When I first arrived in Riga, and went for a wander around the Old Town, my first thoughts were ‘It’s not Tallinn…’
That may be obvious; it’s a different city in a different country. What I meant was that I didn’t fall in love with Riga the way I had, instantly, with Tallinn in its fairytale beauty. Riga was different. It was bigger, with more people, and yet it felt less alive than Tallinn. It was quieter and calmer – admittedly I didn’t sample the nightlife in Riga – and yet felt distanced and impersonal. I just didn’t feel the magic. Don’t get me wrong – it’s still an incredibly beautiful city.
The hostel that I stay at on the other hand was unbelievable. Amazing. I had never seen such an awesome hostel in my life. It’s new, and owned and run by women. It’s comfortable and stylish, and to top it off, in the female dorm was a dresser covered in all the cosmetics, hair products and nail polish a girl could need, as well as hair dryers, straighteners, curling wands. All there for anyone to use. Cinnamon Sally’s is run by ladies, all right. And if this hadn’t given it away, the fresh peppermint tea with home-made cinnamon rolls would have.
I spent my first few days in Riga with an American girl I met called Kim. She arrived shortly after I did, so we went for a wander around the city to find dinner. The next day we decided to do the free walking tour and dutifully arrived at St Peter’s Cathedral at twelve noon searching for a bright yellow suitcase. We didn’t spot the suitcase, but the large group of tourists massing at the cathedral was pretty obviously what we were looking for.
We soon left the Old Town; the free walking tour wasn’t really focused on the Old Town but on places most tourists didn’t bother to make it to. Our guide pointed out a couple of Art Nouveau style buildings on the way out. While I love art nouveau art, I didn’t find anything about the buildings particularly interesting and to my mind they were leaning towards art deco rather than art nouveau. But then, I’m no architecture expert! One of the first buildings we visited is locally known as ‘Stalin’s birthday cake’ as it was apparently built in honour of Stalin, but he inconveniently died before the building was completed. It’s currently an academy of science building and is pretty ugly. It’s a little more elaborate than what I had expected of Soviet architecture and it does kind of resemble a birthday cake with multiple tiers.
We walked through some residential streets full of wooden houses that were falling apart, in the ‘Little Moscow’ area of Riga, so called because a lot of Russians lived there for a period of time, including pre-Soviet times. We came across what must be the most unlucky church in Riga. It’s been burnt down three times in the past five hundred years, primarily to protect the city in times of invasion. It’s the largest wooden church in the Baltics. I asked why they didn’t build it of stone when they rebuilt, and was told that it was a strategic decision – the location of the church is quite significant from a defensive angle, and a wooden church would not be able to support the weight of cannons on the roof and could thus not be used by an invading enemy – such as Napoleon. During Napoleon’s march to Russia it was thought that his army would come through Riga. To protect the city, whole districts were burnt to the ground in anticipation. However, Napoleon never bothered to turn up, choosing to go through Vilnius instead. That must have been a bit of a disappointment after all the preparations – especially to all the people who now had no homes.
We next visited the Central Market. It was awesome. It consists of four ‘zeppelin hangers’, each with specific products: one for fruit and vegetables, one for meat, one for delicatessens and the last for fish. Needless to say, the fragrance of the last was the least pleasant. The central market was great – out the front of the first hanger were hundreds more stalls, mostly selling fruit and vegetables. Tables were piled up with all kinds of berries and cherries – I made a mental note to return later for a giant punnet [and I mean almost a kilogram] of raspberries for a huge 1.5lt or less than $3.
After the central market we wandered some more streets until reaching the Freedom Monument, affectionately known as ‘Milda’ [it’s a lady]. The Freedom Monument is apparently a national shrine for Latvians, and during the Soviet period locals were deported to Siberia simply for laying flowers at the base of the statue. The three stars ‘Milda’ holds represent the three historical regions of the country.
This walking tour was different to the Tallinn walking tour in that it was more exploring streets and just walking around than sightseeing, which was quite nice. We went through some parks and were told we were lucky not to be here before March – it had previously been illegal to walk on the grass and you would be fined for doing so. Now they’ve relaxed and allow people on the grass. What’s the point of a park where you have to stay on the footpaths?
We finished the tour on the top of what may once have been the location of a fortress. A mound was rebuilt by the city using the leftover boulders and stones from the historic fortress. It was definitely time to find some food.
We located a very cheap little place with buffet style eating, where you pay by weight. There’s no English or even Russian translations so you have to guess what you’re eating. The options aren’t huge – a couple of soups, one of which was definitely beetroot [that’s a colour hard to disguise], a variety of pelmeni [Russian dumplings, basically like large ravioli] and a bunch of stuff to put on top of it. You grab a tray and a bowl or two and hope for the best. I decided to play it safe – knowing how pork crazy they are – and stick to what appeared to be vegetarian pelmeni. I scooped some of them in, then some things that turned out to be little fried bread puffs, and topped it off with a big handful of parsley, what looked like a tomato salsa and a huge dollop of sour cream. They’re sour-cream mental over here. With a full bowl, I went to the counter and paid a whopping 1.6lt for that and an orange juice. About $3 for a decent meal. Sure, it wasn’t the most amazing thing I’ve ever eaten but it was tasty, quick and cheap. I’d be back a few times.
I went to the supermarket in the afternoon, and discovered that 5pm on a weekday is NOT the time to do the grocery shopping. The place was absolutely packed. I’d had a craving for amatriciana, and was intent on hunting down the necessary ingredients. I couldn’t find bacon – this sounds crazy, but I couldn’t figure out whether some of the meat was bacon or something else. Everything is in plastic, and looks more like prosciutto than bacon. But I found salami, and tomatoes and chillies and capsicums and garlic and all the tasty things. I looked for a jar of pasta sauce just to make it easier, and couldn’t read a thing on any of them. So I picked something that was very cheap and had some pictures of chillies and tomatoes on the front. It did look like it could have been pasta sauce…
I almost didn’t put any in as once I’d cooked up all the good stuff it smelled so amazing that it didn’t really need anything. Everyone in the hostel was quite jealous – the kitchen is in the centre so the smell of deliciousness managed to waft through the whole floor. But I figured that I’d bought the stuff, so I may as well use it. Thankfully I only put a tablespoon in…it turned out not to be pasta sauce but some crazy Armenian chilli paste stuff that was absolutely scorching. I worried for a moment that my delicious pasta would be RUINED, but once I got everything mixed in with the pasta it turned out to be perfectly fine. That was such a relief!
We explored more of the Old Town later that evening. It’s so much nicer walking around the city once it’s cooled down a little – it’s unbelievably hot during the day. We walked along the river before heading back into the old town.
Cafes and bars were starting to get lively, and a market selling handmade goods was set up in the main square. Everything was a little overpriced for my liking, but I enjoyed just being in the old town and admiring the beautiful buildings. It may not be quite so fairytale as Tallinn – the scale is too grand for that – but it’s certainly not without its charm.