Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Latvia I

After a difficult hour an a very bumpy dirt road I arrived in the first town in Latvia: Daugavpils. My guidebook said that here more than 90% of  the population is Russian and this statement was quickly confirmed when I visited the huge cemetery on the way into town. All the inscriptions on the tombstones were Russian plus the usual pictures of the deceased. My quest for water was   unsuccessful: there were several Wells, but the water was mucky.

First my blood sugar had to be restored to normal levels with a visit in the supermarket and a lunch on a bench in the pedestrian zone. Only eating and people watching I felt fit for sightseeing. First sight was the old fortress. Most impressive weren't the thick walls but the former soldier housing that are now more or less dilapited but still used as housing complexes. One complex is brand new renovated and houses the Rothko art museum because the painter was born in Daugavpils.

Military barracks in the old fortress
The other main attraction of town are churches of various denominations with the Russian Orthodox being the most interesting and colourful. There also is a church of the Old Believers and my guidebook wrote about strict dress codes there. Sure enough as soon as I had rolled into the courtyard an Orthodox nun appeared and started talking to me in Russian. I thought I was prepared for the occasion and put on my buff and long pants but the nun was still not happy: it had to be a skirt and no trousers. After more Russian talking from her and gesticulations from my side I was given a black wrap around skirt and allowed into the church - and no photography allowed of course.

The EV 11 now took me along the beautiful river Daugava on a not beautiful at all bumpy dirt road. I should have camped in this idyllic spot but pushed on - and end up camping in a mosquito infested swamp that had formerly served as a garbage dump.

Next day's highlight was the pilgrimage church of Aglonas - an unusual Catholic church in otherwise mostly Protestant Latvia. The newly renovated church is glowing white and situated in a huge complex that reminded me more of a Soviet parade square than a church yard but apparently it is necessary to accommodate the masses of pilgrims that come here on Aug 15. Now in May the only other visitors was another obnoxious school class.

A nice feature of Aglonas is the holy spring where I refilled my water bottles before shopping in the tiny local supermarket where I unfortunately met the school class again. Every kid had to buy some candy and check out took forever. But while enjoying lunch I discovered another Latvian nicety: free internet. The Latvian telecommunication company Lattelecom offers free wifi - you just have to watch 15 seconds of advertising and then you can log on for free.

Rezekne in the cold
The entire week had been incredibly and unusually hot - and now all of a sudden the weather turned into the other extreme. The next day I was cycling in long trousers, socks and a jacket and was still cold. While having lunch in front of a supermarket in Rezekne I was shivering when a man came up to me. I had just bought a 5 litres bottle of water and he explained to me that here in Latvia you don't have to buy water - just ask at a farm for water from the well. I already knew this procedure from Lithuania but sometimes I just could not be bothered, especially considering the risk of getting bitten by a dog in the farm. But a nice conversation ensued: he had worked as a bus driver in Bimingham before returning with his family to Latvia - where he now earned 500 € per month as a bus driver. Considering that supermarket prices are as high in Latvia as they are in Germany I started to wonder how people survive here.

Lake Luban
I posed this question the next day when I had met a Latvian lady in a visitor centre at Lake Luban. She spoke brilliant English - and had worked in Britain as well. I learnt a lot from her. Apparently many young Latvians go to Ireland and Britain to work. Salaries and pensions in Latvia are still ridiculously low considering the high prices. You can only survive as a group and therefore three generations still live together. Living in the countryside helps as well because you can buy directly from the farmers. Still the Baltic States have an unexpected high suicide rate - and a huge alcohol and drug problem. Unfortunately I would encounter this alcohol problem several times later on my trip when totally drunk young men tried to talk to me. But on the more cheerful side Lake Luban was a nice sidetrip. The extensive wetlands were impressive and I even had a little swim despite the cold temperatures.

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