Baltic Country #2: Latvija

Friday, August 10, 2018

Today was a travel day. We left Vilnius at 8:30am and, with a few stops along the way, finally got to our hotel in Riga, Latvija around 4pm (yes, that is how it is spelled on the "Welcome to Latvija" sign). Sveiki!

By the way: this is the second of 5 countries we will visit over the two weeks. And they use 5 different languages and alphabets!

So what happened between 8:30 and 4:00?

We first drove for about 2 hours. For the most part the countryside reminded us of.....Wisconsin! There are no mountains in the Baltics, and only a few hills; it is very flat. So we passed farm after farm after forest after farm.

Then a rest stop because EU rules state that bus and truck drivers must have a 30 minute stop after so many hours of driving. And if you switched out the language on the signs, this one looked like so many others we have seen, but almost an exact replica of the one in Morocco, except that it had a small zoo attached! None of our group was interested in paying the 1 Euro fee to get in.

Then another 90 minute ride to our lunch stop. We had sure worked up an appetite since breakfast! It was a fine, typical Tauck restaurant, but the best part was that it was about 150 yards from a beach on the Baltic Sea. Finally!!!!

Our next (and final) stop was in Riga. First up: the National Opera House (called locally "The White House").  This is a beautiful building, but not quite as magnificent as the one we saw in Vienna.

After we got a tour of the facilities, there was a Tauck surprise: a private 45 minute performance (accompanied by piano) by the famous Latvian opera star Sonora Vaice. (Sure sounds like a pun for "sonorous voice".) She sang arias from 5 different operas. Click here for a short video of part of it.  Wow! She hit some truly high notes!!!! Favorite sopranos--thinking of you!

From there we walked through the Old Town to our hotel, the Grand Palace, which started life in 1877 as the National Bank of Latvia. This old town reminded us a lot of the one in Prague: cobblestone streets, squares with musicians and cafes, churches, monuments, trendy shops, and lots of tourists.

One unique thing was an exhibit of Buddy Bears. Though this UNESCO Project has been touring the world since 2001, we had never heard of it! There are painted bears from 140 countries, all conveying a message of peace, equal rights, and respect for all. There was a kiosk selling mini bear figurines.  Unfortunately, one of the only ones still in stock was the USA Statue of Liberty bear.  Sad.

Soon it was time to eat again. We had a reservation at Zila Govs (meaning Blue Cow).  This restaurant features meat and fish, and every time someone goes in or out the door there is a loud "mooooo". We thought it might be kitschy / touristy, but it really wasn't. The weather was perfect, so we ate outside.  This time our menu was all in English, so you will have to translate to Latvian yourselves.

Wendy started with her first taste of borscht! This was probably the most beautiful bowl of soup we've ever seen.

The right side was the red beets; the left was kefir with garlic and mustard! In the center were hard boiled egg slices on top of a mound of sour cream, topped with sweet potato curled chips, and julienned cucumber plus decorative pea shoots. She LOVED it!

Next, in one of the oddest moments in our almost 44-year marriage, Wendy ordered the entrecote and Wayne ordered the redfish fillet with nettle mashed white beans! (Wendy had had fish so far at every meal and Wayne had veal at lunch).

The meat was.... meaty... but delicious.  The fish was interestingly prepared and, disappointingly, , Wayne refused to imbibe in the beet flavored quinoa.  It remains to be seen whether he will actually put a beet fork (or spoon) to mouth during this trip! We enjoyed the butter fried potatoes for the second time in one day. And Wendy enjoyed a salad (eat those veggies, other than roots, in this part of the world when they are offered).

To top it off, three traditional flavors of ice cream (chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry) with fruit for dessert.  Cool and refreshing and tasty!

Saturday, August 11, 2018

The heat that has plagued Europe this summer has followed us to Riga, but today was much cooler. In fact, our city guide Olga said it was the first nice day since early June! In Riga, like much of Europe, people do not generally have air conditioning in their houses. So heat spells like this can be particularly uncomfortable.

At 700,000 people, Riga is the largest Baltic city. About 33% of all Latvians live here. We started today's tour by walking through a neighborhood particularly noted for its Art Nouveau buildings.
Though we had done our usual pre-trip reading, we had no idea that such an area existed here! The story is that in the first few decades of the 20th century the leaders (Russians) wanted to attract people to come and live in Latvia. Many responded, and, in doing so, brought new energy and creativity to the city. During this period the population increased 5-fold! One of the most famous and prolific architects of this time was Michael Eisenstein, father of Sergei Eisenstein (who was born here), the renowned film director. Here are some of pere Eisenstein's creations:

(click on the photos to enlarge and see more of the ornate detail)

Many of these started out as homes for a single family! Over the years though, they have been turned into multi-family condos or repurposed as office buildings. Here are some other wonderful examples of this fanciful and imaginative style.

Next we went to the Riga Central Market , which bills itself as the largest market and bazaar in Europe. Loyal followers of this blog know how much we really like going to markets such as these. And this one was really huge. It is housed in several different pavilions with open-air markets in between. Our guide led us through at a pretty quick pace, but we were still able to get many great pix.

The first building was the Fish Pavilion. Many cases featured dozens of kinds of caviar!

Eels!  Always a favorite!

