Monday, August 31, 2015

Ikla, Estonia and the erratic (bolder) boulder

The decision to pass through Salacgrīva and continue on to Ainaži on our search for dinner was a fateful one, as it meant spending the next hour or so in traffic. The 7.5 miles between towns was almost entirely one-way traffic due to construction, the Rīga/Talinn being improved and widened. At each stop we sat for what seemed an unbearably long time, waiting for oncoming traffic to clear, wishing for a restaurant to be just around the next bend. One failed attempt not far out of Salacgrīva (the place was closed for a wedding… on a Tuesday!) netted us the name of a restaurant in Ainaži that turned out to be open and serving – the only two requirements we had with three hungry boys complaining in the backseat.

Possibly built in the heydey by a ship's captain? 

Ainaži is a quiet town, known for the history of seafaring and shipbuilding; tourists can visit the sea school museum which also touches on the construction of tall ships in the 19th and 20th centuries. The town was occupied by Estonia in 1919, although the majority of the territory was returned to Latvia and vacated by Estonian troops by 1920, with the exception of Ikla.

To reach the center of Ainaži we turned off of interstate A1, and it was this business route that unassumingly dumped us into Estonia – no fanfare, no border crossing, just a few flags and signs to let us know we were no longer in Latvia. Ikla is a small village, part of Häädemeeste Parish in Pärnu County, and its claim to fame seemed to be the Ikla rändrahn.

Per the informative signage: “The Erratic Bolder, whose sad story we are going to tell you, probably arrived at Ikla already at the end of the 1st Ice Age. Although the oldest date about the Bolder in the church register goes as far back as 825 AD. The fate of the Erratic Bolder was gloomy in the dark middle Ages. But its outer cold hard rock hid tender inner soul (the measure of which is 26,000m3). During its life, weighing over 60 tonnes, it had to suffer from local’s continual repression. It is difficult to describe all those horrors. For example, the Erratic Boulder had to tolerate that superstitious people continuously heaped a lot of food on it in the hope that fairies would bring them luck. Actually only the Erratic Boulder saw that several and several generations of crows and seagulls lived on it. But the Bolder did not tolerate the birds, because they disturbed and smeared it, not to say anything of contaminated food which made it feel sick. For centuries the local youth climbed to the top of it and danced on it, mocking at its enormous circumference, carving their names and causing wounds and leaving scars in it. Once local people poked a fir-tree into the body of Stone Landmark who was a good neighbor of the Erratic Boulder. The Boulder was sad, but it could not do anything but feel sorry for the Stone Landmark. The nights, when ferns were in blossom, were the most horrible for the Boulder. Then local people used to throw a party and light bonfires near it. Because of that the western side of the Boulder was overheated and it caused extreme pain to it every year on the shortest night. One day it was noticed that the Boulder had disappeared. There was nothing in the place where the Boulder had been for centuries. The most famous scientists in the field were asked to come and investigate measure, analyze and speculate, but they could not comment on its disappearance. The Erratic Boulder had become a media star overnight. Journalists arrived, questioned people, invented their own versions about the disappearance of the Boulder and published them in their newspapers. In the end the prevailing opinion was that the disappeared Boulder was a “rolling stone” by its nature and that is why it had to rollaway. But some people were of the stile of the opinion that the disappearance of the Boulder was caused by the exchange of the local authorities and it was deeply insulted as its location was on the border of the country. Nobody knows where the Ikla’s Erratic Boulder is now. Perhaps it remains a secret for ever. Every year tens of people go missing who can never be found, let alone an Erratic Boulder with a stone heart.”

So. There you have it. The story of the erratic (bolder) boulder. I take absolutely no credit for the translation!

The boys are searching for the dižakmens...

We wandered around for a bit (probably looking quite suspicious to anyone paying attention), checking out the site of the old site of the border crossing station and the concrete border markers. There was a ditch running between the two countries, some official looking posts with ģērboņi and emblems, the highway signs and quite a few maps detailing cycling routes.

And so it came to be that Vilis had a snack in Estonia.

The welcome back into Latvia was not nearly half as grand…

On our way south we kept our eyes peeled for that rolling stone, but you know what? We never did see it… quite a mystery! 

