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Published: September 12th 2014
Monday, 8 Sept – Gauja NP, Latvia
Bankwest sent me an sms overnight saying they’d blocked my card, despite speaking to me only yesterday. Yet another call to get it unblocked. Useless! Besides, how on earth does a €48 hotel charge equate to A$676,000 (which is why they were calling). I’m pretty sure there’s no exchange rate in Europe that matches that equation. Don’t call me about stupid amounts. I am not buying a chateau, and even if I did, we both know you wouldn’t approve it even if I authorised it.
€2.85 = A$3.96. This was how much our delightful breakfast cost at Hotel Lacu Miga (henceforth known as Hotel Knowles). We bounded down the stairs at 9am to find a different lady from the night before, smiling and talking to us in Latvian, or Russian – we couldn’t tell. However she had set up 2 individual tables with an array of food just for us. A fresh pot of coffee, cheese, tomato, cucumber, muesli, yoghurt, toast, omelettes and bacon. You can call us big spenders!
Sigulda is one of two major towns in Gauja NP with three main monuments to see – Sigulda Castle, Krimulda Manor
and Turaida Castle. We spent most of the morning at Sigulda Castle, grabbed a quick lunch including patisserie items in town and then decided to walk the forest trail down to the Gauja River gorge. After walking 100m down a very steep hill, Mum and I decided to go back to the car and meet the boys on the other side of the river, because we wouldn’t have time to walk back up. The roads weren’t marked very well but thanks to Sygic we arrived at our deserted car park and set off for the suspension bridge, ready to meet the lads. Of course, they were nowhere to be seen at the meeting point. We had no way of contacting them and after waiting for 10 mins and our anxiety levels increasing with each passing minute, we headed up the trail to see if they’d walked to the next vantage point. Just as we were leaving we heard them shout “we’re here!”. Thank God for that – they had no idea where the car park was!
Unfortunately it was time for us to depart to Riga so we could check in before 5pm. Our apartment is a massive 3
bdrm/2 bthrm apartment 1.5km from the old town. We didn’t have the motivation to cook so we went out to what looked like a boring, chain-type of pizza joint, but had another unexpectedly good meal. The menu was over 10 pages long!
We started off with several carafes of yummy mocktails and then Dwayne had mushroom and blue cheese soup whilst I had “cold soup”. It was salmon pink in colour, served cold and garnished with kaffir lime, radish and dill. Everything here seems to be flavoured with dill. I wasn’t sure what it was exactly but I found out later that it’s made from curdled milk. Despite that, it was delish! For mains Mum and Dad shared a Greek pizza with garlic bread and Dwayne and I shared a Berlin style kebab and deep fried 4-cheese pelmeni (Russian dumplings). My kebab was the size of a 20cm pizza. Mum and Dad got crazy with their spending and when Mum saw the €9 bill for their drinks and pizza, she said “How much is that” with a worried look. I said “$12”. And her face turned from worried to amazed and then she broke out laughing!
I’m talking a lot about prices but when people tell you it’s cheap, you don’t realise how cheap until someone gives you examples. And I do so because people seem to think that a European holiday costs $15-20K, when it doesn’t have to. So please forgive my fixation on prices, I’m really just trying to encourage those who feel an overseas jaunt is out of their reach.
Tomorrow we hit Riga. Tuesday, 9 Sept – Riga
Rain arrived overnight and we took the opportunity to do washing, sleep in, have a lazy breakfast and then Mum made calls to Dale and Gran. It was 11am before the rain eased and we decided to go shopping for umbrellas.
First stop – Riga Central Markets. These are 4 distinct zeppelin (yes really) hangers near the river, each one with a different speciality – meat, dairy, fish and veggies. There are also stalls surrounding the hangers with people selling souvenirs and clothes. Mum was in market heaven. Our purchases included chocolate rum balls (about the size of a golf ball) for 0.14 euro, a huge punnet of fresh raspberries €1.50, 500ml pineapple yoghurt 0.75 euro, oven baked spinach triangle
€1.30, an umbrella for €2 and the best stuff ever - dried, candied green grapefruit for 0.68 euro. It was a lunch on the go, though we didn’t eat the umbrella.
Next stop – old Riga. The cobblestone streets are wider than Tallinn but with fewer streets so it feels more open. A lot of this city was bombed in WW2 so whilst it’s been rebuilt to original specs, it feels somewhat modern because of the newer materials. There is also a lot of external renovation going on so a lot of the buildings have scaffolding across them. We criss-crossed back and forth, eventually coming to the main square, which is bordered on 3 sides by old-style buildings but completely open on the fourth side overlooking the river. There a 9 churches in the old town. The main church has a 30min organ recital every day at 12pm, but there’s also a free walking tour at that time so not sure what to do tomorrow.
Riga has a large river on one side of the old town, and the other side is bordered by a pretty canal and park that runs parallel to the old town. There are
so many parks in these European cities. Every time you turn a corner there is another super green park with sculptures and/or water features and walking paths through them. They are a joy to explore.
