Northern Lithuania and Latvia

I drove to the end of the spit where the dolphin sea world type show is held.  I don’t like seeing animals in captivity perform, so opted not to see the performance.  I continued to the ferry and back to Klaipeda, where I connected with one of Silvestras’ (the man who rented me the car) customers, who needed to switch auto registration with me. I then went to a gas station where Silvestras had left a car computer (he thought that was the problem with the transmission).  He asked me to take the car to a mechanic who lived in timbuktu, and I spent the next hour trying to find the guy.  I drove past the place, asked a small shop and a farmer, and finally found the mechanic in question.  While he checked out the car, I took a nice walk with his son who spoke English and wanted to be a programmer.  He showed me the woods behind their house, the river, the mill, and a giant tree that fell in a storm some years ago – we stood on the tree and took in the quiet around us.  The silence was all absorbing. After bidding a goodbye, I decided to camp nearby so I could go to the palace nearby, which had been the home of a count or duke in the past.  I ended up driving a ways and got my first speed camera ticket (first of 4 – 3 in Lithuania and 1 in Poland).  They place the cameras at the very beginning of the city (within a few feet of the sign) where you are expected to immediately drop from 90 km/hr to 50 km/hr (35 mph).  Unfortunately, I didn’t see these cameras in the dark, and was unable to  stop on a dime as they required.  I was told that I might not be able to reenter the EU – seems a bit extreme.  I ended up paying for 3 other tickets, which I got in Latvia, totaling 200 Euro (which doesn’t include the 2 parking tickets I got in Estonia).  What a nightmare.  I had rented an old car hoping to save money and ending up forking out big bucks for tickets, parking, etc.  Best laid plans…

I came back and walked into the lovely mansion the next day.  It was a bit surreal, as a good bit of it was full of animal heads from trophy hunting.  I went to another building full of stuffed polar bear, bear, zebra, elephants… enough to make an environmentalist commit hair kari.  The rooms that weren’t dedicated to trophy hunting were very nice and I was glad to see the fancy decor in these rooms.  From the back of the estate you followed a trail across a river into the woods.  The front of the estate faced a large lawn flanked with giant trees.  I marveled at the size of these giants, as they were bigger than any I’d seen thus far on my travels.

After a break, I continued north toward Zemitija national park, which I found without difficulty.  What a beatific place!  Comprised of small authentic villages surrounding a pristine lake and lovely 26 km bike trail that rings it, this park is a gem.  I got there in the evening and decided to eat a meal at the small restaurant in town.  I didn’t understand the menu, and asked the owner but got no help, as she didn’t speak English.  A nice couple beckoned me to join them.  It turned out they both spoke English well, and ended up treating me to dinner.  We had a great conversation, and I told them I needed to find a place to camp.  They were worried about me and suggested that I park in the parking lot where they were staying.  I followed their bikes to the appointed lot, and prepared myself for the night, when they suggested that I stay on the couch in the room adjacent to theirs.

I was shocked by their generosity but they insisted, and we ended up spending the next 2 days together.  The next day we had French toast on the patio of their hotel room, which looked out onto the lake, and then went sailing with a local captain known for his fearlessness.  Guido and I both know how to sail, but the man told us to go into the cabin while he pushed off from the small dock.  We had a nice sail across the lake.  Apparently he hates America and everything it represents, which we found out after Guido told him I was from California.  Given that he’s probably in his 70s and grew up under Soviet rule, I’m not surprised.  It was so nice hanging out with Guido and his girlfriend.  We laughed and joked, and had a leisurely day, the first I’d had in forever.  I felt like a new human after my shower in the morning.  I’d forgotten it was possible to feel so good!

We had dinner at the dock, and sat out watching the sunset reflect on the lake.  Guido likes to drink and was feeling no pain.  I liked their company and we spent a lovely evening sitting outside and looking at the lake.  The next morning I borrowed her bike and rode around the lake, stopping at the secret underground nuclear missile site that the Soviets had built with 40,000 Estonian soldiers during the cold war.  It was an eery place, especially when the lights and all electronic displays went out and left me in the complete dark.   It was like being in a submarine – all the doors were reinforced and small and rounded, and there was metal everywhere.

Leaving the trenches, I got back on the bike and rode past the lynx reserve, an area of protected habitat for these big cats.  I explored the old wooden church and bell tower, and the wooden crucifixes and religious art unique to Lithuania.  On my return, the couple and I had a snack on the lake and sat outside till after dark.  We finally found our way to bed around midnight, and they woke early the next morning to leave.  I decided to stay another day and changed rooms, as theirs was quite a bit more expensive than I’d wanted to spend.  I wrote my blog, slept, cursed the kids running along the corridor (pounding back and forth), and then went out for a swim.  The water was cold, but after a few seconds, I adjusted.  What a clear lake! I could see why the sailboat’s owner bragged about the cleanliness of the lake.  It was drinking water quality.

I didn’t want to leave the next day, but felt like I needed to move on. I drove around the lake and headed to the Plunge manor, a beautiful baroque palace built by Oginski, a Lithuanian diplomat and Polish composer who wrote many polonaise and other classical pieces.  A separate building housed the library with an interesting clock tower in the upper floor. I walked around the grounds of Oginski’s Plunge manor, loving the waterways, lakes, and meandering trails.  After spending an hour or so, I headed north toward Latvia.  I arrived in the evening and washed the car, which was important as I’d been driving on lots of dirt roads (most nights I’d drive down a dirt road to sleep).  I ate a crepe and traditional Lithuanian Saltibarsciai (cold beet root soup), which I’d fallen in love with a week or 2 before in Vilnius.  Then I proceeded across the Latvian border but was sure I was lost.  The road was awful, and the air was choked with paper mill emissions and chimney smoke.  I asked a couple of teenagers how to get to Latvia and they said I was already there.  I found a gas station and asked some people sitting outside where they would suggest me going in their fine country.  We spread the map out and they poured over it, with me looking at tourist information.  Their eyes were better than mine, and they helped me locate cities on the map that had been recommended by Latvia’s tourism website.  They suggested that I start in Saldus the next day, then head to Kuldiga, which I did.

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