Lively Latvia

So after we celebrated our big day now as a married couple we embark on the next leg of our European adventures. We headed to Luton for a morning flight to Riga, arriving 2.5hrs later. We checked into our hotel, which didn’t exactly meet our expectations, and so marched the 40 minutes into Old Town unsure if we had made the right choice for a honeymoon stop.

How wrong we could have been if we had turned around before seeing Riga. We took a detour via the Kronvelda parks around the Esplanade, Vermanes Curzs, to the Monument of Freedom and immediately felt the lively atmosphere of families walking, bands playing and music filling the air.

By the canal, we found a small bridge where we immediately heard the unmistakable sounds of a Balkan brass band. This, being one of Kats musical loves, meant I was bounced along barely keeping pace as she honed in using her ears to the nearby Rigas Kongresu nams (Congress Hall) to a rather large Red Cross gathering or jamboree for the Latvijas Sarkanais Krusts supported by the Deutsches Rotes Kreuz. The collection of old emergency vehicles had me transfixed for the most part!

Trying to find alliterative phrases for all our places is hard when thinking of just one word that summarises a nation without referring to superlatives like “lovely” or repeating the same things! But lively seems to fit the bill before we even made it past day one.

Venturing into Old Town, we were amazed by how lovely it was. It doesn’t have city walls like in Kotor, Dubrovnik or other Old Towns of the age, but it does boast many old battlements and historical buildings dating to the Medieval and some well rebuilt monuments. It also has a very easy going attitude and the Old Town seems to guide you Street to street rather than being a tourist trap anchored around old walls.

The simple layout, cobbled streets, low traffic and very large selection of bars and restaurants meant it was easy to not follow the crowd or have to queue for hours. The bars and restaurants are open very late – some never close – and this affords a lively pace to an evening whilst still holding a laid back vibe.

Reeling from the early flight and feeling the dropping eyes we did what any good city hopper does – shots! The local moonshine is … well … good! Acquired taste? Yes. Rougher than a Sailors Arse? Oh yes. But it seems to raise spirits and push away the jet lag.

Desiring good food, Latvian of course, we move on from Moonshine and find Salve. This highly recommended restaurant has great Latvian food. I had the Blood Sausage and Oatmeal Porridge (a sort of black pudding and savoury oat mash), and Kat had Latvia Beef Stroganoff, with both of us having the meat dumplings with potato pancakes as starters with plenty of Dill and Curd. It was sublime to enjoy such a rich meal with a wonderful atmosphere and polite staff. It was more expensive than some places but not above the norm in Riga and well worth the prices for the quality you get.

Speaking of quality you just can’t believe the luck to get a second helping of traditional local folk music. On one of the streets, a festival played a one off street party with headliners отава ё playing hard until 12am. The use of instruments, the crowd reaction and our ability to get so close to stage made for a happy Kat!

The next day, having had our worst nights sleep in a long time, we bailed on the hotel we had so carefully selected in the UK. We had spotted some options the night before and come 10am had already switched to the Welltrum Spa Hotel, Old Town Riga. This gave us exactly what I had hoped for – spa, champagne and chocolates for celebration, an amazing room with view, and the most comfortable beds in Riga. All with a location that was perfect – if you find yourself thinking you should get a hotel outside the Old Town to save a few bob, don’t. The location makes the trip so much better when you don’t have to negotiate the multitude of underpasses, bridges and tunnels connecting Riga proper to Old Town. Trust me, 1 mile hikes at 1am via 6 different underpasses not so well signposted isn’t fun (in fairness they were clean and well lit, if not exactly alluring).

Having swapped hotels we instantly felt happier. We walked the 200m from the hotel to St Peters Church which has a commanding tower you can go up and view the whole town. It has amazing views, was 9€ each to climb the tower, free to walk inside the main church. We took a fair few excellent panoramic pictures of the old town before taking a tour of the Dom (Cathedral).

Inside the vaulted ceilings and art exhibition stood out. Taking panoramic shots of the high ceilings was a challenge but it was amazing. The art exhibition seemed to focus on materials and their artistic uses like twigs, wool and ceramics.

What was amazing about this tower is that it has been rebuilt in the 1960s to its former glory following its destruction in 1941 under German attack. Several hundred of the most architecturally significant buildings of Old Riga were destroyed between 1941 and 1944 with the successive invasions and occupations but remarkably the locals collected over 3,000 pieces of the buildings and secreted them in safe storage at the Dom and other locations enabling their continued survival.

We really got a sense of the scale of the missing tower from St Peter’s when we saw the pictures of its destruction and how it looks today. The rebuilding has been accurate to the original but it still seems senseless that it had to be lost in the first place.

Nearby the Cathedral and St Peters we found some great bars such as Peter’s Brewhouse serving excellent micro brewery local beers, a street market with amber and Russian dolls in equal measure and more impressive churches such as St John’s.

Inside St John’s Church is really something. Simple, Lutheran, but really impressive. An organ played booming durges as we marvelled at the architecture.

The view from the top of the tower gave the most splendid photo opportunities and was well worth the entry fee. From our commanding position we could see all the Old Town including some of my favourites of the roofs and the pastel coloured buildings, various parts of the new city and the huge Riga TV Tower (Rīgas radio un televīzijas tornis) the largest tower in the EU, and 3rd largest in Europe.

This panoramic view is my favourite and picks up the lovely green coppers and bronzes from the rebuilt church tower. We felt the city seemed a lot smaller than it did on foot.

Inside the Dom, for 3€ each you can walk around the main area, the cloisters, and small exhibits of the old collected ruins from before the wars.

This organ is the second largest mechanical pipe organ in Latvia, and built in 1882. At one point, in 1547 this cathedral had the largest pipe organ in the world but it was lost to fire and this current design sounds out daily in just as fine a glory.

As mentioned above, the cathedral cloisters was just one of the places the locals collected the various artefacts from the city after the occupations to preserve the grandeur of the city they once had. As a result, many buildings could be rebuilt and these pieces also included the artillery from the original city fortifications prior to the Russian removal of the city walls and bastions from 1882-1917 (due to their ineffectiveness in modern times).

To end our second night in Riga, suitable hydration was required. Libations such as a “Latvian flag” promised patriotism alongside getting pissed so I was game. Within a few minutes, before my eyes, there was the Latvian flag! 🇱🇻

Following a good recovery period from the Latvian flag, we went walking the old Medieval walls.

Part of the city defences left intact following the Russian dismantlement was the powder tower. It didn’t survive the 1917 war of independence or WW1, but through the diligence of the locals was rebuilt through 1937-1940 and today houses the Museum of War showcasing the plight of Latvia and its loss of 35% of its pre-war population to WW1 alone. The losses mean to this day, the population has never recovered and only houses 2.2m Latvians.

Deciding that a mix of some history and some drinking is only right on honeymoon we moved on. Don’t adjust your screens, the following images are more shots and more flags (see if you can guess them!).

The ShotCafe is located directly opposite the Powder Tower and has hundreds of shots of all kinds. We tried a lot, including one which had the Latvian name “Bistami” meaning dangerous that nearly knocked me off my seat. Needless to say, great fun was had!

Suitably refreshed, we decided to set off for our next journey to find a hire car and head to Tallinn (Estonia) and Helsinki (Finland).

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