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travel

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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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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Murphy’s Law

Click. Click. Click. Click. 

I’m feeling the cocktail of excitement, fear and relief as the car that I am securely strapped into is pulled higher and higher.  I’m excited because I am about to speed down a near vertical angle that looks impossible when viewed from the ground. As the car lurches upward, there is a split second of  fear that the chain dog will snap releasing the coaster backwards ending in a horrific crash.  The click of the the chain comforts me into thinking it must mean everything is fine.  Until we lurch forward again.  And again. And again. It is, after all, by record, the tallest wooden roller coaster. 

Despite my alternating states of emotion, I am drinking in the view.  It’s a shame that the American Eagle name was already claimed because the top of this lift hill is an eagle eye’s view. My son, brave enough to ride the coaster with me, actually isn’t brave enough to have his eyes open at the top.  Looking to the sky from the top of an  impressive height has never quivered my stomach. It’s a glorious view of the people below coming together to scream their heads off.  It almost takes my mind off the click of the roller coaster I am on. 

Click. Click. Fear. Relief. Fear. Relief. Fear.  

Then a pause as we hang at the top of a 180 feet drop while the anticipation builds.  I thought looking down 85 degree decline would trigger some unknown anxiety once we got there but the reality is that I am ready to fly. 

The locks release and we accelerate to 72 miles an hour.  The roller coaster twists us, change directions and never shows us what is coming next.  I can’t control what is coming out of my mouth. 

A month later, I’m driving a tiny economy rental car through the mountains near Golden, Colorado.  I’m fairly certain that the decription on the Avis website would read “Clown Car”.  Most people rent an SUV for the mountains.  Apparently, I rent clown cars.  

The GPS says turn right at the next intersection. I hesitate because this road seems more like a dirt driveway than the shortest route to Golden Gate Canyon State park.  A dirt road in the mountains could end up anywhere.  Like throwing a Jackson down on black number six, I decisively drive ahead into the mountains. On a dirt road. In a clown car. 

At first, I’m just driving along hoping that the GPS signal stays strong enough to guide me back to civilization sometime before my flight leaves that evening.  However, after a while, I note the washed out narrow ditch is a good 3 to 4 feet below the “edge” of the road, and I begin hoping that a tow truck will be able to get to me in time for me to make my evening flight.  I throw a Grant on red number 33 as I press on thinking that I will turn this car around at anytime I feel like the road isn’t safe enough to proceed, provided I’m smart enough to recognize it in time and tire of the gamble. 

After another five miles driving the clown car down the narrowing washed out dirt road, I pulled onto the paved main road. I glanced over my shoulder at the mountain side and once again I cannot control what comes out of my mouth. I laugh semi-hysterically for a good 30 seconds. 

Holy Shit! How the hell am I not sideways in a washed out ditch? 

The laughing reminds me of my uncontrollable laughter on the roller coaster rides a month earlier.  In both instances, I am euphoric because I have just broken Murphy’s Law.

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2015

It seems so cliché to make resolutions these days. Yet, I just can’t stop myself.

I’m in need of a makeover, January 1st (actually 5th) (now the 8th), seems like the best time to do it. I might as well jump on the self-improvement train and make a go of it.

Here are a few things I’d like to accomplish in 2015:
1. Gain a better understanding of which foods negatively impact how I feel and irritate my digestive system

2. Build functional strength

3. Reduce unnecessary spending

4. Spend more time on creative projects

5. Get on with life

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What the heck, Wisconsin?

I’m driving along 21 today when I saw an astonishing site.
My thoughts were:

Whoa!
Wow!
What the F?

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What gives, Wisconsin? I’m driving along and all I see is a straight, flat road lined by brown leaf oak trees when…

BOOM!

Ship Rock imposes on my view from the left. It’s astonishing!

Then I see:

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Graffiti on the bottom 20% of Ship Rock.

So, I realize there aren’t a lot of buildings in this part of Wisconsin and those that are present would collapse under the force of spray paint, but an irreplaceable piece of awesome rock structure?!? Ugh. I want to vomit.

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Five Star Hotel

My brother-in-law, Arni, has a rule when it comes to choosing hotels, “No colors, no numbers.” I’ve stayed in a wide variety of hotels in my life. I have even had to disregard the number and color rule. I’m looking at you, Upstate (really upstate) New York. Usually, I can avoid colors and numbers by booking a room at a Fairfield or a Hampton. These hotel chains have consistent quality and moderate price, and you don’t end up paying for extras like internet connection, breakfast, or a bottle of water.

Unfortunately, there are places in the world where the most you can hope for is clean accommodations. Now, I’m looking at you, Wisconsin. This week’s travels take me to one of those such areas where you just have to cross your fingers. I’m in Trois-Rivieres, Quebec.

Today’s hotel is old but, yes, the accommodations are clean as long as you ignore the obvious crack in the toilet bowl that produces a puddle of water on each side of the base after every flush. I’m sure it only leaks the clean water that comes in after the flush. This hotel is just about the only game in town. And, well, it doesn’t have a number or color in the name so at least I’m in the clear there.

So, if the title is correct, how can I give this hotel a five star rating after what I just reported? There are two things.

 

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1. Beer vending machine – I have to be honest, the beer vending machine alone catapults this hotel to five stars. I never stop being amazed at the things I experience when I travel the world.

 

2. High pressure washer- The shower is Kramer worthy. It is so strong I won’t need to exfoliate for six months. It’s strong enough for elephants.

Still, its a place I’ll be happy to leave when I do.

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The Polk-a-Dot

Your driving southbound on Route 66 in your Daddy’s brand new, 1955 cherry red caddy with the top down. Your pony tail, sitting high on your head, and the scarf you tied around it this morning are whipping around under the brilliant sunlight.

Wait…

It’s almost Christmas and it’s 2011 not 1955. So, instead of being in your daddy’s cherry red caddy with three of your friends, each with a poodle skirt that fills more than half the seat, you are actually driving a 2006 red Honda sedan, wearing stretch jeans and have your two tween boys in the back seat.

Either way, the destination is the same. The Polk-a-Dot, a year round standard 1950’s themed diner on Route 66 on the north side of Braidwood, IL. It claims to be a drive-in but you don’t get served at your car. They enclosed an area around the “ice cream stand” so that you can sit inside. It’s actually better this way because you get to look at walls full of 1950’s celebrities, Betty Boop, a few photo ops with life size celebrities, and it’s open year-round. One of the best things, is a fully functional, 100% legit Wurlitzer stocked full of Christmas songs long forgotten and Elvis singing Blue Christmas from a 45. Well, the rest of the year it’s regular golden oldies.

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Forget going to Dairy Queen and stop by Polk-a-Dot instead. DQ in these parts is closed during the winter anyway. K-man has a soft spot for their shakes, Mik likes the root beer floats, the hubs is a banana split man, and I stick with the strawberry sundae. They have it all plus food.

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For a quarter, the little kids can “drive” the car with flames.

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Shakes, root beer floats, and fries!

I love being just a short drive along Route 66 from this classic. 50 years of Polk-a-Dots can’t be wrong.

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