** LATVIA 2018 - WEEKS 9~10 **
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A Hanseatic Tour of the Baltic Sea 2018 - Western Latvia and capital city Riga:
West Latvian coast and Ergļi Camping at Bernāti: heading north for 20kms from Palanga on Route A13 through the Baltic coastal pine forests, we reached the Latvian border and pulled in for photos, and to record our mileage (Photo 1 - Latvian border) (see left). Over the last 5 weeks, we had travelled some 1,500 miles around Lithuania.
Entering Latvia for the second stage of our Baltic journey, we now faced a series of roadworks before we could pick up speed for the 30kms to reach the coastal village of Bernāti and tonight's campsite, Ergļi Camping (click on highlighted area of map right for details of our journey). This was one of several sites along the West Latvian coast before Liepāja, but Ergļi had commended itself as a family-run, straightforward farm-campsite. We were welcomed with truly genuine hospitality and in fluent English by the young Latvian owner; we had chosen well. Facilities were modern with fully equipped kitchen/wash-up; there were 2 camping areas, one open and un-shaded, the other smaller with orchard trees for shade. We opted for this, and were just settling in when the owner brought over a dish of strawberries from their garden as further welcome. You simply could not better such welcoming hospitality, and we learned our first word of Latvian - Paldies (Thank you). We were looking forward to a day in camp here at Ergļi tomorrow.
A day in Camp at Ergļi the following morning, after breakfast outside in the bright sunshine (see left), we got into conversation with the 10 year old daughter of a family from Vilnius who were staying in one of the farm cottages. Her English fluency was so faultless that it seemed one of her parents must be English. But no; her Lithuanian parents spoke only limited English and the little girl acted as interpreter as we chatted with them about our recent travels around their country. Such an impressively bright girl, pleasantly confident, she clearly had a gift for languages. We enjoyed a delightful stay at Ergļi Camping (the name in Latvian means Eagle) (Photo 2 - Ergļi Camping), including lunch of delicious Šaltibarščiai (cold beetroot soup). With lovely welcome, thoughtfully laid out setting with birdsong and the scent of flowers, first class facilities, and very reasonable price of €15/night, the campsite fully deserved a +5 rating.
Westernmost point of Latvian coast: before leaving Bernāti village the following morning, we drove down to the coast where, at the westernmost point of Latvia, the first President of newly independent Latvia in 1920, Jānis Čakste, had raised a monument declaring this area should be a resort. The coastal dunes gave a wonderful outlook along the deserted Baltic shore-line (Photo 3 - West Latvian Baltic coast) (see left), and on a nearby hillock we found Čakste's monument stone.
Ex-Soviet naval port of Karosta at Liepāja: 12 kms north on Route A11, we reached the outskirts of Liepāja and turned into a side-street to find the Maxima supermarket used in 2011 among the down-at-heel suburb's apartment blocks where trams trundled along the centre of the road (see right). The shop was well-stocked and we re-discovered a number of Latvian foodstuffs familiar from our 2011 visit and Latvian words for everyday items such as piens for milk.
Our plan for today was to bypass the modern city-centre of Liepāja, and to re-visit the former Soviet sealed dock-city suburb of Karosta just to the north, across the canal built by the Russians under Tsar Alexander III in 1901 to link the then newly constructed inland naval dockyards to the Baltic Sea. Karosta (meaning 'naval port') had been constructed in 1890~1906 as a naval base for the Tsarist Russian Baltic fleet to counter the growing naval threat of imperial Germany. This massive project created a fortified complex of dockyards inland from the open coast, protected from winter freezing over, enclosed by 2 kms long sea-walls and approached along the canal. A large Russian population developed in the garrison city, a fashionable Tsarist outpost with mansions and parkland. Despite the enormous cost of the fortified port's construction, at the outbreak of WW1 the Russians withdrew their fleet to safer waters at St Petersburg. Under the Soviets after 1945, Karosta became a restricted port-city within a city, inhabited by the Soviet navy and Russian ancillary workers and their families. It developed as a secret base for Soviet nuclear submarines during the Cold War, totally sealed from the outside world. As the base expanded, the former Tsarist-era buildings were soon outgrown and the parklands were filled during the 1960~70s with row upon row of hastily built prefabricated concrete panel apartment blocks (panelaky) housing the Russian workforce which served the naval dockyards and military installations. At its height, Karosta was home to over 20,000 Russian inhabitants. With the withdrawal of Soviet armed forces in 1994 after Latvian independence, 1000s of these Russian civilians were left stranded here, living in Karosta's increasingly unmaintained rows of apartment blocks. Most of these remaining Russian-speaking residents were non-citizens with alien-passports, considered neither Russian nor Latvian, and the suburb of Karosta, isolated physically and culturally from the rest of Liepāja, became a depressed slum area of decaying apartments, high unemployment, street crime and drug abuse. And set amid all this social squalor, the faded glory of the golden-domed Orthodox Cathedral of St Nicholas, built originally to serve the Tsarist naval garrison, still stood (Photo 4 - Gilded domes among panelaky).
Karosta in 2011: on our first visit 7 years ago, we had followed signs from Liepāja to Karosta through an uncertain area of semi-derelict dockland and gloomy, impoverished-looking apartments. Beyond this we had hesitantly edged forward along narrow concrete roadways through a deserted area of remaining Tsarist-era parklands and boulevards, into the paradoxical half-world of what remained of Karosta with its bizarre mix of decaying grandiose Tsarist-era mansions converted to accommodation for the expanding civilian work force in the 1960s (see above left), and even more decaying Soviet-era, hastily thrown-up 1970s apartment blocks which had housed the residual Russian-speaking population (see above right), abandoned here and now left with lives seemingly as derelict as the buildings they occupied. Feeling uncomfortably conspicuous, we had wandered around the apartment blocks as youngsters eyed us suspiciously and old babushkas stood chatting by the dustbins as on any housing estate. But all of this had an even more chilling air: despite the squalid environment and almost tangible poverty, there had been BMWs parked among the older cars; what sort of mafia controlled life in this deprived neighbourhood, we had wondered. The frustrations of life in this curiously stranded Russian half-world found expression in Cyrillic graffiti daubed on apartment walls, and residents plodded resignedly by carrying their bags of shopping. The semi-derelict Tsarist mansions still used as residences and blocks of run-down apartments, all just a short bus ride away from a modern bustling Latvian city, somehow symbolised the paradox of Karosta's historic rise and decline, and the almost insoluble social problems as it seemed in 2011 of non-integration remaining here for the Latvian authorities to cope with.
Our 2018 re-visit to Karosta: continuing into the town today after shopping for provisions in the outskirts, Liepāja seemed a grimly gritty industrial port-city, and a lengthy tour of its dockland brought us eventually to the Oskara Kalpaka girder swing-bridge across the wide canal for our follow-up visit to Karosta to see how life here had progressed since 2011. We crossed the bridge into the Karosta parklands and turned off amid the rows of panelaky to find the Orthodox Cathedral of St Nicholas (see left). Rounding a corner, there ahead along a tree-lined parkland boulevard were the gilded onion-domes and mosaic façade of the Orthodox Cathedral (see above right) (Photo 5 - Karosta Orthodox Cathedral) - what a sight: you might have imagined you were standing in a grand Russian city rather than the decaying remains of a Soviet naval base. Built for the original Tsarist garrison, the cathedral had been converted during the Soviet years to a social centre, a gilded domed drinking hall for naval ratings. The reconverted Orthodox cathedral now serves the residual Russian civilian population. First impressions were that extensive restoration work was being carried out on the huge structure and that the Cathedral was closed. Local people crossed themselves in the Orthodox manner as they passed through the grounds. We walked around to the western side steps and found the doors open, Sheila taking a scarf to cover her head in line with Orthodox convention. The vast interior seemed woefully bare and shabby, with rows of surviving icons around the lower walls; most had been removed to Mother-Russian before WW1. A priest chanted the Orthodox service as a group of Belarusian visitors stood by crossing themselves in response, and elderly babushkas flitted around with vases of flowers. We sat in a discrete corner taking in the rather shabby atmosphere, managing to take a couple of surreptitious photos of the iconostasis (see below right) (Photo 6 - Orthodox Iconostasis).
As in 2011 we spent time walking around the apartment blocks, but this year the area felt less alien, less run-down and threatening than on our previous visit: the panelaky had been given at least a superficial face-lift (Photo 7 - Karosta panelaky) (see above left and right), and the residents seemed less depressingly care-worn. It seemed now as though the city authorities were making conscious effort to rehabilitate this formerly isolated and depressed neighbourhood. We hoped that the Russian population of Karosta were indeed now more integrated into Latvian society than had been the case in 2011.
Karosta Naval Prison Museum: one building among Karosta's semi dereliction that sets out to portray some of the story of the former dockyard's past is the former naval prison, now open as a museum. This gaunt, forbidding-looking redbrick building was built originally as the Tsarist naval hospital, but after the 1905 revolutionary disturbances, it was converted to a military prison; it continued to serve this purpose, both under the Soviet and German occupations, and latterly for the Latvian navy, and is now conserved as a museum (see left). We paid our seniors' concessionary admission of €3.50, expecting the tour commentary to be in Latvian. But being the only non-Latvian visitors that afternoon, we had a guide to ourselves, speaking in good English, and spent the next hour learning from her both about the prison's history but also gaining further insights into the social realities of transition to market economy with Latvian independence. She not only gave her standard commentary, but also answered our questions about Karosta's residual Russian population, confirming our observations of earlier that the isolationist attitudes of past years was beginning to break down, helped by the Latvian authorities making greater efforts and investment to rehabilitate the area from the slum conditions we had seen in 2011. All in all a fascinating afternoon.
