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!

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.