Hitting the Beach on the Baltic Sea in Estonia

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Located on the eastern coast of the Baltic SeaEstonia has a coastline of 3700 meters.   Surprisingly, the Baltic is not very salty and rather shallow, so it is warmer than you would expect.  I’m not saying its bath water warm, but it’s not Lake Superior cold.

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We traveled from Helsinki to Tallinn by boat in about an hour and a half.   During the Cold War with Finland so close, the Soviet Union zealously guarded its western coast and Estonia became heavily militarized under communist rule.  They were afraid people would defect.  Also, large parts of the country were off-limits to all but the Soviet military.

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With Finland so close,  most of the sea shore was declared a “border zone” meaning they were heavily fortified and citizens were prohibited from entering the water.  They monitored the sand to see if there was tracks headed out that did not return.  Most beaches were forbidden for Estonians. No one could even travel to the beach on a summer day for some fresh air, non-residents required a permit to visit them.

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Our guide told us that under communism this beach had barbed wire, concrete block observation posts (which must have been freezing in winter), other armaments and patrols.  Today, they are hugely popular in the summer.  Cool young Estonians and families flock to them to swim, play, cook out, camp, and watch the sunset.

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It probably didn’t help that the Soviets had one of their three nuclear submarine training facilities not far from there in the city of Paldiski.  Its nuclear reactors functioned continuously for twenty years.  In addition to the nuclear submarine training center (complete with a full-scale model of a nuclear submarine with working nuclear reactors), it was a support base for the Soviet Baltic Fleet‘s submarines and several other large military bases.  A former sailor on a submarine said “I’ve seen the whole world, just not above the water.”

 

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The Soviet Union brought hundreds of thousands of Russian migrants to Estonia to assist with their militarization.  This forced migration resulted in an increase of about half a million people in 45 years!  The Soviets built Soviet-style buildings apartment buildings for them.  The styles are nicknamed after the Premier in power at the time of construction.  Apparently you want to live in a Stalin or a Khrushchev and not a Chernenko or a Gorbachev (they were actually General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party and/or President of the Soviet Union, not Premier), because the quality of the building materials degenerated. By the end, it was pretty shoddy.  Once our guide pointed it out, it was easy to see the difference and tell when they were built by their state of decay.

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The Soviet Union brought hundreds of thousands of Russian migrants to Estonia to assist with their militarization.  This forced migration resulted in an increase of about half a million people in 45 years!  The Soviets built Soviet-style buildings apartment buildings for them.  The styles are nicknamed after the Premier in power at the time of construction.  Apparently you want to live in a Stalin or a Khrushchev and not a Chernenko or a Gorbachev (they were actually General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party and/or President of the Soviet Union, not Premier), because the quality of the building materials degenerated. By the end, it was pretty shoddy.  Once our guide pointed it out, it was easy to see the difference and tell when they were built by their state of decay.

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After the end of the “Cold War” the facilities passed to Estonian control in 1994 after the last Russian troops left the country. These Russian Immigrants were given the choice of returning to Moscow or remaining.  Many chose to remain in their apartment blocks in former military towns; they’d spent most of their lives there and didn’t want to leave their home.  As a result, today there are pockets of people who haven’t integrated into Estonian society, don’t speak Estonian and don’t have employment as the bases closed.  Ethnic tensions linger and it is a significant problem for Estonia.

 

From it.wikipedia.org

 

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A Hidden Soviet Air Cemetery in an Estonian Forest

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We saw some pretty cool sights in Estonia outside of Tallinn.  The Soviet’s had large air base in Estonia.  Between the base and the cluster of buildings that formed the town servicing it, a cemetery is located back in the woods.  It’s obvious that they are the graves of airmen.

A large majority of the graves were unmarked.  Our guide hadn’t figured out why.  There is some ethnic tension between Estonians and the Russians who were moved here by the Soviet Union to towns where Soviet military facilities were located.  After Estonian independence, many of these Russians stayed but have not integrated.   Did they have plaques on them that widows took with them when they returned to Russia after the Cold War?  Were the names and dates so secret that they were intentionally unmarked?  Did the missions not “officially” exist?  I had a lot of questions that our fantastic guide couldn’t answer.  He hadn’t found any ethnic Russians who would talk with him about it.  I joked about going door to door.  He told me if they wouldn’t talk to an Estonian, they sure as heck weren’t going to talk to an American.

