Champagne Bucket trips, holidays

Well, it’s official. In two months, we’ll be in Yerevan…

I don’t remember where I found the featured photo– but it does appear to be a very clear photo of Yerevan. When I lived there, air pollution was so bad that we didn’t get to see Mount Ararat every day. I hope for many pictures of it this time…

Last night was interesting. Bill came home and got out his trusty computer, so he could do some administrative tasks for his job. I had floated the idea of maybe using credit card points to help pay for plane tickets to Yerevan and back for our anniversary in November. It costs a LOT to go to Yerevan– especially when you insist on flying in business class. πŸ˜‰ So we tried doing that, but realized that while the points would make our tickets significantly cheaper, we’d rather just let them ride and use them for a really epic trip in the future.

With that settled, I booked our eight crazy nights in Yerevan in mid November. I am pretty excited about this trip. I lived in Yerevan for 27 months as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the mid 1990s and haven’t been back since August 21, 1997– the day I left. Things have changed a lot since my departure, although there are still a few people there who remember me from those days. I look forward to showing Bill around and getting to know the city again. If all goes well, I’d like to come back with Bill and show him around the country. There’s a lot to see– and since it’s the size of Maryland, touring the country is doable. We’ll just have to stay out of the dangerous areas near Iran and Azerbaijan.

For this trip, I mainly plan for us to stay near Yerevan. Maybe we’ll go to a couple of nearby spots like Garni/Gerhard and Khor Virap, which are definitely must see excursions. It’s taken me a long time to convince Bill to go… and it’s taken some time to convince myself.

When I left Yerevan, I was really ready to get out of there. I was burned out and depressed. But I’m better now… mentally and emotionally, anyway. Physically, maybe I’m worse. I don’t think I have the stamina I had when I lived in Yerevan and used to walk all over the city. Luckily, we have money now, so we can take cabs. And the cabs now have meters! πŸ˜€

In any case, I expect this trip will go fine, and we will be able to come back for more fun, as long as we’re still in Germany and it doesn’t take two days to get there. I am very proud of Armenia. It’s come a long way since I first arrived there in 1995. I have a feeling my mind will be blown by the difference.

Even during the time I lived in Armenia, it changed so much. When we got there in 1995, there was no power in the airport or running water in the public restrooms… By the time I left in 1997, we had 24 hour power, and many places had running water. Now, Yerevan is like a lot of European cities, and has most of what you might ever want or need. The Peace Corps is still there, but Volunteers all live out in the regions. That was becoming true as I left, too. Yerevan is much too fancy for Volunteers now.

In fact, what was once called Hotel Dvin, the hotel where we swore in, is now a super expensive five star resort. I thought about booking it, but decided I’d rather be closer to the center of town, in a place where I can chat up the bartenders. So I chose Paris Hotel Yerevan. I almost booked the Marriott— which was called Hotel Armenia when we arrived in 1995 and stayed on the “old side” of the hotel. It was extremely Soviet in those days, with matronly women sitting on each hall and collecting the room keys (with huge bulblike keyrings) every time we went out of the room. I remember the hot water only worked for two hours in the mornings, and the rooms were downright rustic. After I left, Marriott bought the hotel and fixed it up, but I’ve read a lot of middling reviews. It is significantly more expensive than the hotel I chose, and I prefer to avoid staying in an American corporate hotel… especially one with ties to Mormonism.

On the other hand, you can’t beat the location of the Marriott, as it’s right on Republic Square. But, Paris Hotel is also very close and will probably be quieter. I’ve noticed a lot of street names have changed, and some iconic places have either changed or closed. For instance, I read that the big historic shuka (Pak Shuka) on Mashtots Avenue was bought by an Armenian oligarch who completely overhauled it. What a shame that is! I would have liked to have shown Bill that bustling marketplace. Hopefully we can visit a different shuka in another part of town that hasn’t been turned into a western style supermarket. They are really unique and something special to see.

I look forward to trying some wines, brandies, and local cuisine– especially horovatz (Armenian BBQ)– if I can get it. And I look forward to seeing old friends and making new ones! As hard as being in the Peace Corps was for me, it was a life changing experience on so many levels. I might not be living in Germany if I hadn’t joined the Peace Corps.

