Leipaja, Latvia to Klaipeda, Lithuania

29 06 2011


We arrived in Leipaja where it was fairly chilly and extremely quiet. Most of the town was still somewhere in the countryside jumping over campfires or recovering from a hangover from celebrating the Jani festival. We stayed at Traveller’s Beach hostel which was most conveniently situated between the beach and Old Town. A Riti grocery store was just around the corner and we visited it several times during our three night stay in the city. On our first full day in the city we went to the beach and wandered through several beautiful parks and discovered several public sculptures glorifying the rock music scene in Leipaja. Rock particularly enjoyed posing in front of an enormous drum set. Along our meandering, we discovered the European International Junior Tennis Tournament. Since Rock is into the sport (I however am fairly clueless) we watched several games. Afterwards, we headed to the dunes and beach where despite sunny skies the wind caused goose bumps on our skin. So we lingered between dunes and people watched several brave souls bare more than we dared with such wind. Then we walked through a mini carnival and some more art nouveau buildings. We ate a pasta and veggie dinner courtesy of the Rimi and leftovers in the hostel. Rock wanted to see the movie Super 8 and went out with a guy from Australia while I stayed in editing photos.

The following morning after a yummy omelet brunch, we went to the tourist information office. It was about a 10 minute walk from the hostel. For about 5 Lat (~$10) each, we rented a bike for 24 hrs and pedaled away towards Karosta, a former secret military town. The bikes were probably from the 1960s with heavy frames and wide handles bars with the rider having to pedal backwards in order to brake. And so we with a cycling map were off. We thought the route to Karosta was only a couple miles roundtrip but it turns out it was about 6 miles from the center of Leipaja. Along our journey, we stopped at a cemetary. It was interesting to see how others remember their deceased. Many plots and stones were covered in ivy or flowers in such a way that the mound looked more like a garden plot. As we left the shaded refuge, an old wirey lady with a head wrap walked towards the gate from where we were about to head out. She frowned and spoke something in Latvian and seemed to dismiss or curse us with her hand but was quickly off and so were we. After passing a few monotonous brick buildings and a couple food shops, apartment buildings and fields we came upon the Kalpaks bridge which is the only bridge in Lativa that can be rotated open on either end.

After the bridge, we finally started to see signs directing us towards the St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Cathedral. Down a street that was lined with old apartment buildings, towered the cathedral with it golden cupolas. (Interesting note-at the end of WWII, Soviet used the cathedral for recreational activities including a “red room” :))…I didn’t take photos inside due to lack of sufficient light. Some of the cathedral was under construction as well. However, Rock saw a little girl with her parents who were talking to an orthodox priest. He decided to sneak a shot but was spotted by the priest who immediately waved at us and spoke angrilly. We looked at him and left calmly out of the church but he followed us out. As we descended the last step, he stood above with his black robe billowing and his mouth moving quickly; I bowed apologetically and Rock and I walked briskly back to our bikes. However we did not leave the grounds until we had explored the area around the church and took a few more shots. When we were about to leave and I was waiting for Rock to take a photo, a girl who was playing in the playground outside the church area suddenly stood up from her sandbox and ran over to near where I waited on my bike. She threw a glass bottle which shattered only inches away from where my bike and I stood. I was shocked. I heard giggling and when I looked at the group of kids who were probably around 8 or 9yrs old, they stared back. When I took my camera out to “document” their mischief they ran away towards the shade of a tree…I was furious!

We rode back and stopped for Rock’s sweet tooth and got some icecream from the grocery store. When we arrived back in Leipaja, we discovered freaking awesome Hotel Fontaine Royal, which we decided to visit later for dinner. We continued to bike along the canal. A path to a beach we had not visited before appeared and we decided to explore the area which was just past the military port zone. On our way towards the beach we encountered a towering windmill and more sand dunes. As we walked along the waters edge, we started to look for amber and sure enough we found some. It became a scavenger hunt. About 30 minutes later, we biked back to the hostel for a nap and meditation. Then we returned to Hotel Fontaine for dinner and an hour in their sauna/Turkish bath area.