Terriffic Tallinn

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Learning about Tallinn’s history I heard a phrase I haven’t heard since my high school Western Civilizations class, The Hanseatic League.  Huh?   What does that have to do with anything?   Learning about it was pretty cool.  The Hanseatic League was middlemen/traders.  For about 500 years (from 1250-1750), they controlled most of the commerce in northern Europe.

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Before the rise of powerful kings and the modern nation-state, local leaders ruled small fiefdoms, kingdoms, dukedoms and probably other –doms.  Local governments were small and relatively weak.  City dwellers were interested in trade, but paying taxes and tolls to each and every feudal overlord was excessive and impeded trade.   Rulers and the various -doms were too small to develop an effective coordinated response to pirates on the seas.   It was difficult to conduct any sort of large-scale commercial activity in such an environment.

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Enter the Hanseatic League.  Prominent merchants banded together, forming a merchant guild to defend themselves against pirates.  They hired armies to protect their ships and ports.   It worked well and they began establishing trading posts in abroad where they bargained with local leaders for discounts.  The Hanse (which in German means trading guild) would trade fish from Scandinavia for grain from the Baltics or luxury goods from Flanders or English wool.  It worked well and trade flourished.  Everyone got something out of it and the League got rich off of their cut.  Not only rich, in a time before strong nation states, they became powerful.  In their heyday, they were a dominant force and stabilizing influence.

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If it worked, what happened?  Rising nation states, particularly their kings, didn’t want to compete for power and were jealous of the League’s wealth.  Plus, the post-reformation religious wars tore apart old Hanseatic alliances.   By the 16th century, trade moved decisively to the south and west as countries like Portugal, Italy, Spain and France set ships to explore and return with treasures from Africa and the Americas.

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We took the ferry from Helsinki to Tallinn, Estonia.  While it was a short ride, it had a culture that was distinct from Scandinavia, both Nordic and Russian.   After the decline of the Hanseatic League, it experienced two centuries of Tsarist Russia rule before World War I and 45 years of communist rule after World War II.  In September 1991, Estonia left the Soviet Union and declared independence (along with the three Baltic states of Latvia, and Lithuania).  The U.S.S.R. recognized Estonia as being independent on September 6, 1991.  In November Yeltsin issued a decree banning the Communist Party throughout Russia.

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While independence was natural for many Estonians, it has an enormous Russian population, many of whose families came during communism and never fully integrated.  Nevertheless, many Estonians think of themselves as part of the Nordic and European sphere and Estonia is part of the European Union.

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It was a quick walk into the old town Tallinn from the ferry terminal and an easy cab ride to the airport.  While we saw old wood buildings in the areas surrounding the old town, the walled city has an Old World ambience.  Tallinn’s old town medieval center is amazingly well-preserved as there wasn’t a lot of building there during communism.  The old town has watchtowers, colorfully painted medieval houses, cobblestoned lanes, and old Lutheran churches.

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Tallinn, view (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Post-communism, Tallinn modernized quickly and prices have risen with the development.  Even so, being used to Swiss prices, we almost cheered when we saw Tallinn’s rates.  The food was great and we enjoyed dinners out, something we don’t do often in Geneva.  We weren’t the only ones, the streets were filled with people eating, drinking and making merry.  There was a general relaxed, happy summer vibe.  Scandinavians, especially Swedes and Finns, come for a night away and cheap alcohol as it is very highly taxed in their home countries.

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The Town hall of Tallinn, Estonia. Eesti: Tall...

