30 November 2010

Riga- "The Paris of the North"

We have been to many places recently that left us saying, "Wow. This would probably be really beautiful in the summer/spring/fall." It now feels officially like winter and, of course, there are places that are absolutely at their best in the snow. Riga is one of them. For a big city, it doesn't seem crowded or overrun. In fact, its other nickname "The Second City That Doesn't Sleep" doesn't really seem to fit at all. Though, I may be biased. Sure, people stayed up late, but it didn't seem like this constant flow of people and traffic and life. Anyway, less trudgers and cars meant that the snow didn't instantly go from "it's so pretty" to "I just stepped in a foot deep puddle of grey slush." It didn't seem like an inconvenience, but rather the perfect backdrop to really feel the personality of the city and the neighborhoods that made it up.
The architecture in Old Town reminded me of gingerbread houses and Christmas toy villages. I resisted the urge to carol, don't worry. The area is made up of thin, cobbled streets that are closed to vehicles, which makes wandering slowly while looking up at buildings far less dangerous.
The Christmas markets were starting to get set up and we saw construction workers around town hanging lights from the telephone poles. If the neighborhoods of Riga were the Little Women, Old Town would be Beth. Dreamily quaint, quiet and cheerful. It gives you a warm fuzzy feeling that induces a craving for cocoa and mulled wine.
Behind the Old Town are some pretty spectacular cathedrals. Let's call this Meg- classic, traditional, regal and undoubtedly beautiful in its own way. In the foreground of the picture, there is a stand selling babushkas (Russian dolls). A lot of other tables had ones painted to be the Harry Potter characters, the last few American presidents, famous dictators, but these were the 'real' deal. I was going to buy one, but when I approached, the vendor began to shout prices and telling me I just had to have one, which turned me off.
The Art Nouveau District is obviously Amy, with its fancy trimmings and adoration by the masses. This is really the only place we saw a handful of foreigners snapping pictures. Riga actually has the most Art Nouveau architecture in Europe, so it makes sense that this area gets so much hype. It wasn't our favorite, simply because there didn't seem to be a neighborhood there. I think I would have appreciated the buildings more had they been spread out, but face after face after face became a little boring. You can't deny how pretty it is, in a Fabergé egg sort of way, but like little Amy, it lacked depth or anything that really drew you in.
We aren't exactly sure what the neighborhood we stayed in was called, but it was definitely outside the realms of any of the others. There were small organic markets, hipster shops, thrift stores and a cafe named 'DAD' that we liked a lot. (Amongst the couches and piano benches, there was a single cardboard box, filled solidly enough to sit on. Oh, those whacky alternative types).
It was a little bit of a walk from any 'sight,' but had some really interesting old wooden buildings and churches that we both found to be the most beautiful. Jo, obviously.

P.S. I apologize for the Little Women analogy. This time of year always makes me think of the March sisters and their wassailing around. Like Riga, they seemed to be at their most charming in the winter. (There's a reason 'Camp Laurence' never made the movies).

