Friday, June 6, 2008

Fintics #8: Sigulda, Gauja National Park, and farewell to Latvia

Mom, M., and I woke up at 5:45am to get an early start on the day. We took the tram from our Riga apartment to the vast central market where we expected to buy breakfast, but it wasn't yet open. It was a warm and still day, with what looked like a smoke-cloud hanging in the otherwise blue sky. Eventually the market DID open but our timing was a bit tight with respect to the train schedule; I seem to remember Mom and M. staying at the train platform (maybe buying our tickets? or did we buy them the day before?) and me going to the grocery store alone. This was the place (or one of the places) where I observed customers buying their groceries without exchanging a single word with the cashier. One of my purchases was cloudberry (bakeapple) yogourt. I was really surprised to see commercially-available cloudberry yogourt. To my knowledge, the plants are hard to cultivate, and only bear one berry per plant, so I would not have guessed that you could buy cloudberries in a cheap product like yogourt. (Expensive jams or liqueurs I would have guessed, but not yogourt.)

It had not rained in about two weeks, maybe more, so everything was very dry. Our train (another 1960s-era train, nothing fancy but passable) went mostly through forest. We could see from paths at the edge of the forest, or from occasional diggings for construction or roadworks, that the soil was deep sand. We passed several stations, some of which were just clearings in the woods, but the station at Sigulda was rather beautiful. Perhaps this is because after the Pskov-Riga railway went through in 1889, the local landowner sold off land for wealthy Riga-folk to build country houses.

Not having had much breakfast, we stopped in a cafe in Sigulda for pastries and the sort. Our next stop was the local tourist info kiosk to find out how to get to the national park (we had missed a bus, but could walk). The shop sold some traditional Latvian carved walking sticks. I didn't buy one, and I do regret it, because they were beautiful and as an example of a local handiwork, they are one of the few things that you can't now buy anywhere in the world, but I think I was worried about whether I would use it, and mostly, whether it would get confiscated by airport security.

(Somewhat out of context: I had a note for that day that a lot of people are very friendly. I think I was feeling guilty about my reaction on the evening we arrived in Riga. A man walked up to us outside the train station - recall that we were obviously tourists, with our luggage - and he looked questionable to me. It was dusk, and I misunderstood his imperfect English - I thought either that he wanted to sell us drugs or that he had bad intentions toward us - it turns out that he only seemed to want to ask us if we needed directions.)

So off we walked from Sigulda toward the park. Gauja National Park is located on either side of the Gauja River ravine. Over the millenia, the river has eroded the sand and the underlying soft sandstone. There is a cable-car over the river but we didn't take it. (I'm not sure how much I would have enjoyed the experience as I think I acquired a certain degree of vertigo as an adult.) We walked down one bank of the ravine, crossed a bridge, and then walked on a trail through the forest. It was nice to finally get into a forest, since although we had seen the forest from buses and trains, this was our first time walking in the country not the city. Most but not all of the flora looked familiar when it came to the trees, but the understory was a little more different. It was an attractive forest, with well-spaced trees, and although the trees had fully leafed out, the understory was full of diverse plants. (In eastern North American mature hardwood forests, once the trees leaf out, they cast so much shad that there isn't much growing below.)

One of our first destinations in the park was a famous cave, apparently the Baltics' largest. In size it was a little underwhelming, but it was neat. It was a large open space, with lots of light coming in. The soft sandstone of the cave was filled with "graffiti", except that can you call it graffiti if it's etchings of people's initials etc. from centuries ago? Many of these had eroded away to the point that you couldn't quite read them, which kind of added to the charm.

Next we hiked up the side of the ravine. There were stairs most of the way, but with some questionable steps along the way. At the top of the hill, we saw the stone ruins of a medieval castle. It was not made from the soft local sandstone, so I wondered how far away the stones had been transported from. A few more steps, and we could look across the valley to the next castle, that one in red brick. A few more steps, and we were at the top of the hill on the former grounds of a manor, which had been nationalised in the communist era and converted to a TB sanatorium.

We had a bus schedule so we could take the bus back down, but we had to find the bus stop. I saw one woman pass by pushing a baby stroller, but as soon as I smiled at her she looked away. Oh well... A few more steps, and we found ourselves in the museum-village, inside a convenience store. This was one of the rare occasions when the natives didn't speak much English, but communication wasn't a problem; we bought some ice cream, and thanks to pen and notebook and drawings, managed to figure what we needed to know. We found our bus-stop. The mini-bus looked oh-so-very-1980s Eastern bloc.

This was where Mom and M. went one way, and I another. M&M would spend more time in the park and a few more days in Latvia, but I would head off to visit my Helsinki friends. M&M got off the bus part way down (to visit another castle perhaps?) but I continued back into the town of Sigulda.

