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Day 14 – Vilnius, Lithuania

7 Oct

This morning I managed to miss the breakfast queue.  No one believes that late breakfast is good.  Tauno joined me for the last time.  Can’t really believe that this is my last day here.  It feels like forever, but yet such a short time.  I can’t remember what we did at the start of this trip.

Anyway, we met Margherita, our Vilnius City guide in the foyer of the hotel.  As it was drizzling steadily, she decided that we should get the public bus into town and not walk from the hotel.  The local trolley bus was crowded and I’m sure an old lady’s hand went walkabout as they squeezed past me to get off.

We started in the Jewish Big Ghetto – as opposed to the Small Ghetto on the other side of German Street.  The Jews were mostly all originally German, but were hearded into ghettos by the Nazis.  There was a statue of a doctor here who had also turned his talents to killing animals.  The entire group heard the story like this.  Actually, it turned out that the doctor was good at healing animals!

Margherita warned us of stepping the bike lanes painted on the pavements/roads as cyclists sue the pedestrians if they step in front and cause them harm.  Quite right too.

Only 5 minutes into the tour and she was congratulating us on still listening.  She was really funny, but I’m sure she was carrying her knitting in her bag.

She did stop or point out a few shops that we should really investigate in our free time.  These included a cheese shop and a blown glass (ornaments) shop.  I’m not that old yet!

We headed past several churches as she spouted off many interesting facts – like 4% of the population are currently Russian Orthodox, but there are far too many Orthodox (and other) churches.  This is generally because rich people sponsored the building of a church with their name on it to ensure that they got to heaven.

At the Gates of Doom, she meant Dawn, we turned around and headed back again, passing through the Writer’s Street where art and objects are regularly added to the wall.  We also stopped off in a random shop to find something to do with winding wool.  Becky to answer for that one … Anyway, we found painted hollow eggs, Easter style.  Just a bit crushable for my liking, but several were bought for Australian Christmas trees.

Some random courtyards were also on the “must visit” list.  She obviously had pride in her city, but it was a bit tenuous at times as to the relevance to the group’s interest.  Some interesting art though.  They really like their wood carvings here.

When walking past some Italian branded clothes shops, she did comment that she didn’t know how they managed to survive as “no-one buys stuff there”.  I think she meant, “none of her friends at the local bridge club”.

I asked what “Gintaras” meant as many shops had it above the door.  It means “Amber”.   She managed to mention that her husband was actually called Gintaras – his mother though he might have had “amber” coloured hair (but he doesn’t).  She says that she has a 100kg lump of amber at home!

Amber and linen shops are very popular – the flax is grown locally.  Can’t imagine that linen outfits are totally suitable to the Baltic weather though.

We visited the outside of a gothic cathedral, together with the entire population of Japan and South Korea.  First time I really felt we might be on the tourist circuit.  Nearby was a tree covered in knitting.  She described it as “junk”, rather than art.  Each to their own.  To be honest, it was a bit soggy in the drizzle.

We walked through the University area, with a welcome break in the warm university bookshop.  This was worth a visit for the frescoes on the roof.  And the books were interesting as well.  She bought one.  I also finally found some stamps, and so the last of the postcards are now on their way.

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We did visit the university church of St. John.  Wow, what a sight.  Designed in a very unique way, the impression of depth was fantastic.  The colours were so vivid and the gold shone brightly.  The side chapels were just as impressive.

Further on was the President’s work place – no security in sight (and none needed).  That lass has done nae bad for hersel’.

Margherita finished the tour in the main square, outside the cathedral, reminding us that she wasn’t a tourist terrorist, and that she hadn’t been trying to torture us.  Thoroughly enjoyable, if slightly damp.

Tauno then led us into the cathedral which was quite plain in comparison to the university church, but did contain a chapel to the only Lithuanian saint – St. Casimir – which made up for it.

Heading off for a tuna crepe and coffee with Ruth, Karen, Yok Leng and Steve, we then headed our separate ways.

I tried a couple more churches – St. Casimir’s and St. Theresa’s before climbing the steps to see the icon of Mary, the Mother of Mercy, at the Gate of the Dawn.  Small space and no photos allowed.

Wandering back through different parts of the town, I ended up at the Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania.  Wandering into the courtyard gave the impression of another museum, and I’m totally museumed out.  There were also far too many restrictions on getting in.

Trotted around the New Arsenal, which is now the national museum, and the Old Arsenal (an art gallery), to find the funicular up the castle hill was not in service.  The slippy stone path was the only option.  Barely pausing for breath, I scampered up the hill (honest), and wiped the rain from my brow to take a few photos of the outstanding views over the city.  One of the towers in the high castle had been restored and had some displays as well as the all important viewing platform.

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Vilnius Old Town, from the Higher Castle

One of the exhibitions was about the Baltic Way – I may have mentioned this before, but it really is a most important event in the history of the Baltic States – where 2 million peopled joined hands in a show of solidarity against the Soviet regime on 23rd August 1989.

Walking down, past the Hill of Three Crosses, I managed to find the post office – otherwise known as Paštas.  Think Sean Connery saying “pasta”.  The last of the postcards have now gone.  Good luck in the lottery.

Jacky’s recommendation of Pinavija, a well rated bakery and coffee shop, was top of the visit list.  Unfortunately my first choice of drink wasn’t available, so they forced me to drink cranberry kissel.  Nope, I’d never heard of it either.  Apparently a sour berry drink, thickened with some kind of starch.  It tasted … sour.  The cake with pink icing was going to make up for it, but it seemed slightly alcoholic.  Not how pink icing should taste.  Different, but nice!  Ish.

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Last stop of the day was to the former KGB building which is now home to the museum of genocide victims.  Nothing like a relaxing end to the day.  No really, it wasn’t.  If I had confined my visit to the exhibitions on two floors, I might have gone away wondering what all the fuss was about.  The subject matter was very similar to the stories I’d read in the other similar museums in Riga and Tallinn.  What made the difference here was the visit to the KGB prison underneath.

