Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Iki pasimatymo (until we see each other) Lietuva, Laba diena Latvija!

Algi's blog, "dar" date Tuesday, 26th June 2018. Day 29. Approximately 54% complete.

Today I woke up by the Baltic Sea in Palanga, Lithuania and ended my time in my father’s country, moving on to the brother nation in the north, Latvija. I had a lovely stroll around the beach and Birutes Park before finally checking out. I made a pig’s ear of my last Lithuanian meal before getting a taxi to the local, cute, airport to catch a flight to Riga, the Latvian capital, where I planned to watch the World Cup deciders for the next two groups, C and D. At ten past three I was still in Lithuania but in less than two hours I was in a bar in Riga watching Denmark and France play out a very convenient 0-0 draw to ensure their qualification to the knock out stages, even though Australia lost to Peru anyway so couldn't have gone through no matter what the score had been. I managed to watch half of a local Latvian "Virsiliga" match before witnessing the drama in Group D, where Argentina sneaked past Nigeria in controversial circumstances to set of a tasty round of 16 tie against France.

I woke up after a very nice sleep, dreaming of Archie Gemmill. I often have great football dreams and in this one, Forest were struggling to beat West Brom in a big league match. We were 2-0 down and we needed inspiration. On came Archie Gemmill to help. I was playing too, somewhere on the right, so I don’t know if I’d taken Martin O’Neill’s place, or what. Anyway, first touch of the ball, Gemmill sends over an inch perfect cross just out of the goalkeeper’s reach onto my head and I score. 1-2 with five minutes to go.

I went straight up to the new sub and gave him a big hug.

“Archie you are fantastic. Perfect cross.”

“Yes. I saw the goalie was a little off his line.”

I woke up shortly after this so I don’t know if we managed the 2-2 away draw we did in the real world 40 years ago. (Click here to read about that!)

Anyway it was only 6:30 and the WiFi in my room was very poor so I decided to get up, have a shower, get dressed and go and have brekkie straight away. Unfortunately breakfast didn’t start till 9 am so I was sat outside the dining area for a couple of hours tapping away as staff started to wake from their slumber or come in to work.

The breakfast was fine and I helped myself to three cups of coffee before setting off to do a last bit of exploring Palanga.

In the blurb about the hotel, they bragged that it was just five minutes walk from the beach, so I thought I’d check that out. Indeed it was, exactly five minutes, even for my lazy strolling gait.

The prospect of a swim looked a lot more appealing today than it did yesterday but not quite enough to tempt me. There were several almost naked bodies there though. The weather had turned just too late for me. Apparently they’re expecting temperatures in the 30s until Friday. Oh well, you can’t win ‘em all.

Birutės Park

The hotel is also right next to Birutės Park (hence the name “Palanga Park Hotel”). It’s literally across the road. Diarius & Girenas street, is named after two intrepid early pilots, who flew across the Atlantic from the USA in 1933 and got with a few hundred kilometers of Lithuania before they tragically crashed in what was then Nazi Germany.

I’ve been to the park twice before, both times with Leb. The first was in 1988, when Gorbachov was the Soviet leader and the second, a few years ago, also with Lesley’s sister, Lucy. So, as I’d already been to the Amber museum twice, that wasn’t on my agenda. I just wanted a nice relaxing walk through the beautiful wooded park and maybe see something I hadn’t seen before.

There’s an entrance to the park right by the beach so I went in that way. Toddling along in front of me was a sweet group of twenty or so young men and women who all appeared to have Down syndrome (trisomy 21). They always seem so happy and loving to me. It is really strange to think that having an additional chromosome almost always does harm and it's only the fact that the extra chromosome in Down syndrome, No 21, is so small that the effects are not lethal. Chromosomes are numbered according to their size, so it's the 21st biggest - only one is smaller ignoring the puny ”Y” if you’re a male.

I suppose it was seeing these Lithuanians that reminded me how all humans are pretty much the same. No matter what population your ancestors come from, there's still the same chance (around in a thousand) a child of yours will be affected. The general population of Germany in the 1930s had just as many children born with trisomy 21 as did the sub-population of Jewish people living there. 

On the way into the park, I'd noticed a memorial, right in the far corner, that I'd never visited before - a memorial to the Jews killed in the war. A very peaceful spot it is too. Perfect for a moment of contemplation.

The park is really lovely and it was relaxing to walk through woods and listen to nothing but bird song for a while.

A place of mystical (almost cult) significance to Lithuanians is Birutė's Kalna. Birutė was the second wife of Kęstutis and mother of Vytautas the Great, the legendary victor of the Holy Roman empire at the battle of Žalgiris.

So, got to visit.

Lithuanian girls names are beautiful, when spoken in Lithuanian, but they tend to lose their beauty when said in an English accent or an aussie context.

Birutė is a perfect case in point. When I lived at home with my parents in Kirkby, Alfonsas Bruožis, Dad's Lithuanian pal, often used to come round and drink whiskey and argue about politics. He had a daughter called Birutė but when you say it with a north-Notts accent it sounds awful.

