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Our route:

  • Valmiera

  • Cesis

  • Sigulda

    29.07.02 - 30.07.02:
  • Riga

  • Daugavpils

    01.08.02 - 12.08.02:
  • Kraslava

  • Aglona

  •   Latvia
    On this page, we (will) describe our experiences in Latvia. Apart from the travelogue for this country you will also find a number of links to useful sites, ranging from general information to embassy homepages.

    Written by: Dorrit

    Now that Coen has amused you with our experiences in Finland and Estonia, it is my turn to tell you what we have been up to in Latvia and Lithuania.


    Via small country roads we drove from Tartu (Estonia) to the Latvian border. In a brand new custom office a very strict young woman in army uniform was commanding the Finnish people before us to open the car boot and the bonnet and was inspecting every inch with pressed lips. To us she was a lot friendlier and we could pass the border a lot quicker than the Fins. At first impression, Latvia seems a lot poorer than Estonia; a remarkable number of poorly looking people are walking along the roadside and are hitch-hiking for example. Initially, we wanted to stay in Valmiera and explore the Gauja-national park from there, but it wasn't really an attractive town, which made us decide to drive on to Cesis. Cesis looked a lot better, with its medieval centre full of terraces and beer stands. We managed to find a guarded parking place in the middle of town, directly next to the castle ruins.


    Kraslava The morning programme consisted of Cesis' sights: the St.Johns church that hasn't been maintained for over 50 years, the castle ruins from the 14th century and the castle park around it. We felt as if we were in the zoo… at the wrong side of the fence. People are staring at us as if we are from another planet! We wonder why, we do not really look that different from them, actually… Never mind, we just go for a nice walk in the Gauja national park… Right… after walking 7 km over a sandy road, haunted by swarms of horseflies and nearly run over by Latvians in very fast cars, the charms of the park could not really tempt us anymore. In Cesis we drowned this experience with different kinds of beer, since we happened to be there during the yearly Latvian beer festival. In the castle park, Latvian dance performances were held, so we managed to take in some culture that day. From 22:30 we danced with the Latvians to the music of the local band…


    After all the Latvian beer we had yesterday, we really needed to sleep late today. We consequently arrived a bit later in Sigulda in the south of the Gauja national park. After some household tasks we strengthened our inner selves with beer and soljanka (a lovely Russian soup) at the only terrace in Sigulda. We had a nice long talk with a group of young Latvians, then headed for another castle ruin. However, the castle ruins were at that moment used for the yearly opera festival and were closed for the public. As we were too lazy and as it was too hot to do anything else, we just sat down in the sun in the castle park and did some reading or just nothing at all.


    And another hot day; it is 30° C when we get up. The opera festival has ended and the ruins are free accessible again, but it turns out to be little worth our while. We took a walk via narrow forest paths to a viewpoint some km further north, during which I stepped on a snake. I was actually watching out for snakes, but this one I did not see in time since it slipped away for Coen and managed to get directly under my left foot. Luckily I jumped away in time, but it was frightening anyway. The view was very good though: deep down the Gauja-river, around it hills with forests and here and there a medieval castle or castle ruins. We crossed the 1060 metres broad valley by a rather rusty funicular to view some other castle ruins on the other side, but hardly anything was left of it. Since we were quite exhausted by all the walking we did today and by the heat we walked back and drove on the capital of Latvia: Riga.


    The idea was to have breakfast at a small terrace just outside the city centre, near to where we parked the van. However, just before breakfast arrived, an old lady at the table next to us dropped off her chair unconciously, probably due to the heat. We carried her inside with the help of her daughter and managed to reanimate her. Good thing we did a first aid course last October. The daughter was in a state, thinking her mother would die of a heart attack, since she had had heart problems before. Luckily, it wasn't all that bad. After quite some time the ambulance finally arrived: a brand new Mercedes bus with a bunch of heavily made-up girls who decided to take her to the hospital straight away. A lot of excitement so early in the morning, we really needed that breakfast now!

