…Not till we are lost, in other words, not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.
Thoreau, quoted in Rebecca Solnit’s, A field guide to getting lost.
We are in a dense forest on an unposted dirt road about two or three kilometers from the highway. Viktors keeps driving until the road becomes more like an overgrown track. “I’m sure it was this way”, he says. But Mara and I urge him to turn around. The forest itself is peculiarly quiet and we are worried that the car may get stuck. Viktors eventually goes back to the highway to take the next unmarked track. We pass by a large fallen tree, which he recognises, and continue to drive even further into the forest until we come to a natural stop at an isolated farm house – but it is not the farm house we are looking for. A young, fair-haired boy emerges from behind a shed and regards us with suspicion – we tell him we are lost.
We get out of the car and Viktors heads off into the forest, trying to find the track that will lead to his father’s cousin’s house. Mara and I stay close to the car but nearby find an area of forest rich with tiny wild berries that we collect and eat. Viktors returns after about fifteen minutes and admits we need help. He phones his father’s cousin, whose name also happens to be Viktors, who tells us to wait in a little clearing about a kilometre from where we are now – he will come and meet us.
We do as we are told and find more wild berries to eat while we wait. I don’t know what they are called in English but in Latvian they are mellenes and dzervenes. Mellenes are little black berries that grow on small bushes, and bruklenes are tiny red ones that grow on a kind of ground cover. They are delicious and are indeed plentiful, as my parents and grandparents assured me they would be – no-one dies in a Latvian forest because you can always find something to eat.
After about twenty minutes, we hear the putt-putting of a motor bike and in rides Viktors #2, on an ancient motor cycle complete with a side car that looks like a relic from WWII. This older Viktors is in his mid seventies but looks young and spritely. We follow him as he heads off down a track we hadn’t even considered, leading us further and further into the depths of the Latvian forest. We pass the occasional little farm houses, but otherwise there is no evidence of human habitation. I expect to see a bear or a wolf emerge from the trees at any moment.
Eventually, we arrive in a small clearing where we see a little complex of modest buildings. The motor cycle disappears into one of them. We have arrived at Viktors, and his wife Austra’s little farm. I feel like I have passed into another world, another time, another culture. There is a big garden with fruit trees, berry bushes, rows and rows of vegetables and many different flowers. Around the back there is a long row of beehives that produce rich, dark, amber coloured honey, and running about all over the place there are hens, roosters and baby chickens. There are also two dogs.
Austra greets us very warmly and while the two Viktors talk men’s business, we three women explore the ins and outs of the garden and check out the guest house that Viktors #2 is building behind the main house from scratch. And I truly mean from scratch. It is a wooden house and he has cut down all the trees and sawn all the timber planks from the logs himself. I am amazed.
Afterwards, we go into the main house where we eat little pancakes with home-made jam and toast each other with delicious home-made liqueur. These are people who have no pretentions, who live a life that revolves around their garden, how well the bees produce honey, and how kind the seasons are to what they grow. Viktors lives here, in the depths of the forest, all year round, but Austra has a little apartment in Daugavpils where she stays in the winter. It is time for us to leave but we promise to return in a couple of days to collect big jars of honey when we head back to Riga. Viktors gets back on his motor cycle and shows us a short cut out of the forest.
We are in Latgale, the south-eastern area of Latvia, which is renowned for its beautiful lakes and forests and is very close to the Russian, Belorussian and Lithuanian borders. The influence of Russia is very dominant here – most people speak Russian even though they may be Latvian, or they have a distinct Latgalian accent, and most and are either Roman Catholic or Russian Orthodox, rather than Lutheran which is the predominant religion in the rest of Latvia. There is also a strong a Russian influence in the architecture, which is a little more decorative and sometimes features a particular tone of blue that you rarely see in Riga.
Viktors, my cousin Mara’s husband, is from Latgale, and we are spending 4 days exploring the region, visiting some of his relatives on our way. Our journey starts with a stop at the newly opened Liktendarz, or Garden of Destiny, designed by the Japanese landscape artist Shunmyo Masuno who won the commission through an international competition. The idea behind the garden is to create a place of unity and peace that symbolically references Latvia’s past, present and future and develops over time through public participation.
The garden covers many acres of land and is divided into different sections. We take a guided tour in a little open air car that stops at various significant places. There are rows and rows of saplings which will one day become a forest, each little tree dedicated to someone who died as the result of war or was sent to a gulag. There is a brick pathway, only quite short at the moment, but which will eventually extend from one end of the forest of dedicated trees to the other. Each brick in the pathway is engraved with someone’s name, and anyone may buy a brick to add to the path. I decide to buy two – one for my mother and one for my father. Their bricks will installed in the path some time in November.
