Two German students tell about their experiences of their visit of the Latvian Green Belt
Week One 9th - 16th of August
Monday: Getting to know the Administration of Slītere NP
After breakfast Helmuts and Marta took us to the office of the Slītere NP Administration in Dundaga. There we had a meeting with members of the staff, for instance Andra and Dace, in order to introduce ourselves and discuss our tasks. Later on we walked through Dundaga to have a look around the place and did our shopping. On the way back Vilnis gave us a ride home to house Siliņi.
Tuesday: Building signs in Užava
We left the house at 8 o’clock in the morning together with Helmuts and Anitra to meet Raits at the forestry. From there we made our way to Užava, a nature reserve south of Ventspils. There we assisted the control of signs, which indicated this area as a nature reserve and prohibited the crossing of cars. If those were missing or destroyed, we built and put up new ones.
On our way back home we stopped in Ventspils, where Raits had left his bike, so that he could cycle home for his “relaxation after work” as he said.
Despite of the unsettled weather we cycled to Dundaga, where we had an appointment with Dace. She gave us a report about the Latvian National Parks system and specifically about the Slitere National Park, for instance its administration, its structure, its geomorphology, formation and development. Also we discussed a few of our ideas concerning our article for the Slītere newspaper with Andra.
In the evening we were spending a nice time with Marta and Helmuts chatting and watching a film.
Friday: Nature Path of Pēterezers (3.4km)
We decided to have a day of hiking – the destination was to be the Nature Path of Pēterezers, which is situated five kilometers from our house at the road towards Dundaga. Just a few meters off that road a small path starts, that leads deep into a forest, up and down grey dunes, along small streams and ponds – and partly on the remains of a narrow-gauge railway embankment. Lake Pēterezers is a beautiful site hidden in the forest – it’s the widest of the depressions, thus the lake was formed. Here the path leads to a place where visitors can pause and have a picnic at the shore of this lake. From there we had a great view at the grey, cloudy sky and the peaceful scenery around us.
Saturday: Nature Path of Kolka and Ēvaži
The weather looked promising so we rode towards Kolka on our bikes, in order to visit the Nature Paths in the northern and eastern parts of the park. We took the road up to Vaide, where we changed onto the beach – cycling along the seashore was really fun. From Cape Kolka we made our way south to Ēvaži, where we had a look at the Nature Path and the bluff of Ēvaži. Unfortunately, we didn’t manage to find the Natterjack toad, which is supposed to be found here. Back in Kolka we agreed that it was time for ice cream – and the second Nature Path for today. This path consists mainly of pine trees and dunes, also it perfectly shows the dune succession.
Sunday: Joining Helmuts on his inspections (in Bažu Bog for instance), Slītere lighthouse
We were just having breakfast, when Helmuts suddenly appeared and invited us to join him on his inspection tour. With his cross-country vehicle we drove to an area, which is not accessible for tourists any longer – a former nature path that was found in the reserve of Bažu bog. On our way and on the scene we checked if everything was the way it was supposed to be. Our personal highlight was the discovery of a wolve`s excrements and a beaver`s home. After that, we visited the Slitere lighthouse, where we climbed up and – thanks to Helmuts and Aigars - had a fabulous view from the roof of the lighthouse on the whole National park and everything else beyond.
Week Two 17th - 23th of August
Monday: Administration of Slītere NP and Checking Nature Path of Pēterezers
With the intention of discussing the further course of the week we went to the administration.
For lunch we accompanied Marta, Andra and Helmuts to a little Restaurant in the centre of Dundaga. There we also had a controversy about the differences between German and Latvian bread – their characteristics and - of course - which one is the better bread. Surprisingly, we didn’t reach an agreement... . After we did our shopping we went back home again.
Later that day, we checked the Nature Path of Pēterezers together with Helmuts and Marta. We removed rotten leaves and pine needles from the wooden paths and stairs in order to make them safer for visitors. Also, we tidied up the fireplace at the shore of the lake, which we describe last week already.