From the initial 0.6m² boxes where prisoners were held standing upright, to the 15-in-a-cell where one would now barely be allowed.  The pictures of the hangings carried out by the Nazis, and the solitary confinement by the Soviets.  The padded cells, the interrogation cells and the room where prisoners where held in solitary confinement on water – balancing on a small disc or fall into icy water.

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The partisans that were caught were executed and the bodies laid out in town squares, famers markets and anywhere that might frighten the locals.  The exercise yard and execution chamber were side-by-side.  Videos on loop showed prisoners being shot in the back of the head, body dumped and the blood washed away as the next one was led in.  1038 people died here.

I quickly left the museum and headed back to the hotel.

Freshening up, we headed out by taxi for the final group meal of the trip.  Lokys (the bear) had both wild boar and beaver on the menu.  Choices, choices.  Settled on the wild boar, although Steve was kind enough to share some of his beaver stew with me.  Both had a strong flavour.  Wild boar is to pig, as venison is to beef.  Beaver – tastes like rat.  But very nice, and very strong flavour.

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Tauno, our fantastic guide

We reminisced about the trip, I had the job of thanking Tauno for his help and support, before passing over his tip.  Waffling is my speciality, but I tried to keep it short.  Following that, I managed to persuade the bemused group to pose with my flags for my traditional group photo.

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Goodbyes were said and some took a taxi back to the hotel.  I remembered to request the 3:30am alarm call. OMG.

I can’t believe it’s all over.

Fantastic trip, with the weather only turning bad in the last few days.  Seen so many things, learnt so much and had a relaxing time on an unhurried trip.  Credit must go to Ruth, Karen, Steve, Yok Leng, Becky, Lindsay (finally figured out the spelling), Tauno and Clive for putting up with me.

All three are fantastic countries.  In order of recommendation – Lithuania, Estonia then Latvia.

Assuming there are no travel issues, this will be my last blog until 10th March 2017, when I’m off to Burma / Myanmar. See you then.

Thanks for reading.

Day 13 – Travelling to Vilnius, Lithuania

6 Oct

Well, the answer to making use of the extra 15 minutes granted to us today was easy.  With the comfy hotel room, the time just flew by, and I ended up needing a quick breakfast.  If I was part of the Azerbaijani, Austrian, Bosnian or Lithuanian youth football teams I would easily have found a space for breakfast, but as it was, the other three tables were all taken.  Contemplating changing nationality, and starting to learn something about football, my bleary eyes eventually discovered that Tauno was actually at one of the tables.  He’s obviously not as practiced at last minute breakfasts and I ended up lapping him to the porridge and yoghurt.

The reason for the later departure was soon obvious.  Our first destination of the day didn’t open until 10am and was only 20 minutes away.  We therefore stopped off at a sandy beach on a reservoir, complete with outdoor gym equipment.  Andreas was thankful when Tauno reminded us not to bring sand back into the bus.  With the cold wind and more than an inkling of rain, none of us were late back.

Driving on the 50 yards to the car park of the Pažaislis Camaldolese Monastery, we buzzed the nuns to let us in through the gate of the high walls.  After meeting our guide, we were shown the outside of the hexagonal church of the Holy Virgin Mary’s Apparition to Elisabeth.  Hereafter referred to as “the church”.  It was built in 1674.  Then it was straight into the crypt, which spooked a couple members of the group as she described the tombs that we were then standing between.  Stone slab, wooden pillow – bricked up tomb and names added later.

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Outside the church were boxes of apples – obviously excess apple season here as well – and donations were welcome.  Inside, there were fantastic frescoes, and stucco decorating the walls and roof.  The various meanings were pointed out by a laser pen.  Large amounts of marble (real stuff, not the painted version I’d seen in so many of the previous churches visited) were set as columns and everywhere inside.  The tomb of the founder – K. C. Pacas is in front of the main door, so that people have to walk over him to enter.

The complex has had a troubled past, with it being a Catholic church, Russian Orthodox church, mental hospital, primary school and orphanage.  It has also been hit by fire, looted by Napoleon’s soldiers and mortgaged to the Russian Tsar.  It was returned to the Sisters of St. Casmir Order in 1992 and was reconsecrated as a church then.

The sacristy had intricate oak carvings, some of which had been restored, but a lot of original work.  Other rooms had no original oak left and some of the frescoes were damaged.  Generally it was in a great state, and electrical rewiring work was taking whilst we were there.

There were various other buildings, including the servant’s quarters that had been turned into an exhibition.  Three areas covered the story of the building, the story of the nuns and the treasures that have been used there – mostly church vessels and clothing.  A gold chalice had been nicked by Russia and is currently in the Kremlin.  It had 248 diamonds, 193 emeralds, 327 rubies and garnets.  Funnily enough, 15 of the diamonds have gone missing and were replaced by coloured crystals instead.

Moving on, we were enlightened with a few more news stories of the yesterday, including the Estonian news (no shocks there) where the president of Estonia has now been elected – the 5 candiates who spent millions on their campaigns have been cast aside for a compromise candidate of a female diplomat to the EU.  She had to go back to Strasbourg to clear her own desk – I would have thought she could have asked someone to do this for her?

Various topics gave us a bit more background to life in the Baltic States, including Lithuania.  The view was that the recent Russian flexing of its military muscle in Ukraine and elsewhere was indeed very worrying.  Belarus is sympathetic to Russia, and it’s possible that Lithuania is a high target due to the number of Russian citizens within its borders and the direct route it would then provide to Kaliningrad.  All residents of Lithuania were given automatic citizenship (if they wanted it), when the USSR broke up. In Latvia and Estonia the option was only given to those who had parents or grandparents who were born in those countries.  There, Russians could gain Russian citizenship, or be left in limbo.  They have residency cards for Latvia or Estonia, but are not citizens.  This has its benefits as Russia allows them visa free access, and they can also enter the EU easily.  If they pick a nationality, then they are unable to travel freely.

