Tuesday, November 12, 2013

and beyond

Europe Trip, Part 7

Our road trip had begun. Destination: Prague. After that, Salzburg, then, well, we weren't quite sure which route to take to southern France, but the answer would be clear after our first night camping.

It was after our second day of travel, just inside the Czech border from Poland. We'd found a campground on the map. It was well after dark when we drove through an open gate and along a road. Saw camper vans, caravans parked. We set up the tent (yes, unfamiliar tent, in the dark, one flashlight) in the grass under some trees then pulled out the stove. We heated water for tea, pulled out the bread, cheese and other food to make our evening meal. The night was cold, almost freezing, and my sleep restless on the hard ground. In the morning we found that the campers lined the banks of a lake bumper to hitch, leaving little view for those not on the water.

We packed up and with nobody to take our fee, we left the campground and headed for Prague.
On the way to Prague, a stop in a castle town.

Upon entering Prague on a busy Saturday afternoon, we arrived at Prague Castle.

So many gargoyles!

I love small details like this rain gutter.

We found a place to stay, then spent the evening wandering the old part of the city. The city was packed with tourists and locals. We soon learned it was Saint Wenceslas Day, an important holiday (both secular and Christian) for Prague and the rest of the nation.
Astrological clock.
The next day we explored, criss-crossed the Vitava River, wondered at sites.

Looking across the Vitava at the Prague Castle.

Boat restaurant had fantastic Italian food!
The Dancing Building, aka: Fred and Ginger.

In Wenceslas Square, site of sadness and joy; protests and celebrations.
After seeing signs for it, we finally arrived at the Museum of Communism. Yes, upstairs from McDonald's and next to the casino. It's a small museum, but worth the visit. (Yes, they made gas masks in youth sizes.) A film gave some of the history, documenting policies that hurt lots of people (including toxins in the food supply) and documenting events that led to the 1989 Velvet Revolution.
Post WWII Communist artwork, at the Museum of Communism.
After another full day in Prague, we found a restaurant offering modern Czech food, sank into comfortable armchairs and enjoyed a meal without a worry about what we would see next. What is modern Czech food? I'm not sure, but Jon had pork wrapped in bacon, with a side of lentils. All our food was delicious and we lingered over wine, then dessert. Ahead of us would be a walk back to our hotel and some much-needed sleep.

The next day, it was on to Salzburg to see the castle.

We rode the funicular up to the castle, then opted for the audio tour.

Safe from our high vantage point.
From a high tower.
Castle museum reveals the ancient walls behind plaster.
Love the doors within doors.
We left the castle and walked down to the city, looking for food (always looking for food) and found a little burger stand that made a simple cheeseburger and fries. From there we planned our next stop, hoping the campground would be easy enough to find. Well, it wasn't, but we found one eventually. Again, the only tent in a couple of rows of caravans, some looking like they had been parked in one spot for years with their little gravel "yards" and potted plants. Maybe it was a good thing we were setting up in the dark because in the daylight our campsite looked pretty sad. But that wasn't what worried us.

In the morning, the gate through which we'd entered was closed. We hoped that by the time we were packed up and ready to leave someone would have arrived to open it. No luck, and with no way to contact anyone we did the only thing we could. Looked for another way out. Finding none, Jon took a chance. Sure enough, he simply lifted the gate high enough for Janis to drive through. Free camping, once again! We were now on our way to Italy.

Some photos taken by Jon.

Monday, November 11, 2013

to jaunkalsnava

Europe Trip; Part 6

As we headed out of Riga late that Tuesday afternoon Marcis asked if we wished to visit the site of a memorial to victims of the Holocaust. I told him I wanted to go, and that's how we came to be at a site I'd not heard about (there are other memorials in Riga), the Salaspils Memorial.

