Thursday, July 31, 2014

Take a Trip: Harper's Ferry National Historical Park

Harper's Ferry National Historical Park is a short drive from the DC area, and well worth a visit due to its natural beauty and rich history. I had visited as a kid many moons ago, and once five years ago, but a friend and I decided to revisit the park on a recent Sunday. Harpers Ferry NHP is a bit challenging to describe. It is both a beautiful natural area in which the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers meet, and a historic town, in which some of the old buildings belong to the park and contain exhibits, while other buildings are the homes and businesses of some of the 300 town residents. The park is located in three states: West Virginia, Maryland, and Virginia, but the town of Harper's Ferry and the park's main entrance are both in West Virginia.

Entrance costs $10 per car, and plenty of parking is available near the Visitors' Center, from which you then ride a shuttle bus down to the "Lower Town" (or you can walk, although the walk is not all that fascinating nor particularly short - hence the available shuttle bus). We had decided to participate in one of several free guided tours led by a park volunteer or ranger, so we boarded a special bus with the tour group.

The tour was called "From the Top Down," as we got off the bus at the town's highest point and then made our way down to the center of town. Our guide was a park volunteer, a man who'd spent most of his life in Harper's Ferry, having moved to the area when his father was appointed superintendent of the park. The gentleman was a veritable encyclopedia of knowledge about the area. The tour was advertised as being 90 minutes long, but lasted about two hours. The tour made a number of stops, including Jefferson's Rock on which Thomas Jefferson had stood in 1783. He was so impressed by the view that he wrote, "This scene is worth a voyage across the Atlantic."
Thomas Jefferson once stood on this very rock!
We also visited an old building that had been a part of Storer College. The school was established following the Civil War, in 1865, to educate freed black slaves, as the majority of them were illiterate and found it difficult to integrate into society without any type of education. Young women from northeastern towns came to Harper's Ferry to work as teachers in the school. The building we visited has fallen into great disrepair, although one room is open to tours so that visitors can see what a typical classroom might have looked like back in the day.
The second floor of this old Storer College building is off limits - it's seen better days!
Classroom library
Classroom blackboard
Individual blackboards similar to ones used by students back in the day.
Immediately in front of this building is the town cemetery, which contains the grave of the town's founder, Robert Harper, as well as several interesting headstones. This is where we learned that the original name of the town has been "Shenandoah Falls at Mr. Harper's Ferry." Has a nice ring to it, doesn't it?
Headstone for 3 year old girl. Townspeople leave gifts and good luck charms here.
After the end of the tour, we visited the local Roman Catholic church, strolled across the bridge, walked a bit of the C&O Canal towpath, enjoyed some frozen custard (I can highly recommend the Swiss Miss Inn - their peach shake as well as their chocolate frozen custard were heavenly!), learned more history through some of the exhibits in the Lower Town, and ambled along the river.
C&O Canal
When we decided to head back to the car, we weren't near the shuttle bus stop, but we saw a sign indicating that the Visitors' Center was one mile, so we decided to hoof it. Ha, that sign wasn't quite correct, as it was closer to two miles, including a climb up some stone stairs which were not insignificant. However, the stairs were located next to an adorable waterfall! It was the type of relaxing waterfall at which one could actually sit down, and which had little streams perfect for dipping one's tired and hot feet.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Haunted Past: Former KGB Headquarters in Riga

In conjunction with Riga being European Capital of Culture for 2014, an infamous building known as "Stūra māja" (corner house) has been opened to the public for tours and special exhibits. Its infamy is due having been KGB headquarters in Soviet-occupied Latvia.

The building and exhibitions have received extensive coverage in the foreign media, including this article in the Daily Beast, while the Spanish newspaper El Pais named it one of thirty most enthralling destinations.

The building is located at the corner of Brīvības and Stabu streets near the center of Riga. Before World War II, the building was used by a variety of Latvian government agencies, including the Border Guards. After the War, however, the KGB chose it for its headquarters and prison, in part due to the structure's cavernous basement, which was converted to prison cells, and the many hallways and stairwells, which made it convenient for secretly transporting individual prisoners.

If you visit Riga before October 19 (when the exhibits close) I highly recommend making time for at least the one free-of-charge exhibit and one tour of the "basements." More information in English can be found here on the Riga 2014 website. Unfortunately, the information is a tad confusing. The following was our experience - maybe it will help someone else!