Trains was another topic.  A different gauge of railway operate in the former Soviet states than in the rest of Europe, meaning that trains are unable to travel throughout the EU and Baltic States.  The solution is to build new rail track.  Currently the only track that is complete is from Poland to Kaunas, Lithuania.  Political disagreements have prevented it progressing any further.  Nuclear power plants – especially on the border in Belarus – are also political footballs.  No one wants another Chernobyl, but the option on the table is to reinstate an old Soviet plant which they admit is a bit dodgy.  Moscow residents are also apparently preparing nuclear bomb shelters.  Perhaps it’s because of their previous power plants, rather than the USA.

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Another hour passed easily in our WiFi free bus replacement bus until we reached Trakai Castle.  Obviously the first thing on the list was lunch.  Pasties – called Kibinai – were the order of the day.  Sampled a lamb and a beef one.  Very tasty.

Trakai Castle had been rebuilt – exhibitions inside showed the ruins as they were, and the last of the restoration was completed in the 1990s – notable as it means that the Soviets had actually started to care about history at some point.

The castle was on an island, and previous one of several in the area.  It was heavily fortified, and had never been breached.  A moat and a drawbridge gave it a very secure feeling.  The stairs that had been built inside were for the tourists only.  Our guide took us around, at speed.  Various stained glass, art, weapons, armour, money and silver dishes were all on show.  In the Great Hall, two rather depressing tapestries were the only disappointment of the room.  I want one.

Details of the Karaims (Jewish-ish) the Tartars (Muslim-ish) who inhabited the area were also shown.  With some free time, the other eclectic exhibits – dead animal heads, claypipes, glass ornaments, stamps, furniture and the prison tower – were explored.  Strangely, the gift shop was not an exit, and we all got trapped in there.

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Goodbye to Andreas

Arriving in Vilnius, we waved goodbye to our driver, Andreas and checked in to an out of the centre hotel.  After checking in, Steve went off to the dentist, but Karen, Ruth, Yok Leng and I walked into town.  Past the former KGB building and Genocide Museum with the names of those that had been shot displayed on individual stones of the building.  Various arty sculpture were also found.  We did most of the major sights, but as we’ll likely cover them all again tomorrow on our city tour, I’ll skip this bit just now.

The bits you won’t hear about include … The coffee stop, where hard cheese was on offer, complete with a mouse statue.  A Kaliningrad beggar who was starving in the train station.  Perhaps his puffa jacket was hiding something – like his huge belly.  And the numerous souvenir shops we visited and churches we photographed.  Special mention must go the Jimmy Choo display, complete with red carpet and three models in the Town Hall square. It’s a much more spread out centre, and we eventually settled on a nice Italian restaurant for dinner.

Walked back via the Cat Café and in the hotel tried to figure out how to fit all my purchases into my case.  This isn’t going to be easy.  But hey, I’ve still for another 28 hours yet …

 

 

Day 12 – Kaunas, Lithuania

5 Oct
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Klaipeda hotel had a complicated lift system

Today started off easily.  Negotiated the lift to the lobby, and walked out of the hotel to get to breakfast.  This however proved just how cold it had become.  8°C today with a bitingly cold wind.  Met Tauno at breakfast and planted the seed that Steve was quite tired today (could have picked anyone).  So when we met for the bus, we had a day without any commentary.  I have to admit that I actually missed it.

Instead, Andreas drove us to Kaunas, the second biggest city of Lithuania, and former capital, in almost complete silence.  I got the backwards facing seat which made the whole thing feel a bit like a train journey.

Arriving in Kaunas, we drove straight to a hilltop viewpoint, overlooking the confluence of two rivers around which the city is based.  Their love of basketball was immediately apparent, as the symbol of a basketball was emblazoned on the river wall, next to “Lithuania”.  Apparently a lot of famous basketball players come from this town.  I’ll let you look them up yourself.

An early check in at the hotel allowed us to drop our bags.  The hotel is only for the one night.  I got the best room so far.  Steve got 5 rooms – a complete suite.  He’s already lost his own stuff in the rooms.  I’m having the same problem – too many surface to cope with.  Certainly a higher standard than we are used to with Explore. But, this hotel is only for the one night.

Tauno then led us through a brief city tour, taking in the ruins of Kaunas castle, St. George’s cathedral and seminary, the town hall (now the city museum), some wax smelters, St. Francis Cathedral (from the outside only), Perkunas House (an example of 15th century gothic brick architecture to the god of thunder), Ss. Peter & Paul’s cathedral, Freedom Avenue … and the shortest route back to the hotel.

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York Cathedral in Scotland?

Notably, outside the Ss. Peter & Paul Basilica was a sign stating that York Cathedral was in Scotland.  I know that Scottish Independence is something that Yorkshire was interested in, but this may be news to them.

Each of the churches was unique – all had some ongoing restoration work to either the inside, the outside or both.  Plain exteriors hid incredible detailed decoration inside – the result of the restoration will be outstanding.

With our free time, the fab 5 headed further out of the old town to find a coffee shop in the new town.  The server wouldn’t sell me a bacon pizza as she didn’t have any bacon, but was happy to give me two slices of a bacon pizza.  I still don’t quite understand the issue.  Anyway, a coffee, doughnut and pizza came to an astonishing €3.00.  Eating local is definitely better on the wallet.

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We passed a commemoration to Romas Kalanta who set himself on fire in Kaunas on 14th May 1972, aged 19, protesting against the Soviet regime.  No one seems to be really sure what he hoped to achieve.

Leaving the rest, I headed to the church of St. Michael the Archangel, which was surrounded by works laying paving on an industrial scale.  Eventually found the open side door (after walking around twice) and was rewarded with yet another surprising interior.  I’m not sure if it was the two sets of disco lights in the sanctuary or the artistically arranged Lithuanian flag hanging from the huge domed roof.  It used to be a Russian Orthodox cathedral, you know.

I then headed to one of two funicular railways, avoiding the 231 steps to the top of the hill.  Empty carriage and prompt timetable, and all for only €0.50.  Immediately in front of me at the top was a white concrete Church of Christ’s Resurrection.  Started in 1932 and finished in 2004, it was unlike any church I’ve ever seen.  Completely white inside and out, with long slender windows, it was like a huge warehouse or aircraft hangar space inside.  It’s 63m high.  (Presumably to the outside tower, which sticks up a bit beyond the roof.)  The main reason for visiting was the roof top observation terrace.  With the choice of paying to use the stairs or the lift, I raced to the top in the most inappropriate brand of elevator – Schindler’s Lift!

