In some cases, this might be called the “What did we learn?” segment. I think epilogue is appropriate. I wrote most of this on the plane as I flew home next to a hyperactive little kid and a father trying his best to be patient. Writing was therapeutic. Now I’m editing listening to jazz, drinking a Lucky Bucket Snowsuit beer, and chatting with Vitauts as he finds ways to keep busy on a lazy Saturday afternoon. I hope your day is just as nice.
On the trip to the airport on Friday morning, Bruno told me about a time that he and John Grinberg were walking in Washington D.C. at night, and the policeman told them they couldn’t walk at night. Bruno understood that the cop was just trying to protect them, but John felt like it was an invasion. I think I’m on John’s side, but I can see it both ways. He also asked, “So Clinton had more votes than Trump, yes?” Yes, I said. “But Trump wins? How is it so? Strange rules you have. It is hard for me to understand.” Yes, I said, me too.
Later, on the plane from Riga to Amsterdam, I met a really cool fashion designer from Chicago who had married a Latvian woman and was visiting her and his new daughter. Nigerian by birth, educated in Britain, he had a unique and wonderful perspective on life, and we talked the entire trip. We agreed that Latvia and Europe had a lot to teach America about culture and doing things right instead of just doing them fast for a quick profit. His final thought was that we are a young country, and we’ll just have to see how it all turns out, but we think it’s going in the right direction, in terms of culture and not politics.
I told him how I had seen a wolf in Latvia after he told me about a hunting trip he went on with the hunting club in Rauna. I explained that the vilks (wolf) was my mother’s spirit animal, and I felt like she had something to say to me. He was flabbergasted, and said that he had a birthday recently, and that he was reborn as a wolf. I was confused, and then he pulled out this really nifty mask that one of his friends had made for him. It was, indeed, a wolf. Fate. Chance. Circumstances. Life is a never ending sequence of wow.
Then, as fate would have it, while waiting for the flight to Chicago, I was in line for my boarding pass, and the woman in front of me was complaining about how she had to make a second stop for the boarding pass. I heard her say Air Baltic in her perfectly American accent, and so I asked her where she was coming from. Latvia! Another American in Latvia in winter? Actually, it turned out that although she was born in Chicago to immigrant parents, like me, she had married a Latvian after college and was living and working there. Gee, how cool. She also knew Uldis Cepure, my cousin who was a pastor at the Latvian Church in Chicago. She remembered him fondly as the kind of person you weren’t afraid to just go up and talk to because he was gentle and kind. That’s Uldis for you.
How do I get so lucky? Why do I keep meeting awesome people who have so much to offer me? Obi, the fashion designer put it to me this way, when I asked him the same question. It’s an energy you have inside of you. And if your energy is positive and open, it invites people to share and want to be around you. When you have a negative energy, then people don’t want to be around you, and you don’t have these experiences.
This is really something to remember as I get ready to go back to work, which I consider to have lots of negativity in terms of the system and some of the Debbie Downers (usually I can point that finger right at myself). But at my desk I have a sign that says, “Stay Positive,” and as long as I can keep Bruno, Ansis, Monta, Gita, Rita, Dace, Anita, Obi, Renata, Janis, Mara, Juris, and all of the rest of the wonderful people and places I experiences in my mind, I think that staying positive will be simple. Easy as torte.
Because life loves me sometimes, I was given the opportunity to attend the Latvian National Opera. If you ever go to Riga, this building is one of the landmark treasures that you see any time you go to Old Town or walk through the main parks. It looks beautiful and majestic from the outside, but I didn’t think I’d see a show there.
This is the view I saw most of the time as I walked by at night. That is a big Christmas tree.
No matter how much space I put here, it won’t layout correctly…
Back to the story… I had just had my beard trimmed.
After a satisfactory beard trim (14 euro), I walked to the mall where I was meeting my ticket benefactor. Rita said to meet at some restaurant called “Dada.” I still had some time, and as I was walking down the street, I started thinking about dancing for no reason. I texted my good friend Susan Martens to tell here that I was doing the Bachata on the streets of Riga.
Nothing displays right in this post. Lots of empty spaces.
Then, I just had to go to the Kakis Cafe (Cat Cafe) to see what it was like. The wonderful barista had a shrine to cats on one wall, and I ordered a shot of balsam with a cup of coffee. As things seem to happen for a reason, I sat and listened to the music, and i was amazed to hear Latin tunes… and the very song that was playing… it was a Bachata. Tell me the odds of that?
not enough spaces…
another empty space…
Checking my watch, and seeing it was almost 17:00, I ran over to the mall. I walked around for awhile looking for Dada, but no luck. I asked guard, and he didn’t know. So the information lady told me that it was closed. No more Dada. So I texted Rita to tell her that the place was closed, so she told me to meet her at the big Christmas tree. Which tree? I thought she meant the one in the town square, so I ran over there and bought some hot wine and balsam. She wasn’t there.
She called and said she was at the tree in the mall. Doh! So now she wanted to meet at this coffee house by the opera which was in some book shop with a complicated name that I couldn’t understand. I walked to the Opera House, and looked for a nearby coffee shop. Aimlessly spilling hot wine and balsam all over myself. I was so calm and collected before, but now it was getting late, it was freezing cold, and I was lost. I had nowhere to set the drinks down to get my phone out… it was not quite a nightmare, but it was a bit more harrowing than it needed to be.
Oh, why wasn’t I using GPS, you might ask? Because I was out of wi-fi megabytes, so each time I used it, I had to pay for it. Only in emergencies! which this kind of was, so out came google maps. I finally found the bookstore/coffee shop. Lovely place, but no real time to enjoy. She got me a cup of coffee and handed me the ticket. We had a toast with the wine and balsam, and said our goodbyes quickly, as I had to run over to the theater for the performance.
Drama on top of drama.
