Category Archives: Latvia

Latvian Day 3 – Pils

It only seems right that a vacation that felt like a wish granted to me via my fairy godmother would include castles.  Let me tell you, Latvia has castles.  If you happen to watch the TV miniseries of War and Peace from 2016, you might recognize Rundālei Palace that is actually located in Latvia.

We did not visit Rundāle palace while we were in Latvia but the pils we visited were pretty amazing in their own right.

First thing on Friday morning, I picked up the  rental car I reserved months prior to give us the freedom to drive where ever we wanted in the countryside. As it turns out, my forethought to reserve a car was pretty darn smart. Other family members that rented cars that day, out of necessity due to missing the party bus to the wedding location (due to being out with the wedding party till the wee hours the previous night)  paid premium rental prices because of a music festival out in the country side.  Maybe it was the Positivus Festival

Anyway… Our target was was Cēsis, LV. Before heading out to Cēsis castle, we stopped at a hotel in town for a nature break. We had expected that once we got out away from Riga, we’d be more successful communicating in Latvian. Well, once again, tourism won out. English was more easily understood than Latvian.  Either way, we found the toilet and took care of business.  Fortunately, this hotel was just a pit stop, not our destination. A bit farther out is Cēsis Pils.  Before you are able to take in the wonder of the ruins of Cēsis Pils, you need to enjoy the new Cēsis Pils. 

Can I just say now that very few of my pictures do justice to the real beauty of Latvia?

Behind new Cēsis Pils is the old castle ruins.    There are enough walls and bricks remaining to aid your imagination into visualizing how the castle was laid out and what the delightful views one would have from the towers.  There are two other castles in the vicinity of Cēsis Pils.  One of which you can see in the distance of the picture below, however, Cēsis was the only pils we visited that day. One can hardly ignore hungry tummies, especially when the skies continue to darken and threaten rain.

 I’d be remiss not to admit how awed I was of the modern scenic ampitheather that was been created out of the ruins. It must be amazing to watch a performance in that atmosphere. 

A view of inside the castle grounds from the tower

By the time we returned to town for lunch, there was a torrential downpour going on. This made it quite difficult to discern if a cafe had suitable fare for lunch. After running from one cafe to the next, we slumped into the grocery store next to the sports bar that didn’t allow minors in the middle of the day.   Turns out that the grocery store had a cafeteria type restaurant and, honestly, it had some of the best Latvian food we had the whole trip.  We ordered carbonade ( pork chops),  kartupeļi (potatoes), and probably maize (bread, likely rye) or/and sula (juice). Should I mention that we were drenched from the rain, like leaving a trail of puddles through the cafeteria line? 

Once we were done eating and with time to kill, we hit the grocery store to do some shopping.  Afterall, no trip is complete until you pick up a box of Prozit for each person back home. You only need to hope you keep the chocolates in one piece while traveling home so that the liquor inside the chocolates doesn’t escape.  

Castles are not the only thing worth visiting in the Gauja River area.  As is often done in the US, we visited the boyhood home of a man of historical significance.  Well, he was significant to us and many that we know, that’s for sure.  Ivars met us along the roadside and guided us to the boyhood home of Andrejs Kengis, PK’s dad, which is called Sietiņi.  

Childhood home of Andrejs, Ginta (pictured on the right), Aija and Janis


The family still owns land in the area but we are not allowed to go up to the actual house and it’s not visible from the road. Luckily, the barn, built by PK’s grandfather, is still visible from the road. 

The Kengis family doesn’t talk much about the literal story of leaving Latvia.  Essentially, there came a point in the occupation when the Russians began to send farmers off to Siberia (or did other things to them).  The family had been visiting another household when they received word that if they went home they would be killed. So, the Kengis family fled for safety in the middle of the night.  I now realize why Sound of Music has a special place in my mother-in-law’s heart. 

We inquired about where the name Sietiņi comes from. Ivars then guided us to the nearby sandstone cliffs along the Gauja River.  Sietiņi translates to sieve or strainer. 

