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Published: June 12th 2013
The Dome Cathedral
Doms Square - Doma Laukums
Almost four hours in the bus and the countryside we observed confirmed our understanding that agriculture is not the mainstay of the Estonian economy. Very little by way of settlement and vast acres of forest constituted the landscape.
On the Daugava River not far from the sea Riga is another gem with different facets from its neighbouring capitals. Here the Old Town has lost its ring-wall and the old and new flow gently together on the east bank, which is mainly, old. The west bank contains newer residential and office towers, we only ventured there briefly. The old, old town is further delineated by what seems to have once been a moat but which is now a lovely canal through park all the way, cutting off a piece of land from the north near the sea-boat terminal and the south just beyond the rail bridge as each end flows into the river.
The bus trip had afforded CS the opportunity to research restaurants (of course) so we had a few in mind as we strolled around the old town precinct, a short walk from our idiosyncratic hotel, the Albert. Named for Mr Einstein (we never
Grimms Fairy Tale
The four animals: cock, cat, pig and ass.
actually found out if he had ever been there) its decoration is in keeping with the theme, as you will see. The hotel is in what the locals call the Art Nouveau district, for reasons we never fully understood - perhaps we missed its salient points - it does contain the Art Nouveau Museum which we did not visit, but it was a pleasant area to be living in nevertheless.
Two of the restaurants we had marked, turned out to be interesting looking, one had a guitar player strumming as we passed, but at 8pm both were entirely empty. We had been told our first night coincided with a World Cup soccer match between Latvia and Herto-zegovia and that while Latvia was not expected to win (they lost 5 nil) it would mean lots of activity on the streets that night. Compared with Tallinn the streets we walked were very quiet indeed. They are wider and interspersed with more large squares than in Tallinn but we were surprised by the difference. Perhaps Riga does not have the enormous influx of tourists that Tallinn does. This was borne out by the restaurant we chose on spec because it,
by contrast, was very popular, and seemed to be a meeting place for locals. The young lady who served us at 'Donni Canes' was most insistent that the food was excellent and on the whole she was right. People kept coming and we had been lucky to get our little table so our first evening proved quite lively. No one there seemed interested in the soccer.
Across from the restaurant is the St Peter's Church outside of which is a sculpture featuring four animals on top of each other, a depiction of a Grimm's fairy tale. The noses of the lower three animals shine from being touched by people seeking good luck.
The light nights here too, meant we had a pleasant 2k stroll after dinner back to the Albert.
Day two saw us back in the old town, where we entered from Valdemara iela at the location of the Castle. This huge building is under reconstruction but part of it houses the National History Museum of Latvia. We spent two enthralling hours exploring the history and art of Latvia in one of the best arranged museums we have come across.
Into the castle and museum
While the explanations for the exhibits were only in Latvian, there were hand-outs one could keep, in English, covering the contents of each room and the accompanying sketches (which were very good)and lay-out of material made the 'story' easy to follow.
Again we were lucky with the weather so happy to exit into the sunshine. A few notable locations were on our list and we duly walked past the 'Three Brothers', Gutenberg's, the Dom Square, City Hall and the Blackheads House (a one time Guild Hall), the Latvian Riflemen Square, the Garden Palace, where we stopped for refreshment, the old Riga Palace (which is a crumbling, seemingly neglected ruin) past a huge modern shopping complex (Galerija) through the Royal Square and on to the 'Cat House'. This edifice is renowned for the two large cat sculptures adorning its roof. Apparently the nobleman who built it had a run-in with, either his guild or with City Hall, depending on which story one prefers, and the cats, as can be seem, are evidencing his distain. Both potential 'enemy' locations are in the same direction so either could be the desired target.
Through the main entrance of
Kalku iela, past the Freedom Monument, into the Esplanade Park with its Nativity of Christ, Orthodox Cathedral and the National Museum of Art, through the old jewish area and back to the Albert.
There are nice looking restaurants in the vicinity of our hotel and that night we chose La Riviera - a very good choice.
Next day we thought to explore a bit further afield so we ventured across Vansu tilts (bridge) and followed the river bank along to Akmens tilts. This afforded a grand view (again in full sunshine) of the embankment profile of the old town on the other side and highlighted how different the architecture is on the two banks. A photo or two tell the story.
One matter we found disconcerting is that many bicycle riders' habits in both Tallinn and Riga would give their fellows a bad name. Bike lanes were available in some areas, either on footpaths or the street but many riders chose to completely ignore them and raced up and down carelessly and at speed, anywhere they chose. Disdaining pedestrians on the allocated walking-paths seemed rather out of character with the cyclists we know.
Strangely this phenomena did not manifest itself in Vilnius.
We walked from the second bridge to the vast complex at the south end of old town, the Central Market, Bus Station and Railway. Teeming with people doing their grocery shopping on Sunday, we strolled through the stalls, observing mainly. We had not realised that Latvia is still using its own currency - the Lat, but they are expecting to transfer to Euros in about 6 months. Credit cards are widely acceptable so we did not need to obtain local money. This deprived CS of the treat of buying a punnett of luscious looking cherries, but it seemed unnecessary to obtain an almost defunct currency for such a small purchase on our last day.
We chose another local restaurant for dinner, the 'Flying Frog'- also a good choice. The restaurant cat that lurked around our table thought so too. We chose to share a first dish of herring, followed by pork. The menu spoke of 'pork drumstick' which made us smile but we soon learned the dish was intended for two and it did consist of a pig's hind leg. This was no mini-pig!
The next morning we took at an easy pace, beautiful sunny morning streaming through our room window when we pulled the curtains to meet the day and prepare for our next leg. No surprises expected, we were repeating our Lux Bus experience to get us to Vilnius, and it proved absolutely the same. 15 minutes before the departure time the bus pulls in, luggage is loaded, we show our print-out of our booking and passport and make our way to our seats. They were even the same numbered seats and so being at the front our TV consoles were on metal arms that jiggled constantly on the journey -no movie this time either. The quality of the roads seemed significantly better after we crossed the border into Lithuania and there were many more settlements along the way, including quite big towns. The landscape is universally flat and agriculture seemed far more prevalent here with the forests much reduced in size from the earlier ones we had driven through.
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