Waking at Salaspils.
After sleeping in the car park of the most eerie Salaspils Monument you’d think the day would have to get better.
I wanted to wander around the monument after dark.
Polly had other ideas and put the brakes on big time as I started walking her in the direction of the beating heart metronome.
Instead we ended up walking around again at dawn. It wasn’t as creepy as it could have been, but it was still an experience that will stay with me.
From there we headed into Riga, buying a motorway vignette en route (€14 for a week’s road use if you’re over 3 tonnes).
It’s amazing where you can park with a bit of effort. We left ArchieVan in a huge pub car park only a few minute’s walk from the Old Town. We would have slept there too.
The Old Town is as pretty and meandering as any we’ve seen so far, and crowded with a few cruise ships’ worth of people following umbrellas held aloft.
We ambled aimlessly for a while, making that easy mistake of tackling a major city on empty stomachs. In such situations I’m always going to be the one who cracks first.
I became obsessed with finding the elusive baker that must be around here somewhere. Except I couldn’t find one, or anywhere selling the quick calorie fix that I needed.
Eventually some international food horror presented itself and did its job. I was sated, but not satisfied.
In the beautifully named the Quiet Quarter, the predominantly Art Nouveau part of the city, we spent a while craning our necks, looking up at some of the most wonderfully ostentatious buildings, but our hearts weren’t in it.
To shelter from a sudden smoking of rain we ducked into the former Biology Faculty. At just the right time. It had been taken over by the brilliant and wildly varied Riga Biennale art exhibitionwhere I could have spent a day absorbing the produce of many twisted minds. It was only as we were leaving that we realised we’d gone the wrong way around and should have started at the ticket booth where they’d have liked to have relieved us of €12 each.
One of the many good things about taking your house around with you is there’s a bed handy whenever you need one. A few hours stank around any city is enough to wear you out, so we were glad to fade into the upholstery for an hour or so.
Revived, we tackled the old town again.
Through Little Moscow we passed characters we were unlikely to engage in polite conversation. Russians down on their luck who have probably not achieved sober in many weeks.
As much as 50% of the city’s population is Russian, and integration isn’t happening as readily as would be ideal. However they do have a Russian mayor who is respected by both peoples and who is achieving progress.
Again we saw a lot.
We stopped for a beer.
And we admitted that Riga wasn’t happening for us.
We needed to find a different point to put our heads down.
We headed out of town.
We ended up somewhere brilliant.
Getting there was interesting.
Worse than driving through the toughest bits of Glasgow, reimagined by Stalin.
Ancient wooden houses way past their sell by date poured angry drunks onto the streets in search of their Sunday night fix.
Badly built high rises loomed in every direction.
The roads were rough. Really rough. Where there were two lanes the locals stuck to the outside lane as it was less rutted, less cratered.
Yet this led on to an enclave of huge houses that gave onto the beach.
And at the end of the street of mansions we camped.
We woke to the roll of real waves. You know, those that the sea makes, not the ripple of the lakesides we’ve been on for so long.
A crisp clear morning forest and beach walk.
A cold shower.
A great breakfast (thanks Minty). The stand out food in Latvia is the seedy bread. Heavy rye breads and sourdoughs with caraway seeds. Oh yea.
And a drive through Jurmala – 15kms or so of serious beachside wealth with lovely houses both old and new.
En route to the Cape Kolka.
Lake Engure, cut off from the sea 6000 years ago. Now a huge but shallow lake.
Forest, with deer running oh so close.
Apparently blue cows. Really.
A twitcher’s paradise and stopping off point for 160 or more breeds on their migration.
And peace in the woodland.
I’m sitting outside now, the falling sun tinges the very tops of the trees. The noise of the thousands of birds is loud, there are three woodpeckers hammering within earshot, but soon it becomes a pleasant background chorus.
On towards Kolka and I remark again how lucky we are in Britain to have such variety at every turn. We’ve driven 50kms or more along a stretch of forest road that has barely changed, there has hardly even been a bend in the road, and only a few other cars.
When Minty has had her head in a book for ten minutes and then looks up to ask “What have I missed?” my report is usually along the lines of, “Well a car passed in the other direction, and I think I saw a bird.”
I can’t imagine that is possible anywhere in the British Isles.