Ivars recommended that we make a stop at the local cemetery before moving on to the wedding location. I admit, I was reluctant.  What could be so interesting about a cemetery (besides ancestors).  In hindsight, I regret that I did not take more pictures. This cemetery was like a botonical garden on castle grounds.  It was quite amazing. 

Site of Piedkalns: Augusts, Milda and Marija


There was one more castle that we visited that day, but since it was also the location of Matiss’s wedding, I think it’s best to save those impressions for the next chapter, Kāzas (wedding). 

By the way, it rained most of the day.  But, who’s to let a little rain get into the way of fun? 

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Filed under family, Latvia, travel

Latvia Day 2 : Dienā, Rīgā

I sat bolt upright in the bed with full daylight streaming into the window.  Panicking, I was sure that we had wasted our one day full day in Rīga by sleeping in! Luckliy, my trusted iPhone assured me it was only 5 am.

Wait! 5 am? How was that lucky?? It’s vacation and I like to sleep! 

Being unprepared for the intensity of the sunlight at such early hours, I had not drawn the heavy curtain across the window.  After a few tugs on the curtain, I climbed back into bed for a little more sleep.  While I may have drifted in and out of sleep for a short time, it was apparent that the excitement of touring Rīga was not going to allow sleeping. 

Our second day in Rīga was all about family, my family, family living in Latvia, family visiting Latvia, family in Latvia for the first time and soon to be family.  But, mostly, our second day was about Vecsriga.  All in all, we squeezed in a pretty significant day. 

Armed with a map, iPhone GPS and detailed notes I had written down in a little book with “Don’t Panic” written in friendly letters in the front, we headed out on our own into Vecrīga.  


There is no doubt that on your first visit to Rīga that everyone will tell you that you must go see Svētā Pētera baznīca (St. Peter’s church) which is the tallest church in Vecrīga providing fabulous views at every angle.  Not to be dismissed is the much smaller Svētā Jāņa baznīca (St. John’s) next door that claims to be the oldest church in Rīga.  However, there was no “established date” posted for me to find out just how old it was. I have since found out that St. John’s began holding Lutheran services in 1213 AD.  I was stunned at the beauty of the ceiling but, then, the mathematician in me loves the geometric patterns. 

The Gothic ceiling of Svētā Jāna baznīca


If you are curious as to what filled our time in between the highlights that I am capturing in the blog, the answer is walking.  Walk, walk, walking.  However, in this particular case, Svētā Pētera baznīca (St. Peter’s) is right across the street from St. John’s.  

Mikel in front of Svētā Pētera baznīca

 

St. Peter’s started showing up in history in 1209 which is, technically, before St. John’s claim as the oldest church.  However, I’m sure each church has their own way to spin the story on being the oldest.  St. Peter’s is much larger and has a long history of periods of construction, lightening fire, World War II fire, steeple collapse, reconstruction  and a total of seven different roosters on top of the steeple.  In more recent times, an elevator was installed so that you can go to the top of the tower, 236 ft., to see what the rooster saw. 

The Rooster’s Eye View: One of the spectacular views from St. Peter’s tower

 

I’ve been on the top many towers from Seattle to Toronto to New York. I’ve been in the top of many duomos in Italy. Let me tell you, Italy is beautiful. I could see why the US general forbade the bombing of Sienna in WWII.  Yet, I think the view of Vecrīga is possibly the most stunning city view I have ever beheld from above.  Modern cities are primarily shades of grey. Vecrīga is the whole rainbow.  In hindsight, I didn’t take enough pictures of Vecrīga’s architecture.  Luckily, there is a page on Facebook called Latvia Art & Architecture that regularly shares spectacular photos of Latvia for me to enjoy and remanisce.  A picture of Riga

After St. Peter’s, we walked over to the  nearby square for a short break on a bench while absorbing the architecture of the House of the Blackheads.  It was reconstructed in the 90’s. A prophecy was once written on the building’s doors: “If I am destined to ruination, I will be rebuilt by you!” 

