Absolutely enchanted by the tiny fawn on my doorstep, and the season’s other newborns

P1100716
Comfort may not have been the first thought on my visitor’s mind when it sandwiched itself in the corner of my doorstep. More likely it was “Where can I hide?”

By Betty Gordon 

© 2019 text and photos. All rights reserved.

For previous posts about fawns born in my backyard, see June 10 and July 1, 2017, and July 7, 2018.

The nursery in my backyard, welcoming newborn fawns for the third consecutive year, has expanded to my front doorstep. Literally.

On Saturday morning (June 22), I was preparing to take my dog Simon for a walk as usual. He was on my left at the front door, and pulling on his leash as he always does. So my vision was obscured to our immediate left as we stepped outside.

He vocalized a little yip, as the pulling increased. 

I heard a louder, higher-pitched yelp in return. 

There, on the front landing, settled in the corner between the wall and a rust-colored plastic planter filled with dirt — busy-beaver chipmunks and various other critters keep eating my flowers — was a tiny fawn. 

Its rear legs were splayed in figure “S” formation, the split black hooves pointing backward. The left front leg was fully extended parallel to the wall, but the right front limb was folded under its body.

Breathing gently, it was resting on its stomach. Its ears were up and alert, the nose was partially hidden by the planter.

“Oh, wow,” I said to myself almost in a whisper, thrilled to see the fawn so close. But I knew that I had to distract Simon, who wanted to do what dogs do: Investigate. (Fawns give off very little scent, having been licked clean their mom.)

And we would have to get back up the steps without disturbing the fawn — and quickly — so I could take photos before it decided it had had enough of this frightening intrusion and scampered away. 

Simon, my black Lab-mix who thinks he’s the alpha dog around here, was cooperative. He did his business — he’d get his customary long walk later — and I put him back in the house.

I grabbed my smart phone and my camera, opened the door slowly and stepped back outside. 

P1100719
The position of the fawn was such that anyone coming up the stairs likely wouldn’t have seen it until reaching the landing.

The fawn looked to be several hours old. Only the fur on its tummy seemed damp. I went down the stairs and stood on my lawn facing the house so that I could get a better look at its face and its big innocent eyes, just barely visible between the wall and the planter.

This prone-body position was different than all the fawns I’ve found in my backyard in previous years. They’ve generally been curled into themselves to some degree: nose to tail, with their legs wrapped tightly under their body.

I’ve name this fawn Ellie. I have no idea if it’s a boy or girl; I couldn’t get a good enough look to see if its head had the two round spots where antlers will grow.

I alerted my neighbors, and one by one, they quietly crept up the stairs and had their own moments of joy peering at the little visitor, taking photos also.

I planted new gardenia bushes this spring, and augmented the pine straw around the existing shrubs. I’ve often thought this would be a perfect spot for a doe to conceal a newborn.

P1100738
I saw this fawn, hunkered down in the woods beside my property, on Sunday. The dark spot above its right eye may indicate it is a male, and is where an antler will grow.

This is the third fawn of the season at my house. On June 7, several adult deer were in the backyard in the late afternoon, and when I went on my deck to watch, I saw a fawn in the corner grassy-weedy area. I have photos of the fawn I named Friday from two years ago in this exact spot. (See my post of June 9, 2017.)

The adults ran off to the woods, with the baby in hot pursuit, and I wasn’t fast enough to get a photo. 

My next-door neighbor, whose deck also affords a view of my backyard, told me that she saw a doe licking a newborn on June 21 in this spot. I missed it completely.

Last Saturday, I sat on my inside stairs watching Ellie through the window, wondering how long it would stay. I was happy that it was completely under the overhang and would be shielded if it rained later.

Alas, though it probably had been resting there several hours — most does give birth early in the morning — I was only aware of Ellie’s presence for less than 90 minutes.

I heard some scraping, its hooves against the plastic, and saw it wobble to its feet. 

Then Ellie eyed the stairs. “Hmmm, how do I negotiate these?” it might have been thinking.

