4 May: Day of the Restoration of Indepence of the Republic of Latvija

4 May: Day of the Restoration of Indepence of the Republic of Latvija

4 May

I did a quick search on my site, and it seems that I have not written a post about the 4th of May, which is a cool, relatively new, holiday in Latvija. If I have written about it, and this feels like old news to you, I am so sorry.

As most of you know, Latvia was a part of the Soviet Union for about 40 years, give or take. During the late 1980s, after the fall of the Berlin wall, there were chinks in the Soviet armour, and freedom and democracy began to spread like wildfire throughout the former Soviet bloc countries. The history is a bit complicated, but it ended with some violence, lots of popular crowd support, and ultimately freedom for many countries that had not been independent for a long time.

The official date of Latvian Independence is 18 November 1918, and when Latvia celebrated its 100th anniversary a few years ago, there was a big push to make the 4th of May a more special date. Now it is known as “White Tablecloth Day” (Balta galdauta svetki). The idea is that people get together with family and celebrate with a formal dinner on a white tablecloth. In some towns there were big community events, and Rita was tracking how people were making foods in the colors of the flag, you know, like ice cream.

Since then, the holiday is maybe not quite as popular as it once was, but another tradition that was started was the wearing and displaying of folk costumes. Our friends and family of Senā Klēts have helped to organize a parade of folk costumes, and the first year, Ansis even carried the flag (now I am sure I wrote about this before!). Because of Covid, there are no real parades, but last year and this year, there has been a virtual sharing of people dressed in their folk costumes to celebrate the day. They even have a place for everyone to get into the act by posting a photo of you with a costume using a Facebook app (I can’t try it because I don’t have the Facebook app, but I encourage you to give it a go!) I think you can see and share your folk-costumed-self on Twitter here: #tautastērpugājiens2021

 

Where do you want to go?

Anyway, what this means is that 4 May is a national holiday. This year, it happened to fall on a Tuesday, so Monday was also a work holiday (the time to be made up on Saturday… it is all very complicated). With a 4-day weekend approaching, Rita and I decided to make the time count. I wanted to rent a car to go get our vaccines at my doctor’s office in Ķekava (about 30 minutes from Rīga and another story), so I just extended the rental and said, “Where do you want to go?”

She chose Alūksne, and then we started brainstorming other places to see nearby. I found an AirBnB on the Gauja river nearby (almost the only thing I could find), and we set out on a little adventure across Vidzeme toward Russia.

The first stop was in Sigulda. We always seem to stop in Sigulda for provisions, and this time we were looking for ice cream, but ended up getting šašliks instead. Then we headed to the highlight of the trip… Lenin’s dismembered head.

Sigulda

Zeltiņi Rocket Base

Then we drove toward Aluksne and took a side trip to see an abandoned rocket base where Lenin’s giant head stands guard. The former Soviet base is near Zeltiņi, and like a lot of things in Latvia, it is just there… unguarded, unmanned, no signs… just a place where anyone can go and hang out. Freedom man, that is what 4 May is all about. Hanna was with us, of course, and as we turned onto the abandoned road, we saw a hare (zaķis) bound into the woods in front of us. It was huge and multi-colored. I couldn’t get a good photo of it, but you can kind of see it hiding behind a bush.

The base is now occupied by a charcoal making company, and they have stacks upon stacks of wood nestled near and around the former barracks and outbuildings where Soviet soldiers used to guard nuclear missiles most likely pointed at the United States forty years ago.

We followed the winding road until we came to a clearing where Lenin himself stared us down. The head was taken from Aluksne where it stood in front of the government building there. They thought it was too valuable a sculpture to just destroy, so they put it here. If you ask me, it is a genius move. Imagine taking all the old Confederate statues and just putting them in one creepy place where people could go and visit if they wanted to? And how appropriate that it is in the center of this base! I want to give credit to whomever came up with the idea, but I have no idea who that is.

When we got there, 4 young Latvians were having a picnic on a nearby bench. Being a loud, outgoing American, I started a little conversation with them, and in a couple minutes, one of the ladies recognized me as a teacher from Gymnasium 2. She was a math teacher there. Another testament to how small a country Latvia is!

The website I linked to about the base said it is no good without a guide but that is not true. We had no guide, and just kind of walked around the old buildings. I found this old silo with reinforced concrete that had the most incredible acoustics. I couldn’t help but sing! Guess the song if you want! Leave a comment. The winner will get sent a prize!

Everything there is old and kind of broken, and likely a little dangerous, but again, there are no limits. The young people climbed onto the roof of a structure with no fear. It was awesome.

My one question is what are the monorail concrete structures for? These were just concrete supports with nothing on the, but I could imagine some kind of rails being there at some time. Maybe to move the missiles from one place to another? If anyone knows, please help me!

More Photos

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Alūksne

After taking photos and taking in the history and majesty of the silos, we drove to Alūksne and visited Rita’s family gravesite. Suddenly, it was already getting late, and we had promised our AirBnB hostess, Inga, that we would arrive by 7:00 p.m. for dinner.