There is a free-of-charge exhibit on the first floor, and which can be entered via the building's front door exactly on the corner of Brivibas and Stabu. The exhibit gives a brief overview of the building itself, and of Latvia's recent history in terms of the Soviet occupation. It is very helpful in terms of understanding context, particularly for a visitor who might not know all that much about Latvian history or of Soviet control methods.
Soviet propaganda: "Peace for the World"
This was particularly interesting given we'd just visited the Baltic Sea coast.

The exhibit area on the first floor is also where the execution room is located. One cannot enter the room, as a plastic shield is in the doorway. A box displays bullet casings found in the room after the first Soviet occupation during WWII and saved for decades. In true Latvian fashion, a fresh bunch of flowers was placed at the entrance in memory of the victims who were unjustly murdered here. I was able to glance into the space for only a moment, and I was unable to watch an excerpt from a fictional movie which shows what 'typical' KGB executions were like. Total time needed for visiting this first-floor exhibit is between 20 - 45 minutes (depending on how quickly you read, how many other visitors are present, etc.).

Display with bullet shells

The basement or cellar tours are a tad misnamed, as the tour does not spend all 90 minutes in the basement. However, that is "main attraction" - so to speak - of the tour, but honestly other areas were just as interesting. Tours are offered in several languages, most frequently in Latvian and English, and are scheduled for specific times. Tickets for the tour are 5 Euro a person, and are available at the ticket window in the courtyard (entrance from Stabu iela). The tours are quite popular, so I recommend buying your ticket ahead of time.

We had a number of local Latvians in our English language group, as the Latvian tours were sold out for the day. Because our tour was the last English one of the afternoon, the 90 minutes stretched out into almost two hours. One additional bit of advice: it is chilly in the entire building, but particularly in the basement. I was glad that we were close to the apartment, as I was able to pick up a sweater to wear over my t-shirt before the tour began, but some of the other women in summer clothing were definitely cold for the majority of the tour. Our guide, Krista, had excellent English and did a fantastic job of explaining many different aspects of both the building's and Latvia's history.

There are also additional exhibits - many of which sounded interesting and moving - in the building, but we ran out of time to visit them on that day, and would have had to buy new tickets (the 5 Euro ticket apparently covers those as well - but only on the same date) to view those exhibits on a different day.

Stops on the basement portion tour include prison cells, the prison kitchen, and one of the interrogation rooms. The guide explained how horrible sanitation was - prisoners were allowed one bathroom visit per day, otherwise they used buckets in their cells. Climbing up from the cellar we used the same stairs that prisoners and guards had utilized - complete with wiring to prevent a prisoner from trying to escape or jump to his death. 

We were also shown the very small courtyard where prisoners were allowed short exercise breaks - always under the watchful eyes of at least a couple of guards. 
That's our wonderful guide Krista.
Box with chair for guard to keep watch over exercise courtyard.
The tour continued onto other parts of the building, including the room which prior to WWII had been the office of general Ludvigs Bolšteins, who was in charge of the Latvian border guards. He was a patriotic Latvian who was deeply disappointed that the President of Latvia, Kārlis Ulmanis, decided to not put up a fight against Soviet aggression. Given the general's severe disappointment and his knowledge of state secrets, Gen. Bolšteins committed suicide in his office on June 21, 1940. His original office furniture had been saved for decades by his relatives and is displayed.
General Bolšteins' suicide note: He's unwilling to participate in the destruction of Latvia's independence.
I found the most moving portion of the tour to be the "Dievs, Tava zeme deg!" room. "God, Your Earth is Burning!" is an emotional cantata with lyrics by poet Andrejs Eglītis and music by Lūcija Garūta. It was written in 1943, during the height of the war, and it premiered on March 15, 1944 when much of Latvia was once again occupied by Soviet forces. As Wikipedia explains, this musical prayer "is part of Latvian Cultural Canon in music, recognized as one of most important Latvian musical pieces of all time." It was banned during Soviet times, but performed quite frequently in the West in the 1980s, which is why I am so familiar with it. Overhearing some of the young Latvians on the tour say that they had never heard of it struck me as sad, because it is an incredibly powerful and heart-rending choral piece to hear, and one that is historically very significant.

Translations, including in English, French, Italian, Japanese
The exhibit features the text of the piece in the original Latvian, and translated into several other languages. The guide played a just part of a recording, as the entire cantata is 40+ minutes long. For non-Latvian visitors it might be slightly interesting (or not!), but the song reminded me of the horrors and tragedies that Latvia and its people - including my family - experienced in the last century.

