** LATVIA 2018 - WEEKS 11~12 **
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A Hanseatic Tour of the Baltic Sea 2018 - Southern, Eastern and Northern Latvia - Daugava valley, Daugavpils, Latgale, Sigulda and Gauja National Park, and the Vidzeme coast:
Leaving Rīga: it was a bleakly grey and windy morning, and we were glad to be leaving the noisy and poor standard Rīga City Camping, over-crowded as it was with sardine rows of camping-cars all with their satellite dishes pointed skywards; why on earth don't these folk just stay at home to watch their televisions? As we were packing, we chatted with likeminded German neighbours in a venerable 18 year old VW T4 Camper (2 years George's senior), who were about to set off on their homeward drive after their travels around Latvia and Lithuania.
First stop before leaving Ķīpsala river-island was the Rimi hypermarket for a provisions re-stock, but then confusion over turnings up onto Vanšu Bridge meant driving along to the next bridge to cross the Daugava, bringing us over to the city opposite Rāts laukums where a Song Festival event was taking place. Across the river, we turned eastward along the Daugava's northern bank, passing the Central Markets, and continued ahead through the industrial suburbs of Eastern Rīga, site of the wartime Ghetto and now a run-down residential area occupied by Rīga's sizeable Russian population (click on highlighted area of map right for details of route). Route A6 led through mundane commercial and industrial areas, such a different face of Rīga from the tourist-ridden Old Town; we were thankful for Sunday morning's light traffic. Passing through the outer suburbs of decaying apartment blocks, small factories and car repair yards, we reached the city's edge and 10kms from the centre turned into the parking area at the site of the 1941~44 Rumbula Forest mass-murder of 1000s of Jews both from Rīga Ghetto and transported by train from Germany.
Rumbula Forest, site of German mass-murder of Rīga's Jewish population: during a 2 day period in November~December 1941, some 25,000 Latvian Jews were forcibly marched from Rīga Ghetto out to Rumbula Forest (the same 10km route we had driven this morning) to be systematically shot in groups and buried in pits previously dug in the sandy soil by Russian POWs in readiness for mass-murder. Except for the Babi Yar massacre in Ukraine earlier in 1941, this was the biggest 2 day Holocaust atrocity until the operation of the death camps. The Rumbula massacre was carried out by German Einsatzgruppe A with the support of local Latvian collaborators, German army and military police. The operation was under the command of SS Obergruppenführer Friedrich Jeckeln (see left) who had previously organised systematic mass-murders of Jews in Ukraine, including the 30,000 murdered at Babi Yar. Rudolf Lange, commandant of the nearby Salaspils concentration camp, who later attended the Wannsee Conference where the Final Solution was formulated, also took part in organising the Rumbula massacres. Jeckeln, as an experienced mass-murderer, had been ordered by Himmler to kill the entire Jewish population of the Rīga Ghetto so that Jews from Germany and Austria could be deported and housed there. Hitler was said to have supported this order.
To carry out the order, Jeckeln needed to make logistical preparations for the shooting and disposal of 12,000 people per day. Rumbula was deliberately selected as the killing site, being an elevated area higher than the surrounding marshland, with sandy soil where burial pits could be dug; it was within marching distance of Rīga and alongside the main Daugavpils road and railway line, and forested to hide the killings. Jeckeln had perfected what he called his sardine packing means of systematic killing from his experience of organising mass-murders in Ukraine. Groups of victims were forced to lay prone at the edge of pits previously dug for the purpose, and shot by a single bullet in the head, to fall into the pits on top of piles of corpses of previous victims. Jews from the Rīga Ghetto were force-marched the 10kms to Rumbula, stripped of their clothing, and queued in groups to be shot by Einsatzgruppe troops lining the pits. Any who resisted or lagged behind on the march were shot by soldiers and police lining the route. At the Rumbula killing site, this systematic killing process continued all day until early evening winter twilight. Many of the victims were not killed immediately, but were smothered by the bodies of later victims falling onto them. A few managed to survive this indescribable horror, and escaped later to bear witness at post-war trials of the mass-murderers. Some of these were brought to justice after the war and given life sentences; Jeckeln was publicly hanged in Rīga in February 1946 following trial by Soviet authorities.
Our visit to the Rumbula Memorial: against this unbelievable historical background, we drove the 10kms out from the city, the same route that the bemused Jewish victims had been forced to march to their deaths in the Rumbula Forest in 1941. The memorial site of the massacres is marked along this busy highway by what appears to be a metallic dinosaur neck emerging from the trees (see above right). We pulled into the parking area to walk silently through to the grassed over series of mounds representing the burial pit mass graves of the 1000s who had been so brutally murdered here. The sites of the killing pits continued as far as the main Rīga~Daugavpils railway line just to the north-east. At the central area of the memorial site, a giant menorah stands surrounded by stones inscribed with the names of Jewish victims grouped by the names of their streets in the Rīga Ghetto from where they had been forcibly marched (see above left) (Photo 1 - Rumbula Memorial). Later German Jews transported to occupy these homes reported meals left on the tables in disarray where the former occupants had been hurriedly marched away. We stood in silence at this place of horrors, both to pay our respects to these poor people, and in stunned, uncomprehending revulsion that human beings could meticulously plan and carry out such systematic mass-murder with characteristic German efficiency.
Salaspils concentration camp: 6kms further along the A6 highway, a side-turning leads past a civil cemetery, across the railway line, to another notorious WW2 site, Salaspils concentration camp. Salaspils, under its official German designation of 'Police Prison and Work-Education Camp', was set up in October 1941 under the control of SS Sturmbannführer Rudolf Lange (see left), a ruthless and experienced butcher who had commanded the Einsatzgruppe killing squads. Although Jews were used in the camp's construction, it remained primarily a forced labour camp for Latvian political prisoners. The primitive hutted accommodation was totally inadequate for the severity of Latvian winters, sanitary conditions were appalling, and the treatment régime brutal in the extreme. 12,000 prisoners were incarcerated here during the 3 years of the camp's existence and of these some 3,000 died from malnutrition, disease, brutality and extreme cold. From 1943, large numbers of Latvian orphaned children were imprisoned at Salaspils where disease and starvation caused 100s of deaths.
The first sight to greet modern day visitors on approaching the area of the concentration camp is an enormous concrete bunker (see right) (Photo 2 - Salaspils Memorial), part of the memorial erected by the Soviets in 1967, which under usual communist ideology was termed the Salaspils Memorial, a remembrance place of fascist victims 1941~44. The vast box-shaped tubular structure bears the inscription in Latvian Behind this gate, the earth groans, a quotation from the Latvian writer Eizens Veveris, himself a surviving prisoner from Salaspils. Inside the bunker, a stairway slopes upwards symbolising the passage from life to death, and at the far end, stairs drop down into a small museum with gruesome displays illustrating the camp's brutality. Another feature of the memorial is a long black marble slab and focus of wreath-laying ceremonies, embedded with a heart-beat ticking metronome. Across the lawns, an ensemble of comically heroic square-jawed giant statues, intended to represent the uncrushable human spirit, simply appears tastelessly Soviet; as if resistance to German barbarism was the sole preserve of communists who could any day outdo even Germans in the barbarity stakes. All these monuments are however so grotesquely gargantuan and comically bizarre as to distract from the horrors of brutality committed here by inhuman Germans. In spite of the tasteless insensitivity of the Soviet memorial, we were impressed by the number of Latvians making a Sunday afternoon outing from Rīga to visit the site.
A day in camp at the welcoming Labirinti Camping at Zorgi, Southern Latvia: we turned off onto Route A5 (click here for detailed map of route), the Via Baltica, which even on a Sunday afternoon was busy with heavy trucks and viciously speeding Latvian cars returning to Rīga. Around the Salaspils HEP dam, built 1966~75 which swells the upstream Daugava River into a huge reservoir, we turned off southwards onto A7 heading towards Bauska and the Lithuanian border. By a strange coincidence, the vehicle behind us was the VW Camper driven by the German couple we had earlier been chatting with at Rīga City Camping. We exchanged a brief wave as, just beyond the small town of Iecava, we turned off to Zorgi to find tonight's campsite, Labirinti Camping, recommended by Barry and Margaret Williamson (Magbaz Travels) as a homely and welcoming site run by Jānis the enterprising farmer. The lawned camping area behind the farmhouse was in a beautiful setting, surrounded by trees, orchards and flower gardens, and with first rate facilities including an open wi-fi network. We carefully pitched ready to face the continuous rain forecast for tomorrow when we should take a day in camp here. Jānis came round for payment, totally welcoming and chatting in fluent English. It was a miserably grey evening with rain threatening, just the night for a Baltic (not Balti!) curry supper cooked with local ingredients including East European green peppers. The evening grew chill and surprisingly dark, not at all the weather expected of midsummer. The rain began overnight and continued throughout our day in camp, a day only fit for catching up with writing and dealing with photographs, snug and dry in George. It was disappointing weather however for a large family group of local Latvians who had gathered at the campsite for their young son's birthday party. We chatted with the father who had worked in UK for 3 years about contemporary life in Latvia: employment opportunities and standard of living were, it seemed, now much better than when we were last here in 2011. Labirinti Camping had proved a perfect choice for our rest day, with its peaceful garden setting even in such miserable weather, its first class facilities and good wi-fi, good value price at €15/night, and most of all Jānis' hospitality; without doubt this was a +5 campsite, thoroughly recommended.