I am glad I packed my suit jacket. I wasn’t sure if I was going to need it, but it was nice to have it for the opera. Everyone was dressed really nicely, and I almost felt like I belonged there, despite all the strange looks from the patrons. I had this notion that I was beginning to really understand the native Latvian features. Someone said that after awhile, it was easy to tell Latvians from other people living in Latvia who weren’t Latvian by blood. Interesting. The sharp features, narrow noses, with high foreheads and fine hair. These seem to be pretty typical. Oh, and most of them are Eurothin. I am not Eurothin.
The opera was sold out, and I found my seat in the 2nd balcony in line with the beautiful chandelier. Seat 13. Uh oh. The orchestra began the overture, and I was just a bit enraptured by the sound of this unseen orchestra playing an almost familiar tune. The curtain opened to reveal this modern house set with hues of pink and a checkered floor that looked just like the bathroom tile in my Ashland house.
Die Fledermaus is a comedy, and it was honestly a bit hard to follow. The spoken lines were all in Latvian, and the songs were in the original German. There was a screen with subtitles, but it was partially hidden by the beautiful chandelier, so I just kind of got the gist of what I was watching. But, because it was just kind of a fun show, I don’t feel like I missed much. I was just enjoying the beauty, pageantry and performance. They all had beautiful voices, and the staging was very interesting to me. The song that sounded just like “Step in Time” from Mary Poppins got stuck in my head. Now I can’t really find it, but this will give you a taste.
When Act II began, the woman to my right did not return. So, as it is my nature, I wondered if it was me? Probably the chandelier more likely. The set was now a balcony and ballroom floor. It was the Prince’s big party with dozens of performers dancing and singing. There was a lovely waltz interlude with these professional dancers flying across the stage. The song that sounded just like “Step in Time” from Mary Poppins got stuck in my head. Now I can’t really find it, but this will give you a taste.
After the 2nd intermission, two more women in my row didn’t come back. It was getting late, but I really had to wonder. Two older people in my row were getting their phones out, and the kid in front of me got his out, and I tapped him on the shoulder and said, “Ne.” He didn’t get it out again. This is OPERA PEOPLE! The final curtain opened to reveal the prison courtyard. It’s going to end in the prison?
And it all came together with each of the main performers entering the scene. There was a wonderful slapstick sketch with the drunk guard. I think he was the audience’s favorite based on final applause. The show ended with this bizarre, “It was all a big joke!” finale where they sang about champagne. It reminded me a bit of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Farcical fun without much depth. I kept waiting for Die Fledermaus to appear, but it was just a part of the joke. I did find one version of the finale online that had the guy show up in costume… so it has been done.
Then, after the finale, the applause literally went on for twenty minutes. I hadn’t really had anything to eat all day, so I was just wondering if anything was going to be open… but each performer had his own entrance, and applause, and then they did it all a 2nd time, then the director came out on the stage for more applause. The Latvian crowd kept it up, but I felt like by the end, when the flowers were presented, we were all pretty much ready to go. You can only clap so long. Am I right?
I had planned to walk the kilometer or so back to Bruno’s flat, but when that ice-wind hit me full in the face, I hailed a cab. The driver, speaking broken English, told me that this was his first day driving, and he wanted to use my phone for GPS. I just cannot pronounce Ausekļa street. It’s that darn dipthong “ļ” thing. We figured it out, and 5 Euro later, I was safely home.
Bruno, despite being a little under the weather, was waiting up for me on the sofa. “Would you like anything?” Sure! He brought out the wine, cheese, bread, chocolate… everything he could find and kept offering me more stuff. “I”m good, Bruno, thank you!” We exchanged some stories about our visits, mine to Latvia and his to America. He had some interesting observations and questions. I told him that my biggest pet peeve is pickups. Everyone has to have a pickup or SUV. “They want to be Big Man!” he said. “Look at me! Do what I say!” Again, brilliant observations. We had a really nice talk, and then he excused himself and went to bed. We agreed to be up by 5:45 to leave by 6 a.m. I spent the night not sleeping again, and it was okay because it was my last night in Riga, and I wanted it to last just as long as it could.
Bruno set up a plan to come pick me up on Thursday morning, 11 a.m., and then take me back to Riga. There, I would spend the night at his flat, and we would drive to the airport together on Friday morning.
Again, I didn’t really sleep on Wednesday night or Thursday morning, but I awoke to a beautiful sunrise, the last one from Ansis’ house, and I just couldn’t go back to sleep. I had to stay up to watch the burst of color on the horizon light up the snow-covered earth. Well worth losing sleep to see that.
My mission was to pack all of my stuff and clean up everything so the house would look very similar to the way it was when Ansis and Monta left nine days prior. I also had to shovel the driveway a bit to get the garage doors open, for they swing open, and with snow on the pavement, the doors get stuck.
Bruno told me where to find a shovel, so I bundled up and did the chore of shoveling as much as I could. There wasn’t that much actual snow, but overnight it had drifted pretty well, and was about a foot deep or more in places. I think Ansis’ driveway is about two miles long, so I wasn’t going to completely clear it off, but I wanted to make sure that the CRV could get out, and Bruno could get the BMW back into the garage.
I also went up to the main gate to make sure it opened, and took the big trashcan back down to the garage. Everything was working well. I made sure the bunny had food, and the fish had water. I started writing a blog post and drinking espresso waiting for Ansis to arrive.
As usual, he was right on time, and after negotiating the transfer of everything, we were on our way to Riga. We had a nice conversation about the impatience of Latvian drivers. He said that something happens to people when they get behind the wheel. “You see them on the street, and you think, this is a nice person. But they get in the car, and what happens?” Bruno actually suggested that American drivers are much more hospitable than Latvians. I guess it is something nice to say about us. Most of us are pretty polite, and while there are some people who are in a hurry, it’s not every driver who is aggressively honking and passing for no reason. “To what?” Bruno asked, “to be five more seconds early?” He is wise.