The single most impactful event of the trip to Latvia was our visit to the Occupation museum.  Unlike the rest of Vecrīga, the building housing the Occupation Museum is far from an architectural delight. Given that the subject of the museum is Occupation of Latvia by the Soviets and Germans, I think the appearance of the building suits the subject. Inside the boys got their first real connection with how their grandparents ended up in the US.  Countrymen being deported to Siberia and living in wooden barracks. Some never to return or be heard from again. Our relatives being lucky enough to receive a warning not to return to the farm on one particular evening as the Soviets descended upon the farmers… The Latvians that remained behind resisted the occupation through a calm and strong ability to hold onto their culture and folk songs. Eventually, their freedom was restored after 51 years of occupation.  

By now, we’d already been to many important sights around Vecrīga and it was not even lunchtime yet. Cousin Rob texted to say that he and the boys would meet us at the Irish Pub.  Perhaps Paddy Whalen’s Pub isn’t what you would expect in Riga but Rob claims it’s as Latvian as you can get since it’s been in business for over 20 years. We had been at the Hard Rock Cafe knock off but we lost interest as soon as we saw that there were only four things on the menu and PK couldn’t really come up with a translation to tell us what they were.  At Paddy Whalen’s, Rob ordered karbonāde (pork chops) without even looking at a menu.  Over beer and apple juice in the courtyard, and while the Irish dancers practiced on the wooden stage, Rob filled us in on his memories as a young man on the town in Riga at Paddy Whalen’s Pub.

By the way, let me recommend the apple juice in Latvia. Besides the apple juice being delicious, juice is one of those American drinks that isn’t served with ice so it is a lot easier to accept that you won’t get ice in your drink in Latvia when you order apple juice.   

We all left Paddy Whalen’s together to wander around Vecrīga.  Just as we rounded the next corner, we bumped into Matiss, the groom, accompanied by a Kukainis cousin, coming out of a cafe.  These gentlemen were headed over to Petergailis, which is a cafe in the shadows of St. Peter’s church, to meet up with family friends.  They insisted that we should come along with them.  The boys, both Kengis and Kukainis, were not in the mood for more sitting at a cafe even if it was a gorgeous and sunny ~70 degree day.  But, one of the amazing things about Vecsriga is that without cars driving around, it is fairly quiet.  So, the two older Kengis boys took the younger Kukainis boys out to walk around St. Peter’s and play on a wooden horse statue nearby while the adults visited with family and friends.  I’m sure that a normal visit to Latvia would not result in running into family and friends on every corner or at every cafe. But, since a large number of visits to Latvia are the result of attending a wedding, it’s not unusual either.  

Our next adventure was the heavily recommended canal boat tour. It starts on Pilsētas Kanals near Bastion Hill and encircles Rīga on Daugava River.   We selected one of the small, shallow wooden boats piloted by a Russian.  One has to be careful to distribute the weight of the adults carefully to maintain the balance of the boat!  Let’s just say, we had a close call.  

Dzelzceļa Tilts on Daugava

A well balance boat floats true.


Ivars, another Kengis cousin who lives in Latvia, was in Riga for the afternoon while his mother, Ginta, attended the bridal shower.  Ginta lives in Kalamazoo but had been visiting Ivars for the summer.  So, Ivars wanted to meet up while he was waiting for his mom.  It was also a chance for us to unload the lawnmower blades! Finally!  

Ivars presented the boys with souvenir mugs with their names engraved in them. Rīga, the only place in the world that has my kids names on the souvenirs.  Then we ducked into McDonald’s.  Not to worry!  The only reason we stopped into McDonald’s was to avoid a short rain storm. It was our only visit to McDonald’s on that trip and we never went past the vestibule. 