29 November 2010

Centrāltirgus, Riga

The Riga central market was so great, we had to go back. The size of the place is hard to fathom - aside from the outdoor vendors, which are around to the back, there are four enormous buildings housing just over 3,000 stands. The structures above are the heart of the market - they are actually former zeppelin hangars brought to Riga in 1930 from nearby Vainode. The entire complex covers 72,300 square meters (which is 17.9 acres). According to the market's website, it attracts between 80,000 and 1oo,000 people per day. It certainly felt like it did, because it was packed.
Inside, the stalls are broken up into sections. There is a honey department (surprisingly large), a liquor department (surprisingly small), a candy section, a cheese lane, a spice corner, etc... These are all arranged inside general groupings based on the different buildings - or "pavilions." There is the meat pavilion, the dairy pavilion, the produce pavilion and the fish pavilion. Outside, there is a clothing market, a "manufactured goods" market, crafts spaces and hundreds more vegetable, fruit, bootleg DVD, toy, magazine, cigarette and clothing vendors. You can buy anything, as long as you can find where it's sold.
Inside the meat pavilion is a huge freezer-room where the vendors haggle amongst themselves for the choicest cuts of meat. Butchers throw around half-pigs and cow legs, all within plain sight of the customers.
The produce pavilion is perhaps the cleanest and most organized, though there are scores of sellers who sell fruit and vegetables outside and in the other pavilions. The thing that seems to get the privileged vendors in is the quality of their wares. And the variety. Instead of a few root vegetables, these counters are laden with all sorts of seasonal grub, most of it organic (if you believe what they tell you).
It's confusing to be inside, with precious few landmarks. Every now and then one of these directional signs will pop up - but they don't help much.
The fish pavilion is perhaps the place that offers the most oddities and delights. It is divided in two, with cured fish on one side and fresh fish on another. The fresh fish are often half-alive, flopping around in tanks or moving their gills as they are sprawled out on ice. The cured fish are much stiller. Often, they would be arranged in buckets like flowers in a vase, head up, stiff as twigs.
I don't know how one would eat these fish. Are they dried, smoked, salted? I don't even know what they are, frankly.
This time, we didn't buy anything except lunch. We each had a few morsels from one corner or another, some interesting, some pretty ordinary. I waited for a minute to get a donut at a popular spot - but it was really just a donut. I also had a meat-filled pastry that was pretty extraordinary, with a taste that was very difficult to decipher - but which reminded me of apples and curry.

Latvian Fast Food

As you can see, Rigans eat on the go, just like most big city residents. We decided to follow their lead and eat small and quick throughout the day, to see what we could find and try to save our budget. Riga happens to be pretty expensive and one sushi dinner (passable, but really overpriced) created a hole we had to claw our way out of.Our first fast food was slow food. We had read that the Berga Bazar, which takes place every second and fourth Saturday of the month, had "slow food" stands. It just happened to be the fourth Saturday, so we headed over. It was cold and snowy, but there was a table of slow-fooders there braving the weather. The group of four or five teenagers stirred a big pot of pumpkin soup and prepared tiny roasted vegetable salads. The latter looked a little frozen and, being as we were too, we opted for the former. A few sprinkled walnuts and drizzle of olive oil on top sealed the deal. It was pretty yummy and reminded me of Brooklyn.
A few feet away, a little old lady and her slightly taller husband stood behind a folding table with a few icy tarts on top. We decided to grab one, not entirely full from the soup and curious to see what it was. It tasted like pumpkin pie mix on a cream puff. Which means, it was pretty darn good. Though it probably would have been better at room temperature. I doubt the baker knew what the "slow food movement" was.
This was back at the market, an excellent example of how eating in this part of the world works. In Poland, Lithuania and now Latvia, more often than not, a menu is visual - which is really handy when you still don't know how to say "Does that have meat?" At this place, you pointed and they microwaved it on up for you. Only if it's meant to be served hot, of course. It winds up being faster than almost any other option and, being as its served on actual plates, far less wasteful.
While Merlin grabbed a meat pie from that vendor, I found the instant coffee machine. I knew there would be one, because there is always one. Everywhere. While I was hoping for a kafija su šokolāde (a.k.a. a mocha), I jumped at the chance for some "bulyons," which I correctly assumed meant bouillon or broth.
Then, there was this. Hesburger. We had seen them all over Lithuania and, today, while driving out of the city, hungry and still poor, we decided to see what it was like. Merlin said his burger was good, but wasn't sure how it compared to Mickey Dee's and the like because we never really eat fast food. That's my shrimp wrap in the front. It was pretty yummy and very fresh tasting. That's a packet of chili mayonnaise on the left, an add-on splurge. We were going to wait and write about Hesburger in Finland, because we're pretty sure it's a Finnish chain - but that would necessitate a second trip to Hesburger and, well, we'd rather find the old ladies selling pumpkin tarts.

