Saturday, 29 October 2011

Latvia, Georgia and Turkey Pt. 1: Riga, Sigulda and Turaida

Part One of my Summer 2010 trip





Links to all parts of this travelogue:

Part 1: Riga, Sigulda and Turaida

Part 2: Tbilisi, Mtskheta and Kazbegi

Part 3: Tbilisi, Gori and Uplistsikhe

Part 4: Batumi, Kars and Ani

Part 5: Doğubeyazit, Van and Diyarbakır

Part 6: Urfa, Haran and Adana

Part 7: Ankara and Istanbul

Latvia, Georgia and Turkey 2010
Part 1: Riga, Sigulda and Turaida
latvia map
24th July, 2010 – Riga, Latvia
Centuries ago, whenever a man was about to set off on a journey, great currency was given to omens and portents. Lucky ones meant that the trip would be a successful one; an ill one spelt disaster or, if possible, cancelling or delaying the expedition.
It is a good thing that such things are not given great credence in 21st century Britain though, for if they were then I would never have set off for Riga early in the morning of the 24th July, 2010. The year preceding had been a hard one: separation from my wife, health problems in the form of high blood pressure and (because of the separation) a distinct cash-flow problem. The week before leaving though, just in case all these had not been enough to put me off, it got far worse. I had a university assignment to hand in so I was stressed out as it was, then my monthly statement from the bank arrived to show very clearly, in black and white, that the cash-flow problems were far more serious than I’d imagined and that a trip was the last thing I could afford and then finally, a phone call from Paul, my companion for the trip.
“I won’t be coming with you buddy, I’m sorry. I snapped my Achilles whilst playing football with school. I’ve been lain on the sofa all week; I can’t even climb the stairs let alone journey across half the Near East.”
So yes, it was with a heavy despondent heart and a worried head that I boarded Ryanair flight FR1664 to Riga, thoughts not on Asian adventures but instead expenditure, loneliness, marital woes and my two-year old son who I knew I’d be missing like hell.
But the plane did not start. The time for take off came and went but nothing happened. Everyone craned their heads to the back of the fuselage where there was an almighty commotion. A voice came over the tannoy: “Do we have a doctor on board?” Someone had collapsed; medical staff had to be called. Yes indeed, someone was definitely trying to tell me something.
Problem was, I never listen. And if you don’t believe me, ask my (ex) wife. She was always complaining about that very thing.
Riga was sunny and extremely warm, not what you’d expect from a city on the Baltic Sea, but then this was August. Come December it probably is as bleak and bitterly cold as I’d imagined it to be. Around the airport there were new developments befitting the EU country that Latvia now is, but then we hit the Soviet suburbs. Finally though, the bus trundled over the majestic Daugava River, the bridge offering magnificent views of the old city beyond where, minutes later, I was deposited.
Back in the USSR, b ut it didn’t feel like it. This place was wealthy and the Old City reminiscent of Prague or Bratislava, very Mitteleuropean and crammed with tourists. The accommodation that I’d picked out from the Lonely Planet guide (photocopied from the local library) seemed to have disappeared and so I found another with the help of the local tourist information centre. It was situated out in the Art Nouveau District so I walked across, a fair trek in the heat with a backpack, but interesting nonetheless passing through the Old City, a park with fine Soviet Era statues in it and a really crap glass pyramid obviously inspired by them Louvre, and then into the Art Nouveau District itself with its fine ornate buildings that spoke of a wealth in Riga at the turn of the century. Tired and hot, I stopped for a bite to eat at a restaurant in one of the art nouveau buildings and enjoyed some chicken in mango sauce which, whilst not perhaps traditional Latvian fayre, was extremely tasty nonetheless.
