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Four Days in Riga

This is the second part of a narrative of a vacation trip that my wife Frances and I took to the Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) during August 14-28, 2017. This was an independent trip, not a package tour. We are in our early 60s, reasonably healthy, and used to walking. We are Americans, living in Alexandria Virginia. Neither of us speaks any of the languages of the three countries.

We pick up the story as we are about to leave Tallinn for Riga.

Saturday, August 19 (Tallinn to Riga)
We got up at 7:00, too early for breakfast. However, the hotel had prepared some boxed lunches for us, containing sandwiches and chips. We left Old Town and clattered over the cobblestones with our luggage. We just missed the earliest bus to the Lux Express terminal but caught the next one, which meant we were an hour and a half early. Better early than late. The terminal has a café, and so we had some coffee and a large croissant each. Since we had bought our tickets online before starting the trip, there was nothing to do but go out to the benches outside and wait for the bus.

It started to rain. Fortunately, the outside area was sheltered. We watched while individuals, families, and groups gathered to board busses heading for destinations inside Estonia, to other Baltic countries, and to Russia. A small folk band loaded up their instruments to head off to Petersburg.

Eventually our bus arrived. We checked our luggage and clambered aboard. About half of our fellow passengers were part of a German tour group. The guide was buzzing around during the trip looking after her charges. It wasn’t intrusive after we got underway.

The bus was comfortable—certainly more than sitting in airline seats. There was an entertainment system, which we didn’t pay much attention to. It had WiFi. It was slow, but it was good enough to check email, Facebook, and some web sites. The bus was also equpped with a free coffee and cocoa machine, but we didn’t use it. It had restrooms, of course.

It’s a four and a half hour trip from Tallinn to Riga. It was nice to see a bit of countryside. The landscape was flat and open. Of course, it was against a background of gray, rainy sky. On we rolled, filling in the time as best we could. Crossing into Latvia was just a drive-through.

As we got close to Riga, we became aware that the bus made two stops in the city. Our plan had been to get off at the end of the line, at the main bus station. However, the confusing multi-language announcements made us think that maybe we should leave at the earlier stop. Fran got out her maps and thought that this would be much closer to our hotel. At the stop we made a hasty consultation with the driver and his minder. They confirmed Fran’s opinion. So we quickly departed and grabbed our luggage before they pulled away.

So, there we were, nowhere we had planned, in a country where the language didn’t much resemble English. As I reconstruct our location from the map, I think we were outside the Nativity Cathedral on Brīvības Bulvāris. At the time it was all a blur. Again, we relied on our maps to orient us and set off in the direction that we hoped was correct. There was a big party going on all around us. We had walked into a city-wide festival. There were street performers, vendors, stages, and lots of people. It was quite a welcome. We walked through the center of this party for a half-kilometer or so, looking for the cross street that would take us to the Konventa Seta Hotel. We finally spotted it, conveniently on the corner with the Tourist Information office. This took us down a narrow cobblestone street lined with pricey-looking shops to our destination.

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Saturday, August 19 (continued)

The Konventa Seta Hotel occupies the structure that was once a convent. It is so notably historic that it has a numbered location on the tourist maps. This made it easier to find. (It turned out to be a double-edged sword, as we later had guides lecturing just outside our window, in different languages). Our room was a little disappointing, given the background of the hotel. We were expecting its history to be reflected in the interior. It isn’t. Inside, it looks like any other mid-range hotel. The furnishings in our room would not have been out of place in an IKEA store. There was nothing wrong with them, but they were bland. The one real malfunction that I recall was that I couldn’t get the TV to show anything but the hotel information channel. We never actually watch TV on our trips; we hardly spend any waking time in the hotel. Thus, these are really minor complaints.

The location was great. We could go out through the front of the hotel towards the parks and new parts of town, or we could go out a back way which lead to an area next to St. John’s Church—which held a market most of the time we were there. From there we could go deeper into the old part of the city.

After unpacking, we went out to have a look around. We strolled through the park along the canal, stopping here and there to look at the festival events. At one point we sat down for a beer in the park.

