Monday, April 26, 2010

WHY would you go to Latvia? Part 3

For our third day together, we decided to leave the lovely city of Riga and head out to the boonies. When we were researching Latvia, most websites only listed five main places in the entire country that you should venture to see and Sigulda - the National Park - was one of them, so we made it a point to go see it.
En route to Sigulda, we stopped off at Riga's Central Market - the largest market in Europe. Each tent, full of bread, meat, candy, cheese and multiple other stalls are housed in one of 5 half-cylinder shaped buildings. These market pavilions are actually old German Zeppelin hangers leftover from WWI that have been converted into a market. There we passed easily through the tents, walking in and out of whiffs of just-baked bread and fresh fruit and of course through excited crowds of anxious Latvians buying the day's meat or fish.

With some market goods in store, we hopped on the bus which looked more like an old army bus. Tired from our 4am dance club return, we didn't care much and immediately fell asleep and missed the Latvian countryside ride in the process. Whoops. Before we did pass out, we managed to ask the bus driver to please tell us when we passed Birini Pils (Birini Castle) and drop us off. The directions from the hotel said that 'just ask the bus driver, he will know and he will drop you off right in front of the hotel' but that was not the case. He had no clue what we were talking about, and it wasn't even a language problem, because he spoke great English. We decided that we were already on the bus and that we would worry about it when we arrived to Sigulda. That was just the beginning though...

We got to the bus station and tried asking the clerk when the next bus to Birini Pils was. She looked astonished and wrote on a piece of paper 15:45 (3:45pm). It was currently 11am. She couldn't speak English and just could say train, train, train, so after a fit of giggles, Madeline and I walked outside to attempt to find this supposed train station. Luckily, directly next to the bus station was a tourist office! We were quite happy and went in and asked the lady (of course they speak English at the tourist office) how we could get to Birini Pils. She had the same astonished look. Whyyyyyy did we want to go all the way to Birini Pils? It's like 25 minutes away! Why did we come to Sigulda?! As it turns out, Sigulda is not only a National Park, but also a city. We had taken a bus to the city, which is not really close at ALL to the castle we were trying to find. Our next question was how much a taxi would cost to get there and she told us it would be about 15 LATS (about 20€ or $25). We said we would take it and she looked shocked. She attempted to tell us about all the hotels in Sigulda that are less than the taxi to our hotel, but we didn't want to hear any of that! We booked a night in a castle and you know we weren't going to miss that for the world or a 15 LAT taxi! So, she went ahead and called us a taxi, which probably was just her dad and his beat-up car who was happy to take 2 girls for a drive for 15 LATs. She did manage to give us some information about the Easter celebrations the next day in Sigulda and we said we would definitely come back the next day but we were determined to get to our castle asap.

To get to the castle, you have to cross over a small bridge and go past a guard stand and the ta-daaaaaa you are in front of a castle that is obnoxiously salmon colored. The taxi dropped us and then sped away and Madeline and I were left trying to figure out how to get in. We went to the massive main doors but they were locked. Next we tried the back doors but they were locked as well. All of a sudden, a hotel worker appeared out of what seemed to be nowhere...and welcomed us. A kind of mousy girl, she had a curious smile but one that kind of put you on edge. She invited us into the hotel, but through the basement, which seemed like an odd and then immediatley asked what time we would eat breakfast. Ummm is it 11am today? We have NO idea what time we will eat tomorrow! She then took us up a green carpeted staircase to the main entrance (where we should have been able to enter through the grand doors, but noooo.) We checked in and she gave us our huge key to our room and made sure to remind us again that we will need to set a reservation time for breakfast and that we will also need to make a reservation for the hotel restaurant for dinner as well as let us know that the next day the pool would be open from 8:30am to 11am for ALL the guests. She was quite odd, but we didn't care - we were in a castle.

Our room was a bit deflating so despite the rain yet again, we charged outside to see the castle grounds. To add to the already odd experience of checking-in, we skipped to the lake to see the image we had seen in so many Latvia photos, but it was partially covered with ice and an eerie stagnant fog that made it feel creepy. We decided to spice up the moment by taking a picture with the 10-second timer, but the flash went off and you couldn't see the castle or the background, just Madeline and me. The rest was white. Freaky. We were honestly a bit freaked out - you have to check with the gate to leave, the front doors don't open, the lady was super creepy, the fog on the lake and now we couldn't get an actual photo of the place - but we turned the flash off and all was good, but we still had a spooky feeling.

We walked around the castle grounds, which were completely deserted - not a soul to be seen. As odd as it was, it was actually a gorgeous countryside - with bare trees in the cold ice-over snow. Since we were at a castle we decided it was fitting to sing 'Be Our Guest' from Beauty and the Beast. Of course, I knew all the words and we waltzed through the trees, singing at the top of our lungs, because there was no one to hear. If two girls are singing at a castle and no one is around to hear them, are they really singing?? Oh yes we were!