I’m also hoping that if this trip goes well, we can arrange a trip to neighboring Georgia. I have been in Georgia, but I haven’t had a proper stay there. Bill went there for work in 2008, but it was about a month after the South Ossetia crisis/Russo-Georgian War. I’d like to go there and try more wines. πŸ˜‰ Georgian wines are wonderful! And I l’d like to sample wonderful Georgian food and take many photos.

Anyway… 2023 seems to be our year to visit the former Soviet Union. I’m excited about this trip, as well as the one we have planned for next month, to the Czech Republic. This blog is about to come alive again!

Champagne Bucket trips, Finland, Latvia

Twenty-two things I learned on our epic Scandinavia/Baltic/cruise trip…

Hi ho, folks. I usually do a “ten things I learned” post after our trips. Since this was a comparatively massive trip that was divided into a few segments, I’ve decided to compose slightly more than double the usual list. I’ve found that the “things I learned” posts tend to get read more than the “blow by blow” posts. So, in the interest of engaging people, here’s my latest list of things I learned while traveling. Some of these things I mention will seem silly or irrelevant. Nevertheless, they are still things I learned on our trip. I hope some of you enjoy it!

Here goes…

22. In Northern Europe, you are encouraged or even obliged to forgo housekeeping for charitable purposes.

We stayed in four hotels. In three of them, there were signs encouraging or even requiring guests to skip having their rooms cleaned. In Oslo, it was a choice, which we did opt for, since we only stayed two nights. In Bergen, it was automatically skipped unless we requested it by 10 PM the night before. And in Copenhagen, it was encouraged. All three hotels claimed that they donated money saved by not cleaning rooms to environmental or women’s causes. I was actually surprised by how environmentally aware the hotels were. In Copenhagen, they even had a daily 6 AM jog sponsored by the hotel where people could jog together and pick up trash.

21. When you check into a hotel in Northern Europe, don’t be shocked if you’re asked to pay when you get your key, if you haven’t already prepaid.

We had to pay upfront for both Norway hotels and our hotel in Denmark. It didn’t really matter, in the grand scheme of things, but it was kind of surprising at the time.

20. At the moment,it’s hard to plan a land based trip up north. But that’s changing.

I had originally wanted this to be a land based trip because I like to stay at least a night or two in places I visit, especially when they are in countries I’ve never visited in the past. We ended up cruising on this trip, because it was simply more practical. I have a feeling that even though we were on a luxury cruise, it might have also been somewhat cheaper. The Rail Baltica project is making a land based trip to Baltic countries more feasible. I hope we’re still living here when it’s completed, or will be able to visit.

19. Sometimes, Norwegians are indistinguishable from Americans.

Or maybe we were just in places where Norwegians don’t have thick accents. I was often shocked by how much Norwegians reminded me of my countrymen! The one difference was that they tended to be taller, blonder, and a lot more beautiful. Especially the women.

18. Helsinki, Finland has an Armenian restaurant!

I noticed it on the bus ride from the port to the city center. No, we didn’t have a chance to visit it, but I did look it up. Apparently, it’s currently temporarily closed, as they are moving from their old location to a new one. I took a look at the menu and it appeared to be a great place to dine Armenian style. Maybe, if we go back to Helsinki, we can give it a try. As some of you know, Armenia is important to me, because I lived there for two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

17. Most Finnish people have saunas, second homes, and boats… some women even give birth in saunas!

The ladies who did our harbor cruise tour told us that many Finnish people have their very own private saunas at home. They are considered very clean, so some women even have babies in their home saunas. That doesn’t seem appealing to me, but what do I know? The ladies also said that many people have their own boats and second homes, and that it doesn’t require a lot of money to have either. That’s just part of their culture. I clearly need to explore Finland more!

16. Estonia had a comparatively easy time during the pandemic, because people there naturally “social distance”.

Our tour guide, the hilarious Raul (Robin Williams come to visit in another life form), told us that most Estonians don’t have big families (same as in Finland). And when COVID-19 was especially terrible, it wasn’t so hard for the Estonians, because people up there are kind of solitary. He said the government would like to see more babies being made and is trying to encourage it, but Estonians aren’t so into the idea.