Riga rests along the River Daugava, which flows to the northwest. In general, the street grid runs parallel to the river, northwest-southeast or northeast-southwest. The old part of the city is nestled between the river and a park-lined canal running parallel to it. The new part of the city starts on the other side of the canal, roughly to the northeast.

After returning to the hotel to reorganize, we went out to find some dinner. This was when we first went out the back way and found the market by the church. There was a tent of people in medieval costumes selling medieval-looking food. There was a booth selling all sorts of toy armor, helmets, swords, crossbows, etc. for the kiddiewinkies. There were craft, clothing, and jewelry booths as well. Lots of stuff, but nothing we wanted to buy.

We decided to dine at Domini Canes, which was just around the corner from the hotel. I had the suckling pig with a spinach/legume stew. We sat outside and watch the crowd flow past. We were done, we returned to our room and settled in for the night.

Walking miles: 6.2.

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Sunday, August 20 (Riga)
We woke up early, as usual, and went to sample the hotel’s breakfast. The breakfast buffet was extensive, and pretty much anyone will find something that fits his or her concept of breakfast. There wasn’t any bacon, although there is a hot-dog like sausage. The buffet was arranged along a narrow corridor. This lead to some congestion as guests filled their plates and then tried to navigate back to the rooms with the tables in them. American-style coffee was available in urns. There was also a push-button coffee machine, but its only options were espresso, Americano, and hot water for tea--no cappuccino, latte, etc.

Our main aim for the day was to take a look at Riga’s Art Nouveau architecture. This, of course, took us outside the old town. It was a longish walk, but we didn’t mind it. In the outskirts of the area, the style is retrained. Our reaction, was, “That’s nice.—A good example of the style.” Then we went around a corner, and—bam! Amazing blue and white buildings with statues and carvings all over the façade. We were just clicking away with our cameras from every angle. It’s hard to get pictures of tall buildings from just the width of a street. There were also quite a few cats hanging around, and they weren’t shy about having their pictures taken either.

We had the whole area to ourselves for an hour or so, but then the lollipop brigades started arriving. The tour groups started planting themselves in front of the buildings, holding up their phones and cameras. It was just the same as we had been doing, but it was hard to get photos without people in the frame. By now, it was about opening time for the Art Nouveau museum to open, and we went in as soon as the doors were unlocked. It is in a former townhouse and shows that the movement was about home furnishings and decoration as much as architecture. Before going in the museum, we went up the building’s spiral staircase in order to view the intricately painted ceiling at the top.

There were tour groups moving through the museum as well, and sometimes the space was pretty cramped. However, most of the time we were able to stay ahead or behind them. We saw how the style was applied to sitting rooms, dining, bedrooms—even the kitchen and hallways.

After leaving the museum, we lingered in the area for a while to take another look at the buildings and then headed back towards our hotel. Just across the street was the Kwack Inn, a pub specializing in Belgian beer. (We later learned that it is operated by Russian company!) Unusually for a bar, it closed at 4PM. So, we dropped in for lunch. The staff was friendly and knowledgeable. We are people who know beer well, and it was refreshing to have a good discussion. The waitress not only advised us what would go well with our flammkuchen, she also suggested what beers to have next, based on what we had been drinking. (As usual, we were drinking 0.3 liter glasses, so that we could sample more than one.) Since this was a “Belgian” establishment, we even sprang for dessert, having waffles with ice cream.

After leaving the Kwak Inn, we wanted to take a look at Riga’s version of the House of the Blackheads. We discovered that Riga’s Old Town is difficult to navigate. The twisty streets and unfamiliar signs imposed a mental geography that we couldn’t grasp. We kept thinking that we were going in one direction and winding up somewhere else. We saw a lot of the town—some of it more than once.

We found ourselves in from of Mentzendorff's House and went in. This is a townhouse that was inhabited by the same wealthy family from 17th Century to the 19th. The wall paintings (that is, paintings right on the walls) have been partially restored, giving an idea of how the rooms would have like before the ravages of time took their toll. It was an interesting contrast to the Art Nouveau townhouse we had seen in the morning.