Headed for Klaipeda
The next day we checked out of the hostel around noon. It was Monday so Rock was fasting and he stopped at the Rimi one last time to pick up some fruit. We returned our bikes and when we did, we were amazed at how bustling the streets, squares, and sidewalks had become. Mothers with their strollers, teens with their high fashion, and lovers with their limbs wound around each other seemed to fill the square. After figuring out when the next bus for Klaipeda was departing, we headed out to the bus stop. We had an hour or two before the bus arrived and so checked out the market and some more side streets along the way. Around 2:40 we paid a couple Lat and hopped on a small bus that went towards Palanga, Lithuania. The ride was about an hour or so. Once in Palanga, we dodged a hotel tout and exchanged some currency and caught another small bus towards Klaipeda, our final destination for the day. This ride was about 5 Litas and took around 30 minutes or so. At the Klaipeda bus station, we found an information desk and inquired about a map of the town and where the street on which our guestouse was located. The lady was friendly and helped point us in the right direction. After about 20 minutes of walking, we reached the Liternerp Gueshouse. As we were quite tired and Rock was fasting, we took a nap and meditated; then went out to their Riti grocery store a block away in which we picked up a microwavable pasta dinner and snacks for the next day.

On Tuesday morning in Klaipeda, breakfast (cheese, yoghurt, bread, jam, and juice) was delivered in a picnic basket outside our room…How cool! We made peanut butter sandwiches for lunch later and headed to the Baltic bike shop abut two blocks away where we rented bikes until 10pm (paid about 30 litas (~$13/each) for very excellent mountain bikes). It was now almost noon and so we cycled on over to the ferry port and paid for our roundtrip ticket (~$2/each) to Smiltne on the Curonian Spit. The ferry trip lasted no longer than 10 minutes and soon we were disembarked from the ferry . We didn’t know where we were going but followed some bike signs and were soon pedaling through rows of pines. We saw a path to the dunes and beach which we walked up (leaving our bikes below) and took some shots. We continued riding between the pine forest and dunes. We saw another path and took our bikes to another section of the beach where we road along the water for about 30 or 40 minutes occasionally pausing to take a photo or scavenge for washed up ocean treasures. We struggled to bring the bikes up the stairs and dry sand. Rock was my hero and lifted my bike through the sand and up the stairs☺ Soon we were riding along the forest path and came to a bar/conveinence store and bought an energy drink and bottle of water and rested. I asked the guy behind the counter to point to where we were on the map and we started to plan where we were going to head. At this time it was around 1:30 and we biked a bit further south and then hoped we were heading towards our ferry port but after walking/cycling up a hill we discovered it was unnecessary and we had arrived at a different ferry port—one in which cars were being ferried over and so we looked on the map to check the routes. After several long stretches of hilly paths we arrived at a wonderful vista from which you could see the Baltic Sea and the pine forests. Here we ate our peanut butter sandwiches and enjoyed the nice breezes and sun on our backs. Afterwards, we headed towards the correct ferry port. From there we were better oriented and biked north towards the tip of Smiltyne and hoped to see the Dolphinarioum but when we arrived we learned it was closed. We watched a couple seals show off their slothfulness and took some photos of horses and carriages against a background of rigs and industrial buildings along the coast.

Around 4:30, we caught the ferry back to the port of Klaipeda. We rode to the Old Castle Museum. Provide link. Then we went back to the guesthouse for a nap/meditation. It was now only 8pm and we rode around what remained of Old Town Klaipeda and saw the balcony where Hilter stood and a sculpture dedicated to the poetry of 17th century German Simon Dach. We found a nice restaurant facing a water way and sat outside. We shared a glass of red wine and “funghi “pizza before exploring some parks and side streets. Around 9:45pm, we returned the bikes (and I received my passport back—hooray—I’m always a little hesistant when places keep your “document” as insurance)☺.

On Wednesday morning around 11am, we checked out of the Litnerp Guesthouse and walked to a bus stop and caught bus 8 back to Klaipeda’s central bus station. There we bought two one way tickets (66 litas/person) for our 4 hour bus ride to Vilinus….and I’m too tired to continue typing:)…

Photos here!