After the tour we exited back out into the courtyard, which is draped in a gorgeous and enormous Latvian flag - a fitting tribute and reminder.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Riga: A Busy Week in the Big City

The week in Riga was very busy and full, but much of it involved meeting friends and relatives, so I will not write up a day-by-day account. Instead here I will mention a few of those meetings and events, and will write a couple of separate posts about touristy thing.

To visit some old friends from North America who have lived in Latvia for several years now, Bryan and I ventured a bit outside of Riga to the lovely area near Babites ezers, and enjoyed a fun cook-out and bonfire at their home at the edge of a peaceful forest.
Dinner with K & D (adorable son A barely visible in the right corner)
One evening I met former co-workers from the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia. I spent the summer of 2005 there, doing English language editing and translation. Only one of the three women still works at the Museum, and due to her travels to the United States to record interviews with older Latvians about their life experiences, I've kept in closer touch with her. She was able to corral the other two, and we had a very enjoyable dinner in a good restaurant called Cidonija in Berga Bazars. The waitress we had was amazingly friendly and chipper - very American in many ways - but she will not win any photography awards.
Dinner with I, D, and L
That same night I visited a couple of old Latvian-American friends who moved to Riga about seven years ago; we spent a long time chatting and catching up. They had many interesting stories to share.

Another afternoon I met some diplomat friends for coffee; they are the ones who lived in Cairo when I visited. We even managed to catch an important art exhibit: in conjunction with Riga being Culture Capital for the year, an exhibit of the works of Vija Celmins, the best known Latvian-American and one of the most successful living female artists, was being shown. She is best known for her sea and starry sky paintings, both of which I had seen in Washington and New York. The exhibit was interesting in its range, as included were much older works that were quite different. We did not have time to watch the documentary film about her, which is too bad, as afterward I heard from at least two people that it was well done and quite moving. The exhibit closed in June, thus I am happy I was in Riga to see it. I recently read that 20,000 people - or 1% of Latvia's population - had visited the exhibit.
Coffee with M & M
That same evening another friend and I attended a play at the National Theatre. It was a brand new play, having opened just the night before. Written by a young playwright, the play, Pieaugusie, (The Adults) was performed in the theatre's New Hall. Between the topic (30 year olds remembering their last year of high school) and the space, the experience had an off-off Broadway feel to it. I enjoyed the play, but was not keen on the fact that the space itself was very hot and seemed to lack any type of ventilation. Afterward we enjoyed drinks at the restaurant Fazenda. I forgot to ask the waitress to take our photo, so I have no documentation of having met up with M, but I can assure you it happened and we had lots of fun. We walked back to our respective apartments together, and then even stood on the street continuing our conversation. One of the great things about so many of my Latvian friends is that even if nine years have passed since we've seen another, we somehow manage to pick up almost where we'd left off. M and I could not remember exactly which summer it was that we met while working at Garezers, but once she got home she couldn't sleep until she unearthed that summer's camp high school yearbook. It turns out we met back in 2002!
The National Theatre
Yet another evening found me hosting three of my second cousins and their families in my rental apartment. We had fun reminiscing about previous times we've met (the first time being in 1988, when my mom, younger sis, and I took the train from West Germany to Riga and visited for a week), and comparing life in the United States and Latvia. We also discussed hockey and travel, with me sharing some photos of what real waterfalls look like.
Just the cousins
All of the photos from the evening feature someone with eyes closed or looking the other way!
Either there is a bird overhead or I found something to be quite ridiculous (hence the eye rolling).
On Friday night I helped organize a big get-together for alumni and former employees of Garezers, the Latvian summer camp and cultural center. The event was held at the Folkklubs Ala Pagrabs in Riga's Old Town, and great music was provided by the band "The Repats," of which two members, Karlis and Imanta, are graduates of the Garezers summer high school. They played many covers of rock songs that were popular at Garezers Saturday evening dances, as well as folk songs and other Latvian songs that were sung around campfires. It was a very fun walk down memory lane. The Garezers high school is in its 50th summer this year, and the occasion will be celebrated with a big party in Garezers at the end of July -- I booked my flight to Michigan for that weekend long ago to make sure I'd be part of the celebration.