Tuesday: Translation and Diary
We spent our day at house Siliņi with eating biscuits and with writing and translating texts.
Wednesday: Cycling to Boarder guard post and unsuccessful search for artillery
In the late morning we set off to track down some military objects, which we didn’t manage to find on our journey there. In order to avoid the dusty gravel road, we decided to cycle along the beach again. Somehow, this time it wasn’t as easy as it was some days ago, when we went to Kolka. Partly wheeling the bikes, we left the beach in Sīkrags (one of the old Livonian fishermen villages along the coast of Kurzeme) and followed a path, which turned out to be a dead end. Bad luck! Ironically, we missed the site only by some bends of the path on the arrival day. Actually, we expected something different – something which indicates the military past more than several half dilapidated buildings. After taking some pictures, we made our way to the next object of interest – the coast artillery battery in the settlement Olmaņi. Due to a labyrinth of small wood paths, we failed to reach our destination. However, the day was growing old so we returned home.
Thursday: Visitor counting at Nature Path of Kolka
In order to get an impression how many people visit the Nature Paths of Pēterezers, Evaži and Kolka, we were given the task of counting them. Since we were supposed to differentiate between weekdays and weekend, we would be counting each path twice in the next weeks.
Today we cycled the 20 km to Kolka and took position at the car park near the Nature Path and started counting. As a pastime, Lennart was searching and finding several fossils of corals and shells. Due to the fact that the Path wasn’t visited too frequently, we had time to read and watch the “daily struggle for existence”, as Darwin would have said: For instance, we observed an ichneumon fly dragging a paralysed caterpillar into her hole in order to serve food for her breed. Elsewhere, a little ladybird was bleed by some strange and oversized bee-like insect. Luckily we had enough insect repellent to remain unharmed ;).
Saturday: Visitor counting at Nature Path of Kolka
Our second day of counting in Kolka. Since our activities and the events were similar to those of the previous day here, we don’t think it is necessary to report them again. But just before we intended to leave, several Latvian teenagers appeared on the car park with a black and tuned Audi . They started talking to us and offered us a drink. For some time, we had a nice chat about this and that. Though, we felt a little relieved when they had to leave, since it was time for us to cycle back anyway. On the way we were surprised by a change in weather – meaning we were soaked to the skin. Being back home we found our hosts together with old friends from University in a cheerful circle, which we joined later on. Talking about all the world and his brother we somehow ended up telling them about the German Fathers Day and “Bollerwagen” (annotation: four-wheeled wooden vehicle to transport all sorts of things especially on this occasion alcohol). So Helmuts and Sandis decided to open a shop, where they would sell tuned Bollerwagen in Latvia.
Sunday: Visitor counting at Nature Path of Pēterezers
Having expected even less visitors as in Kolka, we prepared ourselves for a rather uneventful day, being set right very soon: we didn’t have to wait for long to mark the first visitors. And there should be several more to come! One unusual occurrence: Sometime two German couples, who had identified us as Germans too, spoke to us asking “are you counting the visitors?”. They apparently had recognised for which purpose we were sitting there... We talked for a while, exchanging our experiences in Latvia, before they walked the Path.
Week Three 24th - 30th of August
Monday: Administration of Slītere NP
Once again, we drove to Dundaga together with Helmuts to do some office work and to call one of our tutors to tell him we’re still alive. We did our shopping and went back. At house Siliņi we carried on writing.
Tuesday: Inspection of Nature Reserve of Ances purvi un meži
This morning we had to get up at a time, which doesn’t quite exist for normal students – at 4:30a.m. . Nevertheless, this was necessary for the activity, that awaited us: we accompanied Raits, Helmuts and elder woman on the tour in the Nature Reserve Ances purvi un meži, where they intended to catch illegal campers and berry gatherers with prohibited devices in the act so that they can be punished for their actions. While driving, we got an introduction of the Latvian forestry system, which originally has been established by German barons, in parts taken over by the Soviets and formed the base of today’s system. The forest is divided into parcels, each of them has an ID number. Areas of homogenous plant cover are marked in a certain colour as such on the forest maps – according to their age the colour are shaded off (dark for old, bright for young).