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Schindler’s Lift

The observation deck provided the promised fantastic views of the city, although the high winds meant that it wasn’t overly pleasant to stay there for too long.  Certainly a tent had been erected on the roof and was now on its side – it wasn’t planning to stay there too long either.  On the roof of the church, was another church.  Weird.

Back down the funicular, for another €0.50, I then headed to the Devil’s museum which unexpectedly had free entry today.  This houses a huge collection of thousands of wooden devil statues.  It keeps growing as people who visit can also donate.  The signature piece is one of Hitler and Stalin dancing over the bones of Lithuania.

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Hitler & Stalin fighting over the bones of Lithuania

Several exhibits explained the folklore around the devil, including such classics as “The Devil and Vodka” –

“Lucifer made alcohol from the she-goat’s urine.  God gave people a permission to drink only two goblets of alcohol, one to honour God and the second one to hail themselves, the third one thus being dedicated to the devil.  When a man drinks the third goblet his throat starts burning.  That is why vodka (degtine) in Lithuanian is called the thing that burns (degti).”

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How to get rid of the devil –

“… by mentioning saints, with a rosary or a cross.  He is afraid of the rowan, the bird cherry, the chestnut, flax, holy water, baptism clothes, a sack with bread, an inverted seam and the number one.”

“The Devil and a Woman”

“A young woman was sleeping in the barn.  The devil invited her for a dance.  The girl started telling about the sufferings of flax – how it is sown, how it lies in the ground, how it germinates and grows, then how it is pulled, thrashed, combed, woven and so on.  She talked and talked until the rooster crowed and the devil ran away.”

That woman needs to get out more.

And lastly for the devil museum stories … on Shrove Tuesday, there is a fight between “Mr Bacon” and “Mr Hemp”.  Mr Hemp always wins.

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Street Grafitti

On the way back to the hotel, the light rain had become a bit heavier, and I stopped off for some souvenir shopping.

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The hotel facilities were then enjoyed – felt I had to, as it was such a nice place, before meeting up with the rest of the group (minus Welsh Clive) to visit a very posh restaurant where the delicious food was served at very reasonable prices in a brick medieval style cellar.

We have an extra 15 minutes tomorrow – not leaving until 9:15am.  Whatever will I do with the extra time?

Day 11 – Curonian Spit, Lithuania

4 Oct

Night in a full size bed was bliss, although I had managed to forget the directions to breakfast this morning.  Luckily, I had an orange line to follow through this large hotel to find it.  It took me to a lift, where the number were on the outside – i.e. you had to decide which floor you were going to before you got in.  A panel then told you which of three lifts to get in.  I saw the restaurant was on the 20th floor, so up I went, to discover it closed.  Back down again, and I somehow managed to end up in a different place, with the other restaurant now far more obvious.  On the return journey, I walked outside the hotel and along the street, rather than chance the 20th floor again.  Nearly all the others in the group recounted a similar story.  On the plus side, the view from the 20th floor was worth it.

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Our trip today was to the Curonian Spit, a long strip of tree covered sand, that runs all the way to Kaliningrad – an exclave of Russia.  To get there, we needed to catch a short ferry – 5 minutes to the other side. This presented Tauno with an opportunity to enlighten us.  The Curonian Spit has about 2000 inhabitants on the Lithuanian end, and 1500 on the Russian end.  There are officially a lot more though, as residence there grants you cheap access to the ferry.  It’s a National Park with great beaches and therefore attracts a lot of local tourism as well.

Some other Tauno-isms this morning.  Firstly, the news from Estonia.  A picture of the Virgin Mary in the Estonian National Museum has hits the headlines today.  It was setup as an interactive display, where visitors could “kick it” and it would smash (before resetting).  Whilst this was an accurate display of things that happened in the past, understandably, the Lutheran Archbishop was a bit upset, when he was invited to take part.  It’s now not so interactive.

Secondly, wildlife news just in from the Latvian population in Lithuania.  They used to catch and cook crows up to the 1940s.  On the Curonian Spit, wild boars were almost domesticated, and were very friendly.  That was until the locals applied for a licence to shoot them.  They’re not so friendly now!

As we drove through the Curonian Spit we saw that it was heavily forested with mountain pine.  The bad news is that this particular type of tree is highly flammable, and there were large patches of no young trees which had previously been hit by forest fire.

We passed through what looked like a road toll, but was actually collecting an eco-tax, and stopped to familiarise ourselves with the map.  Too big to fit in one photo though.

Our first stop was at Juodkrante and the “Hill of Witches”.  This consisted of a short forest walk where 80 large wooden sculptures were dotted about.  Each had folklore associated with it, and Tauno did his best to give us a good background to the stories.  We passed through the gate of hell to meet Lucifer, joined in a game of cards with the devil and a witch, met the Gods of thunder and mist and avoided the kissing seat.  In between all that, Tauno had another degustation – this time Lithuanian alcohol called “999” or, if you turn the bottle upside down … 666.  Spooky.

Some of the sculptures showed women standing on the feet of the men.  This was to prove that they were not the devil in disguise – the devil apparently has hooves, and therefore no toes.  Even the slide and the seesaw in the children’s play area were in the same style, carved from wood.

The lagoon side was peaceful and full of stone art.  It was however very cold.  Even the ducks were tucked up.

Our next stop was to a cormorant and grey heron nesting site.  Up a short flight of steps, we witnessed the damage that the acidic cormorant poo can do to trees.  In 1990 there were only 14 nests, but there are now over 3000.  Saying that they must have all been out fishing, as we saw no birds at all – just the nests!

If we had continued on the road, we’d have ended up in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, so we stopped instead at a viewpoint, where we could see just how narrow the Spit is.  With the salty Baltic Sea on our right and the fresh water Curonian Lagoon on the left, the Russian border post could be seen to the south.