P.S. Today is your final chance to enter the giveaway to win a made-in-Latvia banana bird market tote! 

Friday, August 28, 2015

On the shores of the Baltic - the sandstone cliffs of Vidzeme

As I mentioned in my previous post, the section of Baltic Sea coast between Tūja and Vitrupe is known for a rocky seashore, with unusual boulder clusters, rocky headlands, cliffs, bluffs, small grottos, pillars and other natural formations. As fun and scenic as the Lauču rocks were, I was unprepared for the fascinating shoreline just 10 miles north. We cruised up the A1 (the Rīga/Talinn freeway) until Lapsiņas, where we turned west towards Rankuļrags and Mantiņi. Once again our destination was well-posted, and about 4 miles later we arrived at the Veczemju klintis (translates to “Oldworld Cliffs”).

Similar to Lauči, the area has been groomed into a camping/recreation site. As it is private property you do have to pay to park, but with the attendant on duty we felt safe leaving the car there for an extended period of time. A restaurant, snack & coffee shop and other facilities are available, and picnic tables are located throughout. Visitors can descend stairs to the beach, or continue along the road to reach the boardwalk that accesses the cliffs. The boys opted to walk the beach while I continued down the forest road, inhaling the scent of the rich deciduous and pine-spruce forest that is so typical of the Baltic seacoast.

The Veczemju klintis are the most impressive and imposing sandstone cliffs of the Vidzeme rocky seaside and part of the “Vidzeme stony beach” nature reserve, which comprises a 7.5 mile-long stretch of shore. The 20 foot-tall, magnificent red sandstone formations stretch two tenths of a mile, with caves, arches, and patterns of all colors. This is the only place in Latvia where 350-380 million year old sandstone outcrops can be seen, and the visible evidence of the last glacial period dates back 10-13 thousand years. Despite the centuries-old reputation of these cliffs, the appearance of this section of shore supposedly changes noticeably with each storm, the relentless waves carving out new sculptures in the soft sandstone for a unique landscape every year.

I could have spent days photographing the colors and patterns, watching the cliffs change hues over the course of the day as the sun passed overhead. We searched for driftwood and pieces of sea glass among the pebbles, giving the boys freedom to explore and play. When the sun got to be too much we retreated into the shade of the cliffs, the cool, salty breeze eventually urging us back into the sun.

When it came time to leave, instead of turning the car back around the way we came we decided to continue north – a fortuitous choice. For Americans, it was the difference between choosing Highway 1 over Interstate 101 when driving up the Pacific coast... What we lost in time driving on an unimproved, narrow and curvy road, we more than made up for with sheer beauty of our surroundings. With frequent glimpses of the ocean, the cliffs and the beach (so tempting to forget the evening’s plans and return to the water!), we wound our way through pine forest and meadow before intersecting the A1 near Meleki and the Lielurga river. And then we were once again traveling at a good clip, eyes peeled for a place to eat dinner as we approached Salacgrīva…

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Lauču akmeņi - a couple of big rocks

It was on a day trip from Saulkrasti that we found ourselves bouncing down a gravel road somewhere between Zvejniekciems (‘fisherman’s village’) and Dunte, where the infamous Minhauzena museum is located. We were following signs for the Lauču akmeņi, the rocks of Lauči, wondering if were chasing a legend as elusive as the truth was for Minhauzens, and if it was going to be worth the trip.

Turns out finding the large stones wasn’t going to be a problem, as signs guided us straight to the parking area for the Lauču akmens restaurant/camping/recreation area. As luck would have it we arrived while parking was still free, and soon we were descending the stairs leading down to the beach. And there it was – the Lauču akmens.

There are actually two rocks, Lielais and Mazais (big and small), both of which appeared on the Baltic seashore in the spring of 1853 along with a multitude of ice. Lielais is in the books at over 10 feet tall with a circumference of about 40 feet, while Mazais is a little over 6 feet tall and 31 feet around. Worth flying out to Latvia to see tomorrow? Not quite, but definitely worth the side trip from the Rīga-Talinn highway; although these rocks might not be the size of Stone Mountain or Bald Rock, the Lauču beach is a gorgeous yet unique aspect on the shores of the Baltic.

