Those Bodacious Baltic Beasties

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If you’ve ever lived in a big city, you know that your chances of seeing wild animals are pretty slim … unless you go to the zoo.

Evidently, European architects at the beginning of the 20th century felt the same way, so they started incorporating wildlife into the newest architectural trend – Art Nouveau.

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When we started our Baltic journey in Helsinki, Finland, we soon realized that everywhere we looked there were animals adorning the buildings. Some were embedded in balconies and doorways; others sat proudly atop pedestals and rooflines. Most were surprisingly realistic, but a few took a fanciful twist.

Our curiosity was aroused so we did some research, looking for explanations. The answers were fascinating.

Animals Were a Way to Bring Nature into the City
Art Nouveau was an urban style created specifically to decorate the streets of the large cities that had grown so dramatically at the end of the 19th Century, displacing resident wildlife. One of Art Nouveau’s major design goals was to bring nature into an urban environment. That’s why we saw realistic squirrels, swans, ferrets and foxes.



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Our next question was, “Why are there so many bears in Finnish architecture?”

Animals Celebrate a National Mythology
In Finnish folklore the bear was the most sacred of animals, embodying the spirits of their forefathers. Today the bear is revered as the country’s national animal. While strolling through town, whether we looked up … or down, the bears were everywhere!


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Artists Explored the New Scientific Concepts of the 19th Century
When we spied a “trail of snails” across the front of this building, we scratched our heads in wonder. It turns out that 19th century improvements to the microscope, and renewed interest in biology, encouraged artists to turn their attention to the smallest of creatures.


Darwin’s Theory of Evolution spawned a new interest in the origins of life and how species evolve. Artists were particularly fascinated with monkeys and other primates.


But the concept of evolution proved to be artistically confusing. The scene above this Gothic doorway depicts an unusual evolutionary sequence, with animals morphing into humans … or is it vice versa?

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When we moved on to Riga, Latvia we noticed the architectural animals shifted from realistic …

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… to whimsical.

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And we did spy a lovely sphinx (with a Jimmy Durante nose). Fortunately she wasn’t asking any riddles that day so we were safe!

Peaceful Trails,
Terri and James

P.S. Talk about “Rookie Screwups of the Year” –  We learned that this post was Freshly Pressed … and then, in our excitement, we accidentally erased all of your great comments. We promise we’ll do better if it ever happens again. 🙂


We're Terri and James Vance - high school sweethearts who went on to international careers and became world nomads. Today, 65 countries later, we're still traveling ... and still in love. Check out Our Story for more of the backstory at

10 thoughts

    1. Thanks for the comment Olli. We were looking forward to our stay in Helsinki, and were pleasantly surprised at all the wonderful architecture. The concentration of Art Nouveau buildings there is amazing. Discovering all the whimsical animals and human caricatures got to be a fun game for us, which enriched every walk.

  1. My husband and I are planning to go on a Baltic cruise in 2014, so I’m especially enjoying these Baltic posts. We haven’t chosen an itinerary yet. I’m eager to read and see more. Your photos are fabulous and our commentary so informative and entertaining.

    1. Thanks Catherine, I’m sure you’ll have a great time on your trip. When we visited we stopped in Helsinki, Tallinn, Riga, and Vilnius. For cities so close together, they were amazingly different. We loved all the Art Nouveau Architecture. It was also interesting to be in countries that have previously been a part of Communist Russia. We wrote a number of posts that may help in your planning. You can search by country or use the pull-down menu “Travel” at the top. Have a great trip!

  2. I don’t know about animals, but in Bern Switzerland there are fantastic fountains created by Hans Gieng. My favourites is the Kindlifresserbrunnen (Child eater fountain). It is an ogre eating babies. Sounds morbid, but I’ve always loved checking it out. There are different ideas about what this fountain means. The other fountains are great as well. There is also a bear pit, where you can check out real live bears.

    1. That fountain is totally amazing – I’ve never seen anything like it! I would love to know the story behind it. I bet it terrifies a lot of kids … and probably adults, too! LOL Thanks so much for the fascinating info. All the best, Terri

  3. Thanks for liking my post on traveling China. Really enjoyed looking at your posts on your excellent blog, especially Ella and Luang Prabang – 2 places close to my heart. The stuff on Baltic States was great too; we are planning a family trip there in the summer – any top tips?

    1. Hey Chris. Thanks for dropping by the blog, and for the comment. On and off, I spent a few months in China on business in the Pleistocene … well actually it was in the late 80s. I worked internationally and had traveled abroad quite a lot, but my trips to China were one of the biggest eye-openers I had experienced. Because I was on business most of the time, I didn’t get around much, so I will throughly enjoy digging deeper into your blog for a look at the real China. Thanks, James

  4. Not surprised this was Freshly Pressed. I’ve never seen it before but what an interesting theme. I’ve already spotted an animal or two in Krakow. Now I know why! 🙂

    1. Thanks Jo! We had so much fun with it – like an Easter egg hunt looking for all the obvious and hidden animals. And some of them were in really unlikely places – like the snails crawling across the front of the building! Are the animals in Krakow realistic or whimsical? ~Terri

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