After a brief stop at the cape, photos of blown over trees, the meeting of currents, and a great café soup for lunch, we carried on to Ventspils, it’s Latvia’s main port, and it’s also a rather smart town on the west coast.
The Lonely Planet guide tells us that part of the road we drove was once a secret Soviet airstrip that runs straight and wide between several coastal villages. I believe it, but here every road runs straight and wide, it’s one of the few benefits of the total state ownership that existed for 40 odd years.
Ventspils has a lot going for it, and I reckon in another five years it’ll be realised for its gold mine potential.
There has already been considerable investment. Every road is either block paved (main streets) or rough cobbled (side streets). That must have cost a fortune. Strangely both main roads leading to the town are in a terrible state.
Ancient wooden houses sit alongside modern.
Its beautiful clean white beach is right beside the port.
Shops are generally unidentifiable until you go in.
The Alus (beer) was excellent, and only €2.50 a pint – the best since we were last in Eastern Europe a few years ago, and comparing extremely well to the €10 a pint we paid for fizzy pish in Laukvik, Norway.
And our parking space? That was excellent too. A smart and empty car park. Right on the dockside. With a great view of the massive coal loading point opposite where both trains and ships were weighed down with lumps of ancient forest.
Although the coal work went on through the night it became a pleasant backdrop to this industrial city.
The Cow Parade stopped here in 2002 and the town went for it big time, many of the more unusual creations still decorate the streets.
Ventspils is a long way from almost anywhere. Yet it’s exciting. There is so much to go at here, and so much for sale. Anyone with fairly deep pockets and a strong entrepreneurial spirit should be able to get established before it truly takes off.
This is probably the prettiest town in Latvia.
An extremely wide waterfall (that’s so shallow it could be called a rapid).
Well kept castle grounds.
A lovely bridge.
A couple of good looking restaurants and cafés.
Even a good few smart people.
It doesn’t compete with Cēsis for me as it lacks the bohemian spirit, but it’s a great place for the night and we’re about to head back into town to see what temps us.
We were modest, but slept well.
We hit the road early to get to Rundalepils.
It’s a hot day after a few cooler ones, the roads are pretty awful with deep ruts that pull ArchieVan every which way. We frequently have to dive for the ditch as oncoming trucks veer over the white line. And after a hundred or so miles we arrive knackered.
Hey ho, our house is behind us, and after a little refresher we set off for a big visit to a very big house.
I hope you’ll agree that the story of this place is interesting enough to be worth telling, albeit briefly.
This is my version and while it bares strong resemblance to the historical tale, you shouldn’t try using it in an exam!
Von Biron and his indomitable snake.
This is the tale of Ernie Joe Biron, known to the authorities as Ernst Johann von Biron, and what a fellow he was!
Ernie Joe was ambition personified. One of those chaps who mightn’t even be held back by death itself.
Chucked out of school in Germany for behaviour that Cameron and his Bullingdon Club mates would have been horrified by, Ernie Joe then had a crack at Russia.
Though he courted, and woke up with, many fine beautiful women in St Petersburg and down in Odessa (a particular Catherine was to remain on his mind), he found himself invited to too many duels and not enough expensive weddings.
We haven’t time to tell the tales of his siblings, but take it from me, he was a chip off the old block.
One of his sisters, a cracking good looking girl, had found favour, and a comfortable bed, back in Courland, a county in the south of what we now know as Latvia.
It only took a postcard from her, and a hint of a good life to be had, and Ernie Joe was on his way.
Now the Regent (boss) of Courland was the most lovely Anna and she was a serious case indeed.
Born daughter of Tsar Ivan she’d put British nobility to shame.
It was all a bit complicated back then in Russia.
Ivan, and his brother Peter, shared the tsardom, but Peter was the real boss as unfortunately Ivan wasn’t quite the full nine yards. That’s why big bro Peter is known as Peter The Great, and no one really remembers Ivan.
We can’t easily conceive of Russia’s sphere of influence back then, but to be Tsar of the world’s largest country was a big big deal.
Peter modernised Russia, expanded its empire, and ushered in its enlightenment.
Anna had been brought up in a strict family and had to mind her ps and qs, but she had a wild streak and liked to be last woman standing at any ball.
