A restored Baroque garden of immeasurably beauty

Rundale Palace and Gardens

Rundale Palace and Gardens

Rundale Palace and Gardens

Rundale Palace and Gardens

Horticulturists (and grandmas) everywhere need only visit the Rundale Palace and Museum to know where the end of a Baroque rainbow falls.

Thousands of hand-propagated rose bushes; some modern varieties with names like Bright Smile, Ray of Sunshine, Keep Smiling and, to my surprise, a latent bounty called Henry Hudson, swept me away from a tour of the palace interior in exchange for a solo escape into the gardens. The color intensity explodes like an Old Master oil painting onto 25 acres of ornamental parterres, corkscrew pathways and lush manicured lawns.

Restoration of the Latvian grounds – a former gift of Russia’s 18-century ruler, Catherine the Great, to one of her ex-lovers – began 40 years ago and continues today. Can you imagine how many hundreds of weeding hands it takes to keep a composition of this size happy and healthy?

Pruned hedgerows of lime trees and arborvitae dot gravel avenues. Pergola tunnels imbued with romantic vines provide shaded relief. Motif box plantings of snapdragon and marigolds bed promiscuously with sage and carnations. Idyllic attractions include misting water fountains, ice cream pavilions and an intimate terraced amphitheater perfect for listening to live symphonies.

Dubbed the “Versailles of Latvia,” this garden is indeed the perfect place to experience suspended reality and natural bliss. I lost myself for 90 minutes to the tune of singing birds under a blue sky absent any regrets for missing out on faded wallpaper and formal statues. With 10 minutes to spare, my friend Anne joined me dressed in fantasy costume to do the same.

Rundale Palace and Gardens

Bog floating at Soomaa National Park

Soomaa

Soomaa

How often does a National Park service let you go swimming, alone and unobserved, in a protected lake, pond or swamp? Rarely, in my experience.

But, in Estonia, the Soomaa National Park welcomes visitors to cool off in dozens of “bog pools” that dot the landscape. The adventurous intern, Karolis, wastes no time plunging into a refreshing sinkhole thick with tadpoles and decomposing vegetation.

Scattered with dense forests and wide open canopies of spongy peat moss, Sooma is one of two (the other is Lahemaa) important wetlands in south-western Estonia. Both are a result of 10,000 years of Baltic ice lake receding.

With little nutrients and no soil, only a few stunted pine trees are able to grow in the floodplain grassland. Unlike New Hampshire and Maine, there are no small, bobbing red fruit commercially harvested here, though plenty of blueberries are ripe for picking by July.

The unique mire is easily accessibly from a dry, wooden boardwalk and a 2-story interpretation stand provides a scenic overview of the horizon.

For more information, visit the Estonia Travel and Tourism website.

Soomaa National Park Estonia

Toasting to the future of Estonia

Any self-respecting owner of a wine cellar knows how to toast appropriately in Estonia.  But there's also a lofty responsibility in giving a toast.   The expression "Tervis Sulle, Seks Mulle" quite literally translates into "Health to You, Sex for Me."    -

Any self-respecting owner of a wine cellar knows how to toast appropriately in Estonia. But there’s also a lofty responsibility in giving a toast. The expression “Tervis Sulle, Seks Mulle” quite literally translates into “Health to You, Sex for Me.”
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The romantic languages of Europe, like Spanish, Italian, German and French, are big on gender. They assign a male or feminine connotation to every noun. But the Uralic language of Estonia does not. Does that make their language easier to learn and speak? I’m not sure… but I sure can appreciate the self-deprecating wit of a local when they say “Estonian has no sex and no future (well, grammatically).”

The thing is Estonia does have a future and based on the wistful people, engaging museums and savory dinners I’ve enjoyed this week, it’s a future that travelers like you will want to experience, especially the following:

Cry your heart out to the singing sensations of  Opera ensembles in Pärnu - especially the exceptionally fabulous blond in the red dress on the left of this photo enjoyed at the Villa Ammende.

Cry your heart out to the singing sensations of Opera ensembles in Pärnu – especially the exceptionally fabulous blond in the red dress on the left of this photo enjoyed at the Villa Ammende.

The Villa Ammende has a rare hunting package for a guest to pursue moose, wild boar, wolf, lynx, deer, even bear.

The Villa Ammende has a rare hunting package for a guest to pursue moose, wild boar, wolf, lynx, deer, even bear.

Buy a handmade knitted pair of mittens, socks or leg warmers from the traditional women of the UNESCO preserved island of Pärnu.

Buy a handmade knitted pair of mittens, socks or leg warmers from the traditional women of the UNESCO preserved island of Pärnu.

Remembering the Singing Revolution in Tallinn, Estonia

Singing Revolution

DrumGirl

I think for any visitor to truly understand ethnic Estonians, they really need to appreciate the relationship between song and courage. Both are central to their culture and history.

Music has been used to support political agendas throughout history but never has it sparked a revolution in size and scope to the one on August 23, 1989.

Many of you will remember that on that date, the world’s largest, longest and most peaceful mass demonstration triggered the end to Soviet rule in the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. An estimated two million strong stretched hands for more than 370 miles to form a human chain linking the three capital cities. All were singing patriotic hymns at the top of their lungs.

Remarkably, no blood was shed (in Estonia) and the end to a half-century communist regime came roughly two years later.