Rundāle Palace near Bauska: after a wet night, it was still gloomily overcast the following morning with just a weak sun trying but failing to break through. South on the busy A7 road, we turned off at Bauska onto Route P103 and in 10kms reached the turning for Rundāles Pils (Palace). This prime Latvian architectural masterpiece, and monument to 18th century German aristocratic ostentatious excess, is hidden away quite incongruously among the more modest farmhouses and cottages of rural Latvia's countryside. The estate at Rundāle was acquired in 1735 by Ernst Johann Biron, German aristocratic Duke of Courland, Regent of the Russian Empire and lover of Russian Empress Anna (see above right). Biron commissioned Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli, architect of the Winter Palace in St Petersburg, to design and build his summer residence at Rundāle in 1736. Most of the construction work was completed by 1740, but Biron was exiled to Siberia by rivals at the Russian court, and only on his return to favour in 1762 when pardoned by Catherine II were the interiors finally decorated by Rastrelli in the opulent Rococo style of the day, and the formal gardens laid out inspired by those at Versailles (see left). The palace was completed in 1768 with Johann Michael Graff producing the lavish stucco decorations. Biron spent his summers at Rundāle until his death in 1772. After the Duchy of Courland was incorporated into the Russian Empire in 1795, Catherine the Great presented Rundāle Palace to her lover, Prince Platon Zubrov, and in 1804 the palace passed into the ownership of the Russian aristocratic Shuvalov family until the German occupation in WW1 when it was used as a hospital. The palace suffered damage during the 1919 Latvian War of Independence, and later became a school. The palace was further damaged in WW2, and was used as a grain warehouse. A meticulous programme of restoration was begun by the Soviet Latvian State in 1972 which continued after Latvia regained independence until completion in 2015, all at a total cost of €8.5 million. Rundāle Palace is divided into 2 wings, the East Wing devoted to formal staterooms, and the Central and West Wing forming the family residence; although only used as a summer residence, each of the rooms is heated by a network of porcelain stoves.
Our visit to Rundāle Palace: entrance to Rundāle Palace is not cheap. We chose the shorter tour ticket costing €11, which includes the state rooms, parts of the family suites, combined with the formally laid-out gardens to the rear of the palace (see above right); the longer tour which also includes the West Wing family rooms costs €13. From the car park, a pathway brings visitors to the palace's grandiose entrance gates topped with regal-looking lions, leading into the huge courtyard enclosed by Rundāle's three wings (see above right) (Photo 3 - Rundāle Palace). The tour begins on the first floor of the East Wing staterooms in the Gilded Hall, a huge show-piece chamber for ceremonial receptions, decorated with exuberant ceiling frescoes and mirror-lined walls (see left). A long trompe l'oeil-decorated gallery then led along the length of the wing to the White Ballroom with its ornate stucco ceiling. The return route along the opposite side of the wing passed through a series of smaller rooms, each with its corner porcelain stove, leading back to the Central Wing of the Duke's state rooms and private apartments (Photo 4 - Rundāle Palace private apartments), including his study and library (see above right), the Rose Room with beautiful stucco work rose decorations (see left), and the Duke's bedroom and dining room. These led to the Shuvalov Room lined with portraits of the Russian aristocratic family (see right), and in the SW corner the Billiard Room with reproduction of an 18th century billiard table. Beyond here, the long tour continued into the Duke and Duchess' family rooms, and attendants made sure that those like us who had only paid for the short tour left at this point! Having said that, there was no additional charge for photograph permit, and attendants paid no heed to our taking photos of the magnificently restored decorations and furnishings.
The forecast had threatened heavy rain today and by the time we had completed the tour of the palace's interior rooms, a steady rain was pouring. In gloomily overcast conditions we walked around to the formally laid out gardens at the rear of the palace, sheltering under umbrellas from the persistent rain. After one failed attempt and a soaking, we returned indoors hoping for a lull in the rain. As the rain eased a little, we tried again to photograph the palace's rear façade from the rose gardens, but the light was pour and the roses all rather bedraggled after the pouring rain (Photo 5 - Rundāle Palace Gardens) (see below left). There was no denying that the lengthy and costly restoration of Rundāle was an admirable achievement, showing the opulence of 18th century Baroque excesses and lavish decorations. We were pleasantly surprised at how few visitors there were mid-week, having expected to be competing with hordes of tour groups milling everywhere. It was just a pity that the dreary, wet weather curtailed our walk around the magnificent gardens.
Sniedzes Camping in Daugava Valley: back into Bauska, we shopped for provisions at the Rimi supermarket before returning north on A7 to the Salaspils Dam (click here for detailed map of route). Here, grateful for a quiet minor road away from the busy traffic, we turned along the Daugava on P85 for 18kms to tonight's campsite, Sniedzes Camping (the name in Latvian rather inexplicably means snow-bunting, but the Daugava Valley was very different terrain from where we had last seen snow-buntings on the Viti volcanic crater in North Iceland!), on the river's southern bank opposite the small industrial town of Ogre. We had stayed here last in 2011 when we had failed to raise the owners; today it looked like being the same, but eventually a rather precocious teenager opened up speaking a broad Americanese, and booked us in at €18/night. Facilities had been modernised since we were last here, with reasonably equipped kitchen/common room and clean WC/showers. On a miserably damp, dreary, drizzly evening, we settled in at the same area by the pinewoods where we had camped in 2011 (see right). The weather was truly wretched and we were thankful for the warmth and shelter of George. We had the camping area totally to ourselves, but there was no view of the Daugava from here, just the distant noise of heavy traffic on the busy A6 on the far side of the river.
Down the Daugava Valley to Lielvārde: the weather the following morning was still heavily overcast with moisture in the air for our day's journey along the Daugava Valley to Latvia's second city Daugavpils. Rising in the same part of Western Russia as the Volga and Dnieper, the 1,020km long Daugava River flows through Belarus and Latvia into the Bay of Rīga. For centuries, the river had been Latvia's main transport corridor, busy with rafts and barges carrying timber, hemp, flax and hides down-stream to the export markets of Rīga. Nowadays freight travels by lorry and rail along the valley, since a series of three 20th century hydro-electric dams providing most of the country's electricity needs made the river unnavigable. Route P85 continued south along the Daugava, at one point passing close to the wide river at this tail-end of the Salaspils Dam reservoir. Opposite to Kegums, the road crossed over the Kegums Dam (see left), the middle one of three HEP dams along this central course of the Daugava, built in 1936~40, a symbol of the first Latvian Republic's technological achievement, with a second set of generators added in 1976~79. This brought us across the river to join the busy A6 trunk road, and a short distance south in the outskirts of the small town of Lielvārde, we reached the reconstruction of a 12th century Latvian timber-built stockade-fort, a general representation of Balt tribal chieftains' strongholds of that period prior to the German conquest (Photo 6 - Lielvārde stockade-fort) (see right and left). The small enclosure surrounded by a low ditch was protected by huge log-built ramparts reinforced by sharpened stakes. In peacetime the fort would accommodate the chieftain, his family and small band of warriors. In times of war, the stockade would fill up with families from surrounding farmsteads. We had on our 2011 visit been able to visit the Lielvārde reconstructed stockade-fort and learned much about 12th century Latvian tribal society which occupied such stockade-forts. Iron working was clearly an established skill with warriors armed with swords and iron-tipped spears, and horses fully equipped with saddles, stirrups, bit and bridle. But lacking body armour, such a culture would have been no match for the advanced military technology of the invading German Knights; the Balt tribal society quickly was subjugated by the Teutonic invaders, reducing the Latvians to peasantry and serfdom for the next 700 years. Today we hoped to re-visit the fort reconstruction, but disappointingly it was now only open at weekends, and we were restricted to walking around the outside.
Lielvārde was also the birthplace of another of Latvia's literary figures, Andrējs Pumpurs (1841~1902), best remembered for his epic poem Lačplēsis, which wove together Latvian folktales into an inspiration for Latvian nationalistic identity at a time when the country's population was ruled over by Tsarist officialdom and its peasants held in serfdom by Germanic aristocracy. Pumpurs created the heroic figure of Lačplēsis, the Bear Slayer, a super-human Robin Hood character who battled through a series of adventures championing the Latvian underdog. Latvians would identify with their action-man hero in their forthcoming struggle for independence from the Baltic-German aristocracy. Lačplēsis' greatest enemy with whom the bear-slaying hero battles is the unmistakably Teutonic Black Knight; the story ends with Lačplēsis making the ultimate sacrifice, dragging the filthy Hun with him over the Staburags cliff to drown in the flowing waters of the Daugava. Lačplēsis' statue now stands in a niche over the entrance to the Latvian parliament building in Rīga and is also the name of one of the country's favourite beers.
Pļaviņas hydro-electric dam and Soviet-built town of Aizkraukle: we continued south-eastwards on A6 following the course of the Daugava, sometimes within sight of the river, generally inland of it, and some 40kms further turned off to re-visit the Pļaviņas dam and hydro-electric station. This Soviet-era major project further upstream along the Daugava proved far more controversial than the Kegums Dam: the proposed construction of the Pļaviņas dam in 1958 would flood this picturesque section of the Daugava Valley, a landscape important in Latvian culture and mythology with the historical sites associated with the Lačplēsis legend, provoking an unusual level of protest by Latvians. The dam only went ahead after mildly liberal, patriotically-minded politicians were purged from the Latvian communist party and replaced by Moscow-approved, ideologically conservatives. Opened in 1968, Pļaviņas is now the largest of the Daugava dams in terms of generating capacity; with 10 turbine~generator sets and power output of 894 MW, it is also the largest in the Baltic States and one of the largest in Europe.