Ivars was looking for a late lunch so we ended up back at Petergailis for the 3rd time that day.  It was actually a lucky break for Mikel because he had noticed the Rīga Cinema Museum (Rīga Kino Muzejs) on the map during our rest in front of The House of Blackheads and had put that at the top of the activities he wanted to do. PK, happy to get caught up with Ivars , stayed at Petergailis while Mikel, Karlis and I wandered through the cobblestone streets on our own to find Kino Muzejs.  

We had been warned on more than one occasion that it was easy to get turned around in the cobblestone streets of Riga.  However, I’m good with maps, Karlis remembers things, and Mikel had a drive to see the film and theater museum. Although, when we arrived at the building I was sure was the museum, it didn’t look like an entrance.  We turned corners and looked up and down streets, always ending up in the same place. Finally, we got the nerve to go up to the door only to realize we had been correct the very first time.  I guess sometimes you need to trust your gut.

Picture taken from the Wikipedia page.


The museum was small but still interesting. It covered films, actors and directors. Most everything had a strong Soviet influence as a result of the occupation. I think it will be very interesting to visit this museum again in the future to see what changes take place now that Riga is becoming a well known European cultural center. 

We parted ways with Ivars and his lawnmower blades. Now, it was time to meet up with yet another Kengis cousin, also first time visitors to Latvia, Andrea and her husband, Tony.  Per Ivars suggestion we went to Rozengrals, a midieval themed restaurant located in the old wine vault of the City of Riga Council of 1293.  This was definitely going to be an adventure, but, before I go any further, just remove any visuals you have of Midieval Times.  It’s not that kind of restaurant.  Although, we knew what we were ordering, courtesy of English language menus, we were not quite prepared for the delights that came to our table. 

Karlis and the pork shank, Mikel too.


Karlis ordered the pork shank. It looked like a huge turkey leg and easily could have fed two grown men. I understand it was delicious.   I’m not sure why I didn’t get to try it for myself.  

I suppose it is a bit much to expect a midieval restaurant to serve ice in the drinks? 

Mikel had the fish that was presented in a way that looked like it was still able to swim right off his plate.  

Photo courtesy of Rozengals webpage

Mikel was a little perplexed in how to attack a fish presented in such manner but once PK helped him lay it open and take out the bones, Mikel didn’t hesitate to devour the flaky fish. I give big props to my kids for going to a forgeign country and eating whatever was given to them. 

The best part of this meal was the dessert.  The boys ordered pistachio ice cream on ice.  So, the waitress brought them two scoops of ice cream sitting upon a block of ice almost as big as a cinder block. 


It was torture.  I mean, just look at Tony’s distress in the background of the picture.  The whole time we had been in Riga, we were searching for ice, ordering ice then asking for more ice.  Then comes dessert served on a large, useless, wasted chunk of ice.  If I could have wrapped it up in a napkin and taken it home with me, I would have. 

After a quick tour of  Andrea and Tony’s 5 star hotel room, Andrea and Tony headed over to a bar just a block from our apartment. PK opted to go back to the apartment with the boys while I went out for just “one drink” with Andrea, Tony, the groom,the bridal party and a significant collection of other friends and relatives.  Walking down the street to the restaurant, the area seemed a little sketchy but once we were inside the courtyard area it was chic and modern. The topic of conversations that I was engaged in tended to center around what we had done or seen in our 1.5 days Rīga. It was always achknowledged that we had completed the top “must see” places of Riga.  Some that I conversed with were surprised to learn about the Kinomuzejs.   Nice job, Mikel. 

I snuck out of the party just as it was getting too dark to walk alone or possibly as another round of tequila was being poured.  I left the rest behind for what I understand was a very, very late night.

I may have missed out on an all night in Riga, but I have no regrets as my Friday was packed full of plans with places to go in Latvia and old castles to see.  

So, tune in next time as my family and I drive off into the Latvian countryside…

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Filed under family, Latvia, Lessons learned, PseudoLatvianism, travel