    After breakfast we had a thorough look at Riga. Like Tallinn, it has a beautiful old city centre. However, since it is twice as big, it has a totally different character from Tallinn, compared to it, Tallinn was a town rather than a city. Remarkable are the many Jugendstil-buildings with their beautifully decorated facades, some unfortunately rather run-down. Other than that the old Guilde-hall was very impressive: a very baroque, Dutch renaissance house which facade is one overwhelming mass of gold, ornaments and sculptures. In the occupation museum it became clear how beastly the Nazi's and especially the Soviets have behaved themselves here and how the Latvians have gained their independance from the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, it was a bit nationalistic and did not make any mention of the fact that over 30% of the inhabitants of independant Latvia are actually Russians, nor how these people are treated in the new Latvia.


    Kraslava We left Riga (after a lot of searching for the exit, since there are no signs whatsoever) and drove to Daugavpils (Dynaburg), approx. 200 km east of Riga and the second largest city of Latvia. More important: it is only 30 km west of Kraslava, where we will be doing our first IICD-project. We drove all day on the M6, comparable with a secondary road in Western Europe. Many people walk and cycle at the side of the road and sometimes a drunk crosses the road without warning. The motorway also runs straight through villages and is probably the only road which connects these villages with the world outside it. This would also explain why so many people walk at the side of the road. Today may be the warmest day since we left home in April, well maybe after Bergen (Norway). I hope the Finnish old lady that fainted yesterday takes it easy today! The landscape is a bit like Denmark (hilly, lots of grassland and some woodlands) and there are loads of storks everywhere, even along the roadside!

    After a lot of searching for a camping place that should be just outside Daugavpils, we made the mistake of taking a sandy road (many roads are not asphalted here) and halfway we sunk to the axes in the sand and got stuck! The van would not move an inch though we really tried everything: our wooden planks were just pushed aside by the wheels and the camping mattress we sacrificed for this purpose was ripped into small pieces. Besides, after every trial the van was buried deeper in the sand. Well, since we hadn't bought the sand plates yet - who could have guessed we would already need them here - we had no other choice than to ask the nearest farmer for help. His wife immediately smelled money and asked 20 Lt (40 EUR, which is more than a week's wage!), which with some trouble we managed to get down to 11 Lt, including sleeping and showering. The negociations were a bit difficult, since the "good" old lady only spoke Russian, but luckily her 17 year old daughter spoke fairly good English. After waiting in the heat for about an hour, the farmer reappeared with his tractor and got us out within half a minute. We took agelong showers at their place for revenge.


    After covering the last km to Kraslava, we first had a look at the village, since we were not expected at Ligija's place (our IICD-contact) until tonight. At noon an enormous storm burst out, the consequence of weeks of heat. Hailstones as big as small pebble stones were falling down, we were hoping that we would not have any severe damage to the van. At six pm. we arrived at Ligija's place and arranged safe parking and drinking water: Ligija's colleague Luba drove with us to the local spring. Ligija and Luba had prepared a feast-meal for us, with lovely food, several sorts of wine and Krim-champagne. The evening just flew by with lovely small-talk and deep discussions about the position of the Russian minority due to our visit to the occupation museum in Riga.


    Kraslava Our first day at school, read Kraslava Gymnasium. We discussed the planning of next week's workshop with Ligija and Luba and then started working. In the evening we were invited to Ligija's summer cottage. This turned out to be a former train wagon turned into summer cottage, directly at a lake where you could have a lovely swim. We spent the whole evening at the camp fire, had some barbeque and listened to Coen playing the guitar. We kindled the fire with a Soviet book about communism. That kind of books does not get the respect it used to get in the Baltic states..


    Worked all day, spent the night in the van drinking tea and reading books. Nothing much happened.


    The last prep-day. We spent the night at Luba's place, eating lovely Russian cakes called "pirogue" (I probably spelt it wrongly, sorry). These are cakes of the size of 2 m², filled with rice, baked cabbage or apple, which you cut slices from. We had a nice chat with Helen and Anna, Luba's sister and her daughter from St. Petersburg.