The temperature had dropped quite a bit. When I was shoveling the snow, I didn’t notice it that much, but once we got to Riga, near the river, the wind picked up, and it was just bitter. I had a couple of goals, to say goodbye to Riga, get my beard professionally trimmed by a barber, and to see the opera.
A friend had a ticket she couldn’t use because she got sick, so she offered it to me. What a way to spend my last night in Latvia, the classic National Opera House! The production was Strauss’ Die Fledermaus, which is funny because it’s a joke from the classic cartoon, Tick. I didn’t know anything about the story, so I was kind of excited to see the show.
I decided that since I didn’t have to drive, I was going to have a few drinks, and wander around until my beard appointment at 4:15, the ticket exchange at 5:00, and the opera at 7.
I started at the Beer House again, and this time it was another new bartender. I don’t remember his name. I had a hard cider called Kiss, but I wasn’t feeling the love, so I decided to try some other place. I bought a nice pair of Latvian gloves at the Christmas market and then walked to the Moonshine bar.
We had seen this Latvian rockabilly blues place during the summer, but Sue didn’t want to go because it is a silly Americana restaurant. I just had to see the inside. Elvis on one bathroom wall, Monroe on the other. License plates, two cars sticking out of the walls, and terrible American music playing over the speakers. That’s Moonshine! Luckily, the bartender was interesting and fun to talk
to. I had a Riga Coffee with Black Balsam (9.50 euro?!), a beer, and some really awful onion rings. I kind of expected that they might actually make the onions themselves, but these were straight out of Burger King. And the urinal? Priceless.
By the time I finished, it was time for the beard trimming. I originally wanted to get my head professionally shaved, just to see what that would be like, but they said it would take over an hour, and I didn’t have that kind of time. So the wonderful barber from Tukus, trimmed and conditioned my beard while explaining why she liked to do men’s hair more than women’s.
Next up, my review of the Opera.
But first, as one postscript, I just have to pay some kind to duty to this guy. He must be in his 70s if not 80s. He was shoveling Bruno’s parking lot and sidewalk in the bitter cold. Just going at it. There is no “quit” in the Latvian language. I don’t know that for a fact, but damn, he is a total Bad Ass. Original.
The Rundāle post was getting too long, so Jelgava is now in this space. If you are keeping track.
Because I am me, and I don’t like going home the same way I got to a place, I decided that I would make one more stop on my trip, Jelgava. I thought it was a good idea because it was only about twenty minutes out of the way, and it would take me through another historically important Latvian city, and it would take me to the A8, a major highway that would surely be plowed and well-traveled. Google maps would prove me wrong.
I again have to praise the CRV for all he did for me. After leaving Rundale, I took a left onto the little highway, following the Google map instructions for my trip to Jelgava. I’m so used to Google maps automatically routing you to the fastest, biggest, most important roads. Usually, I have to force it to show me side roads or more direct routes that aren’t on the interstate. Not in Latvia, baby. Google maps has no fear of sending a stranger onto a gravel road covered in snow for 20 Km, if that’s what it wants to do!
I got to the turn, and I thought, “Okay, this is just a ramp… right
around this bend, I’ll see the highway.” Guess what? Drama. No highway. Just miles and miles of tundra. No hills. No fences. No trees. Absolutely no traffic. Just me, the CRV, and drifting snow. Had I not had an all-wheel drive vehicle, I don’t think I’d be writing this right now– certainly not with all of my fingers in tact. But here I am, thanks to the CRV.
As I was driving, I realized that I don’t really fear death. I had no fear of being stranded or dying. I think some people might have turned back. Some people may not have even gone out that day at all, but here I was, in the middle of nowhere Latvia cruising along. Exhilarating. I know my brother Paul would agree.
I finally made it to the highway after plowing through a giant drift on a bridge, and following the tracks of some crazy person who had been fishtailing back and forth for at least a mile. I would have liked to see if he was doing it on purpose or if it was just how badly his car was driving. Al can relate, I think.
The A8 was pretty clear, and everyone was driving fast. Back to the normal Latvian roads. I kind of preferred the lonely, snow-covered highway where I didn’t have to worry about the crazy dudes with tall VW vans passing four semis in a row into oncoming traffic just to make a left turn in front of all of us. Love those Latvians. Chris can relate.
By the time I got to Jelgava, I realized that I hadn’t really had anything to eat. The promised restaurant at Rundale was closed. I had a cup of coffee and this really hard, sugary pastry, but that wasn’t doing much. So after a quick tour of the town where I saw a cool Russian church, the palace and river, I stopped at the gas station for some pierogs. No matter how many I eat, they are always good. I got five, and the lady at the counter tried to tell me that if you buy 4 you get 2 free. She kept trying to make me take one more, and I was just like… I’m good.
So it was back to Riga on the A8, trying to beat rush hour. No more drama other than a few ambulances heading in the other direction, probably in search of that VW van driver.
I should probably have calculated how many kilometers I drove and all of that stuff, but I’m no actuary. I just know that it was a fulfilling day, and I was no ready for my meatless Caesar Salad and a glass of Chianti before making the trip back to Ansis’ house in the country. Another snowy drive on a cold, windy night.
Oh, and let’s not discuss the drifts in Ansis’ driveway that prevented the gate and garage doors from opening in the middle of the freezing night that I would get to shovel the next day. Actually, we probably will discuss those things. Just not now.
After a nice miegs (sleep), I looked out the window to see that more snow had fallen, but it didn’t look too terrible (famous last words). I went down to the free breakfast, and it looked promising at first, but it was somehow lacking some of the basics. They had these little pancakes, but there was nothing to put on them. What I thought was sausage gravy turned out to be lukewarm porridge. I munched on a couple of delicious pastries and drank the most American-style coffee I have had since I’ve been here.
I talk about food a lot, don’t I?
Then I cleaned off the trusty CRV and started my 20 Km drive to Rundale. The roads were bad. Once I got out of the city, it was pretty much unplowed for most of the way, and I just tried to keep my tires in the tracks that had been made by previous drivers. The CRV got me there.
