34 Hours In Riga

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September 18th 2011
Published: November 6th 2011
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St Peter's Church & House Of BlackheadsSt Peter's Church & House Of BlackheadsSt Peter's Church & House Of Blackheads

Right next to the Latvian Occupation Museum is this medieval fantasy building, with St Peter's Church and its spire in the background.
I wasn't supposed to spend just 34 hours in Riga. But a temporary and ultimately infuriating memory lapse forced my hand.

I had bought tickets to see Beirut months ago and I've been waiting to see them live for years.
"Remember not to book anything on the 16th, Derek", I told myself.
"Don't do anything on the 16th!" I told my friend Alastair, who would accompany me to the gig.
So when Davies and I were deciding when we should go to Riga, I suggested the 9th.
"That will be the weekend after we get back from Slovenia - why don't we do the morning of the 16th?" he replied.
"Hmmm....", I thought. "What do I have on the 16th? Don't think I have anything...yeah should be OK."
Flights booked - done.
It was only the next morning when I realised the full horror of what I had done.
I searched long and hard for a solution - but there was no way I was missing this gig. So I paid an extra £50 on top of the £40 I had already paid for the original flight, to fly out at 0725 on Saturday morning (the 17th), coming back at
Freedom MonumentFreedom MonumentFreedom Monument

Honours the soldiers killed in the Latvian War of Independence, the three stars at the top symbolising the three main districts of Latvia, although the Soviets tried to pass it off as the Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian SSRs being held up by Mother Russia, during the occupation. The Soviets also banned the placing of flowers at the bottom of the monument during the occupation.
2220 Sunday night (the 18th).

Beirut were awesome - worth the extra £50 in the circumstances. But getting up at 0430 the next morning after a late one was not. So. Tired.
The flight over was freezing for some reason as well, so I couldn't get any sleep on the plane either. Grrrr.

Touching down in Riga, the first thing of note that I saw was an old 80s Lada outside the airport with five locals packed into it like sardines. There were small Latvian flags attached to the two front windows. It was a perfect picture to sum up the former-USSR stereotype. Ex-Soviet chic.

The bus into town was cheap and efficient and we arrived in about 30 minutes. On the way, we noticed that almost all the suburban buildings were wooden. Apparently, non-wooden building materials were banned back in the day so that in the event of an invasion, the buildings that surrounded the old town could be easily set on fire, creating a ring of fire preventing invaders from entering the town. On one occasion, all the buildings were burnt down only for everyone to realise that it was a false alarm.
It doesn't
The Three BrothersThe Three BrothersThe Three Brothers

The oldest houses in Riga, built in the middle ages, and each with their own style. You could say they started the craze of architectural variety in Riga.
sound like the smartest idea going round - perhaps I've got the story wrong.

Our hostel was the amusingly named Naughty Squirrel, and it was awesome. Don't let the drab communist-era foyer fool you - once inside, the place is bright, clean and spacious. There's tap beer and snacks available to buy and like all great hostels, there is a common area to hang out in and meet fellow travellers. There is even free table football!
There is a plethora of activities that can be booked through the hostel too (including shooting machine guns - but we've already done that in Poland), including a Saturday night pub crawl. Perfect. Done.
With a walking tour already arranged for the afternoon, our plans for the whole trip had all fallen effortlessly into place. Great, when you only have 34 hours to do everything.

Just like in Bled a couple of weeks ago, we just happened to be in Riga at the same time as a couple of friends who were touring around the continent.
We first met Becs in Greece last year, while we met her boyfriend Paul in Egypt - he of the official Indiana Jones hat.
Before meeting them at the
Latvian Riflemen StatueLatvian Riflemen StatueLatvian Riflemen Statue

With the Latvian Occupation Museum right behind it.
start of the walking tour, I stopped by at a Narvesen for a hot dog and coffee. Just like Oslo, there seems to be a Narvesen on every street corner. I think I counted about 14,293,394 of them in total.

