One evening, a couple of the graduate students in the class kindly gave us a tour of their experimental forest, which includes the tiny old-growth Järvselja Primeval Forest Reserve that, in turn, houses the tallest specimens of several tree species in the region.
Heading south from there on day four, we paused to take in the grounds around 19th C. neo-gothic Sangaste Castle, a reminder of the long regional history of a feudal system in which the local Estonians were serfs more-or-less owned by the ruling lords who, largely, descended from 15th C. German teutonic invaders.
The graceful austerity of that national historic landmark contrasted strongly with the nearby Kristus Karaļa museum. Begun in 2006, this modern sculpture park displays an unsettling obsession with making graven images of Christ.
Thus fortified, we sped on and across the border, making a beeline for the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius. After wading through throngs of revelers engaged in sunset people-watching, we retired and took another stab the next morning at exploring the now deserted squares and streets of this cosmopolitan city of a half-million souls. Although dominated by early 18th C. baroque architecture that gives it a grandiose flare, the dense old-town has a mix of styles dating back to the early middle ages.
Thus among the over five dozen churches in town can be seen various frescoes, such as these 17th C. Catholic scenes.
We particularly enjoyed the 2000 3-D stucco figures on the ceilings and walls of 17th C. St. Peter and Paul's Cathedral on the outskirts of downtown Vilnius, which practically reach out to grab you into the Kingdom of God.
Heading west and a couple hundred years back in time brought us to the island Castle of Trakai. Constructed, and then partially destroyed by Teutonic Knights, in the 14th C., the largely gothic brick castle was both fortification and home until it fell into disrepair in the 17th C.
Turning our back on this mass tourist attraction brought us to the historic wooden architecture of this quaint (read "poor") former fishing village.
Very similar houses, and many both younger and older, were found just to the northwest in The Open Air Museum of Lithuania, which began in 1966 to dot its 482 acres with clusters of buildings dating from different eras from the late 18th to early 20th centuries.
When not looking up at old homesteads on our long day hike, we occasionally looked down to take in the wildlife, such as this diminutive toad.
Further west near the center of the country we paused in the second largest city to view the remnants of the gothic medieval Kaunas Castle, the basement cells of which were (apparently) long used as torture chambers.
Turning north, we paused at a roadside memorial to the continuity of Catholicism where over 100,000 crosses and crucifixes have been situated on a hill since the mid-1800s. I found the Hill of Crosses a profoundly melancholy and painful site, as the names affixed to many of the crosses indicated that most were placed by people in mourning--as we ourselves observed.
Crossing once again into the central country of Latvia, we peeked through the wrought-iron gates of 18th C. baroque Rundāle Palace at sunset. This former summer hideaway has had a colorful history, serving variously as a military hospital for Napoleon as well as WWI Germany, a residence for Latvian veterans, a school, and a WWII grain warehouse.
The nearby Bauska Castle complex includes the restored ruins of a fortress built in the 15th C. by the Livonian branch of the Teutonic Knights.
A quick jaunt toward the west brought us to the 14th C. fortified manor house in Janupils, owned by a family of Germanic barons for centuries.
Nearby is the 1901 neo-gothic Jaunmoku Manor hunting lodge, which had also once been a bit of everything and now houses the museum of forestry and hosts wedding parties.
The next (and final) installment will continue through Latvia and back into Estonia.