Riga, Latvia..what can I say but cheap beer, interesting drinking establishments, snowy woods, street cars, and massive markets.
We traveled to Riga on a whim, enticed by the affordable room rates and flights. This was our first trip to “Eastern” Europe, so we had no expectations. When we told several friends we were traveling to Riga, they said something along the lines of “Riga, why are you going there?”
We took an empty Baltic air flight Thursday morning and easily made our way from the rather small airport to our hotel via the airport bus. Katie had booked the Old Riga Hotel in historic Old Town. The hotel was centrally located and really easy to get to and was a good home base for us due to the proximity to a number of street cars. The street car system was very good in Riga and made getting around very easy.
To an outsider, the trolleys run seemingly everywhere in the city and are clean and efficient. They are also cheap with a one way ticket only costing about USD 1.5.
In the evening we had a bizarre meal at a cafeteria where we had our first introduction to Latvian food. The venue was called Alus Seta, which supposedly means beer hall. I am not sure I could really describe what we ate, but it was not bad. The beer was also good and cheap.
In the morning we decided to try the trolley system and go to a park for a winter adventure. The park was called a “city park,” but was a 30 minute trolley ride from downtown. The park was not so much a park but a large pine forest and after a bit of walking we found the winter park with a cross country ski course, “downhill” ski/snowboard park and skating rink. Katie and I decided to rent some skates and try our hand at skating. I was a bit apprehensive since I had not ice skated since I borrowed a pair of women’s figure skates from one of my Mom’s high school students when I was six or seven at the Lewis County Fair rink. Needless to say, I may have grown up in a cold climate, but that did not make me a good skater. While Katie effortlessly cruised around me, I fell on my butt several times. I guess all of the skating parties at Hawaii’s Ice Palace served her well. There were also several young Latvian boys who whipped around me over and over again probably making fun of me in Latvian, but flashing me smiles when I fell down and gave anyone around me the “did anyone just see that face.” It was a great experience, but lets just say I will stick to other winter sports I am better at.
As a school group of about 37 students got off a school bus and started lining up to rent skates we took our cue and headed out. Our walk back to the train was really pretty walking through the pines and the snow. We wished we would have had some cross country skis.
That evening we had a very nice dinner at nice restaurant and then had beers at a local watering hole. The beers were quite cheap as was the hardcore pornography the establishment was showing. The music choices were also interesting ranging from Tenacious D to the Beetles to Pantera. The 11 year old girl in the bar who was dancing with her parents seemed to be enjoying it. Katie however was not.
We heard about a massive market in Riga and had to go. The market was housed in and around five old blimp hangers. The markets seemed to be grouped into similar items within each building with the really random stuff outside of the buildings. The really random stuff consisted of everything from random mens jeans to fruit and tools, to hosiery and fur coats. The first building housed rows and rows of red meat, mostly pork. The middle two buildings housed cheeses, pet foods, cloth, bread, vegetables, and other random things. The last building housed fish, which was really interesting. Venders sold everything from cavier to live fish flopping around. This building seemed like it was where most of the action was going on and the people, although somewhat suspicious of my photo taking, seemed to be in good spirits despite the gray weather outside.
After our cornucopian feast for our eyes, we cruised about Old Town and then went out to a Belgian restaurant for dinner. The food was great as well as the musical Saxophone accompaniment. Not as good as Sax on the Beach, but still, you know, OK.
We typically shy away from bus cruises around cities, preferring to walk under our own power, but with Katie sick and the weather cold, and snowy, we decided a bus tour might be just what the doctor ordered. It was actually a pretty good decision as we were able to see several places we had missed. Following the tour we enjoyed some of the beautiful buildings around old town, an area that was strangely deserted. The architecture of Riga was extremely varied with wood framed buildings next to art noveau buildings. We were told that many films depicting Europe over the past 100 years were filmed in Riga due to its architecture.
All in all, Riga was a fairly diverse place. It had been occupied by Sweden, Germany, and the Soviet Union so it has a varied history and outlook. Katie and I had a wonderful time in a place that is struggling with its identity, but modernizing and growing.