The Karosta dockyard mole and swing-bridge: we drove out to find the north mole which projects far out into the Baltic, protecting the entrance from the open coast into the canal leading to the former naval dockyards. The outer face of the mole was now reinforced with tetrapods (see right) as we had seen at Berlevĺg on the northern coast of Norway. Driving back through the panelaky, we paused to examine the Oskara Kalpaka swing-bridge which now carries city traffic across the dockyard canal, linking Karosta to the modern city of Liepāja (see left) (Photo 8 - Karosta swing-bridge). This bridge had been built in 1905 to a design by Gustav Eiffel, and several times each day the 2-section girder crossing is still swung round to allow ships to pass along the canal to the inland docks. During Soviet times, this would have been nuclear submarines passing in from the Baltic to the submarine pens in the sealed-off naval base. From the bridge there were clear views of the inner mole's enclosing arms which protect the artificial port.
Vīnrozes Camping in Western Latvia, a place to be avoided: from Liepāja we set course for tonight's campsite some 25kms inland along Route 9 which was busy with impatiently speeding traffic heading for Riga (click here for detailed map of route). Beyond the small town of Grobina, we turned off along a gravel farm road for 2.5kms from the main road to reach Vīnrozes Camping, set on Durbes Ezero (lake). Reception was deserted but the owner eventually appeared and with a take-it-or-leave-it attitude showed us the camping area and limited facilities. The price was expensive at €20 with no Camping Card discount despite their membership of the Latvian Camping Association. With reservations about the place's limited facilities, high prices and the owner's surly manner, we settled in with the only power source being from a nearby hut (see right). The following morning showed the full extent of Vīnrozes' inadequate facilities: even with the few staying here, the limited WC/showers meant queues, paper towel-holders and soap dispensers were unfilled, the impractical trough wash-up sink with lukewarm water had to double as a wash-hand-basin, was open to the elements with rain threatening; total lack of work surfaces meant dishes had to be put on the ground. We had no intention of parting with money for such a third rate site, despite its potted plants and pretentious air.
Kuldīga and the Ventna Falls: from Route 9, we turned off onto Route P112, a good standard rural road across farming countryside to Aizpute, a small Kurzeme town with the ruins of its sizeable Livonian stone castle set on a kalna-pilis (castle mound) close to the centre (click here for detailed map of route). Route P112 continued NE-wards to reach the outskirts of the attractive Kurzeme provincial town of Kuldīga, our destination for today. Thanks to the once navigability of the upper Ventna River on which the town stands, Kuldīga was an important medieval trading centre and even more remarkably a member of the Hanseatic League from 1368. Its medieval wealth has left a fine heritage of beautiful wooden buildings which now adorn the old centre. Kuldīga was capital of the Duchy of Courland and birthplace of Courland's Duke Jakob, but was badly damaged during the early 18th century Great Northern Wars. After Kurzeme's mid-18th century absorption into the Russian Empire, Kuldīga's significance declined into the quiet rural backwater it is today. As with every other Latvian town and village, Kuldīga's entire Jewish population was of course murdered by the German occupiers in the nearby forests in 1941. Today, being only an hour's drive from Rīga, Kuldīga is a popular Latvian day-out, and most visitors make for the town's main feature, the Ventna Waterfalls, a 250m sweep of tumbling water curving across the width of the river.
The sat-nav guided us through the alarmingly narrow streets, eventually to reach the car park we had identified close to the centre for our visit. In gloomy light we ambled along Baznīcas iela past the rather care-worn old wooden houses (see above left), and along the pedestrianised main commercial street of Liepājas iela which was decorated with birch branches in readiness for the coming weekend's Midsummer celebrations (see above right). With the sky now darkening dramatically, we turned down to the main central square of Ratslaukums (Town Hall Square) (see above left) where an attractive mid-17th century wooden house, reputed as the Kurzeme's oldest, now served as Tourist Information Centre. The elegant town hall stood on the far side of the cobbled square alongside Holy Trinity Church. With the sky now even darker, we sought shelter from the threatened downpour in the 13th century Church of St Catherine, the patron saint of Kuldīga whose image with her wheel appears on the town's coat of arms. In a rather foolhardy show of bravado, Paul climbed the series of wooden ladders leading to the top of the church tower for the view over the town and river. With the downpour past, we continued down to the River Ventna to photograph the old water mill (Photo 9 - Kuldīga water mill) (see above right) and the stately 19th century red-brick multi-arched bridge. Seeing the sluggishly shallow river nowadays, it was hard to imagine it was once navigable, let alone the source of the town's medieval wealth and trade. The view upstream in the dull, monochrome light revealed the full 250m width of the Ventna Rumba (Falls) (see left) (Photo 10 - Ventna Falls), claimed as Europe's widest waterfalls, but just a mere 2m high. Were it not for the evidently artificially stepped stone lip, it would be little more than rather insignificant rapids, and probably more impressive in its natural state, especially in today's poor light. We wound our way back up from the river around the hillocks of Pilsētas Dārzs parkland, the site of the former Livonian Order Castle destroyed in the Great Northern War, and through the cobbled back streets, to extricate ourselves from the old town. In today's dull light and stormy rain clouds, we had not seen Kuldīga at its best.
Nabīte Camping near to Kuldīga: leaving Kuldīga, we set course for tonight's campsite some 30kms NW-wards on Route P108 through the pine forests of the Ventna valley; but the place identified as the small and hospitable campsite discovered by chance in 2011 turned out now to be closed. There was nothing for it but to return part way to Kuldīga to Nabīte Camping, and hope this was improved from our unfavourable experience in 2011. Following an unsigned turning some 2kms along a sandy track through the dark forests, we emerged at Nabīte Camping which seemed like a lost world beyond the forests; once here, it was a fine setting, but curiously remote and cut off from the outside world. With the brisk wind having cleared the storm clouds of earlier, a bright late afternoon sun lit an open, flat grassy lawned plateau overlooking Nabīte Lake (see left). The place seemed deserted, but we eventually found the owner who welcomed us in broken English and showed us the camping area and facilities. The cost was high for a basic site at €18/night, and although facilities looked superficially ok, water in both showers and wash-up was lukewarm. On a mid-week out of peak summer time, when the place was unoccupied, it would serve for a night's stop-over; but on summer weekends, it would most likely be an overcrowded no-no, and you would be best to phone in advance before coming out here along the almost impassable forest road.
Our visit to the once industrial port-city of Ventspils: with rain forecast for today's visit to the industrial port of Ventspils, we made good progress along Route P108 (click here for detailed map of route) to reach the city outskirts. Set on the wide estuary-mouth of the once navigable Ventna River, Ventspils had long been one of the central Baltic's main port-cities, a 15~16th century member of the Hanseatic League of course, and a Soviet naval base in the mid-20th century. But it was as an oil terminal that Ventspils earned its prosperity: its port was the principal terminal for the Baltic oil-transit business, with tankers, mainly Russian, unloading crude oil into Ventspil's storage tanks for onward shipment by rail to refineries across Europe. But this major source of prosperity came to a sudden end in 2003 when Russian oil producers began shipping their bulk crude oil elsewhere. The accompanying run-down in trade for the once busy docks meant that the former gritty industrial port-city had to re-invent itself as a tourist-friendly holiday centre. Cleaning up its act in this way has transformed Ventspils into Latvia's premier holiday resort, bringing an alternative source of revenue just in time as the docks and shipping industry went into decline. The 2 banks of the wide River Ventna now reflect this dual aspect of Ventspil's character: the starkly grim industrial landscape of dockland cranes, chutes, oil tanks, warehouses and lines of wagon-filled railway sidings dominates the northern side of the estuary-port, running for some 2kms along the length of the wide river; ferries from Stockholm and Travemünde still dock at Ventspils and a container port covers a huge area to the east. In contrast, the river's southern bank has the cobbled pavements and flowers beds of the old centre with its almost twee tourist-friendly waterfront, and further south all the tourist attractions and line of pine-fringed white sand Baltic beaches.
On the far side of the modern city centre by the Old Town market on the southern bank of the Ventna River, we found a parking area, remarkably quiet and tourist-free even in mid-June. Facing us as we parked, the northern shore of the river-estuary was still crammed with all the cranes, ware-housing and railway-sidings of Ventspil's industrial port, with a large cargo vessel moored alongside. Our first port of call was the TIC in the Ventspils ferry terminal building; it seemed ironic that we could catch a ferry from here back to our trip's start point at Lübeck! We ambled along the Osta iela waterfront, passing the decorative cow statues which have become Ventspils' tourist trademark (see right), but our attention focussed on the industrial dockland that dominated the far side of the river as the origins of Ventspil's traditional industry and source of its wealth (Photo 11 - Ventspils waterfront). On our last visit in 2011, the ranks of dockyard cranes, complex of loading chutes, railway sidings and warehouses had seemed a hive of activity, with the hopper-wagons being continuously shunted through and unloaded of their contents of coal. In contrast today however, 7 years later all of this activity had ceased: the industrial complex on the estuary-port's northern bank seemed eerily quiet and motionless, save for one lone crane apparently still unloading coal from the now static wagons (see left) (Photo 12 - Crane unloading coal). This one still working crane seemed almost a symbolic gesture of activity in an otherwise immobile industrial backdrop to the modern tourism-oriented city. The 2 small cargo boats moored but inactive on the southern bank of the Ventna were the same as seen in 2011 (Photo 13 - Cargo boat by dockside) (see above right). It looked as if they were merely a cosmetic representation of Ventspils' once busy dockland; had 21st century harsh economic reality brought an end to Ventspils' industrial port? Looking closer beyond the token activity on the far bank, the industrial dockland complex in fact now stood motionless, frozen in time with just one crane and few coal wagons seemingly giving nominal sight and sound representation of the former industrial activity; it sounded cynical to make this observation, but the reality seemed like a rather sad show for tourists as they stand here by the colourful cow statues looking across from this side of the now moribund harbour.
