Monday, April 30, 2007

I went to Latvia and it was closed

Riga's Orthodox Cathedral, with unorthodox photo merging - the Soviets turned it into a planetarium.

Morning sleep in and then back into the fray. Breakfast was not too successful: the "milk" that I thought I had bought yesterday had a rather unmilky consistency, unmilky smell and unmilky taste. My guess is that it's some sort of runny eel cheese or other macrobiotic undelicacy. I managed to down it with my muesli and I'm sure it has other uses, like plastering the outside of your adobe hut, or repelling soldier ants.

Outside, the temperature had dropped further, hovering around 0C with wind-chill probably -8C or lower: quite a change after sweltering in Poland. All in all, malamute weather. Bondi was positively bristling with subzero energy as I tried to skulk in non-windswept corners of the Old Town centre.

Arriving on a Sunday, followed by a bank holiday and then May Day national holiday, with National Eel Cheese day just around the corner means there's just not much happening. If I was on my game, I would have gone to the National Opera's performance of La Traviata* last night.

* - "A tenor and soprano want to make love, but are prevented from doing so by the baritone." - GB Shaw.

Riga's Museum of the Occupation was also closed, but I spotted the poster + photo above in windows of the Latvian Archives. They show some of the 2 million citizens of the Baltic states in a 660km long human chain to commemorate the sad Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact of half a century earlier.

I am so good at being a statue.

In yesterday's blog I claimed the above statuesque ensemble was unlabelled, completely overlooking the plaque at bottom right in the photo frame (reproduced below). That's what 9 hours of driving through relentlessly dulating* countryside will do to you. Anyway, it's not Julie Andrews, Dick van Dyke and the Shaggy DA, but a former mayor of Riga, his good wife, and unspecified hound. Hovering in the background, high on a pedestal, is Milda, Riga's Liberty statue.

*ie not undulating.

Nice lats!; Mayor's plaque

Walked into a coffee shop for a late lunch unsure if Bondi would be allowed. The same chain in Vilnius was OK with dogs, but I'd seen no-dogs stickers on other branches here. There was a look of shock from some staff at the counter, but I didn't know if this was just regular Bondi shock or more. After a few seconds without further reaction, I sat down at a table in the corner, Bondi curling up next to me. A waitress came over with the menu, saying in sotto voce, "You'd better be careful!" as if I'd just walked in with The Fallen Madonna with the Big Boobies tucked under my arm.

Stumbled across a great CD shop called Upe, the Latvian for river. They had an interesting selection of domestic music on top of a well-curated selection of global offerings. Of the Latvian music I picked up:
  • Illumina - basically picking up from the Jan Garbarek/Hilliard Ensemble hit Mnemosyne, with a saxophonist improvising over medieval polyphonic vocals, in this case provided by Schola Cantorum Riga.
  • Latviešu Šūpuļdziesmas [Latvian Lullabies] - downbeat folk/rock pieces
  • Jetlag - solo album (English lyrics) by Goran Gora
plus the very non-Latvian Joni Mitchell tribute album.

At a not distant remove from this, I just finished James Hamilton-Paterson's beautiful collection of short stories The Music. They are like a set of exquisite etude-impromptus, as entertaining and reflective as his farcical Cooking with Fernet Branca and sequel.

On the way back to the apartment, I stopped in at another supermarket to find something recognisably milk-like. I eventually found a carton with a picture of some cows on it, so that narrowed the contents down to milk, cream or bovine blood. When I got around to the cashiers, I found they'd all done a bolt, standing at the door of the supermarket eyeing off some dog tied up outside.

Crosses and Noughts

Just to the north of the Lithuanian town of Siauliai (shoo-lay), we find the Hill of Crosses. As you drive up to it, you are feel a bit cheated because it's just a hillock or two, but then as you get away from the cluster of crapware vendors in the parking area and walk up to the collection (which looks like a junkyard dealer's conception of a cemetery), the sheer volume of crosses starts to take hold - a force of will against the Soviets who repeatedly bulldozed the 600 year old site.

Hill of Crosses, souvenir vendors: selling location-appropriate items such as Egyptian cat gods, china elephants, kittens in baskets, decorative pipes, plastic spider toys, key-chain laser pointers, Chinese dragons ... but, disappointingly, no "My parish priest went to the Hill of Crosses, and all he brought back was this cross" cross.

