Wednesday, August 5, 2015

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!

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