Reaching the dam at Pļaviņas, the approach road gave a panoramic view of the hydro-electric station generating station (see above right) (Photo 7 - Pļaviņas hydro-electric dam), and continued downhill to cross the dam in a tunnel set into the dam wall (see above left). Before returning to the A6, we drove through Aizkraukle which had been built by the Soviet authorities as a new town in the mid-1950s to house construction workers and operatives for the Pļaviņas dam and hydro-electric plant. Since then it had acquired the unofficial epithet of the ugliest town in Latvia with its rows of panelaky apartment blocks. But on a sunny summer's afternoon with roadsides and window boxes planted with brightly coloured dahlias (see right), the town's poor image seemed unfairly harsh; we had seen far worse communist era blots on the landscape during our travels.
Koknese Castle: continuing along A6 we reached the town of Koknese, where a lane led along the river bank to the remains of the 13th century stone castle built on a hillock above the banks of the Daugava by the Livonian Knights (Photo 8 - Koknese Castle) (see left). The castle had been built on the site of an earlier Latvian timber stockade-fort like the reconstruction at Lielvārde, and seeing the Germanic castle's substantial remains, we could have a ready understanding of how easily the Latvian tribes had been conquered. The castle's cliff-top position was lost when water-levels rose after the Pļaviņas dam's construction, so that the River Daugava now laps around the castle's footings. The castle is now undergoing reconstruction, and on the far side of the river, the once mighty Staburags cliffs, associated with the legend of Lačplēsis' death, which once towered above the Daugava, now are reduced to a low bank since the Pļaviņas reservoir flooded the area.
Jēkabpils and the middle Daugava Valley: we continued through the rather woebegone town of Pļaviņas to reach Jēkabpils, one of the main towns of the central Daugava region, and originally two towns spanning both sides of the river: Krustpils on the northern bank grew up around the castle built by the Archbishop of Rīga in the 13th century, and Jēkabpils on the southern which originated as a 17th century sanctuary for dissident Orthodox Old Believers fleeing persecution in Tsarist Russia. To take trade away from Krustpils, the ambitious Duke Jakob of Courland, whose lands extended as far as the Daugava, granted free town status to the new settlement in 1670 and gave it the name of Jēkabpils (Jakob's Town). The town soon became a stopping-off point for river-traders taking logs and furs downstream to Rīga, and a cosmopolitan community of Latvians, Russians, Poles and Jews grew up here sharing in the profits. Jēkabpils was spared the wartime destruction and post-war industrialisation which blighted many of the region's other towns, and retains many of its historical buildings and churches, albeit with its share of woebegone, semi-derelict Soviet era panelaky. With still a long drive ahead of us to reach Daugavpils, there was no time to stop today, and we crossed one of the few bridges along this central stretch of the Daugava to continue our journey on rural back-roads down to Daugavpils.
Rural back-roads through southern Latgale down to Daugavpils: we had tried to find a back-roads route to Daugavpils in 2011 to avoid heavy traffic on A6, but inadvertently had chosen P72 as the seemingly obvious direct route; in the event this had entailed some 40kms of rough gravel road. This time we had carefully researched a less direct route but one which kept to tarmaced roads (click here for detailed map of route). From Jēkabpils P75 led to Birži where we turned south onto P74, across farming countryside to Aknīste. We were now deep into remote Latgale rural villages with their single-storey wooden houses. Here we turned south-eastwards on P73 and P70, following a parallel course with the Lithuanian border, and near to Subate we passed within 1km of the border before swinging back into Latvia to Pilskalne. At Svente P70 joined the A14 and, on a very rickety temporary girder-bridge set alongside the main bridge under reconstruction (see above right), we re-crossed the wide Daugava to join A6 bypassing Daugavpils to the north of the city. We also crossed a network of railway lines radiating from Daugavpils. Beyond the A13 crossing, we continued for a short distance on A6 to turn off onto a country lane which became gravel for a couple of kms, leading eventually along a sandy track to tonight's campsite Ozianna Camping on the remote banks of the Daugava.
Ozianna Camping on the banks of the Daugava near to Daugavpils: we knew nothing about the place, but it was the only campsite we could find within range of Daugavpils despite this being Latvia's second city. It was mainly a hut-encampment set in woodland sloping up from the river bank; a few of the huts were occupied and phone numbers for the owner were posted on the common room hut. We scouted around and found basic but reasonable WC/showers and a common room hut with kitchen/wash-up. Flat ground and open camping space among the trees was limited to a small terrace alongside the common room hut, but we managed to level George there and found power sockets on the side of the hut. We settled in there (see above left) (Photo 9 - Ozianna Camping), and rang the owner who arrived 5 minutes later to welcome us matter of factly. From our terrace, there was a magnificent view overlooking the river bend with the late afternoon sun lighting the empty forests on the far side of the Daugava. Despite its seeming remoteness and difficult access, Ozianna Camping was a great find, and as dusk fell after supper we sat looking out across the river enjoying the stillness.
Our visit to Daugavpils, Latvia's second city: the following morning with the weather bright, we set off from Ozianna for our day in Daugavpils, pausing to photograph a stork's nest on a power-pole (see above right). Despite being Latvia's second city, Daugavpils had in recent years been an economically depressed backwater compared with Rīga. What was once the country's major industrial centre had fallen on hard times since independence and switch to market economy, producing high levels of unemployment. The city also faced much prejudice with 90% of its population being Russian-speaking. Founded by Ivan the Terrible who sacked the Livonian fortress in 1656 and built his own fortified settlement, Daugavpils remained a garrison city and in 1810 construction began on a huge citadel on the banks of the Daugava to resist the Napoleonic invasion. The city developed as a major industrial centre in the lead-up to WW1, attracting 1000s of migrant workers from all parts of the Russian Empire. Daugavpils was home to a huge Jewish population numbering over 50,000 in the early 20th century, with many wealthy Jewish factory owners. In 1941~42, the WW2 German occupiers systematically murdered the city's entire Jewish population. Daugavpils' industrialisation continued after WW2 when the Soviet occupiers deliberately imported a totally non-Latvian workforce for the city's ever-expanding manufacturing industry; the result is the predominantly Russian-speaking population of today with few Latvians living in Daugavpils. During the Cold War, the Soviets built a military air-base at Lociki 12 kms from Daugavpils, but an HEP project planned on the Daugava River close to Daugavpils provoked one of the USSR's first environmental protests in 1986, when the Latvians successfully demanded its cancellation. With industry now in decline and the city facing economic depression, Daugavpils with its geographical position close to Russian, Belarusian and Lithuanian borders, is trying to attract new investments. It was noticeable to us however that tourism is still an insignificant contributor to the city's economy, and despite its status as Latvia's second city, Daugavpils still lacks a campsite.
The Church Hill area of Daugavpils: we drove into the city along 18 Novembra iela, and just before the main railway bridge, turned into a side street to park alongside Daugavpils' Orthodox Cathedral of SS Boris and Gleb (Photo 10 - SS Boris and Gleb Russian Orthodox Cathedral), two Russian warrior saints who have long been patrons of the Russian-speaking population. Inside we were greeted with a more realistic attitude than at many other Latvian Orthodox churches: one of the flower-arranging babushkas rushed over and demanded €3 to take photographs. In a side aisle, a deep-voiced priest intoned the Orthodox litany, swinging his incense censer for 2 elderly worshippers who crossed themselves fervently in response to the priest's chanting.
We took our photos of the iconostasis (Photo 11 - Orthodox Cathedral Iconostasis) (see above right and left), and walked around the gardens for photos of the cathedral's exterior with its imposing gilded bauble onion domes impaled on their pale blue spires (see above left). SS Boris and Gleb Orthodox Cathedral is one of four denominational churches built in the early 20th century in the Church Hill area of the expanding city for Daugavpil's growing industrial population: on the far side of 18 Novembra iela, the plain red-brick Martin Luther Lutheran Church (1893) stands alongside the more ornate Catholic Basilica (1905). SS Boris and Gleb was also built in 1905 for the city's Russian Orthodox community, and the Cathedral churchyard railings gave perfect view of trams trundling along 18 Novembra iela against the background of the Lutheran and Catholic churches (see above right) (Photo 12 - Lutheran and Catholic churches). At the turn of the 20th century, 46% of Daugavpils' residents were Jewish, making them the largest and most powerful community, with thriving and prosperous Jewish businesses and rich religious culture including 40 synagogues; Yiddish would have been heard more often than Russian. When the Germans occupied the city in 1941, the entire Jewish population was herded into the Daugavpils Ghetto across the river and systematically murdered, with just 100 surviving when the Red Army re-captured Daugavpils in 1944. Just around the corner in the back streets behind the Orthodox Cathedral, the Old Believers Sect had built their squat little church (see above left) (Photo 13 - Old Believers' Church), and we drove around to find this among the panelaky apartment blocks. Sheila again covered her head with a scarf but this was not enough to avoid a scolding from the babushka gardienne who insisted she also donned a wrap-around skirt, babbling away in censorious Russian. For unknown reasons Sheila incurred yet more carping reprimand from the unrelenting babushka; she would have been duly repentant had she only known the cause of her guilt! While all this was going on, Paul innocently took photos of the Old Believers church's icon-decked interior (see right) (Photo 14 - Old Believers' Icons).
