Thursday, May 30, 2019

Travelling in Latvia

Latvia has a wonderful train system that allows you to move between the major cities close to Riga easily and cheaply. It's not the VIA train system like Canada but more like the GO system around Toronto with less comfy seats. Jurmala to Riga and back cost 2.10 Euro and took about half an hour each way. There are passenger trains that go from one end of Latvia to the other but I haven't tried them yet.

There are also local buses that go from one city to another and stop all over the country. There are literally bus stops everywhere. Lithuania and Estonia are the same.

Latvia 100 Anniversary Bus Shelter on the way up the coast to Kolka.
Bus stop in Estonia close to the Latvian border taken on our way to Valga.
We travel by car because of our dog, and we travel a lot. Once you leave the major cities behind food and drink become a bit of a problem, unless you are okay with gas station food. I am not saying it is bad, as the gas stations have clean washrooms and great coffee machines, I just don't know the food. They have hot dogs but nothing I recognize and I just don't want to take any chances while I am travelling as the gas stations can be far apart. And we've grabbed food and discovered pickles on pizza-like disks and meat filling in what we thought was a dessert. (After that incident Chris said, "Why don't you make some sausage rolls?")  I expect this food problem would magically disappear if I spoke and read Latvian, but maybe not.

We also travel quite far by Latvian standards, often driving 3 or more hours to see something in the country side and I have been told Latvians don't usually drive that far. But we do and since we're Canadians we expect to be able to find fast food along the way (plus we don't want to leave the dog alone in the car). The cafe culture here, which I love, doesn't do fast food. It's quality food, and a meal is for relaxing here. I love that attitude, except when I am exploring. So many wonderful places to see! I have gotten back into the habit of making all of our food again. During the winter, I started making sausage rolls, samosas, small meaty tarts, cookies and cakes to take with us as well as water and fruit that we can eat without having to pull over.

Samosas have always been a little tricky (how hot is hot enough for the filling?) I have tried multiple types of wrappers (home made dough, filo pastry, egg roll wrappers, you get the idea.) I have tried to bake them and fry them.

My latest success?
I think I may have found the best  filling recipe, dough recipe and how to make them!
So for the filling I use this recipe: I make it as written except I add minced garlic to the ginger, pepper, onion mix.
Here is the recipe I use for the dough. I use olive oil instead of canola. It is easier to get in Latvia and healthier.
And I use this video to actually make the dough work. This is the first time it has been silky smooth and easy to roll. I knead it 8 minutes before I let it rest. How she makes the pockets is excellent. The dough is sturdy, flexible and stays together well. It fried up beautifully. You need two batches of dough for the amount of filling in the recipe I am using above.
Samosas! I fried this batch. Next batch I will try baking.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Just on Time Exhibit Museum of Decorative Arts and Design, Riga

The Just on Time exhibit at the Museum of Decorative Arts and Design was wonderful. I was impressed that the exhibit was signed in both English and Latvian, was easy to engage with and covered everything from the 1920's to the latest in eco-friendly designs created by Latvians today.  And it was an eclectic mix of artifacts, from true items of decorative art to airplane, car, toy and radio design. What really tied the exhibit together for me was the thread of the celebration of Latvian design, even under Soviet occupation.
While you were not to take photos of the exhibit, I took a few because it was closing and I wanted an opportunity to show how they used a relatively small area to pack a punch. I have also included photos of the supporting brochure.
Notice no barriers? This seems to be common in Latvia. In Canada I would have put up a barrier so people can't touch anything, but here there was no need. They do have docents in the gallery who patrol.Notice the classical motif in the linen and the strong use of colour in the watercolours of their production pottery.

This  exhibit was set up for the 100th anniversary of Latvia. Note the stylized 100 on the cover and the infinity symbol in the left hand corner for Latvia's 100th logo.

This layout  matched the front cover. Very clever! I would have loved if they had added a translation for English onto this design piece because I expect it was significant.

An explanation of the overall exhibit.

More explanation and I like the design colours. Latvians do not shy away from using colours North Americans might not consider for an exhibit.

