Travel

In Baltic cities, ‘free’ guided tours are worthwhile

A view through the Gate of Dawn, revered by many Lithuanians for its historic and religious significance.
iStockphoto
A view through the Gate of Dawn, revered by many Lithuanians for its historic and religious significance.

RIGA, Latvia — Whatever your travel budget, it’s nice to know what you’re paying for. I was thinking this as we explored Riga’s bustling Central Market during our second stay in the city in eight days. We were trying to decide the remainder of our two-week tour of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania and, more immediately, lunch: Those peasant-style meatballs and gray peas with bits of smoky bacon looked inviting at the corner food bar. Tomorrow, how about a 33-mile trip to Sigulda — worth the train fare and admission to see more medieval castle ruins?

With any purchase on the road, especially in unfamiliar locales, it’s a hit-or-miss proposition. There are few guarantees; you pay, and hope. Wouldn’t it be great if you could experience it first, then decide what it’s worth?

My wife and I discovered just such a thing during our recent visit to the Baltic nations: walks on which the guides left it to participants to decide what to pay afterward. Available in a handful of cities in northern Europe, the walks are billed as “free” tours led by English-speaking “volunteers,” but participants are welcome to tip. It seemed a simple concept, but after our third walk, we decided it’s brilliant: It got us to try a different way of seeing a place, each time with unexpected results.

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The guides we met, all friendly young locals, wanted to show us what they loved about their hometown. We joined two walks in Riga, one within the Latvian capital’s old town and the other outside of it, and liked them so much we took in a third when we visited Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. Each walk took about 2½ hours, during which our guides dished out local history and social commentary as we wandered neighborhoods sometimes far off the tourist grids.

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Riga and Vilnius, which are about 4½ hours apart by bus, were founded in the 13th and 14th centuries, respectively, and both had been major trade centers and seats of ecclesiastical power. Each has a UNESCO World Heritage historic district, or old town, full of postcard-beautiful scenes and significant attractions that could easily eat up one’s entire stay.

We did our homework and hadn’t planned on veering off the ordinary. We would have blissfully roamed the warren of crooked cobbled streets, stopped to see a magnificent church, boned up on local ethnography in the many museums, or loitered in the beer gardens for delicious local brews, had we not learned by chance about the free walks.

When we met up with Krista Saberova, our guide on our first walk in Riga, she announced we would see little of the old town after leaving the shadow of St. Peter’s Church, the meeting point. “Riga is more than just the old town and its bars,” she said, smiling at the few of us who must have looked like we enjoyed such establishments.

I liked her already, with her light brown hair dipped in a dye a shade or two off the color of key lime pie. She said she’s a graduate student in socioanthropology, working on a paper about the homeless in Riga. She started giving tours in 2009 before finding work in a local library. But she said the job bored her so much she’s back to guiding, and making do with whatever she gets from grateful tourists. She’s acerbic, but funny. As we meandered through the Central Market — five former zeppelin hangars crammed with acres of shops and stalls selling produce, cheeses, meats, fish, and tubs of writhing eels — a twentysomething from San Francisco declared he was thrilled with the smells, which he said reminded him of growing up in Uzbekistan.

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“Oh, yeah?” said Saberova. “Maybe you’d like to buy some fish and put it in your bag and get on a bus, and see how you like it.”

Just beyond the market, on the edge of the city’s Moscow district, she pointed to a round red-brick building that seemed out of place. It’s a controversial spot, she said, a public water closet, or toilet, built where a Russian Orthodox church was razed by the Bolsheviks. “If you are religious, you would feel sad about it,” she said. “But if you are an atheist, you are happy because you have another toilet.”

We laughed nervously. I got the feeling she was preparing us for sterner stuff as we ventured deeper into Riga’s underbelly. We stopped briefly across the street from an imposing Soviet-built skyscraper now occupied by the Latvian Academy of Sciences, a khaki-colored behemoth locals derisively call “Stalin’s Birthday Cake.”