A Latvian Relative?

As I was wandering around Riga, I noticed this sign. Beer & Chill? Oh, but it gets better.
For those of you who don't know, "Blakus" is remarkably close to my surname.
According to stars21.com, which is an awesome translation site, "blakus" means next. The full text of the add - translated into English - reads "Torans Merlin at central Market, beers and sophisticated meat dishes, the Moscow street 4"
(translated by itself, "blakus" means next, as in "nearby" or "next to.")

27 November 2010

Thanksgiving Abroad

Merlin: This was our Thanksgiving morning - a few inches of snow on the ground and more in the air. We are in Riga, the beautiful capital of Latvia, and this picture was taken at eight thirty a.m. We are at 56° 57' north, so it takes a while for the sun to come up.
Rebecca: For all those who have no idea what that means (which included myself until Merlin explained it), New York City is at 40° 47' north and from the equator to the North Pole is 90 degrees. So, yeah. We're quite a bit higher up here than at home. It's funny, because just ten days ago, on a particularly hot day in Lithuania, I remember saying "You know, Thanksgiving has been this early some years and I remember it snowing when I was a kid." And then it did.
Merlin: We went to the central market to gather ingredients. It's a very big place - acres and acres of stalls, some inside, some out in the snow. I felt bad for the people who were standing in the cold with running noses, trying to keep the flakes from piling up on their apples and persimmons.
Rebecca: We were going to get some cranberries, but opted instead for currants, which we had been seeing around markets since Poland. We figured it would be a good regional play on tradition - and that they would take less time to cook.
Merlin: We were able to get everything that we needed before lunchtime. We could even have bought a turkey, but that seemed a little excessive for one person (Rebecca doesn't eat meat). One of the more difficult things about shopping at these markets is that its hard to tell which of the dozens of identical stalls sells the best meat, dairy, produce, etc. I chose between the six or eight chicken-specializing places (as opposed to the pork or beef butchers, or the stalls with smoked ducks and turkey legs) based on the size of the birds that they offered. When I picked a chicken that looked right the woman held it up for me to inspect and urged me to smell it. It smelled perfectly fine, so I took it.
Rebecca: That's our lunch above, from a little shop in the market. They had a few shelves behind a window with bowls and plates showing what they offered, which was helpful on our second day in Latvia, not yet knowing what the words for anything are. I chose a soup that I suspected had a little meat, (which, thankfully, wound up being bits of mushroom) and Merlin chose a sausage plate with mashed potatoes and some strips of raw squash. Any American knows that calculating when and what to eat before Thanksgiving dinner is tricky but important. We felt good about our early afternoon plates of food. Not too much. Not too little. Definitely Latvian.
Rebecca: We picked up the brown bread on Wednesday night, seeing it in a bakery and not wanting to pass up its wonderful seed-and-nuttiness. Merlin correctly reasoned that it may be too dense for a stuffing, so we bought this light wheat country bread at the market. Our stuffing was mostly that bread with accents of the darker variety. This is our very first Thanksgiving where we were solely responsible for our own meal. So, we wanted the stuffing to be awesome (and vaguely European).
Merlin: Another thing about shopping for food: it was so nice to be able to go shopping on Thanksgiving morning and not feel like we were entering some kind of war zone.
Merlin: I made a sauce with the red currants, but we also put some in the stuffing. I mixed them in with the sauteing onions and celery so that they would soften up a little. The sauce was made by cooking the currants in a little water with honey for half and hour, until they had begun to break down. I mixed in half a shredded, cooked beet (I know, I know... shredded beet again!) and a little salt. The mixture was so powerfully red that I had visions of the pink bathtub ring in "The Cat in the Hat Comes Back," which stains everything in the house.
Rebecca: It was our "cranberry sauce" sans cranberry.
Rebecca: And here is our table! Please ignore the plates. They were really ugly, but being as they came with the apartment we rented (for the specific purpose of having an oven on Thanksgiving) we didn't care too much. There's the sauce, the stuffing (which also had a good amount of mushroom and was delicious), Merlin's chicken, the potato, carrot and onion roasted with the chicken mushed up into a brighter play on mashed potatoes and a big bowl of sauteed veggies (shredded brussels sprouts, spinach, onion, apple and pumpkin seeds).
Merlin: Also, about a quarter cup of gravy. Everything was good, and we had great leftovers too. As a consequence, we really haven't eaten much outside our home.Merlin: Here's Rebecca's first plate of food. She took a little bit of chicken, which was a generous gesture.
Rebecca: Every year, I wind up sneaking into my mom's kitchen for some turkey skin. So, Merlin repaid my nugget-of-flesh generosity by allowing me to take any and all the bird skin I wanted. It was a wonderful Thanksgiving. We both got to call our parents (Skype), hole up, cook, tell each other over and over again just how thankful we are and then...
Merlin: ...we watched football, illegally, over the internet. It was almost like we were home in America, except that we were drinking Lāčplēsis Dižalus beer.