Not so well, as it turned out. Ellie tumbled off the landing onto the pine straw, between a gardenia bush and a pointy-leafed holly bush.

Seemingly unfazed, Ellie stood up and darted across my lawn into the woods. I followed but lost track of the spotted speedster.

About 3:30 in the afternoon, I was working on this post and was in what I call my “deer-watching position,” from where I can see out the front windows and track the animals as they come out of the woods, and often graze on anything that takes their fancy.

They eat my flowers and my ground cover, and balance themselves up on their back legs so they can nibble leaves off the trees — and then do similar damage in my neighbors’ yards.

Into view came a doe … and then two fawns. Does Ellie have a sibling? 

I thought so for a few minutes, until I decided that the twins looked too big for Ellie to be one of them. I’d heard that the previous week twins were born in a neighbor’s yard, a street over from mine, so these were probably those animals. 

Grabbing my camera again, I got off a few shots before the trio pranced across my driveway and down the street.

About an hour later, I caught sight of a doe with a patch of fur missing on her left front shoulder. Trailing was a tiny fawn. This was probably Ellie.

P1100745
This fawn, born in my neighbors’ yard on Monday, was wiggling its nose while I was taking its picture.

On Monday, another newborn was in my neighbors’ backyard, in the corner that abuts mine. Its mom had jumped the fence in one effortless bound and left the baby in a grassy area. My neighbors opened their front gate so the doe would have easier access when she returned.

By my count, this fawn was the seventh I’ve seen this year. I try to take note of differing characteristics such as the color of their coats — from creamy caramel to milk-chocolatey brown — or whether the rims of their ears are outlined in black or tan.

Does often give birth in one spot and then move their young to a safer place. Sometimes twins are within eyesight of each other, like Sunday and Sammy, born in my backyard last year. (See post of July 1, 2017.)

But my doorstep isn’t what I would call particularly well-hidden.

There was no blood on the concrete and no sign of afterbirth, so the delivery room was likely elsewhere, possibly my neighbor’s yard two doors down. The person who lives in the lower level reported looking out the window in the morning and seeing two large eyes returning his gaze.

The question remains: How did the fawn get up the stairs? (Fawns can walk within 20 minutes of birth, albeit unsteadily.) Was it secluded elsewhere, lying perfectly still, its spots providing camouflage in the woods? 

Did something spook it, and in its confusion and disorientation simply dart up the stairs and hide behind the first thing it saw?

Or did the doe nudge it with her nose to get the baby to go where she wanted?

Whatever the method, it’s possible the doe was at one point standing in front of the door, which means that she could have inadvertently rung the bell.

Our welcome mat says “Wipe your paws” and has two paw prints above and below that suggestion.

Maybe it should also say “Wipe your hooves!”? 

Advertisements

In Sintra, Portugal: Palaces, park and castle ruins richly deserve their UNESCO World Heritage Site status

P1050376
The Palácio Nacional da Pena in Sintra, Portugal, combines a riot of color and varied architectural styles. It is Portugal’s most visited palace.

By Betty Gordon 

© 2019 text and photos. All rights reserved.

This is the eighth post on my spring 2017 trip to Portugal. See March 4, 2018 for a post about the Monument to the Discoveries in the Belém section of Lisbon; February 18 about the National Tile Museum and making a ceramic tile at a small shop; January 16 about a visit to Taylor’s port wine lodge in Porto; June 2, 2017 about unexpectedly meeting author/TV travel host Rick Steves in Lisbon; July 30 for a post about the Casa da Musica concert hall in Porto; August 20 on cork and its importance to Portugal; and September 3 on custard tarts, a Portuguese specialty.

If your taste in royal palaces runs toward a sedate two-tone facade and understated flourishes, then be prepared for a shock when visiting the multi-hued Palácio Nacional da Pena set on the second-highest hill above Sintra, Portugal.

With its odd juxtaposition of colors — which seemingly change with the light — and architectural styles, one can only wonder what Romanticism-inspired plans were stirring in the mind of Dom Ferdinand II when he commissioned the renovation of a ruined Hieronymite monastery beginning in 1839.

