March: to Ainaži and Beyond

March: to Ainaži and Beyond

March 2021

March has always been my favorite month because it is my birth month along with the birth month of some of the best people I know.

This year, it also coincides with my first year anniversary at my new job, and we are supposed to use our vacation days each year, but because of Covid, I hadn’t really felt the need nor desire to take a vacation. Lo and behold, I was told to take some time off, so we put together a last-minute trip to the coastal town of Ainaži on the Estonian border.

My vacation just happened to be at the same time as Karu’s spring break, so we all decided to go for four days together. We found an amazing AirBnB, I rented a car, and we were on our way.

Ainaži by way of Sigulda

If you look at a map of Latvia you will see that Ainaži is almost straight north right along the coast from Riga. But I promised Karu that they would get Subway on the trip, so we decided to drive to Sigulda, and then make our way north through Limbaži. On the drive, Rita told us that all these place names that end in “aži” are place names leftover from the ancient Livonians who used to live here, but eventually disappeared and were absorbed into the country of Latvia.

Unfortunately, we soon realized that although it seemed like spring had begun, winter was really still here clutching onto the Latvian countryside like a child with a melting ice cream cone. But even if the weather didn’t want to cooperate with the mix of rain and snow, we were determined to enjoy our time away from Riga.

Day 1: Ainaži

From what I understand, Ainaži is a little town with a big history of “what if?” It was a port city that lost its port when it was destroyed in World War I. It used to house a school for sailors and some of the most prominent Latvian naval names are a part of its long history including the most famous Krišjānis Valdemārs, who started Latvia’s first naval school in Ainaži and has the main street named for him (although he is not from there). What if the port had not been destroyed? What if the naval academy had continued to operate? Would Ainaži be the Jurmala of Vidzeme? Varbūt. Varbūt.

One of the coolest features of the town is this captain’s house that stands abandoned looking toward the sea. It is a striking piece of architecture that is surely haunted, and would be absolutely amazing if anyone ever has the time and money to restore it!

Captain’s Historical House

As we walked down Valdemāra iela toward the sea and the Estonian border, we noticed some police cars patrolling. Across from Estonia is a giant welcome to Latvia sign, and as we approached, we saw dozens of cars, and lots of people. It was strange for a Saturday in March during Covid to see so many people. They were all standing in front of and on the large sign and one man was some distance away with a nice camera preparing to take a photo.

Rita asked him who he was and what they were doing. I don’t think he got to take the photo as he explained they were BMW Club members. The police rolled up and turned on their sirens and lights and told them to disperse. Karu and I quickly walked away on a wooden path toward the sea, but Rita insisted on walking up to the Estonian border. I just wanted to get clear of the police.

Ainaži Mols

We walked toward the famous mols, a man-made rock pier that juts out into the sea. Valdemārs built this (with some help I think) in order to transport goods from the port to the warehouses. It used to have railroad tracks on it, but they were removed during WWI. Apparently, they were needed elsewhere. But the stones remain virtually perfectly intact over 100 years later. Men gathered these hundreds of thousands of heavy stones from nearby fields and piled them on top of each other to make this incredibly uniform and straight breakwater. I have never seen anything like it.

Walking on it is not easy because there are gaps in the stones and you have to be very careful where you place your feet, so it is rather exhausting both physically and mentally. At one point, we went down from the mols to walk on the beach, but the wind was incredibly harsh, and I found it more enjoyable to continue our walk on the stones. Although, once I got to the section that was built on the water, it became very difficult. Karu and Rita stayed behind as I trekked forward. With each step, I shoutout out an ode in poetic verse to the stones that were below my feet. I praised their timeless and rugged forms. I felt like I was on some epic journey.

For my 49th birthday, I had endeavored to find a mountain to climb, but alas, instead I walked the mols. I reached the very edge where ice and stone came together—chunks of frozen sea water forced upward by the constant Baltic waves. It was raw and beautiful and treacherous.

Rita joined me on the mossy stones and then I got an agonizing calf cramp when my boot slipped into a large fissure. It was painful, but it made the experience more memorable.

Ainaži Photos

Ainaži is also famous for the meadow that stands between the sea and the mainland. Most of Latvia’s shores have dunes with pine trees and sand that divide the coastal region. But here there is a famous pļava (meadow) called the Randu Meadows. Unfortunately, Rita read that the path was closed due to Covid, and we just didn’t have the time nor energy to explore. The good news is that we can look forward to seeing it next time we make the trip! One fun story is that apparently lots of Latvian nonvenomous snakes live in these meadows. I hope to see one some day.

Day 2: Mazsalaca

I planned the next day’s trip by looking at a map in our AirBnB and seeing all these really cool akmens (stones) named on the side of a nearby road, the P15. I have a hard time explaining my love of these named rocks. You see, I grew up in Nebraska where there are no features or rocks or anything, so I get very excited by lakes, streams, rock formations and the like. I saw a rock on the map called “Odinu Akmens.” I thought it would be Odin’s Rock (the Norse God) but Karu said it meant “little mosquito”—not quite as impressive.

