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Riga, Latvia - A Winter Wonderland!

by flock1 

Posted: 05 July 2006
Word Count: 2011
Summary: A Two-day trip to the heart of the Baltics. In February!

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Riga, Latvia
A Winter Wonderland

Approaching Riga International Airport on a dark February evening, I noticed the snow outside for the first time. It was blowing past the wing in ferocious streaks of white. I turned to Jodie, wondering whether to tell her. After all, it had taken some hard convincing to get her to go to Latvia. I recalled our conversation on the subject. “Come on,” I’d said. “It’ll be an experience if nothing else.”
“Really?” she answered. “So convince me to go to a place I’ve never even heard of.”
Taking a deep breath I told Jodie about the beautiful medieval old town, and the modern bars and restaurants surrounding it. I described the parks and monuments, then showed her a picture of the Hotel Latvija, the tallest building in Riga. I could see Jodie was impressed with how it looked. “And do you know the best thing about it? It’s got a bar on the 24th floor called the Skyline. It overlooks the whole city. ”
Jodie’s eyes widened. “Ooh, that does sound nice.” But then her face furrowed. “But won’t it be cold in February?”
I nodded. She was right. Riga, in February, would be freezing. In fact, the previous February had been down to – 28 ° C at one point. “Look,” I said. “It’s going to be cold. But if we wrap up warm, we’ll be fine. And the snow might even add to the whole trip. Everything will look really Christmassy.”
Jodie looked unconvinced, but even so, told me to go ahead and book it. “But I’ll tell you one thing,” she added. “If I don’t like it in Latvia, you won’t get me to anymore of these weird countries I know you’ve been looking at.”
Clapping my hands in glee, I said, “You won’t regret it, I promise!”

* * *

Touching down at Riga Airport at 7:20pm local time, I regarded the snow and ice outside. Nowhere looks warm and inviting in the dark. Even less so with a blizzard blowing and an aeroplane from Uzbekistan parked at the stand next to us. Thirty minutes later we were through customs with our luggage and ready to brave the cold outside.
“Ready,” I said.
Beside me, Jodie nodded, putting on her hat and scarf as we headed for the exit to hail a taxi. As soon as we stepped outside, the freezing temperatures hit us - a blast of ice enveloping every exposed inch of skin instantly. We ran for the nearest taxi. Ten minutes later we pulled up outside our hotel. We spent the evening in the bar, watching the snow build up outside.

The next morning, our only full day in Latvia, we got up bright and early. After a quick peer behind the curtains, I could see snow everywhere. When Jodie joined me at the window, her reaction surprised me. “It looks so pretty! And that Church looks amazing. What is it?”
“It’s called the Orthodox Cathedral,” I answered, looking at my guide book. “During Soviet times it was turned into a restaurant and lecture hall. When Latvia gained independence, it changed back to being a cathedral.”
An hour later, wrapped up like Eskimos, we were ready to step into the arctic conditions. The temperature outside was a bone rattling minus ten. Spring had arrived in Latvia! Time to get the barbeque out.

Heading down the Brivibas Bulvaris, a long straight road leading to the heart of Riga, our first stop was the Freedom Monument. Built in 1935, and regarded by many Latvians as a national shrine, it had a statue of Mother Latvia on the very top. Approaching the monument, we spotted the two soldiers standing to attention at its base. And then, as if a switch had been suddenly flipped, they started moving in a peculiar manner. It was a strange routine, straight from Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks. Each action was exaggerated in slow motion. It was, we later found out, the changing of the guards.
Despite the freezing temperatures, we were really enjoying ourselves. And as we neared the central area (only ten minutes walk from our hotel) we came to the second of our sightseeing destinations – the strangely named House of Blackheads. This distinctive red brick building dated back to the 14th century where it was the home of unmarried merchants. According to local legend, the men wore black caps as they indulged in mad banquets and drinking sessions. Today though, the House of Blackheads is a museum and tourist information centre.
“See that spire over there?” I said to Jodie, pointing to our left. “It’s the Church of St Peter and according to this guide book, there’s an interesting story behind it.”
Jodie listened as I began to tell the tale. Apparently, the spire had fallen off or burned down so many times that Peter the Great, visiting Riga at the time, ordered a proper rebuild once and for all. It was finally completed in 1746. In celebration, the architect in charge climbed to the very top of the spire and drunk a glass of wine. Then he threw his empty glass to the ground, telling everyone that the number of shards it broke into would signify how many centuries the spire would remain standing. So they all climbed back down to have a gander. They weren’t happy with what they found. The glass had only broken into two pieces. By chance, it had landed in a pile of hay.
“So did the spire fall down?” asked Jodie.
“Yeah, nearly two centuries later during the Second World War. It was hit by a bomb and collapsed in flames! Unbelievable!”
Ten minutes later we were entered a large building that we took to be some sort of indoor market. In fact, later we found out it was one of four old Zeppelin Hangars from World War I, converted into markets in the 1930’s. It was huge.
Inside the market we were met with an unusual sight - never ending stalls selling every kind of meat imaginable. Sausages seemed to be the main item on offer, but other things were on display too. Huge shanks of meat, small cuts of steak and even red-tinged, white strips of something resembling lard were being sold by rotund middle-aged women looking like extras from a Cold War film. I wondered why nothing else was on offer. You’d think there would be a stall selling vegetables perhaps? But the answer turned out to be straightforward. Each of the four hangars sold a different product. We were in the meat one. The other three sold fish, dairy products and fruit & vegetables respectively. After wandering around the Vegans Delight for another ten minutes, we left to find some lunch. Perhaps the sight of pigs’ heads had whetted our appetite for meat.