No other cars were in the parking lot. We walked an overgrown path through the woods toward a horizontal cement structure that formed a bridge over the walkway. We walked under the structure, and then through its entire length before entering the field-like grounds. To know that people had been taken there, housed there, died there brought me to silence. From a metal structure partway down a path a faint sound, the rhythm of a heartbeat, pounded. It became more clear the closer we got. Representing the heartbeats of how many people? It's unknown. The sound resonated as we continued.

We walked around the path, then across the grass toward the towering concrete sculptures. Representations of oppression, defiance, protection. All in the Soviet modernist style. Mostly, I walked quietly. Janis translated a few inscriptions for us and his view of the memorial was clear. A memorial about defiance against oppressors built by Soviets during a time they occupied this very nation? Latvia has only been independent from the former Soviet Union since 1991 and it is still climbing out of the years of difficult times. Visiting the memorial with our friends certainly added another layer of meaning that other visitors may not have gotten.

As the air cooled, we returned to the car and the highway to Jaunkalsnava, following the Daugava upstream. The sun was setting when Marcis suggested another stop. The Koknese Castle Ruins stood along the banks of the Daugava, just upstream from a dam. According to the web, the castle was damaged in 1701 and never rebuilt. We gazed at the uneven stones that made up the walls and doorways. We carefully walked through arches, climbed to the top of a wall. The light continued to fade. When I lived in Milwaukee, I met a couple whose son died when he fell from a castle in Germany. I remember at the time wondering, "how does someone fall from a castle?" Between the fading light, my recurring vertigo and that sudden memory of a story from over 20 years ago, I decided to carefully make my way down the damaged steps while there was still enough light to see.
Koknese Castle Ruins.
On our journey between Riga and the village, we learned a little about how people drive on two-lane roads in this part of Europe, in particular, how they pass. If you should wish to pass, just get very close to the driver in front of you. No worries if there are oncoming cars. The driver in front is going to veer onto the shoulder and the oncoming driver is going to veer onto the other shoulder and you, my fearless friend, are going to squeeze between them straddling the center line! I don't know if I could do that, but I suppose if I lived there I would. After a while, I had to stop looking at the road, especially as darkness set in. Soon enough, though, we were safe at Janis's mom's apartment in Jaunkalsnava.

We met Janis's mom, his niece, his nephew's fiancee and their little daughter. All were waiting for us to arrive so we could have a feast together. We offered beers and some dark rye bread we had purchased at a bread factory next to the highway. We ate potatoes, tomatoes, homemade cheese, meatballs. Chocolates. I don't remember it all. So much food, and we were happy to have it after another full afternoon.

Our next day was filled with errands, including a trip to the larger town of Madona where Janis could get new tires for the car and we could get other neccessities for the trip. After spending half the day in Madona on our tire quest, we headed home to the village. But first, a few stops. Would we mind visiting a cemetery? Not at all. We walked to the gravesites of ancestors. Janis's aunts, uncles, grandparents as light sprinkles began to fall. After that, we stopped by an old church ruins.

Janis shared the story as we walked around. When his Mom, Vija, was a little girl of about four years old she and her family attended the Kalsnava Lutheran Church. It was during the time when the Nazis occupied Latvia. But as in other countries, there were many resistors. According to Vija, in 1944 the Nazis bombed the church because its tower was used as a lookout for the resistance. After the Nazis came the Soviet era. The church was never rebuilt. She did tell us, however, that sometimes concerts are held inside the walls of the old church. I can only imagine what it must be like to listen to musicians playing between those walls on a summer's evening!
Vija and Marcis at Kalsnava Lutheran Church.

Kalsnava Lutheran Church ruins.

Back at the village, we picked berries from the garden, ate tomatoes off the vines in a small greenhouse, helped move hay and watched as Vija milked one of the two cows she keeps in a small barn near her apartment. (If I had been raised a farm girl I would have stepped in to help her out, but, alas, this Wisconsin girl has never milked a cow.)