15. There’s an old AIDA cruise ship stuck at Tallinn’s harbor…

As we were entering and leaving Tallinn, Estonia, I couldn’t help but notice the loudly painted AIDAvita, docked at the pier. It looked a little rusty, but I paid it no mind until I got back on our ship and did some Googling. The AIDAvita was sold and is now known as Avitak. But it still looks like an AIDA ship, even though it flies the Liberian flag and has been stuck in Tallinn since November 2021.

14. Everybody up north celebrates Midsommar… It’s a big deal!

I didn’t know about this holiday, which is celebrated in Sweden, Estonia, Latvia, and other northerly countries. This year, it took place on Saturday, June 24th, and I noticed lots of women wearing flower crowns on their heads. Raul, our guide in Estonia, said that starting on Midsommar Eve (this year, the 23rd of June– the shortest night of the year) people party all night and spend the next day recovering. When we visited Tallinn, it was Sunday, June 25th, and Raul said we probably wouldn’t see too many locals, since people still needed to recuperate from the festivities. Summer doesn’t officially begin until June 21st… but, of course, they’re going by the Summer Solstice. Midsommar represents the time between planting crops and harvesting them.

13. People in Estonia and Latvia are GLAD to be running their own countries now.

I’m not totally surprised about this one, of course. It makes perfect sense that people would take pride in their cultures and want to run their countries the way they see fit. Still, as an American who grew up in the 1980s, it was very interesting to hear about the Soviet times from the locals and how, on the whole, they were very happy not to be part of the Soviet Union anymore. When I lived in Armenia, I think the sentiment was probably similar, although I was there in the mid 90s, when times were more difficult. I did hear some people say they missed the Soviet Union, but probably only because they were tearing pages from books to wipe their asses when they went to the toilet. I’m sure they no longer long for those days.

12. Riga, Latvia has many beautiful art deco buildings!

I hadn’t known much about Latvia before this trip, other than what Bill told me about visiting there. I didn’t know there were so many beautiful buildings in Riga that managed to survive the Soviet era. I do remember some nice buildings in Armenia, too, no doubt built before the Soviet Union existed and imported a lot of industrial tackiness and weird architecture. Still, it was a pleasant surprise to see that there are still many gorgeous old buildings there.

11. Visby, Sweden is a beautiful place, but I think I’d hate to own a home in the old town!

As we walked through Visby’s historic old town within its medieval walls, I couldn’t help but think I’d probably dislike living there. The local government is very strict about how locals can decorate or improve their properties, and as I saw and experienced firsthand, there are MANY tour groups coming through there. But I’m still really glad we visited. And luckily, we probably could never afford to live there, anyway. πŸ˜‰

10. Liepaja and Karosta, Latvia, are still big military areas. But Liepaja has potential!

I had heard of Karosta before our visit there, to see the big naval military prison. I had not heard of Liepaja, which is one of Latvia’s biggest cities. I was surprised by how nice the town is. There are many trees there; music is a focus of the city; and the beach is surprisingly inviting. I hope we can visit again sometime.

9. I learned the tragic story of the Rose of Turaida…

And you can learn it too, by clicking here and reading up about it.

8. Religious people in northern Europe are typically Lutherans…

In 2023, I don’t expect *that* many people in Europe to be especially religious. Those who do practice religion tend to be Lutherans, although there are also Catholics. We visited several Russian Orthodox churches, too. There are still some Russians living in the Baltic areas.

7. Latvians love their “biggest” cave, which isn’t very big at all, and is more like a grotto.

Our guide explained that Latvians love the largest cave in Latvia, which is not a big cave at all. Gutmana Cave is not very deep and lacks the typical exciting formations one tends to see in caves. What it does have is very pure water, which locals claim bestow eternal youth and good health. Also, on the sandstone walls, there are many carvings and inscriptions dating back hundreds of years.