Sintra was long a favorite getaway for royalty, and anyone else with the means to escape to cooler climes during steamy Portuguese summers. 

The Palácio Nacional da Pena is among Sintra’s most-photographed and visited sights, and is featured on the front and back covers of the 2017 Lonely Planet guide to Portugal. More than 1.6 million visited the palace and park in 2017. 

About a 40-minute train ride from Lisbon, Sintra is 18 miles northwest of the country’s capital. But there is so much to take in in this UNESCO World Heritage Site (since 1995) that you will need to get an early start and be prepared for a long day of sightseeing to sandwich it all in. 

Or better yet, consider staying overnight so you can enjoy all that Sintra has to offer at a more leisurely pace.

Either way, do not spend a moment planning to drive to Sintra during the summer. Even on a shoulder season Friday during my May visit, the narrow streets were crowded with tourists on foot, and parking was extremely limited. 

For a modest fee, a shuttle bus will transport you from the train station to all the major sights. (I recommend going to the farthest point you want to see, and then you’ll be able to walk mostly downhill if you are too impatient to wait for the shuttle.)

P1050419
The ruins of the 10th-century Castelo dos Mouros were stabilized in the 19th century, another of Ferdinand II’s projects.

You can purchase a combination ticket for the Palácio Nacional da Pena and its sprawling park; the Palácio Nacional de Sintra, with its own quirky architectural elements; and the Castelo dos Mouros, a ruined fortification, parts of which date to the 10th century when the Moors conquered the Iberian peninsula. 

P1050458
This is the view of the Palácio Nacional da Pena from the ramparts of the Moorish castle ruins. 

My friend Sylvia and I could fit in only the first and last attractions. It was a mostly clear day, and as we scrambled up and down the Moorish castle’s railing-less ramparts, the view back toward the majestic Palácio Nacional da Pena and tree-covered hills was spectacular.

The arts-loving, multi-lingual Fernando II (1816-1885) is due a fair amount of credit for Portugal’s forward-looking improvements and building boom. The German-born prince from the duchy of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha had a spousal role similar to that of his cousin Prince Albert, who was married to Great Britain’s Queen Victoria: sounding board, collaborator, visionary. 

Consort to Queen Maria II (born 1819) from their marriage in 1836 until her death in childbirth in 1853 (with her 11th child), Ferdinand II was regent for his son from 1853 to 1855, until Pedro V ascended the throne.

Ferdinand II later married Swiss-born and Boston-raised opera singer Elise Hensler, whom he lived with for several years before their 1869 wedding. Among her projects was a two-story Swiss-style chalet built in 1864 in the western end of the park, sometimes known as the House of Indulgence (Casa do Regalo).

In addition to the chalet, the park, covering 85 hectares (about 210 acres) features up to 500 species of trees, with plants transported from around the world, several lakes, winding paths and stone benches. With its mix of orderly elements and wild vegetation, the park was envisioned as a place where people could commune with nature — and think about it while they were doing so.   

P1050382
The Gate of Justice features one arch atop another. Tiles adorned with fruit-and-leaf motifs and three rose relief sculptures separate the two sections. 

Today, the palace is accessed from a path up a steep hill, then through the tiled and double-arched Alhambra Gate, inspired by the Gate of Justice at the Alhambra in Granada, Spain. 

From there, visitors can head to the pink chapel and the Manueline cloisters (built around 1511), both original parts of the Hieronymite monastery. On the northeastern side of this section, the structure is adorned with pointed watchtowers of varying size and shape.  

P1050426
Many visitors pose for photographs at the Courtyard of Arches.

Among the most photogenic areas is the Courtyard of Arches, on the western side of the hill, with its reddish three-story clock tower at one end and its French’s mustard-yellow  arches overlooking the countryside descending toward Sentry Walk. 

In about the center of the complex is the Terrace of the Triton, so named for the menacing sea god Triton, perched on a richly decorated scallop shell beneath a bow window. The half-man half-fish is the focal point above an archway that connects identical windowed towers partially covered in tiles.

