When Monika says “There’s a bus tour going to Riga to see the light festival,” your first response should be “I wanna go.” At least that’s my response. Going with Monika on a day trip is always fun, especially to another country, so I was in! Rasa was game as well so we told Monika to book it for us. See, this wasn’t just a “let’s go” trip, this was actually a bus tour operated by the company she works for, Guliverio Kelionės.
For the past few years, she’s been a guide with them and the thought of doing an extended bus tour always sounded like a fun idea (they go for sometimes weeks at a time, all over Europe) but was always told the tours would be in Lithuanian. I always figured that wouldn’t be such a big deal. But here was a chance to find out. This was an actual tour, just for a day, to go to (Fecking) Latvia, see a couple of sites, have a walking tour and then free time to enjoy the annual Light Festival, Staro Riga before getting on the bus home. Perfect!
As it turned out, there was a full bus (two in fact) and Monika not only had us but several other friends going along. We all met up at 6:15am (which was nice, we were able to actually wake Laika instead of him waking us for once) and took our assigned seats on the bus. We met up with Evelina and Justina (and her husband Marius) who worked with Monika at the Bank (in a past life) and Simona, who was a university friend. Rasa had made lunch so I had my TARDIS lunch box with our food and we were ready for adventure!
Naturally, though, as we got started so early and it was a good couple of hours until our first stop, our first adventure was us all falling asleep. After our first (or second, which was ten minutes later) stop, we finally had our tour guide on board so that’s when the tour officially started. She spoke for a while, pointing out the history of where we were headed and some natural landmarks on the way (the reindeer breeding ground among them). Naturally, I couldn’t understand a word. Okay, not exactly true. I could pick out names of royalty and a couple of words or phrases here and there but generally, I was out in the cold. That’s okay, I’m used to this. And besides, Rasa and others in our group were kind enough to translate if it was something of particular interest or importance.
We got to our first real stop, Rundāle Palace, a little before ten, which was convenient seeing as they opened at 10. We off-loaded and walked up to the entrance and were immediately blown away. The palace, one of two major baroque palaces in Latvia, is really astounding. Now, I’d heard a lot about Rundāle from Monika, this being one of her favorite spots. This was also one of the reasons I was so keen to go on this trip. It did not disappoint. Even wearing our blue plastic shoe coverings to protect the original wood floors didn’t distract. Luckily, though, I picked up an English guidebook when I was paying for a photo ticket because again, the tour was in Lithuanian (this is a running theme, by the way). I stayed to the back of the crowd and as we entered the various rooms, I looked them up in my book. I was missing some of the more personal stories (the guide seemed to do a good job, people were interested and responsive) but at least I understood a bit about what I was seeing. What I was seeing was a brilliant bit of craftsmanship. Rasa and I were both impressed by the uniqueness of the decorations. Not that they were all handmaid, that’s a given, but they were all different. They were set up to look repetitive and it was only with closer observation you got a sense of the time, effort and energy that went in to creating these rooms.
Being there in the winter (okay, technically it’s still autumn, but it was brisk) we could only imagine what the spectacular gardens looked like in full bloom (pictures in the book and Monika’s assertions led us to believe they were absolutely awesome). The Palace (which is a place of state leadership and not a place of battle – that’s a castle) was mostly decorated with period pieces (if not technically authentic, at least in the right era) and had some great pieces of clothing (both original and painstakingly recreated).
We only spent about an hour and a half there, since there was another tour waiting for us, this one at Bauska Castle. For everyone in our group, this was going to be a new tour. Monika had never been, it had only recently reopened after extensive renovation, so we were all ready to experience something new.
What we didn’t realize was how “new” it really was. In 1976, the remains of the castle foundation had been discovered and so it was rebuilt with period in mind, but it wasn’t just a refurbishment of the original, this was out and out a new building. As Rasa pointed out, there’s something wrong when you’re visiting a place supposedly 100s of years old and it still has “New Castle Smell.” They didn’t even do a good job with the rooms, since they were empty. Guide wise, I was in double trouble here. The official guide was in Russian while our guide was translating into Lithuanian. I understood enough to get it when she was dividing people into those who understood each language. I jokingly asked about those who understood English and the laughter was friendly, if not totally appreciative.