Daugavpils Shot Factory: just around the corner, we found another curiosity of the city's industrial heritage, the Daugavpils Shot Factory, its 40m tall red-brick tower standing out as a landmark among the panelaky of this industrial area of the city (see right). Guns and ammunition were certainly not a subject of any interest to us, but this historical process of producing lead shot by dropping molten lead from a great height into a well of water at the tower's foot, allowing gravity to solidify it into spherical pellets was a sight worth seeing. This process was actually originated in UK in 1782 by William Watts of Redcliffe in Bristol who converted his house for this purpose; what Mrs Watts thought of having a lead-shot factory in her front room was not recorded! At the Daugavpils factory, lead shot is now produced with other forms of ammunition by more modern industrial processes, but the original shot-tower and its machinery is preserved as a museum (see left). We joined a group to be taken through the process of producing shot pellets by the tower gravity method (Click here for lead shot diagram) and separating spherical from imperfect shot by rolling the pellets down sloping trays. Lead shot had been produced here by the tower process since the late 19th century. The top of the tower, climbed by a narrow stairway and very rickety ladder, gave panoramic views over the rooftops of the Church Hill area of the city (Photo 15 - View over rooftops) (see below left). This had been a uniquely novel visit, but not particularly safe or healthy in the lead-polluted environment, meaning a token hand-wash afterwards!
Daugavpils Citadel-Fortress: around on the far side of the city, we reached Daugavpils' main attraction, the Tsarist Russian Citadel-Fortress (Cietoksnis). Built in 1810 against the threat of Napoleonic invasion of the Western Russian Empire, and reinforced during the late 1800s, the star-shaped network of earthworks and brick ramparts, redoubts and fortifications enclosed a huge area of what was a permanently garrisoned stronghold. The fortress survived more or less intact the two World Wars; in WW2 it was used by the Germans as a prison camp for Russian POWs, during the 45 years of Soviet occupation it became a Soviet air force training school, and in the huge open spaces within the fortress, panelaky apartment blocks were built as additional residential space during the 1960s~70s, infilling gaps between the original Tsarist era mansions. Once the Soviets left in 1993 after Latvian independence, the entire complex had progressively fallen into dereliction.
Our 2011 visit had been a fascinating if uncomfortable experience: many of the buildings were totally abandoned, but the grubby panelaky apartment blocks remained occupied as squalid social housing. Exactly like Karosta at Liepāja, this was a totally bizarre place: crumbling Soviet apartment blocks amid semi-derelict Tsarist mansions. And to complete the picture of dereliction and alienation, the remains of Soviet security gates regaled with hammer, sickle and red star, topped with rusting barbed wire still enclosed the outer perimeter of this sordidly enclosed residential estate (see above right). The dark, litter-filled hallways and staircases of these crumbling apartment blocks looked forbidding places. As at Karosta, we were glad to have had this bizarre experience, but even gladder to walk away through the forbidding fortress gateway, passing a young mum with a small child trudging from the bus with her shopping back into this enclosed world locked away behind the citadel walls.
In the intervening 7 years however, restoration work had begun at the Citadel, funded partly by a European Regional Development Fund award, as part of the city's attempt to smarten up its image and attract tourism. A new art gallery has opened in the former artillery arsenal, named after the American Jewish abstract expressionist artist Mark Rothko, whose family had emigrated from Daugavpils in 1913. Visitor parking has been created inside the Citadel walls close to the art gallery, which meant driving through one of the narrow fortress gateways. Having negotiated a way in and parked, we climbed up onto the rampart walls for the view overlooking the Daugava, and obtained a plan of the Citadel from the new Tourist Exhibition Centre in the fortress' former water pumping house. Here we learned that many of the Tsarist era mansions were progressively being restored, and a police station established in the former commandant's quarters.
Following the guide-map, we set off an a walking tour of the fortress, beginning at the restored Nicholas Gate (Photo 16 - Nicholas Gate) and round to the Michael Gate through which we had driven earlier (see above left) (Photo 17 - Michael Gate). The route led around to the central residential area where restored Tsarist era barrack blocks stood alongside 1960s panelaky apartments, with an ancient artillery piece at the corner as reminder of the citadel's former military role (see left) (Photo 18 - Tsarist era barracks alongside 1960s panelaky). 19th century Tsarist buildings stood alongside 1960s panelaky (see above right), some of which were still occupied. A small shop was open in the ground floor of one of the old barracks, and opposite restoration work was taking place on the former arsenal (see below right). Many buildings however were now abandoned, boarded-up and semi-derelict. Although the former social-housing residents had been moved out, leaving the apartment blocks empty and forlorn, progress with restoration clearly was lagging far behind. In the central gardens, elderly residents sat on benches as in any park, but this one had at its centre a memorial fountain of cannons (see right) set up at the centenary of the failed Napoleonic 1812 attempt to capture the fortress. As we passed more occupied apartment blocks with lines of washing outside (see below left), an elderly gent approached and, in incomprehensible Russian, tried to explain something to us. Whatever this was, we should never know. We continued through to the rear Constantine Gate, believing this was where we had seen the barbed-wire topped Soviet security gates in 2011. There was no trace of this now, and we worked our way around the fortress walls' casemates, past empty, crumbling buildings and more recently restored former barrack blocks (Photo 19 - Restored former barracks) along Mihaila iela, back around to where our camper was parked.
Now came the problem of extricating ourselves from the fortress. The Michael Gate through which we had entered was one-way inwards only, and the Nicholas Gate was pedestrian; there was nothing for it but to drive through the heart of the citadel and out through the Alexander Gate on the northern side. From here we found a way through to the city centre to shop for provisions at a Maxima supermarket. By now it was 5-30pm and we had a 60kms drive out into the eastern Latgale countryside for tonight's campsite. The sat-nav's route looked straightforward: across the railway tracks through the heart of the city, and out onto 18 Novembra iela, the way we had entered Daugavpils this morning. Partway through the city however, every way forward was blocked by roadworks; whichever way we tried led to dead-end. We eventually worked our way around and could see 18 Novembra iela ahead; but frustratingly this was on a higher level with no way up onto it except involving a long diversion almost back to where we had started at the Fortress, where a riverside roundabout brought us onto our route out of the city. Fortunately traffic had been light.
Krāslava with its wooden houses: leaving Daugavpils, we turned eastwards onto A6 heading out along the meandering Daugava Valley through forests and agricultural land for the 35km drive to Krāslava, just north of the Belarusian border (click here for detailed map of route). The town's coat of arms includes a boat with 5 sets of oars symbolising the communities of Latvians, Poles, Belarusians, Russians and Jews, the largest group virtually all of whom were murdered by Germans in 1941~44. The main street was lined with attractively coloured wooden single-storey houses (Photo 20 - Krāslava wooden cottages).
Siveri Camping: at Krāslava we turned off onto Route 31 for the second 30kms stretch through rolling Latgale farming countryside and lakeland, eventually reaching the turning onto 3kms of dusty gravel road leading down to Siveri Camping. Set of the shore of Lake Siveri (see left), this straightforward little very welcoming campsite had left us with fond memories from our 2011 stay. It was 7-00pm by the time we finally arrived after a long day and wearying drive, to be welcomed by the elderly lady owner again with cheery hospitality. Speaking in German, she booked us in at just €15/night and showed us around to the camping area overlooking the lake. Facilities were still basic but much improved from our last visit: WC/showers and a small kitchenette/wash-up, and amazingly an open wi-fi network. After supper, and a mid-evening downpour, the sky cleared to give a perfect sunset over Lake Siveri (Photo 21 - Sunset over Lake Siveri) (see right).
The remote countryside of Eastern Latgale: today we should move on into Latgale's rolling uplands dotted with lakes and remote farms and extending eastwards to the borders of Belarus and the Russian Federation (see left). Taking its name from the Latgalians, one of the original Baltic tribes who settled in Latvia 4 millennia ago, the region preserves a stronger sense of identity than other parts of the country. Latgale's uniqueness is largely due to its having been separated from the other regions for most of its history, missing out on the process of cultural and linguistic unification which bound the other 3 regions into a national entity. Most significantly, it was part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth from 1561 until the Partition of Poland in 1772. During this period, the northern and western Latvian tribes gradually standardised their language into a mutually intelligible tongue while the isolated Latgalians retained their own archaic dialect. They were also cut off from the Lutheran culture which developed in the rest of Latvia, remaining under Catholic control as evidenced by the number of wayside crosses not seen in the rest of Latvia. Under Russian Tsarist rule from 1772, Latgale was attached administratively to eastern Belarus, distancing it further from mainstream Latvian culture. But the Latgalians always regarded themselves as a branch of the Latvian national family, and in 1917 the Latgalian Council voted to join with the rest of independent Latvia governed from Rīga. Latgale was always an ethnically mixed area, with Latvian-Latgalians dominating the countryside, and Russians clustering in the towns and cities which under the Soviets were earmarked for intense industrialisation with huge levels of mass immigration of workers from other parts of the USSR.