To get a closer impression of the scale of Ventspil's once busy dockland and oil terminal, we again took the Hercogs-Jēkabs ferry boat excursion around the harbour (see above left); tickets for the 45 minute tour are remarkably good value at €1.40/person (seniors €0.60), surely subsidised by the tourist agency. The boat was surprisingly quiet, with no difficulty getting seats on the open upper deck for photographs around the harbour. The cloud of earlier had now cleared and although the sun was bright, the keen westerly wind made waters choppy even within the harbour; for only the second time this trip jackets were necessary. The boat firstly went upriver around what in 2011 was an extensive and evidently busy modern container port. But in contrast, today all was quiet with no evidence of moored container-ships and the lifting-gear standing almost derelict. Sidings full of railway tanker-wagons stood by oil-storage tanks, but again there was no sign of activity. On the southern side, huge stacks of cut timber awaited loading stood by piles of sawdust from the sawmills, but again little sign of activity. The boat returned along the main harbour channel, giving a closer view of the industrial complex with its ranks of now static dockyard cranes (Photo 14 - Dockyard cranes) (see above right and left), which reinforced the conclusion that all activity save for token unloading of a few immobile coal wagons had ceased. Closer to the harbour entrance, a modern-looking bulk coal unloading chute labelled Baltic Coal Terminal also stood idle (see right) (Photo 15 - Ventspils Oil and Coal Terminals). Further over a number of tankers were moored by the oil terminal's harbour jetties, so perhaps crude oil was still being shipped into Ventspils for onwards transportation by rail to refineries, but the scale of activity seemed limited. As the little boat approached the outer harbour and harbour mouth, the wind-driven Baltic swell made its presence felt even within the confines of the breakwaters (see left), rocking the boat as it turned back into the quieter but still ruffled waters of the harbour, past the static cranes and dockyard installations (Photo 16 - Static dockyard cranes) to moor at the quayside. This boat trip around the harbour had given an intimate picture of the docks, but further reinforced the view that Ventspils' days as a major industrial port were now past, with only a tourists' picture-postcard backdrop left of what had once been one of the Baltic's busiest ports.
A walk around Ventspils Old Town: back ashore, we walked up through Tirguslaukums (Market Square) to the town hall and starkly neo-Classical Lutheran church, and headed east past the old wooden houses to find the Russia Orthodox Church, its gilded onion domes sparkling in the sunlight. This year the church was open, enabling us to see the icon-decked interior (Photo 17 - Ventspils Russian Orthodox Church) (see right). Later in the supermarket, the number of Cyrillic newspapers on the racks suggested that surprisingly Ventspils still had a significant Russian population. From the ferry terminal, we again wandered along the waterfront, watching the one token crane on the far side of the river still apparently lifting and dropping the same heap of coal, to give an audible and visual make-believe impression of working industrial dockland; whereas in fact the coal-unloading industrial port chutes now stood inactive amid the otherwise semi-derelict dockland. Sadly it took little to realise now that this was all just another show for the tourists, deluding no-one. We walked along to see Ventspils restored Livonian Castle, now the city museum in what was originally a 17th century fortified manor house. From the gardens we photographed the pale-ochre painted bulky exterior, before ambling back along Pils iela through the Old Town. The once grandiose art nouveau town houses now stood semi-derelict, an estate agent's dream world of 'lots-of-scope-for-improvement' properties, with partly restored buildings covered with For Sale signs. Back past the statue of a Latvian independence movement hero standing like some Tsar on its pedestal by an attractive wooden building, and through the now quiet markets, we returned to George at the dockside car park.
Piejūras Camping: having shopped for provisions at a Rimi supermarket in the newer part of Ventspils, we now set course in busy late afternoon traffic for Piejūras Camping in the city's western outskirts. This was close to the pine fringed Baltic beaches, Ventspils' modern economic foundation now that its industrial port heritage is nothing more than tourist literature fictional hype. On our 2011 stay, we had formed a reasonable impression of this large campsite, even in July; today however, the main camping area was monopolised by a huge convoy of German mega-buses, forcing us to find space among the pines in the forested area. But the price!! - now an exploitational €25/night, which almost begrudgingly the young staff at reception reduced to €23.50 as a Camping Card discount; but this was still unprecedentedly expensive for a busy, noisy site with limited facilities. The much-vaunted wi-fi was limited to reception, in effect useless. Weary after a long day, we took stock: we could not face staying a second night here in such a noisy environment and at such indefensibly high prices. A little research identified 2 smaller campsites further back along the West Latvian coast close to Jurkalne sand-cliffs and Užava Brewery which we planned to visit tomorrow; after visiting Ventspils market tomorrow, we could camp there and then resume our northward journey to Kolka on Friday. It rained overnight and the following morning, Midsummer Day, was heavily overcast with more rain forecast. Facilities at Piejūras Camping certainly did not match the standard to be expected from a €25 campsite: WCs were grubby and uncleaned, showers lacked any privacy, and for such a busy campsite, 2 wash-up sinks inevitably meant queues. We were glad to leave such a shabby site, with no intention of paying its over-expensive prices.
Ventspils market: driving back into Ventspils to shop at the market, on such a gloomy morning the now inactive industrial dockland area across the river seemed even more depressingly still and silent. We joined local people browsing and shopping among the busy fruit, vegetables and flowers stalls at Tirguslaukums covered market (left). One stall was selling bunches of wild flowers and grasses (on the drive over yesterday, we had seen folk picking roadside wild flowers and grasses), and the lady presented Sheila with a neatly tied posy of wheat (Photo 18 - A generous stall-holder); this gift now decorates our hearth at home to remind us of such generosity. In the fish market, we bought a brace of Vimba, a bream-like fish from the brackish Baltic coastal waters which migrates up rivers like the Ventna to spawn; in broken English, the stall-holder asked if we were from Berlin, assuming us to be German! Ventspils market provided us with the meat, fish and vegetables for a couple of suppers, together with an experience of a refreshing kindness and opportunity for photographs.
Užava Brewery: we headed south from Ventspils on the P108 and P111 along the West Latvian Kurzeme coast to find Užava Brewery, the home of Užavas Alus (beers). We had phoned earlier to arrange a brewery visit, only to be told that no tours were possible at present, but we could visit the brewery shop. Užava Brewery was founded by the Pumpurs family in 1994, and since then has been brewing quality Gaišais (light) and Tumšais (dark) beers at its premises near to Ventspils (see left and right). With the impending Midsummer weekend holiday, the small brewery's shop was busy with customers loading their cars with crates and flagons of beers; the shelves were almost empty and they were sold out of Gaišais. Outside in the yard of the modern brewery, the air smelled of mashing barley. Disappointed that today we could neither visit the brewery nor buy their light beer, we drove on heading for Jurkalne further down the coast to find the 2 campsites we had identified.
Jurkalne sand-bluffs and Zaķi Camping on west Latvian coast: we found the first of these, Zaķi Camping (meaning Bunnies), just before the village of Jurkalne, 1.5km along a sandy trackway leading out to the wild Baltic coastline. It was a small, straightforward shore-side campsite, and we were welcomed in a helpful manner by a young girl who promised to reserve our selected pitch among the sheltered pine trees while we explored the Jurkalne coastal sand-cliffs this afternoon. Although basic, the site was well-laid out with a few huts and very reasonable facilities (WC/shower and small kitchen/wash-up with hot water). As we chatted with the girl about whether the site might get busy over the Midsummer holiday weekend, she told us of a Midsummer festival celebration tonight starting at 10-00pm in Jurkalne village; we interpreted her description to mean a bonfire with traditional music and dancing. Reserving our spot, we drove along to Jurkalne to investigate, and discovered preparations for tonight's event by the village; it was clearly a large gathering with a security firm organising the parking. A short distance further by Jurkalne church, a sign pointed to parking and Stāvkrasts, which we interpreted as sand-cliffs; we had had seen reference to sand-bluffs at Jurkalne along the Kurzeme Baltic coastline, slowly being eroded but still a 20m high line of cliffs with steps down to the wild beach. The sign led to a footpath just beyond the festival preparations through coastal pine-woods ending at a wooden look-out point atop the 20m high sand-cliffs, with the wild beach way down below pounded by wind-driven Baltic surf (see right and below left)). Two local women arrived in Latvian national costume and head-garlands of Midsummer flowers ready for tonight's celebrations, but they spoke no English and we could learn no more. Down the wooden steps to the beach, we could look along the line of woodland-topped sand-bluffs.
5kms further along the coast beyond Labrags village, we found other camping options, but these seemed less acceptable than Zaķi Camping where we had a reserved pitch. We did however learn more about the Jurkalne Midsummer celebrations: in broken English, the girl at Hortus Camping spoke of lighting a ring of fire down at the beach, which we again misinterpreted as meaning a line of coastal bonfires. With language limitations, it was impossible to learn more, but she did suggest asking at Jurkalne shop about a festival programme. Back in Jurkalne, we did find the village Veikals (shop) where surprisingly the lady spoke English; there were no programmes or other details, but whatever happened, it was to be after dark later in the evening. At least we were able to buy bottles of Užava Gaišais beer.
Jurkalne Midsummer festival: back to Zaķi Camping, we settled in at our reserved spot (see above left) and walked over to the sand-cliffs and deserted beach of the West Latvian Baltic coast just beyond the camping area (Photo 19 - West Latvian coastal sand-cliffs). Rain forecast for this evening began soon after 7-0pm as we cooked supper, just about when the Jurkalne festival was due to start. Warm, dry and comfortably camped in George, it seemed foolhardy to decamp in such miserable weather; but despite reservations and with persistent rain now falling, we packed George and drove along to Jurkalne village. With cagoules and brollies against the pouring rain, we walked across to the festival field where groups of singers were performing traditional Latvian songs under a covered stage. Crowds of people, all looking very dishevelled in plastic capes over their national costumes and floral head garlands, stood around in groups, or wandered around the lines of stalls (see right). This wretchedly wet weather was such a disappointment for the Midsummer celebrations, after weeks of sun and heat-wave conditions, and so much preparation for what was clearly a traditional event. But it seemed not to dampen the enthusiasm to enjoy the fun of Midsummer. We joined in and walked around the stalls selling honey, cheese, cakes and carved wooden souvenirs, although in the miserably wet conditions no one paid them much attention. Other than the music and singing, there was no sign of any bonfire; perhaps this was down at the beach. We therefore followed the crowds along a pathway through the woods, which to our surprise emerged at the Jurkalne wooden look-out point above the sand-cliffs where we had been earlier.
