Monday, September 9, 2013

From Latvia to Lithuania.

By day's end, we would be back in the big city. Say hello to Vilnius!

There is truly nothing better than a good night's sleep and I think I had the best one in I don't know how long, last night!  I don't know what it was about this place but if I could package it and take it home with me, I would!  The first time I opened my eyes, the sun was not yet above the horizon. By the time I was ready to get out of bed, the sun was up. 


There was still a bit of fog hovering over the lake but otherwise, it looked to be another picture perfect day!
Last night we had arranged with our hostess for when we wanted breakfast.  After last night's big meal, I wasn't all that hungry but Bro is always ready to eat.  The dining room was just down the stairs from our room.  A table had already been set. This is what greeted us, pretty white table cloth and all.


I though the spread of food that we had at the Klaara-Mani guesthouse in Estonia was huge but this was enormous.  All this food was just for the two of us!  Before we sat down, our hostess came to check on us. I think she was really pleased when we told her how lovely the spread of food she had put out and we thanked her for her efforts.  I know how much work and time this would have taken. We plunged in and I know Bro really enjoyed himself.

After our super satisfying breakfast, we headed back up to the room and packed our suitcases.  As we were loading our luggage into the car, our hostess and her husband came out to greet us.  Apparently, our voucher had entitled us to a sauna and they wanted to know if we were still interested.  By now, we were ready to hit the road so we graciously declined.  We said our thank-you's and goodbye's as we handed them the room key.

Final view before leaving.  Honestly, I would never tire of this sight.

Today was my turn at the wheel.  Before we left Aglona, we went to visit the only landmark in town, the Basilica.  You can't miss it.  Drive along the only *main* road in town and there it is!


It's not Sunday today so the huge parking lot was empty except for one other car.  We parked and crossed the road.


For Catholics, basilicas are pilgrimage sites and apparently, every year on the 15th of August, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims congregate in Aglona Basilica to mark the day of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary into Heaven.  This is such a small town - hard to imagine the population of people swelling to more than a few hundred!

We took a quick look inside.  A few people were seated at the pews so we didn't walk all the way to the altar.

The sound of music drew me to the side courtyard.  The choir was practicing.  I wanted to capture a bit of their song so I shot a couple of short videos that I've compiled into one.



Pretty church but not much to see so we headed out.  On the road to Daugavpils, the second largest city in Latvia.  I only know Daugavpils as the birthplace of the famed American painter Mark Rothko.  Several of his works are on permanent display at the Phillips Collection, in Washington DC.  In fact, his works are displayed in a room specially designed per his instructions.  There's an art center in Daugavpils named in Rothko's memory.  I didn't know if it was open or not to the public but I thought it would be worth while checking out.  Aside from the Rothko center, Ieva's handout recommends we visit the fortress, built in the 19th century.  I figured we could get more insights on places to visit at the Informaton Center.  All in all, I was looking forward to spending time in Daugavpils. 

Daugavpils is less than a hour's drive from Aglona.  We arrived to the outskirts of the city in no time and we were doing well until we hit the road construction.  Here, they don't tear up one side of the street so drivers can still go on the other side.  Oh no. They tear up the ENTIRE street.  Grrr.  Of course, no detour signs and we didn't have a detailed road map so we had to, once again follow our instincts.  One turn, drive short distance.  Roadblock!  GRrr....  Turn around.  Drive short distance down another street.  Roadblock!! GRRrr.... Okay, turn around again.  Drive distance down yet another street.  Roadblock!! GRRR....  Starting to get really frustrated.  One more time.  I lost track of how many times we kept running into road blocks.  The really stupid thing is that they do post up road signs showing the detour but how the heck are you suppose to read the sign while driving by it??  By now, I had completely lost any interest in getting to Daugavpils; I just wanted to get out of this insane road construction mess!

Somehow, we managed to get to town.  Like the center of town.  Like with real establishments.  And it was road construction free!  Yahoo!  Sharp eyed me, I spotted the green symbol with the lower case eye in white.....the Latvian sign for Information Center.  We parked the car in a metered spot - barely had enough change.  I wanted to get to the Information Center and as I told my brother, I wasn't going there to insult anybody but I just wanted instructions on how to leave this place.  He thought I was kidding.  I was SERIOUS!

We crossed the street and made our way down the pedestrian only thoroughfare, Rigas ielā, heading towards the Information Center.  Can't get there fast enough!

Plenty of shops, restaurants, bakeries and bars to keep locals occupied.

Along the way, we popped inside a couple of bakeries to check out the goods. Nothing really called out to us plus we were still full from our big breakfast.

As we walked along, we were passed by and we passed by a lot of people speaking Russian.  As we would found out later, Daugavpils is a decidedly Russian city.

St. Peter's Church.

The Solo Shopping Center.

Just in case we didn't know where we were :-)

We eventually did make it to the Information Center and picked up a few brochures but I have to admit it (sadly so) that my heart really wasn't into seeing Daugavpils.  All those roadblocks had really put a damper on my traveler spirit and nothing I've seens since arriving in to the heart of the city had done anything to lift my spirits.  I still wanted out.

View of the street outside the Information Center.  I was waiting for Bro to use the facilities.

At the same time, I wasn't quite ready to leave yet, so we decided to check out the shopping center.

