Trakai Castle

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Miniature of Trakai Castle

I checked out of my hotel in the capital, and flagged a cab out to the airport where a rental car was waiting for me.  In one of those rare moments of fore- (rather than hind-) sight, I asked for and received an English-speaking GPS.  After I retrieved the keys and started to head out of the gated area, I noticed the hotel right next to the parking lot.  It was big, but fairly devastated-looking.  I thought I might stay there, because my plane would be departing the morning after I returned the rental car at the end of my Lithuanian journey.  However, the unenthusiastic receptionist, the clanging work-crews tearing down half the place, and the stale cigarette smell in the lobby suggested I look elsewhere for a place a few days later.  For now, though, I had other destinations to visit.

Trakai Castle surrounded by frozen lake

The first place on the way to my stop for the evening was a most impressive castle, Trakai Castle, 30 minutes west of the capital.  You may have begun to notice a

In defensive structures, spiral staircases such as this one typically spiralled upward and to the right. This prevented right-handed swordsmen from attacking effectively, and favored right-handed defenders.

trend with me and castles.  It is true.  Castles draw me the way crumbs attract starving basement rats.  But even had I not seen the number of other castles throughout the region and in the South Caucasus area, this one would still have made the list.  Site selection by the original builders, and extensive renovating efforts by subsequent ones throughout the centuries, make this fascinating place a must-see for all castle enthuasiasts.  The castle occupies almost the entirety of a little island in the middle of a lake, conveniently out of trebuchet-range.  Presently, the only original part of the castle is the very foundation, where stones perhaps 15-20 rows high remained intact in places from the days of yore.

The exhibits on display are just okay, and seem to have been hauled all the way out there in haphazard fashion.  20th century china dishes from France are in glass cases next to woven purses from the mid 17th, for example.  The same room has a roped-off exhibit of 19th century German living-room furniture.  I looked at them all, but my head was in the medieval clouds where – as Captain of the Royal Guard – all that stuff would’ve just been in my way.

Archduke Vytautas the Great

Anyone planning to visit this castle would do well to (that’s right… I’m going to say it just once, myself!) go there in June.  I would recommend finding out when the events and festivals are being held in the castle and the town of Trakai, take a picnic lunch, find some shade and watch the show.  If there are no events planned for your visit, take that picnic lunch with you anyway, rent a rowboat and paddle around the lovely lake.

Well, while I was doing my parapet inspection and coming up with an overall plan to defend the Archduke, the local police were busy scribbling parking tickets.  One such ticket was pinned to my windshield wiper, although the time remaining on my pre-paid ticket – clearly displayed on the dashboard – indicated another 30 minutes or so yet.  I saw them a few cars over from mine, hard at work with their pads and pens, so I pointed out the discrepancy.  For once, my Russian upper limit finally matched someone’s lower comprehension limit, and one of the cops crumpled up the ticket and shoved it in his pocket with a grunt.  I expect that at some point, five years from now, I will be receiving a letter from the Lithuanian Division of Motor Vehicles with the notification that I have lost my driving privileges in that country over unpaid parking tickets.

Inside the castle grounds. Festivals and historical events are held here during the spring and summer months.

There was nothing stopping me at the present, however, so I hopped into the small grey rental and headed off to see more of Lithuania.

A Page from Erasmus

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Vilnius

Vilnius seems to be half-dressed.  Let me explain why that’s not a bad thing in this case.  I dig how the city looks and acts.  Of all the places I’ve been to in the Baltic region so far, Vilnius is the most intellectually busy and music-laden place yet.  I cannot begin to imagine what sort of income they pull down, but the bookstores are everywhere you look.  I first noticed the music on my quest for a quick, good dinner near the hotel the evening I arrived in Vilnius.  A few doors in the direction of Town Hall, a window was thrown open to the chilly evening air, and rather good piano music was spilling free down onto the street from it to passersby like me.  Not that many steps further, I walked by a window with the curtain partially closed, on the other side of which someone was working an unfortunate clarinet to the outer envelope of the poor instrument’s capability.  After dinner that first evening, I briefly sat in a lobby and listened to a women’s choir rehearsal, unnoticed on the other side of an open door to a large hall.  They sounded very good for the 20 minutes or so of my private concert.