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Russia to the south (that’s it there)

The Lithuanians are dredging the channel between these two bodies of water, to help bigger ships access the port at Klaipeda, causing more salt water to enter the lagoon and driving the fresh water fish towards Russia.  You can’t win them all.

The viewpoint also had a huge sundial.  The names of the months in were Lithuanian, which are totally unlike our names – mostly named after trees, “summer”, “dry”, “cold” and so on.

We were driven into the last village – Nida – where Tauno showed around us the extensive village.  So large that it didn’t allow minibuses to enter.  We wandered along the waterside and encountered many heavily decorated weathervanes. These were previously used on fishing boats to show where they came from, and helped to enforce fishing areas.  Over time, they became far more decorative, telling the story of the fisherman and his family.

Four of us also headed to the Amber Museum.  A day without learning is a day without sunshine.  Today, my learning was all about amber.  Firstly, it’s not a stone, it is fossilised pine tree resin. The stuff in the Baltic is about 50 million years old and is mined from the waters around, or just picked up on the beach.  At one point they did also have amber fisherman.  The Russian area of Kaliningrad has about 90% of the amber in the Baltic.  The museum was only two small rooms, but contained an amazing display of amber in all states, from the unpolished rock lookalikes, to the finished silver framed jewellery and chess sets.  For the amazing price of €1.25 we had a guided tour of the white, green, blue, black and amber amber.  There are actually seven colours. The blue and white amber is the most expensive.  Wearing unpolished black amber around your neck is supposed to be good for your health.

Burning it is the only sure way to make sure it is amber, but this of course results in no more amber.  It should sink in fresh water, and float in 10% salty water.  Fakes are usually plastic or glass.  Several items on display contained other organic material – either animals or fauna.  It is about half the weight of a similar sized stone and flat slices are usually transparent enough to act as a magnifier.

Whilst I gasped at the prices, two of the group tried on a few and ended up buying.  Credit cards needed – it’s not cheap!  I was more interested in the amber alcohol that our guide had also mentioned was good for you.  Basically, leave some amber beads in the alcohol of your choice for 4 weeks, and your drink is then flavoured with amber, smells of amber, and is amber in colour.  This works with the same set of beads for up to 5 years.  They were the cheapest item on sale at €20, but as this didn’t include the alcohol, and there were no sample tastings on offer, I passed.

After a brief lunch of chicken, cheese and pineapple, we met with the group and drove to the house of Thomas Mann, a German writer who won the Nobel Literature prize in 1929.  We saw the outside of his house – it had a great view over the water.  Not quite sure of the point of this visit, as very few had heard of him, and Tauno didn’t add much either.  I ended up Googling him back on the bus, but soon lost interest.

Nida beach was deserted, cold and windy, but very picturesque.  The waves of the Baltic Sea were pounding the beach, but I imagine on a warmer day that the beach would be full of sun seekers.  We tried to make that we didn’t remove any of the sand to the bus, as they are quite keen to keep as much as possible on the small Spit.  I also tried trawling the beach for amber, and found a possible candidate.  Will let you know once I polish it.

We took an hour drive back along the 40km to the ferry and back to the hotel in Klaipeda.

In the evening, the fab 5 met to find a restaurant.  We headed for the Old Mill – a converted warehouse on the river that was now a boutique hotel.  The place was empty, the Lonely Planet named restaurant was unknown by the staff, and we headed back into the Old Town to find another place.  Senoji Hansa – the food was good, the apple pie huge and the bill very reasonable – again!

Packing again tonight – off on a 3 hour drive tomorrow to Kaunas.  Leaving at 9am if I can find the breakfast restaurant in time!

Day 10 – Into Lithuania, via Rundale Palace and the Hill of Crosses

3 Oct

Tauno had made it on time, and actually managed an extra breakfast, as he’d had to get up for 8:30am to check everyone had got the note that we were now starting at 9:00am.  That meant that I was officially last to breakfast.

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We started off the day with a new bus and a new driver – Andreas – who seemed overly cheerful for this time in the morning. The fancy new black bus was more used to Chinese VIPs and had black tinted windows, table seating and backwards facing seats.  Apparently it also has WiFi, when in Lithuania.  We’ll see if it can cope with my surfing.

The group had worked out a strategy to combat the morning verbal diarrhoea of our illustrious tour captain – stoney silence! It worked, following a brief in depth description of how to cross a river.

It was still a bit grey and overcast as we headed to our first destination of the day – Rundale Palace, still in Latvia (just).  We passed through the transit town of Bauska, with its 400 year old town hall, and turned off the “Via Baltica” – otherwise known as the E67, connecting the capitals of the Baltic states – to arrive at the palace.

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Rundale Palace was the home of Ernst Johann Biron, Duke of Courland, who was exiled to Siberia for 23 years, whilst in the middle of building it.  This is because Anna, the Empress of Russia, died and he fell out of favour. Built by the same Italian architect, Rastrelli, that designed the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, it has a couple of styles –  with elegant and huge entertaining spaces, and an intricately decorated boudoir for the Duchess, where she could also “have a rest” after getting dressed.  The women were basically sewn into their clothes, making undressing quite the ordeal as well.  They didn’t do washing very often, so “bath” rooms were non existent, commodes commonplace and potpourri overused.

Three separate families owned it before the state took it over in the 1920s. The walls had been painted over several times, and painstaking work has taken place over 30 years to peel off the layers of paint and return it to its former glory.  Our guide led us room by room explaining the functions and the history.  Almost every room had a ceramic tiled floor-to-ceiling “heater” in the corner, fuelled from a fire in the room behind.  I managed to set off the alarm with my camera flash – apparently very sensitive in that room!  Lynsey also managed to summon a guard when she dropped her bottle of water on the wooden floor, with a loud crash.  The guards all look 12 though, so not much to worry about.

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Following the conclusion of the guided part, we all headed for the café, and I managed to sneak in a chicken salad in a sweet and sour sauce.  Very nice, except for all those salad things that got in the way.  Cheapest meal yet though!