P1050393
The circular tower (left) housed the apartments of King Manuel II and the Stag Room, where banquets were held. The building to the right (with balcony and tiled facade) is the location of the Great Hall. Continuing to the right, beneath the twin towers is the entrance to the Music and Smoking Room. In the foreground, with the spiky diamonds and twin watchtowers, is the Monumental Gate.  

Opposite the courtyard at the western section of the palace is a yellow circular tower capped with a grayish-blue Moorish-inspired dome. Inside this building is the former apartments of King Manuel II (reigned 1908-1910), the last monarch to live in the palace, and the Stag Room, used as a banqueting hall. The “trophies” around the room’s interior are plaster heads mimicking real stags, with their authentic antlers likely found on the palace grounds. 

A wooden table comprised of six sections, perhaps Ferdinand II’s ode to King Arthur’s knights’ Round Table, partially encircles an intricately decorated tiered white column. Lacking a seventh section, the table ends intentionally do not meet.  

Other rooms such as the kitchens, Ferdinand’s dining room and royal bedrooms are open to the public. The furniture, china, artwork and other accessories are a combination of Ferdinand II’s acquisitions and the few royals that followed. (Portugal became a republic in October 1910.)

P1050446
The Palácio Nacional de Sintra is closer to the center of town that the Palácio Nacional da Pena. It’s about a 15-minute walk from the train station.

We didn’t have time to explore the Palácio Nacional de Sintra, recognizable by its twin white conical chimneys and set more in the center of town. Its interiors are described as more lavish than those at Pena. This palace dates to the 14th century, with an expansion in the 16th century. Its major transformation was credited to Dom João I (reigned 1385-1433), who lived there with his English bride, Philippa of Lancaster, daughter of John of Gaunt (son of Edward III and father of Henry IV). 

Quick reference: Palácio Nacional da Pena: Hours: Palace: 9:30 a.m. to 7 p.m., park: 9:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Admission, palace and park: ages 18 to 64, 14 euros (about $16); ages 6 to 17 and over 65, 12.5 euros (about $14); two adults and two youths, 49 euros (about $55). Park only: ages 18 to 64, 7.5 euros (about $8.50); ages 6 to 17 and over 65, 6.5 euros (about $7.50); two adults and two youths, 26 euros (about $29). Save 5 percent by purchasing online. Up to six attractions can be included in a combination ticket (valid for 30 days). The website has information on all the sights I’ve mentioned and other things to see in Sintra: parquesdesintra.pt

 

Colossal stone statues, stark architecture commemorate site of former WWII Salaspils concentration camp outside Riga, Latvia

P1100583
Enormous statues, perhaps in part conveying concentration camp prisoners’ efforts to hold onto their dignity, enclosed by the Way of Sorrows at Salaspils Memorials, less than 10 miles from central Riga, Latvia. Clockwise from left: “The Humiliated,” “The Mother,” “Solidarity,” “The Oath,” possibly “Rot Front” (showing solidarity with a cause) and “The Unbroken.”

By Betty Gordon 

© 2019 text and photos. All rights reserved.

This is the second in a series of posts about my two-week trip to Tallinn, Estonia; the country’s largest island Saaremaa; and Riga, Latvia, in May 2019. See my June 1 post about making an edible marzipan mouse in Tallinn.

It is mostly quiet now in a clearing less than 10 miles (15 kilometers) from central Riga, save the occasional breeze-driven ripple of leafy branches or the sound of footsteps crunching stones on a landscaped path.

Hushed, that is, except for a metronome’s steady beat, beat, beat marking the inevitable passage of every second of every year since the Salaspils Memorials opened on October 13, 1967, when Latvia was under the umbrella of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. (After the breakup of the Soviet Union, Latvia became an independent republic in 1991, and joined the European Union and NATO in 2004.)

