Travel

Our Baltic Trip 2016, Part 10 - The coast, Jurmala, Karli Posted on 05 Jun 10:40 , 0 comments

Our next day was primarily a travel day. We journeyed from Talsi to our next base in Karli, within the Gauja National Park.

Foregoing the A road highway back to Riga, we followed the P128 through the countryside for the coast. Much of the way was forested along both sides of the roadway, a view familiar to us from our home in western Washington. We reached the coast south of the town of Engure. There we found that the road still ran through a forest of evergreens, about a quarter mile inland from the shore, with glimpses of the water.  Not wanting to miss the ocean entirely, we stopped at one of the many marked trails running through the woods from road to shore, and took a brief walk on the beach. It was a lovely, vast expanse of sand curving off in both directions, deserted but for one other couple visible a long way off. Ilga stopped for a quick dip in the very warm water, but the many mosquitoes living in the woods discouraged us from stopping for long.

Continuing on, we turned off the main road to cruise through Jurmala, Latvia’s major seaside resort. Its proximity to Riga makes it easily accessible for the population, but in recent years it has become a high-priced area, attracting the very wealthy from Russia, Kazakhstan, and elsewhere in the former Soviet Union. These newcomers build expensive houses on and near the beach, a modern version of the classic beach resorts of yore. We passed through on some of the main strips, but were not tempted to get out and look around.

We took the highway to swing around the core of Riga, and found our way to the Bivdabasmuzejs, the Ethnographic Open-Air Museum of Latvia. This is a large forested park with numerous relocated and reconstructed buildings from the various regions of Latvia, illustrating the different building styles and lifestyles from around the country. We love visiting this sort of museum wherever we find them (Osaka, Japan has a particularly good one, too), and this was an excellent example of the type. The vast museum (215 acres) was started when a barn was relocated to the grounds in 1928.  The museum lost much during World War II and was actively discouraged during Soviet times. Since independence in 1991, it has become an active cultural center with 118 buildings (peasant homes, taverns, windmills, farmsteads, fisherman homes, various styles of bath houses (what we know as saunas) and many artifacts. A building was being re-constructed during our visit there, down near Juglas lake shore.

Ilga was particularly excited to talk to the woman weaving on a traditional loom in a weaver’s cottage from the Vidzeme region, and to see the spinning wheel maker’s homestead, also from Vidzeme. As we were leaving an engagement party with traditional costumes and musicians and dances was in process at the main hall. Alas, we were very absorbed in the museum and didn’t get any pictures, but you can find them readily on the internet: http://www.google.com/search?q=Brivdabas+muzejs&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiP0qbY3o7UAhVDxoMKHVbwC9IQ_AUICygC&biw=1207&bih=744 and click on images. There are a fair number of Latvian mittens displayed in the photos as well!!!

Time was running low, so we carried on to our base for the next three nights, the Karlamuiza guest house. This is situated in a 19th century building on the grounds of an old country manor, set in the midst of the Gauja National Park. The building was once used as a school for gardeners and nurserymen. Now it is a comfortable small hotel, adjacent to some of the national park trails.


Our Baltic Trip 2016, Part 9 - Grobiņa, Aizpute, Kuldīga and Talsi Posted on 28 May 22:46 , 0 comments

On our way out of Liepāja the next day, we drove through the remains of the big Soviet naval base on the north side of town. During the Cold War, the presence of this base made Liepāja a restricted town, with limited entry and exit even for residents. The city was in fact removed from maps, as a way to limit information about it. One of the more bizarre tourist activities on offer in Liepāja is the chance to spend a night in a cell at the base’s jail, as if you were a prisoner of the Soviets. You can even have guards come by and yell at you to wake up every hour or so. We passed on that opportunity!

On the outskirts of the base complex, we passed the cemetery associated with it. We were struck by the many flower arrangements left everywhere, a profusion of color brightening what might otherwise be a somber place. We saw the same sort of devotion to graves at other cemeteries we passed throughout Latvia. In fact, we found a gardening book at one of the many bookstores we visited in Latvia which was devoted to cemetery gardens.

 Our first destination of the day was the town of Grobiņa, just inland from Liepāja. Grobiņa had been an important settlement in the eastern Baltic for the Vikings. It was accessible by sea for them, but now the river has silted and is no longer navigable.

