If you had told me months ago that Latvia was such a beautiful and wonderful country to visit, I would have thought that was a lie. It is not that I had negative, preconceived notions on Latvia, or held an opinion on Latvian politics or culture, in fact, this is far from the truth. The truth is, I would have thought it a lie, because I had never heard anything about Latvia. Ever. People regaled me with stories about their travels to France and England, Belgium and the Netherlands, Germany and the Czech Republic, Italy and Greece, but I’ve never heard anyone discuss the beauty of the Baltics, because, well, I’ve never met anyone who vacationed there. So I packed my suitcase, and headed to Riga, the capital of Latvia, to explore the Baltic nations.
Riga is the capital of Latvia with a population of 703,000, and is split by the beautiful and expansive Daugava River, stretching from Russia to the Gulf of Riga, an extension of the Baltic Sea. The beauty of this city lies in its expansive parks, esplanades, architecture and extensive old town. The city is well known for its art nouveau district, which ranges from aged crumbling buildings, to well maintained and pristine architecture, to currently being restored. It is not only in the art nouveau architecture that one could find pleasures amongst the many buildings in the city. Since Riga was founded in 1201, there is a wide range in architectural building styles, and, as a result of Riga’s age, the city streets can become a winding cobbled maze for the unfamiliar tourist.
The many squares of Riga, focus around large churches and cathedral. These large open spaces in the old town district become intersections of the many small winding cobblestone streets, which look like foot paths, but are still used for auto traffic as well. These squares offer light in the dark narrow streets of the old town, and many have local, hospitable merchants peddling Baltic amber, Latvian knitting, or in many squares, open air restaurants, their local beer flowing heartily off the taps. These areas become refuges as one winds the many paths through the old town, feeling the warm spring sun beat against your face, and just taking in the grand 360 view of the old European architecture that surrounds you.
As you wind your way through the city streets of the old town, you find many treasures of the city, and one famous to Riga is the “Black Cat,” perched high atop the roof of a beautiful yellow stuccoed medieval design building–although it was built in 1909. Latvian’s are superstitious, as I found out, and traditional belief’s, customs, and folklore are still held with high regard. There are two competing stories of the “Black Cat.” The first one is of the wealthy merchant who erected and owned the building, and was denied entry into the Riga Tradesmen’s Guild. In retribution for this slighting, he placed two bronze black cats atop his roof, staring down at their building. The second story goes the same way, but it was in retribution for a dispute with the Riga City Council, the cats pointing toward the City Hall. I have heard both accounts, but the first one is the most believed by those who visit and live there. Now, you must think, who cares, black cats. Well, I learned that Latvian’s do not like black cats looking at them, that it is a sign of bad luck. So, these bronze cats were an omen, a portent of an ominous future, as their bronze lifeless eyes peered down upon their buildings with their hollow gaze.
Riga’s old town does not encompass the whole city, and it would be easy for anyone to focus solely on the medieval squares, architecture, churches, and quaint shops of this section, but there is so much more to this city that gives it charming character. As you exit the old town you come upon the Freedom monument of Latvia. This beautiful monument was unveiled to the public in 1935 and represents and honors the Latvian War of Independence in the late 1910s–in which Latvia gained their independence from Russia. After WWII this monument was scheduled for demolition by the Soviet Union as they occupied Latvia, but this never occurred, and remained in place. Latvians today hold a special place in their hearts for this monument. I witnessed a flowering laying ceremony at the base of this monolithic statue on Latvian Independence day, May 1st, and a large, moving ceremony of nationalism, which encompassed the whole day throughout the city. This monument rises from the middle of a square, with parks and canals stretching on both sides away from this open space, and the National Opera building sits in all its beauty and splendor in one of these green spaces. To sit and look upon this monument evokes emotions of awe and admiration for Latvian’s, as you see the thousands of flowers lain at the base of the statue.
But Riga isn’t only about architecture and monuments, there is great beer, food, and strong drink. For those of you who are epicureans, beer connoisseurs, or fond of liquor, this city is a spectacular place to visit. Now, don’t expect to find five course meals in which oyster, filet mignon, and caviar are all served in some very kitschy and experimental way. I am sure there are restaurants in Riga like that, just like they exist in cities all over the world, but what you find readily available in this city is meat, potatoes, and sauerkraut…and it is good. The food is spectacular, and cheap. Everything has flavor, been braised or marinated, the meat falling off the bone or separating under fork. One warning though, if you don’t like dill, on everything, and I mean everything, don’t go to Latvia. As my friend joked, “Breakfast is dill fried, sautéed dill, dill steamed, with a side of baked dill.” The Latvians like their dill, that’s just how it is. Aside from this the food is spectacular, and cheap, did I mention cheap.
Just like any city that has tourist economy, you have to know where to go, or your wallet will be taken advantage of. So as you venture into Riga know that anything 10 euro is expensive, unless it is the prime rib to end all prime ribs. We averaged about twenty-three euro a meal for three of us, with multiple beers a piece. And full meals each of us, every time, rib sticking good food. Also, don’t forget, you don’t tip unless the service is good.
There is so much more to Riga, and Latvia, but for now, I hope I’ve whetted your appetite for Latvian travel. And maybe someday, when we sit down and have a beer together, you can finally say you’ve met a person who has vacationed in this part of the world.