Monday, June 30, 2014

Local Nature & Finnish Design: Weekend Outings

(Note: in an effort to not spend enormous amounts of time on one post and to get a new post up, this entire post was crafted on a tablet app. I am not sure how it will actually look on the blog. If it looks horrendous, then I will know that for future reference! The app has less flexibility than the Blogger website, so if the post looks strange or just plain bad, my apologies!)

The past weekend was another fantastic one in terms of weather. On Saturday some friends and I took advantage of the warm sunny day by exploring Scotts Run Nature Preserve, a Fairfax County park located in McLean, Virginia. We took a short hike along the creek, which at its end has a waterfall and leads to the Potomac River. The waterfall is popular with local high school and college kids, but being pretty far outside that demographic, we admired it only from afar. However, we did do some wading and rock throwing in a shallow part of the creek.

Sunday was the last day to visit an exhibit at the Embassy of Finland, so I invited my friend N to join me. The Finnish brand Marimekko is celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of its iconic Unikko (poppy) pattern, and the embassy had organized a small exhibit to commemorate this occasion. As explained by the embassy's website, the pattern "was born in1964 after Marimekko's founder Armi Ratia had publicly announced that Marimekko would never print floral patterns, because she thought that flowers were more beautiful in nature than on fabric. However, designer Maija Isola paid no heed to Ratia's decree and - perhaps inspired by the poppies growing in her yard - painted a red Unikko along with an entire series of floral patterns in protest. Unikko looked new, graphic and distinctive, and once Ratia saw it, she immediately included the design in Marimekko's collection where it has been ever since."

My personal history with the Marimekko brand dates back over thirty years. When my mom visited me in April, she pointed out that she purchased bed sheets with a Marimekko print on them at a Washington, D.C. area Lord & Taylor department store in the late 1970s. Those colorful sheets faithfully served my younger sister and me for a very long time. However, I believe the only Unikko item I own is a small bag I purchased in New York City four years ago when, while visiting, I specifically hunted down the Manhattan Crate & Barrel which contained a Marimekko section.

The embassy itself is interesting to visit, as it is a modern and green building which is located on Massachusetts Avenue (aka Embassy Row), yet also overlooks Rock Creek Park. The exhibit was in the reception hall which contains large windows looking out onto the park. While very small, the exhibit was nicely arranged, and it gave N a chance to see the embassy (I'd been there before). 

Afterward we lunched at Cactus Cantina, a Tex-Mex restaurant which is - honestly - okay. My chicken and beef enchiladas were just average. Next time I'll remember to seek out Guapo's instead. In search of dessert, we hit up Lilit Cafe in Bethesda and greatly enjoyed our gelato choices.

Another fun weekend in the DC area had passed. N commented how fortunate we are to live in this area, but that it takes a bit of effort to go out and actually take advantage of all the wonderful opportunities we have here. This is true, but I find that the effort always pays off!

Have a good week!

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Curonian Spit: A Lovely Day in Lithuania

In visiting the northwestern region of Lithuania, the spot I was most curious about was the Curonian Spit ("kuršu kāpas" in Latvian, "kuršių nerija" in Lithuanian).

The Spit was the goal for our first full day in Lithuania. To get there, one takes a small ferry from Klaipeda over the Curonian Lagoon. After some confusion regarding the location of the ferry and an unexpected tour of Klaipeda and its impressive shipping harbor, we found the correct spot, arriving in perfect time for the next ferry. The driver is included in the price of vehicle, which at the time of our crossing was 40 litas or about $16, but each additional passenger costs extra 2,90 litas or about $1. Check the ferry company's website for prices and times if you're planning a trip. The journey lasted all of about three minutes, so there is no need to budget a great deal of time for it if you are on a schedule!
The Curonian Lagoon is quite narrow.
The ferry arrives near the northern end of the Spit, so we headed south with the intention of driving its entire length. We had not expected to have to pay a fee based on car weight for a permit to drive on the Spit, but once that was taken care of (20 litas, or about $8), we were free to explore.