With the rain now eased, many folk were gathered down at the beach with a few small bonfires burning in the semi-darkness; but still there was no sign of the expected large bonfire. Men in traditional costume arrived with flaming torches (see left); whatever was going to happen, the main attraction was to be here at the cliff-top look-out point, topped with the wooden Jurkalne lettering of the village name. By good chance, we had managed to be in a front-line position just overlooking where the torch-holders were grouped (see left); we waited for whatever was to happen as the climax of the celebrations here at the cliff-tops. By now it was approaching 10-00pm, and holding their torches aloft, the protagonists looked anxiously down to the beach as if waiting for a signal (Photo 20 - Jurkalne Midsummer celebrations) (see above right). At their feet by the look-out fence, what looked like a large Catherine Wheel made of platted grasses and corn stalks stood waiting, clearly the centrepiece of the celebratory proceedings. Our misinterpretation of this afternoon's explanation of what was to happen suddenly became clear: the ring of fire was the flaming Catherine Wheel, to be rolled down the steep sand-cliff. Still everyone waited as the minutes ticked away. Down at the beach, cordons drew back the crowds to leave a clear course down to the water's edge for the flaming wheel of fire. The protagonists' torches one by one expired: was it to be a damp squid event after all the rain? At last the official pyrotechnician with his fireproof gauntlets arrived (see right); he soaked the Catherine Wheel with kerosene, but still we all waited. A flurry of incendiary action, and suddenly the Catherine Wheel was lit; flaring up, it was launched into space and went tumbling down the cliff to roll across the beach and extinguish itself in the Baltic Sea, all to cheers from the crowds (see below left).
Whatever was the symbolism of this traditional fire-spectacle, and to what pagan origins the ritual could be traced back, we should never know with no one to ask. We could only speculate on the possible explanations, but clearly it was a well-established annual Midsummer celebration for which not even rain could diminish attendance. As the cliff rolling fiery wheel climax had happened, a Latvian bagpipe band began chanting and droning traditional airs (Photo 21 - Latvian bagpipe band) (see below right). We had expected those attending to be from local villages, but it seemed that, such was the fame of Jurkalne's Midsummer celebrations, people came from Ventspils, Liepāja and even farther afield from Rīga; most were dressed in traditional Latvian national costume with floral wreathes on their heads (flowers for women, oak leaves for men), with plastic capes and umbrellas against the persistent rain. Despite the weather, the rain did nothing to dampen their enthusiasm and determination to enjoy themselves on this Midsummer's Night. And to our pleasant surprise, the jovial atmosphere was not sullied by any sign of excessive drinking or rowdy behaviour. We had by serendipitous good chance happened upon a local traditional custom, and were so glad to have taken the trouble to brave the rain to attend and share in the enjoyment despite the adverse weather. It was gone midnight by the time we returned to Zaķi Camping, and with practised efficiency re-pitched George with the rain now pouring again; we stowed all our wet kit and turned in after a thoroughly enjoyable evening at Jurkalne's Midsummer fire-rolling festival.
Click here to watch video of Jurkalne cliff-top Midsummer celebrations
Irbene former Soviet radio-telescope: the rain continued all night and we woke to a blustery morning, the air filled with the roar of Baltic surf from the nearby coast. After drying out our soaking kit from last evening, it was noon before we set off to return up the Kurzeme coast to Ventspils. Crossing the Venta bridge, past the modern commercial port with its sidings full of freight wagons, we turned off onto P124, the lonely road through the Kolka Peninsula pine forests leading north to Cape Kolka (click here for detailed map of route). The Baltic shoreline was less than 1km away but totally unseen through the dense forest, and in some 30kms north we reached an obscure side-turning into the forest along a narrow concrete road leading to the Irbene Radio-telescope. During the long years of Soviet occupation, this entire Kolka coastal strip had been a closed military security border-zone. In the early 1980s, hidden away in these dense pine forests the Soviet military had built 3 huge radio-telescopes at a secret location at Irbene, the sole purpose of which had been electronic eavesdropping on Western satellite communications. When the Soviet military pulled out in 1994 after Latvian independence, the smallest of the 3 dishes was dismantled and removed, but the larger 16m and 32m diameter dishes were too large to dismantle; their precision engineering steering mechanism however was vandalised, cabling ripped out, and portable electronic equipment removed. The 2 larger parabolic dishes were taken over and restored by the Latvian Academy of Science, and the radio-telescopes are now used by the Ventspils International Radio Astronomy Centre (VIRAC) for scientific research, part of the University Department of Astrophysics.
It was still raining steadily as we moved slowly along the ex-military narrow road, passing the now totally derelict blocks of panelaky barracks which had housed the 2,000 technicians and Red Army soldiers who had once operated and guarded the secret installation hidden in these forests at Irbene during the Soviet espionage days. We had arranged by email in advance to visit the radio-telescope and 1km into the sandy forests, with the pouring rain making it feel even more desolate, we pulled in at the first group of buildings. Donning waterproofs, we reported in and paid the €10 visitor fee. We had managed to make an informal visit to Irbene in 2011 having the good fortune then of seeing at close quarters the 32m dish. Since then however the 16m and 32m dishes have been totally renovated with Latvian government and EU funding. Members of the VIRAC staff conduct guided tours as a sideline, but since the recent major restoration works the 2 working radio-telescopes are now off-limits to visitors. In pouring rain we were led past the now semi-derelict former communications block where NATO satellite intercepts were decrypted by KGB staff. Just beyond we reached the now topless tower where the former 8m dish had once been mounted (see above left); the hastily departing Soviet troops had in 1994 been able to dismantle this for removal. Alongside the 8m dish's former tower, the redundant 16m dish now stood, replaced by a newer renovated parabolic dish.
The guide unlocked the tower which is now set up as a small museum for historic electronic equipment. On the ground floor, the former control panel from the original Soviet 32m radio-telescope had been re-positioned here (see above lef); we recognised this as the control console at which Paul had been photographed in 2011, and standing on top was the remote control box once connected by cable to the console which he had held on our 2011 visit (see below left)). We kept quiet about this today to avoid embarrassment to the technician who in 2011 had probably breached regulations in admitting us to the control room, let alone allowing us to handle the equipment! Today we clambered up steel ladders to the first and second storeys where an Aladdin's Cave of 1980s oscilloscopes and other antique electronic gear was displayed, along with PCs from that era; these were in fact just like the first 'microcomputers' which Paul had used in his early working days, with 'floppy' 5Ľ-inch diskette drives as the only storage medium long before the days of 'Winchester' hard drives. How the world has changed during our lifetime!
Outside again, we entered another building giving access to the 700m long underground communications tunnel which had once connected to the 32m dish, and by torchlight we walked the length of this alongside now empty racks from which Soviet troops had ripped cabling. With access to unlimited funding, Soviet military surveillance had during the Cold War employed the then very best of electronic technology and precision engineering in constructing the radio-telescopes. When the Latvian Academy of Science had inherited the 16m and 32m telescopes after Soviet withdrawal in 1994, they had been able to recover sufficient of the damaged equipment to restore the dishes to working order as we had seen in 2011 when we had been able to clamber up onto the 32m dish installation (see above right) and see the electronic control instrumentation. Now since the recent restoration work, access to the fully working 16m and 32m radio-telescopes was no longer possible. We had been very fortunate indeed in 2011.
We emerged from the tunnel into the pouring rain immediately below the 32m dish, but today the only photographs we could achieve with rain spots on our lens was a distant external view of the dish towering above us amid the dripping pines, parked in its vertical position (Photo 22 - Irbene Radio-telescope) (see above left); in operation, the dish could be rotated fully through 360ş and angled down horizontally to 45ş. Back over-ground along the line of the tunnel through the dripping forest, that was it; not much for €10, but we had learned more about the radio-telescopes' current scientific usage, and the brief re-visit had made us appreciate even more our good fortune and photos from 2011 (See log of our 2011 visit to Irbene Radio-telescope).
Miķeļtornis Camping on Kolka peninsula: with rain still pouring, we continued NE-wards on Route P124 to the turning onto a dirt road past the scattered settlement of Miķeļtornis and its tall, spindly lighthouse to reach Miķeļtornis Camping at lane's end; there were only 2 other campers, and in today's wet weather it all looked forlorn. We booked in at €15/night with the friendly youngsters at reception, and pitched by the forest edge (see right), the pouring rain making the sandy camping area very squelchy. For tonight's supper, we cooked the Vimba fish from Ventspils market, a delicately tasting white fish but needing much care to eat with the surfeit of fine, tiny barbed bones. The rain eventually eased leaving a dreary, chill evening which, despite being mid-summer, needed the heater on for warmth.