And more shots…

Riga to Jurmala to Leipaja

25 06 2011

Too many stories and adventures to share since my last post. I’m now reserved in understanding that I will not be posting everyday… On the second full day of our journey, we went on a day trip to the 17th centuryRundale Palace. The usual excessive facades, frescoes, and paintings adorned the massive palace along with a beautiful French garden. It took about 1.5 hours and two bus transfers to reach and was well worth it. Afterwards, we visited the central market between the bus and train station. We picked up some cherries and other snacks from the numerous vendors. Handicrafts, a meat market, and many flower stalls also lined the market rows. The evening was complete with another meal at the Lido and strolls around a couple squares.

The next morning we checked out of our hostel and met Walter, a couchsurfer at the clock tower. He was incredibly generous and paid for our train ticket to his village, Babite, which was located between Jurmala and Riga. After drawing us a map, we left Walter to explore Jurmala via train. We got off at the Majorie stop and strolled down the main drag and ate a lunch at a kitsch restaurant and continued acting like tourists photographing the old wooden houses. After resting at the beach, whose waters were quite frigid, we trekked to the next train stop and caught the train hoping to get off at the stop with a grocery store but somehow we missed it and got off at the following stop. We waited for at least 20 minutes and watched numerous people emerge from the surrounding wood.

During our bus and train rides, we’ve observed many narrow footpaths throughout forests, and fields with people walking, talking, and carrying their groceries. Many people also frequently walk along and across the railroad tracks; this is so uncommon in the states and I smiled as I saw these people following their own paths rather than concrete officially approved sidewalks…

…Anyway, after tiring of waiting, we decided we would try to walk back to the stop with the grocery store. We knew there was a bridge the train went over but we thought surely there would be footpath or walkway of some kind. However this was not the case as we discovered. When we were about a hundred yards away, an angry old soviet troll with an orange vest popped out from a station booth and yelled and waved frantically at us and we in turn hastily hopped off the tracks and started following a footpath that led around and below the “troll’s” station, through some brush and towards the bridge. I think this footpath was primarily used by homeless as it was littered and overgrown. At the end of the path, a campfire pit stopped us and from there we could see there was no way to cross the river other than catching the train. And so we headed back to our stop and caught the train to the grocery store stop Lei Lupe.

From here we walked for about 30 minutes through a eclectic old village. Some houses were covered almost entirely with ivy while others appeared extremely modern. Many of the houses were wooded with with large windows filled with curtains of old Russian lace. Gardens and strange flower beds filled their small plots of land. The street (ie large sidewalk) was the main route into town via the train stop and many people were going to and fro. After asking a couple teens where the Rimi (the grocery store chain) was located, we suddenly came upon it and a waterpark. At the Rimi, we picked up a few “unknown” sandwiches and ate outside the store. I felt very much like a homeless vagrant but nonetheless it made for interesting experience and great people watching:)…When we finished, piscean Rock checked out the waterpark and now is hoping we’ll return at the end of the trip. With a few groceries for our breakfast, we leisurely walked back to the Lei Lupe train stop and caught the train back to Babite.

After a short nap, we headed back to Riga with Walt and treated him to a beer and pastry. We exchanged some great stories and had some interesting conversation as we strolled/skipped/swayed through the filled streets of old town. Around 11:30 we headed back to the train station to catch the midnight train back to Walt’s place. Before the night was complete, Rock and Walt jammed out with some guitars. The next morning we rode into Riga with Walt (who was on his way to work…he’s a scientist investigating the properties/potential of cow manure as fuel) and said our goodbyes to our very kind host.

It was now around 10:30am and we inquired at the tourist info. center about the next train to Leipaja, which was our next destination. We bought tickets with reserved seats for the 11:05 bus and waited (yes there is a lot of waiting on this trip–it’s helping me practice patience:)) While sitting at amidst tired Latvians and hungry pigeons, I started to snack on some chips. When I accidentally dropped a tiny piece of a chip, a finch like bird suddenly arrived with his posse and the chip was no longer. I thought the birds would go elsewhere but instead one actually flew towards my chest as I was raising a chip from the bag to my mouth! I looked around and saw no one else eating 😦 and so the bag of chips was put up and I sat waiting feeling too much like a monk:)

After checking our luggage below the bus and paying an additional lat or two for such, we boarded the fairly prompt and completely filled bus and prepared ourselves for the 3.5 hour journey by snacking on some cheese sandwiches. However, our plastic bags and foil seemed incredibly loud as the entire bus was silent as we left the station. We’ve never experience such before and tried to modify our whispers into nonverbal communication so to respect the “peace.”

