Day 7 – Into Latvia – The Journey to Riga

30 Sep

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The day started early, with loud bangs at 2am.  Sounded like joy riders, but could have been some shootings at the rodeo.  Nothing in the news, so assuming the former.

Joining the bus bang on time, 30 year old Tauno gave us his morning diatribe on subjects ranging from recycling (the Latvians cross the border to Estonia to claim €0.10 back on glass bottles) to cross border alcohol sales (mostly in the Latvian direction), hemp growing and currencies in all three states prior to the Euro.  Well, Estonia mostly.  He has had three currencies in his lifetime, including the Russian Ruble and the Estonian Kroon.  He did spot a rainbow though, so it wasn’t so bad.

We managed to sneak past the town of Otepää, the place where the Estonian flag was first invented, without any comment.  I had managed to find a reasonably price flag on a stick – otherwise they were asking for €45 for a flag in the supermarket.  Ridiculous.  Regretting not buying the large €15 flags on offer in Tallinn now.  Always buy something when you first see it!  It may not be repeated.

We reached the border town of Valga – divided evenly down the middle by the British so that the Estonians got everything worth mentioning, and the Latvians got a bus station.  On the Latvian side it’s called Valka.  I had asked Tauno to stop to post postcards on the Estonian side. He managed to pass at least three obvious post boxes (they are bright orange) before he found one within sight of the border.  I skipped out quickly.

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We crossed the border into Latvia at speed, with no fanfare at all (found it easily just behind the supermarket, marked by a couple of posts).  The sun came out immediately.

Estonians and Latvians make fun of each other – apparently Latvians have 6 toes – perhaps because they like fishing?

As we travelled through more woodland and small villages, topics turned to Lativan politics, abortion, gay rights and civil partnerships – which haven’t got much weight behind them yet.  Tauno’s views seem a little conservative, although if it doesn’t affect him, he doesn’t care.  Also discussed peat mining, which seems quite popular in all of the Baltic states, and the environment impact of this.  And it’s not even lunchtime yet!  Some people tried to sleep.  Unfortunately we didn’t all succeed.

 

I also broke open the sauerkraut crisps.  Like dried cabbage flavour with extra cabbage.  Perfectly passable.  Especially in the town of Valmeira, where we stopped for a toilet break.  There seemed to be a rush to the men’s WC for some reason. Also home to a BMX track, mini golf and a bungee catapult.

Cēsis, was a prolonged stop – we first saw the city’s two black swans in the town fountain.  They seemed more interested in us, than we were in them! Next stop, self guided, was a tour of the Castle Complex.  Ominously we were given a candle lantern and told to climb the western tower.  Safety is not top of the Latvian tourist board’s agenda.  Neither are signs in English.  The need for the candle was immediately obvious – with narrow stone stairs had no lights, the pitiful candle was very atmospheric, but yet totally unilluminating.  Feeling our way through the castle maze, we somehow made it to the Masters Chamber. The top of the tower was a round pile of dirt with plenty windows from which to admire the view.  Managed to find a much wider wooden staircase down, and ended up in the medieval kitchen garden, with the lady attending to her very modern looking sandwich.

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The southern tower was a climb down, rather than up – and a metal ladder descended into an abyss.  As it turned out, into the base of the tower.  All in pitch black.  The candle had gone out by then, so I resorted to the phone torch.  Future visitors should carefully weigh the excitement of descending into the blackness with the view from the bottom.  On the way out a light switch was found to be in the off position.  I spotted Becky and Lynsey trying on armour and a young man was encouraging them to get on a wooden horse, without success.  I also donned the armour plating, helmet and gloves and was given a banner to pose with on the “horse”.  Also randomly found a statue of Lenin lying in a box.  The tour of the “new castle” museum was disappointing in comparison – mostly because the exhibits were not in English, partly due to the slippy floors and the natty blue overshoes I had to wear.  But mostly because I think I’ve had enough of museums on this trip.

Skipping out past the gift shop, I found St Johns’s Church, which also had a tower to climb.  Following the electric wire, and using it alternatively as a hand rail and a trip hazard, I made my way to the 6th floor, containing two bells, 12 doors/windows and 3 Russians/Latvians.  The doors contained lethal fingertrapping catches, and the wire mesh beyond was an ideal camera spoiler.  However, the views of the castle were good.  The church itself was colourful, with stained glass, but also a restoration fund.  The lobby contained marrows, as all good churches do.