The Town hall of Tallinn, Estonia. Eesti: Tallinna raekoda. Français : L’hôtel de ville de Tallinn, en Estonie. Русский: Таллинская Ратуша. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Town Hall Square has served as a marketplace since the time of the Hanseatic League. The 15th century Town Hall dominates the square.  There are lots of impressive churches like the Cathedral of Saint Mary o, but the best part about Tallinn is the Estonians who inhabit it and how well-preserved it is.  Enjoy wandering the streets, talking to people and taking in all the details.

Tallinn Old Town (Toompea)

Tallinn Old Town (Toompea) (Photo credit: rlanvin)

We Stormed The Kastell – Vaxholms Kastell Fortress

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For centuries, Vaxholm Fortress (Vaxholms Kastell) guarded a crucial entry route into Stockholm’s harbor.    King Gustav Vasa (yep, the same one who commissioned that famous ship) built a fortress here and filled in other waterways to ensure that this channel was the only way into and out of Stockholm.  He had good reason to strengthen his defenses.  In 1612, Christian IV of Denmark tried to invade.  Czar Peter the Great of Russia tried to invade in 1719.

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In the mid 19th century, they upgraded, well sort of.  Sweden tore down the old defenses and built a giant new granite fortress there.  Unfortunately for them, the technology of warfare advanced between the time the new fortress was designed and when it was completed some 30 years later.  In its first test, a shell (instead of the old technology of cannonballs) tore a hole in the wall.  The fortresses high guns couldn’t really reach the new style of lower design boats.  Oops.

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Since it couldn’t really serve as a bastion of defense, Vaxholm Fortress was used as a prison.  I don’t think I would have liked to be incarcerated here.  The citadel seemed a little cold and wet.  The uniform didn’t look particularly warm either.  Can you imagine spending a Swedish winter like that?

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In addition to covering pre-20th century history, the museum contains exhibits on its more recent uses.  During World War II, Sweden remained neutral but heightened its military preparedness by strengthening its defenses and drafting conscripts.  The Swedes placed mines in the nearby Sea of Åland.   Polish ORP RyśORP Żbik, and ORP Sęp submarine crews were detained in Vaxholm’s Citadel.

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The end of the Second World War in 1945 signaled the beginning of “Cold War.” Swedish military was  on high alert.  The USSR was as close as nearby Estonia and the Russians had come sniffing their way before.  The archipelago became important because it was a gateway into the country.   Vaxholm’s Kastell Fortress monitored the area.  The military stopped occupying it in 1993 and in 2000, the absence of an external enemy meant all stationary batteries were deactivated in Sweden.  Today, its museum has artifacts thoroughout its history, from royal times to the mines and radar.  The incredible setting makes it all the more interesting and it’s well worth a visit.

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One of the coolest things about it today is that in addition to functioning as a park, it contains a hotel.  The best part is that nothing is closed.  If you stay, you can wander around, picnic, sit on the ramparts with drink, enjoy the quiet and watch boats go by.  Since the rooms have no radio, TV, or internet, you might not have much else to do.

War Memorials On Armistice Day, Also Known As Veteran’s Day

We’ve done our fair share of traveling in France lately.  We’ve noticed virtually every town there has monuments to local citizens who died in service of their country.  The lists of names, often including those deported and killed locally, are a touching remembrance.

Veterans Day annually falls on November 11, but to make it a bank holiday/federal holiday it is observed on Monday, November 12 in the United States .   Why November 11?   On November 11, 1918, the armistice ending World War I was signed.   On that day, hostilities between the Allied countries and Germany officially ended.  Germany

Technical innovations like the machine gun, poison gas, tanks, and aircraft appeared in battle for the first time in World War I.  Scientific advances and industrialization joined to create enormous death tolls.  Germany lost 1,800,000; the Soviet Union lost 1,700,000; France lost 1,385,000; Austria lost 1,200,000;  Great Britain lost 947,000.  While that may seem small in comparison to some of the other countries listed, about 1/3 of Great Britain’s male population died in The Great War!   Extrapolating, it’s difficult to imagine the devastating effects on  experienced by some of the other countries listed, especially those who had the war fought on their soil.

Although we haven’t seen quite as many such monuments in Germany, we did see a few there too.  We came across the one below in Bad Munster, near Bad Kreuznach in Germany.