Our British guide for the walking tour was a bit of a character. Funny, horny, opinionated, left-wing, sarcastic, and sometimes unknowingly condescending and insulting, he told us that the Sydney Morning Herald had described him as "irreverent, but well-informed", which just about sums him up.
Put it this way, he certainly added some colour to the walking tour.
We had some older folk who were also on our tour who I don't think quite appreciated his inappropriate sense of humour. I thought he was a laugh. People can be a bit too politically correct these days. Mind you, the old folks probably didn't get half his jokes.
He certainly wasn't afraid to talk about sensitive subjects - the Nazis and local ethnic attitudes among them. His favourite topic of controversy however, was politics. He definitely had some pretty strong feelings about politics. And Swedes ("I hate the bloody Swedes - they're all so bloody arrogant!").
The tour itself was
Central MarketCentral MarketCentral Market

The central market is made up of four old art-deco pavilions that used to be German zeppelin hangars. Each pavilion houses a different market - this one is the meat market (not that type of meat market - really not that type of meat market).
pretty alternative and a little bit random. We went to places that most walking tours probably wouldn't take you, such as minimalist art galleries in the old shipping docks and visiting a busking sax player who played his tunes down the end of a sketchy-looking alley.
The guide definitely knew his stuff though, which he demonstrated when explaining the history and background (mainly political, of course) behind everything he showed us. I certainly learned a lot.
There were many awkward, The Office-style, cringeworthy, but ultimately hilarious moments on the tour.
He could speak Latvian and would often converse with locals, attempting to be all matey with them, but ending up looking like a bit of a douche. Like the loser at your school who tried so hard to fit in but didn't have a clue. You didn't have to understand Latvian to realise all the locals were laughing at him.
He would also flirt (or try to) with the local girls too - cafe workers, shopkeepers, gallery attendants and the like. There was one flirt attempt in one of the art galleries that was particularly painful. Poor guy. He also seemed particularly besotted with the gherkin lady in the central
Beer BarBeer BarBeer Bar

Bar where we enjoyed a beer to wait out the rain. It had a pretty large selection.
market - it was the friggin' highlight of his day.
Speaking of the central markets, while walking through them, I decided to try a local delicacy - soft, white, caraway cheese. It was yummy, though you probably couldn't eat too much of it. The texture was a little rubbery.
Another moment of awkwardness was when the guide asked a bar owner how he felt about plonking his bar right next to the Jewish Holocaust museum and memorial. Boy, if looks could kill. The bar owner looked like he wanted to throttle him right there and then.
It was pissing down with rain just before the end of the tour, so we enjoyed a beer while waiting for the rain to pass, and it was then that the guide decided to end to the tour. Despite the guide being part-enjoyable and part-WTF, it really was a worthwhile tour and I appreciated his efforts. He certainly knew his stuff and he genuinely wanted us to appreciate, experience and learn about the city - and for that I thanked him.

Later that night we met up again with Paul and Becs at the hostel-recommended Lido buffet, the cheapest and best bet to
Streets Of RigaStreets Of RigaStreets Of Riga

Riga is full of different architectural styles.
get some local grub. It wasn't really just local cuisine, there was a bit of everything, but the food was hearty. Lots of potato variations. Apart from a huge slab of roast pork and the potato pancakes (filled with mince), nothing else really stood out. A good feed though.
It was then time to get back to the hostel for pub crawl!

All the way from the plane, to the bus, and even to the hostel, there was a couple that followed us all the way. The male half of the couple looked extremely familiar. It was while waiting for the bus that I remembered who he was.
It was a guy who I had first met on a pub crawl in Amsterdam four years ago and then bumped into again four weeks later in Berlin, on another pub crawl.
And it didn't end there either - four months after I had arrived in London, I bumped into him again on the Waitangi Day Pub Crawl.
And now here we were, united again after 3 1/2 years in Riga, Latvia, on you guessed it - another pub crawl. What are the chances?
Good to see you again Brendan!

The pub crawl
First Bar Of The Pub CrawlFirst Bar Of The Pub CrawlFirst Bar Of The Pub Crawl

No idea what the place is called but I dig the retro feel.
started off at the hostel at 10pm where we enjoyed a few beers interspersed with cocktail shots that were promised as part of the pub crawl fee. The guide was running late so we ended up staying at the hostel for ages, wondering if we were ever going to leave.
Not that we were complaining.
Paul and Brendan in particular are a good laugh and we all seemed to share the same sense of humour. The alcohol probably helped too, mind.
Lively spirit was served by the hostel both in liquid form and in vibe as they put Flight Of The Conchords on the sound system - not sure if it was a deliberate ploy to gee up the Kiwis in the crowd, but it worked.
And then when everyone starts spitting out Arnie one-liners, good times are guaranteed.