    Kraslava Today is the big day! We started at noon with an introduction round in the video hall. We introduced ourselves and I had prepared a slide show with pictures of Holland (windmills, clogs, tulips, canals… the works). There are 20 participants, all English teachers from different secondary schools in and around Kraslava, who come here every summer to do a summer ICT training. Last year the summer school lasted a week, but this year they had less sponsors and could not finance more than 2 days. The group was split into two groups of ten participants, since there were two classrooms with ten PC's each. One group were taught general ICT techniques by Ligija and Luba, during which the other group learned PowerPoint and Internet-basics from us. It was very interesting to do, but also quite tiring. After a one hour break at the end of the day it was time for the evening programme: speeches, champagne and snacks, as well as a get-acquainted-game at which the two groups had to make up our biographies using all sorts of articles they had to find first. Almost like a wedding party. During the evening I asked some people about life in Latvia; we really wondered how people cope with prices that are as high as in Western-Europe. We still do: most people don't earn more than 200 EUR a month. Many have their own vegetable gardens and catch fish from the rivers themselves, as the prices in the shops are much too high and the food is not very fresh. The rest of the night was spent dancing all kinds of bizarre Russian and Latvian dances, a lot of fun.


    Kraslava A lovely breakfast with Scottish pancakes in the school canteen, then another day of teaching. Coen has written a report about the workshop itself, so I will skip that and focus on the nice evening events that followed :o) Please check the section Our Projects for Coen's report. At the end of this second day we returned to the video hall for the formal presentation of the certificates. Coen and I held a short speech to thank the participants and the organizers and I have presented the diplomas. Per participant (i.e. 20 times) a picture was taken, so I just pretended to be the president and have - shaking hands with the participant, holding the certificate as a kind of SALTIII between us - grinned into the camera for minutes on end. Then it was our turn: after a speech, flowers, cards and stickers of Kraslava from the participants, Ligija gave us a heart-warming speech to thank us. She also gave us a bottle of Rigaer champagne and a bottle of Riga's balsam, a sort of Jaegermeister we think. I felt like a Olympic medal winner! We were given one hour to recover from our emotions, then it was time to drive to a sauna bath in a beautiful lake area north of Kraslava. Before taking a sauna we had something to eat and drink and the participants had made up some funny sketches. The (Russian) sauna was a real adventure: a wood fire heated an oven, which in turn heated a huge pile of stones. Over this, warm water, diluted with beer (!) was poured, which caused temperatures to rise up to 100° C. If things started to get too hot for you, you just jumped into the lake in front of the house. Before going into the lake for the last time you were hit with birch branches by a fellow sauna participant which was supposed to be a massage. Very bizarre! After sauna we had another round of food and drinks, Coen played guitar and sang duets with several of the ladies present and we all got quite drunk in the end.


    Today is our day off, but we got up early anyhow to have a last breakfast with the participants of the workshop. After saying goodbye we went back into the (by now very familiar) computer classroom and prepared the Web design and FrontPage training for the next two days.


    Kraslava The web design course was intended for teachers and pupils of the Kraslava gymnasium, ten persons in total. Because not every teacher understood enough English (the pupils did), Ligija and Luba translated simultaneously. After the FrontPage training those participants that wanted to (approx. 7), started working on their own website. In the meantime I worked on our site and Coen designed the website for the Kraslava Summer ICT school 2002 (i.e. the workshops we held last Monday and Tuesday). Afterwards, we were invited at Luba's place for another round of "pirogue" and have stuffed ourselves again with these delicious cakes.


    9:30 am we went to the meat halls with Dace, Velta's 17 year old daughter, to buy meat for the nasi tonight. An enormous hall filled with little stands where farmers sell their meat, among others whole pig-heads in cardboard boxes. We finished the web design course by explaining how to publish on the net and about free providers. Some of the participants were really interested and had worked the whole evening at their websites yesterday. Coen cooked Indonesian nasi for Ligija, Yuri (Ligija's husband), Luba and Velta, which was a big success. The rest of the evening was spent beer drinking around the campfire.


    We spent the day at school in the extremely hot computer room and worked on the website. In the evening we had a romantic pick-nick at a small beach at the Daugava-river.