In the morning, Vija insisted we go into her storage room in the basement of her building to pick out some food. Jars of food she had grown and canned filled the shelves. Apple juice she had made, pickles, pickled tomatoes, jarred apples, honey. I can't remember all of it. We packed it in a box along with our remaining rye bread, fresh apples and tomatoes, food we'd purchased in Madona, some utensils, herbs to brew tea. Jon asked about cheese. Vija makes cheese with the milk from her two cows. She handed me a warm, dome-shaped mound that was wrapped in plastic curing on the kitchen counter. Wow! The traditional cheese is filled with caraway seeds (which in Latvia is called cumin, but is not the same as our cumin.) What a great gift for our trip! Once the car was packed, we said our goodbyes, too soon, and headed off.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

looking up in riga

Europe Trip, Part 5.

Riga is known for its Art Nouveau buildings (it's part of why it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site), so we headed for Alberta Iela (Street) where many of the buildings are clustered. I'm not an expert in architectural styles. We had been calling this Neoclassical, but upon further research, I've learned it's called Art Nouveau, though the architecture of Riga has examples of many styles. Some of them are in disrepair, some being renovated and some look almost new. All these photos were taken by Jon because I was mostly looking around and keeping my head under the umbrella.

This one is not on Alberta Iela, but I love the forest-wizard look of him.

That evening, on our way back to the apartment, we walked past a bike shop that we'd seen the day before tucked in the back of a parking lot. We showed it to Janis and though it was closed, we discovered that upstairs was a restaurant. We walked up to see if there was a menu posted, but instead of a menu we saw platters and bowls filled with food. Beets, salads, soups, pesto, sauce for rice, potatoes. It was all beautiful. We headed back to the apartment to drop off a few things and wash up. While Janis left to meet friends, Jon and I headed back to the restaurant "Eco-Catering." It was so delicious, we ate our fill of the buffet (encouraged by our server to eat more) and then we asked if we could make up a to-go order in case Janis didn't eat enough dinner. The waiter brought a to-go box and told us to take all we wanted, no extra charge, because "you ate so little."

A little bit of magic happens when I travel. There is so much to look at in every direction. Buildings, people, shop windows, streets. All my senses are heightened as I notice smells, tastes, colors. And when I'm only in a place for a short time, there is no boredom, there's no familiar. The mind is always racing and the body trying to keep up. Or is it the other way around? Maybe that's why when you return to a place you've visited before you don't have that same experience; all that newness has had time to become integrated into your compendium of sights, sounds, smells for that place. We had not a moment of boredom in Riga.

The next day we continued exploring and prepared for the rest of the trip. Though it was now Tuesday, Janis's suitcase had still not arrived in Riga. (We'd left London on Friday.) To replace his camping gear we met once again with his friend Marcis who took us to his mother's apartment where he still stored some of his things. (It seems everyone we met in Riga had more stuff than could fit in their apartments.) Marcis picked us up outside a restaurant where we'd had lunch with another of Janis's friends. The opera music again played as Marcis drove along side streets, then along the edge of the city (or so it seemed) and parked near a tall, Soviet-era apartment building. Don't leave anything in the car, they told us.

We pushed the button for the elevator. When it arrived, the sign said "maximum 3." The four of us squeezed into the tiny box and rode up to Marcis's mother's floor. He unlocked three locks on the apartment door, opened it, then proceeded to unlock a second door! Between the elevator and the doors, I again felt like I was playing a role in a movie. Yes, the hapless, unsuspecting foreigner. Where are we going this time? Inside, Marcis dug through his old room (where he lived before he was married), pulling out oddities like a Viking helmet and various medieval implements. We looked at the view from the balcony; I'd momentarily forgotten about the crumbling balconies we'd seen on other Soviet-era apartments and quickly returned to the indoors.