After WWII, the holiday was expanded to remember those who served in that war.  In the US, we’ve had a significant number of wars over the last century  Veterans Day honors and thanks veterans for their service to their country.

War requires sacrifices and troops bear more of them than most.  It is important to remember those sacrifices and the people who made them.  War isn’t a triviality.  It’s important to remember that it carries with it a human cost.  Whether you call it Armistice Day or Veterans Day, it is a time to remember the price paid, the sacrifices of those that have served and honor those that did.

Fun In The Alpine Fortress Of Fürigen

Last weekend, we went to Lucerne and visited the fortress of Fürigen.  We had been looking forward to visiting some of Switzerland’s formerly hidden fortresses that have been turned into museums.  Since we were near Lucerne, we finally got the chance.

Can you spot the entrance in this photo?

Festung Fürigen Museum zur Wehrgeschichte (aka Fort Fürigen) is  part of Swiss National Redoubt  defense plan (Schweizer Alpenfestung or Réduit Suisse) to respond to foreign invasion.  Developed in by neutral Switzerland the 1880’s, Germany’s invasion of its neighbors necessitated updates (Germany even developed an invasion plan for Switzerland).   Fort Fürigen was part of a series of fortifications around Lake Lucerne that were rushed to completion in 1941-2 to protect nearby roads and rail lines.

The entrance is intentionally well-camouflaged.  We had to double back and ask for directions to find it.  The nondescript entrance leads to a  200-meter (656 feet) tunnel system leads into the mountain.

A private telephone line connected the lake’s fortresses but they also used the radio to communicate with each other.

Entering the fort, you pass the radio station (located near the entrance to assure clear reception) and several sets of machine gun defenses.

The view down the corridor from the gunner’s nest.

Once past the heavy fortifications you see the workings of the fort.  They have the guns, a filter for radioactive material, air shafts, devices to monitor the air for poison gas, storage depot and more on display.

You can actually play around with this gun. He maneuvered it into a decent spot and dutifully posed for a photo when he wanted to play. Hence the hurry up and take the picture smile.

A close up of the gun’s targeting system

The largest problem with these gas masks was the limited range of motion allowed by their connection to the ceiling’s purified air hookup.

This infrared light replaced the old spotlight when the fort was retooled during the Cold War

While the infirmary resembled any 1940’s hospital movie set, the bunk house and dining area looked remarkably like many Swiss ski lodges.

Since they were storing munitions in the bunker, smoking was forbidden…in some areas.  It must have been like prison, where the talk of banning cigarettes leads to mutiny and so it was only limited in essential areas.  After all, the living quarters were gas-proof.

The Swiss had good reason to build defensive outposts like this one.  Hitler’s plans to invade Switzerland were uncovered post-World War II.  The Soviet Union’s also recommended invading the country.

One fortress down, only about 14,999 to go.

No smoking! If you went down the hall and through a door to the residential area, there are ashtrays hanging on walls. Go figure.

 

