Coats of Arms in Latvia and Estonia: A Valiant Defender of Treasure

On the battlefields of medieval times, when Knights in Europe were heavily clothed in metal suits of armour and closed helmets, some sort of quick visual identification was needed during battle. As a matter of survival, the Knights needed to wear marks or symbols on the arms of their armour. Some of these symbols were also embroidered on the arms of the Knight’s surcoats, long and flowing garments that were worn over their armour. Hence, “coats of arms.”

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Historically, some form of coats of arms used for military purposes can be dated back to early man, including Greek and African warriors. These people painted their wooden shields with symbols of their heritage.

But the coats of arms of the medieval times of Europe developed into more than just a military ID badge. They grew to represent many things, and just like the number on your Driver’s License, they became unique to each person, or to a family, or even to an entire region. These emblems, used by several social classes, could signify heraldic achievement, or were designed to convey feelings of power and strength.

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To see the grandeur of these insignias today, after having survived for hundreds of years, is quite extraordinary. I happened upon two unique collections of coats of arms in a couple of churches in Europe. These “quirky” museums were in the St. Peter’s Church of Riga, Latvia and the Tallinn Dome Church of Tallinn, Estonia.

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Both of these collections displayed coats of arms that were actually used as epitaphs, a way to preserve the memory of the deceased. The Latvian collection had wooden epitaph coats of arms from the 18th century, with quite colorful baroque and rococo-style wood carvings. The Estonian collection had some very large coats of arms that were eight and a half feet in length, the oldest dating back to 1586. These were painted with heraldic colors, decorated with lush and luxurious ornamentation, and accented with leaf gold and silver, the combination of which resulted in a mother-of-pearl-like glitter.

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Because the coats of arms were decorated with various pictures, I did a bit of research to find out some of their meanings. For example, birds: an eagle may represent a person of noble nature, or one who is high-spirited; a peacock, beauty, power and knowledge; and a dove, loving constancy and peace. Animals: a lion can symbolize courage; a dragon, a valiant defender of treasure; and a bear, strength, cunning and ferocity in the protection of one’s kindred. Flowers: a rose can characterize hope and joy; a primrose brings good tidings; and a carnation, admiration.

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And then certain objects also have significance. Antlers stand for strength and fortitude; a castle for safety; and musical pipes, festivity and rejoicing. A wavy line denotes the sea or water; an indented line is for fire; and an engrailed line, for the earth or land. Even the colors have meaning: gold, generosity; blue, truth and loyalty; and silver, peace and sincerity.

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If I could design my own coat of arms, I think it should at least contain a yellow sunflower, which to me represents bright sunshine, the outdoors, strength and happiness.

Sweet Travels!

General historical information about coats of arms from wikipedia

and from 101-family-crests.com

Meaning of pictures on coats of arms from Fleur-de-lis Designs

Latvian and Estonian information from the church’s brochures:

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The 6,800 Stairs of Europe

The rooftops of homes, sometimes colorful and varied, sometimes similar in texture and style; churches and cathedrals with their ornate spires, rounded domes, and soaring bell towers scattered throughout, yet seemingly dominating, the scenery; majestic castles and towers, and functional bridges; trees, vineyards, rolling hills and farmland, or perhaps waters, surrounding beyond; the activity of people below.

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Tallin from the Tower of Oleviste Church

This describes some of what you will experience when surveying a general overview of a European city. This fabulous way of getting a sense of what Europe is all about is accomplished by obtaining the highest point possible in any given city. Church bell towers, cathedral domes, observation towers, hills…getting to the top of any one of these gets you high above a city to see the spectacular views.

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Views of Prague from St. Vitas Cathedral

While I was on two separate journeys to Europe, one a five-month solo trip, the other a 15-day circumnavigation of the Baltic Sea, I made it a goal to climb to the top of every possible viewpoint that I could. And when I say climb, I mean I didn’t take the elevator – I took the stairs!

Approximately 6,800 stairs, give or take, at the very least, to be almost exact!

