Klaipeda, Lithuania and Riga, Latvia

I’m actually in Finland already, but I figure I should try to quickly mention the places I’ve been through in the last few days. From Siauliai I went to Klaipeda, on the Lithuanian coast. It’s the city that was called Memel by the Germans when they took it over in World War II. I saw the balcony that Hitler stood on when the Nazis announced they were taking the city. It’s an okay city, I guess. Pretty industrial. It’s a big port city. There’s some cool old architecture, but I think a lot of the city was destroyed in the war. Like seemingly every other city in the Baltics, there’s a huge old Jewish cemetery, and no more Jews.

The main attraction of Klaipeda is that it’s right across the freshwater Curonian Lagoon from the Curonian Spit. The spit is this enormous sandbar running in a big curve along most of the coast of the country, continuing down into the Kaliningrad region of Russia. It was formed as a glacial moraine by the glaciers that dug out the Baltic Sea during the last ice age. Now it’s a big national park, with lots of good wildlife. Most of the spit is forested, but it used to be all sand dunes — the “drifting dunes” — which had a habit of drifting right over the towns. So people planted pine trees to keep the sand in check. I took a bus down to the very southernmost tip of the lithuanian section of the spit, to the town of Nida, where some of the last sand dunes remain. There was a nice nature trail that lead up to the top of the Great Dune. Nice trail with, amazingly, information signs posted in English. So I learned all about the plants and insects of the area, like the European Cockchafer beetle, which sounds pretty nasty. I was happy to not run into any. The Great Dune is probably a couple hundred feet tall, and has a cool broken old sundial on top. You can see into Russia over the Valley of Death, where French prisoners were kept by Prussia after the war in 1870.

The town of Nida had lots of cool old traditional cottages with thatched roofs. Mostly for the benefit of us tourists, but still, cool architecture. From there I took a bus to Juodkrante, back up the spit aways, where there’s this cool hill called Witches Hill. There’s a trail that winds around it with hundreds of carved wooden folk art sculptures of devils and dwarves and stuff. It was kinda new-agey, but there was some cool art. Anyway, the Spit was a pretty nice place. A UNESCO world-heritage site, no less.

After Lithuania I headed to Riga, in Latvia. It’s a very pretty town, with some awesome churches, and a nice Old Town (another UNESCO site). Tons of Art Nouveau-ish buildings and winding little streets. Lots of modern hotels and towers and stuff around the edges, too. I took the elevator up to the top of the steeple of St. Peter’s church, which was destroyed in WWII, then rebuilt. There were a bunch of pictures at the top of the steeple burning and falling down, which wern’t too reassuring. Riga also has a great town square dominated by the House of the Blackheads, which is a beautiful, if unfortunately named, building. The Blackheads were a religious group whose patron saint was dark-skinned St. Mauritius (along with St. George), so there are lots of black-faced icons on it.

I also took a daytrip to Rundale Palace, about an hour away from Riga. It was designed by the same guy who did the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, and was one of Catherine the Great’s main hangouts. There were lots of paintings of her in various stages of fatness. I guess since I’m not going to make it to Russia this trip, Rundale was an okay substitute, though I wasn’t super impressed by it. It’s like a smaller version of the Schonbrunn Palace I saw in Vienna, and a lot of it is in need of restoration. The gardens especially were kinda crappy because they were in the process of being dug up and redone. Still, the palace itself had some pretty cool rooms with impressive baroque architectural detail. I like fancy baroque flourishes, and I know it’s decadent and lame, and modern art has abandoned all that, but still, I think it’s cool. Anyway, Rundale was alright, but probably not worth the hour busride each way.

BEARD UPDATE: After about a month without shaving, I decided to bite the bullet and shave my neck. Clean up a bit, for the ladies, you know. Now I look less the scruffy ruffian and more the raffish rogue, if I may say so myself. In general, I’ve gotten pretty used to the beard thing. Though still every night when I put my head on my pillow, I think for a second “gosh this pillow feels really hairy,” before remembering that it is, in fact, I who is hairy. Yesterday I also shaved off my moustache, so now I’ve got kind of an abe lincoln thing going on, a no-stache, if you will. I’ve decided on the whole I look pretty silly with a beard, so I might as well have some fun with it. I look really silly with the nostache, in particular. Hopefully I’ll get through some other configurations before coming back to the US.

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  1. May 30th, 2005at6:08 pm

    muttonchops! muttonchops!


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