View of lake at Grobiņa from pilskalns

View of river at Grobiņa from pilskalns

 

There are a number of Viking-related archaeological sites in the immediate area, enough, in fact, that it has been nominated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We visited the pilskalns, where we saw active excavations. From the hill, there was a view over the waterway and a small rope pulled ferry (raft).

River ferry at Grobiņa

River ferry at Grobiņa

 

The adjacent ruins of the Livonian Order castle were quite picturesque.

Grobiņa castle ruins

Grobiņa castle ruins

Castle ruins at Grobiņa

 

Ilga chatted with an elderly lady working in the nearby community garden, flush with flowers and vegetables. She told us about her son who lived in America, and how he kept urging her to come out to live with him. It was another chance to prove to Ilga that she still had proficiency in her first language. 

Community garden at Grobiņa

 Community garden at Grobiņa

 

Moving, on, we passed through Aizpute, where we hoped to visit a weaving studio listed in the tourist information, but it was Sunday, and the entire town was shut tight---not much happening in a Latvian provincial town on a Sunday. We did stop to look at the inevitable castle ruin overlooking the river. Although Aizpute is far inland, this river too had once been navigable by boats running in from the sea. 

 Castle ruins at Aizpute

Castle ruins at Aizpute

 

Our main destination of the day was Kuldīga. This is considered one of the most beautiful, best preserved medieval towns in Latvia, with many buildings from the 13th to 18th centuries still standing.

Kuldīga main square

Kuldīga main square

 

It was first mentioned historically in 1242, when the Livonian knights requested permission to build a town on the river. The foundation stones of St. Catherine’s church were laid in 1252. We strolled around the castle hill. Alas, the castle itself was demolished and the stones used for other buildings long ago. The walkway through a park and gardens took us to the famous Venta waterfall. This lays claim to the title of Europe’s widest waterfall, although the river’s gentle flow and the falls height of only about 6 feet makes it unintimidating.

Venta waterfall at Kuldīga

Waterfall at Kuldīga

 

There was a beautiful view of the waterfall from the picturesque bridge. 

Bridge at Kuldīga

 Bridge at Kuldīga

 

We strolled up Liepāja Street, the main pedestrian promenade and shopping street in the old town, enjoying the street scenes and the old buildings.

Street scene in Kuldīga

Street scene in Kuldīga

 

Doubling back on a parallel street, we encountered a lovely Orthodox church.

Kuldīga Orthodox church

Kuldīga Orthodox church

Orthodox church in Kuldīga

 

Just to the side, we found a sculpture garden filled with humorous wooden sculptures.

Wooden sculpture garden in Kuldīga

Garden of wooden sculptures

 

After sitting and feeding some pigeons,  a little further on, we stumbled upon  a Trojan Cat art piece place in front of the music academy, created by the artist Aigars Bikše. 

A Trojan cat

A Trojan cat

 

Our final destination for the day was Talsi, where we were to spend the night at a guest house with the very un-Latvian name of Martinelli.  Legend has it that a soldier by that name from Napoleon’s army stayed behind after the army’s retreat and made his home in the town. 

Talsi

Talsi

 

The lake in Talsi was, for a time, named for him. Our gracious hosts at the Martinelli Guest House operate a very fine traditional Latvian food restaurant (even better than Ilga’s Grandmother’s food!!! And that’s saying something) and a lovely small guest house, where we thoroughly enjoyed our stay. After dinner, Mike took a walk over the pilskalns and around the lake. In the morning, after one of the best breakfasts of our trip, our host took Ilga to visit a local weaving studio.  This is part of an artist’s group that was established within the Tasli Regional Museum. The artists include painters, sculptures, photographers, textile and jewelry artists. 

