I stared out the van window, drinking in my first views of a new country, as my friendly young driver Eugene gave me a tutorial on Latvians. He told me to expect most Latvians to be much less talkative than him. He summed things up by saying, “Latvians are….” He searched for an English word. “Reserved?” I asked. Yes, that was a good word. He grinned and said, “Not like me. I’m half Bulgarian!”
He told me it might be a little difficult to get to my hotel in Riga’s old town because there was a parade later that day. I had arrived (unbeknownst to me) during the Latvian Song and Dance Festival, an every 5-year event that brought people from across Latvia to Riga. Towards the end of the festival 20,000+ singers and 10,000+ dancers from across the country perform together on a huge stage. Eugene had sung twice and danced once in prior festivals.
He further explained that the parade would consist of festival participants who would be wearing traditional outfits from their region of Latvia. Eugene glanced at me, a twinkle in his eye, and said, “A Latvian young lady… in traditional dress….” He kissed his fingertips. “…there’s nothing more beautiful.”
After the gregarious driver dropped me at my hotel, I checked in and then set out for the first spot on my list of places to see – the KGB House, the former KGB headquarters and remand prison in Riga that is now a museum. During the 30-minute walk there, I was stunned by the beauty of Riga’s old town, its parks, and its flowers.
I arrived at the KGB House about 30 minutes early for my English tour. I pushed through the old doors on the building, received a brusque response from the lady behind the ticket window, and started exploring the museum. Near start time for the tour, a guide appeared and gathered participants for what would be an extremely grim journey through the KGB’s history of oppressing (and murdering) Latvians.
After about 90 minutes, we neared the end of the tour, exiting the ghastly execution room and entering the KGB facility’s courtyard. We heard a band playing and cheers going up on the other side of the heavy metal doors placed by the Soviets across the street entrance to the courtyard – the gates through which prisoners arrived at the KGB House to be beaten, stripped of their rights & dignity, and (for many) executed.
The guide led us over to the heavy doors/gates, unlocked them, and pulled them open. The parade had started. Joyful, colorfully-dressed Latvians played instruments, waved flags, sang, and danced as they paraded through streets lined by cheering, singing fellow countrymen. From the grim shadows of a place that housed an organization that oppressed the Latvians and desired to stamp out their culture and replace it with Soviet culture, I watched the sun brightly shine on the country’s happy, free people celebrating their national heritage.
The tour ended. I walked out the front doors and along the parade route as I headed back to my hotel. I often stopped to snap photos, listen to singing, watch dancing, and marvel at my presence for something so big, meaningful, and wonderful. My emotions ran wild. I smiled at the beauty and pageantry around me. I fought back tears as I thought about the contrast between the country’s Soviet history and its colorful present. I just about completely lost it when my eyes met the misty eyes of a 60-something-year-old man whose face indicated that all of this had far more meaning for him than a simple Sunday afternoon parade.
It was an amazing experience… and the enormity of it all made it one of my best travel days ever.
This day was part of a 7-night solo journey to Estonia and Latvia. I spent 4 nights in Tallinn and 3 nights in Riga. I loved both places – each has its own vibe – Tallinn more medieval, Riga more late 19th century/early 20th century chic.
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