Like the previous two capitals I had recently visited, Vilnius is also a university town.  Unlike in Tallinn and Riga, the Vilnius student population is visible and vocal.  I hiked up a nearby hill which I thought should promise a pretty good overlook of the city.  High Castle is on this hill, and is not so much a castle as it is an old, fortified tower with a fancy name.  The walk there took me past the university.  Thanks to the late-day crowds of students entering and leaving some of the eating places I noted along the way, I locked in a likely post-hike spot for a meal. 

Close to the University, with High Castle in the background.

Vilnius, as viewed from High Castle

The lookout spot was really a good one, I’m glad I hoofed it up there.  I can charitably say the meal afterward was cheap.  But the entertainment?   I spent the entire meal watching a table of students arguing passionately in a language I cannot in the slightest comprehend.  It was all very good.  I may not have known what they were saying, but they knew how to hold forth.  The one kid broke off into a five-minute speech-type thing that I almost applauded.  Their debate topic must’ve been a zinger.  It reminded me of a period in my life that I think back on fondly, when people around me actually wanted to debate things.  I’m not sure where that crowd went, but it has since been replaced by a muted, generally more indifferent one.  But now I’m digressing –

Right.  The clothes.  An overwhelming impression I get of the place is that Vilnius is less concerned with a shiny appearance than with some other, more important things.  It feels good to be in a place like this.

“When I get a little money, I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes.”  Desiderius Erasmus

Keeping Score

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A well-intentioned upgrade

I’ll get the amusing story out of the way, so that this post can then assume whatever tone will ultimately fit it best.  So, during check-in, the evening manager solemnly informed me of his pleasure on behalf of the hotel in upgrading my room from my requested single to a double.  “Great!” I thought.  “Nothing wrong with a bigger bed to stretch out in.”  Well, whatever his intention and no doubt from the goodness of their hearts, the hotel upgraded me from one of these tiny beds, to two!  What a deal!  I thanked them as though it were the most princely of gifts anyway.

KGB Central Headquarters Building

Some time ago, while getting ready for this trip to the region, I had made plans to go to the KGB Museum in Vilnius.  For me, part of this tour of the various former Soviet countries is really about trying to gain as close, as accurate and as sensitive an understanding of what the period was like for those who lived through the period as I possibly can.  The KGB Museum seemed an apt destination.

Although I could not take any pictures of the interior of this chilling building (the no-photography rule was strictly enforced here), a look at the menacing front façade hints at the unpleasantness of the place.  In a way, it is fitting that you readers won’t be getting a glimpse of the exterior: scenes like this are exactly the sum total view all but the most unlucky Lithuanians got as well.  Part of the exterior, something explained only during a tour of the inside, are the little, innocuous-seeming boxes which jut out from the basement floor along the base of the outside of the building.  A guard would stand there with a complete view of the outside.  If someone wandered too close to the building, the guard would phone up to the guard-shack, and MGB policemen would fly out of the building, nab the curious gazer and yank him inside.  Then, in no uncertain terms it would be explained to him or her, what would happen the next time they came around that building.  There were apparently no repeat-offenders, judging from the meticulously-kept MGB records of those who were warned.

Guard-posts like these ring the building

I will tell you, though, that the inside is a very creatively arranged museum.  Some of the eavesdropping and torture-cell displays are equal to what the imagination conjures up about that era: old, sinister, crude ways of making victims’ lives hell.  If you find yourself in Vilnius, go there just to see what the place feels like.  Then, come back and tell me what the hairs on the back of your neck did.

Bricks carrying the names of some of the KGB's victims surround the entire base of the former KGB Central Headquarters today.

I left the museum and tried to deconstruct how I felt about what I had just seen.  The “no photos!” cashier lady actually precipitated the thought avalanche.  She was an older woman, someone who according to my estimation was without a doubt intimately familiar with Soviet Vilnius.  Moreover, she wore the now-familiar bored, slightly frowning expression that creased for a moment when she angrily told me to put my camera away.  So, unfairly or otherwise, I ascribed to her the role of Soviet someone-or-other.  Here she was, working in a KGB museum.  Never mind what my thoughts of the place were; what were her thoughts?  How did she feel about her place of employment?  None of this was cleared up during my pathetic attempt at a joke, and as soon as the angry crease faded back to monotone sullenness, I knew there wasn’t going to be a second crack at close, everlasting friendship.  When my walkthrough of the KGB museum ended I left, disturbed both by the overall experience of the museum and my dismal social skills.  I thought about how Lithuanians like the woman at the ticket booth shared a sharply-divided past.  Depending on social and political circumstances, the extreme ends of the spectrum consisted of people who either benefitted from the old system, or else had their lives brutally, unwillingly ripped away from them. 

