Latvia (June 2008)

The sun sets at 10:30, but the orange glow never leaves the sky.  It just slowly goes from northwest to north and northeast.  Then the sun rises at 5:00.  AND we still have 3 more weeks before mid-summer. 


2AM horizon … we are getting to the land of the midnight sun.



We stayed at a “marina” that is part of the most posh hotel in the city.  The fee was not high, the toilets and showers modern and clean, and there was a sauna and laundry.


The space is limited but the facilities are excellent


The hotel is on a channel that is fairly industrial, joining the Baltic with a marshy, large inland lake.  Two bridges (and the shallowness of the lake) kept us from going further upstream.  On the other side of the channel there are large brick warehouses is a sad state of disrepair.  We are not even sure there are still in use. 


In the city the Russian and Soviet influences on the buildings are strong.     

A daunting building and the signage is Russian … not sure what it says


Russian-style tenements that are literally falling apart … a major part of the local housing.


There are a number of these buildings in various states of disintegration … not sure if they are slated for a rebuild or teardown.



The number of very old large wooden buildings is surprising … it seems that the wide streets prevent crossover fires in the event one of these units catches fire.


Like a set from a WWII movie only this is the real thing


The streets are a combination of asphalt and cobblestones; the cobblestones are large with deep ruts between them so that walking is not easy.  Snow plowing North-American style would be out of the question.


Cobblestone road … limited parking … wonder what it is like in the winter



St. Trinity Church (Evangelical Lutheran is crumbling.  A large portico has been erected over the main door to keep worshippers from being hit by falling bricks from the tower. The clock tower has some ancient scaffolding from an abandoned restoration project that is in danger of crumbling.

The clock tower scaffolding has rotted out … repairs abandoned but at least the clock is absolutely correct twice a day.


Two other churches in the city are in much better condition

St. Anna’s Church, also Evangelical Lutheran, is high Baroque with more flourishes and gold than many cathedrals. 


The Roman Catholic cathedral, St. Joseph’s, is in the best condition.


St. Joseph’s Cathedral …most churches were re-consecrated after the Soviets left.



We went into a supermarket and were somewhat dismayed at the high security, wilting produce and meager stocked shelves.  Then we went to Peter’s Market, an open-air establishment with many stalls and a large hall, somewhat like the St. Lawrence Market in Toronto.  THIS is where people shop.


An interesting mix of church and commerce all sharing the same space and community

Stalls and weigh scales ready for the influx of farmers and their wares


 In the stalls we found women selling onions, garlic, carrots and many different kinds of potatoes that all looked similar to us, but were priced differently.   These stalls also sold homemade pickles.  There were a few stalls that have more delicate produce:  lettuce, spring onions, leeks, chives and strawberries. 


Flower stall in the open-air segment of the market …


In the large hall we found food organized by type.  The first row had a number of vendors selling pork:  feet, tails, heads as well as more conventional (to us) ribs, chops, tenderloin, etc.  Also, more types of smoked pork than we have seen before.  Then there were sweets and bakery goods.  Cheeses, butter and soured milk products were in the next aisle.  Really fresh produce followed, but most of it appeared to be imported.  We did not find carrots and potatoes covered with their home soil here as was in the outdoor stalls. Next came the chicken aisle with various cuts, whole chickens, marinated pieces and smoked.  There were several stalls with sausages, and one vendor sold smoked fish.  We bought a smoked sea bass and a smoked gar (long, skinny fish with a very long snout, almost resembling a swordfish).  Both were excellent eating.  We keep trying local products: meat, cheese, fish or beer.  It is amazing how things can be so different between places that are not separated by a great distance but perhaps by centuries of cultural isolation. We keep looking forward to the next port to discover new culinary delights that have been hidden from the North American resident.


Currently the Market Hall but past function is unknown … interesting eclectic style



So which part of the little piggy would you like? Lots of snouts, heads, tails and feet …


The country is proud of its musical heritage.  In Liepāja there is a Musicians’ Walk of Fame that includes blocks with bronzed palms of some of Latvia’s greatest musician and a guitar statue.


Rock and Roll symbolizes the west … good or bad … western marketing dominates 


The good … Latvia is trying very hard to rebuild a sense of cultural identity


The bad … gangs with their territory markers are everywhere


And the ugly … abandoned buildings left to rot dominate the cityscape



We could not find the House of Craftsmen that housed not only crafts, but artists making their wares.  The Latvian shoreline of the Baltic is rich with amber, and these stones are common in crafts for sale. 