6. Norway has many, many electric vehicles…

I was very surprised by the sheer volume of electric vehicles in Norway. The cabs we rode in were all electric. We actually rode in our very first Tesla there. The train from Oslo to Bergen is electric. The gas stations have places for people to recharge their vehicles. Gas is expensive, and Norway has many rules regarding emissions and pollution. I read that as of 2026, a lot of cruise ships won’t be able to explore the fjords anymore.

5. If you visit Sigulda in Latvia, you might want to buy a walking stick… or jewelry.

I was surprised by the excellent handcrafts in Sigulda, especially given how reasonably priced they were. One of the items people typically buy there are ornate and colorfully painted walking sticks. We bought a small one for Bill’s granddaughter. I got myself some beautiful silver earrings. That reminds me… I need to look up the boutique online and see if I can order more. πŸ˜€

4. There is no more fishing in Bornholm, Denmark…

Bornholm is an island south of the Swedish coast. It belongs to Denmark. You’d think there would be many fish there, but the area has been overfished by humans, and lots of seals call the island home. So now, although there once were fish factories in Bornholm, they are now closed. The locals get their fish from other places. This trip really made me more aware of the environment and how our choices affect everything.

3. Only one restaurant on Bornholm still smokes fish the old fashioned way.

We visited Hasle Smokehouse, a “museum restaurant” in Bornholm, where the proprietor still smokes fish over an outdoor open fire. His establishment is the only one that still operates that way. It’s allowed because the place is also considered a museum, but he told us that the government sends him warning letters every year about public health/foodborne illness dangers. I can attest that the smoked herring is delicious, health risks notwithstanding!

2. Copenhagen, Denmark is fabulous…

I already had an idea that it was fabulous, as this was our third time in the city. But, we clearly need to go there and spend a few days. A couple of nights at the end of a long trip, a night on the way to Rostock, and a few hours as part of a cruise is not sufficient to really appreciate how cool that city is. We need to do a long weekend there. We also need more time in Stockholm and Helsinki… Hell, all of the places we went to were great! I wouldn’t change any aspect of our trip.

And finally, 1. It wasn’t a bad idea in 2023 to go to Northern Europe instead of Italy, France, England, or any of the biggest European hot spots.

Granted, it seemed like everyone was on vacation when we were, but I don’t think as many people came to Northern Europe as some of the most touristy European cities. I’ve been reading a lot about how many people have descended upon Europe this summer. It didn’t seem so bad where we were, with the exception of Bergen. But even Bergen wasn’t that bad… A bonus was that the weather, by and large, wasn’t that hot. However, we did encounter hot weather and a couple of chilly days. I read that the weather last week wasn’t so great, either. So, you take a risk… Still, we were very lucky on our trip, and got to see most everything we planned to see. I still want to see more of the fjords. Hopefully, we’ll get the chance.

Anyway… I could probably add even more to this list. You learn a lot when you go on two week trips to half a dozen countries! But I’ve got some other stuff to do. Noyzi needs a walk; I need to practice guitar; and I have at least one more blog post to write. So I’ll wrap up this post now… I’m glad our big trip worked out the way it did, hectic as it was. We had a good time.

Champagne Bucket trips, Latvia, Regent Seven Seas Cruise Lines

A phrase you don’t hear everyday, unless you’re on a prison tour near Liepaja, Latvia…

On the morning of June 28, 2023, Bill and I woke up to our breakfast delivery. We probably should have done breakfast in the suite every day. It was a lot more peaceful than going to the restaurants were. Not only could we enjoy the sea breezes on our balcony, but I could also dispense with putting on a makeup and bra, at least for a short while.

After filling up on breakfast, we got dressed and I put on a layer of makeup. I was kind of excited, for we were finally in Liepaja, Latvia, which was a stop I had been eagerly anticipating. Why? Because that’s where Karosta Prison is, and I had been curious about that place since 2009, when I first read about how the former Soviet military prison had been turned into a B&B for the moderately kinky, which I am.

