Goldenpeninsula. In the name of exploring the tracks less beaten I decided to got to the birthplace of the Christmas tree. The Baltic states always have fed my curiosity, as not much is told them in the books nor in the news. When I was a teenager I saw the Baltic countries on the European map and wondered how they speak and how their culture look like. Having witnessed the iron curtain in the eighties the cultural dichotomy has always been the west European on one side and the Slavonic on the other (well, with the Hungarians as the caught-in-between). But the Baltics? Having seen them under Teutonic order over centuries I thought that something German has been left upon them. Only in the age of the internet and Wikipedia I finally have come to know about their language and their history. When I made my choice about which of the three countries to visit there was no hesitation thatI went for Latvia, as the filling of the sandwich. Lithuania wasn’t really an option as it lies to close to Poland and Belarus, the Slavonic heartland, and Estonia is like a lesser cousin to the Finns, hence not a “Baltic priority”.
The only upsetting fact is that the Latvians are making up only 60% of the population and are mostly outside Riga. Even more upsetting is that of the rest 29% are Russian, living mostly in cities like Riga. Should I end up spending my trip in miniature Russia?
With this worry I got to Luton airport and had big ears on. I had tried to train my ears to the sound of the Latvian language; but as different these two languages are, just by the sound it is not easy to tell one from the other, ie. if you don’t have the words by which you can identify the language. Bot Latvian and Russian are heavy on the consonants, both have hissing sounds and the ‘nj’ sound (like the Spanish ‘n’ with tilde). So I had to spot anchor words that I know in order to tell whether it was Latvian or Russian. “Da” and “njet” is the yes and no in Russian, while the Latvians have the German-like “Ja” and “Ne”. But fact is that the Baltic languages are closer related to the Slavonic languages than to the other Indo-European languages.
Different or not, I still felt quite lost among all the pale and grumpy-looking blokes. No wonder as being the only Asian person in the crowd…
This was my first time at Luton Airport and I don’t really like it. The facilities are not appealing and rather functional. This became particularly apparent at the gate, where we had to walk downstairs onto the ground level and walk over to the aircraft. The whole area looked rather like a gym than a departure gate. The fact that we had to walk over to the plane was really a namesake of a budget airline.
On a side note, with my departure I would leave the last cold wave in southern England for the time being:
With the plane so packed I rather decided to just fall asleep. As I was sitting on the aisle side though, my head tended to bend over towards the aisle. In my slumber I noticed that people moved up and down the aisle all the time and I had to pull my head back – I even dreamt that my head was about to be torn away by a passer-by!
The first thing I was on about at the landing was the snow. Yes! There it was! The snow! I was anxious that I might find just a fine dusting, but I was not disappointed. Piles of snow dotted the runway and icicles hanging from every eave. And yes, I felt the cold. The bonnet was on quickly and the gloves a good investment.
The Riga international airport is a tiny thing by every standard. The baggage reclaim was so close to the exit, one almost could feel the wind coming in everytime the door opened. Once outside I decided not to take a taxi. I consider it to risky in a foreign country to be alone with a driver in a car. Thus taking the bus felt much safer. And Riga is quite small scale so it did not feel tedious either. Two British girls with whom I was on the same plane thought similar. Even though we arrived late, the bus was filling up quickly with people of all age. It does not seem to be late for the locals. Obviously they were heading for the city centre. However, somehow these stupid tourists failed to get off at the same spot like the locals do and remain the last when the bus went on… to final stop, which was in a dark, semi-industrial area. I pressed some information from the driver who just could speak some broken English about where we were. I got out and started to walk the way back. The two on their part did not have any clue. They did not suspect anything. As they told me they wanted to get to the Radisson Blu (not speaking for their taste) which was in the commercial centre of the city. I reckoned that they had the same track like me, but when I stopped to get some orientation on the map, the girls just turned corner. They did not have any idea where they were heading to and seemed to be more occupied with themselves than the the place they were in. I marched ahead and what I have noticed that even when I was looking around to get some orientation, nobody offered any help. One can interpret this either as being unhelpful or just as shy. But finally I reached the old town which was just magnificent in the light of the street lamps. Small narrow lanes with well preserved houses. And in every street were small restaurants, bars or guesthouses, all very homely and inviting. And loads of Russian(s). So much that I was not sure about any Latvian among it. Despite the late hour there were still lots of people around; for such a small city the nightlife was remarkable.
The cosy Riga alleyways at night
But I did not really fit in with me carrying my backpack. So despite being desperately hungry I preferred to get to the hotel straight away – which was not easy in the different alleyways. Often I had to look for the streetsigns and got lost a few times before finally reaching Ekeskonvents Hotel.
I have chosen this cosy historic hotel in the middle of the old town centre from Lonely Planet and was enchanted by the first sight.
The building has foundations dating back to 1435 and has retained much of his historic character. This was felt from the very step inside: the front door was still a heavy wooden door with chunky iron handles. Instead of getting lost in a huge lobby one literally drops almost onto the desk of the exceptionally friendly staff. Her desk, a waiting bench, some cupboards and lockers, that’s all that fits into the reception area. A rustic staircase leads upstairs, passing reading corners set into the old walls. It just can’t get cosier than that.