The hotel was situated in a fine art nouveau building itself and exceeded my expectations of what one should get for 20 lat per night (c. £28). The receptionist was friendly so I decided to see if she could help me out a little. My walk across town had revealed to me that Riga is far too spread out a place to see on foot, particularly in blistering summer temperatures, but on the way I had also come across a solution to this problem; a scheme whereby one could hire a bicycle for a lat per hour, (and a proper bicycle at that, sit up and beg with a big basket on the front!). The only snag was that you needed to call the company to do it and I had no phone. But within m inutes, with the aid of my receptionist, it was soon all arranged and out I went again to unlock my ‘Baltic Bike’.[1]
Baltic Bike
Riga certainly was large and spread out but on a bicycle it was doable. I pedalled across the Daugara on the Vanšu Bridge to the National Railway Museum which was excellent. Situated in old railway workshops in a working-class part of the city, there were exhibits to peruse, a fine model railway, carriages, locomotives and heaps of memorabilia. What impressed – and surprised – me most though, was how professionally presented it all was, to Western standards with interactive displays, bilingual explanations (that made sense!) and all the other trappings of a modern museum. My other Eastern Bloc railway museum experiences were a scrapyard of rusting Soviet locos in Tashkent that constituted Uzbekistan’s national shrine to its railway heritage and the Bulgarian National Railway Museum in Ruse that had had to be unlocked by a sleepy attendant when I visited in the height of the tourist season and whose dust-covered exhibits were labelled in Bulgarian only. This was a world away.
I cycled back to the Old City over the Akmens Bridge. On the river below they were having speedboat races which I stopped to watch for a while before settling into a café by the riverside for an ice cream to watch the proceedings from a different angle. Besides, there was a purpose to the ice cream also. Prior to leaving, one of my Estonian students with limited English informed me that if I went to Latvia I must try a beer called ‘alus’ and an ice cream called ‘saldējums’. Excited by this insiders tip into Latvian specialities I eagerly ordered a saldējums only to be told by the waiter that saldējums was not a brand but instead the Latvian word for ‘ice cream’. Similarly, ‘alus’ meant ‘beer’ and what my student had been trying to tell me were the only two words in Latvian that he knew. The ice cream incidentally, was much the same as ice cream anywhere else in the world.[2]
Speedboat racing on the Daugara River
By now I was hot and tired, but I forced myself round one more sight, the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia 1940-89. The name alone betrays how most Latvians view their five decades as a member republic of the USSR, but whilst the museum was well-presented and interesting, it was also stiflingly hot and stuffy. This, coupled with my already over-heated and tired state meant that I did not manage to enjoy it as I should have done, but nonetheless the mock up of a gulag dormitory and collection of items made by gulag prisoners was moving.
I retired for tea in a pleasant café in the Old City and then cycled home, stocking up on groceries en route, mindful of the need to limit spending. Then I rested and read before going downstairs to check the semi-finals of the World Matchplay Darts (van Barneveld beat Wade), and chat to the receptionist (a different one, male this time) about Latvia, darts and that age-old favourite, football over a few beers before heading up the wooden hills to bed.

