Friday 5th September 2008, Ventspils, Latvia
Not only was it still raining when we woke yesterday morning, it was making up for lost time and punishing us for having enjoyed a couple of dry days in Riga. As we still had wifi time we'd paid for we spent the morning catching up on admin. The first thing we found in our email was a message from the Folklore Archives apologising for their absence when we visited, explaining they had artistic temperaments and tended to arrive at odd hours for work and continue into the evenings and that they had been out collecting material when we called. Is that a euphemism, as it would be in England, for sitting in a bar listening to people singing folksongs? Anyway, it was a very friendly note and we were sorry that the weather made it quite impossible to take up their invitation to return. There was no way we could walk over the bridge in such weather and the cobbled streets and tram tracks of the city were awash with water. In any case, we do need to keep moving on or we will never get home. So we reluctantly sent a message declining the invitation, packed up and moved on.
The city streets really were unpleasant in the wet but fortunately we were soon out and heading towards the seaside resort of Ventspils, which you should all find easily on the now much thumbed Baltic section of your atlases.
We stopped for diesel. It's so much cheaper here at around 97pence a litre. Feeling hungry we next stopped at a small roadside café out in the empty countryside. Inside it was clean and friendly with Latvian lorry drivers tucking into bowls of very substantial soup. Ordering food is usually a complete surprise for us but we've perfected the art of sign language over the years and the charming young lady behind the counter served us with a couple of bowls of hot soup. We gave up when it came to asking for rolls to go with it but it was a pleasant experience and the soup excellent.
Away from Riga the weather improved and soon the rain stopped completely. We turned off towards the historic old town of Kuldiga on the river Venta. Everything in the Baltic States seems to be a superlative according to the guide books, and Kuldiga claims to have the widest waterfall in Europe and the highest in Latvia. The town is delightful but while the waterfall is undoubtedly wide, it is only about four feet high and hardly worthy of the name waterfall.
Our Michelin map let us down. It does not identify which roads are metalled and which are just sandy gravel tracks. After several kilometres of respectable tarmac the road simply ended in a track with no indication of how long it went on like that. We ended up driving 59 kilometres along unmade roads except for a few metres here and there as it passed through little villages. There were road signs, bus stops and speed restrictions, just no roads, and rather a lot of puddles after the rain. By the time we bumped and jolted our way onto the tarmac again in Kuldiga Modestine was plastered completely with a running crust of yellow sand and mud. Her black bumpers and tyres were exactly the same colour as the rest of her! (We are hoping that at least today's rain will wash some of it off for us. We've never seen her looking such a mess.)
Although the rural towns have suffered total neglect for over half a century and the fabric of the buildings is dilapidated and rotten, at least most are just about standing. So Kuldiga is an excellent example of an unspoilt little town dating from the 13th century still retaining its mediaeval lay-out. It was once the capital of the province of Courland and a member of the Hanseatic League. It also had a medieval castle of the Livonian Order, long since demolished. On the castle site there is now a sculpture park beside the attractively restored brick bridge that spans the River Venta just below the waterfall. Most of the buildings are constructed in wood and date from the 17th and 18th centuries. Outside of Riga there has been little money for restoration so whole streets of these dilapidated buildings are still occupied despite their ruinous condition. Most have lost their paintwork down to a few blistered and faded patches on the original wood while others have their roofs broken and twisted. Originally the more affluent buildings were coated with plaster which has since crumbled away revealing the mesh of wood to which it was originally attached.
An old lady wearing a headscarf and carrying an axe came out from one of the houses, crossed her pretty, rambling garden full of marigolds and proceeded to chop up a pile of logs. Life has always been hard for people of her age and the changes of the modern world have largely passed her by. There are many older people here who have not benefited greatly from national independence. On the streets of Riga it was not the young people with dogs we saw begging, but old ladies who stood patiently holding out cups on street corners.
On the main street we found a little shop selling linen, table runners and woven mats. Inside half a dozen older ladies were busy working at looms. We were an excuse to stop work and show us what they were doing. They seem to be continuing their lives much as they have always done, producing goods that were fashionable back in the 1970s and 80s. Hopefully, as tourism increases they will find a niche as producers of local folk art – if they are still around to teach a younger generation.
Because it is such an excellent example of a small Latvian town it is currently being considered as a Unesco Heritage site which, if accepted, should ensure its status and may even bring some much needed restoration funding. They will need to do something about the surrounding roads though if they seriously hope to attract visitors.
We left Kuldiga by the infinitely better tarmac road that led us directly up to Ventspils through an empty countryside of mainly arable crops and areas of woodland. No doubt because there are so few roads in reasonable condition, once they find one the Latvians go crazy, driving at speed along the die-straight roads, right down the middle with no concept of slowing down to pass cyclists or pedestrians. Even the huge logging lorries coming from the forests drive as if there is nobody else on the road, swinging across to pass cyclists regardless of Modestine coming the other way. No wonder Latvia has one of the worst road safety records in Europe – one superlative they do not mention in their publicity.