Meeting point of the three borders of Latvia, Belarus and Russia: an overcast morning with a chill wind blowing for our long drive today around the remote Latgale countryside of NE Latvia, passing the meeting point of the three borders of Latvia, Belarus and Russia (click here for detailed map of route). Back along the dirt road to re-join Route P61, we continued to Dagda for bread at the Maxima, then on to the village of Ezernieki on P55. Here we turned off onto the lonely P52 through this remote rural region passing the occasional farmstead, little more than a few wooden shacks. Just beyond the isolated settlement of Šķaune, we reached a lanes junction with a curious Cyrillic sign pointing along a narrow side-lane and information panels about the border area where Latvia, Belarus and Russian Federation come together (see above right). Hesitantly we ventured down the lane to a junction of tracks where we parked by a barrier in a forest clearing (Photo 22 - Forest clearing). Armed with our invaluable Maps-Me phone mapping app, we walked on beyond the No-Entry sign for the 2kms through the forest to the actual meeting point of the three borders (see left). It would be untrue to say we were not tense! But there was no sign forbidding entry to the border zone, and guided by Maps-Me, we reached the turning to the so-called Friendship Mound set up in 1959 by the Soviet régimes of the 3 countries to commemorate the Comradeship of partisans and underground movement members during the Great Patriotic War (ie WW2). Here a sign advised visitors to phone the Latvian Border Guard post for an access permit; we tried but could get no reply. So very nervously we ventured forward, along an avenue of trees to the monument mound (Photo 23 - Friendship Mound) (see right): there ahead around on the far side in an open clearing was the actual three borders meeting point with the three border posts (Photo 24 - 3 border posts) (see left). No one seemed to be about, at least we could see no one, but uncertain of unseen watchers on the Russian and Belarusian sides, we took our photos and hurriedly withdrew into the safety of Latvian territory beyond the monument and back up the lane. As we sat eating our lunch sandwiches, the Border Guards arrived; we explained we had been to the border after having tried unsuccessfully to phone, and showed them our planned route for today on our map. There was no passport check, and satisfied with our bona fide status, they wished us a good continuing journey.
A long drive around Eastern Latvia to Alūksne: as expected, Route 52 now became gravel-surfaced for the next 20kms, through the loneliest, most remote corner of Eastern Latvia following the line of the Russian border. Passing the occasional impoverished looking settlement (see right), we eventually emerged onto the A12 major transport highway close to the border-crossing into Russia. In 2011, lorries queued for more than a km back from the border-control. We ventured along the 6kms to the border-control, but despite the road-side parking and portaloos, only a few trucks queued today (see below left). Turning back into the safety of Latvia and the EU, we began the second stage of today's long drive, making good progress back along the A12 highway, with only the occasional lorry passing the opposite way towards Russia. We speculated on how the West's sanctions against Russia following its illegal occupation of Crimea in 2016 had affected cross-border trade and the amount of freight traffic on this road.
Reaching the small town of Ludza, we paused in the centre to set coordinates for the next stage of our journey. Ludza, founded in 1177 and said to be the oldest town in Latvia, is set on a spit of land between 3 lakes. The town's most distinguished feature are the remains of the Livonian Order castle set on a flat topped hill overlooking the town and its lakes. Westwards from here, we faced a series of delays from roadworks, before eventually reaching the outskirts of Rēzekne, Latgale's next largest city after Daugavpils, which developed in the 19th century with typical Tsarist grid layout. Rēzekne was pulverised by Red Army artillery fire in WW2, and under the Soviets it grew into a major industrial centre, criss-crossed by a network of railway lines, with drab communist-era factories and unremittingly grey apartment blocks. A noteworthy feature in the town centre is the 5m high statue of Māra of Latgale holding aloft a victory cross celebrating Latvian victory over the Bolsheviks in 1920 and Latgale's subsequent incorporation into the newly independent Latvian Republic. During the Soviet occupation, the statue was twice destroyed by the Soviets and replaced by a statue of Lenin; Māra was only restored in 1992 after Latvia's second independence. Pre-WW2 both Ludza and Rēzekne, along with all other towns of Latgale, had over 60% Jewish population. The reasons for this go back to the Middle Ages when persecution and expulsion had encouraged widespread migration from Western and Central Europe of Ashkenazi Jews speaking the traditional diaspora language of Yiddish, a fusion of Germanic, Hebrew and Aramaic. They had been attracted eastwards to the lands of the Polish~Lithuanian Commonwealth by the Polish rulers' religious and cultural tolerance, and as a result these Eastern European lands became a haven for an influx of Jewish immigrants fleeing persecution in Western/Central Europe. With the late 18th century partitioning of Poland however, and Imperial Russian taking control of these lands, a measure enacted by Russian Empress Catherine the Great in 1791 confined Jewish permanent occupancy to the towns and cities of this western region of imperial Russia; this covered Eastern Poland, Lithuania, Eastern Latvia, Belarus, Moldova, Ukraine and Western Russia, and was known as the Pale of Settlement. As a result of this historic concentration of Jewish population in the region, the occupying Germans in 1941 had an anti-Semitic butchery field day in Latgale towns such as Ludza and Rēzekne, with the result that no Jewish residents survived WW2 German barbarism. During the Soviet occupation, a deliberate policy of Russification brought industrial workers from all parts of USSR, meaning that the population of the towns became predominantly Russian.
Unfortunately there was no time today to explore Rēzekne and we continued around the bypass. Where A13 turned south to Daugavpils and Kaunas and A12 continued west to Jēkabpils, we turned off north-eastwards onto P36 towards Gulbene (click here for detailed map of route). Further roadworks with a series of temporary traffic lights and rough sections of single-carriageway unsurfaced road caused further delays; it must be boom times in Latvia for road construction companies with EU funds flowing freely. We eventually got clear onto completed modernised road to pick up speed again, and turned off onto P47 to the small town of Balvi passing what looked like a squat Old Believers' Church. Finally P43 brought us on what was the most pleasant stretch of today's long drive to Alūksne.
Jaunsetas Camping at Alūksne: just before Alūksne, we crossed the preserved narrow gauge railway which runs between Gulbene and Alūksne and which we planned to travel on tomorrow, and followed this into the town passing the railway station. Through the town we reached Jaunsetas Camping on the shore of Alūksne Lake. Our earlier phone call had confirmed it was open, and on arrival we received a helpful welcome from the young staff at the bar-restaurant reception. The open camping area was empty and we pitched by the facilities hut looking out to the surrounding woodland (see above right). The sky was now dark with persistent drizzle, and weary after our 310kms drive today, we quickly settled in on what became a miserably wet and chill evening.
The Gulbene to Alūksne Narrow Gauge Railway: the following morning was bright but rain was forecast later for our ride on the Gulbene to Alūksne Narrow Gauge Railway, a surviving stretch of rural line formerly providing a local service linking to the Soviet broad gauge inter-city main line. Unlike other volunteer-operated preserved lines, Gulbene~Alūksne narrow gauge railway provides a functional public transport service to all the isolated hamlets between the 2 towns with a twice daily return service. We had tried phoning yesterday to confirm the Saturday steam-pulled service as detailed in their timetable; a poor signal meant we lost the call, but it seemed the steam train would not be running. A phone call this morning to tonight's planned campsite west of Gulbene, brought news of a wedding party there with much noise, meaning we should have to return here to Jaunsetas Camping for our rest day tomorrow or find an alternative campsite near Gulbene. The railway timetable meant catching the train from Gulbene back to Alūksne, and on reaching Gulbene the grandiose station was open but deserted (see above left); but a poster promoted today's railway trip with tickets on sale at 12 noon. This gave us time to drive into town to shop for provisions at the Maxima supermarket and call in at the Tourist Office where we got details of a small campsite 6kms from Gulbene. Back at the station, a stall on the platform was now selling tickets for the railway ride; we also got the disappointing news that the steam locomotive was awaiting new boiler tubes from the Czech Republic, and the train would therefore be pulled by a small ex-Soviet ТУ-7A Class diesel engine (see above left). While waiting for the train, we walked across the tracks past freight wagons on the main lines to where a Soviet Л-Class 2-10-0 heavy freight locomotive was stood in the station sidings (Photo 25- Soviet Л-Class steam locomotive). (see above right) More than 4,200 of these engines were built in Ukraine post-WW2 and ran throughout the USSR; this oil-fired locomotive (number Л-4578) was in operation in Latvia from 1962 until 1988 and is now preserved at Gulbene.
Our 2011 ride on the Gulbene~Alūksne Narrow Gauge Railway had been a mid-week normal service stopping at all the little halts along the way. The 33km long journey took a tedious 1˝ hours chugging along through the unending forest at snail's pace and stopping at every rural halt, some little more than a line-side shack in the empty forest (see left). But the service was well used for routine travel by local people from these isolated tiny settlements; it was we who had then stood out as obvious visitors. Today however was a special Saturday excursion with a local wine and cheese tasting event on board as an additional feature. The Soviet diesel engine brought the train into Gulbene station platform and everyone boarded (see above right) (Photo 26- Train at station platform). The little train today was full of visitors, and we rattled and jolted slowly through the forests as the volunteer crew came through the carriages serving samples of local cheeses and fruit wines. One of them entertained passengers with well-known Latvian songs for all to join in. Reaching the terminus at Alūksne station, there a wait while the crew brought the engine around the train for the return ride (see left) (Photo 27- Train waiting at Alūksne), but at least the forecast rain held off - for now! More singing on the return journey, but the passengers' enthusiasm for joining in gradually waned. Part-way back the rain arrived, and a lashing downpour meant hasty closing of carriage windows. The ride in the Spartan, wooden-seated carriages had been a glimpse back into rural life of a Latvian branch line during the 1960~70s era of Soviet occupation (see right). Today's passengers, most of whom were born since 1991 independence, looked comfortably better off; you could however see the glimmers of semi-nostalgia in the eyes of older passengers who maybe recalled the less appealing aspects of life in Soviet times.
A day in camp at Jaunsetas Camping, Alūksne: the rain had stopped by the time we got back to Gulbene, and we drove 6kms out along P45 to investigate the campsite at Ziedugravas suggested by the TIC. The elderly owner had responded in German to our phone enquiry to confirm that camping was possible and he would return later. On arrival, the farmhouse was empty but we found a camping area and antiquated loos overlooking the lake. Flies were swarming, we were weary, and after a half hour of fruitless attempts to find a flat spot to camp within cable length of the power supply, we gave up; it was all too woebegone. We should do better to return to Alūksne. With skies darkening for another downpour, we booked in again at Jaunsetas Camping and wearily settled in to our previous spot. We had planned another barbecue, and as the rain began on a miserably wet and gloomy evening, we cooked supper under the awning.
