Sunday, September 8, 2013

Into the Heart of Latvia. Aglona.

This is the view that greeted us at the end of the day.  So worth the drive it took to get there!

Our drive today would take us 340km from Tartu, Estonia to Aglona, Latvia. According to our itinerary, we would pass through the Latvian towns of Alūksne, Rēzekne, and Preili along the way. 


Today, I was in the navigator's seat and if I might say so myself, I expertly got us out of Tartu and on the main road out of town.  Of course, I always speak too soon.  Somewhere along the road we passed the large road marker, with the blue and yellow EU flag printed on it, indicating we were crossing into Latvia.  Just as we had gotten accustomed to Estonian road signs, we now had to put our Latvia hats back on.  After this three week road trip, I will recognize the road sign words for city center in all three Baltic languages:-)

pilsētas centrs - Latvian
kesklinna - Estonian
miesto centras -  Lithuanian  (updated Sept 10, 2013)

While Ieva had provided us a road map to guide us to Alūksne, we didn't have a really detailed map so our first stop was at the Information Center which was housed in a very cute little building. Turns out the easily recognizable building serves double duty as the Alūksne Bible Museum. It was here that Johann Ernst Glück famously translated the Holy Bible into the Latvian language. It is now designated as a museum in his honor.

The Information Center aka the Alūksne Bible Museum.

Unfortunately for us, it's Sunday and the place is closed.  So no map to carry in our hands.  The best I could do was take a photo of the large one that hung near the parking lot.


According to our itinerary from Ieva, we're here to see castle ruins on the lake so we found the spot on the map and drove towards it.  Easy peasy.  We parked in a neighborhood nearby and walked the rest of the way.  The chilly and overcast day had given way to bright blue skies and weather perfect for a Sunday morning stroll.

We could spot water and ruins beyond.  Just had to figure out how to get to them.

We followed our instincts and as soon as we saw people coming and going in the direction we were headed, we knew we were on the right track. The road eventually lead us pass a restaurant and then to a bridge.  We were headed for what looked like a park.



I don't know who lives here but they get to enjoy pretty views of the lake and the castle ruins.




The road took us across a bridge that spans Lake Alūksne to Pils (Castle) Island.  The island is home to the ruins of a castle that was built in 1342 and was called Marienburg (after Mary, the mother of Jesus). The castle was destroyed in 1702 in the Great Northern War by its Swedish garrison to avoid falling in the hands of Russians. The ruins remained largely untouched. Today, it houses an open-air museum and forms a part of a recreational area of  Pils Island.

Path leading to the ruins.

Perfect bench for a picnic lunch.  We helped ourselves to some hardboiled eggs and made sandwiches from bread
and coldcuts from the breakfast buffet.   Add apples for dessert and you have our version of a traveler's lunch!

More of the castle walls.

A short walk away from the park and we came upon an open grassy area that fronted the lake.

He can never resist a park bench to take a cat nap on.  I just enjoyed the beautiful scenery.


Happy to be taking a break from driving!

For us, Alūksne was just about the castle.  When Bro was ready to leave, we backtracked to the car and got on the road.  Next destination was Rēzekne, capital of the Litgale region of Latvia.  By now, I've come to expect that even capital cities are are small enough to be considered towns by US standards.  According to Ieva's itinerary, the highlight of the Rēzekne is that it has lots of churches and a famous sculpture.  Okay, not setting my expectations high.

Once we arrived into Rēzekne, we had no idea where to go as again, we didn't have a detailed roadmap.  We were on a main road that would eventually lead us out of town, in the direction that we wanted to be in so we just kept going.

Then, lo and behold, I saw a statue.  It looked important so we decided to pull over and check it out.  It was good time to be taking a break and stretching our legs.

From where we parked, we crossed the main road to the center island.  Standing in front of the statue, I realized we had stumbled upon one of the most recognizable landmarks in Rēzekne; it is a symbol of the region.  This was the statue that Ieva was referring to in the handout.

Posing in front of Latgales Māra.
One of the most famous statues in Latvia, known as *Latgales Māra*.  Here's the description of the statue,  extracted from Wikipedia:

"....It was designed by Leons Tomašickis and first unveiled on September 8, 1939. The bronze statue commemorates the liberation of Latgale from the Bolsheviks in January 1920. The central figure, the woman, was nicknamed "Māra" after the ancient Latvian goddess of motherhood, fertility, and the earth (see: Māra), while the cross in her outstretched arm symbolizes the deep importance of Catholicism to Latgalian culture and complements the pagan symbol "Māra". The words "Vienoti Latvijai" beneath the statue (meaning "United for Latvija") symbolize Latgale's decision to reunite with the rest of Latvia during the Republic's formation in 1918, even though Latgale had been politically separated from the rest of Latvia for 300 years.