From time to time Raits stopped the car to investigate paw prints he had spotted while driving – e.g., he showed us the prints of a wolf and a pine marten. Furthermore, we heard the bell of a red deer and we saw a female capercaillie (tetrao urogallus), which is a very rare bird in Germany. Though we didn’t find any illegal campers, we came across something which appeared just like Robinson Crusoe’s camp. Besides a shelter, we found fishing lines and sharpened pegs. Later on the tour, driving across high dunes, we were told that this area served as a training area for tanks in Soviet times. Today it has partly been reforested. Last incident of this tour: we were just about to leave the reserve, when we came across a few Gypsies who were carrying illegal gathering devises, so Raits warned them not to use these. For us it was interesting, because we did read that they were prohibited, but we couldn’t imagine what such a devise should look like. In fact, they are nothing more than a dustpan with comb-like teeth, which hold back the berries when pulling back from the plant.
Wednesday: Visitor counting at Nature Path of Evaži
We got up with the outlook of cycling the 30 kilometers to Evaži, so we were a bit grumpy. Luckily, Vilnis came along with the suggestion of giving us and our bikes a ride there. Cheered up by this offer we grabbed our things and left Siliņi. Having arrived at the Nature Path we made ourselves comfortable under an old pine tree. Although, we counted the most people since the beginning of our little survey, not to many things were happening (apart from a small chat with German tourist). When Vilnis and Anitra returned from their trip to another reserve, they stopped by to have a look at the path themselves. Of course, they were counted, too! On our return journey we were caught in the rain once again and every we thought, that it couldn’t get any worse that was precisely what happened.
Friday: South of Ventpils
We had an excursion with Helmuts and Jānis, who works for the Latvijas Valsts Meži (Latvia’s State Forest), to a forest area south of Užava. We wanted to investigate whether a specific nest was indeed belonging to a black stork. Since the terrain was yet unknown to Jānis we didn’t find the nest on the first attempt. We got lost several time but found it in the end. Helmuts, being a studied ornithologist, soon was sure a black stork was nesting here. Among other things a black feather confirmed his suggestion. Helmuts was quite happy, because he could now apply for this part of the forest to become a micro reserve in order to maintain this nest.
After that we drove to another part of the forest where beavers are a serious problem for forestry because of the damns: since they increase the water level, the roots of the trees die so as the whole tree does. We wanted to have a look at the damn, so we had to wade through the marshy undergrowth. Trying to cross a little stream Helmuts wanted to help Lennart:
Helmuts: “Step on this!”.
Lennart: “You mean this? yeah, I see!” (swinging back for a long step)
Following, his leg was stuck in the mud, which indicated that he missed the spot Helmuts’ pointed at. Theresa was having lots of fun watching this, but since pride goes before a fall it shouldn’t take long until she ended up with wet feet herself. Of course, Lennart was laughing his head off.
In the evening we were sitting together in the living room and Vilnis offered us a tea “mit Schuss”. Starting with this, it turned to be a funny night for some people.
Saturday: Mazirbe and Rīga
The day had come when we finally would see Latvia’s capital. Heading for this direction anyway, Helmuts was once again so kind to give us a ride to Rīga. We were offered to stay in Anitras flat, which lies in the quarter Āgenskalns – only a 30min walk away from the old town of the city. It was a lovely flat, which made our stay really comfortable. Having arrived in the evening we only went to a shopping centre nearby (Olympia centre) to buy some food and we actually found something which appeared more like real bread to us ;).