We also stop at a huge amphitheatre, still in the early stages of construction, on the banks of the Daugava. Its walls are made from a conglomerate of large rocks that Latvians from all over the country have brought from their properties, so this is another communally constructed project within the garden. We then visit a small look-out built on a peninsula that offers excellent views of the ruins of Koknese castle. There are some other people there and Mara points out that one of the women in the group, dressed in white from head to toe, is well known for surviving many difficult years in Siberia. She gets stuck on the roof of the look-out and Viktors helps her down.
The Garden of Destiny has left a very strong impression on all three of us. I imagine it in the future – in five years time, in ten, and then in twenty, when the trees have grown, the brick path is long and the amphitheatre is complete.
We then head towards Daugavpils, the second largest city in Latvia, stopping at Jekabpils to make a quick visit to its Russian Orthodox church on the way. Daugavpils is the home of the recently opened Rothko Museum, which is located in a beautifully renovated artillery arsenal in the historic fortress of city. The museum is huge, the renovations superb, and the exhibition about Rothko and his life sensitively conceived. There are photos of Rothko from all stages of his life, including many views of Daugavpils as it was when he was a child. There are images and reproductions of his paintings, quotes from his diaries, and about 8 or 9 original works displayed in a small gallery at the end of the exhibition. These include some of his iconic colour field paintings that feature two or three blocks of horizontally positioned colour, and a number of early works that are highly figurative and expressionistic – my knowledge of this early phase of Rothko’s practice is very limited, so I am particularly intrigued by the early paintings. The whole experience of being in the gallery and viewing the various exhibits is very moving. The lighting is low, the spaces minimal and open, and a haunting soundtrack creates an appropriate, slightly melancholy backdrop.
It feels very strange, almost unreal, to think that Rothko, of such international acclaim, spent the first ten years of life here, in Daugavpils, in such a remote part of the world… a part of the world that is also part of my world, my history, my culture.
We spend that first night in a little village called Svente on the outskirts of Daugavpils, staying in an old manor house that has been converted into 4 star accommodation and also happens to have a museum of WWII tanks in its grounds. The guest house is very comfortable and rather elaborate. There are reproductions of classical paintings throughout, richly decorated tiled ovens in the corners of the main rooms, a big fountain in the back yard that lights up at night and a very tempting blue tiled swimming pool. We eat an extremely delicious and generous dinner sitting inside a covered pergola in the back garden.
A short drive away is Sventes lake, where we go swimming in the evening. It is beautiful – trees frame the water’s edge, you can see the sandy bottom of the lake where little fishes are swimming about, and the water is wonderfully warm. Russian families gather on the grassy fields nearby and the whole scene looks like a painting.
The next day, after we get lost in the forest trying to find Viktors and Austra’s little farm, we drive further east to Aglona, to see its famous Catholic basilica. In a few days time, the town will be descended upon by thousands of pilgrims from all over Latvia, Lithuania and north eastern Europe to celebrate the Assumption of the Virgin. Aglona has apparently been the site of a number of miracles, and the sulphurous waters of a spring that runs from a nearby lake are said to have powerful healing properties. The church itself, which has just undergone a huge renovation that is not quite complete, was designated a Basilica by Pope John II in 1980. He later made a personal visit to Aglona in 1993, commemorated by a large portrait of himself that hangs in the church.
The Basilica is white, with two spires that loom high in the clear blue sky. It has a big portico in the front and we enter from underneath it, through a large room filled with beautifully crafted pale coloured confessional booths. Beyond this storage area is a small chapel with a series of arched ceilings, all stunningly painted in bright reds, blues and yellows. There is no-one about and it feels like we shouldn’t be here, but eventually we find our way into the main part of the church by going up a curved stairwell. The interior is pale and light and heavenly, the walls and structural columns trompe l’oeil marble in shades of pink and beige and green, and the baroque altar is an elaborate montage of golden objects and rich paintings. At the back of the church is a huge organ. We sit quietly for a while, then make our way back to the car across the big open field in front of the church where all the pilgrims will gather in a few days time.
Our next stop is Debene, where we spend the night with Viktors’ relatives Eleonora and Chesiks. They have a huge property that backs directly onto a lake, with a two-story house, a half built guest house and a large outdoor sauna. (Latvians are very big on saunas.) The garden is perfectly tended and features flowers, vegetables, fruit trees, berry bushes, bee-hives, glass houses for growing tomatoes, a pond with water lilies and a gnome with a red hat. We stuff ourselves with delicious berries as Eleonora shows us about the garden. There is a large shed at the back of the house with a big dog run and a fabulous chicken coop for the hens, roosters and a gaggling turkey, all of which get the run of the garden during the day. I must say, if I were a chicken, I would definitely want to live on a small farm in Latvia!
