Wednesday, 29 September 2010


Bump, bump, bump……….bump, bump,…..…bump, bump, bump – That’s us driving on a Latvian road, though it always seems to be accompanied by the percussion ensemble we keep in the cutlery drawer and the oven. We think they’re playing experimental jazz, but it’s difficult to have a discussion about it because of the noise.

We entered Latvia at a town called Ape, and took the unpaved road to the district capital of Alūksne. Everything looked much like Estonia, but it was soon clear that Latvia has not received quite as much tidying up and renovation in the two decades of independence as its northern neighbour. Alūksne is draped attractively around a lake and has a large wedge of parkland surrounding a palatial former manor house at one end of the main street, but the number of bumpy roads, broken pavements and amount of peeling plaster reminded us more of Eastern Europe in the 1990s than did Estonia. For me (Rob) it had one added attraction, in a little narrow-gauge railway that runs from here to Gulbene, and still sees two ordinary passenger trains a day. I watched the 15:20 train leave, with three passengers on board. Alūksne was trying hard to promote itself for tourism, but in mid-September it felt far off the circuit.  Lunch in a café was fun, with hardly a word understood on the menu. According to the waitress they had “everything”, and there was sushi listed, which might have been interesting. In the end we opted for more pork products, in lashings of sour cream – heaven only knows what cholesterol levels are like round here. We found a campsite that was semi-open – well, it looked closed but the owner lived on site and opened the gate for us – on the lake, in a street of smart new wooden houses with neatly tended gardens, that had obviously been carved out of the forest in the last few years.

Alūksne manor house and railway

It turned rainy and colder as we left Alūksne on Tuesday, the 21st September, the day autumn officially arrived. The nights were also drawing in and to avoid fruitless drives along dark roads in search of a an overnighting spot we decided that we had to look for a place to camp sooner, and by no later than 7:30 if we want to have any light at all. We headed west to the Gauja National Park, an area of river valleys and thick woodland only some 80km from the capital Riga, and it was approaching this time when we arrived in Cēsis, the largest town. A great thing in the national park are the designated free camping spots for motorists, but with darkness falling we opted for the nearest thing, an out-of-season and closed campsite on the edge of town, where we parked by the river Gauja and had a peaceful night.


The next day we visited and shopped in Cēsis. With a well preserved centre of mainly pre-war buildings, in brick, stone and wood, around the Lutheran St John’s church and a ruined castle, it manages to cater to tourists while still remaining at heart a country town going about its own business. A fair amount of smartening up has gone on around the place, though some buildings require a lick of paint and it has enough unkempt corners to make it feel like a real town still and I (Rob) liked that about it. I found also the market hall, veg outside and a riot of cured and smoked pork products in, and was happy with that too.

Cēsis – Victory monument for the 1918-20 war of independence

We finished off one rainy day with a visit to a reconstruction of a dark ages village, on a swampy island in the lake at nearby Āraiši. The Archaeological Museum Park consisted of about 20 small wooden 9th-11th century Latgalian fortified huts on an artificial log island. These have been reconstructed from the archaeological findings in their original placement and are one of the liveARCH projects which promote living history, not that anyone was living in them during our out of season visit. On the site there were also the ruins of a medieval castle and a few reconstructed Stone and Bronze Age dwelling houses, and over the next hill was a restored Dutch style windmill, which operates during the tourist season – so was closed to us.

Āraiši ezerspils lake village reconstruction

That night we stopped at one of the national park’s free campsites, a field in the woods by the rushing Amata river. There were the remains of many campfires, but needless to say we were quite alone and it was all too damp to get our own fire to do anything other than smoulder.

