If it looks like I have been on a ridiculous amount of trips recently… it’s probably because I have. It’s currently December 1st and I am rounding off the year by crossing off another EU country by going on a long weekend to…
List Item: Visit all EU countries
I am getting so close to finishing off this ‘visit all the EU countries challenge’ that I have real ideas about the ways I want to cross off the remaining nations as they have entries in the Lonely Planet list. Unlike Latvia, which is the only EU country with nothing in that Top 500. But you know what, I travelled around long before this list help point me in interesting directions so I can just do it again.
Year first visited: 2018
The reason for coming to Latvia at this time of year is obvious: Christmas markets. Did I book this thinking that the weather we’d be getting would end up being -9 (-14 with windchill) on our first night? No, because who does that. Cue a bad night’s sleep before flying out and that would explain why I am so tired as I’m writing this.
Anyway, we arrived in Riga in the late afternoon after a surprisingly comfortable flight with Air Baltic (seriously, their legroom is unparalleled) and was presented with a carpet of almost fresh snow. At no point did we see in the forecast that we would be arriving to snow, which really is a tonic for many a cold weather blues. Unless you’re commuting to work, then snow is the work of the devil.
Our hotel for this short trip is in the Old Town and our room came with a pretty spectacular view of Riga Cathedral. Tomorrow will be the time for a proper exploration for this area, but as we hadn’t exactly had any lunch – an early dinner was imperative. I’d found a place in Riga called Zivju Lete that would net me a food item, so this felt like a good choice.
List Item: Try as many of the 1001 Foods You Must Try Before You Die as possibleFood item: Lamprey
Right, so this wasn’t the food item I was talking about. When we got the menus, and had taken off three layers of clothing to prevent heat exhaustion, I noticed that this place offered lampreys as a starter. To be honest, as hungry as I was, I hadn’t come here with the intention of having a starter.
If you know what a lamprey is then you might have felt slightly apprehensive at trying out these blood sucking eel-like fish once favoured by British kings. I probably should have been more squeamish, but it’s amazing what some good dark rye bread can help with.
The lamprey, as presented in jelly, flaked really easily and had a spine that had become somewhat jellified in the preparation process. The taste was somewhere between freshwater eel and tinned salmon. Meaty and worked well with the dark rye bread. Makes me wonder what they’d be like in a Henry VIII style pie.
List Item: Try as many of the 1001 Foods You Must Try Before You Die as possibleFood item: Sterlet
This impressive looking fish was what I was after. It’s a type of sturgeon and is on the smaller side, although try saying that to me after presenting me with this plate. It kinda feels like whole fish is how I’m going to be seeing a lot of the remaining fish from the food list – I guess it helps to ensure that I give it a proper try
So yea this fish was giant and had some impressively scales skin on its backbone. The flesh itself was plentiful and was a whole lot milder than I’d expected, with a mineral aftertaste which makes me wonder whether this was from the sea or had been seasoned well.
One issue with having a fish like this is the diminishing returns on the taste. Luckily this place put tomato, basil and lemon on the plate which meant I could play around with the flavour profile. I also had some of the sour cream that my mums herring, which went wonderfully – which I guess shows how flexible sterlet is.
The temperature had dropped by the time we left the restaurant to the point that I needed to put my hat on, but not to the point where I needed my gloves. Either I’ve become more robust, or I’ve dealt with worse temperatures in Vienna and not been aware of it. In any case the weather was cold and crisp, perfect for late night Christmas decoration explorations.
We first came to Esplanade Park, which features a small Christmas market… But that’s not why I was here. I was here for the bunny village. That right, there is a recent tradition in Riga that the Christmas market in this park set up a giant rabbit pen containing small lit buildings and a lot of rabbits. Sounds like something form a bad sitcom, but it’s one of the cutest things I’ve seen in a very long time. Rabbits were sleeping in the small churches, chasing each other around the replica castle and nibbling on carrots provided by onlookers. I circled the entire thing a few times, taking notes a lot of pictures, before heading off. So cute.
One block of walking away is Kronvalda Park, a large urban park centred on a (currently frozen) canal that has been impeccably decorated. There were moments walking through here where I felt so overcome with the magical Christmas feeling that I was awash with goosebumps. The star decorations in the trees, the blue lit up bridge, the volume of snow on the ground. It all adds up to something truly beautiful when seen at night.
We climbed up Bastion Hill to get a better view of the surrounding park and all the lights. It was a little bit icy, but if the locals can make it up with their fluffy Pomeranian dogs then you know it’s fine. It was lovely to look down and get a slightly better vantage point of the nearby buildings (more on those tomorrow – but Riga old town has some pretty dramatic looking buildings that look so cool lit up and surrounded by snow).
We finished the evening at the main Christmas market (of the advertised three) which happens to be just down the road from the hotel. Technically the markets are being properly opened tomorrow, making tonight a bit of a test run, but the main one near Riga Cathedral was already giving me the feels. Hopefully we can be there tomorrow when they turn their Christmas tree on and declare the markets properly open.
Walking around with a hot blackcurrant in my hands, I’m not sure if I can see much in the way of decorations or Christmas goods to buy… but that might be different tomorrow. There were, however, some nice looking pieces of food – so that’s dinner tomorrow sorted.
Not bad for a first evening with some pretty low temperatures. Its not set to climb out of the minuses tomorrow, but at least the sun will be on our side as its forecast to be clear for our walk around the old town. Ending this now as I am exhausted, see you tomorrow!