Out of all the Baltic nations, Latvia gets the bum deal. Sandwiched between Estonia and Lithuania, Latvia does not have “big brother” to look out for it. Unlike Estonia (who shares close ties to Finland & Russia) and Lithuania (who benefits from close proximity to Poland and Germany), Latvia is left to thrive on its very own. Becky visited Latvia numerous times for military exercises, spending time in Riga, Liepaja, and Aluksne. Robby joined her on a quick trip to Riga and thoroughly enjoyed the home cooking of Lido’s, as well as Riga’s atmospheric city center. Word of warning: Latvia is the most overzealous of the Baltic nations when it comes to traffic cops. If driving a rental car, beware and heed the speed limit. One of Becky’s colleagues spent over $900 in traffic fines over one miserable weekend! Other than pesky cops, Latvia is a wonderful country that warrants a visit.
In May 04, Becky had to attend a work related conference in Riga, Latvia and was thrilled to be going back to the Baltics again. She has made at least a dozen trips to the region over the past three years and always raved about the area to Robby. So, duly lured, he decided to join her on the tail end of the conference so he could check out the hype in person. Becky was there in support of a partnership for peace military exercise, and the Latvian ministry of defense was going all out to host the conference, which was held at the super conveniently located Reval Hotel Latvija. Robby flew in on the last day of the conference and because Becky was tied up in meetings, wasted no time exploring the area on his own. Armed with a “in your pocket” Riga city guide and a free “Baltic States, City Paper” (obtained upon arrival at the airport), he followed the suggested itinerary and wandered the streets for a few hours.
Later that afternoon, we were able to link up and joined our friend Chris (awesome photographer & web developer) for a photography session downtown. From the Reval, it is a quick 5-minute stroll towards the Freedom monument, affectionately known to the locals at “Milda”. She was unveiled in 1935 and the friezes around the base of the obelisk depict Latvians who are fighting, working and singing for their freedom. There were several bouquets of flowers placed at the base of Milda and we were told it was to honor the Latvians who were deported to Siberia during the Soviet occupation. And sure enough, there were plenty of old ladies standing a few meters away clutching bouquets of flowers to sell. Next, we headed towards the house of blackheads, which is considered one of the architectural treasures of Riga. In 2001, Riga celebrated its 800th anniversary, and the house of blackheads was rebuilt and unveiled for the special occasion. However, the original house dated from 1344 but was destroyed during World War II. The soviets tore down the remaining ruins in 1948 (still a sore subject with Latvians today). Today, the building stands as a striking fusion of Gothic and Dutch Renaissance architecture. Originally, the house was used as lodging for traveling and single members of the merchant’s guild, but it now is open to the public as a museum. After the House of Blackheads, we walked over to St. Peter’s Church for a bird’s eye view of the city. St. Peter’s has a colorful history: it was first mentioned as a Catholic church back in 1209. However, in 1523, it turned to Lutheran. The wooden tower (the highest in Europe at that time) has been destroyed numerous times. In 1666, it collapsed the first time only to be rebuilt a year later. The theory at that time to test the tower’s longevity was to throw a glass from the top of the tower. The more pieces the glass would break into, the longer the tower would exist. Unfortunately, when the glass was thrown from the tower, straw cushioned the fall and, true to form, the spire burnt down a year later. During World War II, the tower was destroyed again and was finally rebuilt in 1973. (The glass was thrown from atop the tower but this time it had “smashing” success). The structure we climbed up today was the 1973 tower and it offered a beautiful (albeit FREEZING) view of the city. We attempted to huddle within our jackets in an effort to stay warm but after taking a few pictures, rushed back down to get out of the biting wind. From there, we wandered down cobblestone alleyways through the Swedish Gates, past the Three Brothers (oldest stone residential buildings in Riga), Riga Castle, Dome Square and Dome Cathedral and back to a square where we ran into some newfound friends, Lt Jurak Kiczynski and Lt. Latkowski. We met both Polish officers during the conference earlier in the week and decided to join them for a beer before our dinner extravaganza at Lidos. (The description for Lidos follows: if Paul Bunyan built a log cabin in Latvia it would look like this! Mr. Kirsons of the Lido Empire has outdone himself with the biggest buffet of home cookin’ this country has ever seen. Enter the tremendous cellar and discover another restaurant with two bars which serve beer brewed on the premises. There’s live singing and dancing every night in the cellar from 1900) Our advice on Lidos…if you do go, make sure you have starved yourself that day and are super hungry…you won’t be disappointed as there are tons of mouthwatering dishes and after a few hours, you’ll find yourself waddling out of the restaurant, definitely satiated! Dinner with the group was fantastic and we learned tons about Polish History, thanks to Jurak who is a history buff and more than willing to educate us and fill in the historical gaps that he chided, “we should already know”. What better way to receive a history lecture than over several beers? 🙂
