Trip Start Mar 13, 2007
92Trip End Aug 10, 2007
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My accommodations in Riga at the Old Town Hostel and Pub were a short two minute walk across a main road from the bus station. I walked in to a noontime pub crowd of English-speaking beer drinkers, mostly Aussies from their accents, and went over to what seemed like the bar/reception
The Old Town of Riga didn't quite live up to my high expectations considering its historical importance as a major Hanseatic port city and its UNESCO World Heritage site status. I was expecting an outstanding medieval city, something along the lines of Bruges or Prague's Old Town. There are several beautiful churches and well-restored historic homes and a number of atmospheric streets but overall it's a jumble of architectural styles including a glitzy new shopping mall and a few other post-Soviet modern buildings. Old Town also has a wide assortment of Irish pubs for the roving bands of young British and Scandinavian guys on cheap stag-party holidays.
Far more interesting is Riga's nineteenth-century new town beyond the rings of parks that surrounds the Old Town
I sometimes wonder what basis countries use to decide what denominations to issue as coins versus paper currency. I've been to countries that have paper currency worth less than one U.S. cent in regular use and in others where there are no bills worth less than the equivalent of about $6 (Euroland, for example). Latvia's also kind of extreme in this respect; a 2 Lat coin that you regularly get as change here is worth almost $4. You don't want to end up with a pocket full of those that you can't exchange when you leave the country.
I haven't had a great deal of success in finding interesting new local dishes. Latvian cuisine seems to consist mostly of variations on the broader regional theme of pork, potatoes, cabbage, bread, and cream - dishes like sauerkraut and sausage soup or peas with crackling, tasty enough but hardly exotic
Some of the stars of the Latvian culinaria, though, are of the liquid variety. The first unusual drink is birch juice, which actually comes from birch trees that are tapped much like maples are in North America during spring thaw. Birch Juice is clear and on the sweet side but gets most of its flavor from the lemon and spices that are usually added. Then there's Black Balzams, Latvia's national drink, a thick brown syrupy liquer made from a secret recipe with 12 different herbs. Balzams supposedly has medicinal properties and ought to because it tastes like an unsweetened cough syrup. My favorite in Latvia, though, is the clear sparkling pear cider served from the tap almost everywhere here. It could almost be a slightly sweet champagne.
My rooftop hostel room in Riga worked out quite well after all. Despite having five roommates each night, it was almost like having a private since they all stumbled in from their all-night party sessions about the same time of morning I was rising for yet another day of turbo-tourism.