Rolling to Riga

Trip Start Mar 16, 2004
Trip End Jun 13, 2004

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Flag of Latvia  ,
Wednesday, June 2, 2004

About 30km north of Vilnius on the A14 I saw a sign proclaiming that the geographic centre of Europe was 300m to my left. Naturally I had to go and see what it was all about.

The park owes its existence to work carried out by a group of French geographers, who after defining the boundaries of Europe, Spitsberg as the northern point, The Canaries as the southern point, the Azores and the crest of the Urals as the most westerly and easterly points respectively , decided that the centre of Europe was at 54 degrees 54 minutes North and 25 degrees 19 minutes East, near the village of Purnuskas.

Those lines on the map lead to a beautiful little park which was officially opened on 1st May 2004, to mark Lithuania joining the EU.The spot itself is occupied by a low hill topped with a white granite column crowned with stars. The landscaping is so new that the grass has not started to grow on the bare soil yet. At the foot of the hill there is a new wooden stage, a cobblestone paved circle and pale wooden benches, unspoiled by dirt, water or mould, arranged amphitheatre style around it. The park also includes a small lake and an ancient pagan site.

In the lovely log cabin information office the guide was incredibly enthusiastic about the venture. He spoke poor English but such enthusiasm needs no language. I bought a certificate that I had been to the centre of Europe to his obvious delight, cert number 771. Its completion was a ritual in itself as he carefully transcribed my name onto it and handed me the stamp to make the official mark.The cert is well designed and at the bottom states that every traveller must visit the centre of Europe at least once!! No hard sell there.

A bulldozer and digger worked away immediately behind the cabin,the location for the coffee shop I was told and he invited me back for a coffee at a later date.

At Moletai I turned of the main road and onto minor roads, lovely quiet roads through friendly pastoral countryside and pretty towns. I passed wayside crosses and shrines similar to the ones I had seen in the Museum of Applied Art in Vilnius. Most were created in the 19th century by unknown folk artists called God carvers. People worked small plots of land with horses pulling ploughs, ancient tractors and horse and cart.

During my three day cycle to Riga I stayed in a small hotel at Anykscial . The town boasts the twin spired St Matthew's Church which has the highest spire in Lithuania. After entering Latvia at a very quiet crossing by the village of Skaistkaine I pedaled 20km or so into Latvia and found a spot in the extensive forest to camp out.

It was a beautiful sunny evening and a near full moon, so it didn't really get dark. The birds did not seem to want to sleep they sang so late and were up early to continue their songs. I did hear that barking noise again, but this time rather than being startled I was really curious to know what makes it. It must be deer.

I had left myself only 50km to arrive in Riga. As I cycled the country road I saw several dead snakes, the first since Cyprus and a few birds. Why are the Lithuanian snakes so bad at crossing the road? It occurred to me that the road kills in an area form a miniature, but gory, natural history museum of the wildlife in the region.

By early afternoon I had checked into my hostel, The Posh Backpacker. While I was eating dinner later on many of the travellers I had met in Vilnius arrived in dribs and drabs so it was actually a bit of a reunion and made for a relaxed atmosphere.

Riga feels much more like a city than Vilnius without being overwhelming. It is pretty, has a wide river and plenty of history. Despite hearing stories of how easy it is to get robbed here at night, and meeting people who were, I don't feel any more at risk here than anywhere else.

I visited two of the cities museums, the Museum of Occupation and the Applied Arts Museum. The Museum of Occupation is in a foreboding looking black bunker by the central tourist office. It educates people about the occupation of Latvia, twice by the Soviets and once by the Nazis. It is a good mix of the chronological history and memorabilia from the Gulag work camps in Siberia where political prisoners were sent.
Some of the sketches and drawings on display done by artists whilst interned are very impressive. One prisoner even managed to make a violin.

The Applied Arts Museum is in the Old Chapel of the Knights and displays work by Latvian crafts people, leather book bindings, wallpaper designs, textiles, furniture, pottery, jewellery. Most of it is 20th century but it is beautiful to see.

It is a quirky little place in two ways, firstly on entering I was given a pair of felt slippers to wear over my shoes, whether to protect the wooden floor or stop squeaky shoes I,m not sure. Secondly as I explored the two levels the attendants went ahead of me switching on the lights in the display cases, and on the second floor the lady turned the lights off again just after I passed. It was obviously a quiet day.

Outside the museum crafts people sell their art at little stalls, jewellery, leather work, carvings and the omnipresent amber jewellery. Several of them were working at their craft as they sat there.

I also went into St Peter's church across the street from the Applied Arts Museum. The main attraction here is the viewing platform in the spire, 72 metres above the city. It is exposed and windy but has a great view. You can see the entire city and well into the surrounding flat countryside. My visit coincided with a large group of school children who were understandably excited at being there, their behaviour drawing wry smiles from some of the tourists who were trying to get that perfect holiday snap.

I really like Riga, it is about the size of city I like. There is obviously a lot more to it than meets the eye as well. The Russian population of Riga outnumbers the Latvian population and the guide book says everyone lives in harmony. However I have heard from some sources that there are a few problems, such as ethnic Russians cannot get a Latvian passport, despite being born in Latvia, unless they renounce being Russian. This means that many people cannot travel, as they can get neither a Russian passport nor a Latvian one. Also as they are not considered as full citizens of Latvia they cannot vote.

It seems that some people do not see Soviet rule as an Occupation, because Latvians ran the place, although they don't deny the deportations. There appears to be a few issues that the EU will have to work at sorting out in Latvia.

Tomorrow (Wednesday) I leave Riga for the last stage of the EU Charity Cycle. Only one capital left. I am taking the scenic route via the Saarmaa Islands off the Estonian coast. The sun is shining, the forecast is good until Saturday and I get to see the sea for the first time since March. I'm looking forward to the next few days. I expect to be in Tallinn by Tuesday. From there I have to figure out a route home!!
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