The palace was indeed still open, and even as I arrived, there were some tour groups showing up. I tell you, Latvians do not fear snow.
This place is much more of a “palace” than a “castle.” The intent is to impress rather than to fortify a strategic location, and as such, the style is much more posh and elegant. I was told that the inside is decorated in such a way to be indicative of what it might have looked like in the 1700s when it was inhabited by… well, according to the portraits inside… every single monarch, Duke, Count, and Duchess from Sweden, Russia, Poland, Livonia and all points in between. The history is so hard to follow.
But it is beautiful, and there is so much art. My only complaint was that each room had about twenty paintings and they covered the walls from eye level up to the ceiling. They weren’t well lit, so it was hard to appreciate the works. Many of them were by unnamed artists, and they may not have been masterpieces, but I felt like taking more time to study the canvases. I think they had about as many paintings as the entire Joslyn crammed into ten square rooms.
The furnishings and other amenities were much more plush than the stripped down castle in Bauska. Rooms were decorated completely to resemble how they might have been including things like the toiletries, desks, game rooms and the like. One room that really had it all going on was the Green Room. Maybe it’s just because I love the color green, but this room was stunning.
The pottery and plaster work were also impressive. I tried to take some panorama photos, but my iPhone kept saying that it had to keep it moving when I was clearly keeping it moving. Each and every time I got past the 180 degree point, it would stop and yell at me. Stupid iPhone. But at least you can see these impressive Japanese and Chinese vases. Oh, and the French clocks scattered throughout the house. So cool. Most of the furnishings and works of art were imported. A few of the chandeliers were made in Latvia as well as some chairs.
This palace did not have the mysterious charm of Bauska and Cēsis pils, but it is much more complete in terms of how the people living there might have actually had it set up. It also has an amazing garden and park all around it, but because of the weather, I wasn’t really in the mood to go strolling past dead rose bushes and leafless hedges. You can see what it looks like in the summer here.
In my quest to see more of Latvia, I found myself embarking on a two day journey south of Riga the city of Bauska. My plan was to stay in a hotel in Bauska to see the famous and nearby Rundale Palace the next morning.
The snow that had begun falling the night before, had now blanketed the world with white powder. The view from my window was gorgeous, but I would now have to drive in the snow. Ansis’ driveway is long and steep, and I was just hoping that the CRV would be able to get me out onto the main road.
What was I thinking? The CRV is the best vehicle I’ve ever driven in my life. I don’t think I’m exaggerating. I would take this fellow over just about any car ever made. He saved my life today.
For all the snow that fell, the road to Bauska was pretty clean once I got from Ansis side road to the main highway, and then I was on my way. I felt a little foolish booking a hotel for the trip, but I just had to get out for a few days. The drive was only about an hour.
With time to kill, I tried to go to the best place to eat in all of Bauska (according to 3 reviews on TripAdvisor) , Aveni. My running theme for this road trip is that Latvians do not know how to make BIG SIGNS to tell you where things are. Rimi, a “Hypermarket” does a good job. Fenikks, a casino, does a good job. But try to find a restaurant, hotel or castle? Good luck without GPS and some knowledge of the Latvian language.
I drove to where Aveni was supposed to be, but there was just a strip mall with two seemingly abandoned buildings. Luckily a Latvian came walking by and I did my best imitation of a local, “Kur ir Aveni?” He had to correct my pronunciation of the “a” on “Aveni,” but he understood. He pointed around the corner. No signs. No walkway… but sure enough, there it was in the back of this deserted strip mall on a road to nowhere. But, as drama would have it, the restaurant was closed with no sign. No explanation. Just closed at 12:00 on a Tuesday afternoon.
So I drove to the other place that I saw while cruising through Bauska, the tenth largest city in Latvia. It was a decent diner with no lights on, and no customers. I think the vegetables were microwaved, and the “three-time-cooked” potatoes were just giant french fries. I felt like I was intruding by just sitting there an eating.
Then I went in search for my Raxwell hotel, and the first rule of Latvia applied… “You can’t get there from here.” Once you are on a street in Bauska, prepare for the long haul. There are no side streets or grids to get you back to where you started. You just have to wind your way through the narrow one ways until you find some sort of cross street that may take you back, or it may take you somewhere that looks more like Nebraska than Latvia where there are dozens of elderly people walking for no apparent reason toward the deserted countryside. Maybe. Could happen!
Again, there was no sign for the hotel. There was a big Swedebank sign, and I knew, according to my GPS that it was near the bank… but little did I know that it was in the very same building as the bank! There was some drama at the checkout counter. A strange drunk man with the loudest toothless voice I’ve ever heard kept interjecting as I was trying to talk to Zane, the kindly hostess. She just smiled as he sat there with his whisky and coke, slurring loudly. Zane had to call her boss because of some issue. She was impressed with my Latvian passport, so that was cool. They finally got the glitch figured out and they sent me up to my room. I asked for a king-sized bed, and instead, I had this little tiny cot with no wifi. I was too tired to complain, so I collapsed for an hour, and then went downstairs to get a new room with a bigger bed and wifi. Zane was happy to comply and point me in the direction of a Tavern within walking distance.
Oh, and before I forget, if you ever find yourself in a Raxwell hotel, and you get to the room, but the lights don’t work, the trick is that you put your keycard in this slot, and that activates the electricity in the room. I’m not sure if it’s a way to save electricity or a way to make you remember your card every time, but it was something I had to figure out… kind of like a puzzle. So many puzzles in Latvia.
Finding the castle seemed easy according the map. This roundabout, then that roundabout, then the river, and poof. It looked like it was right in the middle of the river, so I figured I would see it when crossing one of the bridges. I crossed this bridge, that roundabout, another bridge, but no pils. I really thought that if this is the biggest tourist attraction of Bauska, that there would be this big billboard saying: LOOK! IT’S OUR CASTLE!!! No such luck. I had to double back, and when coming from the other direction, there it was, as clear as could be through the trees. Bauska pils, as advertised.
