West to East Micronesia China Mongolia Russia Baltic Region Visegrad Region Balkan Penninsula East to West Ancient Civilizations Straddling the Straight Southern Africa Eastern Africa Ethiopia United Arab Emirates South Asia Crossing Photo Album Trip Logistics Itinerary Transport Logs Route Maps About Us
Two Years & Twice Around the World...  
Old Town, Riga, Latvia
COUNTRY FACTS Pop: 2,274,735 Area: 64,589 sq km Gov't: Parliamentary Democracy Religion: Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Russian Orthodox View Map
Old Town, Riga, Latvia, September12-13, 2003  

Latvian Flag LATVIA


September 12 - 13. RIGA We had to catch a wicked early bus to Riga and acquiesced to paying for a cab to make sure we got there on time.  This was technically our third visit to Latvia since we had hit it on our way from Russia to Lithuania and then from Lithuania to Estonia but this time we were planning to actually see something.  We'd had a difficult time making a reservation for a room since there was some sort of food convention in town and we were prepared to have to get on the afternoon bus to Vilnius if we couldn't find reasonable lodging.  Luckily the bus station tourist office helped us find a room in a nearby hostel called POSH.  Run by an Australian couple it was recently opened and was in the middle of the town market area, just minutes from the bus station and walking distance to old town. 

Following the directions we had been given we found ourselves standing in between the large old airplane hangers that housed parts of the market and facing an old building. There were people bustling everywhere coming and going from the market. We didn't see any sign and stood for a moment reevaluating our map.  A man standing nearby finally approached and asked if we were looking for POSH.  When we said that we were he asked if we could see the sign on a nearby building.  We strained our eyes but saw nothing.  Well, it was there, a pen scratched sign on white paper.  Apparently they were struggling with local laws limiting the use of foreign languages in signs.  The foreign language had to be in smaller print.  This was probably the result of the local Latvians battling the sizable Russian population, larger in Latvia than either of the other Baltic countries.  This man we had meant was apparently one of the owners. 

The interior of POSH was clean and our room was pretty spacious, with a shared toilet and showers down the hall.  Of course the sheets hardly fit the bed and were sure to come off in the middle of the night but that was par for the course in Eastern Europe.  We had hoped that an Australian run outfit would do a bit better but competition apparently wasn't so swift.  Nearly every place we had stayed since Russia didn't have sheets that completely covered the mattress, let alone a mattress pad.  In a private home it was probably of little consequence but in public places it was hard not to consider the droves of people that slept, or did other things, in the very same bed and inadvertently also ended up on the manky mattress because the sheets were too small.  On a new mattress I could manage not to think much about it but the older mattresses gave me a major case of the willies. (Ugh)

With lodgings secured we planned to spend two nights in Riga.  The old town area was perhaps a bit larger than Tallinn's but could be well explored in a couple of days.  Some people rave about Riga and I really enjoyed my first visit some years earlier but as sad as it is to say the large Russian population made us nervous and eager to keep moving.  All we heard around us was Russian and this instinctively made us clutch our valuables.  Perhaps not a fair reaction since we were in Latvia and, in fact, a woman at the busy market was kind enough to chase us down when we had dropped something. But our reaction was almost unconscious and since the rudeness barometer had risen a bit as well it was hard to shake our old fears.  There was also a conspicuous population of drunks that made the city seem more seedy. 

Riga's old town had its own merits, however.  The compact cobblestone alleyways were filled with taller 17th c. or earlier German buildings and the numerous towering church steeples gave the old town area a beautiful skyline.  Some areas had been neatly refurbished but others had stood the test of time, including the old 14th century Powder Tower which lasted intact with cannon balls protruding from its side. The 14th century Great and Small Guilds today house the Philharmonic Orchestra but the Cat House stands opposite the Great Guild, black cats erected on the two turrets, reminding visitors of a day when its owner installed the cats in protest against the Great Guild.  Offended at not being accepted into the Guild the owner had models of his cats made and tails up positioned them with their back ends to the Great Guild Hall.  There were latter turned around when he was accepted as a member.  So much for subtlety.  Many other statues adorn the sides of buildings in old town Riga, although more for the purpose of decoration. 

We walked out on both the Akmens Bridge and the Vansu Bridge, across the Daugava River, the latter giving us some brilliant views of the city at sunset.  The old town area did suffer from too many cars but the number of cafes, restaurants, shops, banks, etc. made it feel like part of a bigger city rather than exclusively tourist territory.  Unfortunately, what I had considered one of the highlights of Riga, a ride up to the top of St. Peter's Church, the highest tower in old town, wasn't possible.  There had recently been a suicide from the tower and it was closed. 

Riga also had a nice little collection of Art Neaveau buildings just outside the old town and across the large Kronvalda Parks.  That is about as far as went toward the New Riga.  With a population of 753,000 people, Riga was the largest city in the Baltics and its new city was a true city of size,  nearly double Tallinn's 400,000 people and significantly larger than Vilinius' 600,000 people.  The Kronvalda parks that separated new town from old town were bisected by a river and at the main entrance of the old town area stood the impressive Freedom Monument, a bronze statue of a lady towering on a tall pedestal, holding three stars which represented the three historic regions of Latvia.  Erected before WWII this monument has taken on new meaning to the Latvians and it is again actively guarded.  We observed a rather unceremonious changing of the guards where a, probably new, officer was heavily hazed by a couple of military men in army fatigues.  From our distance we couldn't seem him give any reaction to these men yelling into his face.  He tried to stand unmoving in his place but apparently had failed this crude public test and was pushed off into the military van, thereafter replaced by another guard once the official guard changing ceremony took place.  While hazing of the young officer wasn't a surprise I questioned the judgment of the military in choosing to humiliate one of their own in front of the on looking public.  It really just served to make them all look like idiots.

Inside the park area people were enjoying sporadic bits of sunshine, eating, walking, talking and necking.  But, I was moved by the slabs of engraved marble that were memorials to the victims of January 20, 1991, when Soviet troops stormed the Interior Ministry.  One read Gvido Zvaigzne, Cinema Operator.

Grey and rainy weather kept us moving from cafe to restaurant while we were in Riga.  Coffee Nation, on the main square, was as modern as any cafe back home and luckily gave the opportunity to upload updates to our website via their wireless connection.  Our 10-BaseT connection in Tallin failed us in the end as students began to arrive for school and drained available network capacity.  We had some good food as well, mostly the LIDO buffets where we could try everything from kebabs to local foods but we made one adventurous foray into an Ayurvedic Indian restaurant as well.

Our ritual visit to the National Bank was easy, as it was located in the old town area, just across a park from the castle (1330), now home to the President.  Unlike most currencies we encountered in Eastern Europe the Latvians favor a high exchange rate with the US dollar, with one Lat equaling over two dollars.   The cost of goods, however, is not so great and we spent our visit sifting through change most of the time.

With our two days of sightseeing in Riga complete we were satisfied and ready to return to our Vilnius.

LITHUANIA Vilnius Aug 30 Aug 31 Sept 1-2 Sept 3 Sept 4-5

ESTONIA Tallinn Sept 6-8

FINLAND Helsinki Sept 9

ESTONIA Tallinn Sept 10-11

LATVIA Riga Sept 12-13

LITHUANIA Vilnius Sept 14-15