Russian language training has served me pretty well so far, especially in Ukraine. It’s been a reliable way of communicating with the many different ethnic groups of the South Caucasus region as well – so long as my target audience is either very bright to make up for my linguistic shortfalls, or else is very patient with me. I am finding, though, that using Russian in the Baltic States has so far been a mixed bag, earning me a variety of reactions from tolerance to blank stares, even cold shoulders. The hostility I can understand. There are still a lot of vivid memories of the wrong sort from a period not so long ago. It’s the “Tee-hee, you sure talk funny!” that I don’t quite get. There is a whole cohort of people (35 and younger) that have chopped Russian out of their lives. I guess that it is for them to choose to do so, but it seems there ought to be a replacement language which they could fall back on in order to communicate with their fellow Baltic neighbors, the EU member-countries to their west, and, yes, Russia. It surprises me that English has not filtered in to the same degree that Russian has filtered out of usage. Interesting. Anybody with insight into this, chime in please.
As you might imagine, under these conditions the Latvian countryside presents some minor obstacles to the non-Latvian whose major tools for communication are English, some Russian(ish) and meaningful facial expressions. On the plus side, all you need for financial transactions is a calculator or pen and paper. As for navigating, I have plenty of maps and a GPS that makes unintelligible squawks but keeps me on-course about 75% of the time. I like my odds of getting there and back just fine.
I checked out of the hotel, did a quick-turn through the rental car place and was outbound from the city. Cĕsis (spoken as “TSAYsis”) has an impressively old castle right in the middle of a nice little town. There are likely older castles out there, but Cĕsis is right up there with them, built in the beginning of the 13th Century. I got here in relatively decent time, having gotten off-track only once on the outskirts of Riga. It was lunchtime, so the castle would have to wait. I had a travel book that recommended a particular hotel, and while I opted to stay somewhere else, I ate lunch out on the enclosed patio of this place. Too many locals recommended the little inn’s restaurant for me to get any alternative ideas into my head.
There were some modern upgrades done to the castle, but they are so incongruent with the worn stones around them that I will not include those pictures here. In some sections of the original ruins, the wall is crumbled in, and the whole place reminded me of one of those wooly mammoth carcasses that are periodically unearthed in the Siberian tundra. You just know you’re looking at something really old, and the mind’s eye goes to work on the parts that the passage of time prevents you from seeing anymore.
The East Tower is completely dark until you emerge at the top of the spiral stairs, so they give you a candle-lantern beforehand which you can then juggle in the tight confines on the way up. I wondered how many night watchmen had to make the same frigid ascent as part of their daily grind. The West Tower is fairly unremarkable except for the dungeon, which you can climb down into. Missing were only some excruciating torture devices, emaciated prisoners and oversized rats. I walked back to my hotel promising that when I take charge of Cĕsis castle, at the very least the rats are coming back. No self-respecting dungeon goes without.“Simply by not owning three medium-sized castles in Tuscany I have saved enough money in the last forty years on insurance premiums alone to buy a medium-sized castle in Tuscany.” (Ludwig Mies van der Rohe)