 Fiber studio in Talsi

Fiber studio in Talsi

Old loom in the fiber studio

Big loom in the fiber studio


Our Baltic Trip 2016, Part 8 - Liepāja Posted on 18 Mar 17:38 , 0 comments

We awakened the next morning to find that Liepāja was setting up for its annual Sea Days festival on the promenade along the waterway.  Our hotel (called the Promenade Hotel, and built in an old grain warehouse) was located right there on the Trade Channel. The Trade Channel was excavated when the previous harbor silted up. Today the main port is elsewhere, but the channel is used by pleasure boats, smaller fishing boats, and the Latvian Navy. For Sea Days, the promenade was filled with market stalls selling “Saturday Market” sorts of goods. Local smoked fish were particularly in evidence, as well as home-baked goods, homemade cheeses, honey, and many craft items and food and beer stalls for lunch. Mike bought a new belt, embossed with symbols of the ancient Latvian gods, hopefully thereby gaining their protection. Ilga was thrilled to find a window sticker with her name on it. She had always pined for something with “Ilga” on it….not a likely occurrence in the USA!

After strolling the market, we went into the center of the old town. The architecture of central Liepāja is quite striking; a wide diversity of building styles all jumbled together. Antique wooden houses stand next to grand early 20th century mansions next to Soviet-era concrete boxes. During the 19th century, the city had been a seaside resort town with “wood lace” ornamented grand homes, and some of the remains of that time are still in evidence. Unfortunately, damage during the two world wars opened up vacancies that have been filled in with less graceful structures.  The mix of styles gave us a sense of discovery as we turned each new corner. We were also amazed to find an ancient building right in the middle of town.  This building illustrated an interesting old metal reinforcement to the dovetailed building construction.

 Metal bracing on old wooden building 

Unique metal bracing on old wooden building

 

We strolled through Rose Square, the town's central plaza, and watched the buskers. The city, as nearly everyplace we went in the Baltics, was filled with flowers, including a topiary butterfly in front of the university.

 Street flowers in Liepaja 

Street flowers in the Liepāja town center

 

Topiary butterfly in front of Liepaja University 

Topiary butterfly in front of Liepāja University

 

After a stop at the tourist information office, we wandered down the pedestrian-only shopping street, spotting among other things in the shop windows a tee shirt celebrating Chikago. We were headed to St. Anne's Church, the major Lutheran church in Liepaja, and the site of Ilga's mother's baptism. The helpful attendant gave us a little history of the church.   The church has a grand 16th century wooden altarpiece, unfortunately in need of restoration and protection for termites for which, alas, there isn’t enough money.

St. Anne's Church, Liepaja 

St. Anne's Church

 

We ran across the Liepāja gymnasium and wondered if, perhaps, Ilga’s mother had gone there.

Gymnasium building at Liepaja 

The grand gymnasium building in Liepāja

 

 A few blocks away was our next stop. Peter's Market, an Art Nouveau building erected in 1910, is considered one of the most beautiful market buildings in Europe. Inside were vendors selling meat, cheese, honey and other produce, while the fruit and vegetable vendors were in the outdoor stalls. We sampled unfamiliar varieties of cherries, and examined the many types of potatoes on offer. Inside, we purchased some pirogi (bacon and onion stuffed rolls) and a jar of honey. Seeing our purchases, one of the market ladies laughed and said that we had “the essence of Latvia” in our hands.

Liepāja is particularly proud of its efforts to make the city accessible to the disabled. On both the waterfront promenade and in the downtown, we saw lovely three-dimensional bronze maps, accompanied by Braille keys, to help the blind navigate the area.

3-dimensional map of Liepaja town center, for the blind 

3-dimensional town center map with Braille captions, for the blind

 

We returned to the hotel, and were fortunate to find a parking spot right in front of the hotel. A feat, considering all the confusion of the festival. We had missed the Viking boat races, but the children's games were still going. Ilga particularly liked the plunger races -- kids lay down on boards fitted with skateboard wheels, and propelled themselves along by “walking” the toilet plungers like oars through a winding course. We were also amused by the seller of spiral cut potatoes. He placed a whole potato on a skewer, fitted the skewer to a hand held drill, then held it against a homemade jig that made a continuous spiral as the drill spun. He then dropped the skewer into hot oil, and in a few seconds the whole potato had been rendered into a single spiral potato chip.

The craft market was winding down by this time, but the festivities were not over. Mike took the offered tour of the Latvian Navy's minesweepers, docked on the channel for the festival.  A couple of outdoor stages featured a  variety of acts throughout the day. In the market stalls on the perimeter of this venue, we found a fellow Etsy seller and her booth. Sandra of SandrasMagic hand-knits shawls and sweaters, using both traditional Latvian designs and techniques, as well as more modern approaches. Ilga found a shawl she liked, adding to her collection of authentic Baltic knitwear.

