23rd August 2020
Life in a Coronavirus Pandemic: A Trip to Latvia
As week 21 of lockdown starts in the UK I set off on a trip to explore the Latgale region of Latvia, one of the Baltic Countries.
This week I escape the restrictions of lockdown in the UK which, for me, only involve wearing face covering in shops and on public transport as well as social distancing and head for Latvia where none of these restrictions apply. This trip was originally planned for the end of June but was postponed due to quarantine restrictions. Although Latvia established air bridges with the other Baltic countries it was not added to the UK's quarantine-free list until July 28. But while I was in Latvia they imposed quarantine on all arrivals from the UK effective from August 14. It was a small window of opportunity but I was able to take advantage of it.
Tuesday 11 August 2020
I am back in Hertfordshire in a flat on a main road. No early morning walk along the beach today. But after months of not being able to visit the hygienist I have an appointment this afternoon thanks to a cancellation. This is so important I left Dorset a day before I needed to. My original plan was to come back tomorrow night, leave the car at the flat and get straight on the train to Gatwick. I follow the instructions I have been given. I arrive five minutes before my two o’clock appointment. I push the door open so I can wait in the hall to be called to the surgery upstairs. As there is someone standing right behind the door I can’t get in. It is unbearably hot outside in the full sun. As I am wondering what to do the doorstop opens the door and says she does not know what to do next. I explain the system and tell her I am going across the road to sit and wait in the shade. Five minutes’ pass and nothing has happened so I go back to the surgery. The woman is still there and panicking because she has not been called. Then her husband joins us in the cramped space. At least we are all wearing face coverings, as instructed, although my two companions are using the nose-free style. I am relieved when my name is called and gallop up the stairs expecting to see Caren, my regular hygienist. But it is not Caren and I point this out. I always see Caren. I was not aware the appointment was with a different hygienist. I am asked if I am happy to go ahead with my appointment. I am too fed-up to be stoic. I say no and leave. It is too hot to do anything this afternoon apart from going through the information for my press trip to Latvia tomorrow. I am looking forward to re-visiting Riga, its capital.
Wednesday 12 August 2020
I wake at 01.18 and discover I have set my back up alarm for 3 am but did not change the time. I have no idea what the right time is. I jump out of bed to check my iPhone. This is on the window sill as that is the only place I can get a signal. I set the correct time on my alarm clock and, surprisingly, go back to sleep. I wake when my alarm goes off shortly followed by my mobile phone. It is still really hot as I trundle my case down the road to the train station and catch a direct train to Gatwick South Terminal. This terminal is deserted as all flights are operating from the North Terminal. The North Terminal is quite busy. Most of the restaurants are closed but I find a corner in Pret to drink a coffee and eat some porridge. I am flying with Air Baltic. Their website promises boarding by row but Gatwick ground staff have other ideas. We queue outside the boarding gate in a busy corridor. I am surprised how many people are not complying with the requirement to wear face coverings and it is an uneasy time for me as people are constantly pushing past me. We board immediately the gate opens. I am pleased I am in the first row of economy but not so pleased to find I have a stranger immediately next to me. The flight is not full. I am in a 2-seat row whereas many of the 3-seat rows have had one passenger. However, soon after we took off I started talking to my neighbour. He is Norwegian and a part-time pilot with British Airways. He tells me he is flying to Riga at short notice to be with his girlfriend as he has been tipped off that on Friday Latvia will announce all arrivals from UK must self-isolate for 14 days because the R rate has just gone over their threshold. (He is right).
Laila, the organiser of our trip, meets us at Riga. She is with the local guide who will accompany us on our journey through Latgale, a region of Latvia. Once our bus is loaded we set off for Daugavpils the second biggest city in Latvia. It is a four-hour journey but we have a break for a late lunch on the way. We eat in a Liepkalni café (a bakery and restaurant chain). The café is by a lake. It is a lovely setting and we sit outside. I decide to try a speciality of the house, potato pancakes with jam and cream. An unusual but very satisfying dish. I order a Kvass to drink. This traditional drink is made from malted barley and commonly called the bread drink. There is no requirement to wear face coverings in Latvia as they began easing lockdown restrictions on May 12. There are still restrictions on the number of people sitting at one table in a restaurant – four inside and eight outside. I am surprised to find I feel slightly uneasy at this sudden return to normality.
My heart sinks when we finally pull into the parking area behind our hotel, Hotel Homelike. The buildings backing on to this derelict area are studded with air conditioning units. I hope my room will not be at the back but suspect it might be. It is – despite my request for a quiet room at the front. I ask if I can move. I am told the room I have been given is really quiet. Clearly none of the hotel staff have spent any time in this room. The weather is sultry and I am desperate to open the window but the constant loud hum is unbearable. I can even hear it through the closed window. My only other option is to use the air conditioning in my room but it is so cold it is like sleeping inside a fridge. When I have faced similar problems in the past I have snuggled down in the bath. I don’t have a bath in this room. I don’t sleep. The hotel is unsympathetic and suggest I swap with someone else in the group. Why would I want anyone else to suffer?
