I love travelling, and since I now work freelance, I make sure to make the most of my bank holidays. So this Easter, I planned an adventure to some new countries as I count countries. This trip was to be in my usual bargain travel style. Budget airline availability had me flying into Helsinki, and out from Tallinn. At the last minute, I also tacked on Riga.
Why was I even in Riga?
Now Helsinki and Tallinn are very close, a 2 hour ferry ride apart. Also close is St Petersburg, and by a cruise passenger loophole you can make a short trip by boat from Helsinki without needing an expensive Russian visa. So, I was planning to take this ferry and visit St Petersburg. However the ferry company didn’t release their bookings or schedule when super-in advance me was booking. I thought this might be just the English language version, so got a Russian speaking friend to check the Russian site, and tickets really were not for sale.
By the time the ferry was available to book, I was wavering on the cost, and waiting for a special offer. And as no special offer came, I did not book. Instead I started to price up my backup plan (cause you always have a plan A, B and C in my mad world). A trip to Riga seemed much easier and more affordable, so I bit the bullet and went for Riga. On boy, I made the right decision. As well as adoring Riga, Russian – British diplomatic relations have plummeted a bit lately.
The approach to Riga
Anyway, I got the bus to Riga from Tallinn, and loved the journey. I am one of these strange people that loves bus journeys. Snowy forest and picture postcard rural scenes permeated, it was lovely. And then when we got to the suburbs of Riga, what can I say. The perfection was removed. It was ugly, in a ex-soviet heavily graffiti-ed way. This piqued my interest, and my eyes were glued to the window to see how the city developed. The approach to Riga reminded me of Paris in a way, as the banlieues are also quite ugly.
Towards the centre
As we drove onward into the centre, my eyes light up. The buildings got taller, and some lovely old apartment blocks were nestled amongst traditional wooden houses. I was simply charmed, and loved the Latvian script everywhere. I was loving just the normal streets, then Riga kept giving. We passed an amazing Russian orthodox church, absolutely stunning to look at. And then a lovely frozen river beside the old town, bustling with people out for a walk, and the freedom monument. All my architectural dreams came true when went round the final corner to the bus station, with an amazing 1920s masterpiece – not quite art deco, not quite art nouveau in my mind, but striking and stunning.
As you can tell from the paragraph above, I love architecture. In a looking at and admiring way, not in any way professionally or critically. And my period is the 1920’s to 1930’s. I adore everything built in the time. My house was built in 1930, and I absolutely love this. Riga has an art nouveau district, which is a mecca for people who love this period. These buildings were in various states of repair, but were all simply stunning. To add to the art nouveau charm, since the UK is 99.9% brick/stone since 1666 and the great fire, the old wooden buildings are also charming and quaint. What I have outlined above is the new Riga, the post medieval town. I haven’t even begun to describe the impressiveness of the old medieval town. As it is breathtaking as well, Riga holds so much history and modernity in these varied streets.
Everyone speaks to me in Latvian
As well as the architecture, I loved the fact that the default setting was to address me in Latvian. Despite the fact I speak no Latvian, this made me happy. I hate the colonial attitude that everyone must speak English, despite benefiting from it a lot. From shopkeeper to train conductor, Latvian was the default and I love that. It gave me the impression Latvia is independent and proud, which always impresses me.
It snows….and everything keeps going
I was lucky enough to get a real snowy day in Riga, which made everything look perfect. Well at least until the slow had been turned a mushy colour. But what impressed me the most, was that everything keeps on going as normal. The outdoor market is still bustling, people still go outside and snow shoveling takes on enormous proportions. And I also got to see something new to me – ice fishing. I had no idea that was a real thing still, and wondered what it was out on the lakes. A closer inspection reveled people sitting on stools fishing through tiny holes. Amazing.
No travelogue of mine is complete without cakes. I don’t eat out a lot, but I love cakes. And I wasn’t sure what to expect at the Riga central market, but I wanted to give it a go. It is housed in massive hangars, right beside the bus and train stations. My first attempt was disappointing, as I entered the meat market. As a devoted vegetarian, this was grim. I held my breath and quickly exited this hangar. Then I stumbled into the fruit and veg, which made me much more happy. And they priced things, which alleviated my horror of haggling.
And then I entered the next hangar prepared for the worst, but found the best. No dead animals, but cakes. And cakes galore. This was the bakery hangar. I bought some of the Latvian black bread, which actually made amazing avocado toast. Obviously I went wild on the baked sweet treats, with cakes, cakes and more cakes. To offset my walking in the cold weather. They were all delicious and different. One in particular was memorable, I thought I bought a pain-au-chocolat. Only when I bit into it I realized it was dense poppy seeds. I certainly would have got a positive for opium that day.
I can’t find the station
After stalking up on cakes for the journey I need to get the train. But I couldn’t find the station. Or more accurately the way in. And my train leaves on 10 minutes. I resort to asking a local for directions, and again am impressed that words are not needed. He gives me hand gesture directions to the station, which are gratefully appreciated. Additionally when I get to the station, my method of choice, a ticket machine is not available. I bravely go to the counter, am greeted in Latvian and purchase a ticket after my “Do you happen to speak English” is answered by “Of course, where are you going”. So this was a really awkward to find station – seriously, it looked like part of the shopping centre beside it, and google didn’t exactly help. But you know what? I appreciate the challenge, and love cities that don’t make it too easy for you. Adds to the charm in my opinion.
More adventures on a Day trip to Sigulda
Given my plan to be more adventurous on holiday, despite the snow I went for a day trip and hike. Sigulda is a common day trip from Riga, although I suspect it might be more heavily trafficked when it is warmer. I did the three castle route, around a 10km walk taking in a few castles and a stately home. The snow was lying and the temperature was under zero, but it was absolutely beautiful to see.
Another snowy walk
Similar to my previous snowy walk, I did get caught out on the ice, and had quite a few ungainly falls to my rather well padded rear. Turns out under the fresh snow there were random patches of evil ice. After each fall I brushed the snow off me and carried on, no major injuries, just a few bruises and ego dents. What amused me the most, was on my return, that my original footprints in the snow were still visible. I was the only one that went the full route that day. And in a true feminist victory, the only other mad people out hiking in the snow were all women.
Just love the vibe
Overall, there was so much I loved about Riga. From the fast internet, architecture, and cafes it is such a cool and interesting city, I am hooked. I’d love to live here. I even asked a friend who has been researching post Brexit EU passport options his opinion. Apparently you need 10 years residency and to speak Latvian to get a passport. I reckon in 10 years even I could learn enough Latvian to pass a test. Even if that doesn’t come to fruition, I’ll be sure to visit Riga again.
Over to you
- Have you even been to Latvia?
- Do you ever find you just fall in love with a place?
- What makes you love a place?