We walked through the town's new Great Amber concert hall across the street from the Promenade. This striking building, clad in amber colored glass, is one of Latvia's three regional concert halls, each dedicated to supporting the unique cultures of Latvia's different sections.

Great Amber Concert Hall

The Great Amber Concert Hall. Photo by Aigars Prūsis.

 

The festival continued into the night with more music. Liepāja is known as the center of Latvian rock music, so local bands were featured well into the night. But, after dinner in the hotel’s beautiful restaurant with amazingly HUGE rose murals, we retired to our room, having already had a really full day of exploration.

Mural in Promenade Hotel restaurant 

Part of the mural in the Promenade Hotel restaurant

 

Detail of the restaurant mural 

Detail of the restaurant mural

 

 

 


Our Baltic Trip 2016, Part 7 - Jelgava & Tervete Posted on 18 Mar 17:38 , 0 comments

We collected our rental car in the morning (a black Volkswagen Passat, same as the one we drove from Tallinn. This particular one had previously belonged to the Latvian Department of Education) and headed out of the city. On the outskirts of Riga, our first stop was a grocery store. We always do “supermarket tourism” wherever we go. Ilga oohed and aahed over the various items she recognized from her childhood. Lunch supplies in hand, we set out for Jelgava.

Ilga’s mother had lived in Jelgava as a girl, so it held special interest for her. It is the fourth largest city in the country (although its population is only about 60,000). It was nearly totally destroyed in the war, so most of the buildings date from the Soviet era. We spent most of our time in the rebuilt steeple of the ruined Trinity Church. It was all that remained of the original massive church.

Jelgava church steeple 

The reconstructed steeple of Trinity Church. Photo from http://podroze.onet.pl 

 

This housed a fine small museum detailing the history of the area and the local folk costumes and a whole floor dedicated to fiber arts!

Plaque in the fiber arts museum 

Plaques in the fiber arts section of the museum

 

Plaque in fiber arts museum in Jelgava 

Plaque in the fiber arts section of the museum

 

The plaque discussing spinning wheels quotes an old folk song - Five bobbins in the morning and five in the evening... - I have really got to get my spinning act together!!! The top of the steeple featured a glass-walled look-out room, with expansive views of the surrounding country, including the park around the river, and the restored palace of the dukes of Courland, now an agricultural college. 

Mike had seen references to local Iron Age hill forts in the museum displays, and wanted to ask the staff in the tourist information office at the base of the steeple about any nearby that could be visited. Unfortunately, the English-speaking staffer had left, so Ilga struggled to explain by trying various direct translations of “fort place” or “defensive place.”  Flustered, she couldn’t remember the word for hill or mountain.  Little progress was made until Mike recognized the name of one on the map, Tervete.  That instantly illuminated what we were asking about. The staff directed us down to Tervete, and we learned the word for hill fort: pilskalns, literally “castle hill”.

After a brief lunch by the river in Jelgava, entertained by begging seagulls, we set off for Tervete. The drive took us through the farmland of Zemgale, considered the bread basket of Latvia. The countryside lived up to its name as extensive fields of grain lined the road in all directions. The village of Tervete itself was more of a speck on the map than anything else, but on the road out of town we found the pilskalns,  as well as a forest park, and a partial reconstruction of an Iron Age stockade. We took a walk to an idyllic house and garden in the woods, the preserved home of Anna Brigadere (1861-1933), a beloved Latvian children’s author.  

Anna Brigadere house in winter

Anna Brigadere's house, in winter. Photo by Igors Jefimovs

 

Unfortunately, it was raining hard, so we didn’t spend as much time as Mike would have liked. This was really the only day that the rain interfered with our plans in Latvia

Setting out again, we headed for the town of Dobele. The center of town had a nice castle ruin, so we stopped long enough for Mike to take a quick walk around it under threatening skies, while Ilga knitted in the car.  A wedding party was trying to dodge the rain as they posed for photos in the castle grounds. Our tourist information told us that Dobele held the Latvian State Institute of Fruit Growing, an extensive garden of fruit trees, based on the work of a renowned local plant breeder, Pēteris Upītis. Unfortunately, the garden was already closed by the time we arrived, as indicated by the Latvia version of a Beware of Dog sign on the gate: Nikns Suns!, or literally, “Angry Dog!”. We try to collect local versions of "Beware of Dog" signs when we travel, especially if they depict German Shepherds, but we unfortunately did not find one of these for sale.

