ViracMotorhome News from Latvia Latvia Chapter I
The 600 ton telescope the Russians left behind
28th April 2012
We're slowly becoming acquainted with the local currency but there's not enough time to make friends with all the coins and notes, the value in £UK or the price of food and diesel. In Lithuania it was Litas, and in Latvia it is Lats. To make life easy, we brought some of each with us and hopefully we can get home with pockets empty of both.
The Latvian and Lithuanian languages are rather more to our liking than Polish. There are less W's, Z's, I's and O's and for some strange reason we seem to be able to understand a few more of the words. Not that it matters too much. English is spoken and understood by most people and information in English is shown as the second language on display boards in popular tourist spots. There's one outside the Park Information Office in Plateiai in the Zemaitija National Park in Lithuania. The office was closed, despite a notice on the window to say it was open. Shame that.
Aided as ever by Janice's meticulous research, we did manage to find
the old USSR secret underground missile site at Plokstine later that morning - only to find it was closed on Mondays, and, in any case, entrance is only with a pre-purchased ticket obtainable from the Park Information Office - which we had already discovered seemed to be closed every day including Saturday and Sunday when all the tourists will be there. So, anyway the secret is out. You all know where the old missile site is now. We looked at it from outside the gate before crossing the border nearby, into Latvia. Welcome tourists!
About 30% of Latvia's 2.3m population is Russian. They have few rights these days, but chose to stay when the Russian troops went home in 1991. They are not able to vote nor travel freely throughout the EU. As yet we have been unable to establish how today's Latvians feel about their presence and whether there is any discrimination socially or in employment. The USSR has undoubtedly left it's scars. Drinking might be one of those; the desire to forget ingrained in the brain. It's a popular social pastime here with small groups of men chatting around cafe tables sharing a bottle or two as
early as nine in the morning. Alchohol can be picked up at any local shop, garage forecourt, supermarket or news-stand, but, apart from a few rather jolly boys 'off the boats' near the port and a couple of very inebriated red-nosed men looking for hand-outs in the city, there seem to be few problems.
There are a few scattered houses set back in the fields along the coast road as we pass and a village, a scattering of cottages, every 15km or so. Off the main highway it's dirt roads, more often than not dusty gravel and usually sufficiently corrugated to shatter your grandmother's false teeth. National flags fluttered prominently along the streets of Liepaja as we passed through, wooden buildings edged the road in various stages of decay, the town tapping its fingers in anticipation; waiting, waiting, waiting for the money, the next sunrise over angular appartment blocks awaiting demolition. Roadworks slowed our progress through Liepaja, but it's a good sign; they've made a start.
It's early spring and despite the sunny days it's not surprising there are no other motorhomes about. The holiday season has yet to start this far north and it is
still quite cold. On the long straight stretch of coastal road north from Liepaja we passed just four cars and two foxes in an hour, the pine fringed verges stretching into eternity so very reminisant of Finland - without the reindeer. Should you want to get away from it all there can be no better place. This, the Kurzeme Coast, is claimed to be the longest beach in Europe! Pristine sandy beaches, vast grassy dunes and a wild pine forest fringe stand deserted along these empty miles of relatively inaccessible coast.
May Day is a Public holiday here in Latvia. There was a bite to the air from a brisk northerly wind but the sky was bright blue and the hornbeam trees showed wintery black and white in sharp contrast in bright sunlight along the horizon. We were expecting crowds out on the streets and parades on the promenade in the industrialised port town of Ventspils. Across the river the cranes were busy loading coal, lumber and petro-chemical products on to ships in the harbour: but the town's newly paved streets were eerily empty of both cars and people. This is some smart town indeed, but where are the
Contrast by design
44,000 people who populate this metropolis? This can't be Latvia - can it?