For our afternoon tour of sightseeing, we stopped first at the Powder Tower, a cylindrical structure rumoured to have stored gunpowder during medieval times. And then another gorgeous girl wandered past.
Beautiful women are everywhere in Riga. They stand at tram stops, sit on buses, serve in bars and cafes, and walk past you on busy streets. As a rough estimate, I’d say 90% of young Latvian women are gorgeous. There must be something in the water.
Just along the street from the Powder Tower was the city-famous Cat House. The building itself is quite nondescript, but what attracts people to it are the black cats perched on the towers. The story behind them is as follows. According to Latvian legend, the owner of the building fell out with some merchants who resided in the Great Guild Hall across the street. They wouldn’t let him join their gang or something. So in an act of protest, he swivelled his cats around so their rears faced the Guild. Eventually the merchants relented, allowing him to join their prized ranks, and he turned his cats around properly. Today, the cats face towards the Philharmonic Hall. A nice story, I think you’ll agree.
“Now to the oldest stone buildings in Riga,” I announced, pouring over the small map in the guidebook. “They’re called the Three Brothers and should be around here somewhere.”
Like always, Jodie waited, knowing full well I had no clue about the direction to head. My sense of direction was appalling. Even the simplest journey threw me off track within minutes. After grabbing the guide book from my hands, Jodie set off with me following hot on her heels.
The oldest of the Three Brothers, a white building with an archway door, dated back to the 15th century. Its tiny windows remind people of a time when having large windows - and therefore more light - was a taxable commodity in Latvia. All three houses looked charming in a city full of picturesque quaintness.
Deciding it was time for another coffee, we found a place just opposite the Powder Tower. With a satisfied expression forming on my face, I sat back into the comfy seat taking a sip of coffee.
“What’s the matter with you?” asked Jodie, knowing the answer already.
I paused, putting my cup down. “I just can’t believe we’re in a former Soviet Republic, sitting in a trendy café in the middle of a city most of our friends haven’t even heard of. I think Riga might be the best place I’ve ever been to.”
Jodie nodded. “It’s really beautiful. I can’t wait to tell everyone back home what it’s like.”

