On 21st August Latvia was declared independent and I am glad of that because I have visited the country several times and am happy to include it in my list of favourites. On one visit with a group of friends we visited Sigulda, a tourist must see town, about an hour’s mini-bus ride away from the city of Riga.
The mini-bus driver worried us a little. He was a big sinister looking man who barely spoke a word and looked for sure as though he was an unemployed ex KGB agent. Right from the start this wasn’t the most straightforward journey that I have ever taken and it was punctuated by a number of disorganised stops along the way. First at a supermarket to buy umbrellas that we didn’t really need and then later at a café for a drink, where we all disembarked and went inside only to be told that they were expecting another tour bus and that they couldn’t possibly accommodate us as well. The next stop was to meet our tour guide for the day but there was a mix up over the meeting point that involved a further fifteen minutes delay waiting in a worn out little town that still had a communist hangover with depressing buildings and melancholy people and an overbearing drabness that was exaggerated by the dreary weather.
After the guide arrived we set off again but even the driver had had enough by now of all the messing about and his patience finally snapped when he was held up in a queue at a level crossing that had brought the traffic to a torpid standstill. He reacted to our lack of progress by swerving violently out of the line of traffic and driving frenziedly in a bid to push his way to the front; in doing so completely disregarding the flow of oncoming cars, who one by one had to take dramatic evasive action to avoid head on collision. I concluded that in a previous existence, not too long ago, he had probably driven a tank for the Russian Red Army.
We arrived finally at Sigulda in the Gauja National Park, a heavily wooded area of outstanding natural beauty and not unsurprisingly because of its Alpine nature called ‘Little Switzerland’.
First we went to the thirteenth century castle that lay in ruins next to a nineteenth century New Castle which was really more of a country house but which had a friendly restaurant where we sheltered from the rain and had a most enjoyable and inexpensive lunch. Afterwards we walked around the castle under our umbrellas and then as the rain thankfully began to ease off we made our way to a cable car station to take a ride across the Gauja Valley and the river a long way below. The views were spectacular and once across the other side we were entertained by a pair of storks constructing a nest in an improbable location on the top of a water tower.
Our next destination was the Turaida Castle and Museum, which we went directly to after we had been reunited with the mini-bus that had temporarily misplaced us and had been waiting at the wrong place to meet us after our cable car ride. We were collectively worried about this in case his patience had been put to the test again and would trigger another angry driver explosion but he was calm now and the short journey was uneventful. The castle and museum were well worth the visit and as the weather continued to improve our charming guide entertained us with tales from Latvian folklore, which she delivered in good English that was sometimes punctuated with amusing mispronunciations and some inappropriate vocabulary. We enjoyed the stories all the more for that.
At the end of this stage of the visit we enjoyed Latvian canapés at a delightful restaurant just out of town and we accompanied this with a chaotic debate about what to do tomorrow. Alona was desperate to please everyone so worked hard to achieve a consensus that proved hopelessly optimistic. This took some considerable time and once completed required the tour guide to handwrite for everyone an individual and personal itinerary for the next day. This was a nice touch but was probably going to be a complete wasted effort knowing how chronically afflicted we all were with changeable minds.
I’m afraid that Alona wasn’t a very quick learner and no sooner had we ended the tortuous deliberation about tomorrow than she prompted another about where to eat tonight, and that proved equally as painful. I’m a great believer in the democratic process but sometimes someone just has to make a decision. I could sense that people were getting irritable so I was grateful that on the fourth recount following a confusing voting procedure that we finally agreed to stay at this location and order dinner. I was only too pleased that the restaurant staff that witnessed the pantomime were bestowed with unnatural amounts of patience and didn’t close the place in despair because this was a very good decision indeed and we enjoyed an exceptional meal and washed it down with an appropriate amount of wine.