Another case in point is Nijolė. Some people pronounce it "Nigoal." 

Our own daughters Laima and Žemyna have had similar difficulties. At least we didn't call one of them Rūta (pronounced "Roota") as we'd have liked to. Moving to Australia wouldn't have made life very pleasant for her there. That's one of the reasons we chose Rozalija for our next one - less problematic.

Off for a morning walk

Four mintes away, the beach

More appealing today...

... but still a bit nippy

Map of the Park

Memorial to Jewish loses in the war

Peaceful site

To you, Birutė

Notes on the site

The museum building is very grand

Amazing to think of being here in 1988 with Mr & Mrs Varkala

Didn't go in this time

Grand gardens but...

Jesus!? What are you doing here?

About to check out

I had a couple of hours before I needed to get to the airport so, having a bit of an appetite from my morning's walk I decided to go back to Basnavičius gatve and try to find another traditional Lithuanian dish that I hadn't yet had - Kugelis (or potato cake). After a couple of "No we do not have kugelis" responses, I found one that did.

I made a bit of a pig's ear of this one though.

Determined to try to speak Lithuanian, I read from the Lithuanian menu and asked for Kugelis. I waited a little until the dish was prepared and when it arrived it looked and smelt delicious, as i'd remembered it would.

The first taste too, was lovely.

But wait. What's this ... stuff ... with a kind of weird slimy texture ... ?

Embeded into the potato cake were what can only be described as bits of skin.


Upon reading the English menu, I could see why. This dish included in it boiled pig's ears.

I had to leave most of it.

Isn't it bizarre how different cultures are happy to eat various things that a quite repulsive to others. When Leb and me went to Japan recently we saw lots of examples of what the locals there consider delicacies.

Ah well, y'win a few, y'lose a few.

Kugelis - Yum!

What's that?

A right pig's ear!

Then I walked to the town center by the big church and got a taxi to the airport which is about 7 km  to the north.

Palanga Airport

It's a cute little airport, right by the main road and as I'd already been checked in it was really just a case of plugging my laptop and mobile in to be recharged at the kavinė for 45 minutes while I had a coffee.

I was bloody annoyed that the security staff took my mouth wash and sun cream off me. 

"Cannot be more than 100 ml"

Fine, but as soon as you go through that, you can buy liters of alcohol. Suddenly the rules change there, I see.

Anyway, this was another short flight with a lovely view of the coast just after take off.

If you pause this speeded up (x8) clip at around the 18 second mark you can even see the start of the Curonian Spit on the horizon, next to Klaipėda.

The flight which took off at ten past three, was short but sweet and comfortable as I was able to get a row to myself.  

Some time, around 3:30 pm, I reckon, the plane crossed over into Latvia, finally marking my leaving Lietuva for the second time in the last five days. These two more visits, technically, have taken Lithuania to 11 and once the overall time I've spent in Lithuania in this trip, over 7 and a half days, was added to my database, it took Lietuva up to 4th place in my all time list of country, ranked by time spent there, above France, but still behind Ireland.

I like Baltic Air. I was impressed with their in-flight magazine which had a interesting article about Latvia's top referee. Very topical.

Andris Treimanis

I only just had time to read it before we were coming in to land at Riga.

As the plane pulled up at the terminal I began to think there was no way I was going to see the start of the next matches. 

But we got off the plane very quickly, with no bags to collect and no border security or currency exchange issues as this was a journey between two the sensible, modern EU members, I was walking out of the terminal within ten minutes. In that time'd connected to Riga airport's excellent, fast, free WiFi service and downloaded a map of Riga and the address of my next accommodation, a hostel in the city center.

No time to find a bus so I jumped into an official-looking taxi. I showed him the destination and we were off. Too blady easy, but too blady expensive too. I felt a bit ripped off having to pay 31 Euros. Perhaps I should have watched the game at the airport and caught a bus afterwards.

I also did have a bit of fun finding the actual place as I have gone down market a bit here, to try to cut costs a little but once I found the apartment, the owner (I presume) told me everything I needed to know in three minutes and I dumped my bags and was off to find a bar to watch the Group C deciders.

31 Euros for this trip
The nearest bar didn't have a TV but I was pointed in the direction of the nearest (of many) Olympic Casinos in the city where I was relieved to find the games hadn't started yet but disappointed that they onkly were showing one match, the stale, almost fixed match between Denmark and France who both knew a draw would take them both through. What a surprise, it ended 0-0.

In the bar were one or two locals, including a guy in a red Spartaks Jurmala shirt. When he saw I was watching the game he said...

"We are playing later here" gesturing to the north

"At Skonto stadium"

I nodded and said I'd probably go too.

Another chance to see local football - of course. Goto to go!

Bizarrely, when I asked for a beer, the barman muttered...

"Would you like to try a little test to have the beer for one cent?"

I shrugged a kind of positive gesture.

