia-Herzegovina: ethnic conflict and international intervention/Burg and Shoup
War Hospital/Sheri Fink
This Was Not Our War: Bosnian women reclaiming the peace/Hunt
Wly Bosnia/Rabia Ali, ed.
When History is a Nightmare/Stevan Weine
A Witness to Genocide/Gutman
With their Backs to the World/Asne Seierstand
Yugoslavia’s Floody Collapse/Christopher Bennett
Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation/Silber and Little

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