My last stop was Riga, capital city of the Latvian Republic, venue of the 9th International Conference on Diversity which was the ultimate goal of my recent European trip. Latvia is one of the three Baltic Republics located on the eastern side of the Baltic sea, east of Sweden. It is bordered to the north by Estonia, to the south by Lithuania and to the east by Russia.
The capital Riga lies on the Daugava River about 15 km from where the Daugava meets the Baltic Sea. This is elegant bridge is one of several spanning the river.
There are three sections to Riga: the historic and beautiful Old Town; the Art Niveau section with its large array of beautifully preserved 19th century buildings; and the drab New Town built during the Soviet Occupation (1945-1991).
Riga was an apt choice for a conference on diversity. Fewer than 60% of the 2.3 million pople living in Latvia can be called ethnic Lativans. The remaining population, a legacy of Latvia's uneven history, consists of Russians, Belarussians, Ukranians and small populations of Lithuanians, Estonians, Germans and Livs.
A detail on the lovely Blackhead's House on the Rifleman's Square. Latvia's history has been turbulent and, in my view, extremely tragic. During WWII around 200 000 Latvians were killed or deported. A further 150 000 left home to avoid death or deportation to the Gulag camps by the Soviets. During the Soviet occupation over 1.2 million workers, mainly Russian, were brought into the country.
Latvia obtained its first independence in 1920 after WWI and, finally, European recognition in 1921. In the pre-WWII years the country tried to steer a course between the jostling major European powers but in 1940 it was occupied by the Red Army and a reign of terror ensued. Under these circumstances, the Nazi's appeared liberators when they first marched into the country in 1941. The Nazi occupation again ushered in persecution, suffering and annihilation of the Latvian Jewish community.
After the German retreat in 1944, the country was occupied by the Soviet Union and yet another period of suffering began. In the late 80's under Gorbachev's policies of glasnost and perestroika, possibilities for change became a reality. On August 23 1989 two million Latvians, Estonians and Lituanians made a symbolic human chain for 650 km along the Baltic Way and demands for independence intensified.
Latvia declared independence on 1 September 1991; in 2004 the country entered the European Union.
The sombre building above is Riga's museum of the Occupations: Nazi and Soviet. It makes for fascinating but grim viewing. So how did I find my short visit to Riga? I wandered the streets of the beautiful city; I bought exquisite amber jewellery set in silver; I relished fresh salmon, black bread and hearty soups. I admired the intricately knitted socks and gloves sold at street stalls. And I kept snapping a skyline of tarnished green domes and towers.
I found Latvians reserved and private and at times I was unsettled by stony faces. The young folk with whom we struck up conversations in English were couteous, helpful and charming. I asked one young lady, "But you are free, aren't you? Your country is now free?" She answered, "I don't know, I really don't know..."
I also come from a country with a troubled history. In 1994, just three years after Latvian independence, South Africa embarked on its new chapter. But, in spite of the past, South Africans remain hearty and exuberant. Hugs, smiles and firm handshakes are part of everyday greetings. Just think of the noise of the vuvuzelas at recent soccer matches!
Next stop is Home. And I look forward to just blogging the mundane and routine, for a while at least!
"Paris is so confusing", lamented the young American couple, "we have simply no idea of the layout of the city!"
"Ah," I said, with the air of a seasoned traveller, "Don't take the Metro! That's your problem. Just follow the river! And let the Seine show you Paris!"
" Prepare, however, to be distracted time and again." Here, by the sumptuous elegance of the Pont Alexandre III constructed between 1897 and 1900 to symbolise the Franco-Russian friendship instigated by Tzar Alexandre III and President Carnot.
"Linger a while to savour the sunlight on the dome of the Hotel Des Invalides founded by Louis XIV to house his wounded troops."
"Was a hospital ever so glorious as this one?"
"Stand amazed at Pegagus held fast by Fame, all in gilded bronze and mounted on the two pylons at both ends of the bridge."
"Take the steps down to river level so that you don't miss the elegant ladies who smile from the bridge's undercarriage on the passing boats."
"Don't stride to quickly along the riverside. Tarry to admire the engravings and antique books for sale. What does it matter if you don't read French? That battered tome with its yellowed pages will look just great on the desk in your library back home."
" Wherever you tarry for yet another snap, the Eiffel Tower seems to be pop up."
"See those grim towers up ahead. That is La Concierge, the final holding place of Marie Antionette and many other unfortunates before their last journey in the tumbrils to meet Madame Guillotine.""Cross to the Left Bank and wander through the nursery stalls selling spring flowers. I am sure a nice young man will stop garden planning for just a mo' to take your photo like he did mine."
"Wave at the river boats and really consider taking a dinner cruise. It costs a month's groceries but the recollection will never fade. My memory of Richard and I on that cruise in 2002 is precious."
"Let the distant towers of Notre Dame remind you to ignore your aching feet and head in the direction of the gargoyles. But do allow yourself to be sidetracked for lunch served by an enthusiastic waiter over at least two hours. You don't understand the menu? Let the universal language of smiles and nods do the trick as the waiter makes the choice. I guarantee the plat du jour will be delicious."
"Exhausted and you want to go back to the hotel? You simply can't. There is the magnificent Hotel De Ville and just up the road is..."
That showy-inside out museum of modern art, the Pompidou Centre. Like a lady who wants to show off the gaudy glamour of her underwear by wearing it over her day clothes, the air-conditioning ducts and elevators of the Pompidou are on the outside of the building."
" You don't understand the style of the likes of Rothko, Stella, Pollack and others? Why worry? Insight is quite unnecessary - just be seduced by their creativity and stand on your head to do your viewing if that will help." "The Metro to get back home? Never! How can one stay underground like a Parisian mole in this fine city? Oh, I know there are quaint characters on the subway but walking is far, far better."