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Sunday, August 20 (continued)

We finally did find the House of the Blackheads—but it was covered in scaffolding. We took some pictures of the bits we could see and continued westward, to the river. We got a good view of the National Library of Latvia, an impressive modern building on the opposite bank. The festival was still going on. Along our side of the river, the open space was filled with market booths, games, and performance stages. We wandered among them, heading northwest to Riga Castle. Beyond the castle is the presidential palace, where we watched the ceremonial guards march back and forth, as some guys in combat gear watched us. Not far away a wedding party was having its photographs taken.

It was late in the afternoon by then. We went back to the hotel to rest a bit a before going out to dinner. Then we wandered through the twisty streets for a while, indecisively looking at menus. Finally, we settled on a touristy-looking place called the Golden Coffee. There was an Asian-looking woman standing outside trying to engage passers-by. While we recognized that she was touting for customers, we also admired her initiative. This broke through our reluctance to actually choose a restaurant.
Well, it was a touristy place, but it was a touristy place that catered to Russians, and that was interesting. It had an enormous multi-page, multi-language menu. I had the spaghetti carbonara with beer, and ice cream with cappuccino for dessert.

That was it for that day. We went back to the hotel for the night.

Walking miles: 10.2.

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Monday, August 21 (Riga)

After breakfast at the hotel, we spent the early morning walking through Kronvalda Park along the canal to the northeast of Old Town. Given Fran’s occupation, we have a greater than usual interest in how parks are laid out. This one is elaborate, with running streams, rock formations, viewing platforms, fountains, and formal beds. There are boat rides on the canal and cafes within the park. We watched the maintenance crews working. It’s always interesting to see the equipment they use and what they are doing. The park contains many memorial and commemorative markers. They were in Latvian, of course. I tried to read some of them using my phone camera and Google Translate. That didn’t work as well as I had hoped, but I had a few successes.

We worked our way northwest on one side of the canal to the end of the park, where we found a little, sort-of, Japanese style garden. Then we crossed to the other side of the canal and walked southeast. We stopped in Sala kafejnica, a little café, for a cappuccino. They sold baked goods, sandwiches, and packaged salads. It was an interesting scene, with people coming in to pick up take-out orders. There were also mothers with children in strollers seated at the tables.

The park on the other side of the canal has many statures, some of which were donated by other countries in honor of the restoration of Latvian independence. Some were just strange, such as a 20-foot-high ape in a white spacesuit.

We walked southeast until we reached the Latvian Museum of Occupation. This was a temporary location, as their regular building (near the House of the Blackheads) was undergoing renovation. The exhibits occupied a few rooms in the building. Like its Estonian counterpart, it told the story of the successive occupations by the Soviets, the Nazis, and the Soviets again, until independence was restored in 1991. As I looked at the photographs, I was struck by how much the people looked like my relatives. My mother’s parents were Lithuanian, one from a village just over the border from Latvia. If they hadn’t emigrated before the First World War, someone with my genes might have lived a very different life.

After leaving the museum we went back to the Kwak Inn for lunch. The waitress recognized us from the day before. I had sausage with sauerkraut and, of course, beer.

After lunch, we went to the Latvian War Museum, which is housed in the Powder Tower. It starts out pretty early in history, recounting the waves of German crusaders, Swedes, Livonians, Russians, French, and others who marched through this part of the world. Many of the displays included explanations in English. The lobby on each floor contained display cases filled with models of ships, vehicles, and aircraft from all eras and countries. I spotted World War I tanks and railroad guns alongside American Civil War ironclads and fortress artillery. Some of the models seemed hand-crafted, while others seemed to be from hobby kits.

The World War I section covered more material on that conflict in Latvia than I ever imagined existed: mobilization, training, weapons, the home front, unit histories, uniforms, and operations. Near the end, the Russian war with the Germans was transformed into a Latvian war with the Bolsheviks. There are few people who like military history more than I do, but by the time we finished with the First World War, my brain was full. We decided to skip World War II and later events.

There was a coffee shop nearby, and we sat outside with some cappuccino. Then I stopped at an ATM to replenish our Euro supply before we returned to the hotel. We took a different route back, and so we saw another part of the city.

