Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Africa-Europe 2015 Day 48. My last day in Germany

For my last day in Germany Anna (Christine and Gustav’s daughter) has planned a nice hike around Feldberg, one of the foothills of the Taunus Mountains. So, come mid-morning, Christine and I left the house in this fine Sunday morning, and so did a million other Germans, intent of enjoying a hike, bicycling, or taking a motorcycle ride up the mountain. The end result is that we couldn’t find a place to park near the top, and instead had to park at mid elevation, where we met Anna.

Christine was in fine athletic form, and pretty soon she and Leo (her dog) had a healthy lead on Anna and myself. This gave me a great opportunity to chat with Anna to our heart’s content. I have known her since she was a baby, maybe a year old, and now in her mid twenties she is a delightful and beautiful young woman with a wide range of interests. For example, a few years ago she spent a semester in Ruanda, promoting small businesses among the women of the town, and only recently came back from a semester in Sevilla, where she developed an amazing command of Spanish.

The hike through the pine forest was wonderful, and the views of Frankfurt and its surrounding villages were breath-taking. In total we walked maybe 8 to 10 km, and by the time we made it to the top I was glad to see that, true to form, there was a comfortable restaurant way on top, where we were able to enjoy a cold beer, a plate of French fries, bread accompanied by rendered lard with bacon bits, and a type of pancake chopped into pieces and smothered on strawberry syrup. OK, so it was not a lunch that would make my doctor happy, but we enjoyed it with the appetite of those who have already burned the calories.

We came back to town just in time to go to dinner with our old friends Gabi and Dieter, where I had a plate of hack steak in some sort of sauce, fried potatoes, and with the whole covered by two sunny-side up eggs. Strange, but actually quite tasty. Naturally we also had a final toast with Apfelwein.

To wrap a perfect day Chrsitine and I went to visit Phillip’s new apartment. He studied Mechanical Engineering, and is now doing a paid internship with a company that is not to far from their home, but since he now has a salary he figured it was time to cut the umbilical cord and find a place closer to work. He chose very well. The apartment is in the first floor of a three-storey building, but in a neighborhood of mostly single homes. He has one large bedroom, a living room with a huge terrace, and fairly adequate bathroom and kitchen. Everything looks empty now, because the big move is in a couple of days, but he has most of the furniture lined up, so he will be snug as a bug. Christine likes it because she can come visit when she takes Leo for a walk along the River Mainz!

And that is it. Tomorrow Monday, July 27, 2015 I am flying back to Houston (a killer flight of 2.5 hours Frankfurt to Istanbul, and from there 12 hours from Istanbul to Houston). I will spend the night in Houston, and on Tuesday I will take a flight from Houston to Monterrey, rent a car, and hopefully sit to supper with my parents by 6 pm. Since the remaining trip is not likely to produce any significant adventures I will finish this blog here, and will resume it next time I go adventuring. Perhaps a motorcycle tour through New Zealand next January?


Africa-Europe 2015 Day 47. Riga to Frankfurt.

We had a busy morning, trying to do all the things that we had not done. Christine and I took the electric tram 7, for her to look at Little Moscow, and for both of us to see the outskirts of the city. It is a fine city in which it would be very easy to live.

Then we had to visit the Lutheran Cathedral, I had to return the scooter, and finally we had to have breakfast. With about an hour to spend we concluded our visit to beautiful old town with a quick walk around the Saint Patrick’s Church, where the amber merchants offer pretty necklaces and bracelets to the passing tourists. I didn’t know this, but amber is washed unto the shores of the Baltic Sea, and amber jewelry is a significant cottage industry here.

We flew back to Frankfurt at 2 pm, and by 5 pm we were home. At 7 pm Klaus, Gustav’s brother, came to pick us up, and went for another fine meal at yet another Apfelwine restaurant. Klaus became a certified hunter a few years ago, and promptly leased the exclusive right to hunt in about 600 square kilometers of woods in the nearby Vogelsberg. Next time I stop by I will need to go with him to check it out!

Africa-Europe 2015 Day 46. Jurmala

West of Riga is the beautiful beach of Jurmala, and we all wanted to visit it. I thought this was a perfect opportunity to rent a scooter, so I found a rental place through the internet and made a reservation. At the crack of 9 am I got to the rental location, only to find out that the rental company had moved. A kind young woman did me the favor of calling them in her cell phone, and when she passed it to me I spoke with a man who had a very strong Russian accent. He told me to wait for him, and 10 minutes later he came. Big dude with a helmet that didn’t let me see his features. He gave me the extra helmet he was carrying, told me to mount behind me, and departed like a bat out of hell for the new location.