I had some time before the train back to Riga, so I stopped in a small restaurant for lunch. It was a little fancy-looking and pricy in comparison with some other Latvian restos, but it was one of my more interesting moments. At the next table there were a few Americans who had hired a few locals. I couldn't quite decide what it was; at first I thought it might be a foreign business delegation with the local chamber of commerce, but later I thought perhaps they were tourists who just hired local guides to get a better sense of the place. They talked a lot about Baltic culture and Baltic economics. They talked about how to foreign tourists, any single country wouldn't be enough of a "draw", yet the countries are too proud or divided or jealous to cooperate. The best quote I overheard was that "We Latvians have no friends," in that the Estonians think of themselves as distinct from the other Balts and connected to the Finns, and the Lithuanians feel a historical connection to Poland (because of a shared monarchy in, I think, the 16th century), leaving the Latvians with no friends except maybe Russia (she said it, not me!).

On my way back to Riga, I wrote in my notebook, "Aboard train: alcoholism must be a big problem - you often smell it off people in public, or see people drinking in public places, and sometimes the drinkers are very young people." I can no longer remember if there was a specific person on the train that prompted that in me. What I do remember aboard the train was the contrast of a young teenager, dressed punk-style, all in black, with a mohawk, surrounded by.... 2 "babushka" style older "peasant" women, one wearing a kerchief and carrying a bag of flowers, the other with her small dog sitting on a blanket on the seat next to her. The small dog was a source of great amusement to the young child sitting across the aisle. The train conductor didn't react at all to the dog.

(Lupines, by the way, are a very common wildflower throughout the Baltics. My Finnish friend would later tell me that one Finnish name for them is roses of the poor.)

Upon arrival in Riga, I had time for one more stroll through the vast market. The outdoor flower market was gorgeous. Mostly they sold cut flowers, but also plants, and even dahlia tubers with photos of the promised blooms. Since the flowers were so cheap, and so beautiful, I decided to buy some to bring to my Finnish friends. I choose a mixture of blue and white to recall the Finnish flag.

I caught the bus from the market to the airport. The way that ticket collection works on the airport line is that you board the bus, and a ticket collector (not the driver) comes to see you to collect the fare. (If you have bulky luggage, you have to pay extra!) The collector, a not-large woman perhaps in her 40s, seemed to know that trouble was in the air when a certain group of youths boarded, and they refused to pay. She went to talk to the driver, and (but?) the bus just drove on, and at some point they got off without paying. It wasn't only the refusal to pay, there was something else about them that was very disrespectful.

Riga Airport is a new building, very recently built, and is very attractive both outside and within. Our e-tickets said to check in something ridiculous like two hours early for a flight to Finland, and we thought maybe that was just being conservative, but we asked some locals who said you really do need that time. Check-in was manual (as in, computerised, but there weren't automatic self-serve kiosks) and the lined moved slowly. The only other quirk was that the waiting areas needed more bathrooms (there were lines for them). Otherwise it was a very comfortable and beautiful airport. To board the plane, we left the gate and hopped onto a shuttle bus which took us to the plane out on the tarmac.

The purchase of my Air Baltic flight had an interesting story behind it. Mom initially booked tickets for the three of us to fly from Riga to Helsinki on the last day of our trip, just before the Helsinki-New York flight. She got a very good deal on Air Baltic. After she booked this, I heard from my Helsinki friend, who travels a lot, and realised that the only way I could visit him was the last 2 days of my trip. I looked into changing my Riga-Helsinki ticket, and found out it would cost something like $100 plus any difference in fare. The new ticket was cheaper, but still I would have to pay $100. So instead I just bought a new ticket for... 1 Lat, or about $2.60 Canadian. Okay, there was a bit of surcharge but I think it came out to about $50 or $60 grand total!!! How can the airfare be so cheap? Air Baltic seems to do well by flying in Finnish vodka tourists for the weekend. My flight was a Friday AFTERNOON flight from Riga to Helsinki. They had a good number of empty seats on the plane to fill at whatever amount they could take in, and I guess what they really wanted to do was get the plane to Helsinki to embark a number of Finnish cash-cows.

This was the day when I was most grateful for travelling light. I had decided to travel only with carry-on luggage on this trip. Blue One (for our Helsinki-Oulu leg) and Air Baltic both restricted carry-on to one bag, period - not 2 pieces plus an extra small bag like on Air Canada - so I had one large (but legally-sized) backpack with all my stuff. This meant that in the morning when we left Riga for a daytrip to the national park, I didn't worry about having to go back to the apartment to get my extra luggage; I just carried my backpack all day long - from the early-morning tram in the city, through the market and train station, on the train to Sigulda, on our hike over hill and dale, on the minibus back to Sigulda, and so forth to the airport. I'm now sold on travelling light.

And there I was on a plane back to Helsinki.

1 comment:

Mark Reynolds said...

"Can you call it graffiti if it's etchings of people's initials etc. from centuries ago? "

I ran across that problem here, when I spotted a swastika carved into a pillar in the Cathedral: Was it recent, and therefore vandalism, or from '41-'44 and therefore history?