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Monday, August 21 (continued)

Our plan was to go to a medieval-themed restaurant that the guidebooks had recommended. However, when we arrived we couldn’t get in without a reservation. Apparently, other people read the same books. After wandering around for a bit, we once again found ourselves near the House of the Blackheads. Across the square from it was an Italian restaurant called Mama Pasta. We decided that would do. Once again, we sat outside. I had rabbit ragout, with beer, and panna cotta for dessert. While we were there we watched people in traditional dress assembling at another restaurant in the square—apparently a musical group.

It was at about this point when I realized that my ATM card was missing. That kind of put a damper on our enjoyment of the evening. We went back to the hotel, and I called my credit union. The time difference worked in our favor, as it was still afternoon in D.C. I got through pretty quickly, but I had some difficulty getting the woman on the other end to take the matter seriously. They were all caught up in watching the solar eclipse. I had some trouble getting her to understand that not everyone in the world could see it (it was well after sunset in Riga). I got her to cancel our cards and left it at that. I would deal with getting a replacement when I got home. I was more worried about misuse of the card than about not being able to get cash. We hadn’t been using much cash up to that point. If we needed any, we could use our credit cards (albeit with an interest charge), and we also had a reserve of US currency that we could exchange. As it turned out, we didn’t need to replenish our stock for the rest of the trip.
In any case, that little adventure put an end to our day.

Walking miles: 11.0.

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Tuesday, August 22 (Riga)

We awoke to a rainy day. After breakfast we grabbed our rain gear. Our plan was to take a look at Vermanes Park, which runs roughly parallel to Kronvalda but is further to the northeast. At the northwest end of the park is the Latvian Museum of Art, which would be open by the time we got there. It was a pleasant walk, despite the intermittent rain. We got to see what morning rush hour was like, as people moved around by car, bus, bicycle, and foot. We also came across a statue of Michael Barclay de Tolly, a Russian Marshal from the Napoleonic era . About halfway through the park is the Nativity of Christ Cathedral, built in the round-domed Orthodox style. We didn’t go inside. A babushka and an older man glared at us as we took our pictures. Some of the formal beds of the park had cylindrical structures that looked like flower-covered daleks.

The variety of styles in the Latvian National Art Museum was surprising. It begins with socialist realist painting, some of which is remarkably good, given its didactic purpose. Some of the art is a reaction to this, as in a painting featuring a refrigerator as a consumer good. There is also portraiture and some intriguing landscapes. A pre-Raphaelite painting featured a female figure of death looming over a mother and child. A jazz-era portrait was entitled “Madonna of the Machine Gun.” The building itself was something to see. It features a grand central staircase. At each level, the doors leading to the galleries are surmounted by paintings of landmarks in Riga. There is a cupola at the top.

After leaving the National Art Museum, we headed back towards the town hall square in order to visit the Bourse Art Museum. We had our eyes out for someplace to stop for lunch, but we didn’t find anything appealing. The Bourse itself has a café, but it was closed.

The Bourse has a lot of portraiture. We were also surprised to find Egyptian, decorative, Indian, and East Asian art. It was a good contrast to what we had seen in the morning.

We finally grabbed a snack—potato pancakes and beer—at a chain café called Double Coffee. Thus replenished, we decided to do some shopping. There is a big store called Elkor down the street from the Freedom Monument. You could call it a tourist trap, but it’s a better example of that type. The merchandise runs the spectrum from little gewgaws and snacks to expensive wine and amber. I was excited to find many volumes of CDs from Latvia’s folk music festivals. We found a nice little stuffed toy for my niece’s soon-to-be-born baby.

We took our bags back to the hotel and then went across the street for one last beer at the Kwak Inn. Then we started to pack up for the next stage of the trip. Later in the evening, we went to dinner at Kollonades, a fancy (for us) restaurant in Kronvalda Park. I had the venison ravioli, and we changed from our usual routine by having wine instead of beer.

Walking miles: 9.8.

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Thanks for the report Dav. We're headed to the Baltics in 2 weeks. Hope to see your last installments before then! :)

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Excellent report. However, one thing missing: how did you LIKE Riga and the various things you saw? How did you feel about it?
Loved it? Just liked it? How would you compare it to other places you visited, on this trip and others? Is it a place you wouldn't mind going back to?

