In the Baltic States

Like all works of art, cities can seem at once beautiful and ugly. I'm in the Baltic States of Eastern Europe right now, having just left Vilnius, Lithuania for Riga, Latvia. These diminutive countries seem to have recovered remarkably well from their common imperial oppression: invaded by black-booted Nazi Germany from the west and the Soviet Union from the east.

Both cities are Unesco World Heritage Sites, known for their charming, ornate buildings, which seem to spite nearby Soviet experiments in bleak, monolithic architecture.  {C}

Yet for of the storied architecture in Vilnius and Riga, I've found that interest often lies in the gaps and the details. Before World War II, Vilnius was known as a little Jerusalem: 40 percent of its population was Jewish. Today, there are virtually no Jews left in Vilnius, their formal memorials found for the most part in a synagogue and two very small museums. I shuddered to learn that the city soccer stadium resides over a Jewish cemetery.

Yet I found the truest testimony to Jewish Vilnius in a faded fragment of Hebrew script on a white-washed stone wall, high in the old town and around the corner from an old church and posh restaurants. The city moves on affably, despite its ghosts.

In Riga, I looked for similar details, intimate yet telling. For all the splendid cathedral architecture here, I found myself riveted by spindly weather vanes and metal creatures perched high in the electric blue sky: golden roosters and even a precariously perched cat. One can imagine these whimsical creatures smiling down from cold blue skies upon Nazi and Soviet invaders.

Like the statue-lined stories of Gothic Cathedrals, which long ago told tales to their illiterate masses, these cities are open books. Even for those unfamiliar with tiny former Soviet republics, the capital cities of Vilnius and Riga share an intimate and lively voice through small passages in their architecture.

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