Last week Mr O and I continued our great love affair with Eastern Europe by taking a trip to Riga. Riga is the capital of Latvia, which is the middle Baltic state (in terms of both size and location). It’s a particularly interesting place to visit because in its 800 year history as recognised “territory”, Latvia has only been independent for a total of 55 years. Outside of that the Germans, Swedish, Polish and Russians have all had a go at ruling it, mostly because it has such excellent connections to the Baltic Sea, particularly via Riga. All of this makes for a city packed with vibrant and mixed cultural influences and fascinating architecture.
Mr O and I stayed in the Maritim Park Hotel, which was about 15 – 20 minutes walk from the old town on the opposite side of the Daugava River. The hotel has a tram and bus stop within seconds from the front door but we’re Londoners so we chose to walk instead. We generally found the staff of the hotel very friendly and welcoming and our room was comfortable and large. Definitely a bargain at only €55 per night. The hotel will happily arrange an airport transfer for you at only €10 each way – there are probably cheaper ways to do this but for me that price is definitely worth not having to figure them out, especially if there is more than one of you. We were also allowed to check-in three hours early at no extra cost. Good work, Maritim Park!
We arrived about midday on Sunday so after a little break to freshen up and dump our bags we decided to head into the old town to find some food and get the lay of the land. One of the definite upsides of walking into the old town was getting to see the very distinctive Riga skyline from a distance. Check out all those cool spires!
It also gives you the opportunity to pose with the Riga city sign.
We stopped off a Egle right in the town centre where we ate a kind of a tapas platter of cold meats, pickles and salads washed down with local beer. Being a Baltic country, Latvia takes beer seriously and there is no shortage of indigenous brews to sample. Not long after we sat down to eat a pianist and singer started performing. We soon realised that Riga loves live music.and you can expect some kind of musical accompaniment in most open air venues. This is great for giving the city a real buzz and everyone we heard play was really good.
After lunch we decided to take the city sightseeing tour which leaves from the old town centre. You can’t miss it because it’s right by the House of the Blackheads (Melngalvju Nams), a massively ornate building that was originally the home of a guild of merchants who never married and spent all their money on booze, parties and shiny stuff. Interestingly their patron saint is Maurice who was a gentleman of colour and represented how exotic their travels were.
I am normally a big fan of a sightseeing bus but I have to say that the Riga one was a bit of a letdown. The commentary was not particularly well synced up with the sites, the English commentary was poor and mostly it moved either too fast or too slow. It helped us get some direction as to where to go but as a whole I would say it’s poor value for money and there are better ways to see the city, which I will come to.
After our lacklustre tour we were thirsty again so we did some more wandering of the town centre and discovered the Rockabilly House, which became our kind of base of operations. Whenever Mr O and I travel to we like to find a bar or pub where we can just hand out when we feel like a little relax. We loved that there was a 50’s themed bar right in the middle of Riga. It was somehow perfectly out of place and in its perfect place in one go. I think we were mostly served by the owner who was simultaneously grumpy and charming, which I liked. The only thing I didn’t love was that, like many of the open air bars/restaurants in the town centre, Rockabilly House does not have its own indoor toilet facilities and you have to use the public portaloos if you need a wee. Some are better than others and the Rockabilly House ones were particularly grim. We did pop in for a beer and a game of cards at some point on every day though.
Our final stop for the day was dinner. which accidentally ended up being back at Egle. We had no idea how big it was and didn’t realise it was part of the same sprawling bohemian open air restaurant until we had menus in front of us. In the end we were too tempted by their mussels to move on and shared an absolutely delicious plate of the saffron flavoured seafood. I have an amazing picture of Mr O tucking into them but he would prefer me not to share it because it looks like he is having some kind of otherworldly experience.
The next morning we decided to check out some of Riga’s seemingly endless temporary art installations. Mr O really liked this egg, which depicted all the seasons of Latvia.
I really liked this snail, which was one of a few we saw around the city. We all know I love an art photography project so I got excited about the idea of spotting them all but overnight they seemed to vanish into thin air. It was hard to find information about then but apparently it had something to do with protesting how slow the restoration of one of the art museums is going.
After that we headed to the Esplanade region of Rigs, which is situated around what was the city wall, moat and defensive fort. Originally this was where battles took place but after military defences changed and moats fell out of use the area was transformed into beautiful parks and canals for the residents to enjoy and they are absolutely breathtaking.
We weren’t just there to check out the ornamental fountains, love bridge and stunning flower beds though. I had managed to find a free guided walking tour online and it left from the statue of Rainas, who is considered the father of Latvian culture, right in the middle of the Esplanade. With Latvia being colonised so many times and its citizens being treated by its overlords as peasants and farmers its culture has often been subsumed by those in charge but as a writer and poet, Rainas made Latvian people believe that their voices, opinions and culture are important hand he is highly revered.
The tour we did was arranged through Travel Jam and is completely free, although tips are welcomed and after this fabulous two and a half hour guided walk if you don’t feel like you owe your guide something, you are a dick. Our guide was an artist and art history student called Dauga and she was fabulous. Not only was her knowledge of the city excellent and her English perfect, her enthusiasm and passion for the city was infectious and almost everything about the history of the city that I have mentioned in this post I learned from her. If you have a choice between doing the bus tour and the walking tour it’s absolutely no contest.