Around midday we started off to explore the old town of Riga and spent several hours with sightseeing. The city has almost 800 preserved buildings of the Art Nouveau time and also redbrick Gothic churches as well as warehouses and houses of guilds. We were quite impressed by the vast number of magnificent, old buildings - especially compared to Kiel where there’s almost no old town anymore, which actually belongs to the flair of a city. Since we ran out off reading, we went to Valters un Rapa, one of the biggest bookshop in the Baltic states, where we made a bargain with some Classics – like “Robinson Crusoe” or “Around the World in Eighty Days”. Being in Riga it was the perfect time to buy postcards and drop a few lines to our families and friends.
Week Four – 31st of August till 6th of September 2009
Today we wanted to have a look at the famous Central Market. The weather seemed to favour us much more than yesterday, when we were surprised by some heavy showers. So we enjoyed our walk to the in warm sunshine. The market was totally overcrowded – people we hastening to and fro, loaded with their booty. This was quite a contrast to the old town, which appears to be much calmer in her dignity. Yet, it was still very interesting to see these huge halls filled with all kinds of groceries and stuff.
You may wonder why we didn’t visit more of these typically tourist sites. For us strolling through the streets of the old town was the best way of really enjoying the flair of this city – following the tracks of all the other tourist groups didn’t seem quite suitable for us. But through that we have seen quite a lot of places and also saw some site streets, which tourist may not find that easily – geographers just have to explore ;).
At the end of the afternoon Theresa was sitting in a cafe on her own, enjoying a nice cup of coffee and writing post cards, when three Italian guys appeared and started flirting with her. It was really an awkward situation though since they were far too importunate for her taste (wanted to pay a visit in Germany sometime ;)) – well, the good thing was, that they insisted on taking care of the bill.
Tuesday: Rīga and Mazirbe
In the afternoon after tidying the flat and preparing some food for the road we took off to the bus station to catch our bus back to Mazirbe. Although having miscalculated the time we would need to get there – it talk us about 50min in the end – we made it in time. Buying the tickets and finding the right bus was no problem at all, though we were at bit surprised when the bus driver was apparently calling the numbers of the seats so that the people would get on in the right order. Of course, we had no idea of what our seat numbers were called in Latvian so we just awaited what happened – finally he waved at us and we entered the vehicle. The ride took us more than four hours, along the shore of the Gulf of Rīga. Via Jŭrmala, Tukums, Roja and Kolka finally to Mazirbe. Unhurried we chugged through the Latvian countryside – stopping here and there. We spent our time with reading, listening to music and snoozing. Arriving in Mazirbe the bus driver for some reason wanted to know whether we wanted get to the school. Anyway, we got off and sneaked home through the darkening forest.
Our plan for the day was to catch up with some writing.
Thursday: Visitor counting at Nature Path of Pēterezers
Before starting off we prepared ourselves to a rather quiet day – meaning we took enough to read and to eat. We were soon to be proofed right, since more than 70% of the people arriving at the car park didn’t bother with the Nature Path, but went collecting berries and mushrooms or catching fish. A German couple arriving in the caravan spoke to us for some time and told us about their interesting journey along the southern coast of the Baltic Sea. In return we once again explained what we were doing here and so on. Later that day, we were quite surprised when a crowd of Estonians entered the car park, since we didn’t expect to see so many people at the same time. But they soon left after we destroyed their hopes of a nice barbeque at the lake – they didn’t want to walk so far (about 1km) to the fireplace.
We were in Dundaga in the local supermarket to buy our groceries. Since we planned to make an apple pie we gathered the required ingredients. It became tricky when we tried to figure out which of the small package actually contained baking-powder – funnily most of the others were labelled in German (for instance Dr. Oetker), except this... . In the end we bought a substance, of which we thought that the right. Back home we were told that this stuff was mainly used for cleaning, but also applicable for baking in small amounts. ;-)
Saturday: Andras house
Today our hosts had planned something special for us – they took us on a excursion into the forest to learn more about the domestic mushroom species. Andra and Marta told us some tricks about how to find certain species for example chanterelles growing on moss or yellow boletus along sandy paths. Without their knowledge we wouldn’t have known which mushrooms were eatable and which ones were poisonous. In fact, Helmuts joked that every mushroom is eatable – at least once! Actually we weren’t very successful due to the fact the both of us were not that experienced in collecting mushrooms and also talked a lot with Andra instead of searching the ground. Nevertheless, we had enough to cook a meal for all of us, including Martas father, who introduced himself on that occasion.