The time difference between Latvia and UK is two hours, so I was not quite ready for sleep yet. The room itself was so inviting, even it was simple and having just the basic amenities: a small wardrobe, a bed with night-tables, a chair and, well, a TV (considered as basic these days). The most interesting part was actually the bathroom which was behind a kind of wardrobe. Simple but with a huge effect.
This day was dedicated to the old city. But on purpose I made no particular list of what I wanted to see; I rather wandered around and had a rather rough idea about the route. Contrary to the night, the city (the centre at least) seemed very tranquil, almost like a Sunday. I went to the main shopping mall in the old city to buy some necessities that I had forgotten at home and found the main supermarket being quieter than the local Tesco at home. What I have noticed is that contrary to the UK, the people in shops are generally leaving you unbothered. That was even the case in the main tourist information centre. But when it comes to beggars there are no cultural differences. And be it in broken English. First he tried to talk to me in Russian (he might think I’m from Siberia), but with no success. I gave him one Lats (the local currency) which was a ripoff for someone from the UK like me. By the end of the day it was more than a Pound!
For having daytime temperatures at about -4deg celsius I wasn’t freezing; however, filming was a torture. In seconds the fingers would start freezing.
View on the Riga city council
The best to get a rough idea about the place I am visiting is to visit a museum about the national history. A bit of a shame that the national history museum was rather a provincial museum which has turned a bit dusty. The description was mostly in Latvian, even there was a summary for each room in most of the important languages including French and German. Only a few visitors lost their way here; the auntie at the cashier was quite grumpy – hmmm well, I had to let it out somehow…
Cold weather makes terribly hungry. So I was more than ready to sample the local food which is said to be quite heavy on meat. Lucky for me, the cavern next to the museum which was by the way in the castle which also functions as a presidential palace (quite multifunctional, such a palace), turns out to be a recommended place when it comes to local food. The name was a bit odd, Vecmeita ar kaki means “The spinster and her cat”, but pubnames in England are equally weird…. The lunchtime menu was restricted; they had only one meal and only different side dishes to choose from. The dish on the menu was a huge pork chop with a creamy sauce, vegetables… Not a culinary revelation, but quite enjoyable and really filling! The liquid to rinse it down was what they called “malt drink” on the menu; a strange brown carbonated drink that tasted a bit like a herbal coke mixed with Caribbean malt. Actually not too bad… Good enough to have two glasses of it.
Filled up, I was ready for another walk, during which I strolled around the old town with no particular destination. I was not on the hunt for attractions anyway, rather I was just soaking up the flair and the vibe of the historic city as well as enjoying the snow. But the flattening batteries forced me to retreat to the hotel which was not unwelcomed as I had a few postcards to write. And I have to admit that after several hours out in the cold I really appreciated being in a heated room.
With the postcards written (but without the camera as the batteries were not fully charged yet) I stepped outside again to pursue one of the main reason I was in Latvia: the Christmas spirit. Lest we forget: Latvia is being said to be the birthplace of the christmas tree. And the verdict was: pleasantly free of Americanised glitter as often seen in the UK, far less commercialised, but far less impressive, especially if you know the German Christmas markets. Yes there were Christmas markets, but the grumpy Russian mamushkas in the different stalls did not make the market particularly inviting. Don’t get me wrong; the main christmas market was nice; but it did not live up to what you know from German christmas markets (which are hard to beat anyway).
The Riga Christmas market
I wanted to have my dinner at Lido which offers Latvian cuisine but the lovely smell from one grill stall caught me first: sausages and sauerkraut. Again, a heavy treat and very hearty. What I also tried was egg nog which is quite an acquired taste and knocked me off a bit….
The hearty Christmas meal. Black sausage, sauerkraut, potato wedges – and the notorious egg nog
The mother of all Christmas trees…
Christmas markets here are also German exports
Look how busy it was even after 10 PM!
I’m not a nightlife guy and even the first time Riga would not turn me into one, so I returned once more to the hotel once I exhausted the Christmas market. I wanted to save the energy for the next day, so preferred to chill out for the rest of the evening.
But before that I indulged into the (mini-)shopping spree in the main supermarket (whose name I have totally forgotten) where I found out that the Latvians have strange grey bread and a passion for caraway (which I hate).
TV was provided in the room, but the oddest thing was that there was not a single Latvian channel on it! Instead one is left with all the the major news channels of BBC, CNN and the like plus the full range of Polish, Russian and even German TV! Sad for someone curious about local media like me…
The day before I did not mention the breakfast buffet that was included. Well, why should I actually mention it when there is hardly anything memorable about it?
If yesterday was for the old Riga, then today we jumped all the way into the twentieth century. Riga has its reputation for being the capital of art nouveau of Europe (hence of the world) and that is something I could not miss. Before that I had suddenly become friend with a dog of one of the staff which was a bit of a surprise as the night before it had been barking at me ferociously.