As we got farther out from the city center and entered some dodgy neighborhoods I started to get a little anxious (not to say anything of the fact that I was hanging on for dear life as he zig-zagged in and out of traffic). Finally we got into a dilapidated industrial area, and all I had heard about the Russian mafia started playing games with my imagination. Something was not right, because he made a detour to show me a graffiti school, where a new generation of vandals was learning how to paint walls and carve wood (some of the stuff was actually pretty good and artistic). Finally we stopped in front of a garage and I braced myself for the worst. We descended, and he unfolded himself into a tall powerful man, but when he took of his helmet I saw a laughing honest face with twinkling eyes. What a relief!

I emphatically recommend him to anyone interested on renting a scooter in Riga: Noma Rent, Gaujas 3, Riga (+371) 2231 3978.

Ten minutes later I was on the road, heading west toward Jurmala. I was driving a new Honda scooter, with plenty of zest to be in the freeway. However, I didn’t feel comfortable driving through the fast traffic, and as soon as possible took a side street and started navigating by feeling through handsome small towns. Eventually I reached the forest, the street turned into a dirt track, and I was lost inside the beautiful Latvian forest (not lost lost since I knew the general direction I had to follow, but there were no signs to guide me). Eventually I got into the coastal lagoon, which I followed for about 10 kilometers before I got to the town of Jurmala. From there on the black top road ran parallel to the coast, but still in the forest, and I saw many beautiful residences along the way. Either many Latvians earn a lot more than the average, or the beautiful houses belong to foreigners that vacation in the area.

The town of Jurmala itself is absolutely lovely, with a lively promenade for the tourists, and a long sparkling beach where many families were playing in the sand and the tiny waves (the Gulf of Riga is protected from the wind so no big waves form in it). I had agreed with Christine that we would meet at the Jurmala train station at 1:30 pm, and I dutifully saw the 1:33 pm and the 2:07 pm trains come in without spotting my friends. Oh well, perhaps they had finally decided not to come; they had come, but in a taxi, and Christine had completely forgotten where we were supposed to meet L

So I took my scooter and kept going west, until I eventually reached the Kemeru National Park, a coastal forest with endless opportunities for hiking, bicycling, and bird watching. It is also one of the few places where one can see vast raised bogs. A raised bog starts as a shallow lake that fills with sediment until the only plant that can survive is a sphargnum moss. This moss has the ability to store a lot of water, and to grow on itself, so pretty soon forms a thick carpet of vegetation soaked with water, where very few other species can survive (Venus fly traps, and dwarf beeches and pines). The moss keeps growing on itself until eventually it forms large soggy mounds. Once the mound forms, it spreads out by gravity, and cracks in the same way a resurgent dome does. The cracks are deep and immediately fill with water, so it becomes very treacherous ground in which the innocent hiker can easily sink when crossing what looks like an innocent puddle. Pretty cool phenomenon.

Eventually it was time to go back, and this time I took the freeway and tested my scooter to speeds as high as 90 km per hour. It was scary but fun.

That evening we went for dinner to a medieval dungeon, which extended for quite some distance under one of the buildings. All the waiters were in costume, and a group of minstrels were playing lutes and flutes as we feasted on excellent onion soup, rabbit, duck, lamb, and a piggy that had been slowly roasted on the spit over a wood fire. A great place to have our last dinner in Riga!

Africa-Europe 2015 Day 45. Around Riga 2

Yesterday I forgot to mention that, at the end of the day, we boarded a river boat and took a sunset cruise out toward the mouth of the river. The afternoon was truly lovely, with a fresh breeze, and the city just gleamed under the setting sun. Once we entered the zone of the peers we noticed stacks of lumber (birch trees mostly) and big piles of coal (clearly these had been brought by train from Russia, and we speculated they were waiting to be loaded and transported, maybe to the steel mills of Kiruna in Sweden). Gustav, who is very resourceful, had convinced the galley to part with some whisky on the rocks, and we happily toasted another great day.

In the morning we had a group going to see the KGB House, an ominous building with but one narrow entrance at the very corner (we saw it yesterday, and that is how I know what it looks like). Christine, Andrea, and Frank wanted to tour the detention cells and executions floor, but I found the idea too ghastly. In the meantime Gustav and I went to visit the Museum of Navigation, which had a lot more on the history of Riga than on the history of navigation in Latvia.