Set on about 49 acres (20 hectares) of what was one of the lesser-known compounds of Nazi-ordered brutality during World War II, the Salaspils concentration camp was constructed beginning in late 1941 by Jews deported from Czechoslovakia, Germany and Austria, as well as Latvian, Lithuanian and Estonian political prisoners, resistance fighters and military personnel.

(Brochures refer to it as a “police prison and labor correctional camp” because it was administered by the commander of the security police in Latvia, and not from Berlin. Latvia was independent from 1918 to 1940; the Soviets invaded in June 1940. The Nazi occupation began a year later.)

Whatever the designation, as at the hundreds of other camps, illness, disease, overwork, starvation rations and inhumane treatment took their toll. As many as 3,000 people may have died at Salaspils.

Tantalizingly close to towering stands of pine, birch and spruce trees, prisoners not only dreamed about escape, but some tried. The odds of slipping past search lights and armed guards in six watchtowers, then negotiating a double barbed-wire fence were slim. 

Still evident nestled in ankle-high grass are the foundation footprints of some of the overcrowded barracks, where up to 23,000 forced laborers over four years were housed. Tenderhearted visitors have left a colorful array of stuffed animals at two slabs that indicate where children lived. 

Some of the several-thousand youngsters who had been transported from Belorussia, Russia and Latgale (in eastern Latvia) were free labor for farmers in the areas surrounding Salaspils. As such, some of the children received better care and had more access to food.

P1100600
The pillar indicates one of the sites of a former gallows at Salaspils Memorials.

The Way of Sorrows, an elongated horseshoe-shaped walkway, encloses some of the memorial elements, dominated by six colossal stone statues, geometrically stark, with evocative names such as “Solidarity,” “The Unbroken,” “Oath” and “The Humiliated.”

At the ceremonial end of the Way of Sorrows is the source of the steady ticking, encased in an almost 20-foot (6 meter) polished piece of marble. Wreaths and stuffed animals are left here too, acknowledging those who lost their lives from 1941 to 1944.

The entrance to the modernistic memorial is a 396-foot-long (120-meter) wall, almost like a forbidding horizontal slash, meant to portray the dividing line between life and death. 

P1100557
In some interpretations, this imposing horizontal structure represents the dividing line between life and death. Or as the Latvian poet Eižens Vēveris wrote: “Behind this gate, the earth groans.”

The structure is emblazoned with the words “Aiz šiem vārtiem vaidzeme,” which translate to “Behind this gate, the earth groans,” sentiments from a poem by Latvian writer Eižens Vēveris (1899-1976), who was imprisoned here.

Inside, part of the corridor exhibit displays photographs, drawings, text (in English, Russian and Latvian), videos and models describing what life was like at Salaspils. The exhibit, which includes a section about the architectural vision of the designers and sculptors, opened on February 7, 2018.

Salaspils laborers put in 10-hour days, six days a week, doing such tasks as building and repairing roads, breaking rocks in a quarry and digging peat. Some were sent to another site to construct runways and an aerodrome.

P1100578
Prisoner Kārlis Bušs illustrated the heavy labor required by co-workers digging peat.

Demands were less physical for those who worked in the carpentry, cobbler or machine shops or elsewhere. Among the more difficult jobs for women was in the laundry, where everything was washed by hand.

Punishment was harsh, ranging from beatings to death. To the right of the Way of Sorrows, a stone column marks the site of the former gallows.

P1100604
Stuffed animals have been left at the remains of barracks that once housed children.

Near the end of 1943, the Nazis began to transport prisoners from Salaspils to infamous concentration camps at Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen (both in Germany) and Mauthausen (Austria) and elsewhere, where the need of slave laborers was higher.

In May 1944, about 400 Soviet prisoners of war and invalids arrived in Salaspils and were executed. 

P1100608
A better look at “The Humiliated,” with a bent arm acting as a covering shield, “The Mother” sheltering two children and the defiant male figures from another viewpoint.

By September 20, 1944, no one remained, and the site was destroyed by fire. The Soviet Army liberated Riga on October 13, 1944.

