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One of My Best Travel Days Ever: A Trip Report for Latvia (and Estonia)

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.

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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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Guides: I like hiring local/native guides. It helps me better understand what I am seeing and gives insight into the culture. I also kind of enjoy the company when I travel solo, to be honest.

In Tallinn, I used Mati Rumessen for 2 days. He was excellent. I spent one day with him exploring Tallinn – including the old town, Kadriorg Palace and Park, the Song Festival Grounds, and Paldiski (a little port town that was a busy Soviet military base until 1995). Day 2 included a quick stop at the TV Tower (a must for me given its role in the “Singing Revolution”), time in Lahemaa National Park (including a hike through Viru bog), visits to a couple of small Estonian towns, and a stop at the manor house Palmse. Excellent tours. Fair price. I would certainly use Mati again and recommend him.

In Riga, I used Santa Ogrina for 2 days. She was a superlative guide – easily one of the best I have used in Europe. She is a young, energetic native showing off her country with pride. I spent one day with her in Riga – Central Market (with multiple food tastings), Old Town, Soviet sites, and Art Nouveau district. All were wonderful. I spent a second day with her outside Riga, visiting Santa’s hometown Cesis, it’s 13th century castle ruins, and a nearby Soviet nuclear bunker built beneath a sanatorium (designed for Latvia’s Soviet leadership in the event of nuclear war). The gregarious Eugene joined us for this day as our driver. Once again, excellent tours. Exceptionally fair price. I highly recommend Santa.

Hotels: Hotel Telegraaf in Tallinn and Hotel Neiburgs in Riga. Both were excellent and housed in wonderfully unique buildings in their cities’ Old Towns. Both were also a little higher class than the places I usually stay, but prices were reasonable for what I got, and the location for both was excellent.

Memorable Activities (outside tours): I really enjoyed the KGB Tour at Hotel Viru in Tallinn. It’s a little kitschy, but I found it fun. The views over Tallinn from the 23rd floor of the hotel are super. The balcony that overlooks the old town on the 23rd floor is not accessible on the tour, but the smoking balcony on the 22nd floor is just beneath it and offers the chance for really great pictures of the Old Town from above (no smokers there when I was there). I also like Tallinn’s city museum. It’s always fun for me to see what a city thinks is important about itself. I didn’t have enough time to make it to the Occupation Museum or KUMU in Tallin – would have loved to hit both. In Riga, I spent some extra time at the Freedom Monument with the Wikipedia entry for it that gives a nice description of it. The Occupation Museum there was good – an English tour is available for 3 euro.

Memorable Restaurants: In Tallin, I enjoyed Vanaema Juures, a small restaurant below ground in the Old Town the serves traditional Estonian food. I also really liked Farm, an eclectic larger restaurant serving “modern” Estonian fare that also has rustic stuffed animals sitting around a table in the front window. Restaurant Tchaikovsky is an expensive Russian restaurant at Hotel Telegraaf that has excellent food and even better service; napkins are folded like swans! There is also an organic pita place in the mall attached to Hotel Viru that was cheap and good. In Latvia, there was a cafeteria in the basement of the main hotel in Cesis that offered up plates of delicious food for around 2 euro. The last night in Riga, I broke down and got a cheeseburger at TGI Friday’s. It was delicious. Don’t judge me.

Aviation Geekery: I was delighted to log flights on 3 new planes (Airbus A-350, Bombardier CS-300, and a Bombardier Dash Q400) and 1 new airline (Air Baltic). I flew business class on a cheap fare I found about 6 months ahead of the trip (a little over $2000 for Greenville/Spartanburg SC (GSP) to Tallinn with a return flight from Riga to GSP).

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Regrets? Not spending more time in both Tallinn and Riga. In Tallinn, there were more things to see in the city (as noted above), but the surrounding area is pretty awesome, too. For example, there seems to be a lot of hiking available. I would also like to explore the Klooga Memorial, an outdoor exhibition regarding the Holocaust in Estonia that includes the site of the Klooga concentration camp. Riga has so many things to see and do. There were many museums I would have liked to have seen, and I would have liked to have attended more cultural events there, too. There is, of course, much more to see in these countries than their capitals. I will return, hopefully with an extended amount of time to spend in both Estonia and Latvia (as well as Lithuania).

Posted by
709 posts

Thanks, Dave. Great report!!! Sounds like you had a super time!

Posted by
5011 posts

Just got back from this region a couple days ago. Agree 100% about how great it is - we were wowed. Glad you enjoyed it, too.

Posted by
681 posts

I really enjoyed your report. Did you spend much time at the festival. That would have been so amazing to see.

Posted by
35 posts

Dave, thanks for your interesting and informative report. My husband and I will be visiting Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in September and will using Mati and Santa as guides. Nice to know that you recommend them so highly.

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2651 posts

@Eef... Yes, it was a really good trip!

@David... I find it mildly amusing that Forum members Dav, Dave, and David have all recently gone to the Baltics.

@diveloonie... I'm honored.

@Nancy... The parade lasted about 5-6 hours. I didn't watch all of it. There were smaller concerts in venues and parks across the city for a week culminating in the big show. I was long gone by the time of the big show. I planned to go to a performance in a park on my 3rd (final) night in Riga, but it rained, so I ate a cheeseburger instead. Sounds rather like an American, eh?

@Ellen... You will really enjoy both. I asked Mati how he ended up in the guide business. He said that he raced cars as a teen, was a driver during his required Soviet military service, started a driving service in Tallinn that catered to VIPs after Estonia's independence, "and then I met a man named Rick Steves."