Design as art was very well explained but the Design and prosperity section was weaker and the ties between the two were not as obvious. Really appreciated the use of video but the labelling in the video made it difficult to sometimes understand what the curatorial team was trying to achieve.

Really like this section thought would have loved a more thorough explanation of how plywood is produced especially the veneer section. Love, love, love the posters!

Here is the address of the museum. It cost me 5 Euros to see both this exhibit and the permanent collection. Totally worth it!

These pictures from the exhibit are from the 1920s section, in the early days of independence. Notice the use of geometric patterning and oak leaves. The oak  is very important to the Latvians. 
I was very naughty and took a few pictures of the permanent collection because it is so very impressive! Look at this rug! Beautiful colour and fabulous geometric design. Just one of the many reasons to visit the Museum of Decorative Arts and Design in Riga!
And yes they do have a gift shop. It was closed on the day I visited but I will be back if only to look at the pottery. I will definitely be coming back.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Prams, Parks and Apartments

You see prams everywhere in Riga, and all over Latvia. Women and men pushing prams through parks, sidewalks, down the side of roads and highways. The weather doesn't matter, prams are out in sunshine, sleet or snow. The babies are bundled up nice and tight but mothers and fathers are out there walking their babies everyday. Mind you the cold is not too bad here and there is not much snow in comparison to Canada. Today is -10C (cold for Riga) so when I walk Pumpkin this afternoon, I will see how many prams are out. And the prams don't always have a baby in them. Sometimes this is the way you get your groceries, wood and liquor home if you are older. I think this is because they are expensive so no one wants to throw them away and with those wide wheels, they are easy to push through the snow. I look at everything this way: 1 Euro = 1 Canadian dollar, but the exchange is 1 Euro=$1.50 CDN. So when I see a pram for 1200 Euros that's equivalent to $1800CDN! And that is a lot of money!
-10C and out pushing the pram. Notice the bikes against the railing. People are still riding them all winter long. They ride their bikes on the sidewalk here and also do most of their deliveries by bike downtown.

Prams are everywhere! The next day was much warmer, it had snowed and was sunny.
I go to the nearby park everyday for a sniff-a-thon with Pumpkin. As he is getting older our walks are more ambling and less trotting. Downtown or Centrs as it is called has a fair number of squares with paths through them with grass, statues and gardens with lots of benches. Even into December I saw people eating their lunch and dinner on the benches in the parks. This is less common now the snow has come. It is not very cold here, but it is a damp cold so having clothes that break the wind and keep you warm are important. So are having boots that are waterproof. Yes, there is snow but it melts frequently and you are surrounded by slush, plus they use a LOT of salt here. The parks are always maintained and there are garbage cans everywhere. Riga is a very clean city.
Pumpkin's park for his walk during the day after a fresh snowfall.

The park near my apartment where Pumpkin and I go for a walk everyday. It was a rare winter blue sky day. Between the beginning of December and middle of January Riga is under what seems like a perpetual cloud.
Riga is an incredibly walkable city and many people do not have cars because the city is so well laid out and the transportation is awesome. Most people live in apartments in Riga. Apartments are plentiful and like all major cities range from cheap or very expensive.  If you are going to live downtown, either go for an old pre-war building or rent brand spanking new. Apartments quality varies quite a bit. In our current apartment, when people walk upstairs our furniture vibrates- we hear nothing from our neighbours beside us but everything from upstairs. Be prepared to invest in a white noise machine and carpets for the sanity of the people who live below you. If we had to look again for an apartment we would pick the top floor. Many Latvians who live in Riga have a summer house where they can leave the noise of the city and now I understand why.