Not unlike the parents of Marketing Coordinator of Tallinn City CVB, Mari Pever, I was just entering my freshman year at college but while I was studying three-chip cameras, Mari’s parents were making history.

“Yes, both my Mom and Dad were students here in Estonia in the late 80’s and dedicated to the cause (for independence). They used environmental and heritage issues, like the building of a phosphorite mine, as the impetus to protest…but everyone knew it was much more than that.”

Today, Mari’s parents are history teachers who raised their children appreciating the significance of non-violent protests and the Baltic Way.

As a tribute to the Singing Revolution, a festival called the Estonian Song and Dance Celebration is held in Tallinn every five years.

On a guided tour of Tallinn, we stop to reflect on moments in Old Town that preserve the past (not just recent history) with statues, poetry and stories. The week-long Old Town Medieval Days Festival is concluding that explains the artisan-themed costumes performers are wearing at the Town Hall.

Folk Costume Festival Estonia

Lenin

Freedom Square

Breaking bread with an Estonian Playboy Bunny

Beatrice

Restaurant owner, Beatrice Fenice (first photo above) is above all else, a multi-talented entrepreneur who can also cook, entertain and pencil draw remarkable artwork that's been published in Estonia.

Restaurant owner, Beatrice Fenice (first photo above) is above all else, a multi-talented entrepreneur who can also cook, entertain and pencil draw remarkable artwork that’s been published in Estonia.

During my Albany-Tula Alliance sister-city meeting on Thursday I mentioned to the board that I’d be visiting Estonia and Latvia for the next 10 days. My journey was met with smiles of approval and a short history lesson.

Next year, the Nordic country on the Baltic Sea will celebrate 25 years of independence from the then USSR. Having just celebrated our own on July 4, who can better appreciate the importance of freedom and victory than an American? In 2011, Estonia went a step further and dropped the kroon in favor of the euro.

The capital Tallinn was declared the European Capital of Culture in 2011 and within 30 minutes of arriving today, I discovered the reason.

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Garden

In District 2 of Old Town, we enter a nondescript, secret restaurant by the name of “nANo.” It’s doesn’t carry a marquis or signage or anything other than the sweet smells emanating from the windows above to alert potential customers that it’s a restaurant.

But the naked truth is the eatery is owned by Estonia’s first Playboy Bunny.

Her name is Beatrice Fenice and she appeared on the cover of the October issue in 2007. At 45, she has enjoyed a lustrous career of being a supermodel, television celebrity, owner of a modeling agency, mother of three, accomplished artist, teacher and, now – a host with the most – catering to strangers in her own Tallinn-based, hidden gem.

Foreign women never cease to amaze me!

In a small but verdant courtyard wedged between buildings, Beatrice pops the cork on a champagne toast. The restaurant is housed inside her own personal flat shared with her tattoo-laden husband. There’s room enough for 40 guests so reservations are recommended, if not required.

For three hours, we ween ourselves off jet-lag to a cornucopia of traditional cuisine favorites based heavily on fish, meat and potatoes. Fresh fruits linked closely to the seasons are ripe and more delicious than ever.

In a room that doubles as a colorful dressing room (the clothes are not for sale), Beatrice and her staff break bread for our table of ten. The dark rye is coupled with salted herring, farm fresh boiled eggs, bowls of beetroot soup with chicken (they call it Borscht too), fresh cucumbers drizzled with a tzatziki-like sauce and small deep fried pierogis of vegetables, pork and Moroccan spice.

I pace myself for entrees of fish, salad and a meat-filled pasta similar to a Swabian dish called Maultasche that I enjoy when in Germany.

For dessert, a light meringue pie dressed with street red strawberries, blueberries and loganberries. I’m ready for a serious night of shut-eye.

How Beatrice is able to keep her shapely figure surrounded by delicious food is a question we ask her.

Innocently, she replies, “Oh, that’s simple, I don’t eat breakfast. I just drink coffee every morning with stick of butter.”

Huh?

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Bound for Baltic nations for 10 days

Latvia

Not unlike George Costanza, the character in the sitcom Seinfeld, played by Jason Alexander, who cheated on his Latvian conversion test, I too am cramming to learn everything I can about Latvia (including Latvian Orthodox) sans using the palms of my hands as cheat sheets.

For the next 10 days, I’ll be on a press trip throughout Estonia and Latvia, two of three Baltic states in Northern Europe that border the eastern coast of the Baltic sea. The third is Lithuania. To admit that I’m excited for this trip is a bit of an understatement. Maybe I’m catching the “kavorka!”

While Latvia brought you the Minox camera, Estonia’s claim to popular fame is the computer software SKYPE, an invaluable tool for communicating with family and friends and avoiding expensive roaming charges.

An exciting discovery is that both democratic countries are part of the European Union and use the Euro currency. That should make travel easier for nearly the next two weeks.

Quickly, (my flight is boarding) my itinerary includes a helium filled balloon ride over Tallinn, a marzipan workshop, Art museums, ghost tours, visiting Medievel UNESCO heritage islands with churches dating back to the early 18th century and refreshing spa treatments. The trip wraps in Estonia with a visit to the Soomaa Nature Center, a pristine area of bogs and marshes and species-rich meadows, then days later, I board my flight from Riga, Latvia with fond memories of the ‘Versailles of Latvia’ or Rundāle Palace.