Another unusual year for this blog, 2021 felt increasingly normal towards the end.
A great number of changes happened during the year. I finished moving all my London possessions to Riga and settled in happily in the cosy flat my husband and I own in the leafy neighbourhood of Teika. Despite swimming pools remaining closed for most of the year, I fulfilled my long-standing dreams of swimming across both of the Turkish Straits, not least within days of each other. And, most notably, last summer Alan and I welcomed a new member into our family, an adorable young beagle called Layla who has brightened the most mundane aspects of our lives effortlessly since.
Compared to my pre-pandemic life, my travels in 2021 felt admittedly toned down, albeit not without their highlights. A born-and-bred Latvian, I had finally ventured into parts of the country I had never visited, including the Eastern region of Latgale and the coastal city of Liepaja. As in 2020, Alan and I spent several weeks basking in the Greek sun in September as the weather in Northern parts of Europe turned increasingly autumnal. In-between my swimming events in Turkey, I flew to Tbilisi where, for once, I did not have a work agenda and could simply enjoy the city. And we finished off the year in the company of good friends in Poland; it was not a novelty destination of our previous New Year escapades to Eritrea or Bangladesh, but it was endlessly enjoyable regardless – despite being significantly less warm!
Without further ado, let’s get into the details of the year gone past!
WINTER 2021: RIGA AND LONDON
I spent my first day of 2021 in a haze: having overdosed on ‘Soviet Champagne’ with my parents the night before on a rare New Year’s Eve together and, unwisely, continuing with gin and tonics into the night, I fell asleep well before the midnight fireworks. There is a saying in Russian that you will live the New Year in the manner you ring it in, and it turned out to be true: it really went on to be somewhat of a drowsy year.
Riga welcomed 2021 in a strict lockdown, with all sporting venues and public eateries firmly shut – the feeling of overwhelming gloom not helped by grey wintery weather amid very short days. Decidedly unprepared for this after London’s relative freedoms and lack of seasons, and seeing travel restrictions become increasingly harsher, I soon found myself in a dark, hopeless place.
Luckily, February rolled in, triggering the last month of rent on my London flat. Making my way through empty airport terminals, I flew to London to sell off some furniture and pick up my remaining possessions before handing the flat back to the agent. Saying goodbye to what will probably forever be the nicest view I ever had in London was hard; I was wishing I could have done it with more time to spare than this grandiose packing-up of the 14 years of life in London proved to be. No regrets, however: I sold everything I was planning to sell, and the proceeds were just enough to cover the sky-high London PCR test before my return to Riga and the flight itself: a win-win.
SPRING 2021: LIEPAJA AND EASTERN LATVIA
Back in Riga and sitting out my second 10-day quarantine in less than a month, I started settling into a new routine. Discovering that another of my London colleagues had, too, moved to Riga during the pandemic, I started walking her young puppy once a week. We live near a vast forest and I found those walks incredibly therapeutic. Meanwhile, my mother, visibly overjoyed I had no plans to return to London for some time, proceeded to cook elaborate Russian meals for our Saturday family get-togethers; so colourful and inspiring were they that I started photographing and captioning them weekly. My mother did calm down eventually, but pictures of those meals really were a hit among my friends while they lasted.
With the weather improving by the day, Alan and I made three memorable trips to places in Latvia we had never been to before. At Easter, we visited Latvia’s third largest city, the wonderful port of Liepaja; it was our first hotel stay in six months and I was ecstatic to see this bit of normality return. It also happened to be warm enough for enough hours in the day to enable us to dine al fresco in the popular fishing and windsurfing coastal town of Pavilosta. I crashed my drone into a tree in the infinitely pretty settlement of Edole while taking footage of a 13th century Livonian castle, but nothing could have ruined that mini-getaway and, worry not, Astrapoula soon had parts replaced and was back in the air.
Around the beginning of May, we spent three nights in Cesvaine, another of many Latvian towns boasting stunning castles. I could not more recommend our hotel of choice, the gorgeous ‘Grasu pils’ that was built as a country manor in 1784. We used our time to drive around, including visits to Balvi, Varaklani and Lake Lubans, and paid special tribute to Jewish and World War II memorials.
Karzdabas Orthodox Church went into disrepair during the Soviet times and currently stands abandoned
We closed the spring off with a long-overdue proper visit to the Latvian region of Latgale. Once belonging to Poland, Latgale remains predominantly Roman Catholic while retaining a significant minority of Old Believers. Of all places in Latgale, we rented a small wood-heated house in the settlement of Aglona, which, despite being small, has been made world-famous by the Basilica of the Assumption – the most important Roman Catholic church in Latvia that has welcomed two of the most recent popes. Even as a staunch atheist, I greatly appreciated my nightly drone flights around the pretty Basilica as the sun gently fell.