On her way to take her seat in Courland from St Petersburg her new spouse took poorly and pegged out. Apparently as a result of serious imbibing of dodgy vodka.
We have Anna who is, to use a British term, queen of all she surveys, although Courland is rather flat, so that wasn’t an enormous amount.
Suddenly, and much to her surprise, she’s on her own, although she has a ‘friend’ in tow, Peter.
Heading in her direction is enfant terrible Ernie Joe, without a kopeyk to scratch his arse, but with some colourful costumes, a big pot of hair gel, and a will to get ahead.
To keep this brief we won’t go into detail of individual styling, but imagine bright colours, all the brighter as the peasants would have been drab indeed, heaving bosoms, cinched waists, and amazing hair.
Ernie Joe is good with horses and secures a groom’s post at the Regent’s stables on his day of arrival where he both prepares, and becomes, Anna’s mount.
Peter (the boyfriend) is, to stick with the equine, dismounted.
Ernie Joe, once in favour, is quick to dispatch with a good few noblemen who he knows are on the take. Once they’re on the train (ok, oxcart) to Siberia, he absorbs their lands into a quickly growing estate of his own.
Next thing the other Peter, the important one, Peter The Great, also croaks, and Anna gets made empress of all Russia.
Holy smoke thinks our lover man. Pulling the Regent of Courland was a bit of a coup, but then waking up with Empress of all Russia without any further lies needed? Now that takes some beating.
His luck doesn’t end there (although it will soon be put on hold).
While Anna is a party animal, she also understands the etiquette of the refined world she is surging towards the pinnacle of. She knows it’s not the done thing to be rolling in the hay with the stable boys, and so to allay suspicions, at least a little, she gets Ernie Joe shacked up with one of her most gorgeous ladies in waiting (why still receiving favours of course).
To celebrate his and Anna’s place of meeting, and to use up some spare cash, Ernie Joe commissioned a nice pad to be built. Only two bedrooms, but enough space to throw a big party, and with good gardens too.
His Italian mate Bart Rastrelli, who he used to go to gigs with in Moscow, had become a big name in architecture and he asked him to knock up a pile.
It was going to take a while to build.
Life had been on the up and up for our man Ernie Joe for a long time, but get to the top and you either have a lonely fight to stay there, or there’s only one other direction of travel.
The decision wasn’t his.
His lover lover, the voluptuous Anna, saw her husband die after just a few weeks of marriage, but then her own candle waned soon after becoming empress.
Anna died aged just 47, and while she’d made provisions for her main man, his numerous enemies soon seized their opportunity. He’d taken land from many of the nobility and those noblemen’s friends saw to his fate.
Ernie Joe went in a matter of weeks from occasional favours in the best bed in the world to the long slow journey east to Siberia and a very long exile. Fortunately with his beautiful wife and kids in tow.
Bart (the architect, keep up!) was in bits.
Although he’d designed the winter palace in St Petersburg, his mate Ernie Joe’s Latvian pad in Rundale was intended to be his masterpiece.
However Rundale was running up bills with no one to pay them, and so, painful though it was, Bart called a halt to the works.
For a long, long time.
Ernie Joe was way out east for a life time, in fact twenty odd years.
Siberia is pretty tough these days, it was worse then. It’s a wonder he survived, although charm would again have played its part.
It’s a funny old thing, but when you’re friends with the big boss, whether that’s in the Coop in St Just, or the biggest nation in the world, good things tend to happen.
Life turned to shit when his lover and sponsor died, but when another of his ladies took the title of “…. The Great” Ernie Joe’s star began to rise again.
He’d made Catherine feel like queen long before she was empress and her tingling memory stayed with her for decades after.
The new ruler of the east pardoned her lover, and had him reinstated in Courland, and just as importantly, had his bank account reinstated too.
Ernie Joe was writing to Bart even before he’d escaped the salt mines, and, twenty or so years after work had been suspended, Rundale echoed to the sound of a thousand hammers once again.
It still took another four years to complete, by which time Ernie Joe’s hip thrusting days were behind him, but he had a few more summers of wandering its halls before the soil called him under.
It took us more than an hour simply to walk through all of the rooms on the first floor. There are only two bedrooms, but this is one hell of a detached house.