“Some people want to tear it down,” Saberova said. “But other people say it’s an important reminder of the Soviet occupation of our country, and we should remember.”

Like Estonia and Lithuania, Latvia was occupied by czarist Russia for about two centuries until the end of World War I, then overrun again by Moscow after just 19 years of independence. We would see more than half a dozen other places before we got to the harshest reminder of the most recent Soviet era.

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We sauntered past fantastic examples of late-19th-century Art Nouveau architecture, their facades festooned with gargoyles and animal heads and dripping with naked nymphs and vines. We visited the so-called Russian black market, a messy collection of makeshift stalls. We paused in Vermane’s Garden, created in 1814 after the city outskirts were burned during the French army’s advance toward Russia and today one of Riga’s most beloved venues. We bowed at the ruins of the Great Choral Synagogue, set ablaze in July 1941 during the Nazi occupation with some 300 Jews trapped inside.

Before our walk ended near Latvia’s Freedom Monument, a 138-foot memorial to the country’s heroes for independence, Saberova gathered us outside the shuttered “Corner House,” the old KGB headquarters where Latvians suspected of nationalistic ambitions were tortured and met their end, or interrogated and shipped to labor camps in the Soviet permafrost.

I thought then of how glad I was to have joined Saberova’s show-and-tell of places and things more acutely relevant to Latvians. It’s easy to be lost amid the charms of old town and forget that the Soviet occupation of the Baltics ended only in 1991, after Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost relaxed the Kremlin’s grip on Eastern Europe and eventually led to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain. A generation or two before that, families were being torn apart and crammed into railroad cars bound for labor camps in the northern reaches of the communist empire. Some of these cattle cars can be seen in museums and other displays in the Baltics today, haunting reminders of Stalin’s monstrous regime.

Elvyra Novicka, our guide in Vilnius, also eschewed most of the must-see spots of her city — Cathedral Square, Gediminas Hill, and the Gate of Dawn, to name a few. After introducing herself outside City Hall she ushered two dozen of us to the front right corner of the building. There’s a plaque there commemorating George W. Bush’s 2002 presidential visit and speech in which number 43, still riding high 14 months after 9/11, declared, “Anyone who would choose Lithuania as an enemy has also made an enemy of the United States of America.”

“Lithuanians were very proud President Bush came here and made that speech,” said Novicka. But now, sadly, she said, her small country of 3 million people is seemingly forgotten in the geopolitical sphere.

Novicka was proud to show us her hometown, though. She said she’s a customs officer at the Vilnius airport and decided to try guiding because she’s reticent by nature and wanted to force herself to speak up, and to improve her English. “I love my city, and I love living here,” she said.

She’s especially fond of the Republic of Uzupis, a city district along the Vilnia River that asserted independence on April Fools’ Day in 1997. Uzupis (“on the other side of the river”) is only 148 acres but its inhabitants have their own Constitution, anthem, passport, four official flags, president, two churches, bishop, historically significant graveyard, and guardian (a bronze angel). Novicka took us down alleys and neighborhood cut-throughs, along the slippery banks of the Vilnia, and up a grassy path to an abandoned building on a hill with an impressive view of the city.

She pointed out notable pieces of public art — the sculpture of the Angel of Uzupis here, Tibet Square there, paintings hung on one bank of the river — and walked us across a bridge whose railings were laden with locks, hundreds of them, left by lovers. We gleefully took pictures of the Constitution, etched in 15 languages on shiny plaques on a wall. Among our favorite articles: “Everyone has the right to look after the dog until one of them dies.” And, “Everyone has the right to be in doubt, but this is not an obligation.”

Our second guided tour in Riga was less offbeat. Toms Broduzs walked us to many of the old town’s favorite draws — the 14th-century Powder Tower, the fortified Swedish Gate, the antique stone houses affectionately named the Three Brothers — and regaled us with amusing tales about each.

It was drizzly and cold this day, so we didn’t linger. Still, we had learned a lot from an engaging native, and we want to return to the Baltics soon for the walks we missed.

L. Kim Tan can be reached at tan@globe.com.