Casinos seem to be everywhere … some ritzy but most appealing to the people who can least afford it


Latvia’s Border Guard …





This is a small village and is unusual to Western eyes.  Many of the buildings that may have been occupied by Soviet security are crumbling and boarded up.


A group of buildings that may have housed the border guards during Soviet times.



The prosperous houses have corrugated steel roofs and drab stucco facings.  The streets are very broad, but covered with rough gravel.


The less prosperous houses are rough-hewn wood with peeling paint and cracked windows. 



  There are structures that are isolated and crumbling and rusting and we have no idea what they were intended for. 

The fishing fleet is rusting; there are a few large boats, but most are small.  A large steel fishing boat is dry docked in a park. 


The “Dole” was built in the 1950’s in East Germany specifically for the Latvian fishing industry, and is typical of the boats in the much-diminished fleet. 


The Roman Catholic Church is very modern and prosperous looking, but is right next to what appeared to be military barracks that had been abandoned.  The Baptist and Lutheran churches were not as new and well cared for. 


A well maintained church on the grounds of the old barracks


The old barracks being salvaged for any usable material.



The customs dock no longer required but some officials remain we guess as part of a full employment policy by the military.


The old wooden but well maintained shack next to a brand new spa with pool.


There were ATMs for two banks (no branch, however), a post office, and market and a hardware store. There is a cultural centre; not sure if it is a museum or community centre or both.  Some of the houses looked like barns.  Woodpiles were in every yard; obviously an important source of energy in the winter.  There was a “subdivision” with a park and houses along the Baltic coast are the newest and finest.  A watchtower with a radar unit guards the harbour (ominously). 


A stark reminder of the era of Soviet occupation.


Birch and horse chestnut trees are in abundance, as are lilacs of every hue possible.

Yellow sheets of birch and pine pollen float on the water.  After dinner, a cuckoo sang its heart out for us.

There are exclusive residential areas that feature interesting architecture.


A man who keeps his boat here, but lives in Riga warmly greeted us.  He said ours was the first Canadian boat he has ever seen here.  The harbour master was equally friendly, and the boarder guard most impressed that we had a crew list already prepared for him. There is an undercurrent of fear and uncertainty in Latvia. The country is struggling to gain a foothold in a free market economy but the population is frozen in the grip of economic uncertainty.   




This city used to be a favorite vacation spot for the higher-up Russians.  The lovely broad beach would certainly have attracted them.


Clean, very clean … the people take pride in their public facilities


The beach has change rooms, WCs, swings and other playthings for kids, and snack stands.  Behind the beach are low dunes.  There does not seem to be any push to keep people off the dunes, which have a delicate eco-structure.


The boardwalks provide wheel chair access to the beach not to conserve the vegetation


 We strolled the shoreline trying to find / identify amber with no luck.  Then we took a boardwalk across the dunes into a park that was lovely and fascinating for us.  The park includes a large aqua park (water slides, wave pool, etc.), lagoons and ponds, sculpture, benches, woodlands, meadows, and anchors.  There must be over 30 anchors from large ships, the largest being 5 meters high and weighing 23 tons.  Some of the anchors include a length of anchor chain and they are artistically arranged along the “anchor walk.” 


The anchors are real and may have come from the scuttled freighters littering the shallows at the entrance to most Baltic state harbours. 


There is also a narrow gauge railway that runs through the park and an open-air museum displaying fishing village history.  It was all most attractive. 

The whole park environment is kid friendly … Do Not signs do not exist.


A sculpture park full of pollinating birch.


 Is this what they mean by “ a rock and a hard place”? A Canadian sculpture no less

“Time Out” by Don Dickson 2005


A commercial dock does not make it easy to get on and off a sailboat






Ventspils is a large industrial harbour, one of the largest on the Baltic.  The yacht harbour is in a corner of the industrial harbour with the fishing boats.  A couple of fishing boats landed, accompanied by their resident seagulls, and unloaded cartons (presumably of fish) next to a fish processing plant.  The plant spews forth steam and smoke, and thankfully we are upwind of the plant.  There are other large buildings near the yacht harbour, but they look abandoned and are crumbling. 


On the south pier that cradles the harbour we saw a sculpture called “Sea cow.”  It reminded us of the Toronto moose sculptures.  There are other cow sculptures in town; we have not figured out the connection of cows and Ventspils yet.


This one is the “famous” Sea Cow … go figure.