We wandered back through the edge of the perfectly manicured formal gardens, with the entire Latvian workforce out collecting leaves – some with rakes, and one with a rather large vacuum.  Would have been great to have a go, but wasn’t brave enough to ask.  The souvenir shop was raided and the last juniper smelling coaster was bought (not by me!)  The car park was filling up – there was now another bus next to ours!

On the rather buuuummpy road to Lithuania, the jokes about Estonians were regurgitated.  Especially regarding their slowness, but also a feeling of being more advanced, or arrogant.  Lithuanians however are the “Italians” of the Baltic. Lithianians call Latvians the “horse heads”, perhaps due to the shape on the map.

Scandinavian countries are Norway, Sweden and Denmark, Nordic countries also include Iceland and Finland.  Latvia and Lithuania think of Estonia as more Nordic than Baltic although the Nordic countries don’t want Estonia to join the club.

Lithuanians are good at basketball, are mostly all Catholics and go shopping in Poland.  Insert other random facts here.  I think the bus driver eventually asked Tauno to shut up for a bit, and he resorted to his default excuse of us looking tired.  I was still hyper from the Riga Black Balsam last night to be honest.

The WiFi did indeed kick in as we crossed the Lithuanian border, and several people settled into a pattern of web browsing (my blog got at least one extra hit), TV watching, gaming or just catching up with the outside world.  This is indeed the VIP way to travel!

Shortly however, our internet addictions had to be silenced, as we arrived at the “Hill of Crosses”.  Skirting the gift shop, that seemed to sell mostly crosses, we headed to the bump – “hill” would be a gross exaggeration.  It was indeed covered with crosses – according to the guides, over 200,000 and with the handy gift shop (selling at very reasonable prices) and a tradition of bringing another one with you when you visit, the hill was growing fast.

It is a place of pilgrimage for the many Catholics of Lithuania, and the names written or carved into the crosses are of the people or organisations who have placed them there – not in memory of anyone, as such.  Saying that, it’s not the most organised place, with mounds of crosses – most of them are more accurately crucifixes – thrown together.  My OCD was twitching.  At times they looked more like piles of firewood.  At various times in the past, the invading forces (Soviet and Nazi) tried to clear the hill, but the crosses kept reappearing.

You could climb steps that meandered through the large and small versions and even more revealed themselves on the other side.  Truly a spectacular sight.  However, I didn’t get a feeling that it was a hugely religious site – probably because the vast majority of people that were there were tourists.  Pope St. John Paul II came here, as did Pope Benedict XVI, so there is certainly an intention of spiritual focus.  It just wasn’t overly apparent in the bitingly cold wind.  It was so cold that I even had to put a sweatshirt on, while others were onto their seventh layer.

Back on the bus, we moved to a roadside restaurant 5 minutes away.  Not really being hungry, and only 2 hours since I last ate, I forced down a cheese and ham crepe/pancake.  Not a great move, in retrospect.  Tauno joined us as I finished to advise that we’d be visiting a Lithuanian restaurant tonight to sample typical food.  That would be in about 2 hours more …

We settled back into the ultra fast Internet and sped our way to Klaipeda.  This is Lithuania’s third largest city and its only major port.  Population of about 120,000 and a boat as its major attraction.  Sounding similar to any city you know?

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We joined the queue to check in, and tried not to panic as the lobby floor was glass, and directly above the hotel swimming pool.  Ladies with large cleavages should perhaps avoid this end of the pool.

Tauno allowed us 20 minutes to freshen up before giving us on a whistle stop tour of the top rated attractions in Klaipeda.  The tiny Golden Mouse statue was #3 on TripAdvisor!  Oh dear.

The restaurant, as promised, served typical Lithuanian food, and I settled on traditional fried zeppelins – basically potato with extra starch and some meat in the middle, fried.  Served with sour cream and crackling sauce.  Totally unhealthy, but really tasty.  Steve managed to sample the 5 local fire waters, but my stomach wasn’t up to it.  First Baltic ice cream for me.  The political situation with Russia, Ukraine (in Crimea), Georgia and the other former Soviet Republics dominated my conversation with Tauno, as did the security of energy supplies.  He didn’t seem too worried, although if you live in Kazakhstan, he thought you should be.  The biggest surprise of the night was the cost of the meal – for 8 of us, the entire meal with drinks came to only €63.70.

I’m going to like this country.

Day 9 – Cultural Riga

2 Oct

This morning, the weather forecast was for rain.  Apparently it did.  I made full use of the hotel facilities and prepared myself well for the day ahead.

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First order of the day, once I eventually got moving, was a visit to the Russian Orthodox cathedral.  The odd tourist wandered about, but mostly it was Russian women in headscarves busying themselves with looking after the place.  The occasional man-with-a-briefcase stopped long enough to venerate an icon.  Gold and silver was everywhere, with one of the largest iconostasis I have seen anywhere. Unfortunately, no photos were allowed inside.  They didn’t believe in turning on the lights either, but if they had, we would surely have been blinded by the reflections.  The light streaming in the windows of the typical onion dome was enough to see by. There was generally an air of calm and peacefulness.  Shortly to be spoiled by the large group of kids who had assembled outside for a guided tour.  I left before they hit.

Next stop was the Museum of the Occupation (of Latvia).  The museum itself had moved from its normally indicated position on the tourist maps to a rather more obscure location outside the old town.  Just as I was about to give up, a huge sign encouraged me forward, and what looked like a prison fence revealed itself as the temporary home of the museum.

Donations only – any excuse not to give change – and I was shown upstairs, past photos of Queens, presidents and other important people signing the visitor book.  The displays were excellent and contained in three rooms.  Each room had at least one audio visual presentation and the text on the displays was in good English.  These described the story of Latvia from 1939 to the present day.  The invasion by the USSR in 1940, and the subsequent Nazi invasion in 1941, made Latvians fight each other – sometime brother against brother, father against son, as the various armies conscripted the locals into their armies – against the 1907 Hague convention on such things.  I had a feeling that they weren’t trying to make excuses as to why they collaborated with their invaders – merely trying to explain the reasons – mostly that they didn’t understand the enormity of what was planned, or that they were looking out for themselves first and foremost – a perfectly normal reaction, if you ask me!