We were a merry bunch as we finally made our way to the first bar around midnight, where communal cocktail buckets were the order of the day. My go-to get-smashed-quickly drink is the Jaeger bomb, something I share with Paul, so out came eight of them. They were served a bit weird here - a small glass of Jaegermeifter and Red
Pub Crawl GangPub Crawl GangPub Crawl Gang

Brendan, Davies, Me, Paul, Becs & Casey.
Bull already pre-mixed, but still drunk to the bottom.
We must've been the loudest people out as we made our way to the second bar, right next to the Powder Tower. Brendan and his girlfriend Casey rocked out Roxette's "The Look" on the way. Awesome. Na-na-na-na-na!
As we had started the pub crawl late, we skipped the last bar and went straight to the club at around 2am. The name of the place is "Pulkvedim neviens neraksta" which is Latvian for "No-one writes to the colonel". Some sort of USSR reference, I think.
And it's true, no-one was writing to anyone inside the club, just drinking and dancing to mainstream mash-ups. I don't exactly recall the music, cos I was smashed. What an awesome night.
At around 6am, I stumbled out of the club and had absolutely no idea where I was. I knew I was in the old town though- all the places on our pub crawl were within the old town.
Luckily, I was still with the Belgian guys staying at my hostel and they seemed to know where they were going.
The Belgians were funny.
"Fucking Americans. Calling French fries French when they're actually Belgian!"

I could've done
Latvian Academy Of Sciences BuildingLatvian Academy Of Sciences BuildingLatvian Academy Of Sciences Building

Built during the early years of the second Soviet occupation and plastered with communist symbols, the building is nicknamed "Stalin's Birthday Cake". I think it looks pretty cool.
with some more sleep the next day but alas, we were unceremoniously kicked out of our dorm at 12pm. Checkout was 11am.
Paul texted us saying that him and Becs were at McDonald's, so we joined them there and just vegetated for a couple of hours, feeling sorry for ourselves. Paul and Becs are always good chat though, so hanging out with them made our hangovers just a little more bearable, before we bade them farewell as they caught their bus to Vilnius.

The walking tour we did yesterday was an alternative one, so we had actually missed out on a few sights.
Among the missed sights was the Latvian Occupation Museum.
In terms of history, Latvia is just completely in the wrong place, and has a history of occupation, having been under German, Russian, Lithuanian, Swedish and Polish rule throughout the centuries.
The museum focusses on the Soviet occupation that started in 1940 and the events that followed, all the way up until Latvia's independence from the USSR in 1991.
One irony I learned about in the museum was the hopes of the Latvian people when Nazi Germany advanced on Latvia in order to take over from the
GULAG Shack ReconstructionGULAG Shack ReconstructionGULAG Shack Reconstruction

Reconstruction of a GULAG cabin inside the Latvian Occupation Museum.
Soviets. The Germans were seen as liberators and many Latvian soldiers serving in the Red Army deserted their units to fight with the Germans to liberate Latvia. And then what happens when the Germans took over? They massacred the Latvian Jews and anyone who had previously cooperated with the Soviets, as well as anyone disobedient to the German occupation regime. Perhaps a case of better the devil you know?
When the Soviets reoccupied Latvia after the World War II, there were still atrocities committed by Stalin's regime. Any form of resistance or pro-independence in Latvia was repressed by the Soviets and people who were known or suspected of being involved in such movements were arrested and shipped off to GULAG camps - slave labour camps where the occupants were kept in shocking conditions and where many met their death. The museum had a reconstruction of GULAG shack, as well as horrific accounts of what it was like to live in the camps. I knew Stalin was a bastard - I just didn't know to what extent.
In a morbid way, such atrocities raises the level of interest I have in the places where they have occurred. Berlin and Sarajevo are
Dome SquareDome SquareDome Square

Square just outside the Dome Church, the biggest church in the Baltics. The church was covered in scaffolding though, so wasn't worth a picture. The "chocolate building" on the left is the city's stock exchange.
cases in point. It's like the attraction of going to an old concentration camp - you don't go there for enjoyment, but out of interest, and a human duty to recognise the suffering that your fellow human beings have been put through.

Another sight that the guide thought wasn't worth visiting is arguably Riga's most famous church - St. Peter's. We went up it's famous spire for a view across the city which turned out to be a little disappointing, mainly because of the way it was set up at the top. Bars and fences up there meant getting a decent panoramic photo was impossible. Purely as a view though, it was good I suppose.