From the Hill, it was a long slog down the highway to Klaipeda, Lithuania's 3rd largest city, and principle port & resort. It sits at the top of the Curonian Spit, a hundred kilometer inhabited sand dune, split between Lithuania, and the Russian exclave, Kaliningrad. It's also a big disappointment for visitors, with no identifiable heart to the city. It seems to have a hollowed out core; the periphery comprised of whitebox malls and vehicle service centres, the outward face of a wealthier populace awaiting the cash and the will to revive the centre. Despite being a holiday weekend and (I'm told) a tourist town, the tourist information centres are closed, and there aren't any helpful maps to direct one to something interesting.

I stopped near an outdoor market, looking for food, and a WC. For the latter I paid 0,50 litas to squat over a hole sans toilet paper, although I luckily had notepaper with me that I keep around to document such situations...

Latvian border crossing

I crossed the Latvian border not far to the north (perhaps the most dilapidated border facility I've encountered), continuing up the pot-holed coast road, never really seeing the sea, to Liepaja. This seemed as grim as Klaipeda, reminding me a bit of Proprad in the Tatras, and so I abandoned the coast, for another slog back inland to Riga. Latvia is flatland like Lithuania, and the country scenery is not remarkable, but with the bad roads, for much of the time you have to focus on the overtaking cars approaching you in the "middle lane".

I'm renting a little apartment for three days, but the owner hasn't disclosed that there are no stairs and 9 flights of stairs to the top. After 9 hours of driving, and getting Bondi and bags to our level, I feel like Mildred Natwick in "Barefoot in the Park."

After showering and putting a couple of weeks' worth of laundry through the washer, I decide it's time to venture downtown, having eaten nothing but a banana and trailmix all day. It was cold when we left Vilnius this morning, and it's way colder now, hovering around 2 degrees.

Waling into the older centre, I was a bit shocked by the weird assemblage of buildings, like a Politburo-Disney arrangement of old and new. The vibe from people on the streets isn't very good either.

Unlabelled sculpture near the Opera; labelled McDonald's staff

Walking around for an hour in the cold I couldn't see alternative for food to grab, so weakened and decided to just take home some McDonald's. Queuing for take-out, I was approached after a while by a security guard and then someone on staff with a tiny smattering of English who said that Bondi (outside sitting, smiling, on the public footpath) was not allowed "people walk past him...go now...go now". I said there wasn't any problem (other than what over-zealous security guards conjure up to maintain their image of usefulness) and could I just get my take-out. "No ... go now ... go now". Realising it was pointless to protest someone who was not going to understand and was going to carry on like a soviet corporate droid*, I went out and took Bondi.

Eventually I found a late-opening supermarket, which was depressingly similar to those I'd found in Spain in 2005 - large but not really holding much that you can cook up easily with limited facilities. The grocery section looked a bit suspect, and all the meat was behind two barriers - deli case and language - that kept it safely locked away from me. Frozen pizza, tinned tuna and a handful of sundry other items were my first catch of the day. The second catch, was the apartment turned out to not have an oven, micro- or otherwise, or a can opener. I think today just needs to be scrubbed out totally. Noughts win over crosses.

*I tried to make a complaint through the McDonald's website, which notably doesn't include Latvia as a country on its homepage, even though it's been there for a decade. The complaint form is thoroughly broken: aside from not having year updated to 2007, and forcing all countries to specify a US state, it just won't let you submit the complaint:

Not Found

The requested object does not exist on this server. The link you followed is either outdated, inaccurate, or the server has been instructed not to let you have it. Please inform the site administrator of the referring page.��
So much for the page's assurance: "But rest assured, you will be heard." I'm not lovin' it.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Forever Amber

Views from Gedimino Hill

Up early and out the door, I walked Bondi through the park behind the cathedral. It's a lovely spot, close to where the Vilnia runs into the larger Neris river. I just wish I didn't have to walk so far along it to take a picture without plastic bags and chairs populating the image. Bondi was less reluctant and waded in to get a drink from the shallow centre of the water, and then to strike a characteristic pose, looking upstream and enjoying the water running past.

