Latvia—Country of TreasuresJuly, 1995

Latvia, detail of a map of European Russia published in 1840 by the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge

This was my fourth yearly trip to Latvia, all since independence.

Growing up, going to Latvian school, I learned history, literature, religion, geography, all the subjects I studied the rest of the week (except math!). Yes, the church was for worship, but that was on Sundays. Saturdays, the church was the focal point of our Latvian community in Brooklyn, a home away from home for my parents' generation. I only realize now how precious those moments were. And not because I learned enough geography to take a blank map with lines, dots, and crosses and name all the rivers, towns, and mountains.

Mountains? It was a rude awakening when I arrived in Latvia for the first time. Gaizinkalns, the highest point in Latvia, was a mere 300 meters above sea level. Yet I was not disappointed in the least. Latvia still felt like home, even having never been there. Perhaps small, perhaps not quite as imposing as in my childhood imaginings or as my mother recalled from before the war, but still noble and proud. Over my first few trips, I had acclimated myself well, I thought. No problems driving around the countryside or taking walks around Riga. I thought I had gotten to know Latvia.

Then, shortly after another such satisfying trip, I picked up an organ music CD at Tower Record, on Broadway in Greenwich Village, in New York. February 17th, 1995. Well, no probably the 19th, on the weekend. (I'm not very good with dates.) But I remember it was the day that irrevocably changed my parochial image of Latvia.

The subtitle read, in German, “Recorded at the Church of the Holy Trinity, Libau, Lettland.” Lettland I immediately recognized as Latvia. And Libau? Liepaja! I must have this! Even as I waited for the subway home, I opened the CD to read the liner notes.

At the heart of the organ, unchanged since its last expansion in 1885, was the very first organ, virtually intact, built in 1779 by Johann Sebastian Bach's favorite organ builder, Heinrich Andreas Contius. Contius had arrived in Latvia with a letter of recommendation from Bach himself. And of Contius' three organs still in existence, two were in Latvia!

When my mom and cousin Gaida were arranging our next trip and asked if there was anything I'd like to do, I said, "I don't care as long as we make it to Liepaja to see the organ. I've got to see it to believe it!" Well, I did get to see, and touch, the organ in Liepaja. And what a feast for the senses this trip turned out to be! Aglona, the organ at Liepaja, the history museum in Cesis, Rundales Pils, and more.

It is a sufficient source of pride and responsibility that Latvians (and fellow Lithuanians) are shepherds of the oldest living Indo-European culture. Latvia is also a time capsule of Western European cultural treasures, in many cases, the greatest such surviving collection in existance. That the self-appointed purist elite protest that such riches are the remains of conquering powers which oppressed Latvians for 700 centuries is a separate topic—and in no way detracts from the wonder of these treasures!

Latvia was, is, a phenomenon!

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Aglona's Church, the Basilica of the Assumption, is at the heart of Latvian Catholicism. When Press for pictures of Aglona Churchthe Pope came to visit (I don't recall it making the news in the U.S.), 250,000 people crammed its small grounds. Every year, during the festival of the Ascension, Catholics make a pilgrimage, by foot, from their homes, wherever that may be. Some leave two weeks in advance to make it there in time. The church has been beautifully restored.
Click for more pictures of BauskaBauska, south of Riga, and the southern-most major town in Zemgale, is home to castle ruins dating back to the 15th century. Otherwise, Bauska is a quiet town, nestled between the Musa and Memele rivers where they flow together to form the Lielupe river. Maybe it's their river water that makes their beer taste so good!
{short description of image}Brivdabas Muzejs, or the Latvian Ethnographic Open Air Museum, on the northern outskirts of Riga, is a collection of historic rural buildings from all over Latvia, many of them a century older or more.
Bolderaja wildlifeThere's no reason to go far from home to enjoy Nature, it was as close as the dining room table at my cousin's home in the suburbs of Riga, in Bolderaja.
Jaunmoku PilsJaunmoku Pils, about an hour's drive east of Riga on the Ventspils highway, was built as the hunting lodge of the mayor of Riga, George Armitstead. It was he who primarily shaped Riga into the cosmopolitan city it became at the turn of the 19th to 20th centuries.
Jelgava Palace, built by Birons as the regular residence of the Dukes of Courland, and also designed by Rastrelli, was nearly as magnificent. However, it was bombed out in WWII. Only exterior has been restored—the interior is uninspired Soviet era construction.
Pictures of LiepajaLiepaja, on the western Baltic coast, is one of Latvia's largest ports, along with Riga and Ventspils (north along the coast from Liepaja).
Pictures of Rundales PilsRundales Pils, designed by Bartolomeo Rastrelli, architect of the Winter Palace, and built in the 1730s, was the palatial summer residence of Birons, the love interest of Katherine the Great.
Pictures of RigaRiga, especially the old town, Vecriga, presents never-ending opportunities for scenic picture-taking, with its old houses and churches, along winding stone-paved streets.
A few other pictures from this trip...
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Brāļu Kapi, fallen heroes lie in peaceful eternal sleep

Kolkas rags, a view towards the Baltic Sea by Kolkas Rags

Peters' mom peeling potatos at Lena's and Arturs' place in Alsviki

Liene plays bashful in Mordanga's mill house

Cēsis, castle ruins

Mordanga, big sky Latvian style

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