There had been a small forest fire on the Spit a few weeks previously, but it was not nearly as serious as the large fire which had burned in 2006.That area is clearly visible from one of the first pull-offs; it's reassuring to see the new trees growing and repopulating the forest.
New trees in area that was damaged by fire several years ago
The Spit is quite flat, and a bike path along its entire length (at least on the Lithuanian side) is almost finished. This would be an ideal vacation spot for someone who likes cycling and prefers an even terrain and seaside scenery. In some areas the Spit is so narrow that one catches glimpses of water on either side. The nature and scenery often reminded me of Michigan's Old Mission Peninsula or of Cape Cod in Massachusetts.

We stopped in the village of Juodkrante, and walked along the water, enjoying the view of both modern sculptures and traditional buildings. We climbed partway up "Raganu Kalnas" or Hill of Witches, to see only a small sampling of the 80 wood carvings based on Lithuanian folklore.
The village of Juodkrante
Continuing south, we drove to the Spit's largest town, Nida. Here we ate lunch, visited the tourist information office, then found the tiny post office to mail postcards. From there we ascended another slope to see one of the Spit's lighthouses, which is painted in cheery white and red stripes, and was surrounded by blooming lilac bushes.
Steps and walkway leading up to the lighthouse
Photo worthy of a postcard!
Thanks to Bryan's mad map reading skills, we made our way back into a different part of town via pretty forest paths that seem to be used by all of the locals. I was interested in visiting an amber store about which I had read - it also doubles as a mini museum. Most of the pieces are for sale, while others are only on display, and there is also some information about the history and significance of amber. However, the small space was overwhelmed by older German tourists, all seemingly willing to open their wallets and spend their pensions on Baltic souvenirs. Thus, unfortunately we did not stay long, but the upside was that I was less tempted to purchase something! Prices seemed a tad high, but many of the jewelry pieces were beautiful and looked to be good quality.
Beautiful forest paths - complete with bench for resting and enjoying the fresh air.
Instead we walked toward the other end of town where the car was parked, and spent some litas at a souvenir booth near the center of the village. Bryan picked up two gorgeous wool blankets at an amazing price, while I scored some other traditional gifts (which I cannot mention in more detail because many of the recipients will only receive them later!).

Wanting to see what the Russian border looks like, we cruised toward that. We did not get all that close, but the Latvian cell phone company thought the border was about to be crossed, because an automated text message arrived, telling me how much both texts and calls would cost there. Although the Spit extends into Russia, the Lithuanian side is a popular vacation destination for Russians from Kaliningrad. I also suspect that Russians might drive through on their way to Klaipeda for shopping and the like. The most aggressive drivers on the Spit seemed to always be in cars with Russian license plates...
The Russian border - not very interesting!
Heading back north, we made a coffee and dessert stop in Pervalka, one of the Spit's smallest villages. Bryan was surprised by the banana ice cream I was served, so I had to explain that bananas were an exotic and rarely available treat during Soviet times, and that the love for this fruit is still quite strong. 

The other lighthouse was located near this village, but it would have required a bit of a hike, so instead we hopped back into the car and found an rea where many of the local storks and cormorants nest. The cacophany here was amazing, particularly because it seemed to be dinner time, and there were a great number of birds hanging out in their nests while other flew back and forth in search of food.
I believe this is a cormorant!
This was a stork - carrying a branch in its beak.
We also explored one of the area's beautiful beaches. Like many things in the Baltics, the beach we chose was a study in contrasts. The white stretch of sand was clean and peaceful, but to get there we first parked next to an old ugly abandoned building, then walked through an unattractive structure which seems to have been built as some type of lookout point back in the Soviet days. It really detracted from the simple beauty of the surrounding nature.
What could this possibly have been? Oh, and you can buy it if you'd like - it's for sale!
Walkway leading toward the beach
Before returning to the mainland, we ventured to the far northern tip of the Spit, where we found the aquarium (it was closed, but we could hear the seals barking), and several boats and traditional Lithuanian buildings in a small outdoor museum. I was most excited by the enormous bushes of fragrant lilacs. Having grown up in the Midwest where they are abundant, I miss the flowers' intoxicating spring scent in the DC area where there are very lilac bushes.It turned out that I was in the Baltics at the right time, as a bounty of lilac bushes could be seen both in cities and out in the countryside.
Neat boats and pretty sky!
Traditional building for grain storage
Biggest lilac bush I'd seen in a while!

