Crabs, bats and communists, in Cuba's greatest Soviet souvenir.
Latvia is full of surprises. Before I visited, I had never even heard of the Sabile Doll Garden… so imagine my surprise when, quite by accident, I found myself in a garden full of strange doll-like figurines, tucked away on a back road through the countryside.
There were four of us in the rental car that day, on our way out of Riga. Our next destination was Skrunda-1 – a Soviet ghost town, the remains of a secret military city now left abandoned somewhere in this endless landscape of trees.
Along the way we were getting a good taste of the peculiar Baltic architecture. The towns, villages and farms we passed featured tall buildings, long roofs sloping steeply down to the ground to keep the snow from settling. Churches, meanwhile, popped up here and there with their thin, spindly spires. Elongated domes sparkling gold in the pale sun.
We were driving through a village named Sabile when we suddenly saw the dolls. The houses to the right of us opened up to reveal a grassy square, filled from wall to wall with an army of white figures that stood facing us as if on parade. We had traffic behind us though, and a long way yet to go; and so we moved on without even stopping.
Visiting the Doll Garden
Three days later, we finished our last planned destination in neighbouring Lithuania. We had flights to catch, departing from Riga again – and so on our way back north, over the border into Latvia to the car hire centre and the airport, we decided to take a detour and return to the Doll Garden at Sabile.
Pulling up around the corner from the dolls, the town seemed quiet enough. We stopped at a bar for refreshments. The place was empty, dimly lit, and the barmaid spoke not a word of English. I had to get by with a few hastily-learned Latvian phrases (Hello. Please. Thank you.). This was clearly not a tourist town.
As we reached the Doll Garden, almost immediately a small anorak-clad woman appeared. I didn’t see where she came from but all of a sudden she was right beside us, watching our every move. Her eyes were almost lost beneath scruffy white-blonde hair and the hood of her jacket. We said Hello, and she relaxed straightaway; replying with a smile.
“Welcomes!” she said, and then retreated to sit in the passenger seat of an old red car parked haphazardly in the middle of the garden. The car looked as though it wasn’t going anyway in a hurry… more likely, it lived on solely as a makeshift guard booth for this eccentric woman’s collection.
And she certainly was an eccentric. Though we didn’t have enough language in common for a conversation, I’ve read articles in which people have approached her in Latvian. They ask why she makes the dolls, but she’ll just shrug and say, Why not?
I didn’t count the figures that stood gathered about the Doll Garden. I’ve read the collection numbers more than 200 now. They were dressed in all kinds of attire – from a wedding party, to a child in snorkel and flippers. I saw soldiers, carpenters, bikers and police officers. The white figures had apparently been dressed up in whatever second-hand garments this woman could get hold of.
There was a box for donations placed in the middle of the collection, and each of us gave a generous handful of coins. I’m always happy to support a creative eccentric.
As I stood there between two (presumably) computer programmers and what looked to be a writer positioned behind his typewriter, a vehicle drove past on the road. Someone in the back turned, waved, then the driver slammed on the breaks. Three smartphones appeared, pressed up to the glass. Cameras snapped frantically at the Sabile Doll Garden, and then the car continued on its way once this roadside oddity had been duly documented.
Glancing back towards the security booth – the immobile red estate parked at the back of the plot – I saw our host working furiously away at something with a pair of knitting needles. Apparently the collection was still growing.