|Open-air sculpture park, the Museum of the Centre of Europe|
|Tram trundling through Daugavpils, Latvia|
|Baltic buffet: black bread, herring, gherkins, berry juice, vodka, and we even have a Russian bear!|
Our plan for today was to head up into Latvia’s eastern side, the little visited Latgale region, to spend a day or two in Latvia before heading up to Estonia. In the end we drove as far as the non-descript town of Rēzekne. The first stop was the Museum of the Centre of Europe, still in Lithuania, take two. We drove back up on the road through the forest. The town ends very quickly, no miles of urban sprawl, you just get into the pine/fir forest pretty quickly. The girl at the booth recognised us from yesterday. We started walking through the park, with the aid of a hand-drawn map. It was much more low-key, unambitious, unpolished than I had expect, or maybe just unsponsored. The paths were simple woodland paths, the panels very basic, the woodland very …erm… unlandscaped, just a nice patch of woodland. The sculptures, well, they too seemed rather lacking in my view. There were works by artists from around the world, the leaflet said, with a predominance of Lithuanian and US artists. The sculptures seemed rather dull, piles of rocks, some basic bronzes, etc. There were some more interesting ones too, near the main building with the restaurant and shop, which actually looked more like a large private house. In fact, the whole set-up is a private initiative by a Lithuanian sculptor (Gintaras Karosas), whose claim to fame is the largest sculpture made using TV sets… hmm… The large number of flies and bugs drove us through the park, rather than being able to enjoy the surroundings at our leisure. Still, it was a lovely fusion of nature and art, and done in a sympathetic “non-theme park” fashion. We had a coffee and wrote some cards and then returned to the car park, en passant a few of the more iconic sculptures in the park.
We continued north, back along the bad road but soon emerging onto the bigger road further on and then up to the border with Latvia. This was a lovely stretch of Lithuania, with views of the rural landscape, fields of grain, blue lupins, trees and forests, storks, little agricultural settlements, and wooden houses. Also plenty of dull white-brick Soviet apartment blocks, three or four storeys high – obviously they couldn’t build higher than this using their rather basic construction technique – it really did just look like bricks were just stacked and piled to the required height) Sometimes a few were just grouped together in the countryside without an obvious village or town anywhere nearby.
After a drive of a few hours we reached border country, another strangely empty sort of landscape, and then the border with Latvia. A glance at our passports, and a smiled but resolute rejection of my request for a picture, and then we entered the next country on our list, “piggy in the middle” Latvia, number 24. The Rough Guide didn’t say much about the eastern side of the country, apart from the fact that Latgale had for a long time been isolated from the rest of the country, culturally, politically, economically, and still had its very different own language or dialect, different ethnic make-up, etc. so it was interesting to have a look round before passing through. First we reached the rather dull and ordinary town of Daugavpils, not too far from the border. The intervening landscape had been more of the same, green, rolling, undulating gently. I imagine large parts of Russia would be exactly like this.
Daugavpils looked rather dreary, with lumpy roads and old trams and trains shuttling along. We almost drove around it before heading back into the centre to find cashpoint to withdraw Latvian currency. It felt rather poor, like a provincial back-of-beyond. Some nineteenth century buildings along the main street. On the whole, for the brief glimpse we had, it reminded me of Uruguay in a way. Our plan had been to spend the night at Aglona, a small Latgale village with a massive basilica, and the sort of spot where we might be able to get a feeling for this backwater province.
We followed the main road which was just a single carriageway with the occasional lumpy bit, and then onto a smaller road. This took us through some anonymous little groupings of the Soviet white brick apartment blocks, where people were sitting around rather purposelessly. Our foreign number plate and right-hand drive attracted stares, as usual. It was still hot and sunny outside. We drove onto a bad gravel section of road. Aglona was another twenty or thirty kilometres further on, so we decided to turn around and return to the main road. A bit further along we came to the proper junction to Aglona, along a tarmac road. Through more beautiful and scenic countryside and after a while we reached the little village. It straddled two lakes and consisted of a mixture of haphazardly placed wooden houses and barns as well as some ugly apartment blocks. Off to one side of the village, “dwarfing it” as the Rough Guide put it, was the basilica, a large (but not “massive”) white twin-towered church, with a large semi-circular area in front of it which had been created for Pope John Paul II’s visit. A radiating pattern of paths had been laid out, built using plain large concrete slabs. It was a curious juxtaposition of a small rural settlement/village and a significant church, along similar lines as had already seen at Święta Lipka in Poland previously. Another couple of daytrippers were mooching around, looking for an entrance into the church. We found one, round the side, and took a look inside where it was quite richly decorated. An older and a younger woman were sat separately, praying. For the rest it was empty. Another tale of neglect, abandonment, damage, etc. and now a hope of restoration to former glory.
We drove around the loosely organised streets of the village and found a small tourist info office, a small bureau at the back of the village hall. The man we met there spoke very good English and did his best to help us out with accommodation. No hotels, but he did recommend a guesthouse by the lake. The owner wasn’t around until later so we said we’d go for a drink and head there later. Instead we got in the car and drove there directly, and found it a biggish house along one of the narrow village lanes with apple trees and little cabbage and onion plots, and the odd villager slowly cycling along. It did look fine, and had we not been in such a hurry I think it would have made a nice stay, although it was just a room in someone’s I think. As it was, and since we had plenty of time and daylight left, we opted to continue north, to make a dent in the drive up to Estonia for the following day.
On the main road again and on up to Rēzekne, a larger town, but without any “sights” per se, just a convenient pitstop. We reached it by late afternoon. It would have been too far to continue up into Estonia, and I would have felt like a bit of a cheat if we didn’t spend at least one night in Latvia. Rēzekne was, as Rough Guide described, dominated by one long central street at the centre of which was a bland roundabout. On either side were some plain apartment blocks, some trees, and on the whole not very much at all. We wouldn’t have stopped here out of choice, but had to, and managed to find a very pleasant hotel at the southern end of town. It looked very new and very out of place from the rest of the town. Obviously a brand new development and done very stylishly in smart white. Yes, they had a room free. Just by a little brook/canal and a traffic junction. We had a nice bright “very Ikea” room, excellent. We popped across the road and I bought some bits and bobs for an impromptu picnic in our room: some black bread, herring with dill, pickled gherkins, a small bottle of vodka, and a carton of berry juice (from the Ukraine this time), and back in our room we just relaxed and enjoyed the snack. I called Mama, after Mama had left a message on my mobile yesterday, and we had a nice long chat on the phone. As there wasn’t really anywhere to go out, and we were probably in the best place in town anyway, we stayed at the hotel for dinner, in the semicircular dining room overlooking the little brook, with excellent service and (Argentinean?) wine. Good bus day, and another pleasant drive through Baltic countryside.