Not Mazais Lauču akmens... but just as fun to climb

The section of coast between Tūja and Vitrupe is known for the rocky seashore, with unusual boulder clusters, rocky headlands, cliffs, bluffs, small grottos, pillars and other natural formations. However even south of Tūja where the Lauču rocks are located the shoreline is interesting, with the large rocks and steep wooded shores preceeding the beach. The boys found a tidepool of sorts, and were soon busy stacking rocks, digging channels and exploring the rock-strewn strand.

The restaurant's playground, restaurant decor and wildlife we spotted on the drive in

We weren’t the only ones on the beach on a sunny summer’s day, although we might possibly have been the only ones there to see the rocks... As morning turned into afternoon we grabbed lunch at the restaurant (if we did it again I would skip the meal rather than dining there again), checked out Mazais Lauču akmens (not as impressive as Lielais) and finally bid adieu to the the oversize stones before continuing our trip north – to the Veczemju cliffs. 

Monday, August 24, 2015

Wrapture by Inese {giveaway}

“Art you can wear knit in nature’s palette”
One afternoon in Rīga we took a walk down Avotu iela to Inese’s studio. The creative force behind “Wrapture by Inese,” I know her from days spent in scout camp, both of us working with lielgaidas. There are family connections too, sister’s godfather’s wife’s sister or something like that. I remember one Lielā nometne she handed out art like it was trail mix, a playful shot glass coming home with me – a rather unlikely souvenir from time spent in the woods. In speaking with my mother other nature-inspired compositions were mentioned: the mirror framed with acorns hanging in my grandmother’s house, the macramé with paper birch bark on my mother’s bedroom door, both from nometnes long since passed.

Latvians have for centuries taken inspiration from nature, not only in materials but also in colors. The Latvian folk costumes feature the reds, browns, greens and oranges that are spring through fall and the white and black that is winter. This heritage shines through in Inese’s current line of knits, with color combinations named Alsungas vamzis and Nīca. In her blog Inese writes “I get the colors for my knitwear from nature. I rarely look at a photo and say I want to knit exactly this. I just soak it up and then when I knit the colors just make sense, I use color memories subconsciously.” The names of her café wraps reflect their roots in nature: the “Kelp Forest,” “Muir Woods” and “Mossy Ridge”.

Graduating from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago with a BFA, Inese continued her studies and her career in California. Ten years ago she took the leap and moved to Latvia, where she was immediately noticed by the press and has been creating and knitting her way into homes worldwide ever since – 30 countries at latest count.

Inese’s current best seller is the mobius wrap, which came about after much experimenting with width and length. Similar to infinity scarves, the wraps can be worn as stoles, scarves or in various other combinations, with a choice of thickness, weight and of course colors to choose from. With color mixing skills from the years working textile design Inese says she comes up with color combinations that even she can't duplicate. “I started with wraps only, but I am evolving. A few years back a master chef asked me if I could make something for his diners to wear on chilly evenings at his outdoor cafe so my infinity scarves got longer, wider, chunkier and turned into the perfect 'cafe wraps'. During a summer photo shoot when the clouds came in I gave all the girls cafe wraps to stay warm. The kids tucked in their arms and feet and looked like turtles on the porch swing. The moms had both arms free to help where needed. Grandma insisted on wearing a wrap, and I saw that this style will easily work for 4 generations, everyone 'gets it'...”

These guys 'get it' too - especially while playing with handmade finger puppets

Inese’s wraps can be found in the Wrapture shop at She blogs at and can be found on facebook here.

 Get Out of the Box, Latvia: Inese Iris Liepina at TEDxRiga 2013

As a special surprise from me, one lucky reader will win a gift from Inese’s line daba deva. The banana bird market tote is designed and sewn in Latvia, the bird (the form of the bag when zipped and not in use) having been especially created for the Song and Dance Festival. The washable, reusable bag has three compartments to keep crushables safe from heavier objects, and features bright colors, sturdy seams and Latvian folk symbols. To enter this giveaway, please visit Inese’s website and comment here or email me with your favorite wrap color combination! The deadline for entries is Monday, August 31st (2015) , and one winner will be selected at random. I have received no compensation for this post, and the winner will be contacted for their mailing address soon after the giveaway closes.