At noon I met with Frank, and the two of us went back to the bike rental place, to take the other tour. Being experienced on this kind of thing, I told Frank that he was going to have a unique experience, because as soon as he got on the bike he would effectively become invisible! Yes, be it a little old lady, a clueless mother pushing a baby carriage, or a leggy Latvian beauty glued to her cell phone (and Riga has many of the latter), all of them look through an incoming bicycle and blithely step on its way. Either they all have a death wish or they truly cannot see you coming.

The tour was good, but not as good as the one of the day before. Part of it was the guide, who gave us the sense that some of the population is not quite happy with the renovations that have been done in the old city center. To quote: “They have turned it into a Disneyland, and soon I will have to change my name to Donald Duck!” In any case, he ably took us to the other side of the Daugava River, to an island where at some point the Russian army was detained (the citizens of Riga had destroyed all the bridges to keep them at bay) for several months (once the river froze in the winter the army crossed and easily took the city), during which they established a wooden house town that has now become the place for the wealthy to live. We saw many an old wooden house, but also some that had been re-built in a most luxurious style.

From there we went to the docks, where we talked at length about the current Latvian economy. I had asked the same question to my other guide, and what I get from both conversations is that (1) Latvia exports wood to the Finland and Sweden, where it gets turned into IKEA furniture or toilet paper, much to the dismay of local environmentalists; (2) Latvia has become the host of many companies that like to do business with Russia, but would rather located in a more liberal country; and (3) tourism into Latvia keeps increasing. I have heard mixed numbers about the average monthly salary (is it 500 or 1,000 euros per month?), but at least in Riga one sees very few idle hands, new vehicles on the street, and ongoing renovation of buildings.

Our guide was also an architectural buff, who nicely blended historic architecture with history and sociology. For example, Latvia has hundreds of Art Nouveau buildings (1900 to 1910), interspersed between Art Deco and what they call National Romantic styles (1910 to 1930). The first is ornate and includes abundant nymphs, dragons, and flowers and leaves, whereas the last two emphasize straight, more utilitarian lines. Go back in your mind to 1900, when workers were being exploited under the crushing thumb of the Russian Empire, and you can well imagine that the Art Nouveau style was associated with the wealthy and leisurely ways of the aristocracy. In 1905, a public demonstration of workers demanding better salaries and work conditions was violently crushed by the Russian Cossacks, thus starting the socialist movement that eventually led to the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 (at least that is the Latvian perspective). That Latvia was a source of socialist unrest is well reflected by the fact that Lenin’s personal guard was formed by the Latvian Fusileers. Local architects responded to the socialist movement by turning toward the more utilitarian forms of Art Deco and National Romantic, spent less in the facades and more in the interior of the building, and created the multi-social apartment buildings where the upper crust (in the upper floors) and lower classes shared on the same building, as a reflection of the new, changing social order.

Frank and I hurried back to make sure we were at the hotel before 3 pm, because Andrea had retained the services of a German guide to give us a tour of the city. This was not to be your standard tour, but was going to touch on some important places in the history of a German poet/comedian, who was very popular in the 1950’s and 60’. This comedian, Heinz Erhardt, was loved because his funny performances included some very witty verses that highlighted the music and oddities of the German language (different style, but as funny and beloved as Cantinflas is to all Mexicans). Our guide was a veritable font of those verses, so we all had a great time listening to them as we walked through the town. 

Africa-Europe 2015 Day 44. Around Riga 1

I have been going to bed so late that I have fallen a couple of days behind in this blog. This is not so good because one event tends to mix with the other, but has the advantage of letting me develop a more synthetic view of Latvian geography, history, and economy.

Latvia is one of the Baltic countries, which from north to south include Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Estonia and Latvia share the fact that they are Lutheran, while Lithuania is Catholic. On the other hand, Latvia and Lithuania share closely related languages, while Estonian is more closely related to Finnish.

Our first adventure was to take the hop-on hop off tourist bus, with the idea that it would give us a good panorama of the city. Riga is much smaller than say Paris or Lisbon, so there is only so much you can see before you start repeating yourself. Still, we got a good view of the Daugava River (the Donn River for the Russians). The city was developed along the east bank of the river, about 20 km inland from the shores of the Baltic Sea, initially by the migration of groups from Finland and Estonia (ca. 900 BC), but it was not until the Vikings came into the picture (700 to 1200 AD) that Riga became a permanent settlement. The Vikings loved it as the stage from which they could pillage and plunder Russia, using the Daugava River as their access.