Riga at night looked just as appealing as during the day. At curiously, the temperature had actually gone up. A positively balmy -3° C.
Supping our drinks in a fine bar, we perused the guide book for places to eat. We decided we liked the sound of the Livonija. It was described as a medieval restaurant below the Small Guild Hall. One thing worried us though - it was Valentine’s Day so would we get in? There was only one way to find out.
We found the restaurant easily enough (or rather Jodie did) and as we approached the door, a large middle-aged man stepped out of the entrance. “Labvakar, k’ tev iet?” he said throatily.
I spoke up first. “Erm…we’re from England. Do you speak English?”
The man nodded and smiled. “Of course. Welcome to the Livonija. We don’t get many persons from England here at restaurant. In fact you are only second. You have reservation, yes?”
I shook my head, pulling an imploring face. “No, sorry. But we read that your restaurant is so nice we thought we’d try anyway.”
The man rubbed his chin, then grinned. “I think we squeeze you in. Follow me, please.”
As we descended some stone stairs, the man spoke again. “Can I ask question please? I need to know how you hear about Livonija?”
I answered him. “We read about it in a guide book. Here I’ll show you.” I fished in my pocket and showed him the relevant page.
The man looked at the page in open astonishment, then broke out into hearty guffaws. “Livonija in English guide book! How this happen?”
I told him I didn’t know.
At the bottom of the stairs, we entered a large brick covered cavern. Tempting smells emanated from the kitchen, and as we were shown to our seats, we took in the atmosphere of the place. The man took our coats and hung them up. He then disappeared back up the stairs.
The Livonija reminded me a little of being inside an old tunnel. A nice big warm tunnel though, and the when the food turned up, it was excellent. As we left, the man who’d brought us in, wished us a good stay in Latvia. “And you tell friends about Livonija! Good meals, yes!”
Full and happy, we returned to the Hotel.
The next day we checked out and caught a taxi back to the airport. Our trip to Riga was over. And it was filled with nothing but happy memories. Riga: a fantastic place to visit.

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Comments by other Members

Richard Brown at 16:42 on 14 July 2006  Report this post
Beautifully done! An unusual travel piece that is a joy to read and has the excellent effect of making the reader want to go the described place (and in the depths of winter too).

One tiny typo caught my eye: 'Riga at night looked just as appealing as during the day. At curiously, the temperature had actually gone up. A positively balmy -3° C.' 'At' is meant to be 'And' presumably.

Very enjoyable. Thank you.


Cornelia at 16:46 on 25 July 2006  Report this post
Yes, I'd definitely like to go there. I think it's 'famous' for the anonymous limerick:

There was a young lady of Riga,
Who smiled as she rode on a tiger.
They returned from the ride
With the lady inside
And the smile on the face of the tiger.

I saw a new travel magazine at Waterloo Smiths that might accept this, especially if you have some pictures. I can't remember the name of the magazine offhand , but it costs £2.99 and seems much more down to earth about possible destinations than, say, Traveller Magazine. It had lots of photos and there was a feature called 'Portrait of a City'. The issue I looked at had Moscow as a subject. The magazine seemed ideally suited to short-break out-of-the-way places with a human interest.


flock1 at 15:41 on 30 July 2006  Report this post

Glad you enjoyed reading about Riga. It really is a beautiful place to visit. And it was so cheap. Flights in Feb were £140 return for the pair of us. Bargain! And that was with the national airline, Air Baltic!

I'll have to look into this magazine you mentioned. Haven't really thought about the saleabilty of my travel writing as of yet.


crazylady at 21:52 on 07 August 2006  Report this post
Hi Jason,
I just read your piece and although I'm famous for disliking cold weather, the magic of your descriptions made me want to give it a try.
I loved the anecdotes about the history of the place. And I know two Latvian women both now living in England. They are the most stylish ladies I know.
I think now is the time to visit cities recently emerged from behind the iron curtain before they are diluted into tepid copies of every other city in the west, lined with chain stores we all love to hate.
A few years ago I had a couple of visits to Bratislava and it still had a small town feel. The local ladies did their food shopping daily (possibly because they didn't have fridges) and strangers nodded and smiled in the street, it was that friendly.
I understand that now there are many smart new hotels, dual carriageways and the odd Macdonalds, so perhaps I was fortunate to see it when I did.
Thanks for a good read.

crazylady at 07:40 on 11 August 2006  Report this post
Hi Jason,
I visited your link.
That's a brilliant report on your trip to Bratislava. Have you tried pitching it to a travel mag?
It deserves more exposure.
Well done.
Looking at it many of the visitor sites have been 'prinked up' since my days there in the late '90's.

flock1 at 07:19 on 14 August 2006  Report this post
I haven't tried pitching any of my travel writing to magazines. To be honest, I wrote them just for me and Jodie as a reminder of what we did and saw in these places. I thought it would be better to have this sort of account rather than just a set of photos, which in thirty years, would be meaningless. Let's face it, a church is a church! But when I finished them, I thought I'd like other people to read them, thus the travel blog thing.

Mind you, if I could actually get them into print! But finding time to do this is getting harder and harder. Might have to look into it though.

Glad you enjoyed the Bratislava account. What did you think of the Tallinn and Krakow one? The Krakow one is a bit contentionus apparently. One website even banned it! citing it as 'gratuitously digusting!'



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