A thin sun and overcast sky the following morning for our much-needed day in camp at Jaunsetas Camping (see right) (Photo 28 - Jaunsetas Camping). We were both running out of clean clothes; the campsite had a washing machine for our laundry but no dryer, and in this persistent wet weather lack of clean clothes was preferable to bags full of wet washing in the camper! We therefore phoned the next planned campsite, Apaļkalns Camping beyond Cēsis to confirm the welcome news that they had both washing machine and dryer for our rest day there later in the week. That sorted, we could begin a day's work. Paul managed to sort out problems with his phone's SD card; it was simply astonishing that this tiny piece of flimsy plastic held 64Gb of data. Within our lifetime, we had witnessed computer storage evolve from huge tape reels, floppy diskettes, winchester/hard drives, to this minute and insignificant micro-SD card! Our productive day in camp had given us both a rest at the half-way point of the trip, but another downpour was prelude to a thoroughly wet and gloomy evening.
Āraiši Lake Village Archaeological Museum: from Alūksne the P34 back road through the forests enabled good progress to reach the large village of Lejasciems at the junction with P27 coming across from Gulbene; here we turned NW to reach the main A2 former Tsarist post-road linking Rīga to Pskov, now in Western Russia (click here for detailed map of route). This road cut a straight course across the Central Latvian terrain, but despite being a principal highway, it was poorly maintained and deeply rutted from constant pounding by heavy trucks; this main transport route was one of the worst stretches of road travelled the entire trip. The pitted road surface combined with aggressive speeding and overtaking by Latvian car drivers made this an uncomfortable journey, and we were glad to turn off to the small village of Āraiši with its Archaeological Museum site on the lake shore opposite the modern village. Here in the small, shallow lake, Latvian archaeologists had excavated the remains of a fortified lake-village (ezerpils in Latvian) constructed by Latgalian tribal peoples who settled here in the 9~10th century AD Iron Age. A modern day replica of the Āraiši Lake Village has been constructed on an artificial island of lattice log-decking in the lake shallows connected to the shore by a wooden causeway. The lake-side archaeological site showed evidence of 4 millennia of human habitation: in addition to the lake-village dwellings of the Iron Age Latgalian tribal community, the site also contains the remains of a 13th century Livonian Order stone fortress built by the invading German Knights who so quickly subdued the Baltic peoples reducing them to serfdom; there are also illustrative reconstructions of Stone and Bronze Age shelter-habitations. Finally there is the modern village of Āraiši set on the northern edge of the lake, with its red-roofed church and slender spire; the village made a picturesque backdrop to its 9~10th century predecessor lake-village (see above left) (Photo 29 - Āraiši lake-village).
The reconstructed compact lake-village with 15 small log houses closely clustered on the artificial log-decking island was surrounded by defensive stakes and shrouded by reeds in the shallow waters of the lake (Photo 30 - Reconstructed lake-village) (see above right). A log causeway led across the lake shallows where Flowering Rush grew among the reeds and lily-pads (see above left) (Photo 31 - Flowering Rush). An excellent information sheet gave details of the experimental archaeology construction techniques, showing yoke corner-jointing log structure for the housing, with gabled and ridged roofs covered with rounded half-logs, split planks or turf, over a sub-layer of birch bark. Despite representing Iron Age building techniques, a time of plentiful supplies of lake-iron available for smelting, the log house all-wood reconstruction made no use of iron nails. We took our photos among the lake-dwellings (see above left) (Photo 32- Āraiši construction techniques), along with an overview of the lake-village set among the reads of the lake shallows from the stone walls of the hill-top Livonian fortress, against the backdrop of the modern village of Āraiši.
A visit to the town of Cēsis: it was a short drive to the unassuming town of Cēsis, and after shopping for provisions at the Maxima, we drove up into the centre to find parking off the central square of Vienības laukums which is dominated by the Victory Monument (Photo 33 - Cēsis Victory Monument) (see right). This tall, stark obelisk commemorates the joint-Latvian-Estonian defeat of German forces in 1919 finally freeing Latvia from centuries of German domination and leading to the first period of Latvian independence. The Soviets had demolished the monument in 1950, offended more by its political symbolism of Latvian patriotism than its lack of aesthetic subtlety. It was finally restored in the 1990s after Latvia's second independence. We eventually found the TIC where the girl impressed us with her knowledgeable explanation of the Victory Monument's origins and the decisive Battle of Cēsis in 1919. Near to the remains of Cēsis Castle ( see below right), once the seat of the Grand Masters of the Livonian Order, we passed the original Cēsis brewery premises said to be Latvia's oldest brewery; Cēsu beer is now produced in a modern brewery in the town (see left), owned by the Finnish brewing conglomerate Olvi. With the help of the TIC's town plan, well-documented with local points of interest, we walked around the old town's cobbled streets past the 13th century sturdily-buttressed basilica-church of Sv Jāna Baznīca, where a display of children's dancing was taking place. All the town's shops were closed and we later learned that today was a national holiday, celebrating the close of the four-yearly National Song and Dance Festival in Rīga; perhaps it was National Hangover Day!
A day in camp at the excellent and hospitable Apaļkalns Camping: leaving Cēsis, we drove through the more mundane panelaky suburbs, along the banks of the sluggish Gauja River, and continued another 4kms to Apaļkalns Camping. We expected the formally laid out campsite to be crowded with German and Dutch camping-cars, but at least had established that it did have washing and drying machines; and we needed to do some laundry. To our pleasant surprise however, we were welcomed at reception with unparalleled, helpful hospitality by the laid-back owner: camp where you like, and help yourself to chopped fire wood for the camp-fire hearths scattered around the site; there was assured site-wide wi-fi, and sign banned loud music. The normal price was €22, but a glance at George's small size and he immediately offered a reduced price of €20/night. You simply could not have asked for more thoughtful and relaxed hospitality. We re-filled our fresh water tank, and looked around for a place; the lakeside pitches were filled with camping-cars (not the sort of company we should want!), but up on the flat hill top near to the second facilities building, we found empty space with power supply, picnic table, camp-fire hearth, and just one other Finnish camper who, like us, preferred seclusion. We settled in (see left), fetched 2 buckets of chopped fire wood for a camp-fire later, and cracked a beer.
The two facilities buildings were first class and well-equipped, the closer one with modern, clean WC/showers, wash-up sinks, and (most importantly) washing and drying machines, and as a back-up covered hanging lines. The site was covered by full strength wi-fi signal from 3 routers. You really could not ask for better: this was self-evidently a +5 standard campsite, so thoughtfully equipped, and such a lovely welcome from the owners. An indication of their thoroughness was the compass rose printed on the site plan hand-out to enable campers to orientate their pitching for wind direction and sunrise/sunset. How often have you seen that? Thankful to have found what surely must be one of the trip's foremost campsites for tomorrow's rest day, we cooked supper, and as dusk settled we lit our campfire to sit around with beers, watching a beautiful sunset over the farmland (see right) (Photo 34 - Apaļkalns campfire).
We sat out for breakfast at our picnic table, enjoying the peaceful environment of Apaļkalns Camping on our day in camp, and after breakfast Sheila secured the laundry room key to start on our load of washing. By afternoon, the laundry was completed, dried, and folded away. We had clean clothes again! That evening we fetched another batch of firewood, and after our barbecue supper, we again sat around our campfire with the homely smell of wood smoke filling the still evening air.
Līgatne Cold War underground bunker complex: the following morning we reserved our place at Apaļkalns, drove back into Cēsis to shop in the market, and just beyond the open-air flower stalls (see above left) we found the covered market for meat and vegetables. Round at the Rimi supermarket we completed our shopping, and returned to Vienības laukums for photos in today's better light. Having eaten our lunch sandwiches, we headed westwards on P20/A2 to Līgatne, a village clustered in the narrow sandstone cliff-lined Gauja valley. Līgatne was the site of Latvia's oldest paper mills with rows of 19th century wooden cottages built to house its workers. We threaded a way down through the village towards the Gauja River at Skaļupes, and parked by the now rather woebegone 1960s buildings of the Līgatne Rehabilitation Centre. The hospital's car park was dotted with suspicious-looking ventilation shafts; what would a 3 storey high hospital need with underground ventilation intakes? The centre had once served as a holiday retreat for members of the Latvian communist party elite, and now apparently functions as a genuine rehabilitation hospital whose leaflet promoted all its medical and beauty therapy services. We had telephoned earlier to make an appointment. Why, you might ask? Were we in need of physiotherapy? No, this was no ordinary county sanatorium. Hidden 9m beneath its bland exterior, a top-secret underground bunker-complex was created in the 1960s to which the military and political top-ranking heads of the Latvian Soviet Republic would have been evacuated in the event of nuclear war. This totally self-sufficient complex, known under the cover name of Pensionat (Holiday Hotel), was the strategic nerve-centre for running the country following nuclear attack, with direct secure hot-line telephone contact to the Kremlin in Moscow and links to key services in the rest of the country. It was so secret that its existence suspiciously remained classified until 2003, 12 years after Latvian independence, with government and military leaders of post-communist Latvia allegedly divided about how to deal with this Cold War relic. It is now open to public visits, and a telephone call yesterday had reserved places for us on the tour.
