5-6 Augusts 2017
After renting a car and dropping off Gita, I went to pick up Rita for our trip across Latvia on the A2 “highway” to our overnight stay in Aumeisteri just east of Smiltene, where my father, Vitauts, is from.
The manor was a last minute choice. Every hotel in and around Alūksne was filled because of this annual festival. They combine the Grave Celebration with the town festival (think Yutan Days), and there are parties Saturday night, so many people come for the weekend. I had no idea just how many people there would be. In my mind, these grave celebrations are small affairs with a somber tone. It was not to be this way.
But first, Aumeisteri! Wow. That is all I can really say about this place. I have no idea how Rita found it on her search for a place to stay, but I’m glad she did. The manor house is actually the old guard house on this property owned by an old German lord named (I think) Baron Henriham Adolf von Wulf. Rita told me that this man and his family owned some 90 properties all across Latvia before heading back to Germany in the early 1900s. On this particular property, we saw about 7 buildings including a giant unrennovated main house that would be spectacular if someone puts money into remodeling it! Yes, Latvian real estate investment opportunities abound!
This place isn’t a “proper” hotel. There is no staff. It was just this one older gentleman who met us there in the rain (I had to tell Rita all about The Rocky Horror Picture Show while we drove on a deserted country road). He showed us around a bit (think the mansion in Clue), and gave us a choice of a regular room or this master suite with a giant bedroom and bathroom. For only €53, we chose the big room because… it was just amazing. We also had access to the creepy kitchen in the basement where we made our supper and breakfast. There was this radio on the fridge that was on all the time playing a weird mix of old Latvian music and some guy in a little room down there… I didn’t ask any questions.
A few other guests had found this wonderful hidden gem, and we think they were Finnish. We took a walk after the rain stopped as the sky grew dim. Rita was very excited to see a deer running across a meadow. One thing about Latvia is there are not as many furry creatures here as there are in Nebraska (or, I’m assuming, the rest of the United States). It’s kind of a weird thing when you think about how much nature there is… so much undeveloped land, you’d think that squirrels, deer, etc. would be in abundance, but they are not. Maybe one of my biology friends can sort out this mystery.
The next morning, after an evening with no obvious ghost sightings (I was hopeful), we set off for Alūksne. During the drive, Rita informed me that this was the largest cemetery in all of Latvia. You would think it would be in Riga, but nope. Everyone who lives on this side of the country buries their loved ones in this same giant cemetery which is on a peninsula surrounded by this incredible lake.
If you haven’t read my old blog posts, you might look back at my previous experiences with Latvian cemeteries to understand my love of them. They are not giant expanses of grass with tombstones rising above the manicured landscape like we have in the states, but rather they are parks with shady paths leading from grave to grave. And each grave site is a work of Zen-level art. Raked sand surrounds the markers with various types of flowers, shrubs, and grass growing in carefully manicured planters. It is just beautiful and a testament to this tradition of caring for the dead.
When we arrived in the village, I thought it was going to be awful because there were people everywhere, walking and driving to the cemetery. But I have to hand it to Latvian law enforcement… they were ready for this. Police and National Guard troops stood at the entrance of the cemetery guiding cars to parking spots, and the crowd control was just great. I couldn’t believe how many people there were all making this quiet walk up the hill to the cemetery. And the cemetery itself? It is hard to put into words the scope and scale of this place. One has to be there, surrounded by the natural beauty and the solemn respect for those who have passed to truly feel it. On the other hand, this is also a festival, so there were flower vendors selling thousands of beautiful flowers in all varieties along with some food vendors and even a bar!
I was with Rita as she placed flowers carefully and artfully in a vase for her mother and father, watching and getting emotional thinking about those whom I have lost. It is easy to feel deep emotions when in these surroundings.
After she was finished, we walked up the hill to see this giant white cross commemorating those who died in World War II. Rita pointed out how many of them died on the same day at the same battle. Again, I started to cry a bit for these young men who fought in a war that they were caught up in without any choice or real reason. The cross overlooks the lake, and it is just one more point of beauty among so many.
We took a slow walk back to our car and left the cemetery. Rita wanted to drop a gift off for the woman who looks after her parents’ gravesite in her absence, so we stopped by the house where I met the lady’s son. No English—so the meeting was brief.
We finished our time in Alūksne with lunch at a lovely little restaurant on the patio. I had some pork ribs with barbecue sauce and fresh mushroom gravy. It was just like mom used to make! The fried ice cream for dessert may have been a bit indulgent, but the fresh fruit on the side made it worth it… and healthy, right?
Like any Sunday drive, the trip back to Riga seemed to take forever, especially on the bumpy random roads of Latvia. People pass under extreme circumstances. Buses slow everything down. Motorcycle police strike fear into the hearts of everyone (just ask Ansis!).
The final adventure came after dropping Rita off and then returning the car. I was told to park it anywhere by the Hotel Latvia… drop the keys off with a note saying where it was parked. My blood pressure rose to extreme levels as I circled the blocks, under construction, full of traffic and pedestrians, trying to find any open spot. Around and around I went until I found (what I hope was) a parking spot on the corner of Valdemāra and Elizabetes Iela. I still am not sure if I parked the car legally or not, but I was just happy to be done with the whole affair. Apparently, I’m doing something wrong with this whole car rental thing. It shouldn’t be this hard or expensive!
I had a beer at the hotel, and felt better. Then I walked to the MTS bus station to catch the 7:43 van back to my home. Nope. 8:45. I misread the website… so now I had an hour to kill watching pigeons, an ultralight, and some interesting people. It was all good.
I got to see the sunset over the Daugava River, and by the time I reached Ķekava, the moon was rising.
Side note: In Latvia, superstitions abound. Whistle inside, and it will rain. I whistled at the manor before we left, and sure enough, it rained! Drop silverware and someone will enter your life. I dropped a knife (go figured) at the restaurant, and one of Rita’s friends from Riga just happened to be walking by. These things are real. No need to make up stories when it all just happens.
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Photos of our Journey