"Just let the river be your guide!"
For other wonderful parts of the world, visit My World every Tuesday. I have met some great friends this way.
I have so many Canadian blogging friends, particularly Kat at Poetikat's Invisible Keepsakes I decided to 'squish' in one last unplanned post on the D-Day Landings before taking you all on a happier journey to Paris. This monument is outside the Canadian Memorial Museum at Juno Beach where the Canadian landings took place. Canada's sons in the 3rd infantry division paid a heavy price here, so far from home, as, of course, the First Canadian Army did at the liberation of Arnheim.
An interesting aside is that this Museum was manned and wo-manned by the most delightful and courteous young Canadians doing a summer 'service'. They showed us the bathrooms (always a welcome stop on a long trip) and offered to answer any questions on the history of the battle site. Way to go, Canadian youth!
To answer a comment: Why do I mention that North Dakota is my adopted state? I was an exchange student in Rugby, North Dakota, a teeny-weeny dorpie (Afrikaans for a village) about 60 miles from the Canadian border in 1969/70. For the year, I was the member of the school debating team; our topic was American participation in Vietnam. Several of my school mates were affected by the call-up to that war. So the snowy, isolated plains of North Dakota and its people remain close to my South African heart.
I wandered silently among the rows of white gravestones at the American Cemetry and Memorial in Colleville-sur-Mer, Normandy as the sun at last broke through the clouds. This is an immaculately kept memorial to the American soldiers who fell in France between 1941 and 1945 - a total of 9 387 burial places including 307 unknown burials.
The cemetry is located on a bluff overlooking Omaha Beach on land granted to the US by the France.
In Beevor's book, I read how the seabirds of the Mer Estuary flew round and round in panic-stricken circles as the guns roared over the marshes on June 6, disturbing their peace. This little bird sang sweetly in the branches over the gravestones and allowed me a quick snapshot.
The graves of Jewish soldiers are marked by the Star of David. Several bore a memorial pebble.
A cross marks the other graves. On the front is inscribed the name of the young man and the state from which he hailed. You can just discern his Army number at the base of the cross at the back. I searched for and found two graves of young men from North Dakota, my 'adopted' state.
The names of 1 557 war dead who could not be located or identified are inscribed on the wall of a semicircular garden at the east side of the memorial. In the centre of the memorial you can see the bronze statue entitled Spirit of American Youth.
An unexpected obstacle to the Allied tanks in the ensuing battle of Normandy were the bocage, the thick, high hedgerows which are the boundaries of the Normandy meadows. The German troops were accustomed to the landscape but the Allies never reckoned on these leafy barriers to the movement of men and vehicles.
The Peace Memorial at Caen documents, in realistic displays, the D-Day landings, Battle of Normandy and the War in Europe. Caen was virtually levelled by Allied bombing aimed at flushing out German defenders. The Canadians lost over two thousand men in the battle for Caen. The town was only taken on 11 July 1941 more than a month after the D-Day landings.
The entrance to the Memorial depicts a beachhead, established at such a price on the landing beaches. As I left the building along with a young American couple, I remarked, "We just have no idea of how fortunate we are to have never experienced anything like this!" They nodded their fervent agreement.
This record of my holiday forms part of My World. Join others for a glimpseof their world at My World every Tuesday.
"And these are the sheer cliffs of Pointe Du Hoc," announced our knowledgeable French guide, "where the Rangers under the command of Col James E Rudder scaled the 100 metre cliffs under enemy fire. Their mission impossible - knock out the huge artillery guns on the top of the cliffs."
Royal Navy boats brought the Rangers under position under the cliffs. Rocket-fired grappling irons invented by British Commando forces with rope ladders attached were launched at the solid rock from the boats. Where grappling irons held, men began to ascend the ladders. From the top of the cliffs, the amazed German defenders fired down upon them and dropped grenades. As one man fell, another simply took his place.
Strong support was given the Rangers by the destroyers USS Satterlee and HMS Talybont. The Satterlee remained with the Rangers all day.
Yachts with butterfly-like sails moved on a peaceful sea during my visit to Pointe du Hoc. But what a scene the surprised German defences must have seen as a veritable Armada of vessels moved irrevocably towards them on the morning of June 6 1944.
Eventually the brave Rangers reached the top of the cliff and rushed towards the giant guns covered in camoflaugue netting. To their surprise when the netting was ripped away, they only found wooden poles which simulated their presence. The huge guns had been moved a little way off; they were soon dealt with. Then Colonel Rudder's radio operator struggled to send the message: "Praise the Lord!" to signify success. The message was not received. The 5th Battalion of Rangers assumed that the mission had failed and resorted to an alternative plan.
The Batallion of the German 916th Grenadier Regiment took even longer to communicate news of the assault and call for reinforcements. But eventually a German counter attack was launched and Rudder's small force was attacked again and again. They ran out of ammunition and had to arm themselves with weapons taken from fallen enemy soldiers.
Was it my imagination or were the visitors who walked the cliffs, peered into German pill boxes, peered over barbed wire and gazed at this simple memorial, unusually sombre? Even the little boys who clambered down grassy bomb craters and scurried down the stone steps into German dugouts seemed awestruck by this heroic venture.
* Credit goes to Anthony Beevor's splendid and comprehensive military history: D-Day, published 2009 by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Books, which I bought at the bookshop at the Military Museum at Caen and devoured during the rest of the trip. Antony Beevor has also written: Stalingrad; Berlin, the downfall; Crete, the battle and resistance: Paris after the liberation and The battle for Spain, all recommended for military history enthusiasts.