Latvian Jāņi (St John's) Day holiday celebrations: despite summer solstice being 21 June, Latvian Midsummer public holidays are celebrated on 23 June, Līgo Diena (meaning Festival Day) St John's Eve, and on 24 June, Jāņi Diena St John's Day. Latvians these days celebrate by going out into the countryside from towns and cities to observe the old traditions of renewal and fertility, and generally eating, drinking and making merry. Along with traditional national costume, women wear wreathes of midsummer flowers and men of oak leaves, and birch branches are used to decorate homes. Fire is an integral part of the traditional Jāņi Diena celebrations, reflecting the belief that light from bonfires burned from sunset until next morning will last until the winter solstice. Bonfires are often lit on a hilltop or beach for their light to spread good fortune and fertility. The custom of jumping over the bonfire is thought to bring good luck and health for the coming year. Some customs as at Jurkalne involve a fire-wheel or barrel of burning tar. The celebrations involve music, dancing and the singing of Jāņi songs. Clearly Christianisation took over such pagan midsummer solstice festivals, re-associating them with 24 June St John Baptist (Jāņi) Day and 23 June St John's Eve, just as the midwinter solstice pagan festival had been re-invented as Christmas. Celebration of the midsummer solstice had been an ancient European tradition in the agricultural calendar marking completion of crops planting to await harvest; this was widely observed particularly in Northern Europe and Scandinavia. In the Baltics the Soviets had attempted to ban the celebration of Jāņi Day as over-nationalistic, but people continued to celebrate anyway as they always had done, so engrained was the tradition. The Latvians have a saying: līst kā pa Jāņiem - It's raining like Jāņi Day; the weather around 24 June is often wet but people do not let this spoil their merrymaking, as we had seen at Jurkalne. This year the 2 day Jāņi holiday, when Latvians flock to the countryside for the Jāņi celebrations especially to such areas as Kolka with its wild Baltic beaches, happened to fall at the weekend. The challenge for us therefore was to find somewhere peaceful to camp, that was not overrun with rowdy Jāņi weekend holiday-makers.
The former Liv fishing villages of the Kolka Peninsula: after a night's camp at the remote settlement of Miķeļtornis set amid the coastal pine forests, our plan for the Jāņi weekend was to explore the once thriving fishing and farming villages of the Kolka coastline, turning off the P124 to each of the surviving Liv fishing villages in turn - Sīkrags, Mazirbe, Košrags, Pītrags, Saunags - and to find if possible a peaceful place to camp for the weekend at one of the village. This group of villages set along the coast of Northern Kurzeme leading to Cape Kolka had been occupied by the last surviving members of the Livs or Livonians, a Finno-Ugric people closely related to the Estonians, who had settled along the Baltic coast several millennia before the later migration of the Indo-European Balt Latvian tribes. The fact that the crusading Teutonic Knights adopted the title of Livonian Order suggests that the Livs were still in the majority during medieval times. Gradual assimilation of Livs with the Latvians meant that by the 19th century, the isolated fishing villages of North Kurzeme were the only part of Latvia where the distinctive Liv language and culture still survived. Prior to WW2, these villages supported a flourishing fishing, boat-building and farming industry; each of the villages had a school, post-office and shop, and the coastal road and narrow gauge railway provided ease of communications. There was regular contact between the Kurzeme Livs and the Estonians of Saaremaa, the island to the north 30m across the Irbes Straits, the narrows which form the mouth of the Bay of Rīga. The Livs and Estonians spoke a similar language, men from Saaremaa regularly worked as farm labourers in Kurzeme, food produce was traded, and vodka smuggling between Livs and Estonians was commonplace. During the long years of Soviet occupation however, the entire Baltic coastline was sealed off as a military security border-zone; fishing and access to the sea was banned and, deprived of their traditional means of living from fishing, many Livs abandoned the villages. Younger Livs moved to the cities resulting in further decline of the Liv culture. Only a small number of Liv speakers remain, and the language has almost passed from being a living, spoken tongue to one of academic curiosity.
Site of the former Liv village of Jaunciems: we headed NE along the lonely P124 road which cuts a straight course through the coastal pine woods of the Kolka Peninsula (click here for detailed map of route). What was once a narrow dirt road from Ventspils to Kolka was built by the Soviet military during the early years of occupation; it was the only access to the line of North Kurzeme coastal villages, and was only tarmaced in 2009 thanks to EU infrastructure investment (see above left). After a pause at the wide River Irbe, which drains a large area of the Kolka peninsula and is now popular with canoeists, we reached the turning to what pre-WW2 had been the fishing-farming Liv village of Jaunciems. In the early 1950s, the Soviet authorities had evicted the entire population from their farms in what became a military border zone; homes were demolished and the fields of Jaunciems were planted with pine trees to prevent re-occupation. In a forest clearing where the village of Jaunciems had once stood, nothing now remained except the tall 70 years old pines, where once families had farmed and fished along the Baltic coastline (Photo 23 - Former Liv fishing village of Jaunciems).
Liv village of Sikrags: further along P124, we turned off again along 2kms of gravel road to the coastal village of Sikrags. Pre-WW2, Sīkrags had been a thriving port with an active fishing industry and fish-processing plant. Under the restrictions of Soviet occupation, Sikrags was the only point along the coast where limited access to the sea was allowed for fishing. Today just a few scattered wooden farmsteads remained of the former settlement, now largely converted to holiday homes. We wound a way through the former village to a parking area just behind the beach, and over the dunes to this magnificent deserted Baltic shoreline (see above right and left), a few visitors gathered driftwood for a Midsummer beach bonfire. The only trace of the once flourishing fishing industry was the line of posts of a former jetty stretching down into the sea (see above right).
Boat Graveyard at Mazirbe village: back to P124 just beyond the site of Sikrags railway station and course of the narrow gauge railway line which once connected the Kolka coastal villages, we turned off to the next former village, Mazirbe. What in 1935 was a thriving market township of 450 residents, a transport hub with all the services-infrastructure expected, and an important centre of Liv culture, was now little more than a scattered collection of holiday homes. The one little remaining village shop did a brisk trade with the summer visitors but how long would it survive? We parked by the Liv Culture Centre building and set off to walk the 700m down to the Baltic coast. Through the woodland, we reached the deserted beach where only the posts of a former wooden jetty gave evidence of the former fishing industry. Behind the dunes, past the concrete foundations of the former fish-processing factory operated by the Mazirbe fishing cooperative, we followed a track through the woods leading to what is called the Boat Graveyard. The Soviets had fortified the entire coastline as the USSR's western frontier with artillery batteries, floodlights and guard posts. When the Soviets banned access to the sea for individual boats, the village had declined and all that remained of the former fishing fleet were the remains of redundant motor-boats abandoned here and rotting among the trees behind the beach, a morbid epitaph to a once vibrant community (Photo 24- Boat Graveyard) (see above left).
Košrags and Pitrags: a couple of kms further along P124 brought us to the next village of Košrags where all the former wooden farmsteads were now converted to second homes; people were already making preparations for the Jāņi weekend holiday. The next village of Pitrags, as well as farming and fishing, had been a major boat building centre which had encouraged a thriving local economy. Today there was little evidence of this with all the former Liv farms now converted to holiday homes. We parked by the Baptist chapel and walked the 500m down through woodland to the dunes backing Pitrags beach. Just one upturned boat and the remains of a wooden jetty were the only sign of any past or present fishing. This beautiful Baltic shoreline lit by bright afternoon sun stretched away into the distance in both directions (see above right) (Photo 25 - Pitrags beach). From the dunes we peered across the Irbes Straits trying to make out the distant coast of Saaremaa, but all that was visible was a container ship on the horizon. Coming back through the dunes, Sheila spotted a purple orchid flower which she immediately identified as a Dark Red Helleborine Orchid (see above left), growing happily on the sand dunes. Returning through the village, we stopped to enquire at Pie Andra Pitraga holiday/guest house whose sign advertised camping. The owners showed us the delightful garden camping area to the rear of the house at €12/night; we had found our peaceful place to camp for the weekend.
Slītere National Park: by now it was 4-00pm and we turned back up the P125 road which wound up to the Slītere National Park Centre by Slītere lighthouse on the upper rim of the pre-glacial coastline escarpment now 6kms inland. A 1.2km nature board-walk has now been constructed to loop around through the marshy coastal woodland at the foot of a steep escarpment on what, in pre-glacial times, would have been the bed of the ancient Baltic Ice Sea; this had washed up against Kurzeme's pre-glacial coastline which is now some 6kms inland from the present day Baltic coast. Slītere lighthouse now stands prominently atop the escarpment of this ancient cliff some 75m above the post-glacial forest-covered coastal plain formed after the land had risen, relieved of the weight and pressure of the ice-sheet. We got details of the board-walk circuit from the National Park Centre, and tentatively descended the very steep wooden steps which drop down the escarpment to the start of the nature walk 75m below (see above right). With our limited time this afternoon, we set off around the impressive board-walk through the marshy forest. Ostrich Ferns flourished in the moist ground, and the air reeked with the scent of Ramson wild garlic. Further round the circuit beyond the forest in an open marshy area, tall Common Spotted Orchids (Dactylorchis fuchsii) (see right) and a white Lesser Butterfly Orchid (Plantanthera bifolia) grew (see above left). With time now short, we completed the board-walk circuit and hauled ourselves back up the steep escarpment steps to the lighthouse on the upper rim.
A peaceful rest day at Pie Andra Pitraga Camping, Pitrags: we just had time this afternoon to complete our tour of the former Liv fishing villages at the last of them, Saunags, before returning along P124 to Pitrags and Pie Andra Pitraga Camping. The owners broke off from their barbecue to rig us a power supply in the garden camping area. Facilities were limited with just one shower, a very smelly earth privvie, no wash-up but surprisingly a good, open wi-fi signal from the house. But the main consideration was that it was comparatively quiet on Midsummer Saturday with just a couple of the huts occupied; we were fortunate to have found the place for our rest day tomorrow, and settled in, lighting the barbecue for our own Jāņi Eve supper. The following morning, Jāņi Day Sunday, was sunny and we sat out for breakfast (Photo 26- Pie Andra Pitraga Camping) (see left). Both the other families who had been staying at the huts department at lunchtime, leaving us to enjoy a peaceful Jāņi afternoon. But the weather progressively worsened becoming fully overcast and cool. The forecast rain arrived during the night and Monday morning was miserably wet, certainly no weather for exploring Cape Kolka. It seemed the best use of time to spend a further day in camp here at Pitrags to await the fine weather forecast for tomorrow; we could then complete the first edition of this trip's web today and take advantage of the wi-fi to upload it. The rain eased by evening but it remained stubbornly overcast and cool, with the sun just about managing to emerge with a flaring sunset lighting the layers of rising mist over the wet coastal fields.