Latvian Beware of Dog sign

Beware of Dog sign at the Dobele Fruit Growing Institute. The sign translates literally as "Angry Dog!"

 

The small museum on site was also closed, but some staff was still there. They invited us in to come in and look around. It held a room of artifacts from Mr. Upītis, and a display of botanical paintings by local artists, which had been hung in preparation for the big civic festival planned for the next day. It was a lovely visit and another example of the hospitality of the people we encountered.

Time was running on, so we pushed on to Liepāja, our destination for the night, on the A road (highway), avoiding the temptation of further stops. It was a Friday night, so there was a certain amount of traffic, we assumed people from Riga going to the seaside for the weekend. We let them all pass us so that we could drive at a more leisurely pace and enjoy the countryside.


Our Baltic Trip 2016, Part 6 - Riga Posted on 17 Sep 21:53 , 0 comments

The next day was our only full day in Riga. The city was beautiful, but we longed to see more of the countryside. We intended to stroll around the old town, but as we often do, we assigned ourselves a mission, to give direction to our wanderings. One of my favorite ways to explore is to visit all the yarn stores we can manage. This gave us a zigzag route that provided a good sampling of the sights of the old town. We consulted the internet to build a list of places to visit, and in particular found this blog helpful: http://www.kikamoracrafts.com/blog/read_130013/yarn-shops-in-riga-list-of-my-favorites.html. It is written by a local knitter named Laura, who Mike later met when he visited the shop she worked in on our last day in Latvia. (He bought a nice skein of local yarn for me there!)

The old town of Riga is a mix of buildings of many ages, from the founding of the German city in the 13th century into the present day. There are a number of massive churches, expansive squares, old merchant houses, grand Art Nouveau mansions and hotels, and on and on. Most are now in good repair, and the city offers, at least on a summer’s day, a bright, welcoming aspect. It is popular with tourists, but unlike Tallinn, didn’t feel overwhelmed by them.

Two of the yarn shops we visited stood out. The first is the famous Hobbywool, already well known to fans of Latvian knitting. We fingered lots of Latvian made wool, and eyed their “Knit Like A Latvian” kits. The shop is in a little alley which is VERY “yarn bombed!” I especially liked their mascot, a carousel horse fully covered in a knitted skin.

 Entrance to Hobbywool  

Entrance to Hobbywool

 

Hobbywool yarn bombed horse  

The yarn-bombed horse at the Hobbywool door

 

The shop that really made my heart go a-flutter was called Dzijas, which just means “yarn” in Latvian. It lies a little out of the old town, down a crooked little staircase in a basement; very obscure and  a little hard to find. Once there, though, we found a small room crammed floor to ceiling with yarn of all kinds of colors, much of it unlabeled, with an opaque organization. The proprietress, however, knew every skein she had, and where to find it. It is one of those shops with just a single, narrow path through all the merchandise, and barely room for more than a couple of customers at a time. I was in heaven…and though tempted, only bought a small amount of lovely mohair silk for a future lace shawl. The absolutely gorgeous fine pearl cotton from Russia with an amazing array of colors and very reasonable price was hard to leave behind. It would have been perfect for weaving, but, alas, cotton is very heavy and we didn’t have much leeway in terms of airport rules.

After escaping from Dzijas without too much damage to the pocketbook, we crossed back over the old moat, and through the park that traces the old line of fortifications. We lingered in front of the beautiful Opera House, with its formal garden setting. Alas, nothing was playing there during our visit. We then climbed Bastion Hill for the view, and wandered back to our hotel for an afternoon break.

 Riga Opera House  

Riga Opera House

 

   

View of the Independence Monument from Bastion Hill

 

For dinner that night we went just a few doors up from our hotel to the 1221 Restaurant, considered one of the best in Riga. The name comes from the date of the building housing the restaurant, one of the oldest surviving in the old town. It was apparently built for the founder of the brotherhood of beaver hunters. We had a fine meal of modern interpretations of traditional Latvian cuisine, and watched with pity as the servers negotiated four flights of stairs to carry plates up to the rooftop terrace (we were on the second level). One has to be fit to work in this restaurant! Among the menu items that we sampled there were duck confit with black current-chocolate sauce with fresh currents and asparagus and a wonderful and quite unique pumpkin seed ice cream with chestnut orange sauce and balsamic cherries. This is the only place we’ve ever seen smoked beaver meat on the menu, although we didn’t choose to sample it.