The countryside we passed was mostly flat with many old soviet era looking barns and a few cemeteries hidden in patches of pine forests. Several bogs and a few lakes were a blur beyond the bus window. Deep greens and yellow fields were exaggerated by the stormy blue/gray storm that followed us on the journey. A few communities contained a church or a store but much of the ride was through the vast and beautiful countryside.

After 3.5 hours and one bathroom break (public bathroom usage costs .20 Lat), we arrived in Leipaja. Our hostel did not provide specific directions so we were without such nor with a map. However, there was a large glass bulletin with a map of the city and so I took a picture and used my camera to help direct us to the street the hostel was located on. Rock suggested we hop on a tram and we did. This saved us at least 15 minutes of walking around with our heavy packs but when we somewhat randomly jumped off, we had to backtrack a bit and seek direction from passerbys. After taking photos of some buildings and bizarre sculptures, we arrived in our nondescript hostel. The building looked like all the other crumbling brick buildings but once we were buzzed inside, a very clean and hospitable place awaited us. We hand washed some clothes and then visited the nearby grocery store. Rock prepared a delicious fish/rice dinner and we chatted with fellow travelers from Germany and Australia.

I’m looking forward to checking out some churches and the beach today. The weather is looking promising and it’s quite sunny…horray for the simple things…now for lunch!

Photos here!

Day Trip to Open Air Museum and More Riga

21 06 2011

Well…my pants didn’t bust but nor did I cycle today as rain fell steadily all morning. Instead we decided to take a bus to the Rundale Palace (about 1.5 hrs. by bus from Riga) but when we finally found the bus station, we learned it was too late to head out and catch the necessary transfers. So we chose to head to the Open Air Enthographic Museum. The friendly agent at the bus station pointed and marked on the map how to walk to the bus stop. After allowing Rock to take lead in navigating, we actually arrived at the stop for bus 1 and waited for about 15 or 20 minutes. Our destination was the last stop and the ride took about 30 minutes.

Since we actually had seats, the bus ride was fairly enjoyable and provide a wonderful peek into Latvian culture. The presence of flowers and bouquet stalls and shops surprised me. Apparently, fresh flowers show respect, love, and gratitude–old men, mothers, lovers, and college students all shuffled along carrying, giving, or receiving colorful bouquets. Couples and groups of friends filled the streets or hovered in corners by faded peeling painted plaster. Old Soviet era buildings spoke of the terrors and bleakness that used to occupy the lives of the once pagan region. After passing blocks of massive brick or old wooden buildings, cathedrals and spires would occasionally pop up reminding us of the 16th century influence of Catholicism and the Polish conquest in the 1500s. I think I believe more in the flowers than the churches–however the architecture of the latter is certainly stunning–why can beauty be used to hide such deceit and human horrors?

I wonder what Latvia would be today had it been able to thrive without the influence and conquest by Christianity. Since it’s almost the summer solstice, Riga is preparing to celebrate their Jani Festival. The pagan festival celebrates nature with music, campfires, dancing, and other festivities held in squares or in the woods. We’re hoping to attend one of the bashes in the next couple nights.

Anyway we arrived at the open air museum and meandered through slender pines, oaks, and maples that hid 17th and 18th century buildings from various regions in Latvia. Most of the buildings had thatched roofs and were constructed out of various logs and were transported from elsewhere. The trails, fresh air, and gorgeous lake were some of my highlights. I also enjoyed the basket weaver, who wore traditional Latvian dress and from whom I couldn’t resist buying a woven bracelet. The metalsmiths working with copper were also pretty cool and I bought a simple pagan copper pendant. We also snacked on some potatoes and curd with herring–suprise! Cold fish! Rock wound up eating most of the fish and curd and I, the old fashioned familiar (and warm) potatoes!