Early morning winter view from my apartment living room. Galleria Riga is across the street with the restaurants at the top. Shopping malls look like apartment buildings here in the downtown core of Riga.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Utena, Lithuania

Everywhere you go in Latvia and Lithuania, you are surrounded by the dead. Cemeteries are everywhere and people go the cemetery every week to clean the grave of their ancestors, place fresh flowers, light a candle and sit for a while. Flower sellers have booths beside the cemeteries and so do the makers of grave markers. At Christmas, the flower sellers sell many boughs of greenery to place on the graves. The war dead are also everywhere, Chris and I often finding graveyards of German soldiers from WWI as well as monuments to the Soviets in empty stretches of countryside or small towns. And so are memorials to the Holocaust-everywhere. Literally. 
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Rumbala Massacre Memorial. One of the murder sites.
Just outside of Riga are the two memorials to the Rumbala Massacre- where over 25000 Jews were slaughtered in the space of a few days, the second largest mass killing after Babi-Yar in the Ukraine- until the death camps came online. The Latvians are slowly coming to terms with the fact that a portion of their population was complicit with the Germans in eradicating the Jews from Latvia. It is still an issue, and their official history says, "They made us do it! and we were not bad people." Gotta love revisionist history. But at least they are trying to talk it out. Hopefully, eventually, they'll admit that yes, members of our population were just fine with the Final Solution, without being coerced.

The Latvians are ahead of the Lithuanians. While in Latvia, they are coming to grips with what happened from 1941-1944 by setting up multiple museums and memorials, Lithuania is still trying to figure it out, as these articles shows. Written in 2017, 76 years after the majority of the massacres took place in Lithuania, the idea that people are still trying to acknowledge the fact that, yes, you and your countrymen were complicit in the murder of  tens of thousands of people should not be that hard. But it is. 

People forget that, percentage wise, Lithuania was the most successful country at killing their own Jews in WWII. That Lithuanians did indeed help Germans round up and kill Jews. That they held the guns shooting the Jews.
Catholic Church in Utena
The perfect example of that is Utena, Lithuania. Chris and I visited it this past week, just after Christmas. We first were drawn to the town by this magnificent Catholic Church. There was a picture of Pope Francis on the side of it. He, at least, gets it. The irony of this magnificent Catholic Church being built in 1880-1884 in a Jewish town where 75% of the population was Jewish in 1897 was not lost on me after I started my research. 

Chris managed to find the Jewish Memorial site. There are three but we were only able to find this one. This is the physical location of the massacre of the Jewish population of Utena and surrounding area. Thousands of people. Over 1/3 of the town and almost all of the Jews in the Utena District were executed. Men, women and children. There is documented evidence that the Lithuanian community voluntarily marked the home of the Jews for the Germans and then looted their homes. The Germans were in Lithuania less than three months before the Utena Jews were dead.

The Central Memorial 

The site of the killing.

The site of the killing.
Pope Francis said it best. Until Lithuanians and Latvians confront their brutal past of xenophobia, murder and collaboration these countries will continue to wrestle with the ghosts of WWII and the Occupation. Let's hope for their own sake that they acknowledge the blood on their hands and can move forward productively.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Estonia, December 2018

We had the pleasure of visiting Estonia this past week and it was wonderful. It is colder than Latvia, and they speak a different language than Latvian. I really loved that we got to see the sun and blue sky! Not for very long because it is winter, but the difference it makes on your mental outlook to see the sun is amazing after seeing grey for weeks.
We rented a lovely house out in the forest that was an hour from Tallinn and an hour and half from Narva in the Lahemaa National Park. Well worth it and such a nice place. It is called the Ooandu Watermill. Margus, the owner was great. 
Small one bedroom cabin for the summer. This is on a little island that you get to by a foot bridge. We saw mallards swimming in the creek.

The main house where we stayed. It has a wood fired sauna! It had three bedrooms and one and half baths.

The sawmill across the creek. It is also has a one bedroom place available to rent in the summer.
There are two footbridges to the island.

The creek from the footbridge.

Laheema National Park is beautiful, right on the Baltic Sea and with old growth forests. The roads are snow covered at this time of year, but there are lots of communities within the park, including Vosu where you can buy groceries and walk on the public beach. Hard to find a cup of coffee though. There are three amazing manor houses within walking/driving distance.
Driving through the Laheema National Park at night through the old growth forest. There is a hint of the moon in the photo. This was a big deal for me since it was the first time I had seen the moon in weeks.
Chris was kind enough to drive me to Tallinn to see the medieval section, which is amazing. Much more intact than Riga's old town, Tallinn's old city has less "Russian built palaces" as Margus told us. Margus is probably referring to the number of Art Nouveau buildings in Riga. Given that it was quite cold and I had forgot to bring my down mittens, I don't have a lot of Tallinn photos as my husband took the majority of them, which I will post later.