Being invited for dinner we spent a nice time at Andras house, enjoying self-made lemonade, vegetables from the garden and trying the different mushroom species one after the other. The aim of tasting the different flavours was not reach by everyone: Lennart claimed that all would taste the same – all very tasty but not different.
Later on we mentioned an incident that occurred to us in the supermarket in Rīga, where we found a strange label in the fruit section saying “Nazis”, obviously without any historical context, but being the name of a product. Sitting together we explained our confusion and asked for the real meaning. It turned out that it was just the Latvian word for knife... .
Today we had the leisure to put some of our experiences down on paper, sitting on canvas chairs on the roofed terrace in front of the sauna so the rain couldn’t harm us. In the afternoon we tackled our “project apple pie” – without scales or a mixer, we gave our very best to compensate this essential lack by estimating the amount of ingredients and stirring by hand. As the raw dough was already quite tasty we were confident about its success.
For we needed grounded hazelnuts and only got whole ones, we chopped them into little pieces by hand. Later on we proudly presented the result to our friends.
In the evening Vilnis entertained with some anecdotes from his time in the Soviet army, for example how soldiers managed to get a new hat when their old one was getting on (by stealing it when the actual owner was innocently sitting on the toilet) or how tank drivers used to exchange broken parts (by taking them off from other tanks in a cloak-and-dagger operation).
Week Five – 7th till 13th of September 2009
Since none of our house mates had a special task for us we were writing and doing some research on the Internet - taking advantage of this warm day we sat outside the cultural centre in Mazirbe. Of course, we also did some private correspondence.
While making dinner we agreed that this weather requires some appreciation – spending the evening at the beach. After washing the dishes we took off to the corner shop to get some beer and a package of crisps. The granny, of whom we reckon that she’s the owner, surprised us with telling us the price in German.
The setting sun presented us an impressive spectacle – dark and heavy rain clouds emerging from the sea alternated with shades of red and crimson. Watching this picturesque scenery we sat down in the sand and enjoyed our after work beer(s). As we intended to leave the deserted beach we saw the moon rising above the forest. It also guided us the way home through the darkness – feeling the cold wind one realizes that autumn is not too far away.
Tuesday: Administration of Slītere NP
Once again we cycled to Dundaga in order to consult Andra concerning our tasks. We also seized the opportunity of using the Internet access in the office to look up a couple of things and worked for quite a while on our articles.
After having everything done we went off the top! Supermarket to buy our food. Today we granted ourselves the luxury of a pizza, which we haven’t eaten for several weeks. Driven by the thought of enjoying a delicious pizza, the way back was quite easy. The fact that the road is heading downhill (due to the difference in altitude between Mazirbe and Dundaga of about 60m) is also supportive.
In the evening Helmuts was chopping wood for the cold winter times (and the sauna) and we gave him a little hand pilling logs in the shed in the garden. He also introduced us to the meaning of a “perekur” (Russian word for a five-minute smoking break).
Wednesday: Mazirbe and in the forest
This day was going to be our first experience in moose observation. So we got up at 4:30a.m. to start off with Vilnis on our bikes at 5 o’clock. The first part of our trip led through the forest, which was still pitch-dark, so that we needed headlights and torches to light the way. The brightly shining moon, causing the birches to gloom eerie, guided us along the main road towards Kolka and also made us casting vast shadows, that reminded of giants out of fairytales. It was pleasant to cycle side by side in such a peaceful night, hearing the wind in the trees and watching the stars above. Sorry for the rhyme there ;).