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Rooftops of Bratislava, Florence & Tallin

Not only did I want to see the cities from above, I also needed the exercise. Yes, I did quite a lot of walking in Europe in general, and climbing stairs, sometimes several hundred at one time, kept me in shape. It also allowed me to eat all the spectacular European food without any guilt.

The accountant in me actually kept track as best as I could of how many stairs I stepped on each time I meandered up a bell tower, or church dome, or whatever it was that I was climbing. Many times the ticket booth actually tells you how many stairs there are to complete, usually as a kind warning to make sure one is in good physical condition. Other times, I actually counted the steps myself, as I was always curious.

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Views of Riga, Latvia and Zadar, Croatia

To name a couple of places that I climbed, in Italy for example, there was the bell tower of the Duomo of Florence (414 steps), the Torre Guinnigi in Lucca (227 steps), and two towers in Sienna – Torre al Mangia (400) and the tower of the Museo dell’ Opera (132). There was also the bell tower of St. Mark’s Basilica overlooking St. Mark’s Square, but for some reason I don’t have a count on the steps there. If I recall correctly, they only allowed an ascent by an elevator.

Occasionally, I climbed stairs not to overlook a city, but to get to a city, such as the town of Corniglia in the Cinque Terre part of Italy. On that occasion, I climbed the 370 stairs, not only once, but twice, as I visited the town on two different days. (Of course, I could have taken a bus, but chose to hike.)

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Venice, Italy from St. Mark’s Tower

The longest flight of stairs was actually the first ones that I encountered during my solo trip to Europe – the 530 stairs of the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral to the Golden Gallery in London.

I would have liked to have climbed the Eiffel Tower in Paris, but alas, there they make you take an elevator. Although I did get to climb the 299 steps of Petrin Tower of Prague, also known as the “mini Eiffel Tower.” However, in Paris, I did get to ascend the 444 steps of the tower of the Notre Dame Cathedral, and the 284 steps of the Arc de Triomphe.

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Florence, Italy

Most of the cities had churches or cathedrals with staircases, but in Berlin there was a synagogue with 125 steps, so that I observed Berlin from both the Berlin Cathedral (267 steps) and the synagogue. In Milan, I climbed 250 stairs so that I could actually walk on the roof of that city’s cathedral. There was a castle in Ireland with 51 stairs, and there were 400 steps leading to a monastery built against a cliff wall on the island of Amorgos in Greece.

In Copenhagen, the Round Tower offered a quite different way to the top. Instead of stairs, this building had a spiral walkway turning 7 ½ times as you approached the views. (This is not part of my 6,800 accomplishments, as I really couldn’t count definitive steps.)

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Lucca, Italy

Furthermore, however, I would have to say that my accounting of the 6,800 stairs of Europe does not really include the stairs in the hostels that I would climb to get to my room, or the staircases to the second or third floors of museums, or the occasional couple of steps here and there to various other buildings, restaurants and stores that I visited. Thus, must have conquered more than 6,800 steps!

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Siena, Italy

A definite bonus in climbing all these flights of stairs, particularly in the bell towers of churches and cathedrals, aside from the views and the exercise, was the actual church bells. Not only seeing these large sources of European sound up close, but on several occasions hearing them ring their spectacular melodies and chimes just as I was up there next to them.

You know, now that I think about it, I really must have actually climbed at least 13,600 steps, for each time I went up, I had to come back down…

Sweet Travels!

All photos Copyright Debby Lee 2009.