The Baltic coast of Latvia is primarily a long, broad beach with sand dunes and sand cliffs.  What a resort opportunity.  The shore off the beach in Ventspils is shallow far from shore (warm water).  The only danger on the beaches seems to be phosphorus from tracer bullets that have been disposed offshore and washed up on the beaches.  What a sad commentary on humanity.


We walked into town along the industrial riverside.  Ventspils is undergoing extensive reconstruction and is much more affluent than Liepāja.  The avenues and promenades are wide and tree-lined.  There are many parks with gardens, fountains and granite sculptures.  We saw more cow sculptures in town.  One curious cow had an oil pipeline complete with control valve joining the front and back halves of the beast.


Sea Cows, Traveling Cows and Pipeline Cows … udderly ridiculous


The “Touring Cow” had a handle on its back and straps to resemble a suitcase, and had stickers from around the world with “Cow Parade” on the stickers.  We will have to look up “Cow Parade” when we get connected to the Internet again to see what it is all about. 


Cows are big here … fiberglass cows … like the fiberglass moose in Toronto …why?


The Medieval Livonian Order Castle was a bit of a disappointment.  The building has been reconstructed so many times, it looks 19th century yellow stucco.  The entrance fee was $15/each, plus guidebook fee, plus guide fee so we did not go in. 


The steep entry fee plus the tour book plus the mandatory guide made the price of a visit out of reach. Sock it to the ”rich” tourists I guess.


There were also “flower sculptures” in which wire mesh figures were filled with mulch and then planted with flowers.  The ladybug sculpture had not yet been planted, so we could see how it was constructed.


A Lady Bug flower sculpture without the flowers … Aphids watch out


 The bobsled sculpture included the Latvian Olympic Team’s bobsled with flower-figures pushing it. 



So we have these leftover bobsleds … can anyone figure out how to make it into a planter?


The House of Crafts was a disappointment; the knitting, crocheting and weaving were OK, but the work was not fine and the colours a bit garish.  There were also amber jewelry pieces, again not to our liking.  The house was an old schoolhouse, and one of the rooms had been reconstructed.  Except that the books and blackboard writing were in Latvian, it looked like an early 20th century North American classroom.


There was an open-air market with food stalls, clothing stalls, and a hall in which meat (mainly pork) were sold.  Although there is a fishing fleet and fish processing plant here, there were no fish products in the market.  Honey seems to be a major agricultural product. 


Open-air markets abound in the smaller centres … each vendor watching the other like a hawk


Although some of the buildings are in poor shape, the derelict ones are boarded up.  Some modern large houses with rather strange architectural styles are also prevalent. 


This one is in the central square …may be historic … definitely crumbling


The police station was in very sad shape:  a stucco building with peeling paint and cracked windows.  Video surveillance was evident everywhere.



The small fishing town had about 15 fishing boats in the river harbour, but none of them looked as if they had seen business in a while.  The floating pontoon for visiting yachts was full, but in a poor state.  People from another boat said there was a “supermarket” but no houses.  We did not have time to explore the town, so are not sure if the report was accurate.


Room for 6 boats … no facilities … and a mast-eating tree guarding the port side of the dock.





Massive amounts of money spent for reconstruction of tourist centres


This is the capital of Latvia and it is clear money has gone to reconstruction here as a first priority.  The buildings that are abandoned and in poor condition are at least boarded up properly, and there is a much smaller percentage of them that are in that condition, at least in the old town / downtown area. 


Some building are abandoned waiting for funds to do a rebuild or teardown


Riga’s Sinagogas undergoing a major renovation. It was “acquired” by the neighboring church during WWII to prevent it from being torn down by the Germans. The site is protected by armed guards who did not want their picture taken.


Sign posted at the site indicating EU funding for the restoration



We were impressed with the parks and playgrounds in both Ventspils and Riga.  The parks are well landscaped and have plenty of benches; there are often fountains and/or sculpture in the parks.


Kids and moms/nannies having a great time in one of the many city parks


Not exactly as we did it in North America … this one has a little twist


They even have a kite eating tree … shades of “Charlie Brown”



Latest in boating fashion … high heels in a pedal boat


Intense statuary … the government has encouraged public display of the arts


A tradition seems to involve engraving couples names on a lock and then securing them to one of the park bridges. In some cases smaller locks are added as children are born.

Lovely Park from a distance … filled during the day with drunks and drug addicts


We also see an abundance of shops with toys and children’s clothing.  This indicates to us that children are a focus for many Latvians.  There are welcoming spaces for them.




Riga was heavily bombed during the Second World War, so most of the buildings have been reconstructed based on how they looked during the first half of the 20th century. 