So, how does each group (and this includes today’s generational “hand-me-down” perspectives regarding that era) come to grips with such a past?  How do I, how do you, feel about places such as these?  Do they imply forgiveness but not forgetfulness?  Neither one nor the other?

More about this great city next time…

Judging a Lithuanian Book by its Cover

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I know this is a repeat-observation, but travel between the Baltic countries by bus is hard to beat.  About half of the space inside these interstate behemoths is allocated for what public aviation pawns off as “business class”.  At $5.00 a ticket-upgrade over regular seat-fares, it is not exactly a bank-breaker.  Once again, I rode in style.

For most of the ride, I stared outside to scrape whatever first impressions I could from this new country reeling by the bus window.  Initially, Latvia’s southern blandness melted unnoticeably into Lithuania’s northern one.  It’s like that question, “So, tell me, since it’s your birthday and you’re no longer in your 30s… how does it feel to be 40?”

I recalled a conversation I had with an acquaintance prior to taking this trip.  She told me about how – at least among the Lithuanians with whom she spoke – they don’t necessarily have anything particular against living in cities there.  However, given the choice between living in a small-town and in a much smaller village setting, they prefer the latter.  The oddity of that observation remained dormant right up until I crossed into Lithuania, because I had no practical use for and connection to it up until then.  The imminent border-crossing re-centered the comment into the forefront of my thoughts.  And wouldn’t you just know it, the “March of the Hamlets” started right up on cue.  With the notable exceptions of two larger towns, the flat terrain, the tall pines, the straight roads and tiny clusters of homes dotted the landscape like pips on dice practically the entire way to Vilnius.

The Vilnius outskirts greeted our bus with all the post-Soviet dreariness one might expect in this part of the world.  The overcast day and the quiet aboard the mostly-empty bus assuredly played a major contributing part in my pensive mood. 

As was the case with Armenia a while back, I reminded myself once again to stay unassuming, objective and open to whatever this place had to offer.  About ten years ago in a certain, exceptionally challenging, school, I somehow acquired the ability to strip past the presentation-style of a given lesson, in order to comprehend its point.  Lessons would be intentionally presented under a variety of circumstances.  My favorite saying at the time was “I’m a blank slate, waiting to be written on.”  Repeating that helped me get beyond what I thought I knew, and directly into the heart of what was around me.  I managed to nudge myself back over to this line of thinking, collected my bag from the underneath storage, and set about learning what I could of my new surroundings.

Visu Labu, from Latvia’s Asbury Park

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Several acquaintances of mine live throughout what has traditionally been called “Western Europe”.  They are enjoying life among the historical sites and rich old cultures of their host nations.  A frequent observation (if not necessarily a complaint) is that while those Western European towns and cities are old, they have a tendency toward uniformity in their age, appearance, style and so forth.  “You’ve seen one castle, you’ve seen ‘em all,” they will jokingly yawn.

Statue commemorating Latvian veterans of World War II

Liepaja city center

Kidding aside, it is difficult for someone from west of, say, Berlin, to maintain a jaded mindset in his or her surroundings in places like Liepaja.  This small-town city has a population of around 85,000, but makes enough noise for twice that many.  Liepaja prides itself on being a blue-collar kind of place, and night-clubs are not quite as flashy as those in Riga or in oligarch-owned Ventspils to the north.  If you’re looking for a fun (if loud) place well-represented by all age-groups, try Fontaine Hotel down along the canal next to the large Promenade Hotel.  There’s a wide range of music, and you can move from hall to hall in search of the live band most suited to your taste for the evening.  This place very much reminds me of a town on the New Jersey coast, where music coexists with amusement parks in such an effortless way that you don’t feel like the place is trying very hard to take your tourist dollars.  The money you do part with is fairly negligible, but the fun feel of the place is ubiquitous, free.  Cover-charges at the fanciest places are in single-digit dollars, and you walk in and out of most places for nothing.  The town is marketed in some of the tourist handouts as a tough, dockside Latvian rock haven, but everyone was courteous and friendly, crowds and bar-employees alike.

Karosta Naval Prison - note the "bed" icon denoting you can spend the night here.