It was a bit of a struggle to find the place because Waze did not recognize the house name or the town name. I just used Google maps and prayed that we would get there.

Mīlmaņi or “Upes Spēks”

The name of the house is Mīlmani, but the AirBnB listing was for “Upes Spēks” (river strength). They claim to be at the beginning of the Gauja, which isn’t exactly true—the river is much more complicated than you think. If you are bored and lonely sometime, open a map of Latvia and just try to trace the Gauja river from beginning to end. A life goal is to walk along it all the way.

We found the house in the small town named for the former cardboard factory called Kartonfabrika. It is a lovely manor made up as a bed and breakfast with lots of options for campers and young people. There is a pirts (sauna), access to the river reservoir with canoes, and tons of nature.

Another family was upstairs when we arrived, but Rita bravely found our hostess Inga who promptly greeted us and then brought us supper served on silver platters. She included complimentary cognac, and we had a shot together.

The history of the house is a bit complicated, but it was built by the richest man in Latvia at the time, Jānis Milmaņis, who built and operated a cardboard factory. There is a little dam on the river that provides power (I guess) and created a little reservoir. Unfortunately, when the Soviets took over, they deported him to Siberia, and his family fled the country.

Inga’s family lived in the house for a long time, and eventually, the grandson of the original owner came to claim the property. His name is on the deed, but they haven’t seen or heard from him in a long time. I did a Google search and only found that his son had died in Kentucky, but couldn’t find much else out.

The family who takes care of the house are hunters, and Inga showed us many of the animals that her father had stuffed. He is a trained taxidermist. The most impressive was the lynx, but Rita really liked the squirrel.

Hanna was going crazy when we got there because of all the smells, and there was another dog upstairs. It just happened to be a cane corso which is the breed Rita has been threatening to get as her next dog, and even more of a coincidence, its mothers name is Hanna. Two Hanna dogs in the same place. Inga also owns a half Jack Russell mix just like Hanna.

We had a lovely supper (extreme Latvian cuisine!), and despite being exhausted from all the driving, we couldn’t resist a walk to see the sun setting over the river (amazing!), and a walk through nature on the opposite bank.

The most amazing thing was this land that had been mostly cleared of trees, and now there were thousands upon thousands of seedlings—each of them marked with a stake. They were just over a meter apart covering this field where a farm had once been. The ruins stood at the top of the hill. I cannot imagine how long it took to plant all of the trees, or if there is some machine that does it automatically.

After our walk, we slept quite soundly in the absolute silence of the Latvian countryside.

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Smiltene

The next day, after an incredible breakfast, we lined up a trip to Smiltene to visit the cemetery and pay respects to my recently deceased aunt Astra who was my father’s brother’s wife. She was the last of that generation. Born in 1936, she lived on a farmstead named Gaisma just outside of Smiltene, operating the farm right up to her untimely and sudden death. Astra had been deported to Siberia when she was just 4-years old, and Rita pointed out that this likely led to a resilience that made her an incredibly strong Latvian woman.

I found the cemetery just fine, but I could not find the graves of my relatives. I texted my cousin Ginta, and she and her husband Armands met us there and showed us where to go. I absolutely love family!

Then they showed us the Smiltene Stonehenge high on a hill overlooking the city where a barn had once stood. Now the skeletal stone remains loom large, and this has become a minor tourist attraction and a place for kids to drink and smoke and do other things (I found an empty can of whip cream on the ground).

A hipster looking guy with a box of beer bottles was standing there, and Rita struck up a conversation. He was a brewer from Aluksne, and they were brining their samples to Riga. I tell you, it is a small world.

Then Armands wanted us to see the Smiltene “Formula 1” track. This is a new go-kart facility that looks pretty awesome, with a windy track that goes up and down the hill. We watched 3 kids racing, and it looks amazing.

Finally, we followed them to Gaisma, Astra’s home, where they were working on the garden. Armands couldn’t get the Soviet-era tractor to start, so they were just going to do some work by hand. They showed us the grounds and told us to come back for Jāni in June. It looks like the perfect place for Līgo! Hanna and the big black farm dog, Briga, didn’t get along well at first, but soon they were playing like puppies.

Being Latvian, they wouldn’t let us leave without giving us stuff. Ginta gave us some loaves of bread, and Armands went to the cellar to get us some potatoes. “Some” turned into this 25 kilo bag that he lugged to the car. And not only that, but he also gave us a big bag of carrots.

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Epilogue

As I write this, a gorgeous beef stew is simmering on the stove made with fresh potatoes and carrots from Astra’s farm in Smiltene. It seems a fitting way to celebrate this Latvian holiday.

Stew made with Gaisma potatoes and carrots

Side note:

I actually wrote this on 3 May so you could see it on 4 May and still have time to celebrate and feel some inspiration. The weather is not very cooperative this Monday, but the weekend was absolutely beautiful even if it was a little chilly.

And if you happen to be driving through Lejasciems, and you need some cash but cannot find a bankomat, the Tops store will let you charge more on your Swedbank card and keep 20 euros cash. Do not ask me how or why I know this.

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