Nice little stand selling tea and tea accoutrements.

We didn't plan it but we started out inside a supermarket :-)  Pretty much the same stuff that we had seen at the supermarket in Valmeira except there was an entire set of freezer compartments dedicated to pelmeni, the iconic Russian dumpling.  Who doesn't love dumplings?  Especially in a town that has a large Russian population.


Just outside the supermarket's mall entrance was a woman selling roast pork. 
Yes, you read that correctly.  Roast pork!  I love it!  Daugavpils is
beginning to redeem itself.

The rest of the shopping mall was well, a shopping mall.  We had no interest in shopping.

We arrived at our car just as the meter expired.  We could have added more money but I really still wanted out of this town.  Too bad really as I'm sure Daugavpils would have been worth exploring.  Perhaps if I ever come back to Latvia, I'll make a special trip here to do so.  In the meantime, onward we went.  Lithuania is calling.  Less than 20 miles later and we had arrived into the small town of Zarasai, Lithuania.  We are off the beaten path!

Our first meal in Lithuania was a picnic lunch in a small park in Zarasai.


Bro's in charge of food.  I never know what he's going to cobble together for a meal but so far, apples (damn, we still have some) feature in each one.

After lunch, we continued our drive.  It's amazing how three small countries, all neighbors of each other, could be more different. The first thing we noticed were the roads.  Hands down, Estonia has the best roads and road signs.  I had thought Latvia would be second but in fact, Lithuania tops Latvia.  The roads were well paved and well marked. Now, if we can only read Lithuanian. :-(

Lithuania countryside is as beautiful as either Latvia and Estonia.

Apartments are as ugly here as they are in Latvia.  I think these are remnants from Soviet times.

From Zarasai, it would be another two hours before we would arrive into Vilnius.  Once we got to the outskirts of Vilnius, I started to get a bit worried.  In my pre-trip reading, I had come across one travel forum after another where travelers to Lithuania had described their issues with driving in the country - very aggressive drivers, no one pays attention to signs, etc.  Usually, driving in a city is even more challenging so I was paying full attention to both the map and the cars around us.  Ieva had given us a detailed road map for Vilnius and our hotel was located very close to Old Town.  As we drove along, I kept wondering what those forum posters were talking about. Traffic didn't seem any worse to me than what I would encounter in the DC metro area or even in San Francisco which I consider to be tamer than DC.  Even so, better to be attentive than not.  Once we got near Old Town, navigation became trickier as we encountered one way streets.  I was failing at navigation, getting frustrated so Bro and I swapped positions.  Even with him navigating, we had to turn around a few times but eventually, we got on the narrow one way street that our hotel was on.  Luck was on our side as I pulled in to the remaining parking spot out front.  The hotel only had a few reserved spaces and our car was safely tucked into one.

We unloaded and made our way inside.  One step into the lobby and I was pleasantly surprised.  A very nice lobby and a very nice hotel....by far the best compared to all the other places we had stayed in so far.  Our room was also nice and big; it overlooked the street we were parked on but it was quiet.

It was late afternoon by the time we arrived in to Vilnius and Bro was ready to eat.  We decided to head out and wander in to Old Town which turned out to only be about five blocks away.  Ieva did us well.

Less than half block away from the hotel and we came upon a very tiny eatery.  There were some people eating outside and they seemed to be enjoying themselves so we decided to give it a try.  The hostess came to greet us and since it was obvious that we were not Lithuanian, she handed us the English menu.  Words do get lost in translation but it was good enough for us to have an idea of what to order.  Of course, we stuck to what we thought were Lithuanian dishes so no pizza.

Bro ordered a schnitzel of sorts which was topped with sauteed mushrooms and served with a very yummy slaw.


I ordered the meat koldunai which are the iconic dumpling of Lithunia.  You can get them served either fried or steamed.  I opted for the steamed.  They came with a large dollop of sour cream.  This is not food for lightweights - those delicious meat and dough bombs most certainly filled me up!




After our light meal, we decided to take a short walk to burn off some calories.  We headed in the direction of Old Town.  Immediately, we were walking on cobblestone streets and surrounded by buildings exuding Old World Charm.  I love these sorts of places; I think I'm really going to like Old Town Vilnius.


Our walk took us through a neighborhood.  Adults and children were out enjoying the last few hours of sun.

We eventually figured our way to Town Square.  The buildings were a mix of old and modern and the square isn't really a square.....more like an open space bordered by streets.  Unlike either Old Town in Riga or Tallin, here there was definitely more traffic; we had to be mindful when crossing the streets.  It's also definitely a larger Old Town.  I hope we can see it all before we leave the day after next.

We also saw the first of what I am sure are many churches.  For now, we only looked at them from the outside.  Tomorrow, we'll make our way inside.


This church, with the charcoal gray crown on top, definitely caught my attention!

We also stumbled upon a Rimi supermarket!  Always nice to find something familiar.  It was filled with people doing grocery shopping before heading home for the day.  We just did a quick look see but at least now we know where we can come to pick up supplies like water and munchies.

By the time we made it back to the hotel, it was just about getting dark.  We did our usual nightly duties which included planning for tomorrow.  My brief glimpse of Old Town today as really gotten me excited about tomorrow!

Goodnight from Vilnius!