The Aglona Roman Catholic Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary is admittedly a long name
On a more entertaining note, Alan and I were imagining we had done some serious preparations for that trip, obtaining special permits to enter the border area with Russia and Belarus. Our visit to the well-known Mound of Friendship – the point where the borders of Latvia, Russia and Belarus meet – went by smoothly, luring us to try and visit a more remote – and less public – border crossing. Making our way to the sparsely populated area southeast of Kraslava, we descended towards the Daugava river on foot before cutting into an overgrown field in seach of that elusive Belarus border. We suddenly saw border bollards in the Latvian and Belarus colours on each end of a narrow stream – not a fence in sight despite the significance of the location – and rushed to shoot a series of selfies on the Latvian side before returning to our car, satisfied.
It was then that we saw an off-road vehicle appear in the distance, soon parking next to us. You have guessed it: we had ventured too close to a non-EU border and were promptly accompanied to the nearest border protection point where we proceeded to write explanatory notes (think ‘what I did on my holiday’), promising never to make the same mistake again. We were eventually fined EUR 20 each: the border guards clearly understood they were dealing with no more than a couple of stupid tourists.
SUMMER 2021: SWIMMING, TURKISH STRAITS AND TBILISI
The summer kicked off with more normality returning as restaurant terraces and swimming pools in Latvia reopened. In anticipation of my swimming events at the end of the summer, I trained as hard as I could for two months, gradually improving my pace, though, sadly, never bringing it back to pre-pandemic levels; I am determined to regain my old form one day.
Swimming like a lunatic and with my second Astra Zeneca jab not until mid-July, I could not spend any time outside the country for most of the summer. This was fine though: Riga was blessed with a stunningly warm summer last year which, combined with seemingly never-ending daylight, made it a perfect place to be. I cycled to the nearby Kisezers Lake almost daily for evening dips, which I found truly blissful. I do not recall a similarly balmy, lasting summer anywhere in my lifetime, and having an outdoor bathing spot on your doorstep would certainly be unfathomable in London. I was incredibly lucky to spend last summer in Riga.
The biggest highlight of 2021 came in early July, when Alan and I got a dog. That’s right: having feared I would never own a pet because it would clash with frequent travel, I had my life choices thrown upside down by Covid and was ready to take the plunge. My dream breed is Hungarian vizsla while Alan’s is labrador retriever, but, given the constraints of city life, we settled on a smaller and lighter breed: the beagle.
And, just like that, little Layla came into our lives. We have been extremely lucky with her so far: she has a calm disposition, is very affectionate and has been easy to train, but owning a dog has not been a no-brainer I was imagining it to be. It took me a real getting-used-to to stop feeling upset at every cushion corner or book spine Layla may have chewed, and life has lost some spontaneity as we now need to make arrangements for a dependent family member; overall though, having a dog has been a once-in-a-lifetime, rewarding experience. I have no regrets having my princess in my life.
Another major achievement of the summer was having major dental work done. I was never a big fan of my teeth, which, after a series of eating disorders and freak accidents of my turbulent youth, constantly needed to be patched up and were never guaranteed to remain in place. Tired of being afraid to bite into the most innocent of apples, I finally had a professional plan out and redo my entire mouth of teeth. It took nearly three months to complete, cost a small fortune and caused an unimaginable amount of pain, but I emerged at the other end significantly more confident and, for the first time in years, not terrified to show my Hollywood smile: it was absolutely worth it.
Towards the end of August, I flew to Turkey to take part in inter-continental swimming races in Istanbul and Canakkale, swimming 6.5km across the Bosphorus from Asia to Europe and 4.5km across the Dardanelles from Europe to Asia. Both events were wonderfully adrenaline-inducing and not without their scare factors: until I saw the finish right in front of me in the Bosphorus, I fully expected to be swept under the second bridge and into the DNF territory, while the sneaky Dardanelles had one depend far too much on being guided, through increasingly misty goggles, on (decreasingly less) visual landmarks. I finished sixth in my age group across the Bosphorus and tenth across the Dardanelles – a decent achievement given how little training I had done – and left Turkey genuinely pleased, but not before taking the time to explore ancient Troy and the battlefields of Gallipoli.
In-between the swims, I also escaped to the wonderful city of Tbilisi where I enjoyed a room with a view over the Old Town for a blissful five days. Georgia was topping the world’s Covid charts at the time, so I ruled against domestic travel and limited my city walks to quieter times. I had only been to Georgia on business before, and it was liberating finally to spend some quality time in what remains one of my favourite countries.
AUTUMN/WINTER 2021: GREEK ISLANDS, LONDON AND POLAND
Reunited with Alan and Layla in Riga, we flew to the Greek islands where we had a very special month planned. Starting in Andros, we got our bearings travelling with a dog for the very first time as the weather refused to cooperate, with strong winds prevailing all over the Aegean and us promptly developing non-Covid respiratory illnesses. We had better luck in the nearby Tinos where we explored traditional inland villages and took advantage of the island’s much celebrated hiking trails; I was someone taken aback by how popular Tinos had become in the 12 years since I had last visited, but proximity to Mykonos never helped anyone.