We visited the Museum of the Occupation in the afternoon, detailing how the Soviets and Nazis occupied Latvia from the 20’s through to the 90’s, although Germans, Russians, Swedes and Polish/Lithuanians had occupied them since practically forever. They were deceptively bought under Soviet rule with false elections after WW1 and a fair chunk of the population deported to Siberia, then “liberated” by Germany in WW2 who executed the Jews, then under Soviet rule again and once again deported to Siberia. Pick your poison. There were a couple of things that made me ashamed of the Allies though:
***** The Allies made a pact after WW2 (The Atlantic Charter), stating that they “respected the right of all peoples to choose the governments under which they live, and they wished to see sovereign rights and self-government returned to those who had been forcibly deprived of them”. However, they omitted the Baltics in this charter for fear of offending USSR, even though they had been free countries prior to WW1.
2**** When the UK paid off their war debt to Russia in 1967, they used $22 million in gold as part of their payment, despite the fact that this gold had been deposited with the Bank of England by the governments of the Baltic states for safe keeping before WW1. They essentially spent money that wasn’t theirs. So when you look at the meagre existence of these Eastern countries, you can’t help but partly blame the UK for their lack of wealth. $22 million in gold today would be close to $1 billion USD which would be an appreciable amount to these small countries.
It was yet another reminder that the only winners in war are politicians and bankers, and that 30 million people died for no reason other than they lived in the wrong place at the wrong time. Sobering. Wednesday, 10 Sept – Riga
The rain disappeared and left an overcast day, so we opted for the 11am walking tour which was only supposed to be 1.5hrs in length but ended up being closer to 2.5hrs. The guide was good though – lots of interesting facts and he was very funny. There were 3 Americans, 1 Swedish, 3 Brazilians, 1 French and 1 other Australian in the group. The guide said the reason there are so many parks in the city is because every Latvian deserves to have a piece of country that the can escape to. I like that sentiment. Dwayne described the difference between Tallinn and Riga best:
Tallinn is a medieval town, Riga is an 18th
After a quick bite we caught the local bus over the River Daugava to the Zanis Lipke Memorial. Zanis and his wife Johanna were Latvian nationals who hid and protected Jews during the Nazi occupation. They built a bunker under his garden shed and every day Johanna would feed the people under her house. His eldest son was conscripted during the Nazi occupation and rather than save his son and risk an SS raid, they both decided he would (reluctantly) join the army. Alfrieds was eventually wounded near the end of the war and liberated by the Allies, and then chose to move to Australia because he knew returning to a Soviet Latvia would see him executed as a traitor. Zanis eventually enlisted 25 friends in surrounding farms to help him and even though one of them was arrested, sent to Dachau and tortured, he never gave up the Lipkes. In fact, their activities weren’t widely known until the 1980s. Zanis died in 1987. Thursday 11 Sept – Paluse, Latvia
We said farewell to our Riga apartment and started the 1hr drive to Rundale Palace. Whilst driving there, we had to move over for several oncoming cars that pass “Russian style” – that’s where they overtake with no room up the middle of the road in an invisible lane, while the two outside cars move to the verge to accommodate it. And you pass on double lines, corners, rises – whatever takes your fancy. At one point I even encouraged Dwayne to use the invisible lane on a straight so we started to overtake a truck and sure enough, the oncoming car and truck moved politely to their sides as we sped up the middle line. Very funny, although Mum and Dad were holding their breath in the back!!
Rundale Palace was built in the mid 1700’s for the Duke of Courland and his wife. It is sort of like a mini Versailles. Designed by the same architect who designed the summer palace in St Petersburg, it has 138 rooms (only 48 are open for viewing), as well as manicured French gardens. It took us nearly 2hrs to look inside and out. Not as impressive as some palaces in Western Europe but it is still incredibly opulent and Dad said it has whet his appetite for a visit to France. We also ran into the Aussie and French girls from yesterday’s walking tour. Small world!
We had intended to find a picnic spot at the palace but the picnic area was too far away from the car (i.e. over 1km) so we thought we’d check out the local café just outside the palace grounds. We were glad we did, because it was cheapest lunch ever. Dwayne and I had 2 soups and a tuna salad for the grand total of €4.80 and Mum and Dad had 2 omelettes and 2 desserts for around €7. It wasn’t “wow” food but it was nice, simple, home cooked fare that suited us just fine.
We then sped into Lithuania and deep into the countryside to eventually find a small place called Paluse, in their lakes district. Where Latvia was dead flat, Lithuania has rolling hillsides. We have been pleasantly surprised to find good roads, plenty of English and lots of vegetarian options in the Baltic. We were not sure what to expect but their Soviet histories are now behind them and you’ll find poorer versions of Germany or France when it comes to roads, restaurants and environment. For example, we were expecting to see lots of Russian cars or old bombs on the road, but there’s an overwhelming representation of Audi , VW and Lexus, with a smattering of other brands. We’ve even seen quite a few Porsche, Ferrari, Maserati and Bentley. Not one Russian car though. The people are not super friendly but then I’d imagine centuries of occupation and distrust will do that to you. I love the fact that the Baltic people demand free WiFi wherever they are and as a result, even the tiniest place that’s barely on a map (such as our hotel) has WiFi.
Carlie asked me if I would recommend this trip to people, and I would say that if you have already seen the main attractions in Western Europe (Paris, Rome, Amsterdam etc.), then this trip is worth doing. It gives you a different perspective of the war since there are only Soviets and Nazis (no Allies), it’s easy to be an independent traveller and it’s ridiculously cheap. I love the forests that are everywhere. If you want a cheap European holiday that’s a little different to the normal tourist stops, I would recommend it.
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