Here in Ventspils we found the best campsite we have used, possible anywhere in our travels. It has absolutely everything we could need included in the 12 lati (£13.20) charge. It is right by the sea, surrounded by woodland and has a brilliant modern central block with superb showers and toilet facilities plus a fully equipped kitchen that includes dish washer, microwave, grill, crockery and several clean sinks with hot water. There is a pleasant, attached dining room where we can spread out to eat while watching BBC World News on the large TV. There is also a lounge with a comfy sofa and lots of potted plants. As it is out of season there is almost nobody here except the English family from Coventry we met on the site in Riga. We were all surprised to see each other when we turned up. With such luxury we all ate together in the dining room last night while watching the Vicar of Dibley with Latvian subtitles on the TV. Surreal or what?
They have moved on this morning. We'd already decided we'd spend the day exploring Ventspils with Hinge and Bracket but the continuing torrential rain means we are effectively trapped here until it stops and we can set off to explore the town.
Around midday the rain ceased. It had done little to improve Modestine's appearance so we set to with cloths and countless buckets of water to clean off the worst of the sand and mud. She now looks considerably better but there is a heap of soggy sand all around where she is parked and she is still coated white underneath. On our walk this afternoon we discovered a massive puddle down by the docks so will drive her through that a few times before we move on tomorrow.
We've been wallowing in the luxury of all the space here which we have to ourselves. We cooked lunch in the huge kitchen – eggs, sausages, tomatoes and baked beans with a can of beer to share. How British! Then we took the woodland path down to the sand dunes leading to the beach. The grey waves of the Baltic broke on a stretch of white sand stretching right down the Latvian coast and on into Lithuania. Along the shoreline lay small granite pebbles and gulls and dunlin scuttled along the water margin looking for the tiny crabs that we saw on the sand.
Stretching out to sea from the direction of the town we could see the long breakwater that shelters the industrial port of Ventspils. The town is built on the estuary of the Venta river and was once a major Soviet port for the oil industry. There are still rows of huge round oil tanks lining the shore. Generally though, the port struck us as a clean and interesting place, its cranes and towers looking quite artistic in the sunlight. It is obviously thriving. The entire town is very pleasant, clean and bright with tree-lined streets. It is generally in a good state of repair with many lovely public gardens full of flowers, sculptures and children's play areas. There are several cow sculptures that pop up around the town left over from the Cow Parade that took place here in 2002 to celebrate the dairy industry.
Near the port are quaint streets of wooden cottages and the old castle which is now a museum for the history of Ventspils. We visited this and found it interesting despite not understanding a word of the labelling. A little girl heard us talking and came to chat telling us she was eight years old and was starting to learn English at school. How old were we and what were our names? We guess those are the sentences she has learned because she soon got confused and explained she'd only learnt a little English. We were very impressed by her self-confidence in opening a conversation with us.
There are some lovely buildings in the old town. None look too ruinous and many have been nicely restored. In the centre we found the library and were quite bowled over by it. Ventspils is half the size of Exeter with a population of less than 55,000. Its library is spacious, modern and well planned. It is generously stocked with public access computers and there is plenty of staff. The only worn things in the building are the books which are really well used. We were intrigued to explore the book stock serving a population that is roughly divided half Latvian and half Russian. It seems they purchase copies of most titles in both languages but do not integrate the fiction, Russian being in one place and Latvian elsewhere. For the non-fiction however the arrangement is by subject and the languages are integrated.
We were particularly amused and surprised to discover that foreign writers have the spelling of their names changed, so Enid Blyton's Famous Five becomes Enide Blaitone, Noslepums and J.K.Rowlings' Harry Potter becomes Dz. K. Roulinga, Harijs Poters in Latvian. They are different again in Russian but our computer hasn't got Cyrillic script. (It occurs to us that may be why we couldn't find Alain or Ian in the National Library catalogue in Riga.)
It was not until we started the walk back to the campsite we fully realised how far we'd wandered during the afternoon. We arrived back very weary and glad we were only using up left-overs from last night so no need to cook this evening.
Saturday 6th September 2008, Liepaja, Latvia
Before leaving Ventspils this morning we drove down to the docks and surged up and down several times through the long deep puddle we discovered yesterday, spewing water up under Modestine. Her bottom is now considerably cleaner. No more dirt roads from now on we hope.
We were sorry to leave Ventspils. It was a very pleasant experience. Liepaja lies about a hundred kilometres south, also on the coast and once an important Russian naval port. Like Estonia, outside the cities the countryside is almost deserted so we could drive at our own pace along the quiet, straight road that followed the coast. We were disappointed though that the sea was permanently hidden from view by woodland. We might as well have been completely inland as there are almost no villages or roads leading down to the sea. Indeed, until 1990 the whole of this coast was cut off from the outside world and completely inaccessible to visitors from the west.
