First Taste of the Baltics – Riga

I’ve been city touring – though without the bus. I walked all around the old centre this morning and afternoon. Riga is truly a fairytale city. A bit like Ljubljana with the same atmosphere of a small romantic get-away.

Swedish Gate in Riga
Copenhagen Airport

Usually one of my all time favorite places is the centrally located Copenhagen Airport. The atmosphere of people going away on holiday, bustling around in long lines while chatting about things to do at their destination point mixed with that of people arriving, being welcomed with (perhaps too many) Danish flags and kisses and hugs is always fantastic.

But today I didn’t like it. As CPH becomes larger and as more and more companies do their entrance with cheap and low budget flights the turmoil comes, and gone is the fascinating atmosphere of traveling. I had ordered my ticket with AirBaltic, going to Riga at 8.40.

Two desks were open which I believe is quite enough, but when CpH decides to let AirBaltic share those desks with none other than Czech Airline it becomes frustrating. Prague is one of the top ten favorite destinations for Danish holiday tourists, maybe even making the top three. The plane with Czech for Prague was scheduled 50 min. after that of Riga and Vilnius.

I was there in good enough time, but in front of me were 40 minutes of line, of tourists on their way to Prague. Even though I and many of my fellow passengers were almost on the verge of loosing our plane, it was not until half an hour before take-off and when boarding of the Riga plane had already begun that we were hurried in front of the line, getting angry words from the people heading to Prague.

I had to run through the security control and scanners with all my luggage because it would otherwise not reach the plane before take-off. Reaching gate A04 I was gasping for breath.

I find it rather stupid to let any company share desk with a plane to Prague unless that company’s departure is later. Right now I have a feeling that I didn’t get time to absorb the fact that I was heading off for a one month summer holiday. It was only as I arrived in Riga, Latvia one hour and 20 minutes later that I realised that I was on my way – on my way to the far off and exotic destination of the Caucasus.

Enjoying the sun from the rooftops
Enjoying the sun from the rooftops

Spending time in the airport before departure is my way of getting ready. I have rituals in the beautiful airport and not getting to relax just stressed me terribly.

Well well, enough complaining – already did a lot of that with my fellow passengers. Now I am in Riga spending three days discovering the city a bit.

 

Riga from above
Riga from above

Day one

After sleeping off the weariness from this morning I went to get something to eat and to do a bit of walking in the centre.

Riga seems so small and yet so very fairytale beautiful. I was really starting to feel that now I was abroad – at least until I sad down at a cafe for a quick bite and suddenly finding myself accompanied by the local radio station playing Satisfaction by Alphabeat. Hmm, being abroad. I still run around humming the bloody song – such a very catchy tune.

I’ve started reading up on Riga and getting an idea of what to do and see, taking the grand tour tomorrow, maybe even jumping on a tour bus. Never did it before and always thought that I should try to drive around a city with headphones on and someone chatting happily in English about what is left and right. I also hope to catch a museum or two, which is also really unusual for me, but there is an exhibition on Soviet mythology, which might be interesting.

I start getting really interested in the fact that on this trip I am actually seeing four different countries that have all been a part of the Soviet Union. Not to mention Hungary and Slovenia, which are both former Communist countries.

Latvia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia all belonged more or less voluntary to the Soviet Union, and while I have spent a lot of time reading up on the Caucasus influences from Selju Turks and Persians, I think I might just spend the next couple of days studying the Soviet impact on Latvia. Perhaps I’ll find a few strange looking Soviet artefacts.

But before engaging in such an adventure, I went to get something to eat. I happened upon a very commercial looking Italian restaurant, where the waiter constantly had to ask me if I liked the food and if I needed anything. It got bloody irritating in the end. I should probably have been reading up on customs and tipping as well.

In the end, he seemed to get a bit offended by my attempt to ignore him by simply nodding once in a while. When he gave me the bill it was with a grunt and after I’d had to wait for an ice age. He might have expected tips, but considering his attitude, I didn’t even consider the idea of leaving any behind. I am seriously the worst tourist ever.

I’ve noticed that many restaurant have menus which read like a teenage magazine. It seems quite common to advertise on the menu for anything from Naomi Campbell perfumes to travel agencies. In a café, it seemed so grotesque that I must have made a sour face, because the waitress nearly laughed at my expression when she handed over this big newspaper sized magazine.

 

Monument of Freedom in Riga
Monument of Freedom in Riga

Day two

I’ve been city touring – though without the bus. I walked all around the old centre this morning and afternoon. Riga is truly a fairytale city. A bit like Ljubljana with the same atmosphere of a small romantic get-away. This might be why there are so many tourists – especially Swedes.

I gather the Swedes find it quite accessible and are drawn to many of the sights which Riga can offer – such as the Swedish Gate. Wink wink.

 

The Powder Tower
The Powder Tower

The gate is nothing more than a hole in the city wall which was added during the Swedish occupation in 1698. Apparently, at the time the notorious executioner of Riga lived in the apartment above the gate and every evening before an execution he would place a red rose in the window. Riga sure is a romantic city.

But there might be another reason that Swedes love this city. Riga currently holds the record for the world’s most drunk person! 7.22 parts per million of alcohol was in this man’s blood when the police found him. Swedes are used to heavy restrictions on alcohol, something which is not the norm in Riga.

