“Occasionally Russian Latvians complain that they are treated as second-class citizens in Latvia although it is their own country and that they would be better off going to live in Russia. I knew a family who went back for eight months before they came back to Latvia and now they are the most loyal Latvians. They were very glad they did not give up their Latvian citizenship.” We were driving towards Kurzeme, the western part of Latvia, with our driver Aldis who was telling us a bit about modern Latvia. Latvia has an odd situation whereby its population is roughly 60% Latvian and 30% ethnic Russian. (There are small minorities of ethnic Ukrainians, Poles, Lithuanians and Belarusians.)
Most Russians live in Riga or other population centers, but not all of them hold Latvian citizenship either because they do not speak Latvian which is mandatory for citizenship, or they have not taken the citizenship test. This means they can neither vote nor travel freely within the EU as Latvian citizens can. Although half the population of Riga speaks Russian, “these days it is hard to find Russian-speaking drivers for Russian tour groups and business conferences. It used to be the other way round and we could not find good English speakers, but young people don’t speak Russian now.” Aldis himself speaks fluent Russian because he was born during the Soviet era and served in the Soviet army for two years, where his best army buddy was a Belarusian with whom he still kept in touch. (We told him we had begun our trip in Minsk.)
He owns the transport company which started as a taxi company and he himself was a taxi driver for twenty years. His story was not unlike that of many other people of his generation in the former Soviet bloc. His father was a doctor who was transported to Siberia, an experience he survived perhaps of his medical background and skills which proved useful. His aunt had also been a doctor and Aldis was clearly from a family of learning and means, but the opportunities that this would normally have bestowed were not available to him because of whatever transgression his father was supposedly guilty of. When we told him we’d visited the Corner House in Riga, Aldis told us he had once spent 36 hours there not for any wrongdoing, although he did not go into detail. We wondered if as a taxi driver, the authorities had wanted him to spy for them, a request that would make sense given the era.
By this time we had arrived in Jelgava which was the capital of Courland between 1578 and 1795 and where the Dukes of Courland were buried in the crypt of Jelgava Palace which, like Rundalē, was designed by Rastrelli. (The rest of the palace is occupied by Latvia University.) As we drove over the bridge into town the magnificent cream and brick-red pile on the banks of the Lielupe river, loomed into view on our right – covered in scaffolding and green plastic netting. I am not sure if the crypt was open or not but we didn’t try to find out – there are other crypts. Jelgava was badly damaged in both world wars but particularly in WWII when 90% of its buildings were damaged or destroyed, so that today it has a largely modern aspect with only a few streets of traditional wooden housing and the odd Baroque building here and there. During the Soviet Occupation it was a closed city due to the large military tank base, Dobek, which was located nearby.
Driving west along the flat, open expanse of Kurzeme, we passed fields of potatoes, cabbage, sugar beets, wheat and rapeseed behind lines of apple trees, heavy with fruit after a hot, dry summer, that lined the road. Agriculture is an important part of the Latvian economy so Latvians were still luxuriating in the longest and hottest summer on record in 2018 after the worst and wettest summer in recorded history in 2017. Like Belarus and Lithuania, Latvia has an unofficial army of mushroom collectors, especially for chanterelles which are exported to Sweden and Norway. In addition, Latvia exports corn, fruit and berries to Scandinavia and other EU countries. As we saw across the country, the land is fertile with black Ukrainian-style soil which grows excellent potatoes and wheat, giving way to rich red clay in the center.
I saw storks’ nests everywhere atop chimney pots and telegraph poles and when I remarked on this Aldis said storks are considered such harbingers of luck that people try to tempt them to nest on their property by installing tall poles with platforms or bowls on the top. The storks of course, ignore this effort and nest in a place where there is ‘good energy’.The luckless must be so envious of their charmed neighbors that I am surprised there is not a brisk trade in evil eye amulets.
Our first stop was Jaunpils, a medieval white-washed and turreted castle that was built for the Livonian Order in 1301. Granted to the nobleman Von der Recke by the Duke of Courland in 1576 in recognition of his service in the army against the Swedes, it remained in his family for almost 350 years. It was burned down in 1905 when the socialist uprising in Russia gained support in other parts of the empire including Latvia where revolutionaries burned over 100 rural manor houses to the ground. Today the restored castle has a small museum, while another part has been converted into a hotel which is frequently rented out for weddings and conferences.
The castle complex includes a late 16th century/early 17th century Lutheran church which was one of the first to be built in Kurzeme. Inside the otherwise unadorned church, is an ornate altarpiece of gilded seraphs and angels, with small statues of four saints; Peter with the keys of heaven, Matthew holding a book and candle, James with his pilgrim’s staff and John holding a chalice. In the center are paintings of the Last Supper, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection.
Another castle we saw briefly – Aldis was brilliant at making sure we saw everything that interested us in the architecture and history departments – was Jaunmoku Palace, a commanding red-brick Gothic confection built in 1901 by the mayor of Riga as a hunting lodge and summer residence. These days it is a hotel with a reputation for its English afternoon teas.
Late afternoon we pulled up at Kukšu Muiža, or manor, our home for the night. Like Jaunpils, the land was owned by the Livonian Order and in 1530, the master gave it over to Bernd Tiedewitz as a fiefdom. It changed hands and design several times over the centuries until in the mid-19th century, it acquired the classic two-wing country manor architectural style it has now. When German businessman and hotelier, Daniel Jahn, bought the manor in 2000, it was in a somewhat parlous state but he worked with professional restorers and architectural historians to restore the manor to a sumptuous country retreat of sophisticated taste. Daniel graciously gave us a tour of the manor explaining that rare and valuable wall paintings from the late 18th century which were covered up were painstakingly restored, as were other period details like parquet flooring, the impressive hall stairway and bannister, and the roof tiles. Existing deeds showed how the manor was furnished in its heyday and Daniel has recreated something of this with the judicious use of Oriental rugs, tapestries, silk drapes and passementerie, Russian, German and other European antiques and paintings, ceiling and wall frescoes, Venetian mirrors, Bohemian glass chandeliers and exquisite porcelain
Because we were the only guests, that evening Daniel transformed a small study into a romantic candlelit private room for the two of us. The table was spread with linen and silverware, damask napkins, antique glasses, silver candlesticks, salvers and tureens and freshly-cut flowers. It truly spoke to a bygone age and as course after course emerged cooked by Daniel, who in addition to everything else is a superlative cook, accompanied by wine delicately poured from decanters, we agreed it was an uncommonly and thoroughly fabulous experience.
Our room was fittingly called the Empire Room and I felt like an empress when we entered a large room of high ceilings and polished wood floors carpeted with Persian rugs. The ceiling was painted royal blue with a fresco around the edges and a glass chandelier and the walls were hung with tapestries and paintings. The furniture included an antique mahogany sideboard, a midnight blue velvet empire sofa and an opulent red velvet tasseled ottoman. In the bedroom was a mahogany sleigh bed and a beautiful floor tapestry. J and I were distraught that we were only staying for one night. The manor is a national cultural treasure. If you would like to hire a driver for Latvia, go no further than BIGI Baltic Transfers https://www.bigi.lv