The road would take us to a nature park in the Salacas River Valley where there were more klints or rock formations and caves!

We set out in the morning and along the way, we saw a fox just standing in a barren field, and then some deer. I was hopeful that I would finally see a Latvian squirrel, but they still elude me.

I decided to get off the “main road” which wasn’t much of a road to begin with, and drive on this country road that was mostly ice and snow. It was a treacherous 20 kilometers, but we did see some lovely Latvian countryside along the way.

We found ourselves in the lovely village of Mazsalaca which was like the Kuldiga of Vidzeme (I don’t think anyone outside of Latvia will get this reference).

Then we drove to the Salaca river valley park for a wonderful nature walk. We weren’t really sure where to go, but we just followed our sense of adventure and everything worked out.

I parked near this primitive hand-painted sign that reminded me of a project one might do for school. It was hard to understand where things were, but it was folksy and lovely.

It was surprisingly wintry on the trail, still covered with snow. Every few meters there were little streams flowing into the beautiful Salacas river that flowed silently next to the trail. Again, it wasn’t a mountain, but it definitely had a Colorado vibe for me—the melting snow, the rock formations, the natural beauty.

Basically, we were hunting for the Angel Klints/Cave rock formation that we had seen photos of. Along the way, Karu filled a bag with spring water that was a bit brownish red, but it tasted fine. We saw some amazing giant wooden bird carvings. There was a werewolf tree. In Latvian folklore, if a person crawls under the roots of one of these trees naked during a full moon, they will become a werewolf. I haven’t tested it yet, and this one was too small for me to fit through. Hanna had a nice time running through the roots! We hope she doesn’t transform during the next full moon…

There were trees that had lost battles to the stony ground, uprooted with ancient roots wrapped around large rocks. The visual was just stunningly beautiful and poetic.

Side note: As I was writing this, the song “Stoned Love” by the Supremes came up on my iTunes. I find that pretty cool.

Again, we weren’t sure if we were going the right direction, but we pressed on, and I noticed that the opposite shore was showing off a rock face. The cliff rose from the black Salaca in its red glory. And soon we found the famous Angel Cave. Rita said that this was a holy spot for pagans back in the day. Sacrifices were mentioned, but I don’t know if that is just folklore. It definitely has a spiritual feeling, and you can imagine this being a very important place for an ancient people. As I stood on the bank, I tried to imagine some prehistoric Livonian canoes rowing across the river to perform some holy ceremonies under the pink rocks. It wasn’t very hard to do.

If you look closely, you can see all kinds of inscriptions dating back over 100 years. I imagine there are far older ones than that!

We then came across the other wonder that I had seen a photo of—the Green Staircase. Again, I wanted to climb a mountain for my birthday, and this was another little challenge that made me feel a bit more alive. Hanna just glided up the steps as we followed her to the top.

We walked along the “high road” for awhile, passing more wooden sculptures of maidens which were kind of creepy. Then we saw this path leading upwards with no trees at the top. It looked like you would walk up and just end up at the top of the world, so we had to climb and see what was up there.

It turned out that there was a big radio tower and lots of snow. It looked like a cross country skiing path, and we walked along it looking for a way back down to the car.

I was very tempted to climb the tower, but thought better of it.

As we crossed some more bubbling brooks, it began to rain, and I was happy to see that we had come full circle right back to the parking spot. Thank goodness!

We drove back to Ainaži and stopped at the famous Ainaži Hesburger for supper.

Salacas Valley Photos

Day 3: Sun Shines

Of course, on the last day of our trip, the sun came out and it was a beautiful morning. I couldn’t resist taking some photos through the window of our little house.

Our last stop was a brief stop at the naval cemetery where they honor the sailors who had been lost at sea. Of course, I slipped and fell down as we walked on the path between the gravestones.

That was basically the end of our trip. We got on the road and drove back to Riga in a different car than we started in. We had a wonderful trip, but I think we were all glad to be home. Jacques, the cat, was very upset with us and let us know that we should not have left him alone for four days!

 

Side Note:

Arnis, my car rental connection, dropped off the Volkswagen and told me that I would be the first to drive it after it had gone through a major repair. He showed me a picture of the intake manifold before and after. How it had been super dirty, but was now clean, and explained that the car now ran like a champ.

However, I am a sucker for proving the rule that if something can go wrong, it will. As we drove back from Mazsalacas, the VW started to sputter and stutter. At the Hesburger stop, it was shuddering and shaking. The check engine and EPC lights came on. I sentd Arnis a picture.

 

Because he is awesome, he drove a Ford Focus up to us in Ainaži so we wouldn’t have to limp home in the stuttering, shuddering Volkswagen.

On another side note, one thing I loved about the AirBnB was that they had a super nice stereo system. I wish I had a picture of it. It was a Rega amp with tower speakers and a Yamaha reciever that could play music from any radio station in the world. I found myself listening to an Alabama classical music station.

Final Random Photos

enjoy 7 seconds of a silent leaf. Please click like if you enjoyed this!

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