Awakening history - cycling along the former Iron Curtain in Latvia
I’m all alone. In front of me the beach is empty, behind me as well. An abandoned fishing boat and some scattered driftwood lie around in the surf. I have been cycling on the beach for ten kilometers now, continuously less than a meter away from the water. Sometimes I catch a wave to clean my tires. I’m moving slowly, not wanting to rush through this beautiful part of the route. I stop after a while and lay my bike in the sand. The sun is burning. I wade in the water bare feet. My hands smell like fish. Before I drove up the beach I ate at a small bistro with wooden chairs and tables, and bargain prices. A sturdy lady placed a plate of fresh, smoked fish on the table. Heads still attached, eyes were shimmering in the sunlight. Bare handed I tore off the head, just like the lady told me to. Back at the beach I clean my hands with seawater. And after this I just stand here for a few minutes, looking at the sea, looking at the empty shore. I have cycled in many countries, but never in a décor like this; never was the sea so close. It feels like I am part of it.
Unpolished Latvian coast
From the vivid capital Riga the Eurovelo 13 takes me south, passing cities like Jūrmala and Ventspils. The Latvian shore is in no place the same. Sometimes it is sandy, filled with sunbathing tourists. Then again in another spot there is no one to be found for miles, the shoreline littered with big rocks, in a place called Stoney beach. Its stones light up in the sun almost like amber rocks. The seawater harbors large color differences; from deep blue to copper brown. The soothing sound of waves is never far. In another place called Kolka Cape I can walk a hundred meters into the sea and still the water does not reach my knees. Not far is the place where I ate the smoked fish, which was only captured this morning and smoked in the afternoon.
The many requisites of the cold war seen on the route serve as a remembrance of the turbulent past. The Latvians do not hide the cruelty of their history. The old bunkers on the beach have not been covered up, nor destroyed. On my route I pass many monuments: the people here have a lot to remember and with that comes a lot to forget. For instance, at Jūrkalne where thousands of Latvians tried to fled the regime on fragile boats. Many died trying, others who made it to Sweden were sent back, an eerie resemblance to Europe’s current migration crisis. In the dunes near Liepāja thousands of soldiers and Jews perished. I can feel the weight of history press on my shoulders, almost pressing me into the sand. The sea which I cherish throughout this journey for many others has been a décor of unbearable suffering and great sadness.
Around thirty kilometers from Ventspils deeply hidden in the woods there’s another remembrance of the Iron Curtain – a very special one. A gigantic radio antenna which was used by the Russians to tap off communication of their enemies. Near the antenna, also hidden in woods with wild berries and foxes are two enormous buildings. This was the place where the employees of the complex lived. For many years hardly anyone knew of its existence. Some years after the independence of Latvia it was by accident discovered. It tells a lot about the forced secrecy that for so long was a part of the Latvian daily life. The Irbene antenna is used for scientific research these days, and will be again open for visitors starting April 2016.
Liepāja is next on the route, a southern characteristic city with a large harbor. Its suburbs are filled with blocks from the Soviet-era. Between these grey flats there stands a great orthodox church with silver domes. In the center of Liepāja are many other churches. On Sundays ladies elegantly dressed and men in suits go to mass. They buy flowers on the market, visit the cemetery and drink coffee in tiny coffee bars.
Or they visit the market on the square. Whether one visits a market in Latvia, Poland of Bulgaria, in essence it looks the same. Yet, for the careful observer there are differences to be seen. In the generosity of the young girl selling vegetables. Or in the old men who picks up a cauliflower, inspecting it with great care, as if this cauliflower was harvested in Chernobyl. Then puts it back and walks over to another stall. At this market the sweet smell of fresh fruit is never far: strawberries, raspberries and blueberries are sold here. A bit further another smell emerges; the one of fresh dill piled up on the table. Liepaja, after all, is a harbor city and nothing tastes as good on fresh fish as dill.
From Liepāja I walk on the beach with my bike in my hand. Here it is little less quiet than in other places along this route, but still it is rather calm. I am looking at the extended beach around me, watching the endless water. Slowly the sun sets in the Baltic Sea, its image reflecting in the water. I get back on my bike and continue my journey south, where other adventures are awaiting me.
Ⓒ Text: Roman Helinski
Ⓒ Pictures: David Peskens
The trip made by Roman Helinski and David Peskens on parts of EuroVelo 13 – Iron Curtain Trail project, co-financed by the European Union. For more information see here.
The full story will be published in the dutch magazine Fietsactief.
Want to learn more about EuroVelo 13 in Latvia? read more...