A dip in the Vilnia (running into the Neris nearby) for a drink

River Neris

The Republic; artist warns against perils of Lithuanian Scrabble.

A little futher along we encountered bridges leading to the Uzupio neighbourhood, which declared itself an independent republic about 10 years ago. The bridges have locks fastened to the sides, affixed by newlyweds as a symbol of their union - the key is dispatched into the waters.

Skyscrapers away!; locks on the bridge

After looking in some of the Amber museums and shops that dominate the streets of the old town, we had a snack at a cafe on Pilies Street. A solitary trumpeter up the street was practising busking, and in the middle of "Strangers in the Night" I cheekily told a table full of guys from Aberdeen to stand for the Lithuanian national anthem.

On the other side of the river Neris, is "new" Vilnius, with glass office blocks and malls rising over some grim old concrete structures. New Vilnius seems to turn its back on the river, a phenomenon I've noticed in Pisa, Derry and many other places. Thinking also the big malls in Proprad, it's like the designers want a nice backdrop to their structures, but this means the river/forest/mountains get the arse-end of the building up against them: car-parks and loading docks; customers are whisked away like Morlock consumers to avoid the potential beauties outside.

Cathedral caught flying a kite; Is that a glint in the eye, or the moon?

Always waiting by the door

And some more pictures here, from a very diligent Swede.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Man patinka Vilnius

With May day approaching, many people are taking the upcoming weekend as a vacation, bridging Monday to the actual holiday on Tuesday. With that in mind, it was really necessary to get an early start from Warsaw, because the single lane "highway" to the northeast was going to be choked pretty quickly.

I tell a lie: it's more of a 1 1/2 lane highway, with the centre part of the 300km+ to the border, a continuous overtaking zone, with the overtaking vehicle seeming to have right of way. This means that if you're behind a few trucks, then you have to be super-alert to dodge to the right, following the ripple in traffic as a vehicle comes down the middle of the road towards you (and because of the trucks, completely unseen). A side-effect of this is that you either drive along the shoulder (as a few do) or you become a freeway shark, overtaking constantly to stay awake and alive.

That aside, it's an unspectacular drive, and after crossing into Lithuania, the countryside contrives to become even flatter than Poland. The border crossing itself was uneventful (more passport stamps!), with the stern Lithuanian lady asking for my "bus pass", which I understood to mean my car registration papers.

Vilnius is tucked away in the southeast of Lithuania, and is the most easterly point of my entire journey, yet is next to the geographic centre of Europe, according to the National Geographic Institute of France.

About 30km before Trakai, the terrain becomes a bit more interesting, and we stopped for a break by a lake, and to allow Bondi the opportunity to get on sniffing terms with his 24th country.

Vilnius itself turned to be a very pleasant surprise. although with an alarming amount of traffic for a city of some 600,000 people. It has the largest old town centre in Eastern Europe, and by the looks of it, the best preserved and maintained. As the first of the old Soviet satellites to throw off the chains, it got a good headstart in re-establishing its long cultural heritage, and despite being the last country in Europe to adopt Christianity, it is nicknamed the city of 100 churches with its plethora of such in baroque, gothic, orthodox and other styles.

After a week of not-easy-to-get-around-with-a-dog Poland, Vilnius is a dream for Bondi, where everyone is happy to see him. Lithuania and Poland were united historically, although the Lithuanian language is not a Slavic language. It is closest to Latvian (no surprises there) and now-extinct Prussian. The title of this post is "I like Vilnius".

Just after we dumped gear at the hotel and got out onto Gedimino street, the very long "main drag" of Vilnius, a girl asked shyly if he was a Laika. "No, but he's like a laika". I suppose if one were a Lithuanian theatre/film enthusiast, one might similarly say "Man patinka Mandy Patinkin", or then again one might not. (According to Wikipedia, he was classmate of Kelsey Grammar at Juillard and put forward his name to the producers of Cheers.)

Duomo and Campanile, I mean Cathedral and belltower.

Balloon over old town; philosopher and his faithful bull(?)

Vilnius will a European Capital of Culture in 2009, and even though there is obviously some further (not obtrusive) beautification going on, it's already an interesting and easy place to visit. There are a number of places just around town that I won't get time to visit. I think you need at least 3 full days here.

Wishing square; Town hall

Panpipes or chocolate?