P.S. Here is a list of the stairs I climbed:

South Tower of St. Stephan’s Cathedral – Vienna, Austria – 343
Zadar Tower – Zadar, Croatia – 178
Bell Tower (approx) – Split, Croatia – 50
St. Vitas Cathedral in Prague Castle – Prague, Czech Republic – 287
Petrin Tower (“mini Eiffel Tower”) – Prague, Czech Republic – 299
St. Nicholas Cathedral – Prague, Czech Republic – 60
Dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral to Golden Gallery – London, England – 530
Tower of Oleviste Church – Tallin, Estonia – 258
Hall Tower – Tallin, Estonia – 118
Tower of Notre Dame – Paris, France – 444
Arc de Triomphe – Paris, France – 284
Dome of Berlin Cathedral – Berlin, Germany – 267
Neue Synagogue Museum – Berlin, Germany – 125
Monastery near town of Hora – Amorgos, Greece – 400
Lykavittos Hill (approx) – Athens, Greece – 75
St. Stephen’s Basilica – Budapest, Hungary – 302
Castle near Gallarus Oratory – Dingle Peninsula, Ireland – 51
Bell Tower of St. Mark’s Basilica (elevator only?) – Venice, Italy – ?
Bell Tower of Duomo of Florence – Florence, Italy – 414
Torre Guinigi – Lucca, Italy – 227
Torre del Mangia – Siena, Italy – 400
Tower of Museo dell’ Opera – Siena, Italy – 132
Bell Tower of Duomo…Torre del Moro – Orvieto, Italy – 250
Duomo of Milan…to roof – Milan, Italy – 250
Town of Corniglia, from trail below up to town – CinqueTerre, Italy – 370
Town of Corniglia, from trail below up to town – CinqueTerre, Italy – 370
Riga Cathedral Dome – Riga, Latvia – 58
Michael’s Tower (approx) – Bratislava, Slovak Republic – 50
Grossmunster Church – Zurich, Switzerland – 187
TOTAL: 6779

Churches in Europe: Ripetto, Silenzio, Preghiera

A scarf is a necessary item to carry around on a daily basis while traveling in Europe. Especially if you visit as many churches as I did. I must have walked into hundreds upon hundreds of not only churches and cathedrals, but also abbeys and basilicas and temples and synagogues and mosques (collectively referred to as “churches” throughout the remainder of this blog) during my five months in Europe. From some of the world’s largest cathedrals in the cities to the small local churches of the towns. The scarf was so that if I was wearing a tank top on a warm summer day, I could easily take the scarf out of my handbag and throw it over my shoulders before I entered into a church. Covering the shoulders in churches is a sign of respect.

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churches in Florence, Italy and Tallinn, Estonia (and many other European cities) dominate the skyline

In every single one of the churches I went into, I was in awe. Each one was beautiful, original, and full of art, history, and spirit. The architecture, the stained glass, the mosaics, the sculptures, the tapestries and rugs, and the paintings in each of the churches made me feel as if I was walking into a unique museum. The artistic people behind these “museums” became my new heroes. The age of the churches in Europe tells a story of the importance of religion in people’s lives throughout the centuries. I am not a very religious person myself, but the aura of the churches spoke to me of a deep sense of spirituality.

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the awesomeness of the art and architecuture of several “museums”

I was so moved by the spirituality and emotion of the churches, that I began to develop my own ritual each time I walked into a church. First, of course, I would make sure that my shoulders were covered. A few feet after I entered the door, I would stop for a moment and observe all the sights, sounds and feelings around me. I would glance around the building, at all the art. I would notice the people in the churches. I would feel the spirituality.

I would take a survey of what the people were doing. Was there a service going on, or some other event, such as a wedding or a funeral? If so, would I be welcome to listen for a few moments – even though I may not understand the language? Were there people praying? There always were, and I would observe the various locations of prayer, from sitting on benches to special chapels.

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the intricate details of domes with paintings

Were there people singing or chanting? Some of the most beautiful sounds I heard while I was in Europe were in the churches. Hearing the melodic voices of another language, joyfully singing at the top of their lungs, or chanting the repeating rhythmic pattern of prayers usually put me into a trance. Were the church bells ringing? Many times, I happened to be at the right place at the right time, when the souls of church bells were being heard.

Was there music being played on an organ? To hear songs coming through the pipes of organs in an acoustic place such as a church is very enriching. Were there tourists around, sometimes led by a tour guide explaining the history and religious aspects of the church?