Monday, June 23, 2014

Two Fun June Weekends

Last weekend I flew to Michigan to take care of my niece and nephew. This was a team effort together with my mom; the kids love Omīte, but they are at an age where they are a handful! My sister and brother-in-law were on a well-deserved mini-vacation. So I fed the kids goats' milk yogurt (which they loved!) and scrambled eggs and lots of fruit, and played with them, read to them, went on outings with them, and - in 21 moth old niece's case - changed quite a few diapers. We were blessed with amazing weather, so a fair amount of time was spent outside. My nephews loves sports, and he and I played football several times and basketball once. Two walks were also taken, as well as a field trip to the beautiful Meijer Gardens. In my quest to experience something new each week this summer, I had the opportunity to visit Clique Coffee Bar, located  quite close to Meijer Gardens. The drinks and cookies we had were excellent, meaning I will need to incorporate stops here into our family's regular visits to the Gardens.
This bear guards the entrance to the wonderful children's garden.
Just one of the many fun and interesting sculptures at Meijer Gardens
These are the Great Lakes!
This weekend was full of social activities. Friday night four friends and I went to a concert at the Artisphere in Arlington. The group I was interested in seeing was San Francisco's The Family Crest, which was the opening act for Mother Falcon. The Family Crest was fantastic, and afterwards I met a few of the band members, all of whom were very nice (of course, they might have been so friendly just because they were hoping to sell me a t-shirt or two!).

My favorite TFC song is "Love Don't Go" - I could listen to that several times a day, and the video is just fun. Earlier in the day TFC had recorded a "Tiny Desk Concert" at NPR, and I am looking forward to seeing that. Mother Falcon had recorded such a concert at NPR last summer

Thanks to B,C,K, and R for joining me - it was a very fun night! And thank you to B and C for the photos!
Very cool poster for this concert!
With B & C
The Family Crest performing
Saturday afternoon a friend from work hosted a housewarming party and cook-out. Given that this time of year the weather is typically hot and humid, it was bizarre to put on a cute summer dress for the party - and promptly freeze. The weather was unseasonably fall-like. I had a good time at the party, but was happy to return home and change into warm clothes! 

Sunday turned out to be a very busy day. After going to yoga in the morning, and having a friend over for brunch, it was time for the biggest Latvian party of the year - summer solstice/Midsummer's Eve/St. John's - whatever you'd like to call it. I celebrated with Baltic friends in a lovely location in Northern Virginia, thanks to the generosity and hospitality of some Estonian hosts. I will probably post some photos and write a bit more about it later, but in the meantime - Priecīgus Jāņus!

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Relics of the Past: Karaosta, Grobiņa, Cold War Museum

Breakfast at Hotel Vilhelmīne was the most diverse buffet I had ever seen. In addition to more traditional Latvian breakfast foods, it included everything from pickles to Laima chocolates! After fortifying ourselves, we took a stroll to find the post office to mail some postcards. We walked past this fun sculpture of a stork in its nest.
Then we hit the road, and headed to part of Liepāja known as "Karaosta" or war port. Initially built by in the 1890s as a naval base for Russian Tsar Alexander III, it was subsequently used by the independent Latvian navy and then by the occupying Soviet forces for whom it was a base for their fleet in the Baltic. During Soviet times the area was strictly off limits, and once Soviet forces finally left, it was almost a ghost town. Karaosta is now less creepy and depressing than when I have visited previously, bet there are still many abandoned buildings. Some are just ruins at this point, while others are still standing, but clearly empty and neglected.
Even many of the currently lived-in apartment building don't look so great, although this is not atypical of older Latvian apartment complexes, many of which were quickly and cheaply built during Soviet times.
An exception to the neglect and decay is the beautifully restored St. Nicholas Orthodox Maritime cathedral, on which restoration continues.
The city's northern breakwater is also located this area. We expected it to be empty, but it turned out to be a hugely popular fishing spot. The small parking lot was overwhelmed with cars, and the breakwater was full of people and their fishing equipment! It was very windy and a tad chilly, so after a short stroll I returned to the car, while Bryan spent a long time taking photos of the water, fishermen, and birds.
Before driving to Lithuania, we stopped in the town of Grobiņa, just east of Liepāja, to check out the castle ruins. Grobiņa was founded by Teutonic knights in the 13th century!
Grobiņa Castle Hill, site of even older castle dating from the 9th century
Driving through some very rural and barely inhabited areas of Kurzeme, which happens to be the region my mother is from, we left Latvia and entered Lithuania. Now that both countries are members of the European Union, only small signs remind a traveler she is in a different country.
Arriving in Latvia's neighbor to the south, we first hit up the cash machine. While Latvia has been on the euro since January of this year, Lithuania is still using the litas and is scheduled to begin using the euro next year. Then we quickly found the tourist information office and were given so many maps and brochures by the very friendly helpful young women that we were overwhelmed. Seriously, if you are ever driving through Skuodas, stop at the tourist bureau - you will get all the information about Lithuania you could ever need! We also sought out a recommendation on where to find lunch in their town. After our meal at a fusion Lithuanian-Italian restaurant, we continued on, this time in the direction of  Žemaitija National Park.