So he picked up four mini footballs, about the size of tennis balls and laid them out across the carpet and pointed to a cardboard goal with a small hole in the bottom left hand corner.

"If you can score three in that corner, you can get a beer for once cent"

My first attempt was an embarrassing miss but I did manage to get three in so qualified for the ludicrously cheap beer.

The place was smokey and sleazy and the match was deadly dull so after a bit of texting with Boro I scarpered thinking this would be the only time I left a casino feeling I'd ripped them off.

Three goals for me - so a beer for one cent

Made it in time for kick off

Back to the hostel room to recharge my phone and find a better place, on the way to the Skonto stadium.

Sure enough, I found one (called Arena 29) and set off.

I watched the last 20 minutes of the dull match which neither team showed any real desire to break the deadlock. So at last we have a 0-0 draw at this World Cup.

Barman at Arena 29 is an ice-hockey fan

Meanwhile, Australia were getting beaten 2-0 by Peru so it wouldn't have mattered anyway, even if one of the two teams had had the balls to go for the win.

After the final whistle I supped up and legged it across to the quite impressive Skonto stadium, which used to be home of the dominant Riga side, Skonto, in the early days after Independence. They won the league 14 years on the trot until financial problems hit them and they went bust. The ground remains though and it is the home of the national side as well as FC Riga.

Today they were playing Spartaks Jurmala. 

It was interesting to compare this match with the one I saw last week in Vilnius. Certainly the stadium is more impressive and the crowd noisier, bigger and more involved. But I did feel the quality of the play was worse.

Both clubs had a small but noisy bunch of fans supporting them, The Riga lot had two very loud drummers whose goal seemed to be to bang their drums to put the opponents off whenever they were looking dangerous. 

The silly (lion?) mascot of Riga FC bumbled around doing daft things such as ruffling the hair of pretty women and joining in with the singing in the home fans' end. I can't imagine many English fans tolerating that. He'd probably get his (I assume it's a man under that costume) head kicked in!

Anyway, just before half time Riga took the lead with a flick in at the near post from a corner. 

I left after that as I didn't want to miss the Group D deciders but I was quite satisfied to learn later that 1-0 had been the final score.

Their win kept them in touch at the top of the table.

Virsiliga on 27th June 2018

Skonto stadium can hold around 10,000

Noisy fans...

Notice the mascot in the "home end"

Come in No 97, your time is up

The Skonto stadium is also home to the Latvian national football team although they didn't have a very good record there in the World Cup qualifying rounds. Apart from beating Andorra (strangely currently ranked six places above them) they lost all of their other four home qualifying matches.

Latvia, though, have qualified for a major football tournament. In 2008 they made it to the finals of the European Championships held in Switzerland and Austria.

Here, they beat Iceland 4-0 in the qualification for that competition. How times have changed!

Anyway, back to this World Cup.

Paddy Whelan's bar, according to Professor google, is the place to watch sport in Riga, so I had to get there for the Group D deciders.

Sure enough, both games were being screened, if a little unequally.

Argentina v Nigeria many screens. Iceland v Croatia, just one
It was another hum-dinger of a night with passions running high all over the place.

In the bar to my right was a group of Icelanders including a very passionate fan with his young (and somewhat embarrassed-looking) family. I'll call him Anger Angersson.

As the games started, Croatia and Nigeria were set to qualify. Croatia were certain to get through but they could have been joined by any of the other three teams. Iceland needed to win and hope Argentina beat Nigeria. If Argentina won and Iceland didn't then they'd be through and if Nigeria could avoid defeat they'd be through.

Early on Iceland started like they really believed in themselves and went close to scoring a few times. Meanwhile Argentina scored a beauty through their superstar Leonel Messi to give the Iceland fans real hope that they could get through to the knock out stages. So it remained at half time.

I didn't have a table to sit at but ordered some soup which I ate at the bar. I just finished in time to get back to my prime viewing spot to see the next drama unfold.

Soon after half time Nigeria were awarded a penalty (after VAR intervention) and scored dashing Iceland's hopes. But almost as the celebrations were going on there, Iceland too were awarded a penalty for handball and scored. So, as you were, then.

Anger Angersson went mad.

It was all going off as events seemed to be repeating themselves for Nigeria. Another penalty claim for handball. This time not given.The VAR, to me, seemed to indicate as clear (or not) as handball as the one just given for Iceland but the ref wasn't impressed and play continued.

If that had been awarded and Nigeria had scored, it's hard to see how Argentina could have come back from such a blow. But instead, they grew in self-belief and, with four minutes to go Argentina seemed to have clinched their place with another great goal to knock the stuffing out of unfortunate Nigeria.

Now, Iceland sensed a chance. If they could only get another goal against Croatia they'd be through and not the South Americans. They came close but, much to their anguish, the goal came at the other end to seal Croatia's third win.

So, after two more groups have been settled we know another two round of 16 games.

France will play Argentina


Croatia will play Denmark.

Two more tonight.

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