Riga Rocks: Europe's Best Kept Secret

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August 1st 2011
Published: June 22nd 2017
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Geo: 56.9465, 24.1048

After a good night's sleep in our new hotel, grateful for cooler weather and with windows open all night, we awoke, stretched, and enjoyed our breakfast (from quite the spread) on a "summer terrace." Hotel Hanza is a beautifully restored 19th century building that sits on a square surrounding Jesus Church, a very old wooden structure that seats up to 1,200. Rich and Jake used a knife with chocolate syrup to try and train the bees to leave us alone. Bees don't train well. Nevertheless, it was a great breakfast.

We were met by our driver and guide, Sergie shortly thereafter, who took us on a driving tour of areas of Riga. We stopped across the Daugava River (=much water) for some good photo opportunities. From here, we could see the spires and towers that marked the city's religious, political, and financial institutions. Latvia was an independent country from 1918-1939, and not again until 1991. What a best kept secret this special town is! If you could imagine a medieval city not terribly disturbed by modern conveniences—a juxtaposition of cobblestone streets and cell phones—a place where street musicians provide the soundtrack for a venture to a more peaceful time, you would find yourself in Riga. The town is marked by sidewalk cafes, well-tended flowers, shops, cyclists, plazas… the kind of place that others try to recreate in theme parks but can't come close.

Sergie took into areas of Riga to show us the architectural style of “art nouveau.” A pioneering architect of this style was a German named Michael Eizenstein. A study of architecture in Riga is a study of Latvia's search for an identity. Latvia is a place that has been dominated by many different ethnic groups through the centuries and still seeks to define itself independently from, yet inescapably of, all these influences.

After our tour, we went back to Old Town for some more sightseeing and then dinner. Riga is a very walkable city. Our dinner was one of the best we've had. Thanks to Sergie for the recommendation of this place as it served truly authentic Latvian cuisine. Barb ate black beans and bacon, Rich chose pelmini, and everyone else enjoyed roast pork with horseradish sauce and sauerkraut. Our dessert came in liquid form, Lativus Balzarus (black balsam)—a special blend of 25+ medicinal herbs. The beverage was used to cure Catherine the Great of a fever in the 1750s and is a secret blend. Our waiter suggested a mix of it with black currant juice—a wise choice. It was really something.

Today was one the most enjoyable days of our trip so far. The pacing and weather (70 degrees with a breeze) combined with the peaceful and serene environment of Riga made for a perfect day. Seriously, this is probably the most underrated/unknown destination we have ever visited. Eight thumbs up!

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