Colors may vary

“I am adamant about having the absolutely best quality, buying yarn by touch. It costs more, but why would anyone want to buy or wear something that doesn't feel and look exquisite?

“My greatest accomplishment is to get you to smile when you see and wear the knit that is yours and yours alone. It is all one of a kind and unique. I can't even discipline myself to knit both sleeves or front and back the same, so I don't even try. My work is for the individuals out there who can truly appreciate that!” –Inese Liepiņa

Friday, August 21, 2015

A day in the Vidzeme countryside

Once you’re out of Rīga, the town of Limbaži isn’t far. I only knew it as the place puiši, puiši, kas tie puiši stopped to roast the pig they had stolen in Valmiera (according to the popular folk song of the same name), but the quiet little hamlet has a long and storied past. With roots in the 1200s the city had its heyday in the 14th and 15th centuries, but today it is just another one of the mazpilsētas in northern Vidzeme. The location on the shores of the river Svētupe and the lake Limbažu Lielezers tempted us to make a stop to explore, but we were headed a little further north and so left the investigation of Limbaži to another visit. I was disappointed to miss seeing the 12th century castle ruins, but upon reaching the destination homestead I forgot all about it – especially as our relatives had their own ruins on the property!

What was previously a mill has found a new life in generating hydroelectric power. A home, a garden, black current fields, orchards and the afore-mentioned ruins, it was amazing! With all the work associated with the crops I can hardly understand where they find the time for the extensive gardens, which were beautifully designed and well-tended. This is a trend I saw oft-repeated during our travels in the Latvian countryside; flower gardens are a saimnieces pride, and each one is more ornate than the next...

It didn’t take much urging for the boys to start taste-testing. Despite every third berry ending up in the stomach instead of the bucket it wasn’t long before they had picked full pails of black & red currants. I was recruited to help with the cherry picking, as the loaded branches were out of reach without a little assistance. But the temptation of exploring beckoned, and soon we were headed further afield.

The ruins were of an old muiža. Overgrown with brambles and stinging nettle, we admired from a distance. The former vegetable cellar was more accessible, but even I didn’t dare to enter far without a flashlight to guide me.

Upon our return a feast was laid out, complete with homemade skābie gurķi, tea brewed from fresh-picked flowers and local beer. But it wasn’t long afterwards that we headed out again, the lure of such beautiful environs too much too resist. On this trip we were caught by afternoon showers, the giant raindrops chasing us back to the farmhouse, but not before we had seen the main fields, black currant bushes stretching as far as the eye can see.

As beautiful and full of old-world charm as Rīga can be, it is still the Latvian countryside that I would choose to spend my time in. Netrūkst maizes arājami, ne ūdeņa avotam. Visiem labi, visiem labi manā tēva zemītē.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Saulkrasti, another of Latvia's beautiful beaches

A Latvian wedding lasts three days, and it was on the third that we found ourselves in the quaint little seaside town of Saulkrasti. The English translation is ‘sun shores,’ and with white sandy beaches that echo the colors of the sunset each evening the name is quite appropriate. Saulkrasti encompasses 10 miles of shoreline on the Gulf of Rīga and a total of almost 20 square miles of beaches, fields and forest.

Four rivers enter the Baltic Sea in Saulkrasti: Inčupe, Pēterupe, Ķīšupe and the Aģe. They along with the five villages that make up the district – Bādciems, Katrīnbāde (Pabaži), Pēterupe, Neibāde and Zvejniekciems are represented in the coat of arms, which features four white stripes, five green stripes and the sun & sea. The villages were merged into one municipal district and named Saulkrasti in 1933, and in 1991 it officially became a town.

The shores west of Rīga have long been popular as a beach resort destination, but the eastern seaboard has historically been on the quiet side. Convenient rail transportation makes Jūrmala an easy day trip from Rīga, whereas in contrast Saulkrasti was a long (and often crowded) bus ride away – that is until the A1 Motorway between Rīga and Tallinn was built. In 2007 a bypass was completed, moving the through traffic further inland out of the center of the town, and these days Saulkrasti is an easy car ride from the capital resulting in more than a few summer houses for city dwellers. The town is now home to the annual Saulkrasti Jazz Festival in late July, which features concerts with celebrities such as American David Becker, and an educational camp for young musicians.