When we arrived back at the castle, the weird receptionist was just sitting at the front desk waiting for nothing. We had past some stables and asked her if we could ride the horses. We already knew the hotel offered it, so we figured she would be excited to book us for a horse ride. Apparently we were wrong. When we asked if we could ride the horses she just said 'Whyyyyyyy?'. Ummmm because we want to ride horses, we said. Eventually after she told us we couldn't, we managed to get a time to ride the horses and boy was it amazing. After a bit of trouble with my horse (the only boy - he was a bit rambunctious), I switched to a girl horse and Madeline and I followed the horse lady for a walk through the forest. At this point, the fact that no one else was on the castle grounds was amazing, because we were there, only us 3, on horseback, riding through the snow and bare trees. It was so silent you could hear the crunching of the snow beneath the horses hooves and at our slow pace you could really enjoy the scenery. It was quite magical.
With walking the castle grounds done and riding horses finished as well, there wasn't much left to do besides eat dinner. We made sure to make our 'reservation' as she told us and when we arrived there were only 2 other people in the entire restaurant. Whew. Good thing we made a reservation! We picked a table that had a candelabra because we thought it would remind us of Lumiere in Beauty in the Beast - we had basically made the movie our theme for the entire stay.

Yet another odd thing about our hotel was that they observe 'the silence'. Yes. That is what they called it. On the information card about the hotel that was in our room, it said that 11pm the hotel would start to observe 'the silence' - meaning quiet time. But they took it a step further and at 11pm the water was shut off as well. Talk about weird! In a sense the hotel reminded us of Jack Nicholson's 'The Shining' - very creepy hotel, but I guess that added to the excitement of it. We could barely sleep and at one point I read my book at 4am and Madeline took a bath at 6am (they had graciously turned the water back on). By time we woke up for real at 9am we weren't very rested but couldn't miss our precious breakfast reservation. Again, the same 2 people were eating at the same time as us - turns out we were the only 4 guests in all of the hotel. Strange again. After one more 'Be Our Guest' while walking down the double staircase, we called another taxi (someone else's Dad making a few extra LATs) and got out of there. While it was the most random part of our trip it was possibly also the best. Now I can proudly say I have stayed in a castle - a pink one at that!

The taxi took us back to Sigulda, the mistake town from the day before, and we were back and happy to enjoy the Easter festivities. First stop after a few kilometers of walking was the 'swing' that Sigulda is famous for. They say that when in Sigulda, you should 'swing until you feel butterflies in your stomach'. Of course we were expecting a swing set or something similar. However, what we got to was a teeter-totter (or see-saw I guess you could say). Apparently a Latvian confused that translation and now the entire country things the word for teeter-totter is swing. Regardless we mounted the teeter-totter, after a long line of children (some grown-ups too) and actually did laugh until we felt butterflies. When was the last time you were on a see-saw?? I advise going to the nearest park and getting on one - it was so much fun and such innocent fun and we couldn't stop our fit of giggles. With butterflies in our stomachs, we headed to the Easter decorating area. A bit shy, seeing as we spoke zero Latvian, we approached the main table and a nice lady was excited to speak to us in English and help us with the decorating process.

Latvians decorate their eggs quite different than us Americans. First, they use brown eggs and a piece of dry cloth. You put the egg in the cloth and add shreds of onion skins, dried leaves and flower petals into the cloth as well. Then, you tie the cloth up with a string with a little label that had our names on it. Then, you put the egg in a boiling cauldron for about 10 minutes to cook the egg through. After a quick dip in the lake we opened our eggs and saw that the peels/leaves/petals had left marks where they had been during the boiling and our little eggs were decorated! The next activity she happily told us, was to search around the park for baskets of papers with letters on them and that if we found all of the letters it would spell something special and we could get a prize. We might be in our twenties but we were excited about this treasure hunt and after the egg-rolling contest made sure to find all 5 letters and went to the prize table. Obviously we didn't know what it spelled so we just carefully laid out the letters we had and the lady at the prize table kind of laughed (because we must not have put them in the correct order to spell something) and gave us our candy prize. I asked her if we had found the correct letters to spell something and she said yes. Then I asked her, a bit timidly, 'ummmm, what does it spell?' and she incredulously said 'rabbit!' Oh, but of course! Sorry, I am only on 4-letter Latvian words, haven't made it to the 5-letter ones yet hahaha. We finished Easterwith arts & crafts and called it a day.

The Easter celebrations were one of the most memorable I think I will ever have - being the only people from not only out of town probably, but out of the country was a great feeling - like we knew of some little secret spot in the world and it was only ours. The people were all so generous and really welcomed us into their festivities. Smiles on our faces, we headed back to Riga for our last night together. With no plans we kind of just wandered around the city aimlessly, looking again at some of our favorite buildings and finally stopping at Sweetday Café, where we had had our first coffee together. We sat there, drinking coffees and just talking for about two hours when we decided we should eat some dinner and crossed the street to the traditional Latvian restaurant. With everything in Latvian and a helper behind the buffet who knew no English, we were kind of playing 'mystery meal' with what we ate, but I was sure that I did eat some beet soup - a bright pink soup that Latvians love. I did not love it so much. We finished rather quickly and after pondering what to do for a few minutes decided to cross the street again and go to back to Sweetday Café and this time get dessert and wine. And that is how we spent our last few hours in Latvia together - in a small café, sipping glasses of red wine and savoring delicious sweets. A perfect end to an amazing trip.

The next morning I awoke quite early to get my suitcase and everything in order for the next leg of my trip - Berlin. Madeline walked me to the bus and we said goodbye - but only for a few weeks - she is actually coming to San Sebastian this weekend!

I hope you have liked reading about Latvia. It was a different world completely but I really loved it. Maybe I will venture back to the Baltics and try out Estonia or Lithuania one day, you should too!

Skūpstīties! (said, finally without garlic breath!)

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