Riga, Latvia

Trip Start Aug 11, 2009
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Trip End Sep 30, 2010

Flag of Latvia  ,
Monday, April 19, 2010

Heading North in the Baltic countries (that chunk of land between Russia and Scandinavia on the Baltic sea) our next stop after Lithuania is Latvia. The locals tell us sadly that when they travel overseas and tell people they are from Latvia, the response is generally 'oh, Latvia. where is that again?'. Perhaps not so surprising considering that on our travels we have met some people who now believe that Norway is next to New Zealand, and who have complimented us on our English (it must be hard after speaking Australian).

After tiny Vilnius, the Latvian capital of Riga feels enormous (population wise it is smaller than Perth) although, it only took us 15 minutes by bike from the city center to lose ourselves in the forest. The 10 minutes on the cobbled streets felt like hours though. We rode to Jurmala, a seaside resort on the gulf of Riga where it was still too cold to swim, or even take your coat off outside. The long stretches of white sand beach do look nice in the photos though. 
Riga is chock full of museums and monuments, one of the highlights is the motor museum with a collection of cars and motorbikes from pre war to Soviet era. Not usually my cup of tea, the interesting part are the cars ordered by the Stalin and his cronies, such as the 7.5 tonne armored limos with 6cm thick iron plating.

The architecture is also beautiful - there is a whole Art Nouveau suburb of buildings covered in sculpted facades. Some of the old wooden buildings still remain. In medieval (frequently warring) Riga, burning down entire suburbs was a defense tactic. All of Riga was burned to prevent capture by Napoleon... no, he never advanced on Riga. (damn those army and cattle dust clouds look the same).

We also went to our first ice hockey game to watch Latvia beat France to a pulp... almost literally. I never realized that all out fighting was such an integral part of the game.

Modern Riga seems to be suffering from its status as stag party central. Rumors of Russian mafia, scams and organized crime are rife, although the only evidence of anything seedy we saw was the popularity of exotic dance lessons among Latvian and Russian girls at the curtainless dance studio straight out of our hostel room window.

Latvian beer is also an improvement after the Lithuanian beers, although it is hard to beat the delicious Latvian vodka - never thought I would be using delicious and vodka in the same sentence! The local spirit, Riga black balsam is marketed as a health tonic (its 45% proof) and described by other travelers as the appearance, consistency, taste and potency of crude oil. Its actually kind of nice though...never tasted crude oil to compare though.
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