After checking into our hotel we go for a walk around Daugavpils with Ilona, a local guide. It has a very spacious city centre decorated with formal gardens, floral displays and some interesting sculptures including a man with his dog and some stainless steel orbs that can be spun manually. I am fascinated by an unusual initiative for new businesses – selling through large slot machines displaying their wares. We end the evening with dinner at the Park Hotel Latgola, the largest hotel in the town. As I have not had any exercise all day I choose to run up the stairs to the tenth floor (and back down). I feel I have earnt my dinner and a lovely glass of Prosecco.
Thursday 13 August 2020
I start the day with a walk around the town to take some photos. It is early and the air is fresh and cool. I am happy and shout a cheery hello to the people passing by me. My attempts to greet the locals is a dismal failure. It seems they are just not used to tourists. I walk to the far end of the town and cross the main road to the river but there is no path along the bank and no access due to a metal barrier along the side of the road. I turn back and walk around an impressive council office building then up a grassy back trying to get onto a pavement to walk back towards the town. I see an interesting building across the road and climb over the metal barrier. There is another metal barrier on the far side with a grassy bank beyond but as the bank is quite steep I decide to walk along the road. A local bus appears and stops at a bus stop just beyond the end of the metal barrier. I think I have time to walk to the end of the barrier but I am wrong. The bus pulls out and is heading straight for me. I stand on the kerb intending to step over the metal barrier. But my foot slips off the kerb and I fall over the barrier and roll down the grassy slope. I have taken a chunk of skin off my shin and it is bleeding profusely. I stem the flow with a paper handkerchief and walk back to the hotel. At the hotel I use the hand sanitiser in reception to disinfect the wound and leave it open to dry up.
After a pre-COVID breakfast buffet we set off for Daugavpils fortress. Ilona guides us around this early nineteenth century military fortification. It is a huge complex and the various buildings house an art centre, the famous Rotko Centre, a history exhibition, and a medical exposition. The medical exposition is a bizarre collection of all things relating to the practice of medicine and dentistry laid out in three large rooms. Above this there is a collection of furniture and artefacts including firearms and swords - all for sale.
We have a very pleasant lunch in the Café Arsenals in the Arsenal building of the Daugavpils Fortress. This features a multi-coloured dessert inspired by the Rotko paintings at the Rotko Centre. We move on to Church Hill, a congregation of four churches of different denominations. From the tower of the Roman Catholic Church we have a good view of the other three churches and the city below us. Back in the town centre I join the group that is visiting the Smakovka Museum. The Šmakovka Museum covers the history of distilling and brewing of the oldest Latgalian alcoholic beverage – šmakovka. Our tour, with Viktor, the excellent museum guide, is very interesting as it also covers some local history.
This evening we are treated to dinner at the Silene Resort and Spa. A charming lady in traditional dress meets us at the entrance and takes us on a tour of the resort. As we cross the bridge over the lake we are invited to make a wish. I wish I could stay here tonight and catch up on some sleep. We then have a tasting of their šmakovka. This is brewed from honey and mellower than other versions I have tried. The restaurant at Silene featured in the top thirty restaurants in Latvia last year and our dinner certainly lives up to its reputation.
Friday 14 August 2020
I set out early this morning to visit the daily market. But I get hopelessly lost. Probably because Ilona had told me to turn left out of the hotel. I follow some people with shopping bags hurrying by assuming they are heading for the market. I am wrong, they are taking their offspring to the local school. But I do find a huge painted snail and a pretty park during my wanderings. I go back to the hotel for breakfast and then try again. This time I am successful. Foraging is very popular in Latvia and a lot of stalls have wild berries and mushrooms piled high on them. I try to capture some images but some stallholders, (Soviet occupation generation) shout at me as soon as I raise my camera. I apologise and move on but their protests continue to echo around the large covered area. I realise I should have used my iPhone instead of the SLR – less obvious.
Our first stop today is the Russian-built Daugavpils Lead Shot Factory. This historic building has been replaced by a modern factory but still produces small quantities of lead shot. During the process molten lead is thrown from the top of the lead shot tower into the deep cooling well beneath it. Gravity creates perfect round pellets of lead. After watching the process on a video we have a tour of the lower floors.
We move on to the Slutišķi Old Believers' Village. Old Believers follow an older form of Russian Orthodoxy. During our tour of the Slutišķi Old Believers’ House we learn about the customs some of which are a bit strange for example, black means good and white means bad.
Lunch today is at the Klajumi Ranch in Kraslava. We start with a traditional sorrel soup accompanied by some delicious rye bread. It is very filling which is good as I start to feel really claustrophobic and have to rush outside before the main course arrives. We were all crammed around one table when the owner pulled up a chair very close to me. It was too much. I do go back when the main course arrives – large platters of meat and grilled vegetables but I only last a few minutes before bolting out into the fresh air again. I am surprised at how difficult I am finding close contact with strangers but then I have spent five months’ keeping my distance. I am determined not to jeopardise a second trip to Italy later this month.