As Cēsis is the birthplace of the Latvian Flag – in 1916 – I tracked one down in the castle gift shop.  It’s huge, but a third the price of the Estonian flags – please take note Estonia!  The flag itself is red-white-red – said to derive from an ancient chief who was killed in battle and lain on a white sheet, his blood spilling on each side.

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Chicken or pork?

Also found time to get down with the kids in the fast food shop for a burger and fries – thankfully the same in any language.  Burger was not beef.  It may have been chicken, but if Latvia is anything like Estonia, it was probably pork!

Back on the bus, I asked about Latvian independence.  The 1990s saw Latvians upset that the Russians wanted to build a subway under Riga – leading to thousands of Russian workers flooding in.  Similar to the Estonians being upset at the proposal to do phosphate mining (and leading to the Estonian Singing Revolution).  The Latvian People’s Front (not making this up!) grew into an independence movement.  During the second world war, the Nazis and the Soviets formed a secret pact on how to divide Europe.  Fifty years later, the Baltic Way / Baltic Chain consisted of people holding hands for 600km from Tallinn to Vilnius on 23rd August 1989. Latvia eventually gained independence in 1991, along with the other Baltic states.

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Dried Rhubarb and Quince

Tauno didn’t disappoint – and more “degustations” were distributed – this time dried quince and then dried rhubarb.  Both really nice.  We managed to not be dropped off as we passed the alcohol and drug rehabilitation centre.

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Arriving at the Turaida Estate with its stone castle (with a tower 38.25m high), we were admitted as part of the tour – the first time we hadn’t had to pay ourselves.  We walked up to Church Hill, which had a commemorative stone to the legend of the Rose of Turaida – a young lady of 19, caught in a love triangle who, rather than having her herself violated by the man she didn’t love, told of a special scarf that was supposed to protect her from anything.  Her other man took his sword and tried to cut the scarf whilst she was still wearing it and killed her.  Nae luck!

Turaida also had a church on church hill and a gardener’s house, both with exhibits inside.  Further on there was a hill of dainas, containing statues based on 4 line folk songs, of which there are thousands.  We moved on to the mostly ruined castle and had the chance to climb yet another tower.

This one had spectacular views of the surrounding valley, and the autumn foliage set it off fantastically.  The museum exhibitions in the castle were watched over by the beady eyes of green smock wearing women with a tendency to look bored.  Thankfully there was archery.  Supposedly for the kids.  5 shots for €2.  I hit the target at least on all counts.  He gave me a 6th arrow as I was heading for gold, and got there with it – just.  On the line counts.

We stopped in the Gauja National Park and had a brief walk to Gutman’s cave, where the Rose of Turaida was killed.  It’s the biggest cave in the Baltics and covered in engravings carved into the soft sandstone.  The earliest remaining is from 1667.  The names are of landowners, noblemen and estate managers.  Some early 20th century names have erased the old ones, but the cave is now protected, to hopefully stop any more from disappearing.  The cave also has spring water running through.  I tried a sample.  If there are no more blogs you’ll know why.

We moved a short distant to another car park.  Sigulda Castle thankfully didn’t have a tower, but was guarded by some artistic stone and metal “knights”.  The new version of the castle was the local council HQ, the old castle was a bit further away.  Tauno distracted us with some more “degustations” … this time from Latvia – semolina flavoured with cranberries, some nut shaped things that didn’t contain nuts and Riga Black Balsam, another spirit – this one flavoured with blackcurrant, but tasting like cough medicine.  Not one for taking home.

Sigulda itself had a bobsleigh track!  Touristy and sporty town.  National sport of Latvia is ice hockey, but they are not very good at it.

With most people quite tired, we arrived at our hotel in Riga, the capital of Latvia, and were offered a group meal at a fancy restaurant, 30 minutes walk from our hotel in the old town.  Only 4 turned up and we arrived at the restaurant after narrowly avoiding the large drunk staggering slowly towards me at traffic lights.  The restaurant itself was very busy and only men seemed to frequent it.  The Swedes at a neighbouring table occasionally burst into song, standing up as they did, and causing quite a commotion.  Am I sounding too English there?  The meal itself however was very nice, if a touch on the expensive side.

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Nice but slow.

We staggered back to the hotel, tired and confused at being in such a large city, but anticipating the tour the following day.

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