Part 3 of our Unbelievable Journey Across Europe at the Height of the Pandemic
After leaving the capital city of Lithuania we headed towards further north to reach the Baltic sea, driving through the former Soviet Union. The countryside had been the same or very much similar since we left Warsaw. The Baltic states are relatively flat with few villages and even fewer towns hiding among the sloping hills. Nevertheless, the landscape is as picturesque as it can be and looks as it had been painted by a talented artist who especially liked placing rivers and lakes all over the terrain. This beautiful setting was defaced by the road we were driving on and by our vehicles. Speaking of the latter: most of the license plates were Lithuanian, Estonian, and Latvian but you could see a few Polish and Finnish plates besides the very few cars from other countries of the European Union. Upon entering Latvia, we started seeing more and more plates from Russia. While in Lithuania most of the folks were Lithuanians, in Latvia barely 60 % with a large 25% Russian ethnic group legging behind. I remember Riga from my childhood where those prominent (communist) party leaders went vacationing from the Easter block when Latvia still was an SSR. Arriving at our hotel on the Beach in Jūrmala just outside of Riga we could have taken advantage of our Russian if we had learnt it better in school which was compulsory back then in 1980s. A lot of Russian was spoken everywhere. That evening it was time to check the TV channels as we did that in Lithuania and this time most of the channels were from Russia and the “istan” countries (the suffix comes from Persian, meaning land — hence the land of the Turkmens etc.).
By that time, we learnt that a lot of people left the region and settled down in the EU leaving empty houses and apartments behind. If you take a look at the statistics, you will see that the density of Latvia is even less than that of the already rarely populated Lithuania making Latvia the 147th most populous country with 76.7 people living /sq mi. That kind of a migration is present everywhere in Central and Eastern Europe today. Jürmala where we stayed three nights used to be paradise for tourists either from the Soviet Union or from the former satellite countries. The resort is very well kept, clean and at some point, reminds you Russia and not just because of the Russians all over. We had great fun on the beach although we did not bath much in the sea. Besides relaxing among the dunes of the extremely white and wide sandy beach we discovered the countryside and payed a visit to the capital city.
Riga lies at the mouth of one of Latvia’s 12 000 rivers, the Daugava river at the sea just like Jürmala and that is why it comes as no surprise that it was a former Hanseatic League member being one of the major ports along the principal trading route of the League. Riga's 800 hundred years old historical center is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and probably most noted for its Art Nouveau and wooden architecture. We had a genuinely nice self-guided tour among these beautiful and iconic buildings and saw not too many visitors loitering and a couple of small groups only led by local guides. Noticed no signs of the pandemic apart from the fact that there were very few tourists in Riga.
It was interesting to see that no one wore a mask anywhere. Not in our hotel, nor in the shops and shopping malls and not even in the museums. Talking about the latter, we planned one museum visit only in Riga and picked the Latvian War Museum an awesome military exhibition in a superb medieval tower in downtown. In this free admission museum, you can learn Latvia’s history throughout the centuries and enjoy excellent presentations, read letters, see pictures, and study thousands of artifacts and weapons especially from the Great War and WWII. Worth a visit – do not miss it out if you are in Riga.
After centuries of Swedish, Polish-Lithuanian, and Russian rule, the independent Latvia was established in 1918 only which independence lasted till World War II. The country was first forced to incorporate into the Soviet Union, that was followed by Nazi occupation and then the re-occupation by the Soviets in 1944 to form the Latvian SSR. If you can still follow me and cope with this messy history, the restoration of Independence of the republic took place in 1990 and 1991.
To see the countryside, we chose to visit Gauja National Park in northeastern Latvia and Cēsis, known for its medieval castle. First built in the 12th hundreds and rebuilt many times since, it features some divine towers with superb views. You can buy your ticket to the castle or a combined ticket to the fortification and the History and Art Museum on castle grounds what we did to learn more about Latvia and its people. The visit is super cool and not just because you are given an old (looking) candle lantern to light the dark rooms inside of the castle but because of the history of the site. Well, I have to mention the virus again as we had those funny and (at the same time) sad moments here one more time what we have experienced a few times since we started our journey: how signs instructing you about not to overfill rooms were ignored. Remember the pool from Hungary where 9 people were allowed at the same time and there were ten times more? Here people could not have cared less.
On the way back to Jürmala we passed and stopped by an old, authentic Latvian farm featuring a windmill from centuries ago. The owner let us climb up the antique wooden staircase to the very top of the mill. Whoa, what an experience that was, you could smell not just the grains but life and the heavy past as well. In that evening we walked on the beach, listened to the sound of the waves mixed with the joyful cries of the seagulls of different sizes and colors and the heavy whisper of the wind as it blew the white sand across the dunes. As we walked and listened, we also stopped for the sun setting down on the horizon as it has been doing it for millions of years. We were happy to be part of it and we were ready to go home the next day.
Driving back to Hungary we picked a different road to Warsaw where we stopped for a night to rest. The next day we continued our trip on a different road again than we had come in. When we were getting close to the Polish Slovakian border and when driving in Slovakia we traveled through the breathtakingly beautiful Tatra Mountains with its numerous ski resorts, castles, wooden houses, remote villages and rivers (guiding us home) but that is another story. I hope you all enjoyed touring with us and since my abilities sometimes are limited to describe what we saw I let our pictures to do talk. STAY HEALTHY and I will see you on another trip soon, that will take us to the Balkans after this awesome adventure to the Baltics.