25th July, 2010 – Sigulda, Latvia
Experience has taught me that capital cities, no matter how beautiful or interesting, rarely give one a taste of the true flavour of a country. For that one must go to the provinces and so it was that on the second and last day of my short Latvian interlude, I decided to head out into the sticks.
Research on the net and in guidebooks had revealed two possible destinations for the day: Sigulda (‘The Switzerland of Latvia’) and Cēsis (‘The most Latvian town in Latvia’). I was undecided. A Latvian student of mine had recommended Cēsis, but Sigulda sounded better and more interesting. The night before I’d asked the receptionist who plumped for Sigulda whilst adding that they’re both on the same railway line so if Sigulda did not satisfy, I could always go on to Cēsis.
So Sigulda it was. I was footsore and tired however, even before I got on the train. It was another hot day and I walked over a mile from my hotel to the railway station, investigating the Freedom Monument and Riga’s Central Market en route, (I‘d long wanted to see the latter as it is housed in old zeppelin hangars acquired from the Germans after World War I).
Riga Central Market, once home to Zeppelins!
The train was a grumbling Soviet Era DMU that made its way slowly out of the capital towards Sigulda, stopping every few minutes at halts in the middle of nowhere and never exceeding about 40mph. The journey was a fascinating one; coming out of Riga the train passed by huge Soviet industrial complexes now dormant and vandalised and sprawling housing projects. Prior to that journey, Riga had appeared as very much a Mitteleuropean city; now her Soviet past was coming to light.
The city ended abruptly and then it was forest, endless flat forest, deciduous and coniferous, with the ramrod-straight railway line cutting through it like a knife. I was amazed that here, one of the most densely-populated and developed republics of the old Soviet Union, was so empty. Occasionally we’d stop at a halt with a few scattered houses around an unmade road and then the trees closed in again. Yes indeed, this was not Mitteleurope, this was Russia, that vast wasteland of trees punctuated only by tiny peasant settlements. I was truly in the east of the continent!
As we trundled through the seemingly endless forest, I recalled a film that I’d watched about a year or so previously entitled Defiance which told the story of a group of Jewish partisans who hid out in the forests of nearby Belarus, built a community and held out for over two years against the Nazis. Although it was a true story, I struggled to understand when watching it how a military machine as organised and methodical as the German Army could fail to flush out such a band of rebels, but riding through that forest, I understood only to well. Forests such as that are indescribably big and must have been almost impossible to police. It would have taken a force of thousands to flush out the partisans and I began to understand just how the group portrayed in Defiance and countless others managed to cause such chaos for the German troops occupying the USSR.
One settlement that looked particularly interesting was a place called Inčukalns. It had a station, a railway yard and a factory around which the people lived in workers’ housing units. As we passed I thought of how it reminded me of Revivim, the kibbutz I worked on in the Negev Desert and I thought, ‘If the Israelis were to build a kibbutz here, then this is what it would look like!’ Then I realised, were not Soviet settlements such as Inčukalns built along the same principles as the Jewish kibbutzim – that of the commune? It is only natural that they should share some similarities.
When I arrived in Sigulda it was stiflingly hot; a slight disappointment as I’d hoped that the ‘Switzerland of Latvia’ would be a little cooler than the capital, although that was always perhaps more hope than reality. After all, how Alpine can a place be in a country where the highest peak is a mere 311m?
I’d decided to follow a walking route of around 6km outlined in my guidebook that linked the three castles in the district – Sigulda, Krimulda and Turaida – as well as a famous cave, a couple of stately homes and an open-air museum. It was easy-going and pleasant although I would have preferred a little less heat and sun on my head. Sigulda Castle, a picturesque ruin built by the atmospherically-named Brethren of the Sword, stood behind the new castle, a 19th century Gothic pile with beautiful gardens that I can imagine politiburo members once retiring to. After investigating both and the charming Lutherean church by the village pond, there was a cable car ride over the Gauja Valley. Whilst waiting for the car to arrive, a man next to me got up and left, leaving his wallet on the wall by accident. ‘Idiot!’ I thought, rushing up to chase him and return it to him. It was only when I returned to the spot where I’d been sitting though, that I noticed that I’d done the very same thing and there was my own wallet sitting patiently on the wall where I’d been perched.
The mediaeval castle at Krimulda, this time built by the Archbishop of Riga who was the temporal as well as the spiritual leader of those parts back in the Middle Ages, was much destroyed and there was little of interest to see, but beside it was another 19th century stately home, now in use as a sanatorium. Wandering around the crumbling estate buildings and overgrown gardens, I was reminded of all those great 19th century Russian novels whose heroes and heroines shared their time between their St. Petersburg houses and their country estates where serfs doffed their caps and waited on them hand and foot. It was on an estate much like that at Krimulda that Yevgeny Onegin met Tatyana Larin, Yevgeny Bazarov ranted about nilhism and Konstantin Levin retired to work on the land and escape from the mindlessness of city life.
The sanatorium at Krimulda
After Krimulda there was a steep descent through the forest and then a walk by wetlands, (on a path built by Latvian volunteers and Peace Corps members soon after independence), to the Gutmanis Cave, the largest in the Baltic States and home to the legend of Maija, the Rose of Turaida, a young maiden who killed herself rather than lose her purity to a Polish nobleman who wanted her for his wife. For the traveller however, the main attraction is the graffiti, some of it centuries old, which covers the entire surface of the cave. That and the water, once thought to be holy and still very refreshing on a hot summer’s day.
