Riga, Latvia

Trip Start Mar 13, 2007
Trip End Aug 10, 2007

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Friday, April 6, 2007

I arrived at the bus station in Riga and immediately felt surrounded by Russians for the first time on this trip - young women wearing eight-inch heels and the world's shortest miniskirts, toothless beggars, mean-looking guys in leather jackets, and park bench drunks passing the vodka bottle.  "Is this what I'm in for for my month in Russia?" I wondered.  Latvia and Estonia actually have significant Russian populations, particularly in Riga, since the Soviets moved Slavs in during the Communist years as part of a Russification campaign.  It's also quite easy to distinguish Russians from Balts since the Baltic languages aren't Slavic and sound entirely different from Russian, even if (like me) you can't understand a word.

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 attendant was a pretty young woman with nicely-coiffed dark hair and a heavy Russian accent.  After she charged my card she gave me my key and said, "You on feefth floor.  Eet in atteec.  Eeet nice room".  She then opened a door concealed as a book shelf, behind which was a steep spiral staircase.  I glanced around and asked, "where's the elevator?" to which she responded, "No ees elevator.  You make walking.  Eet good for your legs."  So I'll definitely be getting some exercise in the otherwise flat city of Riga.

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.  Riga actually has one of the world's greatest collections of Art Nouveau architecture, street after street of some of the most decorative residential buildings anywhere with castle turrets, spires, guilded trimmings, stucco bas-reliefs, and colorful tile facades.  Bare-breasted maidens, knights in armor, muscular nudes, and grinning gargoyles watch constantly from the window frames and roof lines as you wander the boulevards below.

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.  In search of exciting eats I wandered through Riga's Central Market, housed in 5 enormous zeppelin hangers behind the train and bus stations and each with a specific food function.  Being Saturday morning of Easter weekend the place was mobbed with Latvian and Russian elders; so many goodies to choose from - lungs and tongues, pigs snouts and ears, oxtails and hares, smelly cheeses and soured milk, baby eels and lampreys, pickled herring, smoked mackerel, fresh fish roe.  How does a loving Babushka decide what to get for the family Easter feast?

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.
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