Czechoslovakia’s History Under Communism

While we were in Prague, we visited the Communist Museum. Czechs seem to have put their post-communist energy into looking (and moving) forward and not looking back at communism. Even so, signs of their time under communist rule are unescapable.
In the 1946 elections, communists got more votes than any other party and their chairman, Klement Gottwald, became Prime Minister. He was an alcoholic, syphilitic, anti-democratic and more than happy to take orders from Stalin.
In 1948, 12 non-communist government leaders resigned as a protest, believing their resignations would not be accepted. They were.  Communists took complete control of the government and Czechoslovakia fell under the strong influence of Moscow.
There was forced collectivisation of industries and the government carried out a currency reform that rendered savings worthless.  The Czechoslovakian secret police’s repression was powerful.  People fled the country, were imprisoned and/or executed.
As you can see from the poster, Czechoslovakia supported North Korea.
This translates to “Watch Border Zone Entry Only Allowed”.
In 1968, there was a battle between hard-line communists as a group wanted liberalization to a less strict version of communism. Reforms for the end of citizen’s surveillance by the secret police, the end of censorship freedom of assembly and expression ensued.  It is known as the Prague Spring.  The Soviet Union feared the Czech Republic would leave the Communist Bloc, the spreading of liberal communism and unrest, the loss of control and an opening of borders with the West.
In 1968, the Soviet’s and other Warsaw Pact countries invaded in a large, well-executed and well-planned operation. The plastered over bullet holes are still visible on the facade of the Czech National Museum because the builders used a lighter color of plaster in their repairs.
In January 1969, student Jan Palach, set himself on fire in Wenceslas Square to protest the invasion.  His funeral turned into a major protest against the occupation.  Protests were unsuccessful and a clampdown followed.  The Communist Party was thoroughly cleansed of any liberalizing members after the Prague Spring, kicked half a million members out of the part and dissolved all organizations that had supported reform.  Censorship was strict and Czechoslovakia’s sovereignty was limited by the Soviet Union.  The cross in the pavement marks the spot where Jan Palach and others died.
Wenceslas Square filled with protesters, again for protests marking the 20th anniversary of Palach’s death criticism of the regime escalated.  This time, the Soviet Union under Gorbachev didn’t react violently.   The ensuing confrontations with police were one of the catalysts for the demonstrations that preceded the fall of the communism with the Velvet Revolution 11 months later.

The museum contained a segment of the Berlin Wall which fell not long after.
 
When we were there Wenceslas Square still contained piles of memorials to its first post-communist leader Vaclev Havel who died in December 2011.
 

 

Praha, Prague, Whatever You Call It, You Will Love it

Last weekend, we met Mrs. DiCaprio in Prague and had a great time. There are no friends like old friends and it is a wonderful city.  Aside from the great company, here are some of the things we liked about Prague:

While certain parts of Prague have definitely figured out the tourist schtick, it didn’t seem as overdeveloped and the local culture seemed a bit more accessible than some cities.
It wasn’t majorly bombed during WWII and so it is rather old and incredibly beautiful.
It’s got a ton of history, a river running through it, beautiful buildings and the light is amazing.  It gives the city a romantic, dreamy quality.
Czech culture is really interesting.  Completely over-generalizing, the Czech Republic is independent, peaceful, loves democracy and is skeptical of authority (which is understandable given their conquest and years of rule under foreign empires like the HapsburgsNazi Germany and The Soviet Union).
The Czech Republic has a rich tradition of art, music and literature that are distinctly Czech.  This tradition still percolates through daily life there.  Below is the Franz Kafka Memorial in the Jewish Quarter.  It was inspired by his story “Description of a Struggle“.
Vaclav Havel, playwright, poet, essayist, dissident and first post-communist leader of the Czech Republic died in December 2011.  His contributions cannot be overstated.

Czechs are proud of their history.  Statutes abound.  You see plaques all over the place with little paragraphs.   For example, Johannes Kepler, the mathematician, scientist and astronomer lived in Prague.  He has a plaque on a former residence.
Crosses in Prague’s main square commemorating the execution of 27 Protestants during the 30 Years War by the Catholic Hapsburgs in 1621.
There is a statute known as the Jan Hus Memorial in the center of Prague at at one end of Old Town Square.  It depicts depicts Hus, a young mother, victorious Hussite warriors and Protestants who were forced into exile.  He was burned at the stake for his beliefs that  Catholic mass should be given in the vernacular, the local language, and not in Latin.
Prague has lots of interesting public art.
 
After John Lennon’s death, people painted his portrait, lyrics and grievances on this wall.  The communist government painted them over every day.  Each night, they appeared anew.  It’s known as the Lennon Wall.
The Penguins below are by the Cracking Art Group.  They are on the edge of  Vltava River waiting for their boat to Antarctica.
We couldn’t help but get our picture taken by the Crawling Baby bronze sculpture by David Cerny.
If you get too cold walking the beautiful streets, excellent cafes and beer halls abound.  Perfect places to warm yourself up.
Prague has an abundance of things to see and do.  Three days were definitely not enough and we hope to be able to go back.