Today we were going to Sigulda, a tourist must see town, about an hours mini-bus ride away from the city. It was still raining when we woke up, which was a disappointment but after breakfast we all set off nicely refreshed after a good nights sleep.
The mini-bus driver worried us a little. He was a big sinister looking man who barely spoke a word and looked for sure as though he was an unemployed ex KGB agent. Right from the start this wasn’t the most straightforward journey that I have ever taken and it was punctuated by a number of disorganised stops along the way.
First at a supermarket to buy umbrellas that we didn’t really need and then later at a café for a drink, where we all disembarked and went inside only to be told that they were expecting another tour bus and that they couldn’t possibly accommodate us as well. Turning away fee-paying customers didn’t seem to make good business sense to me but they were adamant that there was no room at the inn and we had to continue our journey without refreshments.
The next stop was to meet our tour guide for the day but there was a mix up over the meeting point that involved a further fifteen minutes delay waiting in a worn out little town that still had a communist hangover with depressing buildings and melancholy people and an overbearing drabness that was exaggerated even more by the dreary weather.
After the guide arrived we set off again but even the driver had had enough by now of all the messing about and his patience finally snapped when he was held up in a queue at a level crossing that had brought the traffic to a torpid standstill. He reacted to our lack of progress by swerving violently out of the line of traffic and driving frenziedly in a bid to push his way to the front; in doing so completely disregarding the flow of oncoming cars, who one by one had to take dramatic evasive action to avoid head on collision.
I have observed that what I call taxi driver red mist can occur spontaneously anywhere and at any time and can result in one of two normal bodily reactions, either in a having a really good laugh about it or alternatively messing your pants; this particular demonstration of driving madness was somewhere in the middle! Someone cried out “OMG” at the top of her voice but retained control of their bowels and managed to force out a little nervous chuckle! I concluded that in a previous existence, not too long ago, he had probably driven a tank for the Russian Red Army.
It has to be said that driving in Latvia is quite unlike what we are used to in the United Kingdom and it seems to me that Latvian drivers are beginning to challenge the Italians for the title of ‘Crazy drivers of Europe’. Most of the cars on the road have seen much better days and seem to be curiously lacking in some components that we would consider essential safety features, such as indicators, safety belts and rear view mirrors for example. Add this driver disregard to basic road safety to the appalling state of some of the roads and being on the streets in Latvia becomes a lesson in basic survival.
We arrived finally at Sigulda in the Gauja National Park, a heavily wooded area of outstanding natural beauty and not unsurprisingly because of its Alpine nature called ‘Little Switzerland’. Everywhere it seems just has to have a ‘Little Switzerland’. In 1992, the Swiss Tourism Federation counted more than one hundred and ninety places around the world that had adopted this tag. I have discovered at least five in England, in Devon, Derbyshire and Shropshire, all of which I might be able to agree with, but I am sceptical about the River Humber just outside of Hull and the Little Switzerland Caravan and Camping site at Folkestone, Kent. If I was simply to put a cuckoo clock in my house that would probably entitle me to call it “Little Switzerland” too.
We went first to the thirteenth century castle that lay in ruins next to a nineteenth century New Castle which was really more of a country house but which had a friendly restaurant where we sheltered from the rain and had an enjoyable and inexpensive lunch. Afterwards we walked around the castle under our umbrellas and then as the rain thankfully began to ease off we made our way to a cable car station to take a ride across the Gauja Valley and the river a long way below.
This was well worth the trip, the river was in full flow from the heavy rains and the wooded mountain sides where every imaginable shade of glorious green, we all enjoyed this, except for Nick who suffers from vertigo and who clung on grimly to a handrail all the way across. The views were spectacular and once across the other side we were entertained by a pair of storks constructing a nest in an improbable location on the top of a water tower.