25 November 2010

House of Pong

There is at least one Lithuanian family who places ping pong far above basketball and they happen to own a hotel in the town of Joniškis, where we stopped for a night before driving across the border to Latvia. We're really not sure how much business the place gets, probably reliant upon local weddings that bring guests in from out of town.
The receptionist, who quickly shooed away the nine year old boy who was playing computer games at the check-in desk and initially greeted us, walked us through the dark lobby of the third floor to show us our room. We could make out a very small ping pong table and knew that display cases lined the walls, but once she left, we went back, found some light switches and discovered a veritable museum of Lithuanian table tennis.
There were stuffed dolls made in the image of famous table tennis players I had never heard of and signed portraits of Olympic pongers from around the world. Old magazines, newspaper clippings and artifacts like these proved this was the work of someone with an interest that spanned years or who had a very high buyer rating on Ebay.
A security camera must have tipped our hostess off to our exploration, because not soon after we began to snap pictures, she came back up the stairs with a big smile on her face. "You play?" we asked and gestured. "My family. A lot." She replied with a bashful pride that hinted she may be downplaying her own accomplishments. In fact, we were pretty sure this was her on the right. The signature on our receipt when we checked out verified it. Her name matched the portrait and the surrounding plaques and trophies.
Sure enough, on the morning we checked out, the man on the left showed up as well. It seemed like he came in only to greet the young couple who were "interested in my museum" as he put it. He was very insistent upon us using the table and looking at it some more and it was difficult to communicate that we were actually about to hit the road. He explained that "all the medals" were his and his grandsons and when I said "wow, that's a lot," he replied, "No. There are only a little up there. I have drawers more of them."
He was a player, but is now just a trainer and a coach, he said. A lot of the 'exhibit' was dedicated to high school pongers and the hallways had children's drawings depicting matches. When I googled the couple's last name "Franckaitiene," I found only that they organized the 9th Annual Baltic Veteran Table Tennis Championships. However, if Lithuania winds up taking the ping pong world by storm, I believe we will all have the Franckaitienes to thank.

24 November 2010

To Grandmother's House We Went

Homestays in Lithuania are often referred to as sleeping "with the grandmother" (a sort of unfortunate translation). Arriving in Plateliai at around 3:30pm with winter early-evening darkness approaching, we stopped into the tourist office, where the very friendly and helpful woman made a quick phone call and then gave us two step driving directions to Granny Juliya's house.
She was waiting outside, hugging a long sweater around herself and returned my wave-and-smile with a bigger wave-and-smile. We pulled into her driveway and found that, like 99.99% of houses in Lithuania, she had a basketball hoop. Grandma Jules was really excited that we were from New York and, judging by the signatures in her guest book, we could possibly have been her first Americans. She apologized for not speaking English, explaining that she knew Lithuanian and Russian and had learned German in school. I made the mistake of trying to communicate that Merlin had studied French in school and I, Spanish, because she then excitedly began to speak to me in Espanol. I was too embarassed to admit that I hardly understood her - that her fourth language was better than my second.
We were given a tour of our guest space, on the second floor of her house, which could be accessed by a staircase straight from the parking lot. Our room, as you can see above, was lovely. I am a firm believer that matching is overrated, so I felt at home at once. In the hallway was a plug-in kettle, some tea and mugs. Naturally, I chose the one with the picture of her cowboy hat wearing granddaughter on it.
The bathroom had one of the most interesting plumbing mechanisms we've seen yet. There was one faucet for both the sink and the bathtub, it simply swiveled from one to the other according to your need. Up from its base was a shower hose that could be handheld or suspended on a hook overhead. We learned that the second option could result in some serious behind-the-tub leakage. Fortunately or unfortunately, all the water that spilled seemed to disappear. We really hope it didn't seep down and start dripping into Grandma's kitchen.
And this was our view. We could step right out onto our own private balcony overlooking a pond in the Zemaitija National Park. If you're wondering, it was the equivalent of $20 for the night.

Lithuanian Food

You can't start a Lithuanian Food post with anything other than cepelinai, meaning 'zeppelin' for its shape and definitely not its airiness. From roadstops in the countryside to cafes in stylish Vilnius, people ordered cepelinai. They are potato dough stuffed with meat, cheese or mushrooms with a bacon and cream sauce on top. The first one Merlin had was disappointing, filled with cheese when he was hoping for meat and having some strange sour taste to it. This second order, on a day he dubbed "The Day of Food Redemption" was, well, redemptive, living up to all the hype or at least being much more palatable. The consistency reminded me of boiled yucca and Merlin called it "gluey." I guess "glue" is better when fastened to meat.
The second traditional Lithuanian dish that was redeemed for Merlin that day was smoked pig's ears. His first helping, in Palanga, had been served whole, a thin, limp coffee saucer sized ear. Cutting into the strangely textured facial feature was somewhat off putting and, amazingly, it had been tasteless. This plate of it was shredded, had a strong smokiness and the cartilage had a bit more snap. Yellow beans that tasted like a cross between a yellow lentil and a chickpea were served alongside both and called "peas" on the menu.
A lot of food we saw pass by looked like this, but luckily only about three of our own plates did. After the second, we decided that anything that was translated to say "roast" meant breaded, fried and covered in cream or cheese. (The third plate was simply an ordering error). This was roast fish. It reminded me of German food, except with more veggies. That's the thing about Lithuanian food, it is almost always served with vegetables, which was really great. Broccoli, cauliflower and carrots appeared beside fish or meat time and time again and salads were always available.
Understand, though, that the term "salad" (salotos) here was pretty far-reaching. This was a sprat salad and, yes, that is mayonnaise on top. The sprats (like sardines or less boney smelt) were deliciously smoked and sat atop diced onion, carrots and hardboiled eggs mixed in with cream. Most often, I opted for a salad that said "vegetable." It was easy for both of us to recognize "Caesar" or "Greek" options and we wound up ordering quite a few of each between us, especially since they were a sure-fire way to avoid mayonnaise or sour cream. At the restaurant in Palanga where Merlin had his disappointing ear, my greek salad had cubed globs of cream cheese on it. Definitely a shocker when you bite in expecting feta.
When all else fails, there's herring. I've always liked pickled herring, but ever since this trip began, my love has really peaked. In Holland, I ordered it whenever I saw it, thinking my opportunity to savor the silky fish would soon vanish. But then, in country after country, there it was! In Lithuania, it is aptly named "silke" and always served with a big dollop of sour cream. It was less pickled tasting, a bit thicker and fresher tasting. The morsels on this plate at a tavern adjacent to a gas station reminded me of really great mackerel sashimi. The smoked fish here has actually been some of the best I've had and I'll always remember smelling the sweet smokiness all through the Curonian Spit. Merlin kept saying it was just wood smoke, but my nose knows seafood.
At a cafe in Klaipeda, between normal meal times, their menu simply had nothing without meat. Looking to the dessert menu for help, I found an apple pancake and was very pleased with my fried crepe with cinnamon-heavy shredded apple filling. Of course, served with a good amount of sour cream. After that, we started taking more serious note of the pancakes or "blyneliai" available everywhere. This was one Merlin ordered, filled with chicken and topped with (you guessed it) sour cream mixed with (surprise!) curry. The best blyneliai we had were cooked by the owner of our guesthouse in Nida. The first morning they were mini ones with jam and the second they were more crepelike, rolled around curd.