    Another beautiful summer day spent in the computer room and working on the website. On the news sites on the internet we read that half of Europe has to cope with horrible weather, floods etc., but here the weather somehow stays fabulous: over 25° C, sunny, little wind.. We were invited for a farewell-meal at Ligija's place with Luba and Velta. Ligija had prepared delicious salmon-trout and had bought champagne. Since we had brought some bottles of that too, it became a merry evening full of farewell speeches by everyone. The three of them had bought a "Kraslava" mug and hand-woven bookmarker for each of us and had made a "friendship-certificate". We were really touched! We watched the video of the first two days of the workshop and of the sauna-evening and stayed till early in the morning chatting.


    Kraslava Before leaving Kraslava we quickly wanted to upload the website (which is finally finished so far!) to the internet, but of all days the server room was being painted today, meaning the server, network and internet connection are unavailable for two days at least! We walked back with Ligija (who had also come to school for nothing) to the van and agreed to meet up in 15 minutes to drive to the spring for fresh water. Just when we had put everything in the van in order and wanted to close the door behind us, we heard a loud bang from one of the cupboards. We soon discovered that the bottle of Rigaer champagne, which we had just moved to the cupboard after it had stood on the sink for days in the heat, had exploded. Champagne was running all over the floor, the cupboard was filled with glass splinters and everything else in that cupboard was soaked with champagne. Cursing, we spent the next hour cleaning up the mess, meanwhile fending off the wasps that came flying in squadrons to participate in this feast. Ligija made us a lovely lunch with omelette to cheer us up again (and achieved this goal pretty well too) and she and Luba had bought us a large bag full of Latvian goodies, from cheese to sweets, really touching! She invited us, now that we were staying another day anyway, to her summer cottage and have a nice swim. The idea was very appealing, so there we were, grilling sausages at the camp fire for one last time. We said goodbye for the very last time and returned to our champagne cave. The smell was not as bad as expected and we slept remarkably well.


    Our last stop before leaving Latvia is Aglona, the main goal of thousands of Catholic pilgrims, especially on Maria Ascension day (15 August, the day after tomorrow). Some of the pilgrims walk all the way from Poland to be in Aglona on this day! On our way there we passed many processions: groups of people carrying wooden crosses walking to Aglona. Ligija told us that some of them cover the last kilometres on their knees, but we did not see that ourselves. The church was huge and richly decorated, in the also enormous churchyard there was a healing spring where people were filling up water bottles and bathing the abscesses on their feet. Via a sandy road - with last week's bad experience near Daugavpils still fresh in our memories - we drove towards the Lithuanian border. The exit border of Latvia featured very unfriendly custom officers, but all in all we were through fairly quickly. In Lithuania the customs were a lot friendlier and we were in Lithuania within five minutes.


      Embassy links   Language  
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      Foreign embassies in Germany and German embassies abroad
      Foreign embassies in Britain and British embassies abroad
      Embassy of Latvia in Lithuania LV
      Embassy of Russia in Latvia

      General links   Language  
      Everything you want to know about the baltic countries
      Go East Travels
      Travels in Eastern Europe

    Our top 5 Baltics:

    1. Tallinn (Estonia)

    2. Vilnius (Lithuania)

    3. Riga (Latvia)

    4. Trakai (Lithuania)

    5. Cesis (Latvia)

    Soljanka recipe:

    500 gr. beef
    150 gr. salami
    150 gr. sausage (Frankfurter)
    2 onions
    2 tablespoons tomatopuree
    3 tomatoes
    4 gherkins
    1 tablespoon capers
    0.20 l. Sour cream
    1 lemon
    salt, pepper, 2 bay leaves

    Cook a bouillon from the beef and the bay leaves in 1,5 liters of water.
    Bake the fine cut onions, sausage, salami and tomatoes in butter. Add the bouillon, fine cut gherkins, capers and tomato puree and let it cook for 20 minutes. Add pepper and salt as you like.
    Serve with fresh lemon, dille and sour cream. The second day she tastes even better!