View of back of prison

Along with its well-developed nightlife, Liepaja also has some interactive ways to teach tourists about the Soviet era.  One of these is a Soviet military prison at Karosta, where visitors can spend the night as “inmates”.  The other is a challenging game called “Escape from the USSR”, the premise of which is that you and fellow players have to smuggle an allied serviceman to a submarine waiting off the coast.  You don’t want to be spotted by the guards or their dogs, or else the gig is up and your mission fails.

Both were closed for the season when I traveled through, and I was haunted by the refrains of smart-alecs of the “You should’ve come in June!” crowd.  Curiosity brought me out to the prison, a naval brig during Soviet times.  I’m not too upset to have deprived the pretend guards of the opportunity to bark at me for 24 hours straight; I’ve been yelled at enough for one lifetime.  But people – mostly retirees – flock to this place for the overnight game, and from what I am told they love it.

Coastal forts at Liepaja

The other destination, the location of the “Escape” game, is a series of coastal forts along the Latvian coastline.  These bunkers and strongholds are somewhat reminiscent of Normandy, site of the famed summer 1944 invasion.  I’m including some pictures here for you, but stories of this obstacle-challenge game will have to be postponed until I can get back here in the summer.

“Goodbye” in Latvian is easy for me to remember.  Uz redzēšanos sounds almost exactly like “who’s reddish nose?”  The other parting phrase, Visu labu (“all the best”) is just plain fun to say.  Well, goodbye, all the best, and I will write again soon.

Hidden Treasures

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The freedom to drive myself around Latvia has also brought with it an unintended consequence: isolated from the outside for hours and hours at a time, I was cutting myself out of opportunities to interact with people from this country.  The bus ride from Tallinn to Riga at least provided neighbors and a chance for conversation.  So would the ride to Vilnius, when the time came to move on to Lithuania, I was sure.  It’s the days in between that I was wondering about.

It is funny how life works sometimes, and I find great personal satisfaction in observing each instance of what is called (rather incorrectly, I believe) “coincidence”.  No sooner than the thought formed that I was missing out on what should be a part of this whole experience of traveling, when a young hitchhiking couple came into view on the right shoulder.  I pulled right over.

Of the two, she was the English speaker.  His linguistic prowess was limited to Latvian, with vague signs of a recent swipe at German.  Both were friendly, but once we established his limitations in German, the guy switched to full-time listening.  She was very amicable and explained that they are both students in Riga, traveling to visit with her parents out west.  I asked her to show me on the map where it was they were headed, and we figured out a likely spot for them to get out on their continued journey home.  During the hour and a half we all spent together in the small grey hatchback, she talked about how excited she was for the post-college future, and about how important the United States is for her country.  Regarding the latter point, we couldn’t really get to the bottom of her version of “why”, as her English and my Russian just didn’t take us that far.  Regarding the first, it was nice to see the optimism of someone whose parents must have had a very different outlook on things at that age.

The couple got out at a bus-stop about 45 minutes from Liepaja.  I spent the remainder of the trip replaying the conversation in the car, and marveled at the power radiating out of these two – from her in a vocal, positive manner, and from him the way quiet, self-assured people come across to others around them.    Euripides, Greek playwright from around 500 B.C., admonishes us to “leave no stone unturned”.  People should be so lucky to have the luxury of time necessary to comply with such great advice.  Desperate people probably already do so.  I had no real conscious plan to overturn any stones during my trip, yet was rewarded by the company for a short while of these two all the same.

I’ve got some stories from Liepaja, and – for that half of you that are following along solely for the pictures – I’ll make sure there are a few of those as well in the next post.  Take care!

It Burns, Boss…

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Around your average VFW Post, they say that getting “napalm”-ed is probably the worst way to go, whenever the topic of this diabolical chemical compound comes up.  Essentially, you get this hyper-burning stuff on you, and there’s not a thing you can do about it.  Water won’t put it out.  Fervent prayer will occupy your mind only so long, but the napalm doesn’t care one iota.  It’s still there, happily burning away.  That’s what they say, anyway.  I can’t vouch for it from first-hand experience, but if you’ve ever heard of the stuff, you’ll in all likelihood agree that napalm is probably not a whole lot of fun.

Moments ago, I got “napalm”-ed with this questionnaire on a bombing run originating from this base of operations.  Luckily for me, there’s a way to get un-napalm-ed (I’m just making up all kinds of words right now, I know).  In short, my ticket out of this painful situation is to answer the following 11 questions, and in turn posit 11 of my own to you.  More clinically, here is the malady, and also the remedy:

The Napalm

A. You must post the rules.
B. Answer the questions the tagger set for you in their post and then create eleven new questions to ask the people you’ve tagged.
C. Tag eleven people and link to them on your post.
D. Let them know you’ve tagged them!