The castle was laid out a bit like Cēsis pils from the summer, except that the reconstruction was more complete, but they wouldn’t let me exlplore the old ruined part. That was the fun of Cēsis… just wandering through the ruins. I wonder if it’s open in the summer?
I paid my 5 Euro entry fee, put on these cool plastic shoe covers, and then went exploring. Kindly but serious Latvian women dressed in historic garb pointed me in the right direction, demanding which way I was to go first.
I wandered through the halls from one great room to another. I marveled at the decorations, but thought about how each of these spaces would be used. Each one was just a giant square, all about the same size and shape. Most of the decorations were modern fabrications based on ruins that they found on the site. I asked one of the ladies “vecs vai jauns?” (Old or new?) and she just kept pointing saying “Jaunu, jaunu, jaunu.” Then another woman came up to show me one part of the tile floor that was “vecs.” Cool.
My favorite room was in the basement (is it called a basement?) where there were some beautiful tapestries on display. I was so hoping they were original or at least based on some medieval design, but I found out later that they are by a famous Latvian tapestry artist named Georgs Barkāns. Nevertheless, they were cool, and the unicorn theme was impressive. I think they could make a mint at the castle by selling unicorn stuff. But who am I to say?
That’s another weird thing about these Latvian attractions. The gift shops are all enclosed and you can’t really see stuff or touch stuff. In America, the last room you go through is the gift shop, and there are all kinds of things you walk by in the hopes that you will grab something on your way out. But here, I had to ask to see the little painted pewter figures. And there were some nice decorative plates and pots on the shelf behind the counter, but I didn’t want to ask, “Cik tas maska?” over and over.
I saw some ancient weapons of war, cannons, and costumes. When I was almost finished, one of the nice ladies pointed down these stairs with a wink and said, “For exhibition only, but you can go,” I felt so special. I walked down the cold, narrow staircase into a cool room with arrow slits, a +1 crossbow and a +3 sword and Shield of Frost Protection (D&D joke). I felt like I had found the treasure room.
I left the castle and saw a pub next to it. Cool! I’ll have a frothy ale while I write my thoughts down. I walked in, and it was just as cool as could be expected. All old stonework with a wooden bar in the center. But the wee ale wench did not want to serve me, so I sat for a bit and left.
I think you have to go to the counter or something. I don’t know. It’s a puzzle as to why these places don’t want to make money. So many puzzles.
I wandered around the grounds behind the castle and walked to the end of the path where the two rivers, the Musa and Memele meet, which together form Lielupe. It was cold. I could have just walked back to the car, but something drew me to the end of the path, and I was so happy I made it. Again, that feeling of joy struck as I watched the sun setting behind the hills of Bauska with the two rivers joining together gathering the last rays of dusk. It was stunning.
I walked back to the car feeling enlightened and thoughtful. What does all this history mean? Who were these people? How awesome was it to have a castle built between two rivers and surrounded by a moat? How did it ever get taken over?!
The drive back to the hotel was much easier now that I kind of understood the roads. I parked, went to my room for a bit, and then put my snow gear on for a nice walk through the Bauska streets at night.
Since I didn’t have to drive, I was hoping for a little Latvian nightlife in Bauska. But everything seemed to close at 21:00. The tavern was incredibly upscale looking. Again, I have to praise all these little cafes for the aesthetics and design. Each one is unique, artful and authentic feeling. I just looked at these sconces and thought… who came up with that idea? Who thought that it was worth how many thousands of Euro it would take to install electricity into these old brick walls, and then adorn them with these lovely sconces? It’s a completely different mindset than the “throw it together it’s temporary anyway” ideals of most American construction that I see.
I decided on the Cockroach Stuffed Chicken… shrimp stuffed inside the chicken with some kind of a cream sauce. Again, I had to go up to the counter and order. The kindly innkeeper, who seemed to be in no hurry or anything, helped out the Latvian customers at the table, but I had to keep going up to ask for things. Maybe it’s just me.
The chicken was wonderful with three huge sides of various vegetables and real home-fried potatoes. I would recommend this place, but apparently there is no website. But it’s right on the main square, so you can’t miss it!
Since the innkeeper didn’t ask me if I wanted coffee or dessert or another drink, I left, but not before getting a picture of their liels suns (big dog). They had an even bigger one that looked like a small pony waiting for me at the door, but this brown guy is pretty cute, too.
My nightlife consisted of stopping at Rimi on the way back to the hotel, picking up a bottle of dessert wine and a candy bar, going back to my room and calling it a night. I think I did some good writing.
I broke this up because it was getting long. If you are interested, you can read what happened up to this point here. I was at a fancy restaurant decorated with creepy statues that reminded me of the first season of True Detective.
Tell me that’s not creepy.
So they sat me down in these comfortable chairs at a table near the bar. It seems that almost everywhere I go in Latvia, I have to wait longer for a waiter than the locals. Maybe I just am not doing it right or something, but I sat for a long, long time before Veronika finally came to see how I was doing and to take my order. I opted for the trout. It sounded safe. I got the cheapest house white whine they had. Everything else seemed very expensive.
Veronika returned with several varieties of confections that she spread out on the waxed paper on my table. She squirted berry reduction, orange jelly, apple spread… all these different flavors and gave me some bread. “You use your hands. Is okay,” she said as she walked away. Okay. I had never seen anything like it. I felt like royalty.
I dug into the succulent, flavorful bread and spreads and just tried them all. They were wonderful, although a bit more of a dessert than an appetizer. I have to give them credit on originality. I had never seen anything like this before. I am having a tough time finding the words to even describe what this was because it was so different.
Outside the windows, I could see the snow falling as I finished tasting. And then my main course arrived. Completely off balance, the plating seems to take advantage of the white space… or I was supposed to order a side, but I was too cheap to do so. Either way, it is beautiful and artistic. Right?
