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July 20, 2004 -> testing the waters in latvia

Our overnight bus from Moscow pulled into the well-organized station in Riga, Latvia.  The skies were overcast, but we still felt an odd rush of excitement to be out of Russia, and back in Europe.  (Latvia, along with Estonia and Lithuania, had entered the EU in May.)  Inside the station, cashiers printed out tickets with the destination, time and gate number of the desired bus.  Outside, new blue trams trundled past the station towards gleaming shopping malls.  At night, an efficient corps of workers would sweep and scrub clean the enormous indoor/outdoor markets.  A part of Russia for so long and ethnically 30% Russian, it was amazing how little Latvia felt like Russia. Even the primarily Russian-speaking fruit vendors had a gaiety about them that was distinctly un-Russian.  

Riga was our favorite of the three Baltic capitals.  From the viewing platform in the reconstructed spire of St. Peter's Church, we looked out over the Old Town's pleasing mix of tile and metal roofs, elaborately decorated ‘art nouveau' facades and modern glass buildings.  Bigger than Tallinn, and with several large plazas, Riga's Old Town engulfed the throngs of tourists and still had ample space for quiet discovery.  Smaller, but more developed than Vilnius, its historic buildings had been painstakingly restored; there were very few crumbling facades.  There were numerous outdoor cafes (though intermittent rain kept most people indoors) and a wide variety of good restaurants.  While the hippest nightspots were fairly cheesy (the ‘in' place was the Pupu Lounge; ‘pupu' is Latvian slang for breasts) Riga's bar and pub scene was excellent.  I particularly loved the Riga Balzams Bar, a cozy below-street-level institution where we chatted with an employee of the Dutch Consulate as we downed cocktails incorporating balsam, the locally made herbal liqueur.   

My choice for best museum in the Baltics was Riga's Museum of the Occupation, which covered the German and Soviet periods.  This is history at its most riveting and revolting; a somber stroll past exhibits with legends written in Latvian, Russian, German and English.  The museum curator clearly wanted everyone to know (or remember) what happened here.  On the pretext of protecting the Baltics, the Soviet army launched a de facto occupation in 1944.  In just one year - the so-called ‘Year of the Red Terror' – the Soviets deported or executed thousands, nationalized industry and commerce, and embarked on ruinous agricultural reforms. 

When the Nazis sent the Red Army fleeing in 1945, most Latvians (rather naively) viewed them as liberators.  The cheers died quickly, however, as the Germans immediately pursued many of the same draconian strategies, and added Jewish extermination to the vile mix.  After WWII, the Russians reclaimed the Baltics, and initiated a program of ‘Sovietization' that forbade all aspects of Latvian culture (including the language), banned most books, and made mandatory ‘communist education' – along with the usual policies of intimidation, torture, execution and deportation.  While conditions improved somewhat after the death of Stalin in 1953, Latvia would suffer under Soviet rule for almost a half-century.  

Numerous trains run daily from Riga to the nearby coast – ‘Jurmala' in Latvian.  Our expectations were not high.  We knew that Jurmala had been a favorite seaside resort during Soviet times, which probably implied monstrous, dilapidated hotels.  Wrong again.  A fine, white sand beach stretched for 30 km along the Gulf of Riga.  Almost no buildings were visible from the beach; a barrier of tall pines hid the seaside homes and kept the beach looking remarkably natural.  The water was cold and brackish but refreshing.  It was a sunny Saturday.  Summer is short in the Baltics, and half of Riga seemed to be on the beach.  Kids played soccer on sand pitches complete with indoor soccer goals.  Several groups had set up beach volleyball courts.  A parade of strollers and bicyclists passed.  Pale women in new bikinis prayed for a tan, though we saw mostly sunburned skin on the ride back to Riga.  The next day, we headed into the heart of Latvia to start a two-day canoe trip. 

The Gauja River flowed through the heart of Latvia, past small villages, hilltop castles, and great stretches of protected forest.  The surface of the river was lake-smooth, yet the current carried us along at a surprising speed.  There were pines on the right bank and birches on the left.  Ducks and ducklings half-flew, half-waddled away from us across the water.  It was incredibly peaceful and quiet; a perfect balm for nerves frazzled by Russian travel.  We had expected to see loads of tourists.  After Riga and Jurmala, canoeing the Gauja river seemed to be the next ‘must do' in Latvia; it was listed in every guidebook.  In fact, apart from a few homemade ‘redneck rafts' and a couple of kayakers, we were alone on the river. 

Every 3-5 kilometers we passed riverside campsites - which we used to gauge our speed (about a kilometer every 10 minutes) - but we chose a quiet sandbank to pitch our tent.  It was a beautiful spot: near a bend in the river dominated by folded sandstone cliffs.  While we were eating dinner, a trio of Russian-speaking teenagers came ashore to leap off the sandbank into the river.  They may have hoped to sleep on the sandbank too, but our frequent glares and hostile attitude soon sent them on their way.  Just as the sun was setting, an awkward pontoon of lashed inner tubes came floating downriver, bearing a man and two girls.  Damn!  They tried to make it over to our sandbank, but the current was too strong, and their paddling ineffective.  The attempted interlopers only succeeded in spinning in circles as the river took them around the corner and away.  Yahoo!  We were wonderfully alone to witness a beautiful sunset and star-spangled night sky.