Just a handful of the 30 or so attendees
Folkklubs Ala poster featuring our party on 23.05
It was wonderful to spend time with so many people in Riga, yet even with all the scheduled social time and running around, there were a number of individuals I was unable to meet. Clearly, one week is just not enough time to catch up with absolutely everyone!

Friday, July 18, 2014

Somber Sunday: Last Day in Lithuania

Given some of the sights we were to see, it was only fitting that the day dawned gray and drizzly. On our way back to Latvia from Palanga, I had planned one stop of cultural and historical significance, but by looking in our Baltic countries' guidebook, Bryan found two more historically significant sites. Adding another stop of personal significance in Latvia (plus a ballet performance in Riga that evening!) meant we had a full and thought-provoking day.

Our first stop was a tad difficult to find - the GPS initially led us into the parking lot of a factory, but once we found the correct location, we were grateful we had. Plunge is a small city which had  a substantial Jewish population for many years. Tombstones in the old Jewish cemetery indicate that the earliest Jewish inhabitants were in the area already in the 15th century. In the 1930s the town had six synagogues. Tragically, upon the Nazi occupation of Lithuania, a total of 1,800 Jews from Plunge were executed. We visited the spot where this tragedy occurred, and where a fitting memorial has been built. It was difficult not to cry while visiting the memorial, as the people - men, women, children of all ages - killed in cold blood were innocent individuals whose only crime was being of a certain religion. A formerly lovely peaceful forest became an unintended resting place for human being murdered by other human beings. Even more sadly, such tragedies occur still today in situations where one group (based on religion or ethnic group or political beliefs) decide to kill members of another group. This is a very difficult for many people - including me - in the modern first-world to wrap their mind around.
These useful signs usually helped us find our way in both Latvia & Lithuania.
On the left - mass grave, on the right - names of all the victims.
One of several wood sculptures depicting the horror
Many people don't have a good understanding of the horrors that the Baltic countries experienced during much of the 21st century, having to live through a Soviet occupation for a year from June 1940 to June 1941, then through the Nazi occupation from July 1941 to the fall of 1944, then the Soviet occupation which lasted for far too many years, ending only in the early 1990s. (Note: the dates I use are a bit approximate, as I'm using the ones which Latvia specifically experienced, but the dates for Lithuania and Estonia are very similar.) However, there are not necessarily that many overt reminders of this history to be seen while traveling around the Baltics. But, when an American traveler does come across local history in a place like Plunge, s/he is reminded of how fortunate the United States has been to not have experienced either a war on its land recently or the terrors of totalitarianism.

We continued our exploration of the Lithuanian countryside by driving toward the small city of Telsiai. Nearby is the village of Rainiai, where on the night between June 24 and 25, 1941, between 70 and 80 Lithuanian political prisoners were tortured and murdered by Soviet forces. These prisoners had committed "crimes" such as owning a Lithuanian flag or belonging to the Boy Scouts, or they had been arrested for being active in politics or similar transgressions which were not acceptable to the Soviets. In 1991 a small chapel was built in memory of the victims. There is more information available about the Rainiai massacre online, including on Wikipedia, but I do not suggest perusing while eating lunch - the details are truly gruesome, which is why I am not even including a link!
The final stop in Lithuania was one of the country's best known sights - the Hill of Crosses near Siauliai. The majority of Lithuanians are Roman Catholic (whereas before WWII the majority of Latvians and Estonians were Lutheran), and the Hill of Crosses has been a holy site for many years, dating back at least until 1831. During Soviet days authorities had tried to remove new crosses, and even bulldozed the site several times. Each time, however, people kept coming and bringing more crosses.
My previous visit was with some family members way back in the early part of this century - 2002. It was interesting to see the changes the area had undergone, as it's been made more tourist friendly. A decade ago I remember driving right up next to the hill, and parking in a small dusty lot. Now there's a visitors' center with restrooms, a parking lot (which, naturally, quite a few visitors do not use, because there is a fee - so many cars and even buses park on the side of the road), and a paved walkway (complete with small lights for those who chose to make their pilgrimages at night) leading you to the hill.
Naturally, the hill itself has more crosses than when I last visited, but it is as bizarre as ever. Maybe Catholics have a greater appreciation of it, but I find it slightly kitschy and tacky - crosses are piled everywhere. However, it's clear that for locals this is an important site. During the short time we visited, we noticed three young women in long white confirmation dresses coming to place crosses or rosaries at the Hill. You can spot one in the first photograph.