This is what I got “hit” with (including my answers in italics):

1.  If you could have any institution, building, thing, named after you, what would it be and why?

One of the less-populated islands in the South Pacific somewhere would bear my name.  This is because I plan to spend enough of my last years sailing that area that I will likely fall overboard and wash up there anyway.

2.  What is the most annoying commercial in the history of the world?

The “Where’s the Beef?” lady will haunt me into my twilight years.

3.  What modern convienience could you most do without?

Take all the Nooks, e-Readers and other electronic page-turners and I wouldn’t bat an eye.

4.  If you were reincarnated, what would you come back as?

I would come back as a Doberman called “Scipio”.

5.  What do you most often judge people for?

Unfortunately, I judge people most on the basis of who they think they are.  I can’t help but hone in on differences between what they say and do.

6.  If there were no negative consequences, what horrible crime would you commit?

Vice a single unmentionable act, I’d probably run the full gamut of things associated with a mob-boss: a little extortion here, some money-laundering there, that sort of thing.  I’d be vilified by their sum-total.

7.  What would your stripper name be?

This one’s easy: I’d be “Major Day”.

8.  What do you want other people to know about you?

 I think everyone should be aware that the completion of a highly-successful career, I am going to slip out the side-door a full 24 hours before the retirement ceremony.

9.  How will you survive the Kardashian virus, or has it already taken hold in your soul?

I’m sorry, the what?  My usual coping-mechanism showcases the “huh?” reflex.

10. What is your favorite childhood game?

By far, my favorite was “number-war”.  This is not the card-game, but rather a mix between hide-n-go-seek and capture-the-flag.  We tied cardboard pieces to our heads like a bookie’s cap, and ran around in the woods “killing” each other by calling out one another’s number as it was written on the cardboard piece.

11.  What is the meaning of life?

The meaning of life is the headlong rush to death.  There’s no two ways about that one.  How appropriate that this question is left for last.

The Cure

The last thing I must do on the path to full recovery is to shovel this new questionnaire off on eleven of you hapless victims.  So, without further ado…

1.  How close does what you’re doing in life match up with what you as a kid thought you’d be doing?

2.  Forester or Carrera?

3.  What is the most valuable piece of advice you’ve ever received?

4.  Where have you been but would insist everyone else steer clear of, and why?

5.  Your tv show was interrupted by news that a nuclear-tipped ICBM is going to pay a visit to a city nearest you in 10 minutes.  What burning conversation do you need to have right now, and with whom?

6.  What was the most meaningful present you have ever received?

7.  In your esteem, who is the most historically under-represented person ever, and conversely, the most overinflated person?

8.  Have you had a “one that got away” in your life, and does he or she know it?

9.  Do you have a plan, or are you “winging it”?

10.  What is the best thing someone could say to you right now?

11.  Let’s assume I just asked you the question you wanted to hear.  What did you answer?

Not Lost in Latvia

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This rental car idea was a pretty good one.  Getting out to Liepaja was so painless, that right then and there I decided I’d run the same game-plan in upcoming Lithuania (visit to capital, followed by a whole bunch of driving).  I fired up the strange squawking GPS, did a quick paper-map study to make sure my incomprehensible little electronic buddy was at least indicating the right general direction, and rolled out of Cĕsis after an early breakfast.  I was just turning onto the highway as the sun rose up over my left shoulder.

The radio offered only one dance-music station after the other, so I snapped it off in order to be with my thoughts for a while during the drive back through Riga.  I thought about the great town I had just visited, and about what a dramatically different post-Soviet experience Latvia seemed to be undergoing, compared to, say, Armenia. 

I like multi-level puzzles.  I enjoy thinking about problems that have both quantifiable and unquantifiable aspects to them, maybe because in the space between the brain and the heart is a semi-factual area where many different viewpoints have operating room.  To me, the Latvian-Armenian comparison became just such a question to ponder along the drive.  Economic comparison?  Done.  Demographic influences on each?  Considered – to the extent that I understand them, at any rate.  Possible geopolitical futures of the Baltic and South Caucasus regions?  Duly pondered.  I was beginning to feel that I was darned near to solving some serious world problems, when the building traffic around Riga required more of my attention than I could spare to the erstwhile mental exercise.  The GPS was getting rather excited as well, and staccato-bursts of gibberish increasingly brought the little screen back into my scan. 