After dinner, we took a stroll through another corner of old town, and came upon a building in the process of demolition. The façade was braced and left standing (which I would guess is required for historical preservation) while the interior was gutted. This was on a small street where, unlike most of the rest of the old town, the buildings were not so well maintained. We guessed they were all due to be modernized soon.

As we made our way back to our hotel, we could see that the neighborhood bars and restaurants were filling up with young people, most of them watching the EuroCup soccer match. The nightlife was coming alive, just like it might in Seattle’s oldest neighborhood, Pioneer Square, and countless other historic quarters in modern cities.

 


Our Baltic Trip 2016, Part 5 - Limbaži & Riga Posted on 17 Sep 10:30 , 1 comment

 The road south from Pärnu was less scenic than we hoped, since it is inland from the seashore, and screened on both sides by trees. This is a highway, the main route between Tallinn and Riga, so it was busier and faster moving than most of the roads we had been on. Soon we came to the border with Latvia, which had an inspection station for commercial trucks, but which we just drove through.

Our first stop in Latvia was at the Randu Pļava, or randu meadows. This is a nature reserve protecting an area of seaside meadows, home to many rare plants, as well as more species of birds than anywhere else in Latvia. A short walk through the woods took us to the meadows, covered in tall grass and wildflowers. Boggy spots kept us from approaching the beach itself, and the boardwalk out to the birdwatching tower was unfortunately deteriorated and impassable, but it was a good introduction to a bit of unique Latvian nature. Ilga had a less welcome nature experience here, with her first encounter with Latvian mosquitos.

Continuing south, we felt the urge to get off the busy coast road, so we turned up the P11 towards Limbaži. (The P roads in Latvia are secondary, but paved roads, a step down from the A roads, which are major highways. Freeways as we know them in the USA don’t really exist in Latvia. We always looked for routes on the P roads when we could, to enjoy the quieter pace. Roads out in the countryside that don’t have an A or P designation are often unpaved). We picked Limbaži as a destination because we had read of a felt museum there. We found our way to the local tourist office there for more information.

The Limbaži tourist information office was our first encounter with this very nice bit of tourist infrastructure in Latvia. Every town of size has one of these offices, and they are amply stocked with brochures and maps of all kinds, covering all sorts of interests, generally in at least three languages (Latvian, Russian and English), and often more. In most places at least some of the staff was conversant in English as well as other languages. Limbaži was not one of them, however, so Ilga had to make her first effort to remember her childhood language.

Beyond the language barrier, the staff had no idea what the felt museum might be. Eventually we all came to realize that the internet listing was referring to a large felt factory that had operated in the town for nearly 100 years. One of the old factory buildings was now a community center, and had a small display about the history of the factory complex. The tourist office staff pointed us in the direction of the community center, and called down to let them know these crazy American tourists were coming.

 Entrance to the Limbaži felt factory 

The Limbaži felt factory, now a community center

 

The director of the center was a very pleasant middle-aged woman, whose English more or less matched Ilga’s Latvian. She explained the history of the building to us. It had at one point been a very large operation, making felt for the hat trade, and making hats as well, but it had closed down 30 years ago. The community center was an effort to repurpose at least one building. It now served kids and adult, with classes ranging from knitting to yoga. Alas, if the director had known we were coming, she would have arranged for the viewing of a film about the factory. Other disused factory buildings, all of red brick, sat scattered around the area, reminding us of other decaying old mill towns we have seen both domestic and foreign.

The director mentioned that there was a woolen mill with an attached store in town, and directed us further down the street to the small shop. Ilga chatted with the shopkeeper, and asked if it was possible to see some of the mill. Sure, why not? The manager himself came out, and gave us a tour of the full operation, from blending the wool through spinning and dyeing to weaving, some of it on truly antique machinery. Alas, since we left our car up the hill and were herded from one place to another (all quickly before closing time), we didn’t have a camera with us.