Outer medieval walls.

Tallinn has a ferry to Sweden across the Baltic Sea which we might try next summer. We then went up the coast. We found this abandoned church on the way up. The ruins of Pirita Convent.

We then found drove up the coast and I got to take this photo of the Baltic Sea. And the sun!

The sun on the Baltic Sea.

Estonia is beautiful and well worth the visit!

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Ventspils Castle

Chris, Pumpkin and I visited Ventspils Castle in November. It was great and we will be back to visit again in the spring
Unlike a lot of Canadian historic sites that shut down in the winter, Latvian historic sites remain open. They charge admission, a few euros, but I think their philosophy is, "You're here, we're here, we're awesome even if it is not as good as it would normally be in the summer, so come on in." And they are right. We need an attitude adjustment in Canada. We're always so sorry that it's not perfect that we shut down. Instead we should be open not only for winter special events, but just open. Rant over.
The courtyard as you enter.
The castle. The tower is part of the original build.
Ventspils Castle was built by the Livonian Order in the mid to late thirteenth century. There was no activity in the grounds at the time of our visit, but the gardens were still lovely to walk through.
Pumpkin taking a walk through the grounds.
 Ventspils Castle does allow your dog to come into the castle/museum itself which was a first for me. The greeters to the museum were dressed in Latvian costume, spoke English, let us know that Pumpkin was okay to wander around in the building and that the Latvian 100th Anniversary display was an extra fee and also written entirely in Latvian. We decided not to see the Latvian 100th display. The inner courtyard is still intact and they have roofed the courtyard which allows them to heat the building.
The interior courtyard of the castle.

The interior courtyard of the castle. You can clearly see the later additions to the building.
There are several rooms with standard exhibits. Someone had some serious money to put into these exhibits. The cases are high quality and climate controlled. The labels are all in Latvian but they have some bronze age relics as well as medieval accoutrements on display. They do have plastic binder sheets with English descriptions available to support your understanding of some of the exhibits but they need to be updated as they don't match the cases very well and there is only one copy. They are also showing signs of wear. Some of the cases, particularly the ones that allowed for interactivity, have been damaged. (Isn't that always the way? If you are building it for the public to touch it needs to be made of titanium!)
One of the galleries with their very nice cases!
 The chapel and other great rooms were amazing. In every room there is an English label or explanation which was so helpful. You also sometimes forget that in the past for people to move from section to section of the castle you would have had to go outside in the ice and snow. And it gets cold here.
The great room fire place.
The chapel. The end of the Great Room leads to the chapel.
One of the seals marking the chapel wall which was uncovered during the archaeological excavations. 
My very favourite room in the entire castle was an awesome exhibit of how people modify their buildings over time. The room had been pulled apart in layers, so you went backwards in time until you reached the original medieval walls, but leaving many of the changes intact. A projector played on each wall in Latvian and English with arrows to all of the relevant additions and modifications to the construction. Additions of a 19th century stove beside a closed entrance from the 14th century were side by side. Don't like the 13th century medieval arch? Fill it in and change the window shape. Want to change the purpose of the room? Add a wall here and take a wall down there.  Awesome! The text was easy to understand and the arrows totally worked. The only thing I would change would be to add the history of the building as a primer before you entered the room so you would understand that the building had been everything from a fortification to a church to a prison.
Part of the room showing all the different stages of the castle in terms of use. The excavation found everything from medieval designs to the 20th century markings.
Since there are several floors it was wonderful to go through and explore. In some places some of their videos need adjustment so you can read the English but this was a minor distraction.
The warmest room in the castle.
Ventspils Castle was wonderful and well worth the visit!!!!

Travelling in Latvia

Latvia has a wonderful train system that allows you to move between the major cities close to Riga easily and cheaply. It's not the VIA...