The next day, Becky had to attend the final briefing while Robby explored downtown on his own. After the conference was over, we decided to rent a car and explore the Riga suburbs. Jurak joined us and our three-man expedition was headed towards Sigulda, also known as the “Little Switzerland” of Latvia. On our way there, Robby got pulled over by the super-strict speed control cops who forced Yurak to drive (they claimed that both of our driver’s licenses were invalid but that Yurak, who wasn’t even on the rental contract, had a valid Polish license!). After arguing our case and losing, Yurak hopped in the driver’s seat and drove around the corner, where we switched drivers again. This time, with speed in check and under control, we made our way to Sigulda. Our first stop was to Gutmanis Cave, which unbelievably is Latvia’s largest cave! (Surprising because the cave really is quite small) The cave’s sandstone walls are covered with 16th century graffiti and various coats of arms (superimposed upon another over the centuries) decorate the entire cave. There is a trickle of water emanating from the cave that is supposed to rid one’s wrinkles, but we decided to forego the treatment. The cave seemed to be a popular spot with the Latvians as numerous large groups made their way to visit. Steeped in lore, Gutmanis has an interesting story to tell, as it was the site of the tragic set of events that is referred to as the Turaida Rose legend.
The legend says that there was a beautiful maiden in Turaida castle named Maija who loved the Gardener from not-too-distant Sigulda castle. Every eligible bachelor, including a Wicked Foreign Soldier, sought for Maija’s hand–but she loved only the Gardener from Sigulda. One night, in order to trick her, the Wicked Foreign Soldier forged a note from the Gardener asking Maija to come to Gutmanis cave (a rendezvous point between the two castles). There he planned to rape her and force her to marry him. She arrived expecting a loving embrace and kiss from her beloved Gardener but instead found a deceitful ambush and a trap. The Wicked Foreign Soldier brought a companion and together trapped Maija helplessly in the cave. When she saw that there was no way out and that the men intended to take from her the only thing she had to give her truelove–her purity–she made a clever, yet costly deal with the foreigners. From her pocket, Maija removed a delicate silk handkerchief saying: “This handkerchief is magical. If your sword can swiftly pass through its silken threads without stopping, you may have me forever.” With that statement she sealed her fate and wrapped the handkerchief around her neck. The naive Soldier, thinking he had easily won, withdrew his sword and with a swift stroke passed the blade through the handkerchief–and Maija’s neck–thus killing her. The Soldier’s moment of triumph turned to instant defeat. Maija’s devotion to her truelove is remembered in Latvian legend and folk songs. Centuries later civil documents were discovered in Sigulda’s archives which proved the historicity of this tragic event. According to these documents, the Soldier was eventually caught, tried and hanged for his crime. Maija’s body was buried in the grounds around the Turaida Castle, which was our next stop.
The original Turaida castle, founded in 1214, was blown up in the 18th century and the replica that stands here today is better viewed from far away. Turaida, which means God’s Garden in ancient Livonian, is the site of a 42-meter Donjon Tower, Turaida Church, Maija’s grave, and the Daina Hill Song Garden. We climbed up the tower for a view of the surrounding countryside but the best part of the complex was the wonderful sculptures spread throughout the garden. The sculptures were highly reminiscent of Norway’s Gustav Vigeland’s sculpture park in Oslo, with figurines in various poses. Of course, we had to pose with them! It started to rain and that was all the momentum we needed to rush back to Riga for our other engagement that evening. The Latvian Ministry of Defense had graciously obtained free tickets to the Latvian National Opera’s showing of Aida that evening for all conference participants. So we had to rush back to get dressed and ready for the Opera. Because of the insane traffic in Riga that evening, we reached our hotel with only half an hour to spare. But no fear, all of us experienced life in the military and were able to dress in our best in only five minutes before sprinting down to the Opera house. (Yes, even Becky sprinted in heels but it was a normal sight since everyone else without umbrellas was sprinting to beat the downpour). Watching Aida in the Latvian Opera house was a real treat and we really enjoyed the show. However, we decided to forego the post-Opera partying because we planned on having an early start to drive to Vilnius, Lithuania the next day.