I’m only half kidding… I seem to remember that in the late aughts, Karosta Prison, which had functioned as a military prison until 1997, had been converted into an entertainment venue for those who were curious about the experience of being incarcerated in a Soviet style prison. Back when I first read about the place in a 2006 Guardian piece, there was a very intense “reality show” available, where paying guests could pretend to be new inmates. They’d be photographed, and then put through their paces by a military “warden”, given a medical check up by a “nurse”, and spend the night in strict silence on thin mattresses in an actual jail cell. Participants had/have to sign a waiver agreeing to the conditions of the prison, realizing that they might be treated badly as part of the program.

In 2023, it looks like the reality experience has been watered down a bit. Now, it’s a three hour experience, although it is still possible to book an overnight at the prison, too, if you call ahead. My guess is that a lot of tourists were either freaked out by the original package, or conditions changed due to COVID. But anyway, even back in 2009, I didn’t think I could take the extreme package that was still being offered then. I much preferred the idea of just a simple tour, then going back to a luxury hotel room. πŸ˜‰

We had to move out of Germany in 2009, so I never got a chance to plan a land based trip to Liepaja, which is one of Latvia’s largest cities. There was a time when a person had to get special permission to visit Liepaja, owing to the fact that there are many military facilities there. Even to this day, there are military facilities operating in Liepaja, but back in the Soviet years, it was a place where there were a lot of top secret Soviet military operations. So, even though there’s a lovely beach there, and it’s well known for being the source of a lot of Latvian music and musicians, it wasn’t a top tourist spot until after the Soviet Union fell apart.

After another quick visit to the Constellation Theater, where we traded our tour tickets for group numbers, we headed out to the tour buses. Our tour guide, who confessed to being born in 1990 and spoke with a noticeable stammer, did a good job of showing us around.

First, we visited St. Nicholas Naval Cathedral, a Russian Orthodox Church that dates from 1903. We were warned to cover our shoulders and knees, and ladies should have something to cover their heads. No photography is allowed inside. Well… sure enough, there were people on the tour who either didn’t read the instructions, or didn’t care about the request for modest clothing. They showed up in shorts. The information had specifically indicated that men were not allowed to wear shorts in the church. The kind woman who was running the church tour didn’t make anyone cover their legs or cover their heads, as they do in the Wiesbaden Russian Orthodox Church.

We learned that the church was not used for its original purpose during the Soviet years. Russian officers used it as an entertainment venue– for watching movies and working out. Our guide told us that the Russian officers didn’t like the church’s amazing acoustics, because it made watching movies difficult. They closed the interior dome to eliminate the acoustics. Efforts to reopen the dome are ongoing today. After the Soviet Union collapsed, the church was given back to the Latvian Orthodox Church, under the authority of the Russian Orthodox Church.

The inside of the church is beautiful. There is also a little souvenir shop where visitors can buy candles and light them. Bill lit candles for his dad, as he often does when he visits churches. The area surrounding the church is also home to military facilities and some housing.

After we visited the naval cathedral, we went to a beach in Karosta for a quick potty and photo stop. I took some photos of the beach near Karosta, and some of the buildings we passed on the way there.

Then, we made our way to Karosta Prison. I had to laugh when the bus stopped, and with great enthusiasm, he said “Let’s go to the prison!” There’s something you don’t hear everyday!

We didn’t get the “official” Karosta Prison tour. Our guide told us about the prison and used a teenager to demonstrate how the prisoners were forced to march for hours. We also caught some of an official tour, where a guy in a military uniform appeared to be giving visitors a little taste of the prisoner experience.

Karosta Prison, which dates from 1905 and looks it, was not a place for thieves, rapists, or murderers. Rather, it was a place where sailors who were either mutinous or somehow got into trouble– maybe they got drunk or were late to formation or something– were sent for a few days to straighten them out. And it was, indeed, a miserable place. Inmates had two opportunities per day to go to the bathroom, with very tight time limits. They spent their days cleaning, doing exercises, and marching, all in strict silence.

I was glad to visit the prison, although I might have enjoyed a more in depth tour than what we got. Nevertheless, my curiosity is now satisfied. I’ve seen it, and I don’t know that I need another visit there. I got lots of pictures, too.