Amata river in Gauja National Park

For a landscape that barely gets rises over 100 metres above sea level, it is hard to see how the Gauja park can have so many hills. True, they are low hills, but the roads go constantly up and down, and some short stretches are almost steep. Mind you, in this country a 6% hill is exceptional, and is proudly marked on signposts so you can’t miss it. The rivers too have cut real valleys through the terrain, and at certain points run below red sandstone cliffs  - these are also a source of pride and are widely advertised. We visited the biggest of these, Ērgeļi cliffs near Cēsis, on our rainy Tuesday. The heart of the park lies in the thickly wooded areas around Līgatne. It is the site of a large paper mill, and mixes picturesque 19th century wooden workers’ cottages with grim Soviet-era apartment blocks nearer the river. It also has the last ferry on the river Gauja, connecting two minor roads, and possibly the last of its type in Latvia. The small wooden ferry can barely take more than one car, and is hand-operated, the ferryman tugging hard on a metal cable to launch it out into the river, and the current then pulls it across, restrained by the cable that runs from one bank to the other. The journey time must be about a minute.

Līgatne - the ferry and soviet-era housing

At the western end of the park we visited the town of Sigulda. It was hard at first to think of it as a town, as it seemed to have more parkland than buildings, and we could not identify a real centre until we realised that all this greenery around us was actually it. Sigulda was in fact built up as an inland resort, promoted as ‘Alpine’-style to the mountain-starved Russians and Balts in the late 19th century, and came complete with Swiss-style chalets. The last war put paid to the chalets, but post-war rebuilding respected the country-park setting of the town. The Alpine claim must have been based largely on the valley of the river Gauja, which here forms quite a deep gorge on the western edge of the town, and is spanned by a cable-car that shuttles across to the palatial Krimulda castle on the opposite hillside.

Sigulda – Lutheran church and cable car

We were looking for a campsite this time so that I (Lesley) could get some writing done while Rob went off to Riga on the Friday, as well as the chance it would give us to catch up with ‘stuff’ like washing clothes.  I had misremembered the contents of either an e-mail from Bob & Wendy or their blog and thought that they had stayed at a great campsite on the outskirts of Sigulda, but this turned out to be was pure fiction on my part,as the local tourist office informed us that there was no camping open out of season, and a text from Bob then confirmed that they had in fact stayed much closer to Cēsis. After some discussion we agreed to turn around and head back there despite a dislike of ‘going back’. The light was beginning to fade when we arrived at Apaļkalns campsite near Raiskums, but it was set in lovely countryside, on the shores of a lake, and was a great place – clean, well laid out, friendly and with all the amenities we needed.

Sigulda – Krimulda Palace and Turaida Castle

On the Friday I (Rob) left the van at 7.30 a.m. and rode the 30 or so kilometres to Sigulda. It was a lovely ride with the morning sun filtering through the trees, but cold to start with. By the Līgatne ferry however I had cast off hat and gloves, and when I stopped at a café in Sigulda it was sit-outside weather. I loaded the bike onto a Riga-bound train. It trundled at a sedate pace through more flat, sandy forest, and people got on and off with overflowing buckets of freshly-picked mushrooms.

Early morning ride through Gauja National Park and Riga train waiting at Sigulda station

I was in Riga just after 11. It is a big, busy city and a world away from the rural tranquillity of the other parts of Latvia we had seen. The first part of the city I wanted to see was right behind the station, and one landmark was strangely familiar. In the late 1940s, Soviet architects began erecting seven skyscrapers around Moscow in a style known as ‘Stalinist wedding-cake’, which rise in tiers to a spire or steeple after about 20 floors, and are finished in a sort of neo-classical/gothic crossover. The triumphant Soviet union then began exporting ‘gifts’ of identical buildings to the capitals of its client states, and lo and behold Riga and Warsaw now have their own wedding-cake skyscrapers. In Riga’s case it is the Academy of Sciences building, and is finished in a red-hued stone that gives it a warmth and colour not found in its siblings. In any case, I’m a fan of these buildings despite their pedigree, and couldn’t resist a trip to the 19th floor balcony for its panoramic views.