Time to hit the cold again. And today was much less pleasant than the day before; the wind had picked up, blowing the snow down from the roofs, giving the impression as if it snowed again. But first, I went to recapture the freedom monument again. The monument was unveiled in 1935 and honours the soldiers killed in the Latvian War of Independence.
And another architectural delight (more a personal one) caught my attention. A Neo-Byzantine Russian-Orthodox church called Nativity Cathedral. A) I always have marvelled about Romance and Byzantine style architecture and I felt lucky to come across one in real life. B) I have never come across an Orthodox church. So I just could not miss the opportunity to see it from the inside. Built between 1876 and 1883 by the Russian architect Nicolai Chagin it represented the architecture of the dominating power of tsarist Russia. Reflecting Latvia itself it has been a subject of dispute over the last century; with the Germans converting it into a Lutheran church, then back to Orthodox again before the socialist Soviet Union turned it into a somewhat secular function as a planetarium (well the domes were there). Now finally, it serves it original purpose as an Orthodox church for the Russians in Riga.
The Nativity Cathedral in Riga
A step inside this impressive church was like a journey into another world to me. Icons and beautiful medieval style frescoes looking down from the ceiling. In a corner the priest was reciting verses, like a sung sermon, and worshippers praying, crossing themselves, bowing, kneeling down. A quite magical atmosphere.
Back to the secular architecture. The main areas where the best examples of art nouveau can be seen are in the Elizabetae Iela and Alberta Iela. Even I am not a real fan of all the mythic creatures and scary faces on the facades I have to admit that this style of architecture does not fail to spread an enigmatic feel. I wanted to find out more in a museum dedicated to this architectural style. Inside however, I got the wrong way into a totally different museum. It was a museum about a Latvian artist of that time whose name I have totally forgotten. The guy at the entrance tried his utmost to take me into the museum and to take care of me. That guy was actually a young artist who had his own work exhibited in one of the rooms, but just as a part of another exhibition where a bunch of middle aged women were making planning. It seemed to me that the young artist just have been a wall out of empathy because i just could not see any relationship between his works and the main exhibition at all. His photographs just contained him and his girlfriend naked which I did not find very artistic… Putting them together with the landscape paintings seemed a bit overstretched… I pitied a bit that bloke as there wasn’t anyone visiting the museum and he even made the effort of opening the window so that I can make shots from the art nouveau building on the opposite side.
But I was glad to get out of there and to be where I actually wanted to be: the museum of art nouveau. Well, it was less a museum about art nouveau as an art or architectural form which is kind of disappointing, rather it was a local museum about life at the turn to the 20th century. Which was not bad. Funny was that all visitors had to walk in oversized slippers which was put over the shoes in order to protect the wooden floor. All staff were dressed in period costumes of that time so it was like travelling in a time machine. Ah, by the way, what I have noticed is that all the museums I have visited have their entrances inside, just like apartments. The art nouveau museum was just as big as the apartment that particular family lived in. The most interesting part, what else could it be, was the kitchen. Fire was made in the stove and I learned that this apartment had, unusual for that time a central heating. Visitors are even given an opportunity to decorate biscuits.
A rather homely museum experience.
Then it was time for lunch. And after the spare version and the distraction the day before I wanted to do it right. So I went to “Lido”, a chain of food plus recreation rooms with a distinct Latvian theme. Must be authentic as it was mainly directed to Latvian people anyway who seem to really like the place as it was pretty full. The waitresses wore traditional dresses and everything was pretty rustic, wooden and dark. Fortunately, it was not tacky like traditional features in Germany. The food was served as a buffet and was really hearty – but very good. The plates were all earthenware – very rustic.
As the final endeavour I wanted to go up the St. Peter Church to get the bird’s eye on the city. But the weather just got worse. Nobody queued up for view and I almost thought that the tower was closed. And I was the only one entering the lift with the the grumpy attendant (understandable, it’s a dull job!). I looked so grumpy and unwelcoming I feared that he would leave me on the tower. Which would be my death as it was the most challenging place I have been for ages. The icy gust went right through my bones and was so strong that I feared it would knock my tripod over. The lift went down and would be back again in fifteen minutes. Being up there I was deadly sure I would not endure any longer than that. Apart from that it’s approaching departure that started to worry me.
So I got back to the hotel for the last time to pick up my luggage before wading past the black cat (strange name for the probably most beautiful building in Riga) to the bus stop. At the airport awaited my a rather unpleasant ending to this wonderful short city-break: Because I did not confirmed my return flight to the UK, I had to pay a very hefty fee of 17 Lats which was a sort of nasty.
Verdict: Riga is a cute little city and really enjoyable. It may not boost the top attractions, but it is atmospheric. I was glad that I have chosen it for my winter city break. I’ve never been to Eastern Europe (apart from Hungary) before, so this trip also opened up a door to new destinations for me. Now I’m looking forward to more Eastern European breakaways!
For all those loving moving pictures, please check this out: