Latvia is sort of short and squat (much like their elderly) so a decision had to be made in Riga, whether to go west or east. We chose east, driving to the Vidzeme region, excited by the many mentions of castles in our Lonely Planet and feeling like we had had our fill of off-season Baltic beach towns.
We began driving past dense forest, frosted white, a series of glittering lines and curly cue branches, with deep green poking through. The sky was really clear and blue. Before Latvia, we hadn't really had a sunny day since Krakow, Poland (about four weeks ago) and we felt so lucky to be having our sixth bright day in a row, the light bouncing off the snow. Sporadically, we'd see a grey plume of smoke reach up, up over the trees. One or two figures could usually be made out, burning a pile of brush. I assume it was more for maintenance than warmth.
Luckily, we had purchased snow tires when leaving Riga, because the towns in and around the Gauja National Park have their share of narrow, winding, icy roads. We would never have been able to reach this inn in Sigulda, at which we were able to rent a cozy little room. Even more than in Riga, we were really aware of how little sunlight there was. Both mornings, around nine oclock, we walked over to breakfast in the dark, with a few strips of pink or yellow on the horizon.
Further proof that we were definitely 'on-season' somewhere for the first time in months, a team of teenage skiers with "RUSSIA" on the back of their jackets, clomped into the bistro during our dinner. They looked like they were in town for some sort of competition and we decided to read the "Adrenaline Sports" section of our Lonely Planet, a paragraph that we had initially skipped over. It turns out, people come to Sigulda from all over (including Russia apparently) to practice and compete in luge and bobsled. We ran into the track, built for the former Soviet bobsled team, when looking for the bowling alley (a sport more our speed). Apparently, there is a tourist bob you can ride. A licensed bobsleigher steers. I really, really wanted to do it, but they were closed while we were there. It's probably better. I shouldn't be given too many opportunities to break out my "Cool Runnings" voice.
Merlin spotted this through the woods next to the track and we went over to investigate. We slipped our way around trees to find ourselves right at a ski slope. There isn't a word for mountain in Latvian, because there simply aren't any here, but the Vidzeme is known to have the best 'big hills.' They looked like they were all set to get the season going, making snow as more fell from the sky.
Winter activity season had officially begun and would not be complete without ice skating. Near a castle we saw this man hosing up a rink. Somehow, he managed to keep his balance, walking back and forth, getting the ice good and ready for the swarms of children that will undoubtedly tug at their parents' sleeves to visit this weekend. A large tree stuck right out from the center of the rink and the entire surface was at a pretty extreme angle downhill. As exciting as the prospect of ice skating sounds, it really just reminded me of how much I would like to bobsled.
Of course, the best part of winter is snuggling up indoors with some soup. Merlin has become quite smitten with soljanka, a soup that we had first seen in Poland with the description "Ukrainian," and have seen on every menu since entering the Baltics. I haven't been able to enjoy it, as its fairly meat heavy, but Merlin says its delicious. This one had half an egg in it, a dollop of sour cream on top and green and black olives (most just have one type). I stuck to my cocoa and breathed in deeply, now and then, to take in some good ole bacon steam.