After catching the bus back and trusting Rock’s internal GPS system, we arrived back at the hostel where we took a short nap. We then ventured to have dinner out at a Lida, which is a local chain of restaurants offering cheap regional food buffet style. Before finding Lida we stopped at a bar and shared a glass of Black Balsam, a very strong regional mulled alcoholic drink. With a little buzz, we finally found Lida near one of the squares. The ambiance, price, and location was excellent (as was the vegetable rice pilaf and baked cod with almond cream sauce…and “mystery” cherry dessert).

After dinner, we explored side streets, beer gardens, live music and discovered a very happening Kalku Iela. This main street included a lively Livu Laukums square with more beer gardens, buskers, clubs, cafes, parks, and canals. Past the canals, stood a large obelisk like Freedom Monument, which honors the soldiers killed during the Latvian War for Independence. After snapping many pictures and listening to quite a few unique buskers including a jazz group dressed in funky gender disorienting ragamuffin street clothes, we headed back to the hostel. But we had to make one last stop at a pastry shop, where I chose a couple sugary doughy delights:)…It’s still light and it’s already 10pm! I can’t wait to see what adventures lie ahead for tomorrow!…Maybe I’ll have some time/energy to post some photos then.

Arrival in Riga, Latvia

21 06 2011

When we arrived in the Amsterdam airport, we luckily found a meditation/sleep area in which we partially passed out for several hours until our connecting flight to Riga, Latvia. (Hence no posting.) On the hour or so flight from Amsterdam to Riga, I met a wonderfully artistic and intuitive woman from Warsaw who was a graphic designer based in Amsterdam (speaking with her reminded me of my own creative pursuits).

When we landed in Riga we scouted out a currency exchange and received less than 50 Lats for $100. Big sigh. Before heading on the trip, I knew the general exchange rate for Lats/US but it’s always a bit of a downer when you realize the almighty dollar isn’t so almighty (even with a non-Euro currency). After picking up our bus tickets (.5 Lat each or ~$1) and some maps from the info. counter near the exit of the airport, we rain proofed our gear and set out into an almost finished drizzle and spotted the bus stop across from the airport parking lot. Luckily, Bus 22 was about to leave and we ran with several others to catch the quite packed bus. For about 30 minutes we stood like soggy tired strangers amidst mostly Latvian residents until we got off at the Novembra Krastmala 11 stop. The ride felt much like a eye spy or scavenger hunt game as we were constantly looking for bus stops signs with our stop info.

After a short walk we found our hostel, the Riga Hostel located just within Old Town. After checking in we learned our private room with shared bathroom awaited us on the 6th floor! We both embarrassingly huffed and puffed our way behind the hostel host and were greeted by funky but fairly clean room.

Since Rock was fasting, I immediately set our to find some dinner and walked several blocks through gorgeous gothic and baroque buildings. When I first left the hostel, I decided to follow a guy who exited from our hostel but he soon headed into a glass “Gucci” like mall building that I thought would not contain food and so I was on my own. After passing many quaint restaurants and cafes and too many bars to count I found a Turkish kabab place where I ordered (ie pointed and smiled) a slice of pizza (I decided to live up to my origins and chose the “American” slice), a piece of Baklavah, and (unexpected carbonated) water.

After my dinner, we both took a nap from which I did not want to rise from. With much prompting from Rock, we eventually set out to explore some of Riga’s Old Town in the chilly (~50F) evening air. It was near 9pm and lively bands were starting to jam in various beer gardens, cafes, and bars. Locals and tourists strolled leisurely on cobblestone streets by gothic spires and brick churches with beautiful rose windows. We with our low camera batteries and still tired bodies, retired “early” (ie 11pm) as the party goers and pub crawlers began to fill the streets. Their intoxicated yelps competed throughout the night with the calls of seagulls and cat screeches.

We awoke around 5am and still heard the cacophony of such creatures. Rock moseyed downstairs shortly afterwards but I slept for several more hours. A complimentary breakfast of cereal, toast, and juice temporarily filled me as I finished typing up this account. Now we’re planning on seeking adventure via bicycle in Old Town today…(I just hope my only pair of pants doesn’t bust as I’ve apparently gained some weight and the velcro at the top doesn’t close–TMI. I know. It’s always the case with me:))

Here are some photos!

And some more…:)