Refreshing cave water not withstanding, by this time I was tired, footsore and hot, and the final part of the trek was a stiff climb up the valley side to Turaida. As hills go it was no great shakes I suppose, but in my state it was truly the Hill of Hell and by the time I eventually conquered it I was streaming with sweat and ready for the train home.
At the top though was a restaurant, a Soviet Era canteen in a 1960s concrete block with faded linoleum table covers and a selection of proletarian staples served by an unsmiling matron of uncertain years. A lot of people would have sniffed at such an establishment, but to me it was a piece of history for such canteens are few and far between these days and they get less in number, (or even worse, they get renovated!), every year. To top it off, this place even had a small exhibition on the history of communal dining in the Soviet Union which I perused with relish. According to the exhibition, during Soviet times when there were often shortages in the shops, the same was not true in restaurants and so many people dined out just because they couldn’t get some of the foods that they wanted otherwise!
Having restored a little of my strength, I paid to enter the Turaidas Muzejrezervāts, an open-air museum that also included Turaida Castle within its grounds. The museum was excellent, similar to the Skansa in Stockholm or the Blists Hill Museum at Ironbridge where old buildings have been reconstructed and traditional crafts and occupations are re-enacted. Of particular interest was the church with the grave of Maija, the Rose of Turaida outside. The main attraction though was Turaida’s castle, another of the Archbishop of Riga’s fortresses and the best of all three castles that I’d visited that day. Built out of brick, not stone and largely restored, one can explore its rooms and climb up the enormous circular tower from the top of which stunning views of the entire district are afforded. Although with time pressing and my exhaustion now being almost complete, I didn’t manage to see all the exhibits in the park I did manage to explore the village bath house, blacksmiths and several other buildings before taking the No. 12 bus back to the railway station and then the plodding train back to Riga, my feet up on the opposite seat all the way.
The view from Turaida Castle, looking back towards Sigulda
In Riga I made a detour to view the Academy of Sciences, a Stalinist wedding cake monolith akin to the Seven Sisters in Moscow and essential viewing on any Red Tourist’s Riga itinerary. That done, I caught a trolleybus up to Baltā Pirts, apparently the best place in town for a sauna and good bathe.
Well, the best place in town when it is open that is, but it was a Sunday that day and obviously masseurs take the Sabbath seriously in Latvia as it was well and truly shut, so I left unwashed with a couple of hours to kill before I was due at the airport so I decided to walk to the hotel. After all, it didn’t look that far on the map…
Riga though, is an almightily spread-out city and the streets seemed never-ending. Nonetheless, it was interesting strolling through the non-touristy parts of town, past a brick Lutheran church, a railway yard, a football stadium, an old fire station with a curious little watchtower, shops, flats and a theatre. Here Riga did appear more eastern and Russified. She has countless beautiful wooden buildings of a design not seen in Germany and the other Central European countries and as I walked down those streets in the twilight I half expected revolution to break out just as it had in the very similar streets shone in the film versions of Dr. Zhivago.
One of the wooden buildings of Riga
I dined at a canteen half-way to my hotel and then walked on, the receptionist kindly letting me take a shower for free before catching my transportation on to the airport, a Baltic Air minibus that turned out to be a taxi with a chatty driver named Janis who cheerily discoursed on learning English, work and family before I left him outside the terminal and ended my first taster of the Baltics.
But what did I make of Latvia after this short yet tasty starter to my trip? She was not a country that I’d had a particularly fixed impression of beforehand and afterwards I could not say that it was any different. Despite shouting her independence and identity at every opportunity and flying her flag with great pride at every occasion, she still seemed unsure of what she was. A large dollop of Mitteleurope certainly, and an equally huge helping of Russia, add a dash of Scandinavia and bind it together with a language that does not have the familiar Slavic stresses in its delivery, and there you have Latvia, a cocktail of many ingredients but none perhaps, unique to her borders.
One strange thing that I noticed was the amount of people, who spoke English to one another in Latvia, (and I’m not talking about native English speakers who were few and far between). Ok, so tourists from other European countries account for some of that, but certainly not all. I read that ethnic Latvians constitute only 58% of the country’s population and that a significant proportion of her citizens don’t actually speak Latvian, but even so, why English? Surely Russian is a far more natural lingua franca or is it just that hatred of all things Soviet extends to language as well?
Anyhow, that was Latvia. I’d enjoyed it immensely, but it was time to move on to another former Soviet Republic whose citizens in the airport waiting area looked far swarthier and oriental. My next destination, though once part of the same country, was far less European and developed. Next up, Georgia!

Next part: Tbilisi, Mtskheta and Kazbegi

[1] Owned by the same company that I later flew to Tbilisi with and whose taxi took me to the airport. They seemed to be doing well and running half of Latvia despite having an absolutely hideous colour scheme that mainly consisted of lime green.
[2] Except for the Philippines that is. There the ice cream is weird. See my travelogue for details.


  1. The construction of this Turauda Castle took three centuries starting from 13th century and ending in 16th century.For More Photos:

    1. Ali, nice photos. One of them looks familiar... I am happy for you to use it but can you post a link back to here please?