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  • Writer's picturePeter Antonucci

Riga, Latvia (II)

Monday | June 7, 2016

Our day began with breakfast in the apartment and then we headed out for a full day program in the Gauja River Valley.


Our guide today was Eva, a portly 50+ woman who was quite knowledgeable about her home country, Latvia. She began the day by informing us, “In Soviet times, they just needed the people to be a grey mass, blindly following the leader.”

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She told us we would be heading to Sigulda, nicknamed “Latvia’s Switzerland” although the highest point there is less than 1000 feet. On the way, she told us a little bit about Latvia’s history. Much of it was repetitive of what we have already learned, but it was fascinating to learn that one third of the population of the entire country was sent to Siberia in 1939 and 1940 (of those who were deported, fewer than 20% returned after the war).


Eva told us about the communal apartments in Riga that were mandated by the Soviets. They would remove hundreds of families from a block and send them to Siberia, and then house the remaining ones in only a few apartment. As a result, people were living in very close quarters with several other families.

She also told us that even numbers are bad luck in Latvia and that they’re symbolic of funerals. When giving a woman flowers, there must always be an odd number.


During our drive, we came upon a telephone post with a very large stork nest on top of it, containing baby storks.

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One third of all storks in the world live in the Baltics.


Bees are also popular in the Baltics and they are widely housed in small wooden boxes to maximize honey production. As result, Latvia does not have the bee problems and shortages the rest of the world is currently experiencing.

We learned that cemeteries in Latvia are different from anywhere else in the world, as they are not stripped of their undergrowth and trees. Rather, gravestones are set in forests.


Finally, we arrived at the ruins of the 13th century Turaida Castle and its fortified tower. On the way in, there were women selling things, like this beautiful light blue wool shawl.

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Once inside, we saw Turaido’s Rose’s tomb.

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We went inside an old Lutheran church (identifiable as Lutheran by the rooster on the steeple), and saw its female pastor, one of the few in the country.

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We came upon a woman wearing traditional Latvian clothing of the ancient Levi tribe, who were identified by their straight noses, blonde hair, and blue eyes.

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Finally, we came upon the actual castle.

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Most notable from a distance was the large tower.

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I climbed to the top of it and once there, I was afforded beautiful views of the surrounding area.

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After ascending the top, I descended some stairs into various basements and saw some interesting displays.

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We also came upon the bishop’s old lair.

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Much of the display centered around wartime artifacts from the 1297 to 1330 war between Riga and the German Order of Livernia.

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Stone throwers and seige machines were everywhere.

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We then boarded the bus and drove to Gutmanis Cave, where a brief walk revealed graffiti carved into the stone by teenagers and others over hundreds of years since the 16th century.

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This was perhaps the oldest carving we could find, and it appears to be dated 1611.

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A fresh water stream runs under the cave and our guide filled a small vessel with water, advising that if you touch the water and apply it to your skin, your face will immediately look younger. To no one’s great surprise, a few friends sprinted over to the bottle and immersed themselves in the water. It was to no avail - they still looked old!


After another short drive, we arrived at the restored ruins of medieval Sigulda Castle.

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It was built in 1209, and the red cross of the Crusaders is visible on the right side.

We also saw Kropotkin’s Manor House.

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This Manor House was constructed in 1867 and was lived in by Russian counts until 1922 when it fell victim to land reform during the Soviet occupation.

Outside the castle complex, I spied a few 1950s era Soviet bunkers.

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Most of the castle buildings have been beautifully restored. Some have not.

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We found a cute little display of metal sculptures, made from kitchenware.

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We stopped for lunch at nearby Aparjods restaurant, where I mistakenly ate way too much cream with my salmon. My sensitive stomach immediately identified the offending substance, and I was in pain for the rest of the afternoon and much of the evening.


Our final stop was a huge Soviet bunker built as a result of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. Before we even got there, we noticed that our beautifully paved road in the middle of the forest seemed to lead to nothing.  Then we were shown the entrance to the bunker beneath a sanitarium (see below).

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This bunker was designed to hold 250 males (they were the only kind) who were rulers of the Communist Party. It is 29 feet below ground, sprawls over 21,500 square feet, and houses 90 rooms. Above our heads were 5 feet of solid concrete.

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Above the bunker was the Ligatne Rehabilitation Center, a disguised sanitarium, so Latvian citizens had no idea what lay beneath.

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(It is a functional sanitarium today, and we saw several octogenarians wandering in the garden.)


At the time it was constructed, 24 men worked downstairs at all times, while 50 milled around upstairs, giving the appearance of a functioning sanatorium. We were told it took more than 20 years to construct this bunker and cost more than US$40 billion. (I find that number difficult to accept.) In fact, we were told that more than 80% of the GDP of the Soviet Union went to defense, and that Russia had more tanks than sausages in the 1960s and 70s. But foolishly, they didn’t have enough fuel in the bunker to run it for more than 5 days.


Outside of the bunker were what appeared to be Soviet style barracks from the 1960s.

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We saw several communications rooms.

We saw the generator facilities.

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Map rooms were everywhere.

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And we even found Comrade Lenin!

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Finally, the tour over, we boarded the bus and headed back to Riga, my stomach still feeling horrible.


As is the case with virtually every tour in the history of the ship, we arrived late back to the ship, without much time to prepare for our black-tie dinner in Portraits, where they were serving a Russian Imperial Dinner featuring the St. Petersburg Collection of Faberge.


It was a six course meal for which I purchased the wine pairings, raising the price to $295/each. Fortunately, with these wine pairing events, the bottles flow generously. Not surprisingly, I suddenly felt better! The vodka, champagne, wines and port were fit for their Imperial setting. It was quite intoxicating, and it was a fun table.

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