Initially the plan had been to do some hiking in the park, as well as visit the Cold War Museum. Given how late in the afternoon it was, we headed directly to the Museum. We made it just in time, as the 3pm tour (tours are offered on the hour) had recently begun. The entrance fee was 12 litas per person, with an additional 3 litas fee to take photographs. 
The museum is located in an old Soviet ballistic missile base, which was built in the early 1960s, when thousands of soldiers were forced to use shovels to dig the deep holes to house the missiles! Once the base was operational, it housed four medium-range ballistic missiles, each armed with a 2-megaton thermonuclear warhead. Being deep in the woods did not mean that secrecy and security were taken lightly. Security measures included everything from a high-voltage electric fence to the fact that only Russian soldiers and officers worked there. The base was used only until 1978. When locals discovered it, anything that could be removed and taken away was looted.
Security checkpoint upon entering the site
A young female guide (she was as tall as me - cool!) gave us an overview as she escorted us underground, and then we joined up with the tour already in progress. We doubled the size of the tour group - previously it had only been two young Dutch men. The young male guide (also tall!) did a good job of explaining the exhibits and the base itself. Just being in this former missile base was strange and interesting enough, but the museum exhibits on the Cold War are nicely done.
Old Soviet anti-West propaganda
The so-called highlight of the tour was entering one of the missile silos. I found it creepy, but all the guys loved it. They even crawled into it via the old crawl space, while I chose to use the more dignified stairs. Looking down into the silo made me dizzy, and looking at the numbers on the side which would have been used for aiming the weapon just reminded me what a tense and frightening time the Cold War was.
Looking down into the missile silo
Numbers on side would have been used to aim the missile
I wasn't too sad when the tour ended, and we could finally walk out into the bright sunshine again. This place is off the beaten path, and not accessible via public transit, but if you are in the area, I do recommend visiting!

Getting back into nature after the dark cold underground tour was much needed. The park contains several lakes, including the large Plateliai lake. We hung out at the shore of the beautifully clear and calm lake for a while.
Then we drove through the rest of the park on our way back out to the main road, and headed west toward Palanga.

A cute beach town, Palanga is well known in this corner of the world as a great place for a summer getaway. While searching for lodging, I was amazed by the number of choices, with everything from luxury hotels where a room will set you back several hundred euros a night, to small cozy-looking guesthouses with far more reasonable prices. I chose Senoji Palanga, which was an excellent choice. Located a 10 minute walk to the nearest grocery store, a 10 minute walk in the other direction to the beach, and a 12 minute walk to the main drag, the guesthouse was in the perfect location. The innkeeper, Ingrida, is friendly, sweet and very helpful, and speaks English quite well. That weekend turned out to be Palanga's 'summer opening weekend', so she printed out the schedule of events, and translated them for us. 
Guesthouse Senoji Palanga. Almost every room has a balcony or patio!
We spent our first evening getting settled, including going to the nearby grocery store for some necessities (i.e. delicious European yogurt for me, bananas and Lithuanian beer for Bryan). Bryan also made his way to the beach for his first Lithuanian sunset.