On my tour around the centre I went to Latvijas Okupacijas Muzejs – in English; The Museum of the Occupation of Latvia. As a real tourist I decided to pay one lat for an audio guide and went through the museum point by point. It was really good and I think much better than it would have been without the guide.

For one hour I got a crash course on newer Latvian history and learned about both the Nazi and the Soviet occupations of Latvia. I discovered that Latvia had been taken over by the Red Army in 1940. When the Nazis arrived in 1941 they were seen as liberators, and greeted with flowers and celebrations in the streets of Riga. In the one year the Soviet occupation lasted, the Soviets had managed to deport 15,000 intellectuals and wealthy – many of whom were never heard from again. Thus, when the Germans came the Latvians believed they would be free. How terribly and sadly wrong they were. The nightmare had only begun.

The Nazis immediately started an ethnic cleansing of Jews, Roma and similar groups. Moreover, through large parts of the war the Eastern front ran through Latvia, destroying the country.

Seeing Riga today, it is difficult to imagine that this cosy little capital has ever experienced such horrors. But looking closely evidence of the past is everywhere. In the Sv. Peterbaznicas (Saint Peters Church) large photographs depict the same church after it burned down because of artillery fire in 1941. It wasn’t rebuild until 1973.

It seems to me that even though Riga today is a modern European capital, Latvians are very conscious of their past and of the horrors that once were. And even though they are keen on rebuilding their country they still wish to keep the memories of the past through exhibitions, museums and television.

Day three

I am exhausted! I went early this morning to the Arsenals Museum of Art, seeing the “Soviet Mythology. Socialist Realism.” exhibition. I took my sweet time reading the info off all the paintings. It took an eternity! But it was worth it. It was a very interesting collection showing happy workers in collective farming with the sun shining. Propaganda one could argue.

 

Advertisement for Soviet art exhibit
Advertisement for Soviet art exhibit

Afterwards, I decided to walk the length of Elizabetas Iela, which is outside the old centre. It is quite a fascinating street with some fantastic Art Nouveau houses. It should be added that I have no prior idea of what Art Nouveau is, but in the small Riga In Your Pocket guidebook I carry around, the buildings were explained as such. And they were freakily impressive – ornamented with faces and figures. I never knew that Riga had such impressive architecture.

 

Art Noveau building in Riga
Art Noveau building in Riga

The old part of town is also full of fascinating architecture. I always imagined Soviet bunkers with no ornaments, but Riga is nothing like that. Moreover, it is visible to anyone that a great work of renovation has happened these past 15 years. In difference to Ljubljana where the beauty lies in the romantic, but crackling facades, Riga’s centre is flawless for the most part.

This renovation projects have also resulted in the 2001 rebuilding of the very beautiful Melngalvju nams – House of Blackheads which originally dated from 1344, but was destroyed in 1941 and completely torn down by the Soviets in 1948, since it was built in a German architectural tradition.

 

Melngalvju nams
Melngalvju nams
Meeting friends

Through Facebook I discovered that an old friend of mine was stopping overnight in Riga on his way home from Estonia to Slovenia. After a confusing time of trying to get his mobile number, I finally met up with him and his Latvian friend through AEGEE.

 

Hanging out with Matic
Hanging out with Matic

We went for a beer or two and had a few laughs. It was really great hang out with someone after so many days on my own and even better to see Matic again.

His Latvian friend was very well versed in local folk lore and Riga myths. I’ve attempted to re-write some of her stories about Riga here.

It is said that if you should ever happen upon a fish from the Daugava asking you if Riga is ready, you have to answer “no, it is still being build”. Otherwise the fish will drag all of Riga down to the bottom of the ocean.

Riga is famous for Kaķu nams – The Cat House. It is a house which features two cats on the roof. According to Matic’ friend there is also supposed to be a Dog House. According to urban legend, the cats and dogs of these houses keep guard over Riga at night. Therefore, if you stumble upon a cat or a dog at night in Riga, you will know that they are there to protect. Matic argued that the story is probably just made up to justify a large amount of wild dogs and cats, but who knows.

 

The cat house- Kaķu nams
The cat house- Kaķu nams

Matic and I continued our catch-up over a beer at Livslaukums a central Square in Riga. What surprised me even after a few days in Riga was that in the middle of the square a pole was set up with two girls taking turns pole dancing for the guests. It seemed rather vulgar, but apparently the drunk British guys a few tables over absolutely loved it.

Out to the side stood a big and terrifyingly looking bodyguard, and while enjoying our beer we couldn’t help wonder what deep philosophical thoughts he would be thinking at such a time. Most of the time he was skimming the crowd with his stony eyes and tough attitude never moving from his spot. But at some point, when a drunk British guy went a little too close to the stage, he made a powerful move towards the pole looking even more intimidating than before. Our talks also revolved around the dancers, discussing their talent and finding that they were not the top of the line.

Today is the last day of my stay in Riga. This night I’ll catch the plane for Baku together with an Estonian girl. We will arrive early morning Azeri-time and I will probably be gut wrenching tired when we arrive.

So until then, enjoy!

Zofka

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