The first step in the process is mixing the native, somewhat coarse, domestic Latvian sheep’s wool with a small percentage of very short fine wool. (Most current Latvian sheep are a black-faced, long-tailed, polled breed which originated from the crossing of Shropshire sheep (72%) and Oxfordshire sheep (28%) during the 1930’s). This blending (including wool for the grey yarns favored for woolen socks) is  done by hand. This is then further blended on a giant drum with very long, coarse teeth. It is measured for the next stage (a run of large six foot drum carders) by a very simple weight calibrated bin which, when full, dropped the wool onto the conveyor. The wool went through three sets of 6 foot drums, being thinned into finer roving between each drum. The end result was a tiny diameter pin roving (about 1/8th of an inch at most). Wrapped onto large 4 foot spools about a foot thick, these were taken to the spinnerets where the wool was spun onto large half meter bobbins. These were then taken to the plying machines. The mill produces 1, 2, and 3 ply yarns. The yarn is then washed and dyed with Swiss ecologically safe dyes, and finished in a steam chamber.

There are also several weaving rooms in the building. The large “commercial” looms were for Limbazu Tine’s characteristic striped wool blankets. We watched a woman winding the bobbins for the large fly shuttle looms, while the looms clattered (under supervision) behind us. The finest work of this small factory  is their Latvian ethnic costume yardage, complicated hand-loomed pieces. Many of these are multi-harness, supplementary warp fabrics woven for the regional folk costumes. They also do beautiful multi-harness table clothes and linens. The blankets are heavily fulled which left them extremely soft and fluffy from fairly flat and coarse fabric. It was an eye-opening transformation and learning experience for me. I’ve fulled hand-woven fabric, of course, but never as brutally with such beautiful results.

We were amazed at the generosity of the manager, spending over an hour with these random visitors, but it wasn’t the last time that we encountered such accommodation from people when we showed interest in their work. Since we didn’t take pictures, I searched the internet and found this video about the mill. You can see some of the equipment and the weaving rooms. The sewing project near the end of the video is about their solution for making a banner with EVERYONE attending the exhibit would  be able to contribute. Stitching in “God Bless Latvia” was easier than teaching everyone to weave. The video also gives you an idea of how Latvian sounds, even if you can’t understand it!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TX2w517lKHA

And here are a couple of pictures of some of their wares, for those who don’t want to watch the video:

Products of Limbaži wool factory  

Products of the Limbaži wool factory

 

Weaving by Limbaži felt factory 

Weaving by the Limbaži wool factory

 

 Eventually it was time for us to go, to meet our 6pm deadline for returning our rental car, so we hustled down the road towards Riga. The countryside was beautiful, lit up by late afternoon light, as we drove by farms and fields. Unlike the seemingly uninhabited Estonian country, here we saw the sort of signs of life we expected – herds of cattle, kitchen gardens, tended orchards, frequent farmhouses.

Arriving in Riga (and readjusting to heavy traffic), we dropped our car off at a hotel drop site in the new town with just 10 minutes to spare., Automobiles are restricted and sparse in the old town, so a taxi was our mode of transport to the hotel . Our room was spacious but somewhat oddly laid out, and the air conditioning couldn’t keep up with the demands of being right under the roof on a hot sunny day. It was comfortable enough, though.

After settling in, we strolled out looking for a likely restaurant for dinner, with nothing particular in mind. The old town in Riga is a center of night life, with many bars and restaurants, so we knew we would find something. We happened upon Rozengrals, a medieval themed restaurant, located in the oldest existing wine cellar in Riga. They had gone all out on the theme, with the staff in costumes, wandering minstrels, and authentic medieval recipes. Most of the lighting was provided by candles. Mike asked our server how they cleaned the place, and she said they had to break out headlamps! It was a fun meal, and a good end to our first day in Riga.

Here’s a virtual tour from the street into the vaulted main room of the restaurant. Included with the video tour is some of  the wonderful music that was played by the musicians during our meal. (Look for the yellow arrow to go downstairs.) I had a poultry liver salad with bacon and almonds as an appetizer which was SPLENDID and so much better than it sounds. Ilga had spit fired piglet and Mike had smoked curried brandy chicken.

 http://www.virtuallatvia.lv/Tours/Rozengrals/Tour.html