We then continued to Samos, an island we continue to love despite it sinking deeper and deeper into the cheaper tourism territory. It was so ridiculous that, in mid-September, we were almost out of luck renting a car to explore the island beyond the pretty port of Pythagoreio where we were staying. Precisely one car ended up being available after I had already made 20 calls – not what we are used to around low-season Greece.
Things picked up notably in the nearby island of Agathonisi. We criss-crossed the small island on foot, which Layla excelled at despite her age, while making good acquaintances and filling up on the latest island gossip. It turned out that a Latvian Frontex team had been stationed on the island a few years prior: for once, the locals knew exactly where we were from (hint: it wasn’t Lithuania). I highly recommend Agathonisi for your next Greek island stopover.
We carried on, in very high spirits, on to the island of Arkoi where we had such a marvellous time in 2019 and which we had breathlessly promoted to all willing to listen as a quaint Aegean paradise a short hop from the popular Patmos. We found it packed up with luxury yachts to boot and electric golf carts whizzing around as music blared into the night; realising our dream was no more, I was almost in tears. I should not have been surprised many took advantage of Greece’s lax Covid restrictions late into the season, but it was still a shock.
Stopping over in Patmos for a day, we hopped on our longest ferry crossing of the trip: 13 hours overnight to Karpathos. On my last visit to Karpathos in 2014, I couldn’t drive and relied heavily on local buses, boats and the help of kind strangers; it was wonderful to be independent this time around. We loved the remote coastal village of Mesochori and the secondary port of Diafani, but our explorations were curtailed by a fire raging through central parts of the island. We watched airtankers and fire helicopters tirelessly collect and drop water on wildfire epicentres, feeling helpless for days. It was certainly a sombre reminder of the natural disasters Greece faces yearly.
We continued to the smaller neighbouring island of Kasos where we shamelessly sat it out in local cafes and tavernas for hours on end. On our big hike to the Monastery of Agios Mamas, I ended up mistakenly flying Astrapoula out to the sea with the gusting winds and would have lost the drone had Alan not abruptly descended and crash-landed it into a hillside bush and did a bit of hiking to collect it: it was perfectly fine upon retrieval. I still get flashbacks of instruments failing as my drone’s motors go into overdrive fighting impossible winds: please do not select me as your buddy in a moment of crisis.
With only a week of the holiday left, we headed to Halki, Symi and Rhodes. Halki and Symi would have been blissfully quiet had they not been looming in the shadow of the mega-popular Rhodes on which both rely for the steady supply of daily tourism. I absolutely loved the gorgeous neoclassical facades of the port of Halki and the well-natured locals on Symi – the islands that plunged into near-silence once the excursion mob had left. I would especially recommend Symi and am planning my next visit there already.
Back in Riga, I embarked on regular work visits to London. With the UK’s stance on the pandemic loosening, my colleagues and I were very much expected to assume a presence back in our London office for a minimum number of days per week, and, not ready to lose my job, I rushed to oblige. There are definite benefits to being in London regularly, among them having access to a far larger shopping market and proper pubs; combined with catching up with the colleagues and friends whose company I enjoy, it was rather a hoot. With Omicron on the way towards mid-December, however, we were swiftly sent home. I hope to be travelling back and forth to London again soon enough.
Towards the start of November, I had my first serious bike crash in years. Riding my fearless road bike (his name is Martijn) on my usual 35km route around Kisezers, I was hit by a careless driver. Martijn suffered light damage as I was wheeled off by an ambulance; luckily, the helmet saved my life and I escaped with the entire left side of my body merely turning blue. When I was finally discharged, I did exactly two things: (i) ordered pizza and (ii) gave Layla a jolly good wash as, waiting for me outside the hospital, she managed to roll in some very stinky fox poo; talk of adding insult to injury.
I do have photos of me in hospital, but allow me to illustrate with a random photo of Layla travelling around Greece instead
The end of the year at work was ridiculously busy as I rushed to close my project of the year. Alan and I were not sure if we would manage a winter escape at all until the last moment, but it worked out well: just hours after I signed off on the loan disbursement for my project, we were on our way to Poland. It may not be the most exotic of destinations when you are based in Eastern Europe, but we had a surprisingly great time. Poland turned out to be wonderfully dog-friendly – Layla was welcome in every restaurant and plenty of hotels – while its cities were seriously pretty. We visited Bialystok, Lublin, Zamosc, Krakow and Wroclaw, and enjoyed a fantastic New Year’s celebration with good friends in Kudowa-Zdroj near the Czech border. It was also an educational trip, whereby we paid visits to the Holocaust museums in Treblinka, Sobibor and Belzec.
And that was 2021! I would like to wish you a very happy 2022 and hope our paths cross this year. Let me know if Riga or London are in your plans!