Cape Kolka, the Latvian coast's northernmost tip: a sunny morning and the cuckoo whose song had accompanied us throughout the trip so far was still calling. Pie Andra Pitraga Camping had served us well, and this morning we washed up at one of the picnic tables (see above right). We drove along the final few kms of P124 through the Pine forests to reach Cape Kolka (Kolkasrags) (click here for detailed map of route), the horn-shaped sandy spit which forms the northernmost tip of the Latvian coastline. In stormy weather, the opposing tides from the Baltic and the Bay of Rīga coincide at the sandy horn of Cape Kolka to create upward-surging waves of spray; it is one of the few places on earth where sunrise and sunset occur over the same stretch of water. A totally restricted and heavily fortified border zone during Soviet times, the beaches of Cape Kolka are now one of the most popular tourist destinations in Latvia. The National Park so-called Information Centre was little more than a gift shop, but we bought a CD of Latvian Jāņi songs as a souvenir of our peaceful Jāņi weekend at Pitrags, before setting off on the Kolkasrags coastal circular walk around the horn of Cape Kolka. The path led out through the beautiful pine forest backing the wild shoreline along the Riga Gulf side of the Cape, where the deserted wild beach was littered with the skeletal remains of pine tree carcases lying at jagged angles, debris from winter storms (see left) (Photo 27- Tree debris littering Kolka beach), and Baltic Toadflax flowers lined the beach-side forest edge. It was a scene of perfect peace and we spent almost an hour enjoying the photographic potential of this forest-lined wild beach. Out at the horn-shaped sand-spit, the ultimate point of the Latvian coastline (see left) (Photo 28 - Cape Kolka sand-spit), the two opposing tides washed together, one flowing from the Gulf of Rīga meeting that flowing in from the open Baltic. Even on a still, sunny day, the calm sea still managed to create visible uplifting of the opposing tides (see below right) (Photo 29 - Opposing tides meet at Cape Kolka). We peered out to sea beyond the new lighthouse on its artificial island 6kms distant, trying unsuccessfully to make out the southern tip of Saaremaa 30kms across the Irbes Straits where we should stand in 8 weeks time.
Click here to watch video of opposing tides meeting at Cape Kolka
It was by now 1-00pm and we returned to the parking area for a lunch of delicious Šaltibarščiai (cold beetroot soup) on the sunny roof-terrace of the little café (see above right). Back to the shore-line at the Cape, we set off along the broad beach looking out across the Irbes Straits towards the open Baltic. Leaving behind the tourists clustered at the Cape, this wild stretch of beach running the length of the peninsula was a scene of perfect Baltic peace, a totally deserted setting between pine forest and calm Baltic Sea gently lapping onto the edge of the sand (Photo 30 - Deserted Baltic beach) (see left). The only other people we met was a Belarusian girl, on holiday from Minsk with her mother, who chatted away in fluent Americanese. We ambled slowly along the firm, moist sand by the water's edge, glorying in the peacefulness of this deserted beach. Beyond the wrecks of 3 fishing boats, we noted the start point for our return walk through the forest and continued ahead for a further 500m along the water's edge; it felt as if we could walk this beach from here to Ventspils without seeing another soul.
Back to the start of the forest path, a large patch of Dark Red Helleborine orchids (Epipactis atrorubens) (Photo 31 - Dark Red Helleborine orchid) grew on the forest edge sand and nearby beautiful clumps of the succulent plant Biting Stonecrop (Sedum acre) (see right). The path zigzagged through the pinewoods with the forest floor covering of lichen, Bilberry, Lingonberry and low-trailing Bearberry leaves. The pinewoods had scattered bushes of Juniper, and a number of venerably ancient pine trees; it was a magnificent setting, the air filled with the scent of pines (see below left). Back by the parking area, a high observation tower gave views out over the pines to the Baltic shore-line.
Kolka village and Ēvažu Stāvkrasts sand-cliffs: along at Kolka village, we were able to buy food for tonight's supper at the small shop. Many of the Liv villages' former inhabitants, forced out by restrictions of the Soviet occupation, had re-settled here at Kolka to re-establish their livelihoods. Continuing south for 6kms through the coastal forests, we pulled into the parking area for the Ēvažu Stāvkrasts sand-cliffs overlooking the Gulf of Rīga. Another glorious 450m walk through the sandy pine forests brought us to a wooden look-out point facing out across the broad bay. Wooden steps led down the 50m steep sand-bluff, dropping down through the pines edging the beach (see below right). The sandy shore was wet with fresh water drained from coastal bogs, with aspen and alder growing along the forest edge at the foot of the cliff.
Plaukati Camping at Pūrciems: continuing south on Route 131, we turned off over a steep dirt road to the tiny settlement of Pūrciems and tonight's campsite, Plaukati Camping. We had found this delightful little campsite in 2011, set in the gardens of the enterprising family's home. We were again greeted with open hospitality; nothing had changed since our last stay, and although facilities were limited and basic, we settled at one of the 3 camper pitches each of which had a camp-fire hearth. Determined to have a camp-fire tonight, we asked to buy a batch of chopped wood, and after supper as dusk settled, we lit our fire. As a waning ľ moon rose, we sat by our camp-fire with our beers enjoying the setting and the smell of wood smoke filling the evening air (see left), a truly memorable evening (Photo 32- Plaukati Camping camp-fire).
South through Mērsrags to Engures Ezers (Lake) National Park: after breakfast at a picnic table in bright sunshine, we set off the following morning, continuing south on P131 through the coastal pine forests into the little port of Roja (click here for detailed map of route). Here we paused by the river-mouth harbour, now full of affluent-looking yachts with little evidence of Roja's once flourishing fishing industry (see below right). We also stocked with provisions at the Maxima supermarket, and bought expensive smoked forel (trout) from a fish stall for tonight's supper. A few kms further along P131, we paused at the village of Kaltene to photograph a very crowded stork's nest atop a power-pole, with adult bird and 3 growing young ones (see below right) (Photo 33 - Crowded stork's nest); the adult birds had orange bills, distinguishable from the young birds' still dark bills. Just before Mērsrags in the town's outskirts, we turned off to investigate Saules Camping, one of our options for tonight after today's walk in Engures Ezers (Lake) National Park. This small site would certainly serve for tonight, and we continued south on P131 into Mērsrags. This was another small and once busy fishing port, with fish processing factory and smoking plant. Today we passed a number of unkempt-looking apartment blocks along the main street, and at the river-mouth the harbour looked much reduced in scale with only a couple of working boats.
The Orchid Path at Engures Ezers (Lake) National Park: 8kms south from Mērsrags, we turned off along the bumpiest and most corrugated of dirt roads 2km through the pine forests to reach the shore of Lake Engures. The shallow lake of Engures Ezers was formed by an ancient marine lagoon trapped behind a 3 kms wide sand-bar now forested. The lake-shore meadows are now grazed by horses and cattle. The lake area was declared a national park in 1998, and includes a 3.5km path circuit through calcareous marshland forest, the perfect habitat for orchids. We parked by the lakeshore at the far end of the dirt road and, having been warned by another couple of the presence of midges on the Orchid Trail, we kitted up fully with anti-midge protection including midge-nets. The outward path ran initially for 2.5kms alongside the lake through pine forest, and part-way we passed the start point for the signed Orchid Trail. We continued along to a bird-watching tower across now dry marshy lake-side meadows where Engures horses and cattle grazed. In the full heat of day time sun, there inevitably was little bird-life other than Black Headed Gulls and Terns with Swallows swooping over the shallow lake surface. Back across the meadow and through the lake-side forest, we turned off on the Orchid Trail, and immediately found Common Spotted Orchids growing in clusters with their distinctive purple flower heads. The trail meandered through the dense woodland, crossing reed-lined marshes on board-walks. Orchids flourished in this perfect environment of calcareous marshland, predominantly Common Spotted Orchids, but we also found Marsh Helleborine (Epipactis palustris) (see left) (Photo 34 - Marsh Helleborine Orchid), Fly Orchid (Ophrys insectifera) (Photo 35 - Fly Orchid) (see below right), and Lesser Butterfly Orchids (Platanthera bifolia) (Photo 36 - Lesser Butterfly Orchid). We followed the pathway and board-walk through both marshland and drier forest for some 2kms, stopping frequently to photograph such a magnificent array of wild orchids. With our midge-nets pulled down, we were so intent on our photography as to be totally indifferent to the midges which swarmed around our heads as we bent down close to the ground with our cameras. The Orchid Trail eventually emerged onto the dirt road we had driven earlier, and in hot sun we plodded back to George at the lake-side.
Saules Camping: back north through Mērsrags to Saules Camping, we were welcomed by the young owner, and pitched a cable's length from the facilities hut which had the only source of power. The open camping area had no trees for shade and with limited access to power for the fridge, there was no option but to be faced directly into the fearsomely hot late afternoon sun (see below left). After such a good day of orchid photography we collapsed with chilled beers, sitting in the shade of George before lighting the barbecue for supper. Saules Camping's facilities were good, particularly the hot showers which were a welcome relief after several days of basic facilities.
The Great Bog at Ķemeri National Park: continuing south on Route P131 the following morning, we made good progress passing through the little fishing port-village of Engure to turn off onto P128 through the holiday resort villages along the Gulf of Rīga shoreline (click here for detailed map of route). Just before the Jūrmala conurbation, we turned off again on a minor road towards Ķemeri village to find the National Park Information Centre. The young lad greeted us in fluent Americanese; we were his perfect customers, knowing exactly what we wanted and thanking him gratefully when we got it: a map showing the location and access for the Ķemeri Great Bog, and a detailed map of the 3.5km board-walk around the marshland which made up most of the National Park. Through the village and 300m along the busy A1 highway, we crossed into a minor lane to reach the parking area for the Ķemeri marshland board-walk.