We left the main road and followed a path into dark forest, where we abandoned our bikes somewhere hidden behind a tree and carried on walking further into the reserve. Wading through high grass and bushes on a muddy ground – seeing only what was illuminated by the glow of our headlights and torches. Arriving at a clearing where elks appear every once in a while we climbed up on a raised hide to observe them from there. Before hiding on a tree opposite of us, Vilnis gave clear instructions of how to behave, for instance we should only be speaking in whisper and hardly move. In this matter we spent the morning hours observing the edge of the forest, but unfortunately waiting in vain – the weather was just not right for the elks to mate. Since they prefer calm and cool conditions, for they hear each other better and also scent danger sooner. So we returned home.
In the later afternoon we (see annotation following) gave it another try. But the decision of what place to should visit this time was left to pure chance, since Vilnis took two sticks (a short one for the same spot and a long one for another spot) and Lennart should choose one. As he picked the longer stick we set off equipped with a saw, nails and a hammer to in another direction – towards the ancient coastline. We forced our way through dense forest, head-high grass and reed over marshy ground. Without finding an appropriate place for observation we went deeper and deeper into the forest, which appeared absolutely original here – meaning there were big fallen trees completely covered with moss and fungi, rotting to total decomposition. Somewhere along the line we gave up and turned to a place where several raised hide could be found. To cut a long story short we were faced with only 1.5m high raised hide, which is too low for observing elks. Nevertheless, Vilnis tried to lure some moose – but without success.
Being back home we searched ourselves for ticks, but we didn’t find anything. Only later, Lennart discovered one of those blood-sucking insects, which had attached itself firmly to his leg. In the next morning Theresa also found one.
(Annotation: The second part is written from the point of view of Vilnis and Lennart, since Theresa didn’t join this trip.)
In the morning we went to the administration in Dundaga with Helmuts. There we spent some time doing office work before we set off to a new Natura 2000 territory near Talsi. We got off the jeep and walked through an area, which became more and more marshy. Every now and then we stopped and were told about the history of the area. There were old ditches to drain the swamp and heightened paths (by pilling twigs) on which people could cross the area without getting wet feet. We also discovered many moss species in various colours, which made squelching noises when walking on them. On the other end Helmuts picked us up and we headed for the next site. We drove on a private road towards a lake and when we got off the car we realized that we were chased by two barking dogs and their mistress, who was the owner of the land. She explained which way we had to go, but when we crossed the field we couldn’t find a path which was appropriate for a jeep. After this disappointment, Raits organised some original Talsi pears – a speciality in Latvia - from a tree growing in the middle of the field.
Later on we had lunch with Helmuts in Dundaga and accompanied him on his trip to Roja, where he sold a project car since this project was over. On the way back Helmuts suddenly stopped and asked us whether we already saw the antler collection in Vaide. Since we did not, he engaged the reverse gear and drove to this small museum, which has a remarkable history. The father of our guide – explaining everything in pretty good German – started this collection about half a century gathering mainly antlers, which were casted by the animals.
This and that – nothing special... ;)
Saturday: Irbene and Olmani
Andra organised a little trip to show us some objects we didn’t manage to visit before: Radio astronomy centre, old soviet military settlement Irbene and artillery battery settlement Olmani. Since we wrote an detailed article about this we want to make it short, but refer to this article on the Baltic Green Belt homepage [link]: it was very interesting to walk around these sites with our Latvian companions, since we finally learned something about their history at first hand.
Helmuts was spending his day on a fishing contest, where his former fellow students come together annually to the honour of one of his deceased professors from university. Although it was scheduled for a whole day, Marta sneaked us that he surrendered quite early and returned home without having caught at least a boot. ;)
Sunday: Visitor counting at Nature Path of Evaži
Today was our last day of visitor counting, so we cycled to Ēvaži and made ourselves comfortable at the Nature Path. Though there was beautiful sunshine we began to feel that autumn is indeed at our doorstep, for it was quite cool and windy.