Trip Start Apr 04, 2007
115Trip End Oct 22, 2007
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We did spend a lot of time sitting in cafes, eating cake and watching the people go by, which was very interesting in itself. Riga has a bit of a bad reputation for wall-to-wall strip clubs and massage parlours, thanks mostly to gangs of drunken Liverpuddlian stag parties that now have access to this fair city thanks to the invent of discount airlines to Eastern Europe. Lots of thanking to do around here. However, despite the strip clubs and casino halls that we did notice, they didn't interfere with the scenery. Since gaining independence in 1991, Riga has been playing 'catch up' with the rest of the modern world and has been doing so in leaps and bounds. We walked among the markets, which resided in a series of old zeppelin hangers, full of babushkas selling veges, fruit, and various sorts of goods. Inside some of the hangers boasted more modern market makers selling cheeses and deli goods in shops. Around the corner from the hangers was one of the biggest cinema complexes in all of Europe. Youths hanging out in all sorts of fashions, women walking by in stiletto heels and listening to their mp3 players.
Despite all of its modern pretensions, the old town still has a lot of charm. Beautiful architecture filled the streets, lovely cafes dotted the squares, and interesting names for many of the buildings. Our favourites consisted of the 'House of Blackheads' and the 'Cat House' (called such simply because it has a statue of a cat on the roof). In our wanderings we also visited the Freedom Monument, a giant statue also known as the cities great Travel Agent during Soviet rule. Laying flowers at this statues feet, during that time, bought you a free all expenses paid trip to the Siberian Gulag! These days it's still a popular place for locals to lay flowers, but now they get to walk home afterward.
All in all, these contrasts made Riga beautiful to us. Because we just wandered the streets without focus we came across traditional crafts people selling to chic runway model-esque women. Heavy metal bands playing street squares and Violin and Cello duos serenading cafe goers. And sadly, Babushkas in their head scarfs begging outside state of the art shopping centers. This is a city that has many memories of the past, and a new generation that is trying to forget them. The economy is booming, with the Latvian currency almost being on par with the British pound, so it's not cheap but definitely worth a visit.
Although we found Riga a safe and welcoming city, we didn't go out partying at night. If you are going to then there are many words of warning. There is a large semi underground mob scene in Riga, which is partly responsible for the wonderful amount of Casino's and Strip clubs. Horror stories are listed at some hostels as a warning for possible stag party goers. Tales of Strippers coming up to you and simply talking. Unbeknownst to the talkee, this conversation is costing big money and can cost as much as 100 Lats (on par with British Pound remember). Or a group of ladies may snag you in the street and ask you to come out for a 'good time'. They get a round of drinks (the most expensive ones) and they are on you. If you can't pay up large men will take you to the nearest bank machine so you can get the money. If you won't take it out, they tend to use head punching as a form of encouragement. If you try to get violent back, they have many large Russian friends waiting in the wings. All in all, a bad scene but easily avoided. Oh, and the usual of Agree on a taxi price BEFORE you get into the taxi. Not everyone is a thief here, but if you do visit use common sense.
On a brighter note, movies are really cheap here. We did a clean sweep and went to one a day in the big movie complex. Gabrielle was uber stoked to find a New Zealand movie playing in the theaters over here (the new dark comedy Black Sheep) and we had a riot just relaxing. Best of all, we think we have even figured out a plan for where to go to next! so stay tuned!
All our best from Latvia
Dan and Gabrielle