War damage or neglect? The results are the same.


Most of the building styles are described as eclectic, since the original building from medieval times had been destroyed and rebuilt many times throughout history.


Medieval and modern reconstructions in the old part of Riga



 Although the Latvians were delighted when the Soviet occupation ended in the 1990’s, they have left many of the Russian and Soviet sculptures intact.


19 Century Eastern Orthodox church beautifully reconstructed … was converted into  a science centre under the Soviets


Parks and kids abound in the inner city

Stark sculptures abound …all lack any kind of plaque explaining their significance


A tribute to a graphic artist … looks like Fred Astaire


 Some of the buildings (they look like warehouses) are 6-10 story brick buildings and the steep roof is 3-5 of the stories.

The roofing contractor must pay a huge insurance premium for staff to work on this pitch



Street musicians abound.  We passed the Latvian Academy of Music and heard an ensemble practicing a Mozart symphony.  We were thrilled to see the National Opera had June productions, including Wagner’s Sigfried. 


The Latvian National Opera House


Some serious Opera fans



We went to the box office and found a long line; one window open; each customer was taking about 10 minutes; an unfamiliar Dvorak opera was scheduled for last (Saturday) night, and we were not sure of our status on Sunday / Monday at that time.  In short, we gave up our place in the line.  Sigfried was not scheduled until Wednesday. 


Buskers are everywhere … some good … most bad … this one had a bad reed


The market in Riga is huge.  4 old hangers that were used for Zeppelins have been converted into market stalls, and in the summer outdoor stalls are also in operation.


Zeppelin hangers converted into market space …” you can get anything you want …”


 The first hanger was devoted to fish!  We bought more smoked bass and a piece of salmon that will serve us for two meals, for $10. and it is not farmed fish.  There is more fresh salmon on sale here then we have ever seen and wonder where it all goes when the market closes. The next hanger was devoted to milk and cheese.  The third hanger to herbs/spices, honey, dried beans, nuts and fresh produce.  The forth hanger was mainly sausages and chicken.  The outdoor stalls sold fresh produce, clothing, shoes, glasses, etc. etc.  


Vast selection of goods … all staff were women as were most of the customers


The main souvenir of any quality is amber jewelry.  The selection of good quality jewelry in Riga is much better than in other Latvian cities.  The other handicrafts are of mediocre quality. 


The elderly poor are very much in view. Women for the most part, sleeping in the streets, begging, looking and dressing very much like people defeated by a system that can no longer support their meager requirements.


An elderly woman driven to begging by an overburdened social system


 Inflation is the highest in the EU and the newspapers call the government corrupt and ineffective. There may have been a promise of economic recovery but personal greed has once again made sure the wealth stays with a small minority of the population.  The women seem to form the backbone of the market place be it in the private shops, street vendors or central market. Men are absent from the customer interface and lurk about looking like a bunch of mafia wanabees.


Like all cities situated on water, Riga has excursion boats to take people up and down the Daugava River.  The first one we saw was a replica of a paddlewheel river boat, and was called Misisipi (too cheap to use all the s’s and i’s?)


Didn’t the rhyme go … one Mississippi


We have seen many cats wandering the streets in every town we have visited.  Cats are celebrated on two towers on the Cat House.


House cat … wary and definitely not interested in a scratch 

Building cat …must be big mice around


Many of the women titter in high spike heels on the rough cobblestone streets that we find uneven enough in running shoes.  Women are not in the highest western fashions, and the men do not smile.  At 17% inflation, life is somewhat grim for many folks.  Men and women are begging on the streets, and typical of impoverished life, gambling and lotteries are popular.


Fashion is not a big issue but stiletto heels are everywhere


The marina here leaves much to be desired.  The swimming pool, fuel dock and washing machines are no longer here.  The showers are dirty (the men’s smelly) and the women’s toilet was not working on Friday.  Commercial docks are nearby and a railway track runs right by the marina.  All hours of the day and night an engine shunts freight cars onto commercial dock sidings creating the racket of multiple cars starting and stopping.


Pilgrim was the sixth Canadian boat to visit Riga since 1996.


It is traditional to fly the country flag of visiting yachts … some marinas did not have a Canadian Flag


A rundown marina … a helpful harbormaster … we ended up not using any facilities


 One day we were downwind of the local incinerator spewing smoke and fine ash.  Recycling is not practiced, but we noticed people using the trash bins.  Collection of trash may not be often enough or done with care since garbage litters the streets and waterways.


Gang territorial markers abound … one does not feel safe at night