From the car park, a 500m approach path led to the start of the board-walk circuit around the Ķemeri Great Bog. Immediately we began seeing familiar flora: Labrador Tea (its flowers now past), the leaves of Cloudberry, with Bilberry and Bog Bilberry side by side and Cow-wheat, at the shady forest edge. Once out onto the board-walk, the sphagnum moss now dry and crunchy after the summer heat-wave was covered with tiny Sundew insectivorous plants (Photo 37 - Round-leaved Sundew) (see right), both the round- and oval-leaved varieties, some still bearing their tall white flowers (Photo 38 - Great Sundew), and lots of Bog Rosemary but only with occasional flowers (Photo 39 - Bog Rosemary). There were also Leatherleaf plants, and Cranberry with its trailing leaves and unripe berries (see below left). We made slow progress with frequent stops for photos; fortunately the dry, crunchy sphagnum was sufficiently firm to support our weight as we stepped down onto the marsh surface for our close-up photos of the tiny Sundews. The acidic marshland poor in nutrients supported little tree-life with just the occasional stunted pine and birch scattered across the bog. We circled around the bog-land board-walk to reach the bird-watching tower at the outer half-way point. There was no bird-life to be seen at this time of a hot day, but the tower did give an overview of the scale and extent of marshland dotted with pools (Photo 40 - Ķemeri Great Bog) (see below right). It was well named as The Great Bog since the marshland stretched away into the distance in all directions. This wetter area of marshland supported ripening Cloudberries (Photo 41 - Cloudberry ripening fruit), the first time we had seen these outside the Arctic. The return leg of board-walk showed a similar range of plant-life, particularly the Sundews, Bog Rosemary and Cranberries, and another patch of ripening Cloudberries. Back around to the forest edge, the Bog Bilberry plants were laden with fruit, some now lusciously ripe. We were truly impressed with the scale and well-maintained sturdiness of the Ķemeri National Park board-walk.
Rīga City Camping on Ķīpsala river-island: back through the forest to the parking area, we now had to turn attention from the sublimely stark beauty and peaceful grandeur of Ķemeri marshland to the mundane hazards of the drive into Rīga (click here for detailed map of route). The A10 highway was busy with viciously speeding traffic; Latvian driving standards are even worse than Lithuanian, and it is no wonder that Latvia's road death rate is one of the highest in Europe. Reaching the outskirts of the Rīga conurbation, we edged our way in busy afternoon traffic towards the centre, thankful for the sat-nav's reassuring guidance, and sooner than expected reached the Vanšu cable-stayed bridge over the Daugava (see left). Here we turned off to swing around onto Ķīpsala, a large island in the Daugava River, and after a provisions re-stock at a Rimi hypermarket, we drove along to Rīga City Camping. Set behind the Ķīpsala exhibition halls, and a 30 minute walk across the Daugava bridge into Rīga's Old Town, we had formed a good impression of the place in 2011. In the years since however things had changed and not for the better: today it was crammed full of camping-cars with the main central camping area reserved for a large group; the only spaces were in a grubby yard overwhelmed with noise from the exhibition centre's ventilation plant or a sloping, confined grassy area by the entrance, and we settled here as the lesser of the poor options. Facilities were poor standard and limited meaning queues on an overcrowded site. At reception we were perfunctorily 'processed' (no other word would suit!) by the indifferent staff, and managed to bludgeon a camping card discount on the expensive €21 price demanded. Even for a city campsite, this was a wretchedly miserable and crowded environment; how we longed tonight for the rural peace we had enjoyed over the last few nights.
Latvia's capital city, Rīga: Rīga was founded in 1201 as a fortified settlement at the mouth of the Daugava River from which Germanic crusading knights could subdue the Latvian and Liv tribes. The port-city flourished as a trading centre and joined the Hanseatic League in 1282, with Protestantism being welcomed by its mercantile citizens. In 1621 Rīga was conquered by the Swedes and became their main base for occupying the Baltics. In 1709, Peter the Great captured the city and although Rīga was absorbed into the Tsarist Empire, it remained German in culture. Latvian peasants flocked to the city although denied any civil rights. During the 19th century, Rīga became a developing industrial city with large numbers of Russian workers brought in, and subject to a deliberate policy of Russification by the Tsarist authorities. Latvians however were provoked into an assertion of their national identity, and with the collapse of both Germany and Russia in 1918, Latvian independence was proclaimed in November 1919 after a short struggle with the Bolsheviks, with Rīga enjoying a belle époque atmosphere during the 1920s. In WW2 the city was occupied by the Soviets from 1940~41, then by the Germans until 1944, during which time Rīga's sizeable Jewish population was confined within ghettoes and murdered in the surrounding forests. The Soviets drove out the German in 1944 and continued to occupy Latvia until 1990. The drive for Latvian independence was initially resisted by Gorbachev who sent in troops. 5 civilians were killed before the military was finally withdrawn and Latvian independence proclaimed in 1991, a free republic again governed by the parliamentary Saeima. Nowadays with EU/NATO membership attracting large amounts of foreign investment, Rīga has become something of a boom city with a population of 640,000, but underlying this are still the ethnic tensions between Latvians and the large numbers of remaining Russian-speaking non-citizens.
A visit to the Saeima, the Latvian Parliament: we had arranged by email to visit the Latvian parliament, the Saeima (meaning gathering or assembly), and the following morning we were away early to walk the 2.5kms along Ķīpsala iela and across the Vanšu Bridge over the Daugava to keep our parliamentary appointment. The bridge gave magnificent views of Rīga Castle (Presidential Palace) and Old Town in the morning sunlight (see above right) (Photo 42 - View from Daugava Bridge). Across the bridge, steps led down into the small park by Rīga Castle, the Latvian President's official residence; the presidential standard flying over the Castle showed the residence was back in use after the fire damage 3 years ago. On the way through the bewildering maze of Old Town back streets, we passed the Three Brothers, a trio of venerable medieval~17th century town houses, and eventually located the buff-coloured neo-Renaissance Saeima building tucked away behind St Jakob's church (Photo 43 - Saeima Latvian Parliament) (see left and above right). Built in the mid-19th century originally for the Livonian Knighthood, the building was adapted for parliamentary usage in 1922 under the first Latvian Republic. During WW2 the SS used the premises and all the works of art were either trashed or removed to Germany, lost for ever. During the Soviet occupation, the Supreme Council of the Moscow-controlled puppet Latvian Soviet régime took over the building with its plenary chamber redesigned to the present amphitheatre shape. In January 1990, as Soviet troops resisted the independence movement, 1000s of Latvian demonstrators manned barricades around the parliament. There was time this morning to stand outside the parliament to photograph the building, with the Latvian flag flying over the main entrance. A small pyramidical monument on the pavement outside the Saeima commemorates those killed by Soviet troops in the 1990 protest (see right). High in a niche above the Saeima's official entrance, the statue of the legendary Latvian hero Lačplēsis (the Bear-Slayer) was formally restored in 2007, the original having been destroyed by the Soviets in the early 1950s (see above left).
Entering the Saeima building, we were met by our guide, Ieva from the Protocol Department who gave us an outline of the history and working of the Saeima, the Latvian electoral process and constitutional issues. Ieva led us through into the Saeima's dignified, oak panelled plenary chamber (see left) (Photo 44 - Saiema plenary chamber); arranged in a semi-circle looking up towards the podium and Praesidium dais seating the Speaker and 4 Deputy Speakers, each of the MPs' seats is equipped with electronic voting system with results displayed openly on monitors. The 100 members of the unicameral Saeima are elected by proportional representation for a 4 year term. Meetings of the parliament are chaired by the Speaker who is elected by MPs by secret ballot; MPs also elect the President of the Republic. The Latvian Government is generally formed by coalition, currently made up of Greens and Farmers' Parties, under Prime Minister Māris Kučinskis. The President attends 3 sittings each parliamentary year to address the Saeima. The current Opposition is formed by the Social Democratic centre-left Harmony Party which acts as a voice for Latvia's large ethnic Russian population. We asked Ieva about how matters now stood with the ethnic Russian population, which on our 2011 visit had remained non-integrated with fractious relations with the majority native Latvians. She replied that, as the older generations passed, the younger generation born since independence was now becoming more settled and integrated, accepting the reality of life within independent Latvia. It was an unhurried visit with plenty of time for questions and discussion with Ieva who spoke faultlessly fluent English; she even gave us further guidance on our Latvian pronunciation. Through our web site, we express our gratitude to her for a thoroughly educative visit, Liels paldies.
Rīga's Art Nouveau architecture: after a good value lunch of soljanka soup and crisply fried carp with peppery vegetables at a small restaurant just off Cathedral Square (Doma Laukums) recommended by Ieva, we returned by the Saeima to cross the busy Krišjāņa Valdemāra iela past the Latvian National Theatre (see above right). It was a pleasant stroll across Kronvalds Park, part of the attractive parklands which divide off the medieval Old Town from the city's main commercial and shopping area with its boulevards and apartment buildings which developed in the late 19th/early 20th centuries as Rīga expanded northwards with industrialisation. On the far side of the park, we reached the corner of Elizabetes iela, and just beyond strolled along Alberta iela to admire the astonishingly ornate Art Nouveau frontages of the apartment blocks. Many were designed by the Rīga architect Mikhail Eisenstein, father of the 1930s pioneer Soviet film maker Sergei Eisenstein. We walked around the network of streets around Alberta and Elizabetes iela, gazing up at the magnificently restored Art Nouveau façades, gables and decorative features (see right). Of particular note were Eisenstein's tenement building at Elizabetes iela 33 built in a transitional style between Historicism and Art Nouveau in 1901 (Photo 45 - Elizabetes iela 33), and his florid neo-Egyptian motifs and decorations on the apartment block at Alberta iela 2a (see left); a plaque on this building recorded that the Oxford philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin lived here from 1909~1915. Perhaps the most well-known of Eisenstein's extravagant design creations was at Elizabetes iela 10b, a blue-faced apartment block topped with 2 enormous female profile heads (Photo 46 - Elizabetes iela 10b) (see left).