One of Dauga’s favourite places that she showed us was her her school, the academy of art, which is built in a neogothic style. What I liked about it was the absolutely awesome disco ball sculpture that stands outside it which was created by a former student and is inspired by the Venus of Hohle Fels, which is the oldest sculpture ever found.
One of the best things about Riga is it’s rows of art nouveau buildings just outside the old town.
Art nouveau is a philosophy of art, style and architecture, which is all about the combination of beauty and function with a strong focus on nature. There are a number of rules within the movement with it being essential that things are not just beautiful but also functional. With this in mind it is interesting that Riga’s most well known art nouveau “architect” is someone who broke most of the rules. In fact he wasn’t an architect at all. Mikhail Eisenstein, was a Russian civil engineer who loved all of the pretty flourishes of art nouveau but wasn’t particularly bothered about the “story”. He had no trouble finding people to put his facades on the front of their buildings despite the fact that the leaders of the movement were horrified by his actions. I doubt most amateur observers would be able to tell the difference, especially from the outside though. I really liked this particular building. Apparently the two lions are said to represent Eisenstein and his son Sergei, who did not see eye to eye. Interestingly Sergei was a pioneer in the theory and practice of film montage.
After exploring the art nouveau area we headed into the rabbit warren of the medieval old town, which tells the tale of Latvia’s colourful past through its array of different architectural styles particularly around the cathedral in Dome Square and the spire of St Peter’s. I really liked the three brothers though, which are the oldest medieval homes found in the city. This is one of them.
I think my favourite place was our final stop though at the monument to freedom. This magnificent statue was built when Latvia first got its independence after the First World War. The lady at the top represents freedom and in her hand she is holding the three regions of Latvia brought together as one nation. When Latvia became one of the Soviet States, the USSR wanted to tear the statue down but through some clever deception and administrative jiggery pokery it survived the occupation and still stands tall overlooking the city now celebrating Latvia’s current and hopefully permanent status as an independent country since 1991. If you hang around the statue long enough you might just be lucky enough to see the guards that protect it marching or changing over.
In the afternoon we decided to visit the war museum, which lives inside what was once the main tower of the fort that protected the city. You can see the tower ahead in this picture with lots of foliage growing on it.
In some ways it’s a really cool museum with interesting exhibits and it’s free. However all the information is only in Latvian, which is obviously the museum’s prerogative being the Latvian war museum. There are some printed guides in English but it makes it challenging to enjoy the museum to its fullest. The kids that were in there on a school trip were clearly having a whale of a time though and Paul quite enjoyed getting to play with this gun.
That night we had dinner at the Key to Riga, which serves traditional Latvian food accompanied by Latvian folk music. We both had ribs, which were delicious but there were a lot more exotic things you could try out including bull’s testicles. We sat outside because the weather was lovely but the inside would be absolutely beautiful in cooler weather since it was jammed with candles casting a magical romantic glow.
After two days of unseasonably warm weather we woke up on our final day to rain and mist, which was unfortunate as we had set this aside as our day to go up St Peter’s spire for a view over the city. Their seemed little point since the visibility was so bad but you have to admit it’s a pretty impressive spire… even though it has been rebuilt numerous times since it keeps getting hit by lightning. (This picture was obviously taken the day before the rain arrived).
We used the weather as an excuse to go an wander the markets inside the disused zepellin hangars along the docks. If you want to buy any kind of food, souvenirs or general tat this is the place for you. We were only after one thing though. Mr O loves a bit of Soviet memorabilia and he’d heard there might be some medals up for grabs. You really have to scour the market and be persistent but eventually if keep going there are some stands selling what basically looks like stuff from house clearances where we found these, which made Mr O really happy.
We celebrated our findings by having a cup of coffee at what must now be my favourite coffee/tea shop in the world, Apsara. Situated in the Esplanade in what looks like a kind of hexagonal pagoda it serves a wide variety of teas, coffees and cakes. This is not what makes is special though, it’s the fact that you can climb up to a kind of mezzanine level where no shoes are allowed and you can lie around on cushions looking out over the park. Not only do they serve your coffee with love but you can utterly relax.
In the afternoon we went to one Riga’s most well-known sites, The Occupation Museum, which chronicles Latvia’s 800 year history of being occupied by someone else. The majority if the museum is dedicated to the Russian, Nazi and Soviet occupations of the twentieth century. I don’t want to describe the museum in too much detail because I wouldn’t want to do it an injustice but it’s a heartrending place that is likely to remind you that Earth would probably be a better place if human beings were wiped off it with all the disgusting things we have done to each other. That said, it’s definitely something you should explore to remind yourself of how lucky you are to be free. Entrance to the museum is free but donations are most appreciated and will be taken in any currency.
We had our final dinner in a restaurant called Pete’s Brewhouse, which I can unfortunately find no information about online. It doesn’t sound very Latvian but the food was traditional and amazing. We stumbled upon it and it was the best food we ate in Riga… and everything we ate in Riga was good. If you do manage to find it I would highly recommend the slow-cooked beef cheeks.
Without question Riga further ignited my desire to explore Eastern Europe and I would recommend it for a city break. It’s a small, compact city which is easily walkable and benefits from friendly, welcoming people, delicious food and beer and very reasonable prices. Now all we need is Tallin to complete our Baltic collection!