The trout was the best fish I have ever tasted. I think this is still the best meal I’ve had in Latvia. It was a smaller amount, but just perfect for lunch. Delicate, and everything worked together. I have overcome most of my food fears by trying these different dishes, and I am just accepting that these chefs know what tastes good. Most of the time, they are right!
The War Museum
I had plans for drinks at 5:30, so after the meal, I had about an hour to kill. Museum time! I finally went to the famous Latvian War Museum which is housed in this very conspicuous tower in the midsts of Old Town. I had never gone before because I figured it was touristy. But hey, I was a tourist, and I wanted to see a museum.
Bonanza! It was free! I just had to hang up my coat and put my backpack away, and I was off on the tour. I won’t bore you with all the details which took me from the Medieval Latvian era all the way through the present day. The highlight was to see the time of German and Soviet occupation in the early 1940s. This was when Vitauts, my father, was conscripted into the military at the age of 15. I found the display of the shoes that they were given to the young men to be especially powerful. I look forward to getting home to share these pictures with him to see if any of them strike memories.
The whole history of Latvia is so convoluted. I am used to our American history which is tidy. We are such a young country that basically formed from this idea of a manifest destiny. Latvia’s history is dirty and muddy with so many conflicts with so many surrounding tribes, affiliations and countries. It’s amazing that there came to be these common people with a history and language that they could call their own. A country that has been trampled over and over by history, but the people remain united. It’s kind of exciting when you think about it.
Or maybe it’s sad, and I’m just being optimistic. Either way, it’s fascinating to me.
Most of the signs were in Latvian, so I wish I’d had a guide to share with me some of the information. I was just looking for anything familiar. As I walked through the history of warfare, I thought of my friends from Yutan, Jeff, Cory, Billy, and the rest and how we used to play with toy guns and really get into it. The models and reproductions at this museum were just incredible. I wish the display were more spread out and set up so that the models were out in the open as if recreating some scene from history. They deserve better than to simply be put upon shelves.
The museum was closing at 5 p.m. A bell rang at 4:45, and the doors started closing. Time to go!
Now it was night, and I walked past the Laima clock again, and through the park to some hidden alleyway for supper. I seriously had another rapturous moment of pure joy as I saw the park dressed in its winter splendor, and there was again something so beautiful and magical about everything that it’s hard to put into words. I was laughing aloud, tearing up, all so emotional in the spirit of just feeling like… I’m here, doing this… right now? I am so blessed.
I found myself aimlessly searching for an address, when I came upon this beautiful woman smoking a cigarette in a doorway. “Kur ir Andaluzijas Suns?” I asked. She said, “That is my place. It is right around the corner.” She pointed, and there was a courtyard I had completely missed. It was lovely.
I was a bit early, so I decided to have a drink. I went with the Big Red. It was neither big, nor really red, but it was delicious. I later found out that the restaurant was named for a movie that Salvador Dali had made, very hipster. “An Andalusian Dog” That’s why the dog on the menu has that mustache. Duh! Warning… only watch this if you have a strong stomach.
For supper, I was given a menu in Latvian and told to, “Just choose something.” I found a word I recognized because of my cousins: “Jerins.” I will have the lamb. I was so proud of myself for knowing some words.
The meal was very good, but not as delightful as the presentation. The little lamb chops were spread on this long, black board. Each one on top of a spoonful of mashed potatoes. Artful. That’s the only way to really describe it.
The MTS Station
The meal and the company were delightful, and now I just had one more mission– to find out where the bus back to Ansis’ house was going to be! I knew that the schedule had one at 9:35 and at 10:40. It was only 9:15, so I had plenty of time. I stopped in front of this hotel where there was a bus and stop. It seemed like a likely place for a bus to show up. But I was wrong.
I checked my watch, and it was a few minutes past 9:35, so I started walking up and down the block until I found it. The MTS station that no on in Riga seemed to know about. It is this space where vans drive up to specified stops. Each stop has a time table. Each bus space is numbered. Oh…. Jeff. Why didn’t you find this before? Now it was after 9:40, and I would have to wait until 10:40 for the last bus to arrive. Oh, look… a casino.
Yes, I spent another 15 Euro at the stupid casino. But this time I did get ahead a little bit before squandering all of my money. Some drunk guys wanted to engage in conversation, but I was too worried about missing the final trip back home. I just had to hope that the bus would really be there, and it wouldn’t be canceled or off on this particular day for whatever reason.
At precisely 10:39 the driver showed up at the stop. He spoke no English at all, and Ansis’ house isn’t exactly easy to find. I showed him the map on my phone. It was just me and one other guy who got off halfway on the van, so the driver wasn’t too busy. When he approached my stop, he literally counted the roads between us and Ansis’ road to see where he should let me off. I kept telling him there was a bus stop and a veikals (shop), but that didn’t help. I figured he must have driven this route a hundred times… shouldn’t he know?
Anyway, he slowly found the stop, and I walked in the frigid arctic air back to the house where I fed the fish and the bunny and promptly stayed up too late reading Anna Karenina thinking about how it applied to Latvia and my trip and the world.
Ansis challenged me to try the bus instead of driving to Riga. He said it would be a good way to get back and forth. He left me a schedule, which I lost, but that did not deter me. I spent part of my day on Sunday scouting out the dirt road from his house to the bus stop about 1/2 a kilometer or so away. The bus stop itself listed times that some kind of vehicle might arrive. How much would it cost? What would it be like? I would find out! Adventure is not adventure if you already know the outcome!
I got to the bus stop at 8:30, and the bus was scheduled to be there by 8:40. I was reassured when two women walked up to the stop. Even though only one of them spoke broken English, she confirmed that the bus would take me to Riga and only cost 1.40 Euro!
