I knew it was a crazy idea to come to the Baltics in February, but I was hardly prepared for this madness. Basically, it has been snowing, on and off, ever since my last posting four days ago. Not just normal snow, either. We're talking white out conditions. Oh yeah, and it's been freezing. And windy. You know those unseasonably cold spring days when the cumulous clouds zip by at 100 mph and the weather alternates between violent thundershowers and crisp sunny skies? Well, that's kind of like what it's been like here, only we're getting snow squalls instead of rain squalls. The squalls tend to stop as quickly as they start, giving way to bright sun. A half hour later, the big black clouds are back and it's dumping again. It reminds me a bit of lake effect snow in Oswego, only we're on the sea. I've never really heard of "sea effect" snow -- It usually rains by the sea, even this far north in February. I'm now a firm believer in the sea effect. Indeed it's the bane of my existence.
Latvians say this is the worst winter in memory. Before I got here they had a two-week cold snap of -30 C temps. Just when everybody thought the worst was over, along comes freak week. To be sure, I've had some pleasant breaks in the action, such as when the sun broke through the clouds for a few hours in the rescued-animal sanctuary in Ligatne, illuminating the snow clinging to the pine branches. I had the whole forest to myself and had quite a peaceful two-hour walk. The brown bears and other animals, in case you are wondering, were actually penned up, but the pens in this place are huge, leaving them plenty of room to roam. I figured the bears would be hibernating, but there they were goofing around with each other. The beaver was hibernating. The only other species that was MIA was the elk. Had there been a groundhog (wasn't groundhog day March 1?) I'm pretty sure he would have been back in the comfort of his hole, unless he had been fooled by one of those brief windows of sun. Nobody can accuse the groundhog of being a very scientific beast. Anyway, by the time I arrived in the beautiful old town of Cesis later that day (Friday), it was snowing again. The next morning? More snow. It cleared up and it was sunny again by the time I hit the road for the four-hour drive west to the port city of Liepaja. I still had about two hours to drive when dusk arrived. The dusk lingered, as it tends to above the 60th parallel, assisted by a small wedge of a moon and all that snow on the ground.
About the time it finally got pitch dark, I got slammed by another blizzard. Herbie - my reliable pint-sized Chevy Matiz (not Matrix, as reported earlier) - was really tested in this one, but once again proved up to the challenge and we limped into Liepaja unscathed, just in time to hit the bars and clubs, the city's main attraction. Of course, being the conscientious researcher that I am, I went out until 2:30 a.m., drinking copious amounts of Latvian alus (beer) in the process. This job has its quirks, and being forced to rally until the wee hours of the morning in the name of researching clubs is certainly one of them. I spent the better part of two days in Liepaja hungover and wading through knee-deep snow reviewing hotels for LP's new online booking service, then headed out this morning in yet another blizzard along the coastal road north to Ventspils, where I am now comfortably ensconced in a nice 12 lat room ($20 - the second cheapest I've had thus far) at the Olympic Sports Complex, having just watched the tail end of the Oscars on tape and in Latvian.
I will now go ahead and state the obvious: Blizzard conditions are not conducive to guidebook research. Besides the problems of snow mucking up my notes and drive times being cut in half, visibility is complete crap. Duh, to write about a city it helps to be able to actually see it. Ventspils, like Liepaja, appears to have a pretty cool port and a nice beach. It's not too much of a stretch to imagine sand in place of snow and waves in place of frozen mounds of ice, but imagining people is another matter. I suppose I could try to plop myself down in the snow with a beer and imagine comely bikini-clad lasses emerging from the waters while soft reggae beats play in the background and children frolic on the promenade. But I think what I'm supposed to report on is what actually happens, rather than on the ramblings of my deranged imagination.
So how does a guidebook writer get around the conundrums presented by midwinter research. Well, basically you talk to the tourist office people and try to quiz as many locals as possible on the summer scene. Always ask the hotel and restaurant staff if there's an outdoor patio on the premises. And look at summer photos when possible. Also, you really have to rely on the previous authors doing a decent job of capturing that summer vibe, provided they were here in the summer. You should check out competing guidebooks and tourist brocures, as well, but best to take all of the above with a grain of salt. One guidebook described Ventspils as the "Dallas" of Latvia? What the &$*# does that mean? The New York, the New Orleans, the L.A. or even the Seattle of Latvia might make some sense. But Dallas? Why don't we call it the Kansas City of Latvia. Or the San Antonio. I mean, Dallas isn't even a port city; Ventspils, on the other hand, is DEFINED by being a port city. And I'm pretty sure it doesn't snow like this in Dallas. The comparison may have something to do with oil - lots of oil does get shipped through here - but that would be stretching it. If the author of that description is reading this, perhaps she can clue me in.
Lastly, my mom has duly voiced her concern about my reckless decision to go bobsledding. I would like to go ahead and restate my conviction that accidents usually happen when you do mundane things, not when you do "dangerous" things. Case in point: At the tourist office in Sigulda, I went to hang my coat on a chair and fell right through what amounted to a trap door (it was actually a really steep stair case accessed by a hole in the floor). It was a classic Inspector Clouseau moment, and I emerged from the incident with nothing more serious than a bruise on my ass. But man, if I had not caught my fall (with the help of my ass), I really could have been messed up. And I was doing nothing more dangerous than walking across a room! So don't fret the dangerous stuff, mom. Sometimes you're safer in Soviet helicopters than you are in your own living room.
Photos of Riga and Sigulda now posted in previous post; Photos of Ligatne Nature Park, Cesis, and Liepaja in this post.
Stank varmint sightings so far: Zero