Latvia also suffered immensely from the movement of people – originally 75% of the population were ethnic Latvian, but by 1952, only 52% were Latvian – the rest had mostly been moved from other Soviet republics, mostly voluntarily, in the hope of finding a better life.  This has had a huge impact on modern day Latvia that is still very apparent to me.  It’s very Russian – far more so than Estonia.  Lots of Russian being spoken on the street – nearly everyone understands it.  Latvian as a language is not spoken by everyone.  The 1950s “Russification” of Latvia will take a long time to change.

One of the bleakest videos on display were interviews with some of those who were forcibly deported by the Soviets to Siberia (or “out that way”).  Some told how their new neighbours ran away because they had been told they were cannibals.  Other stories of scrapping mouldy green flour from the bottom of sacks as the only food available.  Many of the stories are too harrowing to repeat here. 15,477 people were deported.  6000+ died,  6000+ returned eventually to Latvia.

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The Baltic Way

The Baltic Way was also featured – where 2,000,000 people joined hands from Tallinn, via Riga, to Vilnius in 1989.  This was one of the biggest peaceful events of the most recent path to independence.  In May 1990, Latvia intimated that it wanted independence from the USSR, and after bloody violence in January 1991 (mentioned in yesterday’s blog), it was eventually recognised in August 1991.

Joining the UN, the EU and NATO has helped Latvia find its way in the world, but there is still a lot of change required here.

Out on the streets, beggars are common, and it’s obviously that the standard of living here for quite a lot of the population is not very high.  The tourist areas may confused my perception here, but there are only tourists and beggars on the street, as far as I can see.

Leaving the museum after an enlightening 90 minutes, I had time for a coffee and cake in Livu Square.  The place was mostly desserted (see what I did there), except for some beggars.  One was very nice in his approach and I stupidly gave him some money.  There was then a queue of more beggars asking the same.  I did a quick escape and wandered around a few more streets and squares.

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The Great Guild Hall

Back in Livu Square, with the beggars gone, and police car taking their place, I met up with Steve and Yok Leng as we had arranged.  We visited the Great Guild Hall and bought our tickets for an oriental music festival – Rumi Fest, which was supposed to be featuring some Latvian acoustic guitar trio and also some Spaniards with the “Road to Andalucia”.

The Guild Hall itself was a fantastic concert venue, although there were 4 flights of stairs to climb first.  Very modern inside, with gothic mirrored windows (reflecting in), it looked a lot bigger than the 300 odd seats that it held.  The audience was about half full.

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Latvian Acoustic Guitar trio

The Latvian trio were fantastic musicians and enthralled us with their versatility over many styles of music.  No CDs available for all of them, just individually – Alvars Hermanis, Kaspars Zemetis & Marcis Auzins.  The two female comperes, however, introduced the evening in both Latvian and Russian.  One was appropriately dressed for an evening at the theatre, with a long flowing red dress.  The Russian speaker was going to a funeral.

After an interval, the Spanish musicians took their turn, including a trumpet player with the shiniest jeans in the world, a percussionist in flamenco style dress and a lead guitarist whose eyebrows moved almost as much as his wrist.  Surprisingly, the audience of Latvians and Russians wasn’t overly receptive to him addressing them in Spanish (although it was way better for me – my Russian and Latvian ain’t that good!)  “My Way” (“the end is near” etc…) in Andalucian style, was a cue for too many songs to be added.  Defo preferred the Latvians.

By this point, it was almost 9pm, and Yok Leng had snuck out early. Steve and I decided on a cheap night of food – and settled on a very nice pizza in a brick cave all to ourselves.  Also managed to find a postbox (had been searching all day) for some of you lucky readers.

The rumour was that the following day start time had been brought forward to 8:30am (instead of 9am), but we threw caution to the wind, and headed for the Skyline Bar in the Radisson Blu (5 star hotel).  The 26th floor had a good view of Riga, but the glass was a problem for the camera – the DJ and disco lights didn’t help.  Paying to get in, we got a wristband each, and then spent the next 10 minutes trying to get served at the bar.  One free woman, standing at the bar, advised that she only did table service.  So we sat down and she ignored us there.  Back at the bar we finally managed to sample a “Clavis Riga” – the official cocktail of Riga.  It consisted of Riga Black Balsam, Rhubarb Liqueur, White Chocolate Syrup, Pomegranate Syrup and Apple Juice – all topped off with a slice of orange rind.  It. Was. Great.

Tried another with disappointing results (in comparison).  On the way out, we got chatted to by a mildly drunk Norwegian member of a rally cross team who was trying to hold the lift for his absent wife. We all made it safely down.

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Riga by night, from the Skyline Bar

Back in the hotel, I received a post-it note from Tauno to confirm that we were departing at 9am as originally planned.  Whew!

Day 8 – Riga City Tour, Latvia

1 Oct

The morning started without the promised hot water shortage.  8am – 10pm was advertised, but there was still hot water at 8:30am.  Breakfast was then necessarily brief – with a different tasting porridge (maybe buckwheat?) and the slowest toaster in the world.  The ladies Latvian and Estonian volleyball teams were in the breakfast room together with another ladies sports team, so it wasn’t so bad.  Volleyball – making small people feel even smaller.  No problems with the dusting anyway.

We met our guide – Aija – who conducted a very good city tour over the next three hours.  We took in a lot of art nouveau architecture as well as some gothic buildings along the way.  Riga has at least 25% of land as green or open space, and the centre is no exception.  In one of the parks, we saw an exceptionally large monkey in a spacesuit.  I’m not sure it was a Latvian monkey taking part in the Latvian space programme, but you never know.  We passed lots of embassies, including the Azerbaijan embassy, which of course had a bigger flag pole than the Georgian embassy next door.  The Armenian embassy was no where to be seen.  The Irish embassy looked a bit like Moloney’s Pub.  No, hang on, it WAS Moloney’s Pub.