Marcis and Janis gathered camping gear we thought we'd need for those occasional nights when we would camp along the trip. After another stop to pick up our suitcases, we made one last stop before we left the city: Janis's sister called and asked him to stop by her workplace so she could give us a tour. She has studied art and works in a ceramics shop that makes souvenirs that are sold in local shops. At the end of the tour she showed us boxes and shelves of ceramics, all hand-painted, that were ready for shops to purchase. Later, I wondered if we were expected to buy something and I regret that I didn't at least get a little magnet featuring one of the city's emblematic rooftop cats. But we were ready to be on the road and we motored away, with Marcis driving us to our friend's hometown of Jaunkalsnava.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

business first

Europe Trip, Part 4.
Across the Daugava is the Latvian National Library designed by Gunnar Birkerts. Beyond that, the embassy.
There were times I felt I was in some crazy film where just as the adventure was about to take off, something would happen to complicate things. Each step we needed to take required several other steps just to prepare. On Monday, when it was time to catch the bus for our 10:30 appointment, Janis remembered we needed to get our tickets first (buses don't take cash the way they do in many American cities and tickets are sold in little shops that sell tobacco and newspapers). After about a 15 or 20-minute ride, we stepped off the bus and hurried to the shopping center where we could get our passport photos taken. The morning was blustery, with clouds racing across the sky, threatening rain. When we got to the center, the building wasn't yet open! (Tell me, why was I hurrying? Oh, yes, I hate being late for appointments.) Photos taken, we had time to grab a bite to eat while waiting for them to be printed, then backtracked across the busy street to the new embassy. Did you know there's a new American Embassy in Riga? I guess the old one was in the central city, but the new one sits on a large piece of land, mostly hidden from the main road by a fenced-in wooded area.

We left all our electronics: cameras, iPads, etc. in the security building and then walked down a path to a larger building where we again went through security. We filled out paperwork and submitted it. Paid for our temporary passports (which for no extra charge we can renew for the full 10 years). We waited again, then were called for an interview. Finally, we could meet the man who got us out of the airport. Evan, the consul.

Our interview was conducted from opposite sides of a glass barrier, like what you'd experience when visiting a prisoner, except with a slot to pass paperwork back and forth. Evan told us that ours wasn't an unusual situation for a traveler to be in. Lots of people don't know about the 90-day rule. What was out of the ordinary was that we were allowed into the country. Why? He said it largely had to do with the fact that after being ignored by the airline and then bringing attention to the airline and airport in a way that didn't reflect their images in a positive way, the people running things must have decided they should find a way to let us leave (not to mention the weather).

Evan wasn't the first person to tell us that if we were from another country trying to get into the United States and didn't meet the requirements, we would have never been allowed in. After spending just over a day in Riga, we were even more grateful that people in the Latvian border security and Evan had made it happen. We had a good chat with Evan who has served at embassies in more difficult outposts, including Tajikistan. (I would have liked to hear more about that!) Finally, with new passports signed and Important Paperwork (which I carried with me at all times during the remainder of the trip) in hand, we thanked Evan and the guards and then left the compound.

We had another couple days to explore the city before heading to the countryside. As wind continued to blow and large raindrops fell, we climbed on a bus headed back toward Old Riga and the Central Market.
The five arch-shaped buildings make up Riga's Central Market (the one of the far left is perpendicular to the others). They are made from old German zeppelin hangars.
The buildings that make up the Central Market are enormous and filled with stalls where merchants sell cheese, bread, produce, meat, seafood (seafood has its own building and is pretty aromatic). Some vendors sold clothes, artwork, jewelry, crafts. Everything, really. We bought some food: dark rye bread, cheese, smoked meat, apples and found an unused stall where we could eat. I could have spent the entire day in the Central Market but we had other things to explore in Old Riga. We wanted to visit Alberta Iela.
It's easy to get turned around in Old Riga.
Sunny in Old Riga.
The column in the center is the Freedom Monument. Left of the tall building is the Russian Orthodox church (notice the covering over the dome) and right of the tall building is Old St. Gertrude's, mentioned in an earlier post. (That tall hotel looks really out of place!)
These photos were taken from the steeple in St Peter's church on Kungu Iela. For a small fee we took a tiny elevator to the top to get these views of the area. I recommend it.

(Sept 23, 2013)