As we reported to the hospital reception, there seemed fewer genuine patients in evidence than on our 2011 visit, and the place certainly looked shabbier. The guide gathered the group for the English language tour, and led us over to an insignificant, anonymous-looking stairwell in the corner of the foyer; no security doors, just what appeared a fire escape staircase. But 2 storeys down, we entered the secret world through thick steel doors, and there the guide described the history of the Līgatne secret bunker complex. Work on construction of the vast underground complex, 9m underground and costing an absolute fortune of Latvian roubles, was begun in 1968, with the rehabilitation sanatorium finally built on top as cover. The self-sufficient complex became operational in 1980, and was kept in a constant state of readiness for the ruling Soviet elite to be evacuated here to run the country at a time of nuclear attack; another interpretation is that, given the time needed to transport communist leaders from Rīga, it was more likely intended for use in the event of USSR launching a first-strike nuclear missile attack on the West.
We were led along linoleum-floored corridors, but such was the persisting paranoia about secrecy that photographs were restricted. A plan topped by a few inane words from Lenin showed the Complex's scale. The guide showed us into small rooms crammed full of radio and telephone equipment (see above right) (Photo 35 - Soviet radio equipment), teletype machines (see left), an archaic 1980s computer terminal and reel-to-reel data storage, all terribly hush hush but apparently still operational. These would have provided the means of communication with the outside world (see above left). But when the rest of the country had been devastated by sneak nuclear attack from the evil forces of Western imperialism, who we wondered did these Soviet imbeciles think they would be communicating with, and how? A heavy telephone handset formed a secure hot-line to the Kremlin; perhaps the answers would come from there, but since the Soviet withdrawal, the line had mysteriously gone dead. A command and control room was filled with charts detailing the country's key military and civil strategic installations, including a chilling map showing the flooding impact if the great dams of the Daugava Valley were breached by nuclear attack; Rīga would be flooded to a depth of 6m in 6 hours. Further corridors led to gloomy, claustrophobic offices which would have occupied by the Secretary Generals of the Latvian communist party, Comrades Voss and Pugo. A neighbouring conference room was festooned with the combined flags of USSR and the Latvian Soviet Republic, and overseen by a bust of Lenin (see above left), with a wall-map of Latvia purloined from the Ministry of Agriculture showing all the collective farms across the country. In the Soviet era canteen, the guide described her personal recollections of gas mask drills being a regular feature of school and workplace life during 1970s (Photo 36 - Gas mask drill) (see above right), something totally unknown in the West. It almost was as if the communist authorities deliberately hyped the dangers of nuclear attack, demonising the West to create a sense of fear in the public to justify the oppressive régime. We were shown the bunker's self-sufficient electrical generating and ventilation systems, whose intakes we had seen in the car park.
This had been a grotesquely surrealistic and chilling experience, giving a gruesome retro-glimpse into the crazy world of 1980s Cold War Soviet paranoia. After all this, we returned up the innocent-looking staircase to the hospital lobby, thankful to emerge back into the sunlight of 2018.
The Gauja river-ferry: a look at the map shower a shorter, more direct route back to Apaļkalns Camping via the Gauja river-ferry and a 12km stretch of gravel road on the northern bank. Back through Līgatne village, past the blocks of apartments built to house paper factory workers, we dropped down to the sandy approach lane for the Gauja river-ferry. The river-ferry had originally been instigated by the Līgatne paper mill to transport its workers from villages on the northern side of the river. Little more than a small wooden platform, it is hand-hauled by the ferry man on a steel-wire rope across the apparently sluggish river (see above right). With an unnerving slope down onto and up from this flimsy-looking platform, the ferry was an uncertain means of conveyance across the river! The ferry man beckoned us down the steep ramp onto the wooden platform (Photo 37 - Gauja river-ferry). The fare was €5 for vehicle, driver and passenger, and with George and one other car aboard, he leisurely hauled us across as the platform drifted diagonally with the river's deceptive current, to anchor onto the opposite bank. As we crossed the Gauja, Sheila took photos looking downstream with her 'selfie' reflection in the wing-mirror (Photo 38 - Crossing the Gauja River). Now came the tricky exit, up the severely steep wooden ramp and sandy slope (see left). We made it, and set off along the 12kms of gravel road, severely corrugated in places, to return to Apaļkalns Camping for a barbecue supper and another camp-fire (see right).
Sigulda and the Gauja National Park: the next morning was bright and sunny with breakfast outside again at the picnic table; Apaļkalns Camping had been a delightful stay. Today we turned north on P14 to join the main A3 highway at Stalbe south-westwards in busy traffic (click here for detailed map of route). In 25kms we turned off at Inciens to Turaida, continuing down into the Gauja valley to cross Sigulda bridge up into the town to shop for provisions at the Elvi supermarket and to re-fill the camper with diesel. Back down to the bridge, we turned off along to Siguldas Pludmale Camping. The only recollections of the place from our 2011 stay were as an overcrowded, noisy and over-expensive river-beach site with limited, grubby facilities; nothing had changed, but it was the only campsite at Sigulda, and still exploited its monopoly to charge silly prices. We managed to tuck George into a far corner into the shade of a tree to protect from the hot sun, and packed a day-sac to set out for the Gauja River forest walking circuit through the Gauja National Park (see above left). By now, after a busy morning, it was already 1-45pm.
A sandy path followed closely along the line of the sluggishly flowing Gauja as it meandered through the forest (Photo 39 - River Gauja) (see above left). The air was heavy, but at least the trees gave shade from the hot sun. Views along the length of the river were limited with the main channel passing behind a river island, but the forest was peaceful with only a couple of other walkers seen. The path passed beneath the Ķeizarskats look-out point high on the steep, forested hillside, but with our late start, there was no time today to climb up for its views around the river's broad meander (see above right). We continued across an open meadow to re-enter the forest along the river-side to a point opposite the Velnala sandstone cliff and cave. The golden-red face of the sandstone outcrop was lit by the afternoon sun to show the magnificent 30m high cliffs eroded over aeons by the river (see above left) (Photo 40 - Velnala sandstone cliff). 500m further we crossed the narrow Kājnieka suspension-footbridge over to the river's far bank (see left and right) (Photo 41 - Kājnieka footbridge) to pick up the return path rising above the Gauja to the top of the Velnala cliffs. From here a wooden step-way rose steeply up the forested hillside to pick up a track which contoured around the hillside. Further steps now descended to a lower level transverse path leading eventually to a look-out point high above the river valley. Just beyond, yet more wooden steps dropped down to another more narrow transverse path, still high on the steep, forested river-side slopes, to emerge just below the ruins of the 13th century Livonian Order Krimulda Castle. A long series of wooden step-ways now brought us down the steep lower slopes to emerge into a river-side meadow just by Sigulda bridge.
We crossed the bridge and plodded wearily back along the lane to camp to sit out at our table for a beer. But not for long: the bright sun suddenly disappeared, heavy cloud gathered, and a thunderstorm hit with pouring rain which lasted for most of the evening. The sandy, riverside soil quickly became waterlogged, and drained almost as quickly, but it was a gloomily dark evening with mist from the rain filling the valley after the sultry hot day. We had done well this afternoon after our late start following the drive over from Cēsis and shopping, completing the 8kms of the Gauja riverside forest walking circuit in 4 hours; we had also managed to avoid a soaking from the pouring rain which, with fortunate timing, waited until this evening and our return to camp.
Turaida Castle: the following morning was heavy and gloomy after last night's rain, and the forecast today was for rain and storms this afternoon. Our plan had been to walk the route linking the three medieval castles which still stand high above the thickly wooded, steep sided Gauja valley around Sigulda, but this was no weather to be caught in the open walking between Krimulda and Turaida Castles. We therefore opted first to drive up to Turaida, the most dramatic of the three castles, then decide on the rest of the day according to the weather. Rather than spend a second night at noisy and expensive Siguldas Pludmale Camping, we should return to Apaļkalns Camping tonight prior to heading over to the Vidzeme coast on Saturday for our concluding time in Latvia.
From the early 13th century, the two rival power blocs of medieval Northern Europe, the Teutonic Knights of the Livonian Order and the clergy of the Catholic Church, took it upon themselves to bring crusading Christian enlightenment to what was seen as the benighted pagan peasantry of the Baltic lands, in other words conquering their territories, and murdering, looting and raping the unfortunate Latvian tribal folk who farmed these lands. Both the Teutonic Knights and powerful Catholic clergy built castles to protect their land-holdings, served by the now enslaved Latvians who worked in serfdom for their new Teutonic masters. Germanic occupation of the Baltic lands spread across what is now Latvia and Estonia, continuing until displaced by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Swedish Empire, and finally by the Russian Empire after the Great Northern Wars of the early 18th century. Construction of Turaida Castle further up the Gauja Valley was begun in 1214 by the Livonian Brothers of the Sword (Later the Teutonic Order) on the instruction of Albert, Archbishop of Rīga, atop the high, rocky ridge at Turaida. This position with commanding overview of the forested Gauja Valley spread out below had been the site of a former Liv wooden stockade fort. The red-brick castle at Turaida was aligned along the narrow rocky ridge like the prow of a ship, with the forecastle's gate-tower at its northern tip, followed by the Main Tower, the castle's principal defensive structure. High rampart walls extended along each side of the ridge, tapering down to the southern forecastle. Improvements in the castle's defensive system continued over the next 2 centuries, with completion of the tower-shaped southern section of the enclosing walls. With the advent of firearms and artillery at the start of the 15th century, the mighty Western Tower with its semi-rounded outer face was added (see right). Domestic buildings and living accommodation infilled the inner courtyard. With the Swedish and Russian acquisition of the Baltic lands, the castle lost its strategic importance and was finally reduced to ruins when lightening struck its gunpowder store in 1776. Turaida Castle was progressively restored during the 1960~70s by the heritage conscious Soviet Latvian régime and now houses the Turaida Museum.