Because the statue symbolized Latgalian nationalism, the Soviets toppled it in November 1940 during the Soviet occupation of Latvia. The local residents restored it on August 22, 1943, after which the Soviet government, in June 1950, pulled it down again. The fate of the original statue is unknown. Using old photographs and blueprints, the statue was reconstructed after Latvia reachieved its independence in 1991, and unveiled on August 13, 1992. Though Latgale was greatly changed under Soviet rule, Latgales Māra still symbolizes a Catholic Latgale united with Latvia, free of foreign domination."


Standing on the island, in the middle of the main road, I could easily spot two of the many churches that call Rēzekne home.  Apparently, there's also a synagogue in town.

Rēzekne Russian Orthodox Church.

Anguished Virgin Roman Catholic Church

It was already late afternoon and we still had one more place to go.  After a quick discussion and a check of our guidebook, we decided to opt out of driving to Pireili.  Not enough time so it was onward to Aglona where we would be spending the night at a small guesthouse.  First we had to get out of Rēzekne which turned out to be easier said than done.

We were already on the right road leading out of town but no sooner had we driven away from the parking lot and we were faced with a road under construction.  We were blocked from going any further.  With no detailed map to guide us to a detour, we initially tried to follow our instincts to get around the mess.  But every which way we turned, we were blocked by more road repair. They definitely don't believe in putting up detour signs here.  Eventually, we ended up back where we started.  Oddly enough, posted up just a short distance from the start of the road construction was road map of the town.  I used my camera to take photos and hoped we could follow it.  Somehow, we managed to find a detour around the road block but we still ended up driving on torn up road.  It was a mess. Sometimes we drove on the right lane, sometimes on the left.  It continued for almost 20 miles!

And, since it was a Sunday, there were no workers out to control traffic.  Instead, they actually have set up solar power stop lights.  So, we would only go when it was a green light.  Obviously, the light alternated between the two lanes and it was at least a three minute wait from the time a light turned red to when it would turn green.  That is an eternity in drive time!




Because of all the road construction, our drive to Aglona took a lot longer than anticipated.  While Bro was concentrating on the road, I was trying to figure out Ieva's directions to get us to the guesthouse, Aglonas Cakuli.  First I had to navigate us to the A6.  That was the easy part because it was all on the map.  Then came the challenge.....always so fun trying to find these places off the beaten path. :-)


I especially loved the part that had us looking for a bus stop and then a school building....like we would know what the school building in tiny Aglona looked like.  I got such a chuckle out of this.  Of course, Aglona is so tiny, it's barely a dot on the map so once we were in town (where there are barely a handful of commercial establishments, it really wasn't all that hard finding the place - especially when the owners have posted up directional signs pointing the way!

When we arrived, a woman came out to greet us. I was just relieved to have made it to her guesthouse! Her English was limited but we had a voucher in hand that she obviously understood we were overnight guests.  She led us to a building that fronted the lake. With our luggage in hand, we followed her up the stairs.  From the looks of it, we were her only guests.  It was quiet and I hoped it would stay that way so I could enjoy a really good night's sleep.

The little building is the sauna and I believe that's Lake Aglona.

Our hostess had given us what I think is the nicest room.  Not big but there were two small beds.  But the view.....oh, the view from our little balcony was simply marvelous!  We took a few minutes to unpack and relax.  Then, it was off to find a place for dinner.


Our hostess had only one suggestion for where to go for a meal.  We quickly realized just how small Aglona is.  Before we left the property, we took a quick walk down to the lake and checked the cute little garden.  Sure is pretty here.

I think there are less than a handful of streets that run through Aglona.  We followed one to a tiny restaurant where we were the only two diners.  It was not a fancy place by the stretch of any imagination and the food offerings looked to be simple, hearty home cooked food.  It was basic selection of meat, veg and starch.  We each picked our plates and got a Coke to share. Bro handed over the equivalent of $12 USD for our meals.  Definitely cheaper eating in a small town!


It was too beautiful an evening to be eating inside so we took a table and seats on the front patio.  Simple but tasty food.  Surprisingly, I really enjoyed this meal!

She piled on the food!  I didn't think I could finish my plate but I polished it clean!

On the way back to the guesthouse, we wandered through town - really not much of a town.  Barely a handful of commercial establishments.   We walked inside the supermarket which was getting ready to close.  I was tempted to get an ice cream cone but truth was I was totally satisfied from dinner....didn't even care to have dessert.

By the time we made it back to Aglona, the sun was just about to drop below the horizon.

Pretty spot to watch the sunset from.

Bro checking out the flower beds.  Our room is the one with the balcony.  That's our trusty Hyundai, parked on the left.

The guesthouse was a very basic accommodation - TV with a lot of Latvian and Russian programming but no WiFi.  It will be an early night for us.  Tomorrow, we leave Latvia and will finally arrive into Lithuania.  I'm actually excited to finally make it to Lithuania.  As little as I know anything about Latvia and Estonia, I even know less about Lithuania.  Hopefully, it will live up to my dreams of being another charming Baltic State!

I'm happily full and ready for a shower and bed!

Goodnight from Aglona!