There were a couple of displays with English text, so I was able to read a bit about the history of the aree and some about history of the castle (I didn’t see any guidebooks available). There was an downstairs armory and an upstairs costume display which had some cool stuff to look at, but nothing to really grasp. Outside, there was still a portion of the original fortification standing, albeit in ruins (it’s only open in the summer) so we were only able to walk around it and take pictures (my friend Roger Eschbacher, who writes YA books about Leonard, a young knight in King Arthur’s day, would love these ruins).
Of course, I would be totally remiss if I didn’t mention the tromp l’oeil on the front of the restored castle. From a distance it looked like they had used a three dimensional brick (yes, I know, all bricks are three dimensional, but these were peaked) as part of the restoration, as if they needed to give the facade a bit of texture. Of course, as one got closer, you could see it wasn’t 3D at all, but merely cut and textured to look 3D. And up close you could see how poorly it as done. It looks like a school project gone awry. Ah well, we can all now check it off our list of “Baltic Castles” and move on, never having to go back.
Our next stop, finally, was Riga, capitol of (Fecking) Latvia and home of the EU Presidency in 2015. Last time I was in Riga for anything longer than a bus change was back in 2008. I’d had some interesting adventures and celebrated my birthday so the memories weren’t bad at all (in fact, they were a little hazy, all day I kept trying to remember where I’d been and was constantly mistaking one square for another). We got into town about 3pm and proceeded to be taken on a 90 minute walking tour of the Old Town. Once again, I was glad I had some prior knowledge of where we were and what we were seeing. By this point, I realized a longer tour would not be a good idea. My original thought was to just use the bus as a transport, like a cruise, and do my own thing when I got wherever we were going. Unfortunately, that’s not how this really works. Without Rasa and Monika to keep me in the loop, I would have missed a number of important bits of information. It kind of reminded me of being in Greece a few years back (about 15 or so) when we caught the last two seats on a bus going to tour a sulfur volcano. We were sandwiched between two tour groups, one German and the other Israeli. The German guide took lead on the way there, giving all the story in German while the Israeli guide did it again on the way back for his group, in Hebrew. The only time they spoke English was in handing off the mic. We were lost. I felt the same here.
After the tour, Rasa and me and the rest of Monika’s friends all ended up at TGI Fridays. Yes. THAT TGI Fridays. and I had a big ol’ American style hamburger and I’m not even going to apologize for it. It was awesome!!! At this point, we were also met by another of Monika’s friends, Mantas, who happens to live in Riga. As the sky grew dark, we were all set to go and see what we had really come for, the lights.
Riga, in wake of this, was packed. Mantas said this was unusual, even last year’s fest wasn’t this well attended, but it was packed… and getting more crowded the darker it got. Events were spread through the city so we knew we weren’t going to be able to see everything (or even a small part of everything) so we were fine with seeing what we could (especially since we had to be back to the bus at 9pm). Some of our group were a little more enthusiastic in their hopes of seeing as much as they could, so they separated from us to get in as many sights as they could, leaving just Simona, Monika, Mantas, Rasa and me to take our time and enjoy what we did see.
What we saw was pretty impressive. Instead of being image-mapped, most displays were using the buildings as huge projection screens, displaying avant garde cinematic art. There was the film of the girl, dressed like a grownup Shirley Temple, who was dancing and jumping around an interior courtyard to a projected piano accompaniment and there was the poem, projected alongside disparate images against the wall of a church. We saw an oversized wooden head with eyes and a mouth projected on it and a couple of large scale projections which covered several building all at once. There was also an amazing display of lighted strings which I could have watched for a lot longer than we did and a set of portable fountains doing a timed routine with color, light and music (a moveable Bellagio).
But two of the most interesting pieces were performance based, only happening at specific times. The odder of the two was entitled “The Secret Life of Light” and was a parade of light bulb sculptures and illuminated puppets led around by people covered in rope light and dancing through the streets. It felt like something you might see at Burning Man or any city’s monthly art festival. The second, a piece called “Diamond, Dream Flight,” was an air-filled diamond shaped capsule which inflated with a woman harnessed in a silks set. She did a full routine inside what was basically a balloon. While the performance was beautiful, I was even more impressed with the structure, which was able to support the weight of the aerial acrobat with nothing more than air.
We were back on the bus by our allotted time of 9pm (took an extra brief jaunt to see the fountains) and were back on the road by 9:30. A brief stop at McDonalds to use the toilets and we were headed back to Kaunas, arriving at around 2 in the morning. Not bad, a 20 hour trip, met some new people, had fun with old friends and got to see some great performance art. Not a bad way to spend a saturday.