Freedom Monument and City Park: continuing along to cross the busy traffic higher up Krišjāņa Valdemāra iela, we walked through the Esplanāde parkland to photograph the Orthodox Cathedral of the Nativity, built in 1884 for Rīga's then expanding Russian community (see below right). Stages were being erected in the centre of the park for the coming week-long Song and Dance Festival which started on Sunday. In the broad boulevard of Brīvības iela, the modernistic Freedom Monument (Brīvības piemineklis) (Photo 47 - Freedom Monument) erected in 1935 stands as a triumphalist symbol of Latvian independence. The base of the monument includes Latvian heroic figures and is inscribed with the words Tevzemei im Brīvībai (For Fatherland and Freedom). The 50m high slender column is topped with a stylised female figure known affectionately as Milda, the most popular pre-war Latvian girl's name, who holds aloft 3 golden stars symbolising the Latvian regions of Kurzeme, Vidzeme and Latgale. It is ironic that the Soviets never attempted to demolish this rallying point for Latvian nationalistic sentiment which in 1987 was the scene of the first pro-independence demonstrations. Rīga's Old Town is enclosed by the delightful City Park where paths wind around the grassy knoll of Bastejkalns (Bastion Hill). Here on 20 January 1991 amid the peaceful pro-independence demonstrations, 5 civilian journalists were shot dead by dreaded Soviet OMON special force snipers from the nearby Latvian Ministry of the Interior building. Stone memorials mark the spots around the knoll where the victims fell. Today the parkland was decorated in readiness for the forthcoming 2018 Song and Dance Festival in the year when Latvia celebrates the centenary of its independence.
Crossing to Smilšu iela passing an end-wall decorated with the coats of arms of Latvian cities and commemorating the 1991 freedom barricades, and the red-brick Powder Tower, a 14th bastion of the former city walls, we walked back to Livi laukums, another pleasant open square filled with street cafés and lined with the restored attractive buildings of Rīga's Germanic trade guilds, once the centre of commercial life in the Hanseatic city. Just opposite facing the Great and Little Guilds buildings stood the Art Nouveau Black Cat building which takes its name from the quirky cats decorating its turrets (see left). We walked through to Doma laukums to end our first day in Rīga with a Lačplēsis beer at one of the bar-terraces, before braving the chill wind now blowing along the Daugava as we re-crossed the bridge and plodded back along Ķīpsala iela to the campsite which was even more crowded as the weekend approached.
Rīga Old Town and Cathedral Square: the following morning, with the sun bright but the chill northerly wind still blowing, we crossed the Daugava bridge towards the grandiose city buildings of Krišjāņa Valdemāra iela (see right) to begin our second day in Rīga, reaching the Presidential Palace (Rīga Pils) in time for the 11-00am changing of the guards ceremony (see left) (Photo 48 - Changing the guards). Pils iela (Castle St) led through to Rīga's Cathedral Square (Doma laukums), its sunny open space filled with street cafés, and the normally gloomy Cathedral was today well lit by morning sunshine (Photo 49 - Rīga Cathedral). One side of the square was dominated by the Rīga Bourse, built in mid-19th century in the form of a venetian Renaissance palazzo symbolising wealth and abundance and now an art museum (see below right) (Photo 50 - Rīga Bourse). The narrow streets and shady little squares behind the Cathedral are lined with ornately Art Nouveau buildings (see below left). We followed Šķūņu iela eastwards eventually finding our way through to St Peter's Church, totally destroyed in WW2 but since restored to its 13th century glory, whose elegant 3-tiered, 143m high spire towered above surrounding buildings. A lift takes visitors up to the spire's balcony for the splendid views over the city, particularly the panorama of the old town backed by the river Daugava with its bridges; being such a tourist attraction, it was extraordinarily expensive at €10 each to ascend, but on a clear day the panoramic views over the Old Town and wider city from its airy viewing terrace were also extraordinary. Looking westward, there was a direct view looking down across the magnificently restored Old Town where we had just been walking: Doma laukums over-shadowed by the Cathedral and its tower, with the Daugava River curving around in the background spanned by the Vanšu cable-stayed bridge that we had crossed earlier (Photo 51 - Rīga Old Town from St Peter's spire) (see below left). In contrast tone, the view from the opposite side of the spire looked out across the city's residential and industrial eastern suburbs with the five Central Markets pavilions prominent in the foreground, backed by the skyscraper tower of the Latvian Academy of Sciences building (an unloved heritage of communist occupation known locally as 'Stalin's Birthday cake'!), and in the distance Rīga's TV Tower, with the Daugava curving away upstream (see below right) (Photo 52 - Rīga's eastern suburbs); this area was the site of the Rīga Ghetto into which the German occupiers herded the city's Jews before murdering them in Rumbula forests.
Rīga's Central Markets: back down at ground level, we left behind the tourist hordes in Town Hall Square (Rāts laukums) to amble eastwards through back streets, passing buildings still in process of restoration, to reach the tram lines running along 13 Janvāra iela with the suburban railway line and canal beyond. A short distance along, we were able to cross the main road via an underpass and the railway line under its bridge, passing from the tourist-ridden Old Town into the work-a-day world of everyday Rīga where the language most commonly heard was Russian. It was just a few minutes to walk past the tram stops and bus stations to another of the city's notable venues, the Central Markets, housed in 5 huge barrel-roofed pavilions, former WW1 Zeppelin hangars built originally by the Germans near Liepāja, re-erected here in the 1920s and converted to market-halls with Art Deco frontages (Photo 53 - Central Markets). Each of the pavilions houses a different market with farm produce from all over Latvia, along with meat, fish, cheese and honey. Inside the first market hall alongside the meat stalls, we found our perfect lunch spot, a market café; here we enjoyed a good value, hearty lunch of baked chicken with stuffed peppers and ratatouille (see below right).
After lunch we ambled through the meat market, its stalls laden with enormous quantities of chopped pork, and joined shoppers among the crowded stalls of the outdoor fruit and vegetable market. Entering the other market halls, the next one housed more stalls of fruit and vegetables, followed by the fish market with endless rows of stalls filled with every type of fresh and smoked fish and shell-fish (Photo 54 - Fish market stalls) (see below left); it was so tempting to buy several suppers' worth here, but that would have meant carrying it all around for the rest of the day. As we browsed the stalls full of honey and cheeses however, we did take the chance to buy blocks of Latvian cheese (see left). If you enjoy browsing market stalls, Rīga Central Markets is without doubt the place to come, both for its fresh produce and the wonderful market atmosphere.
Back through the Old Town, Līvu laukums, Rāts laukums and House of Blackheads: outside the markets, scenes of local people queuing at the tram stops, and trams passing in front of the market-hall frontages gave endless potential for photographs (Photo 55 - Central Markets tram stops) (see below left). And walking along to the far end of the row of market-halls, we could look out across the river with a train crossing the 5-arched girder railway bridge which earlier we had looked down on from St Peter's spire. Back along to the markets corner, we bought glasses of Kvass (partly fermented malt drink traditionally made from rye bread) from a vendor's stall, before heading back along a shopping street towards the Old Town. Turning off towards the parkland through which a decorative canal looping off from the Daugava passes, we reached Latvia's National Opera House, its colonnaded frontage facing westward lit by the afternoon sun (Photo 56 - National Opera House). We strolled through the formally laid out gardens towards the Laima Clock, another notable Rīga landmark at the end of Brīvības iela close to the Freedom Monument. Dating from 1924 and named after the Laima Confectionery Company whose advertisements for Laima chocolate it used to carry, the Art Deco clock has been a Rīga meeting point for many a year. Today the crowds were watching an outdoor big screen which was relaying Song Festival events. Through the back streets, we emerged at Līvu laukums (Square) alongside the sunlit side-façade of the Black Cat Building and the side-by-side pairing of the Great and Little Guilds. Līvu laukums was a delightful area filled with flower gardens and street cafés where people relaxed in the bright afternoon sunshine (Photo 57 - Līvu laukums). The far side of the square was backed by the wonderfully ornate Art Nouveau frontage of the Russian Theatre. The sounds of choral singing from the Song Festival was being relayed across the square, vying with the more garish music from the bar-terraces.
Along Kaļķu iela, we returned to Rāts laukums (Town Hall Square) where the House of the Blackheads, painstakingly restored after wartime destruction, was now lit by a hazy sun (Photo 58 - House of Blackheads). This late Gothic building with monumental stepped gable façade decorated with ornate windows and statue-filled niches was the HQ and boozing club of one of Rīga's Germanic mercantile guilds, taking its bizarre name from their patron saint, the North African St Maurice. Being on the tourist trail, the square was filled with hordes of tourists, as a baritone busker on the steps of the Roland Statue entertained them with operatic arias. A few steps beyond the square towards the river stood the Latvian Riflemen Monument (see right); this graceless, angular statue of great-coated figures, one of the last surviving examples of Soviet era ideological statuary in Rīga, had been a natural gathering point for pro-communist, anti-independence demonstrations in 1991. Today the square served as a taxi rank, where waiting taxi drivers chatted in Russian.
Weary from a full and satisfying day of city ambling, we returned to Doma laukums for an end of afternoon beer at a bar-terrace. Back along Pils iela past the Presidential Palace, we returned across the Vanšu bridge over the Daugava, with Rīga Castle (Presidential Palace) and the Old Town's magnificent skyline of church spires (Photo 59 - Rīga skyline of church spires) (see left), and pylons and cable-stays of the bridge now fully lit by the late afternoon sun (Photo 60 - Vanšu cable-stay bridge over Daugava River) (see right).
Over our first 2 weeks in Western Latvia and the capital city of Rīga, we had again met many interesting people, learned much about the country, and gained a fascinating variety of experiences as this edition shows. Over the next 2 weeks, we should continue our exploration of Latvia covering the Southern, Eastern and Northern parts of the country, including the Daugava Valley down to Latvia's second city of Daugavpils, the sparsely populated rural region of Latgale with its significant Russian population, and the Gauja National Park. Join us again shortly for news and photos of our continuing Latvian travels.
Next edition from Southern, Eastern and Northern Latvia to be published quite soon