We made a stop at the Riga market place, which we were told was the largest in Europe and one of the largest in the world (Latvians, like Texans, like having the biggest and best of just about anything). Yes, the market has four large halls, and the farmers market on the outside is fairly large, but from there to being the largest could be a lively topic of discussion. After the market I walked to the central plaza, where two merchant houses of the Middle Ages have been reconstructed and gilded with gold to celebrate the Golden Age of Riga.  From 1200 to 1580 AD, Riga became a part of the Hanseatic League, a network of wealthy cities between which there was very active trade. Traditionally associated with German merchants, the Hanseatic League extended all along the shores of the North Sea and the Baltic Sea. Riga was a key member of the League as the hub of commerce with Russia. The Russian quarter of the city, now known as the Little Moscow and of dodgy reputation, was well established in the Middle Ages. In 1570 The Reformation came to Latvia, which became Lutheran, and to date about half the people of modern Latvia are Lutherans.

I later visited the Occupation Museum, a memorial to the hardship suffered under the Nazi invasion (1940 to1945) and the Russian Communist regime (1945 to 1991). Poor Latvians have really had a hard time at it. Being in a very desirable location at the mouth of the Daugava, just about everyone and their mother has taken a crack at them:

1580 – 1620 Annexed by the Polish Empire (after a suitable war)
1620 – 1710 Annexed by the Swedish Empire (after yet another suitable war)
1710 – 1918 Annexed by the Russian Empire (yes, after yet another suitable war). The Russian Orthodox Church becomes very important, to the point that nearly half the population of modern Latvia is Russian Orthodox.
1917 – The Bolshevik Revolution and the end of World War II
1918 – Latvia declares independence, and for the next two years fights with the new Russian Communist regime to uphold its independence.
1920 – The Soviet Union recognizes the Latvian state, and promises never again to occupy it.
1920 – 1940 Peace and prosperity of the Latvian Republic.
1939 – Germany and the Soviets Union agree to specific spheres of influence. Latvia falls within the sphere of influence of Soviet Union, who promptly establishes military outposts throughout Latvia. The Cheka (KGB) starts operating as a secret police in Riga.
1940 – Germany declares war on the Soviet Union and invades Latvia. The Cheka flees the city (great sigh of happiness heard throughout the nation, only to be followed by a groan of agony as the SS takes its place).
1940 – 1945 Germany occupies Latvia, and carries out the Holocaust of the Jews here as well.
1945 – Latvia hopes the victorious allies will recognize it as a sovereign state, only to find itself under the Soviet yoke. The Cheka comes back with a vengeance. Thousands are deported overnight for the gulag camps of Siberia. To make up for the missing labor force, thousands of Russians immigrate to Latvia, in the well known pattern of colonization by “diluting” the local population with people from the colonizing country.
1991 – The Soviet Union is dissolved, and the Baltic countries (Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia) are recognized as sovereign states. To date, Latvia is an ethnically diverse country. About 60% are native Latvians, 30% Russian Latvians, and 10% of others, including German, Polish, and Jewish Latvians. Most schools teach in Latvian and offer English as the second language, but there are some where the instruction is in Russian with Latvian as a second language. Both Latvian and Russian languages are heard throughout the city, and all printed signs are in Latvian and Russian.

So, as you can see, Latvia is quite a young republic, with a lot of room to grow.

To close a busy day I took a 3-hour bicycle tour of the city. It was wonderful! Our guide was a smart young man who knew a lot about the country and the city of Riga, and humble enough to candidly say he didn’t knew the answer to the odd question. He first took us along the banks of the Daugava, but eventually plunged into the dodgy streets of Little Moscow. This part of the city has existed since the Middle Ages, but the powers that be always kept the Russian traders outside of the walls of the city and would not allow them to build stone structures. So, they built traditional wood Russian houses, which periodically were burnt, either by accident or on purpose. For example, during the Napoleonic wars the Fathers of the city saw a big cloud of dust coming from the south and, panicking with the idea that Napoleon was coming, set fire to the Russian district only to find that the dust cloud was nothing more than a farmer bringing his animals to market. In any case, this is now the low rent district of Riga, has a very large Russian population, and you would not want to promenade yourself here after sunset.

From there we went to the Jewish Ghetto established by the Nazis (almost as dodgy an area as Little Moscow), and visited the Jewish cemetery (which like all the other city cemeteries was “beautified” into a park by Russian bulldozers during the 1960’s). Moving up on the social scale we biked through the working class suburbs, and eventually worked into the recently manicured buildings of the early 1900’s. Great tour that I would highly recommend to anyone coming to Riga!

Africa-Europe 2015 Day 43. From Frankfurt to Riga

We left the home by 7 am, boarded our flight at 9:55, and landed in Riga, Latvia, by 12:30 pm. A short taxi ride brought us to the luxurious hotel Gustav had selected, right in the middle of the old city. After a brief repast, and the first of what will no doubt be many deep amber beers, we went for a brief exploration of the old city. It is a beautiful European city, which is slowly recovering from the long time of occupation by the Russians.