Grand houses line the wide streets on the town's outskirts by our well-appointed campsite, 2km from the town centre. Every road is newly brick paved, and pavements and cycle paths are brick paved for every inch of the way to the centre of town. The town is graced with fountains, tree-clad parks, well-equipped children's play areas and an Olympic Sports Park as part of a huge renovation project aided by EU money. Pastel cottages line cobbled streets, so very Danish, the shops were all closed but we were just in time to visit the town's magnificent Russian Orthadox Church with its glistening golden dome before it closed. Rich in icons, flickering candles and the uplifting perfume of incense, the church has no pews - standing room only, for short sermons perhaps. Ventspils came as a great surprise to us. The expectation was of sad grey Post-Soviet images, but the revelation for us was its vibrancy and a better understanding of Latvia today; the reward and the reason for the way we travel.
Touristy things are hard to come by away from major conurbations this early
in the season. We gave the 'Antler Museum' a miss; the excitement would have been too much, but my RAF years on secret anti-Soviet surveilance aircraft in the 1950's led us with some interest to the massive radio telescope at Virac, left behind when the Russians went home. The truly enormous 600 ton surveilance telescope was built in 1975 to intercept radio signals between Europe and the USA during the 'Cold War'. It was too big for the Russians to dismantle when they left in 1991 and, saved from demolition by local scientists with the help of EU funding, it is now operational once again for purely scientific purposes. Agris, our guide, took us through tunnels, through tiny holes in the massive steel structure and in-and-out of narrow corridors to the frightening heights of the enormous dish at the very top - an unexpected and breathtaking experience! The structure and technology, 'built like a battleship' as they say, is staggering.
That's fairly recent history; recent enough to spark our interest before the last traces of Russian oppression finally disappear. Maybe that's another reason we travel.
At the headland we turned south on the Gulf of Riga and here
we experienced yet another change; from wild sandy beaches and windy dunes, to the boulder-strewn foreshore, firm white sands and placid opal waters of the gulf. We strolled a while, watching the birds off shore, absorbing the salt-scented air and tranquility of the beach.
Signage and travel information are somewhat lacking in Latvia at this time of the year. Our search for Kemeri National Park and a bit of walking proved fruitless and frustrating. It eventually became evident that the town of Kemeri doesn't exist. Hours of searching also failed to disclose the Information Centre in Kemeri - or any town of any such name, and after an hour of driving through two miles of pot-holed bog track ten feet wide, clearly unfit even for 4X4's, and up to our axles in mud on what was clearly shown as a road on our map, we gave up! You can't win 'em all, but we were a little more than miffed.
Purely by chance, we arrived in Riga, Latvia's capital, on the 4th May, Liberation Day, celebrating Independance from the political and economic constraints of Russian occupation in 1991. The liberation is honoured by a monument at the end
of a long avenue; much the same as that in Washington, DC. It's appropriately called, 'The Freedom Monument'. There can be no better way to express the vibrant lust for life we evidenced in Riga that day, than 'Freedom!'
Families, couples, the young and the old, laid flowers at the foot of the monument amongst a floral map of Latvia. As crowds gathered, quietly and reverantly at first, youth bands marched in the street, cheer-leaders danced and people clapped in time with the music in a sincere display of joy. This clearly is a special public holiday, recognising a young country with the spark of a new life, much as a butterfly emerges from a chrysilis, stretching its wings; a celebration of youth - and the President walked amongst the crowd, shaking hands and smiling for the cameras.
Everywhere the streets are spotless and the blood-red and white flag flies with pride on many public buildings and private houses. Market stalls line the cobbled streets where scarf-clad ladies stand, teeth-chattering, offering amber jewellery, Russian dolls and knitwear (much needed hats and gloves) and bars and cafes surround tiny squares amongst leafy parks and on tree-lined boulevards. A choral
concert practice was under way in the Cathedral offering a chance to rest our weary legs for a while. Outside, the afternoon sun gave respite from a chill spring breeze for the town's buskers; the sound of flute, recorder and zither, bouncing off tall buildings along shafts of sunlight across the city.
The Riga Neo-Bizantine Orthodox Cathedral rises majestically above the skyline beyond the monument, tempting us inside for a closer look. Churches feature high on the visitor list in tourist spots everywhere across Europe and this one was of particular interest to us for its Russian connection and led us to ponder; how does Riga's Russian population regard this day of Indepenance? The tables have been turned through 360 degrees since 1991.
