I departed Tallinn for Riga, the capital city of neighboring Baltic country, Latvia. Although I’d been to Lithuania and Estonia before this trip, I’ve somehow always missed the middle sister. Go figure. Counting up, Latvia is now the 29th country I’ve been to in the world. By the end of this trip, I’ll have hit 31 countries, (although I’ve still never been to Canada).
The Riga Old Town has some beautiful streets
And they open up into lovely little squares
The old Powder Tower was home to a lot swallows today
There were lots of beautiful church spires, too
I could have taken pictures of all of the buildings around town (and by the end of this post you may think that I did)
My host family in Akhalkalaki was especially excited that I was including Riga on my itinerary. Host uncle, Pavlik, studied at the Riga University and Emilia and Akop took a long vacation to visit him and get him settled in at some point (I don’t know the exact date, but it would have been between 1989 and 1991). Emilia would often reminisce about those days, about how difficult things were for the family then, and about how much she loved that vacation and Riga in particular. (As an aside for background, in 1988 there was a devastating earthquake in Armenia that also affected Akhalakalaki, then Emilia’s husband passed away in 1989 or 1990, while she had two sons in college. It was a tough period, even without considering the 1991 collapse of the USSR, the only country Emilia had ever lived in. Given all of this, I'm surprised she could keep it all together and move forward, but she did and this trip seems like it was one of the first highlights after a very dark, difficult time.) I got tips from Emilia about what to see and do and where to eat, which the others would chuckle at, because things have undoubtedly changed in the 22-year interim.
Another beautiful square in the old town
An old wooden church that was burned down and reconstructed 8 times in its 400+ year history
The ruins of a synagogue. Riga's Jewish population was almost completely decimated during WW2
Of course Riga has its nice, Stalinist buildings as well. They call this one "Stalin's Birthday Cake"
Another cool old town building, now a bank, but with the coats of arms of all the regions of Latvia decorating the side
Emilia was absolutely right about one thing, though—Riga is a beautiful city, with lots to do, see and eat. It has a very different feel from Tallinn. It lacks the medieval wall and watchtowers, for starters, and has many more buildings with distinct styles. From my Riga Free Tour guide, I learned that about 40 percent of the buildings are designed in the Art Nouveau style, thanks to a British mayor of the city in the early 1900s. Like Estonia, Latvia has been invaded, conquered, occupied, and overrun for centuries, and has a lot of different cultural influences that have shaped it.
A cool Art Nouveau building
The House of the Blackheads, an old German merchant guild house
St. Peter's Cathedral spire
One of the main parks. There are apparently beavers living in this canal, but I didn't see any of them
In this park, it's tradition for newlyweds to lock a lock onto a bridge and throw the key into the canal, to symbolize that their union will never come undone
The parks were beautifully landscaped and overflowing with flowers
Laima is one of the biggest chocolate companies in Latvia. The Freedom Monument is visible in the background
The flower market was incredible
Since I didn’t have the chance to do a day trip out to the countryside, I did the next best thing: I went to the Open Air Ethnographic Museum on the outskirts of town and spent a day wandering around. The museum includes over 100 houses and buildings from all over Latvia, ranging in age from 500-100 years old, and typical of all different types of building styles across Latvia. It helped that there was beautiful weather and a beautiful natural setting, and that the cafeteria served up really tasty traditional Latvian cuisine (I got a big bowl of beet soup with rye bread and a big plate of fried squash with carrot cream sauce, with a Latvian beer to drink) at non-museum prices (all of my food and drink together cost about $3) didn’t hurt either.
The faux-baroque alter inside an 18th century church
The ceiling had paintings of angels playing drums
Typical grave markers for 18th century Latvia
A roadside Mary-Jesus monument that looks like it was made by the creator of Beavis and Butthead
There were lots of cool old houses and barns
I definitely prefer modern conveniences to 19th century peasant houses, but these were cool to see
It's hard to imagine how they moved all these buildings to the museum
Cool cross on top of one of the museum's churches
They had an art display of old wooden carvings done by a Latvian from the western region of the country
A 17th century tavern
Self portrait by the lake
I’ve mentioned that I camped while in Finland, and I camped in Latvia as well. The campsite in Riga is just outside of the Old Town, on an island in the middle of the river. It takes about 15-20 minutes to get downtown, and for that small price I get some spectacular views across the river at the town. The island itself is home to a bunch of 19th century fishing and shipping related buildings that have been transformed into some really swanky houses (or are awaiting renovation and high selling prices, I’m sure).
One of the old wooden houses just begging to be renovated
Not too shabby a view from the campsite, huh?
In planning this trip I saw a lot of options to take about 2 weeks to bike through the Baltics, hitting up different natural wonders and cultural events, as well as seeing all of the major cities. There have been a number of tourists doing this as I’ve made my more meager trip. As I leave one country for another and continue my journeys, I’m already hatching a plan to come back and try out the Baltics-by-Bike adventure. Maybe I can convince my brother to join me?
These buildings make up the central market of Riga, a very cool covered market where you can get all kinds of fresh produce. The buildings were supposed to be zeppelin hangars, but once they started to crash and burn, the idea of housing a huge number of blimps suddenly became not so ideal, so they transformed the building into a bazaar