We loaded up and moved on to Liepaja’s city center, where we visited Liepaja Beach, which was pretty inviting. I miss beaches! Our guide pointed out the skeleton of a structure that was meant to be a Soviet era five star hotel.

We then went to the Seaside Park, a beautiful, leafy area, where there was a sort of musicians “walk of fame”, and a metal tree sculpture called Spoku koks (Tree of Ghosts), where visitors could push a button on a bench and hear the music of one of Latvia’s most famous rock bands, LΔ«vi, which formed in 1976. At night, the tree has special lighting. Around the city, there are also musical notes everywhere in the sidewalks. It reminded me of when we went to Dinant, Belgium, and learned that was the birthplace of Adolphe Sax, the man who invented the saxophone.

On our Riga tour, our guide mentioned that it’s customary to plant a tree whenever one is cut down, and for parents to plant trees for their children. It looks like a lot of people have heeded that custom, as Latvia is very forested. When I lived in Armenia, I saw the devastation of deforestation, as locals cut down trees to keep warm in the winter. I’m sure there are more trees in Armenia now. It didn’t look to me like the Latvians had the same idea about staying warm. However, they did have the familiar Soviet style apartment buildings I’ve seen all over the former Eastern Bloc and Soviet countries. Indeed, I lived in two such apartments myself. It was one of those life experiences worth having once or twice, but not necessarily anything I’d want to repeat. Kind of like when I took a bus from Yerevan to Istanbul for three LONG days… Cool story now, but not something I want to do again.

We visited a lovely Lutheran church, where two women with luminous voices were singing like angels. I wasn’t sure if that was part of the plan, or they were just rehearsing. They sounded wonderful, though. It was peaceful listening to them sing.

Then we went to the Great Amber Concert Hall, where we were able to see a brand new facility for Liepaja’s musicians. It was a welcome stop, not just because it’s an impressive building that highlights amber, one of Latvia’s best known products, but also because it also offered a place to pee. Below, you can see the amber color from the inside.

While we were visiting the concert hall, the weather suddenly changed. Blue skies were replaced with clouds. After we got on the bus, the skies opened up, and there was torrential rain! We watched one guy somehow miraculously avoid getting soaked while standing under trees. However, after a short time, the rain finally found him and he had to move to a safer spot.

That brief rainstorm was really the only bad weather we had all week. We were very blessed with mostly sunny and pleasant days. I understand the current passengers have not been as lucky.

Bill and I went to La Veranda and had lunch, then went back to our room to get cleaned up. Our dinner was to be in the Pacific Rim Asian restaurant, which appeared to me to be the most popular of Regent’s eateries. Below are some photos from that, as well as a couple of pictures of the “designer” cocktails offered in the Meridian Lounge on Deck 5. We didn’t discover that bar until well into the cruise, which. is a real pity.

The cocktails in the Meridian Lounge are not offered anywhere else on board, and they’re really interesting, although a couple of them are insanely expensive to order (like over $25). Our concierge status would get us a slight discount, but not enough to justify the expense. One drink was over $40. I also liked the art deco/jazzy vibe in there. If we ever sail on Splendor again, we’ll have to visit that bar more often. It was better than the Splendor Lounge and the Observation Lounge.

And another batch of photos from the lounge and dinner… I tried edamame for the first time. We met another German couple in Pacific Rim– folks who live in Dusseldorf, and have tried a lot more luxury lines than we have. They seemed to be enjoying Regent very much, and we surprised them when we told them we live in Germany.

Our waitress was a very pretty young blonde woman with striking green eyes. She said that if she could cook like they do in Pacific Rim, she’d be already married. Bill noticed that she spoke German, and understood that she came from Ukraine. I think a lot of people don’t realize just how smart and accomplished many people in the service industry are. Everyone from the wait staff to the housekeepers to the guides were multi-lingual and practiced with dealing with difficult people. They definitely deserve more respect than a lot of people are willing to give them.

It was a good day… to be followed by over very last full day on the ship. More on that in the next post. For now, I’ve got to stop blogging and make Bill’s birthday cake!