Before I left home, I had investigated the best way to get to Salaspils, noting options by train (under 3 euros round trip), bus and rental car. Once in Riga, I priced the cost of round-trip taxi fare, plus waiting time, which was likely to be in excess of 60 euros (about $68). 

What I had been unable to ascertain was if there were signs on a path from the train station to the memorials. While I was at the Riga Ghetto Museum, a young woman made two calls on my behalf — she’d never been to Salaspils herself. The second was to the Salaspils tourism center, with a person there confirming that independent travelers would be able to follow a marked path to the memorials. 

Eternally grateful for the kindness of strangers

From the Riga station, we took the 10:56 a.m. train seven stops (about 15 minutes) to Darzini — little more than a graffiti-marred roofed shelter — with no road access or parking lot. And no sign pointing to a trail. A man who got off the train pointed us to the left, so we crossed the tracks and off we went into the woods.

A sign (yay!) indicated the site was 2 kilometers away. After about 10 minutes of walking, we came to a second sign. But when we reached a gravel road intersection, we had to guess which direction. (Darn!)

I walked maybe a quarter-mile to the right and saw no signage. I retreated to where my friend Sylvia was waiting, and then we walked to the left. Several cars passed us. We could see a small cluster of houses not far away. 

A car stopped, Sylvia talked to the driver and he said we were going in the wrong direction. He offered to take us, but I thought it best to decline for safety reasons. (Earlier I had made a lame joke that if anything happened to us in these isolated woods, it would be a long time before anyone found us.)

Shortly thereafter, a female driver stopped; she had an empty child seat in her white hatchback. While she zipped along to our destination, we tried unsuccessfully to make mental notes — gee, all these trees sure look alike — so that we could retrace that route.

P1100588
A drawing of how Salaspils concentration camp looked during World War II. The paper in the center shows the layout of the barracks, which may have numbered 39, though not all were used to house people.

After a brief ride, she dropped us at the Salaspils Memorials parking lot. She offered to give us her phone number, but we declined because we didn’t have a phone that would work in Europe.

We thanked her profusely, then walked up a heavily shaded lane to the entrance.

On the far side of the angled concrete wall, a man was finishing a small-group tour. We didn’t know if he was a private guide or someone who worked there. The site has no visitor center, museum shop or restrooms, and seemingly no way to make contact with the outside world.

After we’d seen everything (in about two hours), we walked back to the parking lot and tried to get reoriented. Several people were getting in cars and I asked if anyone spoke English. A man indicated that he did but declined to speak to me.

We had no clue how to access the walking path to get back to the Darzini stop. Or to the Salaspils station, five kilometers (3.1 miles) away, for that matter.

P1100616
From this angle, trees almost obscure the colossal statues.

Through the trees, we could see a train chugging past, and we briefly toyed with the idea of walking parallel to the tracks to Darzini. That didn’t seem to be the safest option, so we walked down a gravel road, and encountered a friendly young man pushing a baby carriage. 

He assured us that once we got to the main road, we could get a bus. He said he was from Riga and was unfamiliar with the general area.

We passed a cemetery (near a big sign indicating Salaspils was 1.2 km to the left) and he got in his car there. We continued to a divided highway — I believe it was the A6 — and there was no bus shelter/stop in either direction.

We retreated again, and walked down another gravel road. We ended up near what I can only surmise was the waste treatment plant northeast of the memorial that one of the staff at our hotel had shown me on a Google map. We turned around and went back toward the cemetery.

I approached an older man just outside the cemetery gate and asked if he spoke English. He did not, but we repeatedly said “Darzini” and “Salaspils station” and “train,” which led him to retrieve a map booklet from the car. Alas, it was no help.

Finally, he phoned his daughter, who spoke English. I told her we were trying to get back to the train stop at Darzini, but I knew that the station at Salaspils might be a better option.

Meanwhile, the man’s wife had left the cemetery and gotten in their car, also a hatchback. 

The daughter said that her father would drive us, though we weren’t sure if that meant to Darzini or Salaspils.