After a lunch break, we made our way back into Latvia. A stop at the famous Rundale Castle was not in the cards, instead a quick stop in a cemetery outside of my father's birthplace, Jelgava, was necesssary, and then we continued on our way to Riga.

That evening we attended a ballet performance at the Latvian National Opera House. A performance in this historic and gorgeous venue is a must for anyone visiting Riga for the first time! Tickets for the opera are no longer the great deal they once were, but tickets for ballet performances are still very reasonable for those us visiting from places like the States. Our tickets were about $14; here in the D.C. area a ticket to a movie in most theaters will run about $11 or $12. For this particular performance, the least expensive tickets, which sell out very quickly, were only 4 Euro or just over $5.
The performance, "Tris Tiksanas" (Three Meetings), featured three new choreographies set to modern music by Latvian composers Peteris Vasks, George Pelecis and Rihards Durba (of which Vasks is by far the best known). I cannot say that I loved any of the pieces, but the dancing was good (when that actually happened - one piece featured far too much running!), as was the music. One piece had the piano on stage, so I enjoyed watching the musicians play while the dancers danced. The music for another piece was featured vocals by three women with fantastic voices in addition to the instrumental music.

Judging from the audience at the ballet, one would think that 85% of Riga's population is female, and that the few men have nothing dressier to wear than a pair of jeans. However, an arts event - particularly one in the beautiful opera house - was a good way to begin a week in Riga and relaxing way to end the day.

Friday, July 11, 2014

A Sunny Summery Saturday in Palanga, Lithuania

I am quite behind on my posts about the Latvia and Lithuania trip (uh, yes, that was back in May...). One reason is purely practical - I've been busy. Another reason is that I had handwritten some great posts, but of course now cannot find some of those papers. Thus, I had to start from scratch, and I haven't been too happy with thee results. However, I must soldier on, so I will continue writing about the vacation as best I can. After this one, there are probably only 3-4 posts left, so by the end of this month you and I should be all caught up!

Saturday was our day to explore Palanga. We took full advantage of of the summer opening festivities, first spending a long time admiring the many booths of traditional arts and crafts at the street fair. I had to restrain myself from buying lots of wood, linen and amber items, as I knew that both funds and suitcase space were limited. I did, however, purchase two lovely wood bowls.

Later we strolled through the streets of Palanga on our way to the Amber Museum. The museum is located in a park which is lovely in its own right. We were pleasantly surprised to discover that the museum's admission fee was waived for the day due to it being International Museum Day. This is a day that is now widely marked in Europe, with many museums participating and holding special events. In Riga, for example, the day is celebrated with a Museum Night when the city's many museums are open late into to the night. The idea has also spread to smaller towns, such that many places in Latvia celebrated Museum Night this year. Afterwards I read that 200,000 people had visited at least one museum on that night in Latvia; considering the country's population is 2 million people, that is an enormous percentage!
Amber Museum
But back to Palanga... The Amber Museum is quite small, although we could not really tell if fewer things are currently exhibited due to the building being renovated. However, the items exhibited were very interesting. Instead of writing much more about it, here are a number of photos.
Poor thing - how many eons has it been suspended in this amber?
These amber pieces were not large, but were magnified to show the insects.

Check out the tractor made from amber!
After the musuem visit, a quick visit to the beach was called for. The beach in Palanga is really lovely - with clean white sand, and a small forest separating it from the town, and tidy boardwalks leading you toward the seaside.
Boardwalk leading to the beach
Boardwalk through forest leaving the beach
We walked back into the center of town using the great walkway located immediately off the beach. Shaded by tall trees, with the beach on one side and hotels and cafes on the other, the path was heavily traveled by walkers, bicyclists, kids in strollers. Although Palanga is generally clean and well kept, it does have its share of concrete carcasses. This one was right between the walkway and the beach.
What was this meant to be?
When we reached the main plaza, we paused for cold drinks and to enjoy music from the festival stage. Then we strolled out to the pier, the last part of which was blocked off for the evening's fireworks display.

The rest of the day was spent rather lazily - reading and napping for me, a swim in the cold Baltic Sea for Bryan, and dinner in a restaurant back on the main street. I definitely enjoyed the time spent in Palanga - it's a fun and relaxing summer beach town, particularly if you luck out with gorgeous weather the way we did!