Postcard from Latvia — week two


Latvia is a beautiful country of only two million people. My husband Andrew (known as Roo) and I were lucky to spend two weeks exploring a bit of this tiny Baltic country and meet his family for the first time.

Young cousin Mārcis and his fiancée Sintija had already given us an introduction to the capitol, Rīga, during week one. We visited nearby towns of Sigulda, Jurmala and Bauskas for a few hours each and we were keen to spend more time in Latvia’s vast, empty countryside and small towns.

I have documented some family history and our first week in a previous post, which you’ll find here.

During week two we based ourselves in Jaunjelgava, Roo’s father’s village which is 80 kilometres from Riga. Mārcis and Sintija both grew up in Pļaviņas, a small town about 50km further along the Daugava river from Jaunjelgava.

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Screenshot from Google Maps with towns we visited circled

When not meeting and dining with Mārcis and Sintija’s families in Jaunjelgava and Pļaviņas we ventured to other towns for day trips. We also spent a day and night celebrating Midsummer, or ‘Līgo’ as it is known in Latvia, with Mārcis’ grandmother Vida and her sister Vanda and family.

Rather than narrate too much, I’ll let the pictures and their captions do the talking.  The photos in the following sections are a mixture of mine and Roo’s plus a few of Mārcis and Sintija’s.

Rundāle Palace

Rundāle Palace is an ostentatious 18th-century country estate built for Baron Ernst Johann Biron, lover of Anna Ioanovna, the Russian-born Duchess of Courland. The area known as Courland is both a cultural and historic region roughly comprising the modern-day Latvian region of Kurzeme. As summer houses go, it was pretty special, inside and out.

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Approaching Runsāle Palace, designed in 1736 by Italian Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli, who was a senior court architect of the Russian Empire.
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Mārcis and Sintija inside the palace
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Opulent walls and a fine parquet floor
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Ceiling detail
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Portraits
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Wearing our protective shoe covers and having a break from all that walking.
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Vase collection in green room
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A beautiful ceramic heater, luxurious chandelier and lovely pale blue walls
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Palace sleeping chamber with large ceramic heaters
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Trophies

Bauska Castle

Bauska Castle is a complex of two castles at the confluence of the Mūsa and Mēmele rivers on the edge of the town of Bauska. It was built during the 14th through 16th centuries. Parts of the site are a ruin but you can climb a watchtower and gain excellent views of the surrounding countryside.

This Castle, compared with Rundāle Palace, feels more like a country hunting lodge. The decoration is austere and the walls are solid; they’re built to withstand enemy attack.

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A restored section of the newer castle with ‘trompe l’oeil’ paintwork to look like stone blocks
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An unrestored section of the old castle
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Clothing and shoes on display in the castle museum
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Clothing and shoes on display in the castle museum
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Clothing and shoes on display in the castle museum
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Decorated trunk
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Animal horns form part of the candelabra
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Old ceramic plates
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Old kitchen utensils
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In the cellar
Bauska Door
Door — Photo credit: Sintija Silagaile
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Fireplace for cooking — Photo credit: Sintija Silagaile
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Wonderful thick walls — Photo credit: Sintija Silagaile

Jelgava

In the town of Jelgava there is another palace designed by the same architect as Rundāle. Jelgava Palace now houses the Latvian Agricultural University.

We didn’t visit the palace, however, in the adjoining park a costumed crowd was gathered preparing for an evening concert. We heard some warm-up performances and watched the men, women and children enjoying the Midsummer holiday.

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The Driksa river runs through the middle of peaceful Jelgava.
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Preparing for singing and dancing into the night
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A beautiful flower wreath for decorating a stage
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A skill learned by all the women; making flower wreaths and crowns.
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The girls start making wreaths young and also participate in the singing.

Ušķes — The family farm

Ušķes is the name of the farm where Roo’s dad Roberts grew up, and it was also Roo’s grandmother Minna’s maiden name.

One cousin still lives on the farm. The land is not cultivated these days and there are no animals. Native forest is reclaiming much of the property.

We explored the buildings and farm equipment, some of it quite old;  we admired the surrounding forest; we drank clean crisp water from the well where Roo’s dad would have drunk.

Being in the presence of objects that had belonged to Roo’s aunt and grandparents was an emotional experience for all of us. The fact that his father had never been able to return was on all of our minds. But we weren’t really sad, just grateful that we were fortunate to meet all the living family.

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This building was formerly the house where Roberts grew up. It became the barn when a newer house was built.
Andrejs Beķers
Andrejs Beķers, father of Roberts and grandfather of Andrew (Roo) Bekeris, resting alongside his sickle after cutting hay.
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Andrew (Roo) Bekeris, with his grandfathers sickle
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The newer farmhouse, build in the 1940s
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Another barn on the farm at Jaunjelgava
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Three generations of cousins: Roo, Mārcis and Arturs
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Roo’s Aunt Vilma’s room in the farmhouse – like a time capsule.
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In Aunt Vilma’s old room
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Inside the farmhouse – vintage wallpaper and a winter scene of carved and inlaid wood
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A traditional design on a carved wooden box
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Roo inside the farmhouse

Remembering Roberts Beķers at Ušķes

As I mentioned in the previous post, Roberts never returned to Latvia after the war finished, and Roo is the first person in his family to visit since his dad left in 1944. I knew it would be an emotional visit for us all, but I didn’t expect the family to be so sensitive to Roo’s feelings. But they were. His dad died in 1984 and none of the people still living in Latvia had met Roberts. Still, the family had a strong sense of our visit as being a momentous occasion. And it was.

