At her Pudeļu dārzs (Bottle Garden) in the village of Litene, 200 km east of Riga, Anna Zīle has designed and built dozens of art installations with a bit of cement and countless glass bottles. Visitors from around the world now flock to the site to admire this unusual approach to recycling.
When Anna and husband Mārtiņš retired and bought their farm 18 years ago, they found the attic overflowing with bottles polished off by the previous residents. Rather than taking them to the dump, they built a windbreak peppered with the vessels.
Then, eight years ago, they took on another infrastructure project, erecting a bottled bridge over a boggy corner of the 4-hectare property. Glinting bike stands, flower beds and sculptures of animals followed.
“With a bit off imagination, the sky is the limit!” Anna beams.
Many of the objects, including the household’s “Christmas tree” made up of dozens of green bottles, have been connected to the grid by electrician Mārtiņš, creating a stunning spectacle after dark. During the day, the sun glinting through the glass produces beautiful effects, too. One wall of the farmhouse is embroidered with bottles which hum as the breeze floats over their open tops.
Far from resting on her laurels, Anna recently completed her piece de resistance, a 75-metres-long labyrinth comprising more than 11,000 champagne bottles. The bottles were sent in by revellers from all over Latvia following a report on the garden by a popular TV show.
Anna doesn’t pop many corks herself, though.
“To be honest, I don’t touch the stuff very much at all,” she admits. “And if I have a wee drop, it’s something stronger, like brandy. Never champagne.”
Nevertheless, it was clearly a labour of love. With Mārtiņš incapacitated by a stroke, Anna does all the farm chores, and in addition she spent two and a half years digging foundations and mixing concrete for the maze. She attributes her remarkable energy to a career as a physical education teacher and a keen amateur athlete.
“The reason why a 71-year-old grandma can do all this is because of a lifetime of sports,” she says.
This lifetime passion is reflected in a work currently in progress, a set of Olympic rings flanked by bottle-studded pictograms of various disciplines.
She’s also planning a museum to showcase the many quirky bottles which visitors have donated over the years. Her collection includes a bottle of “Red Army” vodka in the shape of an artillery shell, a rare Riga Black Balsam flask formed like a locomotive, and a miniature motorcycle gifted by a delegation of bikers containing something potent.
Anna finances all the construction work out of her pension and the couple of euros she charges for tours of the garden. As the museum will take the form of a proper little house, she will need the assistance of a builder. Donations for this project are welcome.
In addition to tourists, the garden has also hosted dozens of weddings. As a revered vedējmāte, a traditional wedding celebrant, Anna guides couples through their vows under a bottled arch, then conducts games and rituals in the garden.
Although the Covid crisis has reduced visitor numbers, plenty still turn up. According to Anna, an Estonian TV show promoted the Bottle Garden as one of the top places to visit in Latvia. So much so that the neighbours have jokingly put up a sign reading “This is NOT the Bottle Museum!” due to the slew of cars misdirected there by Google maps.
Anna clearly loves people, including some weirdos who arrived at midnight expecting (and receiving) a tour. She even has a soft spot for skylarking kids who break the odd bottle. She recalls how one youngster retorted to his dad’s repeated orders to stop climbing on the statues: “You don’t listen to mum when she tells you not to pee in the sink, so why should I do what you say?”
“I see the joy that all this brings to the visitors, and it makes me happy too,” she smiles.