During our stay we had use of a tiny house, perfect for a few nights relaxation while we celebrated the wedding, enjoyed the beach, and made a couple of day trips to places nearby. The cottage street connected to the water via a boardwalk, protecting the dune ecosystem that make Latvia’s beaches so appealing and giving the public beaches an exclusive feel. Swimming in the Gulf was a cold endeavor, although on the sunny summer days warming up was quick and easy. The boys instead spent a majority of their time on the beach playing in the sand, building elaborate rivers and moats with ocean-side fortifications.

The natural beauty, convenience in ease of access and fantastic beaches of Saulkrasti make the area another must-visit destination during a trip to Latvia. Additionally it can serve as a suitable home-base for excursions to northern Latvia as it cuts an hour or two off trips to destinations such as Sigulda, Cēsis, Valmiera and Salacgrīva. If you’re not completely committed I urge you to take a daytrip; all it will take is one sunset across the Baltijas jūras līcis and you will be convinced.

Monday, August 17, 2015

The European white stork

The stork is an important bird in Latvian folklore, supposedly bringing health and wealth to homes with its presence. The large, noble bird is considered sacred by many other nationalities as well, and storks and babies have been linked together for centuries (as I wrote about in my post “The baby brought the stork!”). The link is possibly due to their migration patterns coinciding with a countdown of nine months after midsummer and the search for the elusive papardes zieds

In late March and April the migrating white storks (Ciconia ciconia) return to Latvia, with male storks arriving first to retake their previous nests or build a new nest. The female birds join their mates several days later. A long-distance migrant, they winter in Africa from tropical Sub-Saharan Africa to as far south as South Africa, or on the Indian subcontinent. When migrating between Europe and Africa, the birds detour around the Mediterranean Sea because the air thermals on which they depend on for gliding on their long distance flight do not form over water. This explains the large concentrations of birds that can be seen near the Straits of Gibraltar and Bosporus around this time.

Many times people put up poles with a wheel on top to bring storks to their property, as this provides a solid foundation for a nest. Electrical poles are also utilized, although storks nest on chimneys, in trees or wherever else they find a good base for their large stick nest, which may be used for several years. My favorite site on our recent trip was the chimney of the ruins of an old home.

Storks are monogamous breeders, but do not mate for life. The female lays one clutch of eggs annually, consisting of one to six eggs which will then hatch about 33–34 days later. The male and female take turns incubating the eggs and feeding the young, which will leave the nest two months after hatching but continue to be fed by the parents for a few more weeks. Starting September the birds once again fly south on migration.

Before leaving the storks will flock together and feed in groups. One source described the farewell dance the female carries out in the nest the day before leaving for warmer climates; the stork boogie includes lifting the legs, jumping and levitating.

Storks are almost silent birds. The exception is at the moment when the adult birds return to their nest, at which point they usually clatter their beak to announce their arrival. One of their Latvian nicknames is derived from this noise; a klabata is a sort of wooden percussion instrument, a timber drum that is hollow to allow for maximum resonance.

A bird of prey, the carnivores forage for insects, fish, amphibians, reptiles, small mammals and small birds, finding most of their prey close to the ground or in shallow water. It is a common sight to see a crowd of storks following a tractor mowing hay, as frogs and lizards are left with little cover.

Stork populations can be considered an indicator of the overall health of the environment, and in recent years the white stork has seen an increase across the continent, with approximately 10,500 pairs of white storks nesting in Latvia. This can be compared to 7,000 pairs in 1934, when changes in farming methods and industrialization saw their decline and even disappearance from parts of Europe. Conservation and successful reintroduction programs across Europe have resulted in the white stork resuming breeding in the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland and Sweden. In direct contrast black stork (Ciconia nigra) numbers have declined by about 40% within the country in the last fifteen years, possibly linked partly to the decrease in old-growth forest and disturbance of nesting areas; black storks prefer wooded areas and breed in large marshy wetlands with interspersed coniferous or hardwood forests. However recent research from the University of Latvia has shown that the decrease may be largely connected to Soviet-era DDT deposits, just another long-lasting legacy of fifty years of occupation.

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