‘The bus turned out to be a converted van, which was fine. The seats were comfortable, and even after making stops every few miles, the trip only took forty minutes or so. I would recommend this form of travel to anyone visiting Latvia. What a bargain to be able to go from town to town for only a few Euro a day! Oh, and the driver had a Latvian flag hanging from the mirror. Apparently there is a new push for patriotism with the threat of Putin and Russia.
When I arrived in Riga, I had that wonderful feeling of disorientation. I can compare it to when I was dropped off in the middle of China Town New York, and I had to find Edgar’s studio in Chelsea. This was before I had GPS or anything to guide me. My first goal in Riga was to find a coffee shop and have a nice breakfast. This goal would lead me to my first bad meal in Latvia.
I knew it was going to be bad… it was called Cile Pica (Chili Pizza) and the menu on the window just looked awful. But I couldn’t find any other open place after circling the block. I just settled. This is what happens when you settle. You order crepes with NO sour cream, and they come to you filled with sour cream. You order one sausage on the side, and you get two giant hotdogs. What kind of self-respecting European establishment would serve cheap hotdogs, fry them, and call them breakfast sausages? I can’t believe the people of Riga would stand for such insolence! To be fair, the waiter did redo the crepes, and they were fine with just sugar and strawberry sauce, but there is no forgiveness for breakfast hotdogs.
Then, I got my handy blue book, “Another Travel Guide Riga 4,” out of my backpack and started looking for cool places to go. This guide was a Christmas gift from Ansis and Monta.
I wanted to go to all kinds of museums, but it was Monday, and the websites said several of them were closed. I started my tour at the Academy of Science building. It has a lookout platform on the 17th floor for tourists.
It was worth the 5 Euro to go to the top. I had never seen such a beautiful view of Riga before, and even in the snowy, misty, foggy morning, the city still shines. One cool moment was when I touched a tile on the wall, and it broke off and fell to the ground revealing a dead but colorful fly underneath. I almost put the tile in my backpack as a souvenir, but then I thought cameras… and probably ASBESTOS, so I let it sit there. I hope they don’t accost me at the airport for destroying government property.
Then, my next goal was to find the secret market at Latgale. This is supposed to be a really cool flea market where you can find just about anything, including stolen stuff. But all I found was an empty lot. I asked a couple of locals about it, but no one seemed to know anything. I found it interesting that this supposed Black Market was right across the street from the Police Station.
My walk continued to the Central Market of Riga. This is a famous location that just about every tourist hears about. Giant zeppelin hangars from the German occupation in World War I were moved here to house this gigantic market where open-air sellers in kiosks surround the hangars, and inside the hangars you can find just about everything you could possibly imagine from still breathing fish, to smoked eel, to underwear. It’s all here!
On an editorial note, I don’t know how the Central Market can still be around with all the supermarkets and hypermarkets that seem to dominate not only Riga, but all of Latvia. On my walk, I kept thinking that all there seems to be to do in Latvia is shop for things. That might just be an outsider’s perspective, and I am guessing people would say the same thing about Americans.
As I was walking through the market, the snow began to pick up, and the flakes turned into the big, heavy, beautiful ones that remind everyone of what it was like to be a child. I walked down the sidewalk, to the bus station and to the Stockmann department store with my tongue out trying to catch the snowflakes. I must have appeared to be a madman, but I was laughing and enjoying myself so much.
Stockmann was like Younkers, so I left and walked through the park meandering my way through the gathering snow as it decorated the trees and statues. This summer, Sue and Glen went to the Freedom Monument, but I somehow missed it completely, so I was on a mission to find it. It’s not hard to find. Like my brother, Paul, said, it’s one of the tallest structures in Riga. Dedicated to the first independence of Latvia and really it’s formation as a nation in 1918, the monument rises above the park and Lady Liberty holds three shining stars. The stars represent the three historic provinces of Latvia and the unity that binds the country together.
The walk then led me to the Laima clock which I knew was close to the Alus Maja (Beer House) which I visited last week. It was where I met the Hungarians. Caspars was not working, but I met his colleague, Leonards, and he was happy to tell me all about which Latvian beers were worth having and which ones were not. As I was sitting at the bar, a tour group came in led by this very loud and determined guide. I told him his English was very good, and he said he had lived in Canada for a few years. I listened as he told the group places to go and see, most of which I had already been to. At the end, when he asked for tips, I threw in a few coins for eavesdropping.
I spent more time at the Beer House than I meant to, and then meandered through the Christmas Village again, looking for a museum or some sort of intellectual space to spend my time. I realized that I had not had lunch yet, so I wandered into this upscale restaurant called 3 Pavaru, which translates to “three chefs.” I walked in, and the host took my coat, so I knew it was too late to leave. I was going to sit and see what this place had to offer.
I love Gita. Can I just say that for the record? Never a dull moment! When she plans something, she goes all out! Even on New Year’s Day, when things are closed, and it’s raining, and cold, and all the forces and elements are against her, she still manages to make the day unforgettable!
Gita is my cousin-once-removed on my father’s side… my father’s sister’s granddaughter. You may remember her from posts this summer or from my post about the Christmas music show.
Anyway, I was trying to find a day to see my cousins Janis (Gita’s uncle), Mara (Gita’s mom) and Juris (Gita’s little brother) who all live in Cēsis, which is about 90 kilometers from Riga. I was happy to be able to spend New Year’s Eve day with them.
The day started out rough because “drama” is my middle name. Gita sent me an address to pick her up, and I was impressed because I made it out of bed by 7:30 and was actually on time for our rendezvous at the Supernetto shop by 8:45. However, when I followed the address on my GPS, I ended up in a dead end alleyway with no Supernetto in sight. I got a text from her asking where I was, and I asked her the same question. It was a misunderstanding… she sent me an address with a 1 instead of a 31… so she was a few blocks away.
She walked and found me and we were on our way to Cēsis after a quick stop for McDonald’s coffee, which, we both agreed, is pretty awful. Then she got a call from her brother, presumably wondering where she was… but her phone was locked. It wouldn’t do anything. And she couldn’t shut it off and on because she didn’t know her pass code. It was written down in her other purse. Amazing set of circumstances, really.
