Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Marieke's essay about Latvia and Rīga

We've spent the last three days in Latvia, visiting our friend Ieva and her family. After a couple of weeks of traveling and just seeing museums, city centres and hostels, it was really nice to relax with friends and see a bit of countryside.

We arrived in Rīga on Friday evening after an almost five hour bus ride from Vilnius. Ieva came to pick us up after work and we headed to her parent's house in Inčukalns (about an hour from Rīga). Ieva's family built the house themselves throughout the nineties after the Soviet era. The house is on a huge plot of land in the forest, which has fruit trees, veggie patches and even a sauna on it. The inside of the house is gorgeous - very reminicent of Canadian style cottages complete with pine hardwood floors. The whole house has a really cozy feel to it, but for me the highlight was the rustic kitchen, with an old-school aga. Ieva's mother - who is an absolutely amazing cook - makes her own preserves, and dries homegrown linden for tea and dries forest picked wild mushrooms.

We spent Saturday and Sunday driving around the Latvian countryside (after sleeping in late and filling up on a delicious breakfast) and visiting both tourist destinations and places that Ieva really had a connection to. On both days Ieva's friend Elīne came along with us and on Sunday we met up with Ieva's friend Diva and her boyfriend.

On the Saturday we drove south to Bauska (a town near the Lithuanian border) to check out an old castle. Ieva was really disappointed with the castle as it has been destroyed and fixed numerous times, each time using different stones or bricks, giving it a bit of a patchwork look. We then headed to Rundale Castle, where there was a huge rose-themed exhibit. We generally just checked out the artifacts and art inside the building and searched the castle gardens for some non-existent "free wine" that an old lady in the castle told us about. After eating lunch in the castle cafe we headed to Tervete Nature Park. Tervete has number of Latvian fairy tale characters that are carved out of wood, scattered throughout the forest. It was a really fun and beautiful place to walk both for adults and for kids. After a long drive back to Inčukalns, we went out to a restaurant for a hot bowl soup and then came home to find that Ieva's mother had left out wine, cheese and other snacks for us to eat!

The next day, after a delicious breakfast that included potato pancakes, we headed northeast to Sigulda to check out castle ruins and the gorgeous autumn colours of the surrounding area. Since just about everyone else in Latvia was also in Sigulda to enjoy autumn, we decided not to hike around as parking was hard to find. We then headed to Ieva's mother's cousin place, as he has a private museum of Soviet and German artifacts (including a Soviet tank!) that he's collected from the WWII battles that took place in the nearby area. Ieva had so many places to show us so we spent the rest of the day trying to see as many of the sites as possible, including:

  • Araisi, which were castle ruins on a peninsula.
  • Līgatne Nature Trails, which we only saw for about 10 min., where there is a massive rock and hiking trails. Legend has it that the rock was a meeting spot for witches of the area.
  • Cēsis, a cool medieval town with ruins and outdoor choir singers

We then headed back to Ieva's house, where yet another delicious dinner was waiting for us.

On Monday we got a ride to Rīga with Ieva. She had to work, so we spent the walking around the city. We spent a couple of sleepy hours in the morning trying to book hostels and buses for the next few days. We then headed to the huge city market, where we successfully found many of the things that we forgot to buy for our trip when we were in Copenhagen. We met up briefly we Ieva for lunch, and then spent the afternoon generally just walking around the city (checking cool downtown streets and the art nouveau section of town), going to a museum of Riga's history (which was quite interesting, as Latvia has been controlled by several different countries over the years) and buying tea both for Ieva's family and for us on the Trans-Manchurian (from the coolest tea shop ever that was recommended by a British guy that we met in the Czech Republic). Later in the afternoon we headed to a big mall on the outskirts of Rīga, where Anthony had an appointment to get his hair cut. The haircut turned out to be great, but the way that the hairdresser styled his hair afterwards was hilarious! She combed Anthony's completely straight so that Anthony had bangs! Don't worry, we had photographic evidence...After the haircut we met Ieva and then headed back to her place. We had dinner with her parents and watched Little Miss Sunshine (with Russian subtitles for Ieva's parents - they didn't have Latvian subtitles and Ieva's parents are both fluent in Russian). I think everyone really enjoyed the movie, which didn't involve lots of language specific comedy like a lot of other movies have.

On Tuesday morning we woke up crazy early (5am) to pack and to leave early with Ieva so that she could avoid the traffic jams in Rīga and so she would have time to run some errands. Once again, Ieva's mother had breakfast for us, which meant that she was also up around 5 or 5:30 to cook for us! What a wonderful lady! We said our sad goodbyes and then we headed to Rīga for a bit more sightseeing before heading to Tallinn (Estonia) on a 3:30pm bus.

We had a really wonderful time catching up with Ieva, seeing Latvia and meeting her family. Ieva's parents are the nicest people and although we didn't speak Latvian and Ieva's mother didn't speak English we managed to communicate through Ieva translating and with lots of smiles and "Paldies'es" (thank you's).

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