And finally, revived by black tea and cakes in a tiny Riga patisserie we followed our noses through the grand wide streets of the Art Nouveau district, seemingly for hours, gazing ever upwards, mouths agape, cameras in overdrive, at the most spectacular array of glorious architecture from the period. We slept well on those images and the following morning, set sail for Estonia.
Three weeks later we were to return to Latvia en route
south from Estonia to Poland.
******************** Latvia Chapter II Monday 21st May 2012
The early days of planning for this journey anticipated our Australian motorhoming friends, Brian and Kathryn, joining us, but family commitments meant they were delayed in the UK for a few weeks. Internet, Skype and text messages went back-and-forth before they eventually caught us up at a lakeside campsite in the tiny village of Zasu. The campsite was not officially open for business but Hardy, the young and energetic German Mill -owner, welcomed us almost as old friends with a tray of schnaps and gherkins and directed us to a magical spot overlooking the lake. "We're not yet open," Hardy said. "But you're welcome to stay for free. Do you want electricity?"
Hardy has taken on the task of renovating this once derelict flour and saw-mill as a labour of love amost beyond belief, but his charitable greeting seems typical of this amiable guy. Back home in Munich, he collects books, beds, bikes and blankets, chairs and tables, clothes and wardrobes, to bring by lorry to Zasu for distribution amongst the villagers. "They have nothing here," Hardy
explained. "The average wage is only around €14 per day beyond the city lights." He flies here from Munich most week-ends to cheerfully toil away towards his dream of one day seeing the task completed. It's been five years already now and my guess is work will continue forever and a day; and this particular day a digger was busy clearing the mill pond and stream - making mud-slides on the sloping entrance we should have seen as potential disaster in the process. Motorhomes don't like wet grass.
Loud claps of thunder woke us at 5am the following morning, followed by heavy rain rattling on the motorhome roof. You know what I'm thinking.
At 5.30am there was tapping on our door. We were laying in bed. Kathryn was standing outside in the pouring rain. "Get out while you can!" she shouted over the boom of thunder. They had made it up the slope in their motorhome - but we were not so lucky, it was already too wet. Half way up, the wheels spun, we slid sideways and came to a stop! We've been here before - and the only way out is with the help of a
Laying flowers at Freedom Monument
tractor and tow-line! The tractor turned up at 8 o'clock. They're all memories. That's why we travel.
Disasters always come in threes they say, don't they? Well, ours come in two's, just to be different. In the process of towing I noticed a nasty yellow light shaped like a tap on the dash. Bad news. The Ford manual (our engine and chassis are Transit based) recommends; 'Seek technical help immediately!'
Our old friend Lady Luck came to our aid, a friendly Ford dealer appeared in a small local town and a clogged oil filter was soon replaced. I'm not surprised; we've been on some rather nasty roads since Morocco last winter.
The gentle leafy hills of eastern Latvia are far from the Capital City, Riga, and much in common with many countries, these sparsely populated distant tentacles are often the last to see the fruits of new investment. We entered on the road from Voru in Estonia close to the Russian border. This is a most beautiful area but the roads are pot-holed and ugly appartment blocks seem poorly maintained. It will come in time. We crossed back into Lithuania at Daugavpils over the mighty
Daugava River on the 23rd May with images of Vilnius in our minds and a welcome change from forests and wilderness to a touch of culture. Signs of a weary traveller indeed.
The heart has gone out of our birding exploits for a while. Our bird guide seems to be forever taking us to inaccessible places with incorrect or inadequate information leaving us more than a little frustrated. It is also getting difficult to find 'new' birds; our list has grown to 168 species on this trip. Even Lake Lubins, so full of promise and reached after ages on dirt roads, failed to get us going. Perhaps we should take up tiddleywinks. But it's the new birds that make for excitement; the ones we rarely or never see back home in the UK; the rosefinch, black-storks, black terns, eagles, spotted and collared fly-catchers, long-tailed duck, citrine wagtails, black and three-toed woodpeckers...... The list goes on. Now, that is one good reason why we travel!
Meanwhile, keep the lines open. We'll be back on Poland quite soon.
David and Janice
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