Wandering these multiple wrong avenues probably consumed about an hour. The weather was overcast and cool, so at least we weren’t uncomfortable. 

After about a 10-minute ride through a modern-looking town, we ended up at the Salaspils station. We offered to pay the gentleman, but he refused the money. To say that his kindness, and the woman who picked us up earlier, was heartily appreciated is a massive understatement. 

We went into the tourist information center, across from the train station, to politely report our frustration over the lack of walking-path signage. The woman there said a new employee was likely the person the woman from the Riga museum had spoken to, and she may not have had correct information. Good intentions, though thwarted.

We paid the fare for two extra stations, then used our original return tickets for Riga.

Two days later, at Riga’s Museum of Jews in Latvia, I met a woman from London who had taken the train to Salaspils station the previous day. She said she walked to the memorial — much farther than she anticipated — and that path also had no signage. Her internal compass must be far better than mine, or maybe her smart phone worked in Europe. 

The bottom line is that we got to the memorial and back, and that (fortunately) nothing bad happened. But it sure would have been a lot easier if the walking path had proper signage. 

Maybe the most efficient approach for future visitors would be to take the train to Salaspils station, then ask the tourist center to call for a taxi the rest of the way.

Quick reference: Salaspils Memorial, outside Riga, Latvia. Designed by architects Gunārs Asaris, Olģerts Ostenbergs, Ivars Strautmanis and Oļegs Zakamennijs, and sculptors Ļevs Bukovskis, Oļegs Skarainis, Jānis Zariņš. The team was awarded the highest Soviet honor, the Lenin Award, in 1970. Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily April to October; 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily November to March. Admission: Free. Tours can be booked in advance in Latvia, Russian or English. See website for details. https://salaspilsmemorials.lv/en/index/

In Tallinn, Estonia: Making a marzipan mouse is sweetly enjoyable fun

P1100278
It took about an hour to transform a 40-gram ball of plain marzipan into the elements of this edible mouse and cheese at a shop in Tallinn, Estonia. 

By Betty Gordon 

© 2019 text and photos. All rights reserved.

This is the first in a series of posts about my two-week trip to Tallinn, Estonia; the country’s largest island Saaremaa; and Riga, Latvia, in May 2019.  

Picture several gold trays filled with cartoon characters, adorable animals, animated trains and delicate flowers, all brightly colored and too cute for words. What’s more, all of these diminutive figures are edible, fashioned from slightly sweet marzipan. Wouldn’t you jump at a chance to make one yourself? 

Several months before I left for Tallinn, I sent an email to a historic Estonian company renowned for its chocolate, but which also has a stellar reputation for its marzipan. I hoped to take a class making one or the other of the confections.

Unfortunately, the minimum number for class was four. I said my friend Sylvia and I would be happy to join others who had already registered, but it seemed the only other option, suggested by the chocolate company, was to pay double for a class just for two. I thought 70 euros (about $78) seemed excessive for making marzipan from scratch and then sculpting a figure, so I passed on confirming a reservation. 

So imagine my delight when walking around Tallinn’s Toompea Hill, southwest of its Old Town, I found a small shop called Martsipanigalerii (Marzipan Gallery) that would not only let us make something from marzipan, but cost a fraction of what the other company charged. And no reservation was needed either. 

P1100233
The chicken (bottom row, far right) would have been easy to make. The Minion character (bottom row, third from left) would have required more steps and colors. 

At Martsipanigalerii, the five-euro fee (about $5.60) covered very minimal instruction from an employee, a 40-gram ball of plain marzipan (about 1.4 ounces) to model, a six-color container of edible food dye to use and a plastic cube to transport our finished work.

Marzipan, made from finely ground almonds, sugar and unbeaten egg white (recipes vary; some include honey, almond extract and a bit of water, and may substitute corn syrup for the egg white), has a long history in Estonia, dating to the Middle Ages. The slightly sticky confection may have been introduced to Europe from Persia (modern-day Iran), where writings mention it as early as the ninth century. 

P1100274
Visitors to the Marzipan Gallery can sample small bites of marzipan in several flavors, from plain to pistachio to cardamom-spiced.  