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After my observations, I would decide what to do next. If the opportunity allowed me to listen to a service or to singing, I would find a seat and enjoy the fulfilling experience. Sometimes I would sit for a long time, in my own silence, just listening.

If there was no group activity going on, what I found interesting for myself, keeping in mind that I am not a very religious person, I would find myself wanting to sit down and do my own type of prayer.

My own prayer was more like a soliloquy of thankfulness. I would be grateful for the travels I had been doing, and for all the fabulous experiences that I had been having. I would be appreciative for my health, and for my family and friends. I would wish for all people to be healthy, happy and safe. I would hope for world peace.

And then I would sit for a while. Just sit. In silence.

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During this silence, I would start to feel this sense of, how shall I say it, inner peace, inner strength, fulfillment, gratitude, calmness. It was not only a spiritual feeling, but a physical one as well. Hard to explain in words really. “A religious moment” I would call them as I wrote in my journal later. But for me, probably more spiritual. I actually began to get addicted to these feelings, and stopped into as many churches as I could during my travels.

After my prayers, I would wander around the church looking more closely at the architecture, and at the religious images contained in the various forms of art. All of this awe at the beauty of what I was looking at further added to the spiritual feelings that I was already experiencing.

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statues of religious images

It wasn’t until about the fourth month into my five months of visiting churches, that at the entrance to one of the little chapels in the Cathedral of Siena, Italy, I saw a sign. A sign that struck me as to what I was doing during my church visits…rispetto, silenzio, preghiera…respect, silence, prayer…

But the sign was not only about what I was doing, it was a reminder to everyone, written in five languages, of what to do as one enters this little chapel. And what to do as one enters all places of prayer and worship.

And perhaps, this simple sign is a reminder that in everyday life, we should practice what was written on this sign as well…admire, appreciate and value others; have some quiet inner time; and hope for world health, happiness, safety and peace…

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…perhaps carrying a scarf around on a daily basis would be a good reminder to do that…

Sweet Travels!

All photos by Debby

Estonia: The Souls of Church Bells

In most European cities, you almost don’t need a watch to know what time it is. Instead, you have the church bells. Church bells chime in Europe like clockwork. (No pun intended.) Most chime on the hour, every hour, and many even ring every quarter of an hour. They also chime to tell you to attend a church service, or some other religious event or celebration. I have also just heard them play musical songs, or just ring random sounds. I think they are all wonderful sounds. I have come to really appreciate and enjoy hearing the church bells that ring throughout Europe. I have even been lucky many times to have walked up the steps to get to the top of the church tower just in time to hear bells chime. To me, that is such a powerful sound, almost resonating through my body, beating like my heart.

When I was recently in Tallinn, Estonia, I happened to walk into a church where there was a collection of nine church bells from various areas of Estonia. The display was entitled “Church Bells in Estonia,” and I was finally able to learn something about church bells after hearing their chime so many times. Currently there are about 500 church bells in all of Estonia, and the ones that were displayed in this “church museum” dated from as early as 1433, up through 1685. They were old, worn-down church bells, but church bells that have survived over the centuries.

Church Bells in Estonia
Church Bells In Estonia

Some facts about church bells include: Church bells can be described as Baroque, Medieval, or Gothic, depending on the time they were made, their shape, and their decorations and inscriptions. An Estonian bronze church bell is made of 78% copper and 22% tin. “Hundreds of Estonian church bells have perished or been lost in wars, melted in fires, been recast or have simply lost their voice.” (I never realized that a church bell could lose its beautiful chime.) People hid church bells during war time in order to prevent them from being recast. Recasting is the melting down of a church bell that has cracked or has lost its voice, in order to save costs, and then a new church bell is created from the material.

A Church Bell
A Church Bell

Some believe that church bells have “souls that are transmitted through the material.” I believe that the souls are also transmitted through the sounds…ringing to tell the time, or to play a musical song, or just ringing randomly, or to chime a celebration.

Sweet Travels!