At one point we could make out the sea across a field and managed to pull Modestine off the road. We trudged across an extremely wet field, stopping only to play on a wooden swing, and found ourselves on what must be the highest cliff in Latvia standing just a few feet above the sandy beach which stretched, a white ribbon, in each direction.
The Baltic beaches are the place to find amber. It is sold in countless jewellers in coastal towns from Denmark to the Baltic States. Solidified resin from prehistoric forests, it is washed up onto beaches after heavy storms. So we spent a happy half hour searching for it along the deserted sandy beach. We returned to Modestine with no amber but a couple of beautifully coloured sea-worn stones and some interesting driftwood as well as our two pairs of now very wet trainers.
Searching for a lunchtime picnic spot we found a surfaced road leading down to the coastal village of Pavilosta. It wasn't mentioned in any guidebooks but provided a very enjoyable walk through woods and dunes to the beach. Nearby we found a little café where we discovered the Russian influence on the country as we were served chicken livers cooked with onions and cream served with grated roast potato and raw carrot and cabbage salad. It was really nice. Ian had the choice of Russian or Latvian beer. I know it sounds as if we are always eating out but, provided you choose simple places to eat in the Baltics, it can be really cheap and sometimes you encounter some interesting characters.
We have been rather disappointed in Liepaja. It is very different from Ventspils. As we approached we turned off to look at the former military area of Karosta to the north. This had once been a very important naval barracks in the time of the Tsars with large numbers of the Russian military and their families stationed here. Later it was used during Soviet times as a major submarine base. With the break-up of the USSR there was no room back in Russia to accommodate all of its armed forces that had always been stationed in its satellite states. So the Russians were slow to leave. Many either chose to stay or were abandoned by the country they had served and continued living in the flats that had been originally thrown up by their government to accommodate them. These buildings are absolutely appalling! Pre-constructed units linked to provide slabs of unimaginative flats using poor quality materials and almost certainly asbestos-ridden. As the Russians gradually returned home the properties were abandoned, the windows and doors ripped out for firewood and anything remotely portable taken for use in the remaining flats. They stand as empty shells. There are hundreds of them. There are also hundreds more interspersed with them that are still occupied. Children play on the broken pavements, mothers are pushing prams, small groups of youths stand around on street corners smoking with nothing to do and nowhere to go. Some of the buildings have been requisitioned by the Latvian military and these are in better condition but the whole area is decayed, ugly, isolated and ominous. When we parked, hoping to visit the Russian Orthodox Cathedral, looking completely incongruous with its bright mosaics, turquoise decoration and several gold cupolas, we immediately caused a stir of interest amongst bystanders in an otherwise dull afternoon.
The Cathedral was impressive, not least because of its setting in such a miserable wasteland, but also because of its obvious importance to the local people. It was quite busy inside with a constant flow of people entering, lighting candles and moving round from one icon to the next, praying at each. Even at the entrance gate people were stopping to bow towards the building and make the sign of the Cross. Despite everything they have suffered – or perhaps because of it - religion still seems to play a very important role in people's lives here.
The older, pre-soviet Tsarist buildings are brick built. They too are generally empty ruins but many are still occupied. They provide a better quality of housing than the Communist block of flats and some have definite architectural merit, aligned along spaciously laid out but now overgrown boulevards. Even the huge, long regimental barracks could be restored and turned into acceptable housing. The rest though urgently needs a bulldozer.
The bright spot of our visit for Ian was discovering a Tsarist man-hole cover produced in St. Petersburg! That has to be the pride of his collection and certainly the oldest.
After such a depressing environment we were hoping the main town, a few kilometres down the road would be a welcome relief. It has a few interesting features but is generally rather drab, dilapidated and run down. There are the usual wooden houses, a large daily market, several 19th century churches and a pleasant park leading down to the beach. Here we found a monument to the missing crew of an American navy aircraft shot down off the coast of Liepaja in 1950 – at which time of course, the USSR were using the area as a submarine base. It was only in 2000 that the monument could be erected.
Liepaja is the sort of town where you spend an entire afternoon and never once see anybody smile. Most of the people seemed old and drab and did not look particularly healthy. That's rather the impression I got of the entire town really. We'd paid to park Modestine in the centre as it seemed safer than our usual habit of leaving her in a side street. Our interest in the town did not last as long as our allotted time on the parking meter. We were glad to move on down the coast to where we knew there was one of the dozen or so campsites scattered across Latvia. Even so, when we found it there are only a couple of other people to share it with. Visitors from the west are still the exception here and for Latvians the season has finished.