As you drive up the road winding up out of the valley from Sigulda bridge, the towers and massive enceinte walls of Turaida Castle set strategically on its high ridge commanding the valley below are hidden from view among trees. We parked at the large tourist car parks at Turaida, and with the weather bright but uncertain-looking, walked over to the Castle Museum. Beyond what remains of the northern gate-tower, with rain now threatening, we made straight for the four storey 40m high Main Tower for its magnificent views over the southern area of the castle and its Western Tower down to the meanders of the Gauja River in the forested valley below (Photo 42 - Turaida Castle). Despite the pushing and shoving of ill-mannered tourist groups on the tower's narrow winding spiral stairs, their limited span of attention meant only the briefest of pauses for 'selfies', leaving us in peace at the tower's viewing windows to examine the castle's structure spread out below and the panoramic views across the Gauja valley, before the weather finally broke. We sat out the inevitable downpour to eat our lunch sandwiches in the tower's lowest level as the bevies of tourists came and went. By the time we emerged, the downpour had passed leaving puddles in the castle courtyard. The weather brightened enabling us to walk around the courtyard (see above left and right) exploring the remaining sections of the castle's restoration (Photo 43 - Main Tower and Western Tower), and view the museum's multi-lingual displays in the three storeyed Western Tower (see left and right) detailing the castle's 5 centuries of history; this covered the background history from the castle's construction in 1214 through to its destruction in 1776, and its 20th century restoration. With entry at €6 (€4-30 seniors reduction), Turaida Castle is certainly worth a visit; its reconstruction gives a true impression of the castle's grandeur and its impregnable setting, and the well-documented museum displays present a good understanding of Latvia's period of Teutonic domination.
Sigulda in the rain: our plan now was to drive back across the valley to Sigulda to visit Sigulda's restored medieval castle, then take the cable-car across the Gauja gorge to see the remains of Krimulda Castle on the far side of the valley. Both Sigulda and Krimulda Castles had been built around 1207~09 by the Livonian Order Brothers of the Sword on prominent rocky bluffs facing one another on opposite sides of the steep-sided Gauja Valley to control their estates from the rival Catholics of Turaida under Archbishop Albert. Both castles survived until the Polish~Swedish conquests of the 17th century. Krimulda, which we had visited in 2011, is now nothing more than a heap of stones, but EU monies have allowed restoration of the ruins of Sigulda Castle as a tourist attraction. We parked up at Sigulda near to the late 19th century New Castle, a rather over-blown manor house now used as council offices. But the sky again darkened ominously and thunder rumbled around with more rain threatening. Walking around to the medieval castle ruins under restoration on the cliff-top overlooking the Gauja Valley, more tour groups arrived. Which was worse? dark sky, poor light and imminent downpour, or milling, gormlessly 'selfie'-snapping tourists? Either way the combination was too much for us, and we departed to drive around to the cable-car station as the storm finally arrived and rain poured down. We waited for the downpour to pass, but at the cable-car station, more disappointment: operation of the electrically driven cable-car high across the gorge was suspended on a day of forecast storms with risk of power failure. Today we were to see neither of the castles, and with more rain threatening, we turned our attention to the more practical matter of shopping for provisions for the coming weekend and for favourite Latvian foodstuffs to take with us into Estonia next week. We completed our shopping at the Rimi hypermarket on the far side of Sigulda, and now set course back to Apaļkalns Camping.
Limbaži, a small and unassuming town with first rate TIC: a fine morning and we were able to sit out for breakfast in warm sunshine on our final morning at Apaļkalns (see above right). Not having a long drive today, we were able to take a relaxed morning before settling up at this first class campsite where we had enjoyed such a comfortable and peaceful 4 nights stay. We set off north again, surprised at the streams of aggressively speeding traffic on P14. Only after a couple of kms did we realise that, on a hot, sunny Saturday, they were also all heading for the Baltic beaches of the Vidzeme coast. Crossing the A3, we continued NW on P14, still with homicidally aggressive overtaking by Latvian car drivers determined to get to the beaches even if this meant killing other road users in the process! Reaching the small and unassuming town of Limbaži, and after shopping for our final Latvian supplies at the Maxima supermarket in the outskirts, we parked in the cobbled central square. and walked over to the town TIC with no expectations of it being open at the weekend. Not only was it open however, but staffed by an insistently accommodating lady; the least we could do was ask for a town plan, and this triggered a whole array of helpful information, not only about Limbaži, but also precise details of how to reach the Veczemju red-sandstone cliffs on the North Vidzeme coast. She even told us all about the traditional lamprey fishing at Salacgrīva from a bridge that gets washed away each winter and rebuilt in Spring, and alerted us to this weekend being the Salacgrīva Music Festival and that Rakari Camping might therefore be busy. With the aid the Limbaži town plan, we took a walk around the centre to visit the Russian Orthodox Church (Photo 44 - Limbaži Orthodox Church) (see above left) and see its iconostasis (see right), again surprised that Limbaži must have a significant Russian population. As so often happens at an unpretentious town, Limbaži's Tourist Information Service had set a winning standard amongst Latvian TICs, and this helpful lady did her town proud, earning our thanks and a mention in dispatches.
Vidzeme coast and Veczemju sandstone cliffs: we continued westwards from Limbaži on P11 (click here for detailed map of route) to reach the main A1 Via Baltica highway at the Vidzeme coast. Much traffic travelled southwards through the coastal pinewoods, but northbound traffic was light and the road newly re-surfaced. Guided by the map from Limbaži TIC, 12kms north we reached the turning onto 5kms of gravel road out to the coast to find the Veczemju red-sandstone cliffs. The rough gravel road ended at a large beach parking area full of day-tripping and holiday-making Latvians. We managed to park in the shade of pine woods by a huge informal campsite, and set off to walk the path through the pines immediately behind the Baltic beach. Some 750m north, we reached the 5m high outcropping red-sandstone bluffs which stretched for almost a km along the beach (Photo 45 - Baltic beach at Veczemju sandstone cliffs). It was not in itself particularly spectacular, but what made it special was the setting: edging the white sand of this beautiful wild beach (see above left), the soft sandstone was eroded by wind and tides into caves and hollows, and set against the stark backdrop of dark pine woods Photo 46 - Veczemju Sandstone Bluffs) (see left and right). We walked back along the beach as the Baltic surf lapped gently onto the sand, and examined the line of red-sandstone outcrops; it should not have surprised us that most of the sun-bathing holiday-makers could remain so indifferent to this magnificent setting. Back through the pinewoods to the parking area, we returned along the gravel road, passing a crowded storks' nest where this year's young birds, now almost fully grown, were flexing their wings and learning to fly (see right) (Photo 47 - Young storks learning to fly). They only have 5 weeks now to perfect their newly acquired flying skills before they will be off on their migratory long-haul flight to Southern Africa for the winter.
Rakari Camping on North Vidzeme coast: we continued north on the A1 Via Baltica through the Vidzeme coastal pinewoods (click here for detailed map of route) to reach Rakari Camping. We had spent an enjoyable couple of days here in 2011 at this small campsite set by a motel close to the Baltic coast-line of North Vidzeme, and were looking forward to a re-visit. At the motel reception however, we were greeted this year with almost arrogant disdain, an utterly perfunctory non-welcome, and a charge of €19/night. The formally laid out camping area beside the motel had little shade, but the facilities, although modern and clean, lacked any privacy whatsoever with males and females expected to share a common set of showers right next to the men's urinals. Back at reception, we requested they open a second set of facilities, only to be told this was all there was, take it or leave it. After much hassle, we managed to extract a key from the disdainful girlie in order to shower in privacy; demands to know if this was the disrespectful manner in which they treated their motel guests never did get an answer!
We managed to find evening shade by tucking George under a large oak tree (see left) (Photo 48 - Rakari Camping), but this would give no protection from the hot sun during the bulk of tomorrow's day in camp. We settled in and relaxed with beers, still astonished at the motel staffs' unprecedented lack of courtesy, treating users of their campsite as second class citizens. Determined to extract full value for the expensive charge, we investigated the potential for an evening campfire. Paul found a good supply of cut, split logs, and large barbecues; stripped of its kettle-top and grill, one of these would serve as a mobile campfire hearth. After supper as dusk gathered with the air still warm, this makeshift barbecue/campfire hearth was set up by our camping spot and a campfire lit. Careful construction of the pile of logs atop the barbecue/brazier meant the logs fell inwards as they burned, and we enjoyed a good campfire, as a pair of storks glided around and settled on a nearby tree with much bill-clattering.
A hot sun rose early for our rest day in camp at Rakari, and first priority this morning was to escape the direct heat of the sun by moving George further into the shade of the oak tree. As the sun moved round later in the afternoon, bringing George into open sun, we moved him back into the full dappled shade of our oak tree (see above right). A couple of German cyclists arrived, pitching their tent nearby, and we chatted with them about their plans, similar to ours, to cross the Baltic and travel back down the Ĺlands archipelago. Later that evening, after our barbecue supper, we fetched a further supply of cut logs and lit another campfire in the makeshift brazier.
Salacgrīva and Estonian border: another day of hot sun, and we continued north into the border town of Salacgrīva to stock up with provisions at the Maxima supermarket. Another 10kms brought us to the Estonian open Schengen border-crossing, and a pause by the sign for photos (see left) and to record our mileage; we had driven 1,350 miles during our 4 weeks in Latvia. We should now be entering our 6th county of this trip; follow our travels around Southern and Eastern Estonia in our next episode, coming soon
Next edition from Estonia to be published quite soon