I visited the Baltics two years ago, including three nights in Riga. In some ways it was my favorite city of the three Baltic capitals. I thought the old town of Tallinn was superior to that of Riga (or Vilnius) in terms of pure charm and historical authenticity, but it was also very touristy. Riga didn't feel touristy to me so much - it felt very real and cosmopolitan, a modern thriving city (even if the old town isn't quite as nice as Tallinn's), kind of big and imposing, with big city blocks, reminding me a tad of Paris in a way. Tallinn seemed like a small town by comparison.

I probably enjoyed Tallinn more for the charm, but if I were to move to a city, I would chose Riga over Tallinn easily - just felt like a real, livable city. The Art Nouveau buildings were outstanding - almost a must-see (and I am not even an architecture buff). I am glad I stayed out in that part of town - I was able to visit those buildings a couple of times.

I am a photographer and I love bridges, so I devoted a lot of time to photographing Riga's neat bridges, especially at night. I guess they aren't especially unique or amazing, but they both photograph well, especially the Vanšu Bridge (cable-stayed bridge).

What a shame the House of Blackheads was under renovation while you were there! The building isn't really that old, but it is kind of cool, one of the signature buildings of Riga.

Did you visit the big central market in the old zeppelin hangers, over by the train station? I really enjoyed wandering through, even though I didn't buy anything, seeing the incredible variety of fresh meat, fish, and produce on sale. Then again, I was later nearly pick-pocketed in this area (as I was leaving with my bags headed to the bus station). Not sure what happened to your ATM card, but I could have lost my wallet and passport and nearly did - thank goodness I caught the attempt in progress! Riga otherwise felt very safe to me, even at night, but you really need to watch your belongings...

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Thanks for the report. Very interesting observations on the Latvian war history museum as it relates to WW1. The Tsarist naval base which the Russians were building up prior to 1914 to challenge the Germans on the Baltic was at Libau, as it was known by its German name then. Obviously, the place is called by it Latvian name today.

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Andrew, yes, I enjoyed my stay in Riga. I hope to return to it someday. We didn't get to the Zeppelin sheds, which is one reason why we would like to return. I can't say whether I prefer Riga to Tallinn. They are different. I really like Tallinn's old city, and especially its walls. As you say, Riga is less touristy, and that is an advantage for it.

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Thanks for another great installment on your Baltic trip. I head out on June 26 but my trip is limited to Tallinn and Riga. I'll save Lithuania for another year. Thanks again for the comprehensive report!

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I enjoyed reading all your reports.

I'm curious about Kaliningrad. Strange place, it seems. Does anyone go there? Are tourists allowed? Or is there nothing interesting to see? I know it is part of Russia and was "closed" for many years.

Editing to add: apparently there are interesting things to see but the major "hindrance" is the visa(s) required.

Anyone out there who has been there?

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On going to Kaliningrad: If you're interested in how that place, the former Konigsberg, the birthplace of the Prussian monarchy, transformed after the destruction in 1945, go there.

I have not been there but know of a woman, an acquaintance my age, ie, technically a baby boomer, who went once the fall of Soviet communism had taken place. Her trip to Konigsberg was in the early 1990s and was with a German tour from Berlin. I think (I'm not sure of this) that the only way to see Kaliningrad is by way of a guided tour. That was then, don't about presently.

You can see from time to time travel agencies in Germany that advertise tours to Kaliningrad, and obviously, expect such tours to be conducted totally in German. I've seen them in Berlin.

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Thank you, Fred! I should ask a German friend who has been everywhere, it seems. Maybe she has been there. (I don't necessarily want to go there; it just sounds interesting. :)

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@ Hille...It is indeed interesting, when you are familiar with the history, not a topic very much covered in anglophone historiography. If you have a good reading level of German, and given your interest, as regards to the history of the place prior to the horrors of WW2, the history of Königsberg and that of East Prussia, I heartily suggest seeing the museums in Duisburg and Lüneburg.

The Duisburg museum focuses on the city of Konigsberg itself and its association with the Prussian monarchy, and all that. I saw it only 1999.

The museum in Lüneburg has been expanded since the first time I went there in 1971, have been there numerous times, the last time was 2011.