Baltic Postcards – Coastal B-day tour stage 2: Liepaja

Saint Nicholas Orthodox Cathedral Karosta

Dear Friends,

Earlier, I posted about the first leg of the Coastal Birthday Tour along the Baltic Sea Coast. Now, I’ll tell you about the second part, which led us to Liepaja. After the pancake breakfast at the Sarnate Guest House, we went on the road again. We took some sideroads to see the cliffed coast, which was really great. The sea was quite wild, hitting the shore below us with a great thundering sound. We also tried to visit Uzavas lighthouse, but the track leading there was so thickly covered in snow, that we almost got stuck with the car.

We drove further south, in the direction of Liepaja. On the way, we passed the wooden bridge over the Riva river in Jurkalne, a national monument. Even in the cold winter, the Riva river was flowing wildly under it. The bridge is impressive, and if you’re in the neighborhood, you should definitely stop and have a look at it. It’s directly next to the main road from Ventspils to Liepaja. You can’t miss it.

From Jurkalne we continued on the P111 main road in the direction of Liepaja, or stop for the night. We read about Karosta in the guide book and decided to stop there as well. Karosta is just north of Liepaja, and used to be a Soviet era naval base. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the troops were retreated to Russia, and the base abandoned. It is an impressively sad sight. Most of the navy barracks are empty and abandoned, left to the elements. Some concrete flat blocks are half empty, with some people living right next to them. And in the midst of all that, there’s the orthodox cathedral of Saint Nicholas, with its golden domes (see the picture above). A surreal experience. If you want to go further than that, you can visit Karosta prison, where it’s even possible to spend some time being treated as a prisoner of the Soviet regime.

We crossed the Karosta canal into Liepaja and drove to the Promenade hotel. E had chosen places to stay that all had a surprise. In Sarnate it was the cake and sampanietis, here it was the in-room sauna. And as an extra to the spacious room, we had a nice view of the marina part of the Tirdzniecibas kanals, the trade canal. Now, in winter, there are no yachts to be seen, but there was this beautifully rusty fishing boat right opposite to our room. After settling in, we walked around the town a bit. The city center has a real walk of fame. It seemed to be for musicians, but we didn’t know the few stars whose handprints we looked at. We also visited the market, but the wind and cold made us hurry back to the hotel to enjoy the warmth of the sauna.

For dinner, E had made reservations in the hotel restaurant, Piano. When we came in, the restaurant was empty, but still they made a fuss over the fact that we brought B, the dog. We were moved to a private room, behind a door that looked from the outside as a cupboard of some sort. It was not exactly what we had in mind, but we accepted it under protest. In my view, it was a stupid decision from the manager, because there were zero other guests in the restaurant when we arrived, and only a few when we left. Service was, despite the fact we were tucked away, great. As was the food. And then we discovered the cigar menu. Our private dining room was actually the cigar room. Combining a Cohiba with a single malt was a great final for our romantic dinner. After that, we slept like babies in our comfortable beds, and rested well for stage 3 of the Baltic Sea Coast Birthday Tour.

Warmest regards,

PS: If you’re interested, I’ve put the highlights of the tour on the Baltic Sea Coast B-Day Tour Google map.

Baltic Postcards – Coastal B-Day Tour Stage 1: Ventspils and Sarnate

Guesthouse Sarnate

Dear Friends,

On my birthday, just after waking up, E surprised me with a great present: a tour along the Baltic Sea coasts of Latvia and Lithuania. Since I was born in the coastal town of The Hague (or more precisely, Scheveningen), I love the sea and the beach. The sound of the surf, where the waters caress the land, is one of my favorite auditory pleasures. Especially in what people call off-season, when the weather is rougher, the waves wilder and the wind clears your head. Since my birthday is in winter, it was a perfectly planned trip.

The first stage meant driving to the port-city Ventspils. We had heard many things about it, mainly good things. Many people find it a lovely town, well kept and very pleasant to visit. A guy who lives there told us there is actually not that much to do. Apart from these opinions, Ventspils is the most important port of the Baltics, ice-free year round and has the capacity for transshipping all types of goods, from oil to juice, with dry goods (my guess is mainly wood and coal) in between.

Seeing the port, so close to the city center, is impressive. It’s not Rotterdam, but still. But the rest of the town is actually a bit boring. Sure, there are a few nice buildings, a great looking beach south of the port and a nice collection of cow statues, but there are only a handful of places where you can have a drink or eat something and not many people in the streets. The Old Town covers only a very small area; outside of that, the town is greyish. And it doesn’t even look that well kept and clean. It might have been because of the cold winter day, but still.

After taking in the sights of Ventspils, we drove on southwards to the guest house we were staying in. Now that was a great experience. At the end of a road leading off the main road from Ventspils to Liepaja, we found a little paradise in the Sarnate guest house. The main building has a bar, a big room with a fireplace (for breakfast, dinner, lounging and parties) and 7 guest rooms. We were welcomed by Janis, the super friendly manager of the place, and directed to the bridal suite. On the terrain there is a pond with a sauna house next to it, and a rabbit run. But be careful if you bring your dog. One of the rabbits once went into a shock when a dog jumped in the run, and played dead for some minutes. If you keep your dog from shocking the rabbits, he’s more than welcome to stay and run around.

We had a great night, with a surprise birthday cake and Rigas Sampanietis after the made to order dinner and a wonderful pancake breakfast, before going on the road again to Liepaja. The Sarnate guest house is definitely worth a stay if you’re in the neighborhood.

That’s it for now; I’ll tell you about Liepaja another time.

Warm wishes from a still very wintery (-15 degrees at the end of February!) Riga,

Song Story 12: Of Lions and Football

Early on Saturday mornings, I would go to the Oosteinde street in Voorburg, The Netherlands, to gather with my teammates for a football match. I’d go there by bike, and sometimes my parents would drive me. Mostly that was when we would have an away game. We would play our opponents for increasing duration – starting at 20 minutes per half from the age of 6 till the full 90 minutes of matchplay at the age of 17. We would gather at our club, the now no longer existing DEVJO – merged some time ago with another club of our city, but by that time I had already stopped playing about 30 minutes before the match if we’d play a home game, and an hour for an away game. Our parents would drive us there, or at least, some of the parents. For to get a team of between 11 and 14 young boys to another venue, you don’t need that many cars. And on the way, we’d sometimes listen to the radio, and even sing along with popular songs like ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’.

It all came back to me during the physical therapy I’m having now, which basically is a 90 minute workout as well. And during that time, the radio plays. Tuned to a Latvian station that plays what could be defined as pop-classics from anywhere between a day and, let’s face it, more than 30 years ago. So when I heard this song, I couldn’t help smiling a bit. And wanting to go out on the grass and try to steal a win from 11 other boys in matching outfits.