Since we are like a pack of chickens, each going his or her own way, I soon lost the group and decided to spend a couple of hours making plans and arrangements for the next three days. I bought us all Riga Passes, which for three days will entitle us to use public transportation, access to several museums, use of the hop-on hop-off tourist bus, and significant discounts on some restaurants and scenic tours. After that I located the bicycle rental place (that will probably be tomorrow Wednesday’ adventure), and the scooter rental place (that will be Friday’s adventure). Finally, I found the supermarket and bought some munchies and drinks). Latvia is a lot cheaper than Germany, even though it is a EU country and uses the euro.

In the afternoon we went out to dinner at the Blue Cow Restaurant, where we had a typical appetizer of pickled vegetables and thin slices of fat! Yes, pure cold white fat; you pile on a slice of black bread, add some of the pickled vegetables, sprinkle it with pepper and salt, and wash it down with cold vodka. Of course, the fat has no flavor, but we must believe our waitress and accept that it is just the thing to accompany a shot of vodka. Christine and I also had salted herring, which was very good.

Latvia is clearly making an effort to attract tourism, and all the young people speak perfect English. We often baffle them by addressing them in German, but they recover quickly, and always answer back with a smile. Good people, reasonable price, a long history, and a charming city will no doubt make Riga a popular destination in the years to come.

Africa-Europe 2015 Day 42. Here and there around Frankfurt

Today Gustav and Phillip have to go to work, so Christine and I will be walking Leo and running errands. Start by letting out the chickens. Yes, Christine decided to try her hand at keeping chickens and rented five for 10 days (actually, it was a birthday present for Oma Inge, Gustav’s mom, but she didn’t feel up to the challenge, so Christine brought them home). I leave you to imagine the groaning that came from Gustav. It is not that he is worried about the chickens, but he is weary that his lovely wife will next time rent a pig or a cow.

Then it was time to walk to the Beckerei to buy Broetchens for breakfast. Very pleasant except that Leo has the runs, and at some point we had to stop to clean a very messy sidewalk. Christine attributes the loose vowels to the fact that Leo has been eating chicken shit.

Then we went to visit Oma Elisabeth, Christine’s mom, who is recovering from chemotherapy at a senior living facility up in the foothills of the Taunus Mountains. Before we got there we made a stop at the small town where Chrissy grew up, and took Leo for a long walk along her old stomping grounds.

Elisabeth was looking good, but is not very happy with the food, which she finds bland and without taste. What she really wanted was pizza. So, while Chrissy visited with mom, I took the car and went to buy a pizza in downtown. I had just gone down the hill and stopped at an intersection when the car suddenly stopped. In panic I looked at the fuel gage and saw that I was operating on fumes. Surprisingly the car started right away as soon as I took my foot off the pedal, but it kept stopping every time I made a full stop (later I was to learn that it is an “eco” feature of her sports Mercedes). I drove to the first gas station that crossed my path, put in some gas, and discovered that right across the street there was a pizza parlor. The nice station attendant said it was OK to park the car there, and a half hour later I was back at the home with a steaming pizza.

We all sat at the little table Elisabeth has in her room, and had a simple but very fun lunch. Clearly she enjoyed the visit, but is ready to go home a week from now. The problem is that she lives alone in this big house, without anyone to clean, cook, and keep an eye on her to make sure she is OK (sounds familiar?). Naturally Christine is there for her in case of an emergency, but she thinks they need to find a daily companion and that may not be easy.

Since we were already on the mountain, lucky Leo got a second walk through the forest. It was a good cardio exercise, and we were looking forward to having a drink on the Kneipe on top, but to our great disappointment found it closed. Of course, it is Monday, and these rural bars close Monday and Tuesday. Schade!

On the way back Phillip called, to invite us all to dinner. That is, he offered to cook us dinner at the house. Nice! As soon as we got back he and I went shopping, and he told me how he had rented an apartment and would be moving there next week. Phillip is a mechanical engineer, is 21 years old, and is currently doing an internship with a company in the nearby town he is moving to. I can’t believe that this tall strapping young man is the sturdy baby I met oh so long ago. (Since he likes cooking I have ordered a crockpot from Amazon, as my house warming gift for his new apartment. All I need to do know is to write down the recipe for ox-tail soup.)

Dinner was a real success, with a main dish of chicken breast stakes baked on a cream sauce with cheese and basil. Clearly this young man shows promise!