Champagne Bucket trips, Latvia, Regent Seven Seas Cruise Lines

Riga, Latvia… a place I will need to see more of someday…

Monday, June 26th, we had plans to call on Riga, Latvia. Bill had been there a couple of times before, back when we were living in Germany the first time. That would have been in 2008, or thereabouts. Things have changed a bit since then. As for me, I had never been to Latvia, although I had been wanting to go. I was curious about Riga. Bill said it was a beautiful city. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see very much of it, because of the “free” excursion I chose that day.

Actually, I’m not sorry we went on that excursion, as it was very interesting and we saw some beautiful countryside in Latvia. But, we didn’t have much time to explore Riga, as the excursion took over five hours. It was the longest of all of the ones we experienced last week. Turaida and Sigulda are two castles that are located about an hour outside of Riga.

The plan was to drive to Sigulda Castle and visit the renovated ruins, visit Kropotkin Manor House, see Gutmana Cave, and visit the Turaida Castle and sculpture park. At the end of the tour, we’d have a brief stop at Riga’s Town Hall square for photos, then drive back to the port.

One critical mistake that Bill and I made was not having lunch before we left the ship. The tour began around lunchtime. We weren’t that hungry when we left, and figured there would be a stop for something, given how long the tour was. We were wrong. There was a cafe near the Sigulda Castle ruins, but we didn’t have a lot of time to visit it. One thing we learned on that trip is that Regent will put a plate and silverware icon on trips where there is food involved. That trip didn’t have that particular icon in its description. Actually, now that I’m looking at it, they didn’t use that icon on our Tallinn tour, either, even though that one did include lunch and beer.

Fortunately, at Sigulda Castle, there were also vending machines, so we were able to get some snacks before we went back to Riga. It really was a good thing, because I got very irritable at the end of our visit to Sigulda Castle. Bill… bless him… knows this is an issue of mine. I get “hangry”. I usually try to carry some candy or something with me for emergencies. It usually happens kind of suddenly, and I’m fine once I have something to bring up my blood sugar.

I enjoyed the Turaida and Sigulda trip, in spite of my “hangry-ness”, for a few reasons. Once again, our guide, named the Latvian version of Eva, talked a bit about the Soviet era and the Latvian attitudes about being in the Soviet Union. Here’s a hint. Most people didn’t like that time and wouldn’t go back to it! We also passed Riga’s KGB Museum (the Corner House), which Eva told us was a good thing that came out of a building where there was once a lot of tragedy and sadness. If we ever get back to Riga, I am going to try to go there.

But I also enjoyed our excursion because I liked visiting Latvia’s largest cave… which isn’t so very large. As you will see in my photos, Gutmana Cave is covered with carvings done hundreds of years ago. It’s also got a stream running through it that, legend has it, bestows eternal youth and good health on those who drink or bathe in its waters. I didn’t drink the water… I already had a cold, and have also known the hell of having a stomach bug on a cruise ship. But I did rinse my hands in the cold water.

Below are some photos of our trip through Riga, and Sigulda Castle… You can see some of the art deco buildings that managed to survive the Soviet era.

As for the castles, they were interesting to look at, but we didn’t have that much time for exploring. And, to be honest, by the time we got to the ruins, I was really tired. It’s tiring listening to someone talk and paying attention. We also did a fair amount of walking, and by the time the tour was ending, I was super hungry and cranky. However, I did enjoy hearing about the legend of Turaida Rose. Click here for more information on that.

Here are some more photos from our excursion, mainly of Gutmana Cave, and a very old country church…

We walked back to the entrance of the huge park and I dug into my purse for the many euro coins I was carrying for this occasion. I got a leaded Coke, some sparkling water, and a package of a Latvian snack product called Long Chips. This snack, which is kind of the Latvian version of Pringles, comes in several flavors. In the vending machine, they only had the cheese and mashed potato varieties. We got one package of each, and after I’d had a few chips, I felt a lot better.

Interestingly enough, I just read that Long Chips are actually a relic of Latvia’s Soviet era, having been first made in 1986. The company that made them, once owned by the Soviet government, was eventually purchased by a private company in 1992, and is now available in 25 countries. They sure were a lifesaver last week!