Next, bread made by Uzbekis:

Then stalls and stalls with colorful produce (the majority of which were from Latvian farms, but there were also choices like watermelon from Morocco!):

Then into the meat pavilion:

Then the spices, etc. pavilion:

Pickled goods. Smelled delicious!

And finally, outdoors at the flower section:

After the market we continued to walk around the old town area, learning more of the 700 year history of the city and country. Unlike Lithuania, which is overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, and Estonia, which is almost all Protestant, Latvia is about 40% of each. One of the largest churches is the Riga Cathedral (also known as The Dome Cathedral). The original building was erected in 1211, but has been added onto many times since. Aside from the varying styles of architecture, perhaps its most famous feature is the pipe organ. It contains an astonishing 6,718 pipes! We had wanted to visit this church, and when Olga told us (at 11:45)  that there was a special organ concert today at noon, we chose to leave the group and take advantage of that opportunity. About 500 other people were also in attendance.  WOW! Quite the powerful sound.  The concert lasted about 20 minutes (and that was just the right amount of time).

We headed back to the hotel to get a quick lunch (well....we wanted a quick lunch, but they served at a very leisurely pace).

The last official touring in Riga was an optional Jewish tour. Over half of our group trudged through a light rain to the bus to start the tour. The rain and gray skies were perfectly matched to our visit of Jewish Riga. We made three stops: the former Jewish Theatre, the site of the destroyed Choral Synagogue and Rumbula Forest. Like virtually every Jewish tour we’ve taken., the story does not end well.

A "Jews in Latvia" Museum  is housed in the theatre building. It presents a comprehensive history of the Jewish presence (and near elimination) in Riga. The exhibit was well curated with documents, photos, and profiles of community leaders and righteous people who tried to rescue Latvian Jews. And it chronicles the lives of Jews in Latvia— specifically Riga— from the 16th century through the Holocaust. If we weren’t dreading the visit to the Forest so much, we may have had a richer experience at the Museum.

Next, we drove to the memorial commemorating the Riga Choral Synagogue --  burned down with 400 Jews inside -- on July 4, 1941. The plaques and recreated parts of walls were chilling.

There was also a wall commemorating the righteous who had tried to save 900 Jews. The wall symbolizes the falling down of society, and the columns, with their names listed, shows that there were those who fought against this.

These individuals truly were heroes and deserve recognition, but that recognition on this particular plot of land felt discordant.

Finally, we drove just a few miles outside of town to the Rumbula Forest (past the old Jewish cemetery which had been desecrated during the Soviet occupation but since repurposed into a park with markers—the headstones were used as building materials). Having just been at the Ponar Forest outside Vilnius, we knew what we were headed for. Again, no concentration camp in Latvia— but a planned march with mass shootings in a remote area where the crime could be hidden. Only Jews were killed here— 25,000 during two massacre dates (November 30 and December 8,1941). We learned they brought in the officer who engineered the massacre at Babi Yar in the Ukraine because  "he did such a good job there."

The memorial was extraordinary. The primary section was a Hanukkiah surrounded by many stones memorializing the names of some of the murdered families. The stones were arranged in a Star of David shape. There were also huge boulders placed in several trenches marking where the massacres occurred.

(hard to get a good photo from ground level, plus there was a steady rain falling)

Finally, there was a plaque commemorating the horrors and indicating it was placed there during the Russisn occupation when, presumably, the story was not supposed to be told. It references Fascism in three languages; the idea being that the languages represent the people who suffered the most.

You'll notice that one of the languages is Russian. Certainly they lost many people during the War but clearly not in the same way as the Jews. But Olga told us that when she was a child in school, the history they learned stressed the suffering of the Russian people. That is why she and others work so hard to make sure the entire story is told.

Normally, we are not quite so graphic in the blog about what we see. But the stories and site represent something so horrific, we can’t hold back. In this age of growing hatred and rancor in our public discourse, it is frightening to see the results of where human cruelty can lead. Never again.

Our final dinner in Riga was at the Dome Fish Restaurant. As the name implies, everything on the menu was fish-related, except for one veal and one risotto offering. But unlike our experience in Vilnius, this menu had plenty of choices. And what we chose was divine, both in flavors and presentation!  We started with an amuse bouchée  of a glimmer of kilk (like smoked trout) with a dill wisp.

Next, we shared two types of tapas: kraukskigas renges (crispy fried herring with wasabi cream and chili coconut sauce)...

...and ogles cepts kartupelis (miniature charcoal grilled potatoes - actually served on hot stones! - with sour cream and red caviar). Spellcheck anyone?

And for those of you in awe of our eating range and quantity, yes— Wayne was an equal eating partner. Fantastic. 

We moved to ceptas juras kemmites (grilled scallops on cauliflower purée, spinach and lemongrass sauce)…

 ...and dienas loms - ok....that means "catch of the day" (which was perch pike - yes, that is one fish - mild but flakier than halibut, with spring peas on a mousse of potatoes).

The presentation was gorgeous and the flavors delicately scrumptious. There was also a beautiful selection of breads in the basket with delicious flavored butters— this time one with hemp seeds. We finished with a creme brûlée with berries and sorbet.

Perfection. A wonderful meal to wrap up our Riga visit.

Tomorrow....on to Estonia!

Love,   w&w……………...

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