Riga - There is nothing more disconcerting to a Baltic person than to be confused with Russia. However, there is one exception. While many of the historical landmarks, nature, and beautiful architecture of old time Russia have been destroyed, the Baltics have maintained and restored their palaces and buildings, enticing travelers yearning for a glimpse at the beautiful remnants of the past to come and visit.
The allure of Baltic architecture has not gone unfelt by film crews and location scouts, and has recently received much attention due to the visual depiction of one of Leo Tolstoy’s greatest masterpieces, War and Peace.
Set in Russia in the early 1800s up to the War of 1812, the six-episode BBC adaption of Tolstoy’s War and Peace truly stars Lithuania and Latvia as break-out performers. From central Latvia’s Rundāle Palace, by Winter Palace designer, Bartolomeo Rastrelli, to the open-air museum at Rumšiškės, no locations were left unexplored to recreate this masterpiece. For 17 weeks in 2015, film crews stayed in Latvia and Lithuania to capture this story, featuring hundreds of local actors, along with a British crew.
The hefty tome of 1,300 pages was first published in 1869 and spans a time period of 15 years, following the lives of five aristocratic Russian families through the time of Tsar Alexander I and up until the Napoleon invasion.
In the series, as well as the book, we meet Count Pyotr Bezukhov, a socially-awkward illegitimate son of Count Kirill Vladimirovich Bezukhov, who has been educated abroad and returns to Russia feeling out of place, Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, the handsome and skeptical senior aid in the Napoleonic Wars, and Countess Natasha Rostova, high strung and romantic, who falls in love with Prince Andrei. Of course, there are hundreds of other characters throughout we see throughout the story, too many to name here. The novel follows the chaos of war, glittering spectacle of peace and the philosophical notions of both.
Though the book has been adapted for the small screen before, most notably by the BBC in 1972 starring Anthony Hopkins, few attempt to truly capture the breadth and magnitude of the tale’s depth and vision. These six one-hour episodes portray not only the loves, war, and philosophy of the story, but also an absolute feast for the eyes, with landscapes from Russia and the Baltics that have left viewers panting for more. Starring Paul Dano, Lily James, Jim Broadbent, and Gillian Anderson, and involving hundreds of Latvian, Russian, and Lithuanian actors, the series invokes an elegance that hasn’t been seen since 1812.
A little known fact makes the filming of War and Peace in the Baltics even more relevant, as the Tolstoy family was said to have been descended from a Lithuanian noble named Indris. Dazzled viewers are now hightailing it to Latvia and Lithuania in search of the bygone era and to relive the 1812 Napoleon invasion and the reign of Tsar Alexander I.
While there are now tours that make it easier for the weary traveler to reach all these timeless, featured places, one can easily visit without the help of a guide.
Originally, film location scouts attempted to find “Old Moscow.” However, as the city was almost completely destroyed in 1812 by a fire, they had to look elsewhere to recreate the town. The Moscow streets of the forgotten age were filmed in the Old Town of Vilnius, home to endless cobbled streets and an aura of antiquity. Vilnius was transformed by attaching wooden facades to the buildings to give it an even older look, shutting down the streets for two days. The retreat from Moscow was filmed specifically on Dominikonų Street.
During the time of filming, an abandoned hospital with a still-beautiful conservatory was used to create the flowery Rostovs’ residence in Moscow.
The old complex of Vilnius University was featured as the Austrian town of Brunn in 1805. In fact, the university’s old library was the set for the headquarters of the Austrian general.
Gediminas Castle was home to Napoleon’s headquarters, while the Franciscan Monastery was featured in underground scenes. The Merkinė Palace, The Union of Lithuanian Writers, and Trakų Vokė Mansion also make appearances in the series.
While many battle sequences took place on Lithuanian farmland, the open-air ethnographic region, Rumšiškės, near Kaunas, played host to scenes in officers’ quarters during the war, as well as peasant scenes. The area has been known since the 14th Century, and its serenity was shattered when both a Soviet and, later, a Nazi concentration camp was built there during the 1940s. Today, Rumšiškės is one of the biggest open-air museums in Europe, with over 430 acres of Lithuanian buildings and villages illustrating historical ways of life.
However, as highlighted in the Summer 2015 issue of City Paper, readers will remember that Lithuania also saw its fair share of Napoleonic troops, with a mass grave containing over 3000 remains uncovered in 2002. The troops were warmly welcomed by Vilnius on their way through, however, as Lithuania was under tsarist rule at the time, much like Poland. Thus, the setting is still highly accurate, despite the change in country.
The Baroque palace of Rundāle is located in the beautiful heartland of Latvia, in Bauska. Originally built for the Dukes of Courland in the mid 1700s, the palace suffered heavy damage during the Latvian War of Independence in 1919 and World War Two. The palace repair work and renovation finally began in 1992 and was completed in 2015. The palace and the grounds were used by the film crew for two weeks to film the opening scene of the series, Anna Pavlovna Scherer’s celebration; it was also used for parts of the Rostov and Bezukov homes. The Golden Room, the most gilded and restored room in the palace, makes for a sophisticated backdrop to highlight the opulence of the families. Many of St. Petersburg’s interiors were also shot in the palace, also aptly chosen by world leaders, who frequent the palace on international visits.
The Lithuanian Ministry of Tourism is already making plans for an expected huge burst in summer tourism to these locations in 2016, so spring is the perfect time to go explore, before the crowds set in. While many things in the region have changed since 1812, when it comes to beauty, truly nothing has.