Piebalga: A Trip to the Past

Piebalga: A Trip to the Past


August 19-20

Beer map

This weekend, Rita invited me to join her for the last day of her folklore collecting project in the region of Latvia known as Piebalga which is right in the center of the country. This is a map of beer breweries throughout the country, and you can see Piebalga to the east. When I rented a car (another story that I will not tell), I told the man where I was going and he asked, “To drink beer?” So I guess it is what you do when you go there.

I told him that wasn’t my intention, but some beer might be consumed at some point in time.

I drove across Latvia on Saturday without any major hiccups. I just had to figure out exactly where Rita and her people were staying. She was in a schoolhouse in a tiny town called Ineši. But there was no address, so I just drove through the town until I saw her daughter, Anna, waving me down.

Shortest River in Latvia

As the head of the Archives, Rita has many duties, and she was busy getting ready for a reception, so I took a walk to the Veikals with Anna and bought a bottle of the infamous Piebalga brew. It was a bit sweet, but drinkable. So we walked around the grounds of the manor, swung on a swing, and discussed some of the people she met on her story collecting trip. She told me of a gypsy woman (her word, not mine) who was going to tell her her fortune using a regular deck of playing cards. So Anna was carrying cards around, just in case this woman came to the reception. She also told me how this same woman pretended to be a man during the war because there were no men to dance with. It was an interesting story that either ended in violence or accolades… that part was hard to figure out.

The Manor

The reception was lovely. It was held in a beautiful ballroom of this old manor built by some Russian lord. We had seats for 50 or so people, but only about twenty were there including all the folklore collectors that were a part of Rita’s group. It was rainy, so that likely discouraged the locals from making the trip. Most of them don’t drive, so they would have had to find a way to get there. But we had a great time! A family of folksong singers came with their accordion, and everyone sang songs. Then we had coffee and some nice finger foods. Presentations and gifts were exchanged. The whole thing just felt right.


Turning on the Lights

It felt right until the lights kept going out leaving us in almost total darkness. Each time they went out, Aigars or Rita had to enter a code to make them turn back on. Here was my joke for the evening without a punchline… “How many folklorists does it take to turn the lights on?”




The Fool

Then Rita invited me to the “after party” with her and her colleagues. This was also a traditional part of their outings. We gathered on the second floor of the schoolhouse where I learned how to play a Latvian card game called “The Fool.” Then, Aigars showed up with his button accordion… he called it a “harmonica” of some kind. I someone will tell me I am wrong and tell me the official name. He is a fantastic player who knows so many songs by heart that it is almost unfathomable. It is his specialty, but still… impressive.



Aldis, Rita and Aigars

He would start a song, and then most of the folklorists would join in and sing. Sometimes, they would forget a word here or there, or how to start the next verse, and someone would jump in and keep it going. Aldis performed a few solos and showed off his vocal prowess. It was an incredible event, but by 23:30, I was feeling overwhelmed, and tired, so I retired to my English classroom where I slept on a thin mattress on the floor under the loudest clock in the world. When I can hear a clock tick in the middle of the night without my hearing aids in, then you know it’s a loud clock!

Rita said that the singing continued until 2 a.m., and some even stayed up later than that. Incredible.

Listen for yourself!


My incentive for going to Piebalga was the promised roadtrip on Sunday. Rita had a list of places she wanted to visit and things she wanted to do, but I was almost obsessed with getting to Gaiziņkalns, the highest “mountain” in all of Latvia! It was only a 30 kilometer drive from Ineši, so yes, we were going!

Sunday was a full day. Here is a quick overview with some photos to go with the trip.

First, we went to the local cemetery where many famous Latvian writers are buried including the brothers Kaudzītes who wrote the very first Latvian novel. I also took a photo of this engraving on a Latvian grave there which was used as the inspiration for the inscription on the Freedom Monument in Riga. “For Fatherland and Freedom.” Fitting, right?

We then visited the Lutheran church in Vecpiebalga, which had been built and rebuilt over hundreds of years. The altar was destroyed in the war, so they created a new one using a giant boulder found nearby. A birch tree was growing in the church, so when they reconstructed it, they cut the tree down and turned it into a cross. How cool is that? They were having a photo display of Jesus’ life recreated by real Latvians.

Then we went to a cafe for lunch and coffee, and Rita really wanted to visit this nearby weaving village. (I think that is the website, but it isn’t exactly the same) The village had been purchased by this Latvian museum association and kept in tact, reconstructed to represent the way it would have been near the turn of century (20th that is). They even had an old windmill that they have almost built back to working condition. The inside is incredibly clean, and you can see gears and everything that would have been used to mill grain back in the day. It was all tied down, so the blades couldn’t spin, but I hope they finish it to make it functional. That would be a sight to behold! Anna and Rita had a wonderful time running through the meadow and climbing on hay bails.

We also met one of the men who still lives in one of the old houses, and, I guess, helps keep the place going. He was quite a character with long blond hair and a collection of buttons.

After the village, Rita said it was a good day for mushroom hunting. We met a local with buckets if gailenes, these yellow Latvian mushrooms, who told her where to find them. So we drove there, and of course we didn’t find buckets. No real mushroom hunter tells you where they really go, right? But we found a bag full, and I had the pleasure of getting completely lost in this primeval Latvian forest. The ground is mushy and every inch is covered in moss or other ground cover. It is hauntingly beautiful and disorienting to walk through.

Then it was off to Gaiziņkalns! The mountain! The road was winding and gravel. I wasn’t sure if we were going the right way, but we got there. Everyone told me to be underwhelmed, but I was satisfied. We were just about the only people there because of the chilly weather and the rain. We walked up these steep staircases, and then followed the trail to the top of the mountain. I was pursued by Latvian mosquitos the whole way, but it was worth it. We had a nice view of lakes and the landscape below from 312 meters above sea level. My cousin John pointed out that Blair, Nebraska is higher without the aid of any hills or towers. Yes, Latvia is flat and low.

We drove home on twisting roads and it rained all the way. I expected to get back to Riga by 20:00 or so, but this winding road with no gas stations took much longer than planned. We did get to pick up a hitchhiker, so I can check that off my bucket list.

Final Thoughts: I ended up keeping the car overnight (since I paid for two days anyway) and then I dropped it off the next morning. They charged me an additional 20 euro because the floor mats were dirty. I tell you what, I am finished renting cars.

Dirty mats? 20 Euro…


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