Feeling a bit peckish, we then rocked up at a fast food joint recommended to us - Pelmani XL. The fare on offer here is Russian dumplings - pelmani. The setup is like a self-service canteen, where you shove as many dumplings and condiments into your bowl as you desire, and you pay by weight. As an Asian, I've grown up with dumplings so I found them delicious. It was so cheap too - my two bowls plus a drink only put me
Pelmani XLPelmani XLPelmani XL

Cheap yummy Russian dumplings FTW.
back 2.70LVL (Latvian Lats).

The Latvian currency unit is surprisingly strong - even stronger than the British Pound, which I thought was impossible. £1 only gets you about 0.80LVL.
During my entire 34 hours in the country, I had thought the currency conversion was the other way round, meaning that I had spent £55 more than I had thought. Grrrr...I was wondering why everything seemed so damn cheap.

The last thing we did was find a pub to watch the Manchester United vs Chelsea game.
As two New Zealanders, could there be a better option than a place called Kiwibar?
The place was well set up as a sports bar and the atmosphere inside was lively, but relaxed. It didn't hurt that all the bartenders were hot girls either.
I enjoyed the match, with United running out 3-1 winners in an open, attacking contest. We may have been a little lucky with Chelsea missing two sitters including Fernando Torres's miss of the year. That brought a huge cheer.
On our way out, we bumped into Brendan and Casey again - it must be fate.
We exchanged details and then made our way to the airport.

Four final observations on Riga;
Opera House & Park FountainOpera House & Park FountainOpera House & Park Fountain

After nearly burning down due to fire caused by a rogue candlelight, the opera house had its own power station built in the days when there was no grid in the country. The power was used to illuminate the building during night-time performances. It was one of the first places in Latvia to use electricity.

- There are Japanese restaurants everywhere.
- There are lots of buskers in Riga. There was one old woman who was dancing to cheesy 90s songs. Dancing badly, and alone. It wasn't even funny, it was just sad.
- Riga is hard to navigate. We kept going around in circles and getting lost. The layout of the old town is not exactly a grid, but kind of circular. The roads subtly curve, which throws out your sense of direction, and all the buildings in the old town are tall. It's a bit of a maze.
- There is free WiFi everywhere. McDonald's, the hostel, restaurants, cafes - they all have it. This is the way it should be.

Overall, I had a great time in Riga - short and sweet, and not the trashy, stag party magnet many feel it has become.
There is a myriad of hostels available, most people speak English, the history is interesting, there is plenty to see, and the nightlife is awesome. I would probably rate Riga as the liveliest and most backpacker friendly of the three Baltic cities I have been to (Tallinn and Vilnius being the others).
Definitely worth a visit -
View Over RigaView Over RigaView Over Riga

From the spire of St Peter's Church.
just don't be an ignorant, stag-party imbecile.

I don't know where my next blog entry will be coming from.
I'm travelling back to New Zealand for a couple of weeks, but I don't see any point in blogging about home.
It may come from St. Anton, Austria around Christmas although all we'll really be doing is snowboarding, eating and drinking.
I might be somewhere new for New Year's but then again I may not.
It could even be Turkey next Easter which is ages away - but that trip is not even confirmed.
So you might not be hearing from me for a while...so until then; visu labu. Ceru, ka drīz atkal tiksimies.


Additional photos below
Photos: 25, Displayed: 25


Jauniela 25/29Jauniela 25/29
Jauniela 25/29

Where the walking tour started. A great example of the art nouveau architecture so prevalent in Riga.
Powder TowerPowder Tower
Powder Tower

The only survivor of the 18 towers that stood in the old town wall.
Swedish GateSwedish Gate
Swedish Gate

Part of the old town wall, on the town's north side.
Wooden ChurchWooden Church
Wooden Church

Many of the buildings outside of the old town, including this church, were built with wood, as was the law back in the day.
Never-Ending BuildingNever-Ending Building
Never-Ending Building

Running east to west along the outside of the north wall of the old town.
Livu LaukumsLivu Laukums
Livu Laukums

The busiest square in the old town and home to some architectural delights.
Art NouveauArt Nouveau
Art Nouveau

Of the 600 buildings built in Riga between 1900 and 1910, 40% of them were built in art nouveau, the architectural craze at the time. This isn't the best example, but these sorts of buildings are all over the city.
Riga CastleRiga Castle
Riga Castle

The president lives here now.
Flash RigaFlash Riga
Flash Riga

In a more run-down part of town, this little pocket of Riga has been developed quite nicely and now boasts several trendy furniture shops.
Woollen FoodWoollen Food
Woollen Food

Our walking tour guide took us into this store of Latvian woollen crafts. From afar, it all looks quite delicious.

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