Today, it’s especially popular in Austria, Belgium, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Spain and France, and a favorite of pastry chefs worldwide for adding whimsicality to any creation.

Given its malleability and long shelf-life if stored in an air-tight container, it is perfect for encasing cakes, shaping into ribbons and bows or other show-stopping decorations. It also takes well to ceramic or metal molds.

Some supermarkets carry marzipan, and it can be ordered online.

If you want to see tiny fruit taken to excess, watch Martha Stewart make a three-tiered almond wedding cake adorned with marzipan cherries, raspberries, stems and leaves in Julia Child’s kitchen on PBS’s “Baking with Julia” from 1997. (https://www.thirteen.org/programs/baking-with-julia/julia-child-baking-julia-three-tiered-wedding-cake-martha-stewart-part-1/)

For our much-less fussy marzipan session, each work station at two tables had a white rectangular plastic board, a paintbrush for adding food coloring and detail, and a multipurpose plastic tool with a knife-like serrated edge at one end and a graduated oval at the other for shaping and texture. 

We were given disposable wipes to clean our hands and tools throughout the session, but even so, I had no intention of eating my finished figure.

The biggest decision was what to make. Being marzipan novices, we eliminated some of the figures that seemed more complicated or had a lot of parts. For example, crafting multiple petals for a rose and arranging them to resemble something elegant from nature seemed a bit above our skill level. 

P1100239
Marzipan makers can copy any of the figures in the shop, or craft something from their own imagination. Possibilities are endless.

We both decided to make a mouse, perched on a round of yellow cheese, resting on a thin platform. With a tail, eyes, ears and a nose, a total of nine pieces to mold.

I started with the green base, working the dye into the plain marzipan a little at a time. Rolling it into a ball between my palms to evenly distribute the color and then flattening it into a disk reminded me of a cross between manipulating Silly Putty and Play-Doh.

Next I made the mouse’s body, which didn’t require any color, just a bit of shaping. 

P1100277
Once I finished incorporating the food dye into the elements of my figure, it was time to assemble them. 

For the ears and tail, I incorporated the orange dye into a small ball, then took a pinch of it to roll a thin log for the tail and two smaller balls for the ears. I found the end of my paintbrush was perfect for making indentations in the ears, and for poking shallow holes in the top of my wheel of yellow cheese, the last element I made, using what remained of the original portion of marzipan.

Once all my components were ready, I put the ears and tail on my mouse. A staff member supplied a tiny amount of black marzipan to complete the eyes and nose. The remaining parts were pretty easy to assemble on a blue cardboard platform — base, cheese, mouse.

It took about an hour to craft Walter, as I’ve named my rodent, a laughably long time considering that staff at the shop can make about 30 of the figures in one hour, in assembly-line fashion. 

The shop also has a cafe, and sells a wide range of bigger marzipan figures for visitors to consume with their beverage, or to take with them. 

P1100242
Marzipan Moomin family characters (white trolls that resemble hippos) are on a picnic in the downstairs gallery (behind glass). 

Downstairs is a gallery of much larger marzipan scenes, that the staff is eager for visitors to see. There is no cost to do so. Word must have circulated about this shop, because a film crew was there when I was viewing the tableaux, ranging from the adult dogs and puppies from “101 Dalmatians,” to a scale replica of Tallinn’s iconic brick Fat Margaret Tower to Moomin characters, which are wildly popular in their home country of Finland, in Japan and elsewhere. 

I hand-carried Walter home, as I did when I made an amezaiku bunny from an edible super-hot rice paste mixture in Japan (see my August 22, 2016 post). At least Walter looks like the finished product I intended, which is more than I can say for my bunny.

Quick reference: Martsipanigalerii (Marzipan Gallery), Pikk 40, Tallinn, Estonia. Open daily 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Drop-in modeling session: 5 euros. Individual instruction (10 euros) and group sessions (5.50 euros) also available, but reservations at least three days in advance are required. http://www.martsipan.ee