Our next stop is Kraslava Castle. It does not look like a castle more like a manor house. We start with the Olga Gribule porcelain doll collection. This comprises almost 1500 dolls and some handmade dolls' carriages. As we leave this collection we are joined by a very jolly guide in costume. He has been drinking and nonchalantly lobs the empty bottle into a litter bin as we start our tour. We explore the castle both inside and out. Extensive renovation and restoration has been suspended indefinitely. We also visit the museum in the grounds. The main room of this museum, about the history of Latgale is laid out like a boat – it is very clever.
Our final visit today is the rural style Lielborne Manor tucked away down a rough track. It is a very secluded spot with extensive grounds within the bends of the Daugava River. We had climbed the Vasergelišķu Viewing Tower to view this area earlier in the day. We had a lovely walk around these grounds. We dine here in an elegant dining room. I am not keen on the snails as a starter but the rest of the meal is really good, particularly the honey cake dessert.
Saturday 15 August 2020
Today is a big day in the Roman Catholic Calendar and set off to attempt a visit to Aglona Basilica, the only basilica in Latvia. Every year thousands of visitors come here to celebrate the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into Heaven. This year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the numbers are limited to 3,000 and by invitation only. The police are on duty enforcing this but we are able to take a quick walk around the grounds.
We enjoy a short interlude by the Devil’s Lake (a meteorite lake) on the way to the Bread Museum also in Aglona. This museum celebrates Latvia’s traditional rye bread. We are welcomed with a Latgallian folk song sung by six very pretty girls dressed up like milkmaids. We try some of their bread accompanied by local honey and some lovely home-made herbal tea. Music floods the room and we are invited to get up and dance. I decline I am still not ready for such close contact. Our next stop is Arendole Manor - a tour followed by lunch.
Arendole Manor looks just the same as it did when it was built one hundred years ago. It still contains some of the original furniture. Our tour is very detailed and after a while Yasmene and I escape into the garden to enjoy the beautiful flowers, some sunshine and some fresh air. We take some photos – Yasmene looking very elegant on a large wooden balcony and me astride an old motorbike complete with sidecar. Lunch is being served when we go back inside. I am very happy when I spot a slice of apple meringue pie at each place. We are told this is a gift from the cook. And very welcome it is too.
We move on to a corner of Make Believe in the village of Peili. A fantasy castle, extravagant sets and people strolling around in period costumes taking photos of themselves. The centrepiece is a small museum of hand-made dolls. Each one unique but all bearing an uncanny resemblance to their creator.
Next stop is the Nestor Custom Moto & Metal Art Gallery a collection of metal sculptures and custom motor bikes. Some of the sculptures are quite endearing. A final visit to a ceramic studio where the potter demonstrates his skills and we set off for Riga where we are to stay the night – in the large modern AC Marriott Hotel. I have a lovely, quiet, modern room overlooking the street at the front of the hotel. I am all set for a good night’s sleep – at last.
Sunday 16 August 2020
I awake refreshed and excited about the day ahead of me. At my request Laila has arranged a visit to the Latvia Soviet Aviation Museum preceded by a quick visit to Riga’s old airport supposedly abandoned. This proves not to be the case. The magnificent Russian-built terminal building is being used for an art exhibition but it is not open when we arrive. I walk across to the airfield. No-one is around when I reach the airfield. I find a gap in the fence and start taking photos of the small aircraft lined up there. A few of the fixed wing microlights start their engines and head for the only runway. Several flex wing microlights are pushed out of a hangar and are soon buzzing in the air above me. I am approached by a gentleman in a High Vis jacket. I expect I will be asked to leave but instead he tells me, in good English, that he will walk with me as I am not wearing a High Vis jacket. His name is Nik and he takes me on a tour of the airfield. It is a great start to my day.
The Aviation Museum is next door to Riga International airport. The approach road has been dug up so we have a bumpy ride to get to the entrance. We are greeted by Pavel the son of Viktor who owns this amazing collection of Soviet aircraft from the cold war era. There are Russian MiGs everywhere but few of them are complete. A few information boards indicate the name and model of some of the planes here. It is more like a scrapyard than a museum but that is part of its charm. We are free to wander around, climb into the cockpit of a MiG and climb up some steps for an aerial view. Another unusual experience in Latvia – and my last as we then head for the airport to start our journey home.
By August 10 the total number of people who had tested positive was 311,641 and the cumulative total of those have died after testing positive was 46,526 including a daily total of 21 (there was no data for August 11 due to technical difficulties). By August 16 the total number of people who had tested positive had risen to 318,484, and the cumulative total of those have died within 28 days of testing positive was 41,366 including a daily total of 5. The parameters have been changed resulting in a decrease in the cumulative total.
More next week