I let her use my phone to send him a Facebook message (because neither of us knew his phone number), but he didn’t have the internet, so he never got them. We drove, hoping they would be waiting for us, and, of course, they were.
We had a quick greeting in the parking lot of the bus station where they discussed plans and I tried to keep up. From what Gita told me, we were going to some ruins and to see some caves with a natural spring. Outdoor stuff on a cold, rainy, Latvian day. I was game! I heard the word “udens” which is “water.” I got that much.
We hugged and shook hands, and then Juris got into his white Audi, and drove off with the intention that Gita and I would follow in the CRV. Janis had to go back to work, but he would meet us later for lunch, or something. Whirlwind. Latvians just do things so quickly.
Our first stop was in the small town of Rauna, which doesn’t have much of a wikipedia page, but it does have a cheese factory! And not only that, but Gita called the guy who owns the small factory to give us a guided tour. Ilmars Cerins was just awesome. You can check out his wares here! Spread the word. Good stuff!
He met us at the door and gave us these hairnet hats to wear. Then he took us inside and explained first in Latvian, and then in English, exactly what this was. He and his mom started making homemade cheese, and then they bought this space and started making different varieties of cheese and
butter. Then he took us back into a larger room where he also showed us packages of noodles. He was expanding into the noodle business. All hand made. Nothing but the best! He had little samples of the cheese and butter to give us, and at the end of the tour, he sold us some of his stuff. Apparently, it’s in supermarkets around the area. He’s an inventive entrepreneur. Very admirable.
The best part was as we were leaving, and I pointed to this giant abandoned looking building next door, and I asked, “What’s that? Is it still in business?”
“No, ja, it looks deserted, I know. But a friend of mine owns it. He uses it to make narcotics.”
I did a double take… he had me going for a second. Gita later explained that he was joking. It was really some kind of metal shop. He just deadpanned it so well.
After packing our noodles and varieties of powdered cheeses into the car, we drove to the ruins of the Rauna castle just up the road right behind the elementary school. How could would it be to go to school with a giant castle behind the playground? Because of the weather, and the fact that we had lunch reservations, we didn’t get much time to explore, but the view from above was nice, and I got some good photos of the four of us.
Then it was back to Cēsis for lunch at the only place that was open on New Year’s Eve. As we drove, Gita confessed that she had called many places trying to find interesting things to do. Sadly, many things were closed for the holiday. But we did see a guy in a bunny suit and two Santas selling fireworks, so they were open. I never found the shop, but a lot of people did (as was apparent at midnight).
So we found the lunch lodge, which literally looked like a log cabin. I tried to explain “log cabin” to the Latvians, but I guess it’s an American thing. The menu was huge, but they all ordered in like fifteen seconds. The waitress left, and I thought we had just ordered drinks, but they were getting food already. Latvians. In a hurry. Go! Go! Go! No time to waste!
I finally settled on an authentic Latvian dish similar to what my mom used to make, ribs, kraut and boiled potatoes with cream gravy. It was delicious, but Latvians like to put too much sugar in everything including sauerkraut. I have yet to find truly sour kraut here. But the ribs, gravy and potatoes were all quite good, and the portions were tremendous. So far, not a bad meal in this little country. I’ll keep trying.
Janis showed up, but he had already eaten his ham and peas for lunch, “Tradition,” he explained. So we exchanged gifts. They got me a cup with my Latvian name, Džefries and a cool shirt with Latvian symbols that says “Mani sargā Latvju zīmes” which literally translates to “My guardian Latvian trademarks.” What it really means is that the Latvian symbols on the shirt will protect me from harm! So don’t mess with me. Especially if I’m wearing this shirt!
The final outing was to this magical natural spring. Gita told me to pack a water bottle, so I found one of Ansis’ mostly empty ones and took it. He fills them up at Bruno’s country house, but this place in Cēsis was even better, I think. We drove down this muddy little road, and there were already several cars parked with bustling people loading and unloading water bottles. We walked down a path and there it was, this fresh water just pouring down this wooden trough. People held their bottles and buckets under it to fill with fresh spring water. It was something I have never seen. Water just poured out like a large spigot. It was also the best tasting water I think I’ve ever had. It was just perfect.
The natural beauty of the landscape around the spring was breathtaking. We were in too much of a hurry to actually explore, and it was cold, and rainy, but the water from the spring created this marshland of trees, and moss. The colors and variance of foliage was stunning. Every photo feels like a painting. My deceased cousin, Ansis Cepure’s, art makes so much more sense to me now.
But, no time to lose, we were off. We said goodbye to Mara and Juris in the muddy parking lot, and then we drove off. We took one quick drive around the castle, and then headed back to Riga. It seemed like a short day, but we had spent a good six hours together. She wanted to spend New Years with her cats and a bottle of wine, and I was so tired that I couldn’t stop yawning.
Now it’s 3 a.m. and I’m still awake. Go figure.
On the say home, I stopped at a supermarket for some supplies. All I got was a bottle of chianti, but it was very good. In front of me was a woman buying bread. I swear that she had twenty loaves. I wanted to ask her was all the bread was about, but that would have been rude.
One quick note about Latvia in the winter. So far, I have seen the sun only one time… we had a short miraculous burst of sunshine on Christmas day. Since then, the sky has been grey. It’s kind of like someone turns on the light at about 8 o’clock, and it gradually gets a little lighter until about 3 p.m. when the light goes dim and it gradually gets darker. It’s never really bright, and you can never tell where the sun is. It’s just this oblique blanket of gray that hovers over everything. I told Gita that no one smiled at me when I was in Jēkabspils. She asked, “Did people smile in summer? With this weather, you would not be smiling either.”
It was a fun trip home!
If you want to see what I did on New Year’s you can read about it on Facebook.