Riga – Academy of Sciences building, balcony and view of the city

Nearby was the central market, a vast expanse of indoor and outdoor stalls selling untold quantities and varieties of largely Latvian foods. One section had nothing but potatoes, the vendors selling a dozen or more varieties each labelled separately. That is what I call consumer choice! I worried slightly about leaving my bike unattended so didn’t get to see inside the great hangar-like food halls, but stocked up with what  
I could from outside. The food halls are indeed reputed to have been built from redundant Zeppelin hangars after World War I, and I can’t verify that but they looked the part.

Riga market

Riga’s Old Town draws all the visitors, but was the part of town that interested me least. True, there are some wonderful buildings and fine squares, but it is by and large so given over to tourism that it has lost its original purpose and has too much of a museum or history theme-park feel for me. By Friday evening the British stag parties had started to arrive, and the bar staff stood around expectantly waiting for rich takings.

Riga – Doma laukums, and St Gertrude Lutheran church

My favourite part of Riga was the so-called Centrs, an area of boulevards that spread outwards from the Old Town, and are lined with tall stone apartment blocks from the turn of the 20th century. This is where Riga’s main shops lie, and it is full of cafes and restaurants and the lively street life of a modern city. Many of the blocks are embellished with art nouveau designs, but somehow I failed to find the most famous examples.

Riga detail from building on K Valdemara iela, and freedom monument

The history of Riga is essentially a German history. Like all towns in Latvia, it was for centuries the domain of German-speaking commercial and aristocratic classes, a pattern that continued through periods of Polish, Swedish and Russian domination, to be broken only after World War I when the Latvian majority acquired a republic in its own name. The other non-Latvian element here are the Russians, encouraged to immigrate into Latvia by the Soviet administration in the 1950s and 60s, so that they now form almost half of all Rigans. I heard a lot of Russian spoken here, quite unlike elsewhere in Latvia. The situation and proportion of Latvian Russians is in fact remarkably similar to that in Estonia which has a very similar recent history. 

Riga – Soviet era Latvian Riflemen’s monument in the old town

All too soon it was 6 p.m. and time for my train home. I stayed on board as far as Cēsis this time. It was a hot, tiring two hours as the train was full and the windows didn’t open, but the moonlit ride back to the campsite at Raiskums was the perfect antidote.

Indian summer at Apaļkalns campsite

These last few days in Latvia can only be described as an Indian summer, and in the sunshine we couldn’t drag ourselves away from the lakeside and the scenery, so decided to stop another day at Apaļkalns campsite. We lounged about a lot in t-shirts and Rob tried a spot of fishing, using one of the campsite’s boats to row out on the lake. Needless to say we had pork for our dinner! We nearly stayed on Sunday 26th September too, but decided that it was time to go, and so we finally left the lovely Gauja National Park, intending to head due south to Lithuania. However, on a whim of Rob’s we ended up going west to the coast at Saulkrasti so that he could see the Gulf of Riga and catch his last sight of the Baltic for a while. The coast reminded us of the north coast of Estonia in many ways, with long, sandy beaches separated from the towns by pine forest in which very private holiday homes nestled.


We by-passed Riga and met the river Daugava at the amusingly named town of Ogre, which wasn’t monstrous at all. We crossed to the south bank at Ķegums where, driving across the hydro-electric dam, the sheer width of the river hits you. Almost by chance we came across the greatest little picnic spot overlooking the river which was the perfect place for overnighting, with evidence of where previous visitors had built open fires (we are still eking out gas!). Annoyingly, some harmless “yoofs” turned up in cars and participated in a bit of rally driving and playing their car stereo. We were OK with this though. It had happened before and they always seem to disperse at sundown. Once the young folk in their cars departed we could actually hear the real sounds of the riverbank. We couldn’t decide if the huge amount of noise was from freight trains on the main line from Riga to Russia (opposite bank), or turbines on the hydro-electric dam (1km downstream – or upstream – whatever).

Ogre town sign

It was on Monday 27th September that we drove south from here on minor roads, and crossed into Lithuania heading for the town of Biržai,

Lielstraupe Manor – now a narcological clinic

We told Charlie the next recycling bin was for “PET MONGRELES”

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