Some final notes on Lithuanian food: Šaltibarščiai is the best thing ever and widely available. Rye is always served and almost everything has dill.

The Curonian Spit

Somehow, we ended up staying fifty kilometers away from firm ground on a giant sandbar in the Baltic sea.
The Curonian spit seals off a large bay, creating a shallow, sandy lagoon. The whole spit is over a hundred kilometers long, but only two kilometers wide at its widest point. We were only a few minutes from the Russian Kalningrad region, which controls the southern half of the spit. The people here are referred to as Neringians, regardless of their nationality, and they're a hardy, seafaring lot. They've endured a lot in their history, losing towns and lives to shifting sand and encroaching water.
There is a little gap at the northern end of the spit, so we had to take a ferry from Klaipeda down onto the sand. There were quite a few people and cars on the boat, probably because it was a saturday. We waited for about forty-five minutes to board, then were on the water for a total of ten minutes. Because we were one of the first cars off the boat and there is really only one road on the other side - and because we were freaked about speeding tickets - we made a lot of people mad. Everyone was able to pass us eventually.
The people that live on the spit rely mostly on tourism for employment, but there is still a considerable fish-smoking industry. The smell of smoking fish makes its way downwind from each of the four Lithuanian villages - especially the two smaller hamlets of Preila and Pervalka, which are cut off from the main road and most of the tourists. Our hostess is originally from Klaipeda, but her husband's family has been on the spit forever. We met him briefly - he looked like a sea captain with his weathered face and white beard.
We were staying just outside of Nida, the southernmost Lithuanian town. Because the Russians are very picky about their visas, the land might as well have ended right there. All of the towns are on the lagoon side of the spit, away from the waves and wind of the Baltic. Nida is the largest and the most touristy - there are also a lot of vacation homes belonging to Lithuanians. Someone was having a party one night, and they had a rented sauna sitting outside their house.
We were able to make arrangements with our hostess for two bicycles, which let us get out into the wilder parts of the land. The spit is a highly protected nature preserve, so a lot of the dunes are off limits. The concern is that tourist traffic on the delicate sand environment will lead to the destruction of the plant life and make the sands more unstable. This is a long-standing problem - in the fifteenth century, deforestation caused the sands to begin shifting and fourteen villages were swallowed up. In 1768, the Prussian government began replanting trees and grasses to protect the dunes.
That seems like a very long time ago for such drastic ecological action, but it's the reason that the spit even exists today. There are a few paths up to certain sections of the Baltic (western) side, but even these are protected by latticework designed to keep the sand in place.
The one unprotected dune - the Parnidis dune - lies in the borderland between Lithuania and Kalningrad. It is spectacular, with its towering vantage points and moonscape valleys. The above picture is taken from close to Nida, looking south into Russia. It is difficult to gauge distance from the picture, but the landscape is vast. The sand is piled about sixty meters high. Walking down into the sand is almost frightening, it feels like a desert and it's easy to lose track of landmarks.
It feels like a tenuously solid place, as though the entire landscape could get blown away in the night. It's a beautiful, lonely place and it's totally unique in the world.