Baltic Blog 4: On To Latvia

We spent the better part of two more days in Lithuania. We mercifully decided to cut short the stay in the dungeon by one day, which would allow us to drive about 250 miles across the country to Klaipeda, the country’s third largest city and its only port. The first challenge was to get out of Vilnius, which was preceded by the nearly impossible challenge of finding a vacant parking spot in Old Town. Even if you were lucky enough to find a space, it would cost you 1.5 Euros an hour, which over the course of a day could add up. It is one of those deals where you find a parking card dispensary and pay up front, then put the receipt inside your windshield. We noticed that no car we looked at had one of the receipts on its dashboard, but still, you never know. Anyway no spaces were available. So the next option was to park in a tow away zone. There happened to be such a zone right across from our dungeon with one free space available. Hey, all those cars illegally parked were still there, so what were the chances of our actually getting towed, though admittedly I did not know if they might have had some kind of special permit? So we went for it, squeezing in so tight between two other cars that it would have been impossible for any wrecker to pry us out. Besides how could any wrecker navigate the tiny streets and remove any vehicle? It worked. The car stayed put for two days, no towing and no parking ticket. Score one for the codgers.

The five-hour drive to Klaipeda was a mix of blinding rain and occasional sunny skies as one thunderstorm after another raced in from the west. It also marked the beginning of a dramatic change in weather with highs dropping from the mid to high 70s to the mid to low 60s and lows in the 40s with plenty of rain in the forecast. Welcome to the Baltics!

The entire drive was on a Lithuanian equivalent of a U.S. interstate, somewhat crowed at times, but overall the drivers in Lithuania are courteous, obey the rules, and almost always stop for pedestrians on crosswalks, including one such crosswalk which to my disbelief crossed the superhighway. 

The town we were headed to was not only a port city but also the gateway to the “ Curonian Spit,” a  thin slice of land only a few hundred yards wide with the Baltic Sea on one side and a large bay on the other extending about 100 miles from Lithuania to the tiny part of Russia that is on the Baltic. It is supposed to be the go-to beach  in Lithuania. The Spit is a national park, which is accessible only by ferry and considered a top must-see in the Baltics. In that sense it is a bit like our  Outer Banks in North Carolina but without all the commercialization. Because of high winds and cool temperatures and the short time we had to stay there– we did not make the ferry journey to the Spit, probably a mistake. But by late afternoon the wind was howling at thirty knots, the sky threatening thunderstorms, and temperatures in the low 60s and falling. Not what you would call a beach day. So we passed on it. The town of Klaipeda, while old and attractive, did not show any hint of being the gateway to an internationally renowned beach but rather a sleepy, port town and commercial center with its old town medieval area and not much sign of tourism including a paucity of restaurants. Our hotel (small, plain and simple but quite pleasant and with windows) was about a mile and a half out of the downtown area, from which we walked to the downtown area and back, with some sightseeing around the port and a stop for a light dinner at a local pub. Overall worth the side trip.

The drive the next day, July 4, to Riga, the capital of Latvia, took another six hours, driving through showers and fleeting sunshine on mostly two-lane roads through numerous small villages and gorgeous, flat farmland. Except for getting pulled over and ticketed for going 78 kph (48 mph) in a local 50 kph (35 mph, fine 80 euros) zone, it was uneventful. Dropping off the car at the Riga airport was a minor challenge since at the rental car return area where every American car company was represented along with numerous international ones, no one had ever heard of “Trusty Rental Car.” Several frantic phone calls later, when we learned that the drop-off  spot was at a parking lot outside the airport, we headed there, dropped off the keys and were on our way. We arrived via cab in downtown Riga minutes before the choir was headed out to a local restaurant for a celebratory, welcoming dinner. Our hotel was a Radisson high rise and quite fancy with a spa, health club, and upscale bar and restaurant. Sure beats our dungeon.

So began the choir portion of the tour. There are 42 Americans on the tour, almost all but us members of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Arlington, a thriving church with a thousand members. Embry wanted to join the choir tour because our former choir director at All Souls Church, Ben Hutchens, is now there and put the choir tour together. She could not turn down an invitation from him to sign up. They will sing four times—three concerts and one Sunday morning service. They all seem to know each other, are generally about our age, and on the whole are enthusiastic and decent people. After all they are Presbyterians. The only wrinkle is that we are outsiders and do not feel all that much a part of what appears to me to be a pretty close-knit group; but we do know a handful of people who used to attend All Souls when Ben was there. Not knowing a bunch or people is no problem for me since I have tagged along to catch a glimpse of a part of the world I know nothing about. 

About that world, I will learn much more. Lithuania was an eye opener for me—especially with regard to the Jewish Holocaust and our potential inhumanity to our brothers and sisters on this small planet–and also what it is like to live in such an old, beautiful but troubled part of the world.  More about that part of the world will follow as we travel (and sing) through Latvia and Estonia. Stay tuned.

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