We stopped for cakes and coffee at the scene of the killing of several people on 20th January 1991, including two cameramen, one of whose final words were “Film Me, Film Me”.  Lone rocks mark the spots where 5 people were gunned down.  This two week period in Latvian history is marked by a memorial to “The Barricades” outside the parliament building, which we also visited.

On a lighter note, we passed a swan house, that the swans didn’t like and is now used by ducks.  Also in the park was a bridge where romantic couples padlocks their names to a bridge.  We witnessed a newlywed couple to this later in the day.  Later on we also passed a cat hotel.  Who knows?

We visited the Liberty monument, which was saved from Soviet destruction by a Soviet poet writing good things about it.  Next to it, soldiers guard the monument 24 hours. Well, during the day, and when it isn’t raining!  A clock, sponsored by the chocolate manufacturer Laima doubled as the equivalent of Big Ben, and was erected to make sure employees got to work on time.

Managed to skip past the McExpress – seemingly a walk past queue to McDs.  Totally not sure why such a thing exists – the queues inside were just as long.

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Studied quite a few menus on the walking tour, with most being much of a muchness.  The occasional wild boar make it on there, but one in particular boasted of “We guarantee fast service – no matter how long it takes”.

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The Three Brothers of Riga

Other buildings visited included the Great Guild Hall and the smaller (craftsmen’s) guild hall, the building used by SMERSH to torture, humiliate and kill the Latvian Resistance Movement, the Roman Catholic Dome Cathedral, the Lutheran St. Jacob’s Church and St. Peter’s Church, the Swedish Gate and The Three Brothers – similar to the Three Sisters in Tallinn – three buildings next to each other.  Our guide entertained us by singing some Latvian folk songs, some to some rather familiar tunes.

We also stopped off at a bottle shop (Australians know what I mean here), where free samples were available of the medicinal Riga Black Balsam drink.  Rather potent at 30-40%, three flavours were tried – original, blackcurrant and rum (as though one alcoholic drink wasn’t enough, why not mix it with another as well!)  Also on offer was a unique drink, kept in the freezer, of which the Queen orders 32 bottles every year for Christmas – it’s only available in Riga!  Philip must like it a lot.  It’s called Allažu ķimelis and is made from caraway seeds.  We also tried the cinnamon version later.  Both are almost syrup-like, and incredibly sweet.

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Had a sligh panic as she led us through the courtyard of the Art Museum, but thankfully this was just a shortcut to the Dome Square, where the Roman Catholic cathedral was located.  It’s worth pointing out at this point that nearly all Christian churches in Estonia and Latvia have a golden cockerel as a weather vane at their highest point.  This is supposed to symbolise waking up, or something else – no one appears to remember.

We managed to skip over some rather dodgy roadworks and reach the town hall square, which was bombed in WWII, and therefore consisted of mainly modern buildings – including a 1999 restoration of the “House of the Blackheads” – a very impressive building.  The same organisation had existed in Tallinn.  While some took some free time to explore the shopping areas, Ruth, Steve and myself headed back to the Dome Cathedral for an organ recital.  I have to admit that I hadn’t quite realised what I was letting myself in for.  The front of the organ was hidden from view, as other restoration works were in progress.  The organ itself was originally the biggest, but is now the 4th biggest (not sure if that was in Eastern Europe, Europe or the world!)  Anyway, we happily mingled with the sleeping locals, the bored children and the casually interested tourists.

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Back meeting the group, we discovered that some highly noticable headwear had been purchased – it did prove useful for identifying the group in a crowd though.  Tauno led us off to the central market, which is based in 5 former zeppelin hangers.  Stopping only briefly for a convenience stop.  Walking past the beautiful toilets in KFC, several ladies managed to get lost in a 4 storey shopping centre for the best part of 20 minutes.  How convenient.

The central market itself had a wide selection of well presented food items – sea buckthorn berries and juice amongst them.  Tauno walked as around the various areas of fruit and veg, cheese and bread, and fish.  The meat section was closed.  One of the sections had a bar!  Honey and honeycomb was quite popular, as was anything you could pickle.  Ugh.

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We moved outside to a quiet bench in the Spikeri neighbourhood of fancy redeveloped warehouses, now used as private housing and office space.  Tauno produced the range of goods he had bought on our behalf at the market including Latvian bread, cheese with caraway seeds, hemp butter, salty cucumbers, sea buckthorn juice and marinated apples (marinated in what, we never quite established).  Some repeated, some are more repeatable.

Leaving us to our own devices, the fab 5 headed back into town to top up with some cake and coffee.  Thankfully, I witnessed the previous customer asking for a Riga Black Balsam to be added to his coffee.  This actually made both the coffee and the Balsam taste better.  A good combination.  Watching the world go by, we saw the “PartyBike” – where up to 8 people need to pedal as they face each other.  Who steers?  There were strict rules though – obviously brought about by previous experience.

“Riga by Canal” was our next agreed stop.  We spent the next 60 minutes on a boat with one other young Chinese guy with perfect English.  Our captain was an almost jolly Russian who spent most of it on his phone.  We toured the canal and river of Riga, seeing all the sights again from the water.  It was almost quite peaceful, except that the blokes were doing the “dance of the photographers” to constantly get the best angle.  One low lying bridge required us to all move to the front of the boat, so that we could scrape underneath – and then move to back to stop the actual scrapping happening for too long.

One Viking longboat, Stockholm ferry, German navy frigate and a motorised paraglider flying thingy later and we deboated (is that a word?)

Steve and I wandered back through town to the hotel, doing some shopping on the way.  Seven of us met again for dinner and after a 4 block walk, we reached a restaurant that Yok Leng had suggested we visit.  Only outside seating was available, so we trekked a few more blocks to another one – “Fazenda”.  This offered a very nice, large table and a good, varied menu.  The duck was delicious, although there was some debate about how “pumpkiny” the pumpkin pannacotta was.

Back at the hotel, we made some plans to meet in the evening of our free day tomorrow – we’ll see how that works out.  Certainly, a longer lie will be appreciated.

Today was mostly about seeing the people of Riga in their own environment – following are just a few …