I enjoyed seeing what little I did of Riga’s town hall, especially since there was a man with a beautiful baritone voice singing there. He was singing arias very well, and when I dropped a couple of euros in his hat, he bowed graciously and thanked me in English. I took a lot of photos and recorded a little of his performance, but mostly I sat on a bench and enjoyed listening to him sing. I found it inspiring.

A lovely singer…
Town Hall doesn’t suck, either.

I also liked that excursion because it included some good shopping, especially at Sigulda. I bought some beautiful silver earrings from a designer there, as well as a wallet for me, and a new leather bound notebook for Bill, and a walking stick for Bill’s granddaughter. Prices were very reasonable. And, I also loved the Latvian folk music playing where I bought my earrings, so I downloaded that, too.

When we got back to the ship that afternoon, I realized that it was karaoke night in the Splendor lounge. I usually love karaoke, although I was a little skeptical of how good it would be on Regent Splendor. SeaDream had karaoke on one of our cruises and it was honestly the worst karaoke show I’d ever attended. But, in spite of that, I sang a few songs and met my friend Meryl and her parents, who have now sadly passed on to the great beyond. Meryl is in the music business. In fact, she and her husband work with a major rock star. She asked me if I was in the music business! So it wasn’t a total loss. Meryl and I are still friends today.

The other thing that gave me pause is that karaoke started very late at night and only ran for about 90 minutes, which didn’t seem long enough. And I was also dealing with the remnants of my cold, and my voice was, frankly, a bit fucked.

In any case, Bill and I got dressed up and went to dinner in the Compass Rose. Unfortunately, dinner was a bit of a disappointment. I decided to have scallops, which were billed as a main course. But my dish only had three scallops on the plate, and it wasn’t really enough to satisfy me, even with the roasted quail starter I had. Dessert, too, was a bit of a disappointment. I had rum cake that was much too sweet, and lacked a promised scoop of Tahitian vanilla ice cream.

Yes, I know I could have and should have complained, and/or ordered more food. But everyone seemed so harried, and I was still feeling kind of crabby after our excursion. So we just beat it out of the dining room and went back to the Splendor Lounge, where Aldo and Dimas were playing music. We were the only ones in there at first, but Ger and Gail soon joined us, having decided to abandon the show in the theater. Bill and I never did make it to a show, so I can’t comment on the quality of the productions on Regent Splendor. But Gail and Ger said they weren’t impressed. During that time, I also learned how to use the “jukebox” in the Splendor Lounge.

After a little while, some teenagers showed up in the bar, obviously wanting to do karaoke. It got very busy, and Gail and Ger very abruptly beat a retreat when the place filled up. We probably should have done the same thing! I did get to sing a song. I chose “When You Say Nothing At All”, by Alison Krauss. To be honest, I think the only reason I chose that song was because I usually do it in the piano bar on SeaDream and I know it pretty well. Unfortunately, due to my cold, my voice wasn’t quite 100 percent, and I botched the high notes.

There were some really good performers, though… people with genuine talent. One guy sang a dead on rendition of “Valerie” by Amy Winehouse. Another guy did a hilarious version of “America” by Neil Diamond. Bill and I stayed for most of it, but left about a half an hour before karaoke ended. It was way past our bedtimes! I don’t think the teens ever did get up to sing. They might have been overwhelmed by the size of the crowd. There were a lot of singers, which is why I think karaoke should have been longer. I also didn’t like that it was run by theater people. It needs a real host. But that’s just my cranky opinion as a karaoke snob. Actually, I think I might prefer a piano bar, which Regent doesn’t have.

I was troubled enough by my own performance that on Monday, I decided to record my version of “When You Say Nothing At All”. It turned out great, if I do say so myself. Or, at least I didn’t mess up the high notes. Being healthy again is a good thing!

I wanted to dedicate this to Bill on Regent Splendor, but I’ll just have to do it on YouTube…

I did also get some photos of the top decks on Regent. Below are some pictures I took. It was the one day we ventured up there… These photos are all from the top of the ship. You can play tennis, mini golf, bocci, or shuffleboard.