I braved a bus ride to Latvia from Estonia, as the roads were promised to be good, and the bus fare relatively cheap. The ride didn’t disappoint – it was quick, and the roads were much more maintained than I would have expected based on my clearly outdated understanding of Eastern Europe. Riga is the capital of Latvia, and a city which had mixed reviews online. I knew I wanted to see all three Baltic countries, and wasn’t sure how to distribute my time. I chose to spend a couple days in Riga, spending only 1 day in Lithuania; reflecting now, I probably wouldn’t return to Riga, but am happy I went and spent the time to get to know the city beyond initial impressions. Online, many people loved Riga over Tallin for some reason, although after my first day of exploration, I hadn’t quite identified the source of the mass appeal. Latvia, as a country, seems to occupy an interesting in-between space – not quite modern Eastern Europe, not quite undeveloped Eastern Europe (for example, each website you visit has a different take on whether or not the tap water is potable – I erred on the side of “no” and using bottled water for all of my drinks since restaurants seem to agree).
The city itself is nice, fairly modern, and relatively up to date in terms of architecture and feel, with much less of an “Old Town” than Tallinn- there are a couple of “medieval” buildings (3, which are a designated tourist site), but overall, its a modern relatively new-construction city. It does have an UNESCO world heritage site, including the church minutes from my airbnb and the city market.
On my first day, I focused on getting acclimated with the city itself, admittedly feeling a fair bit of culture shock. I did a nice walk through the city, and stumbled upon a “try archery” area, several tourist restaurants (there is a TGI Friday’s and Subway moments from Old Town proper), and blaring music from every bar in Old Town (including the one currently blasting outside my window…).
Despite the small feeling of the old town, I tried to immerse myself in some of the recommended activities. I tried the ‘balsam’ liquor at the “Black Magic” bar, which is where they used to brew herbal remedies for illnesses, and ended up staying to read for a bit as the environment was perfect for a whimsical evening.
Compared with Helsinki and Tallinn, Riga is certainly a change – much cheaper ($8.50 for lunch!) than other cities so far, but also showing more signs of being part of a different world. The Airbnb was also a totally different architectural style, despite being right in the heart of the Old Town area – an electronic gate within a complex of buildings in the middle of the city, outdated (by American standards) decor, basically everything looks like the 1940s log cabin chic somewhere in Michigan (with the exception of the blaring pop music outside, which is reminiscent of the music in Cambodia we heard which was celebrating the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge).
My second day in Latvia was a better experience – I think walking outside of the old city alleviated some of the cognitive dissonance I had previously experienced. Riga beyond the “Old Town” looks exactly as I thought it would, and definitely feels like an old, post-Soviet city, reflected in the architecture.
I started the morning with a mile or so walk out to the “Corner House” which is the colloquial name for the ominous corner building which functioned as the KGB headquarters here in Riga. On the way, I passed the freedom monument, as well as the opera house and some other beautiful stately buildings. Walking outside of old town, you definitely get a much better impression of what Riga looks like – post-Soviet, beautiful old buildings slightly blackened by what I assume was fire / damage from wars, much more of a “lived” feeling than the facade here in the Old Town area.
Upon arrival, I tried to buy a pass to the KGB prison cell tour, but the attendant seemed about as excited to interact with me as anyone likely ever was to the see the KGB (aka, not at all), so that didn’t end up happening. So, I proceeded to the free exhibits. The Corner House museum itself is interesting, although a bit sparse.
The artifacts are all apparently dispersed to other museums, and unfortunately the other museum here in Riga was closed for construction. The good thing is that the museum did an excellent job of putting the victims first – it was very much focused on photographs of them, including descriptions of their names / ethnicities / professions / “crimes”. Perhaps most interestingly, they had a whole exhibit with the biographical information of people who had managed to leave identifying graffiti in their jail cells (something prohibited). So interesting that these people knew they were unfairly condemned to death and could have been forgotten to history like countless others, yet thought to make small markings like “X was here” or “X had German parents” or “X was a carpenter” and that they’ve been able to trace those names back to distinct people to keep their specific memories alive.
After that thoroughly depressing / moving activity, I then figured I’d grab some lunch at the Old Market, which is a complex over by the bus station which is essentially a huge grocery store / indoor-outdoor market. On the way, I stopped by the Russian Orthodox cathedral, which I had seen but couldn’t locate on my walk to the KGB museum. I had to rent a headscarf to enter the cathedral, and it was beautiful – gold and blue icons, rich murals on the walls, and it looks like they had saint remains / some kind of imported interned individual. Hilariously, they were vacuuming the Church when I was there, detracting from the rigid ambiance, right amid the incense and prayers.
The Old Market itself is pretty incredible – picture 4 huge warehouse spaces, each one with a different set of wares: meat, fish, pickled items / smoked fish, and then dairy / other (think things like socks, pots / pans, etc.). Pretty incredible array, especially the huge smoked fish / pickled items section. In the meat section, I was able to find a small restaurant where it looked like the locals were eating – I got a large fried fish fillet and 3 boiled small potatoes with mushroom cream sauce for 4.5 Euros which was awesome. The food wasn’t gourmet, but definitely great value!
Then, I wandered my way back into the old town, trying to figure out where the Museum of Occupation was (unfortunately, it’s about 2 minutes from my airbnb, but closed for construction). So, instead, I went to the House of the Blackheads, which is essentially an old guild house in what used to be the town hall square of Riga. Now, it’s a beautiful museum based on the ruins of the original house, with the restoration built above it (of course, they tried to save it right after WWII and then it was burned to the ground by the Soviets). Apparently its called the “blackheads” because back in the middle ages, they needed to pick a patron, and decided to model their code of ethics around a black Egyptian trader. Typically the blackheads (who were white, Baltic traders) were unmarried and relatively nomadic, but acting like knights as they were protecting their cargo. Anyhow, the blackheads house is where they gathered to eat and socialize when they were in town.
Then, I went to grab a quick snack, and sat at a local cafe to read my book for a little bit. I realized how much I enjoyed the environment at the Black Balsam bar, and spent the better part of the evening reading and sipping on wine. All in all, an excellent end to a very interesting day!