We swim in the lake and then have a lovely supper with Eleonora, Chesiks and a friend of theirs who is living with them while he grieves the recent death of his wife. Everyone in this household speaks Russian and virtually no Latvian, so I have to rely on Mara and Viktors to translate for me. The house, like the garden, is perfectly kempt and decorated in a style that has a distinctly Russian aesthetic mixed with Eleonora’s love of cats, dolphins and all things golden and elaborate. When we wake up in the morning, Eleonora and Chesiks have headed off to work but have set the table for our breakfast with fish caught in the lake last night, piragi, bread, cheese and smoked meats. The hospitality has been extraordinary.
Eleonora’s mother, Renja, lives on the equally large property next door, which also backs directly onto the lake, and we pay her a visit before continuing our journey. She has a huge big brown dog the size of a small bear, but she also breeds little silky terriers that have long hair hanging over their eyes that she ties into a ponytail with small bows. Her chickens, like all the others I have encountered on our journey, get the run of the huge green garden during the day. They are a bit scared of us, and I laugh as I watch them lope through the long grass in the big back yard, their haunches wobbling from side to side.
We also visit Anna and Ljonja, two elderly sisters who live on their own in a little house that almost seems to be collapsing around them. The road to their property is unreachable by car and I wonder how they manage in the winter, when the path is covered in deep snow. They show us into the living room, which has turned into a miniature jungle of overgrown indoor plants, where we sit and talk for a while, again, mostly in Russian. We have brought chocolates, but when we realise how difficult it has become for the two sisters to get to the shops, we drive to the local store and bring back a big hamper of food. I ask if they receive any service similar to home help, and Anna replies that there are some neighbours who help out every now and then. I suspect that under communism, these two ladies would have been cared for, but under capitalism, they are left to fend for themselves.
We head for Lithuania, for the town of Zarasai, which is not far from the Latvian and Russian/Belorussian borders. I want to drive as far as possible to the point where the three countries intersect, but Mara is afraid we will be arrested – or even shot! – so we turn around when we see signs that say authorised personnel only. Zarasai itself is very picturesque, built on the edge of a huge lake where you can take in superb views from a bridge-like walkway that extends in a big loop over the edge of the water. We also walk to the cathedral in the centre of town which features distinctive Lithuanian wood carvings of the crucifixion and mill with crowds of people who have gathered for a car rally in the main square. I take photos of the wonderful wooden houses along the main road.
That evening, we spend the night at Kurcums in a guest house by a lake. On our way there, we are stopped by groups of people in fancy dress who have blocked the road, waiting for a wedding party to arrive. One group is dressed in witches outfits and they do a little performance for me as I photograph them, complete with musical accompaniment. Another group, further on, wear Russian military uniforms. It is a lovely wedding custom and brings smiles to our faces.
Kurcums guest house is actually full but we are offered very cheap accommodation in simple wooden huts down by the sauna and the lake, which we accept. We go swimming before dinner, rowing in a leaky boat afterwards, and make friends with Marta the horse who grazes in lush grass just behind our little huts. It is a magic stay.
Our time in Latgale has almost come to an end. We make our promised return visit to Viktors’ and Austra’s farm, deep in the forest, where we buy four giant jars of honey for 12 Lats (that’s about AU$24!), drink more delicious home-made liqueur, and then make our way back to Riga. I do a little driving, but I feel totally uncoordinated, especially having to change gears with my right hand. When it starts to rain, I hand back the reigns to Viktors.
The whole trip has a powerful impact on me. I have loved every moment – from visiting the Garden of Destiny and the Rothko Museum to getting lost in the forest and eating wild berries. I have swum in three beautiful lakes; stayed in a Manor House, a carefully tended home, and a wooden cabin, but most memorable of all, I have met Viktors’ wonderful relatives. Their lives are so very different from my own, but despite this, I sense that we share a common cultural bond, one that extends beyond language and is deeply connected to the land, the sky, the forests and the fields and all that grows and lives within them. I have stood in a birch forest as a breeze blows through the leaves and I am sure I have heard the very voice of the trees singing. And I have pressed my hands against the trunk of a huge old oak tree and felt a hum that I know must come from deep within its many rings of history.
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I almost forgot to mention the storks. The storks are everywhere, their huge nests, like fabulous postmodern artworks, perched on power poles or the chimneys of abandoned houses. Sometimes the nests are empty and the storks are prancing about in a nearby field, or circling in the air as they train their young for their long flight to Africa which will begin once autumn sets in. But most often there are one, two or three birds sitting in those amazing nests, keeping careful and patient watch over the world.