During our discussions with Mārcis during the months before we got to Latvia, some sort of action or ceremony or memorial for Roberts was discussed. We decided that planting an oak tree for Roberts would be a symbolic gesture. There is a very old oak tree already on the property which was planted in 1926 when aunt Vilma was born.

Sintija’s mother in Pļaviņas knew of a good plant nursery where we could find a decently-sized sapling. We arrived at the farm with the tree and some fresh potting soil. Everyone had a dig and pitched in to place the tree in the ground and water it in. We stopped to admire and each of us was lost in our own thoughts of the significance of the moment.

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Planting an oak tree at Ušķes in memory of Roberts – Roo with cousin Andris
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Planting an oak tree at Ušķes in memory of Roberts – Roo filling the hole
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Feeling a little emotional remembering Roberts fate, never being able to return to Ušķes.
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Roo and I with Roberts’ tree at Ušķes.
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For you, Roberts. May it grow strong.

Family gatherings

A universal truth we have discovered: whether families are meeting for the first time or the 100th time, there is food.

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A beautiful and delicious cake made by Sintija’s mum Sandra. An artist in the kitchen.
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At Mārcis’ grandma’s house –  Vida fed us non-stop. Pickled and smoked foods feature large in the cuisine as well as whatever fresh vegetables and salady things are in season.
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Vida’s irresistible Sorrell soup. Perfect with a dollop of sour cream
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A yummy coffee mousse with a berry sauce
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More cousins gathered to welcome us! Sintija and Mārcis introduced us to Rita and her family.
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Laura and Artis – brother and sister, children of Roo’s cousin Rita.
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And there were pīradzīn! Yeasty bacon and onion rolls. No Latvian gathering is complete without them it seems. And that’s a good thing.

At the cemetery

We visited the peaceful Jaunjelgava Cemetery where Roo’s family members are interred.

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Roo’s grandparent Minna and Andrejs’ graves. He never met his grandparents.
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Rooš Aunt Vilma and her husband
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Roo’s late cousin Elmārs was young Mārcis’ grandfather
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Spring flowers in the tranquil graveyard

Līgo celebrations

Latvia’s midsummer festival is known as Līgo and is celebrated on 23 June. The feast of St John the Baptist (John being ‘Jānis’ in Latvian) is the following day. These two days, the 23-24 June, make up one of the biggest Latvian celebrations — two days and a night of food, singing and dancing. Traditionally, men called Jānis, (a common name that is like the English John) wear an Oak crown.  Part of the fun of the day is going into the fields to collect flowers, which are abundant in Latvia’s gentle sunshine.

Midsummer cheese (Jāņu siers) is one of the special seasonal foods served and since we liked it so much, we ate it most days. The celebration table never ran out of food.

Tradition dictates that if you wish to have good health and cheerful spirit for the following year, you should stay up all night. Even though this is the shortest night of the year, it’s a job to stay awake so the night is spent singing, eating, drinking and having a bonfire. Jumping over it is said to prevent evil spirits and illness — but only young men trying to impress someone usually have a go.

We celebrated with the families of Vida and Vanda, Mārcis’grandmother and her sister, in the countryside south of Jaunjelgava, near the Lithuanian border.

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Midsummer traditions – men called Jānis wear an oak crown for their name day.
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Two beautiful and generous women.  Sisters, Vanda in traditional dress and Mārcis’ grandmother Vida on the right. We miss you!
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Mārcis’ dad Andris in his happy place, cooking shaslicks over hot coal during Līgo (Midsummer celebrations)
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Some of the food offerings at Līgo. the table always seemed to be full, as if by magic.
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Midsummer cheese (Jāņu siers) studded with caraway seeds, is on every table in Līgo season.
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A pickled herring salad with chopped egg, beetroot and the ubiquitous dill
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Roo’s happy place – Beer and pīradzīn
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Spring poppies
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Picking wildflowers
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A native iris
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My first attempt at making a flower crown with wildflowers, something Latvian women are really good at!
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The traditional Līgo bonfire
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Aiva in her beautiful flower crown creation, with Mārcis admiring the bonfire (and warming up?).

Ah, Latvia

This post covers the main places we visited but is by no means comprehensive. We made other stops along the road between places, ate in local taverns and cafes and met more people than we have told you about here.

And, this will not have been our last trip to Latvia; there is so much to explore. The warm welcome will always be with us. Having had that first wonderful experience has just whet our appetite for more.

I leave you with a few more photos. Just get out there and visit.

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Into the pine forest. This is Latvia.
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Down by the Daugava River at Jaunjelgava
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The house where Roo’s grandfather, Andris Beķers, was born and grew up before marrying and moving to Ušķes.
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These three made great travel buddies. Photo credit: Selfie by Mārcis Beķers.
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These two. Mārcis and Sintija. Without their help,
we couldn’t have made such meaningful contact with the family and known about all the foods and traditions of this Baltic gem. We are forever grateful.
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2 Comments Add yours

  1. This us wonderful Mary-Lou. I feel like I’ve been there with you both. What an emotional trip too. Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Lucy. The Latvians are such a wonderful and welcoming people and rightfully proud of their beautiful country. What a turbulent history they have had. The overwhelming feeling we got from the young people was of hope. They are the future.

      Like

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