The better part of a decade ago, Sandy and I drove up to Maine from North Carolina.  She’s from there, so for her the surroundings were familiar in a way in which they were not for me.  At some point on that drive, north of the coastal fishing villages, the road becomes straight for miles, flanked on either side with tall pine trees.  The stretch west of Riga is just like that for much of the way to Liepaja on the Baltic Sea coast.

I’ve got one surreal experience to share with all of you, and then I’ll call it a night.  I sat into the hotel bar downstairs to (at the bare minimum) use the free drink card they give you upon check-in.  There happened to be a hockey game on the screen, Dinamo Riga vs. Russia’s Avangard Omsk.  During the game, waitresses were frantically setting up tables in the bar’s dining area, down a few steps off to my right.  I glanced over to see them setting up glasses of orange-juice by each place-mat.  “What a weird place for a children’s birthday party”, I thought.  Soon after, clusters of college-age men began to pass by me, all dressed in sports-garb.  I raised a quizzical eyebrow to the bartender, who in turn pointed first at the screen, then at the young men trooping past.  As it happened, the players from both hockey-teams were staying at the hotel, having played the pre-recorded game currently being shown on our hotel bar’s t.v.-screen.  Everyone seemed to be on their best behavior while I finished my drink.  I slid the bartender a tip and went to explore the town a little.

My Medium-Sized Castle Not in Tuscany

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 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.

Cĕsis town, outside of the Castle gate

The morning view looking south into sleepy Cĕsis

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.

Patio restaurant of the 5-bedroom Province inn. Billed by the locals as "best food in town", lunch lived up to every bit of the hype.

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.

Cĕsis Castle

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.

FYI...

 
 
 
 “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)
 
 

No Two Days are Alike

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If you think you’ve got what it takes, you should ask for a wake-up call at the hotel where I stayed in Riga.  It was a wake-up call, yes, the phone certainly rang.  It was so much more, though, brothers and sisters.  The phone rang at an inconvenient time, and stopped before I could reach it.  Five minutes later, the door was shuddering from kicks, ham-fists, a battering ram, I don’t know.  It was taking a beating.  I jumped out of the shower, tried to get arrayed enough to open the door, and got there in time for… nothing.  Nobody was there, the crack-troops having displaced to some new staging area.  I mulled over but hadn’t decided what the nature of the attack was.  Someone was overly enthusiastic about their wake-up procedures, or else there was some unrelated calamity awaiting my attention.  Surely it could wait a few minutes.  Shrugging, I turned to rooting around for some clothes.  Unwisely, as it turns out, I had not first called the front-desk.  Having failed to do so, I ensured that there would be a third, final and ultimately successful attack on my room.  This one was done with Special-Forces stealth, an allegedly pre-announced key-card entry but which resulted in no small embarrassment all around.  I was already laughing about it by the time I related the siege to the front-desk folks, and right then and there asked NOT to be woken up the following morning.

I finished reading “Dogs of Riga” by Henning Mankell while still in Estonia prior to getting here.  It is a Cold War novel, albeit about fictional events in the days leading up to the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Make-believe aside, you could

Mankell - The Dogs of Riga

do worse than to read this book as a prelude to a visit.  I liked the mood it put me in, and I let my imagination take me somewhere other than Riga’s present.  I admit, I looked everywhere for signs of Detective Wallender’s haunts as described by the book, without much luck.  “Double Coffee” and other flashy touristy places have shoved aside the harsh austerity that must have been a facet of Wallender’s Riga.  This place does, though, still retain a certain Soviet flavor that Tallinn seems mostly to have rinsed and spit out.  I’ll try to think of a fitting description of Riga for you in the days to come.

I cannot with a straight face call the couple of days’-worth of meetings I had in Riga “work”, but as they were the only events really keeping me in the capital, their conclusion came to me like amnesty to a gun-runner.  I am free to go.  I look forward to telling you about a couple of great destinations in the days to come.  The first will be about Cĕsis (pronounced TSAYsis), a nice town to the east of Riga with its very own castle of the Livonian Knight era from the early 13th century.  The second is out on the Baltic coast, in Liepaja (LeeyaPAHya).  Most-frequented in the summer, Liepaja is a resort town which doubles as the home of Latvia’s Navy.  It also has some decaying coastal forts and defensive works that the Soviets used and which now function as an “Escape from the USSR” adventure game site for fit, crazy tourists.  Stick around.