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The Great EU Quest: Latvia – Exit Via The Art Gallery

It’s become a tradition now for me to sign off the final night post of one of these travelogues with stuff about how I’ll miss the country and that I won’t be doing enough on the following day to warrant a post – and then have enough to make an additional ‘final day’ post. Guess that’s the hazard of writing these each evening, you never really know how the rest of a trip will turn out.

The day began with a final breakfast in the hotel and packing away the toiletries after my last minute panic last night ended up with a midnight packing session. Since we had about two and half hours before we needed to be at the bus stop I figured that it would be worth the Latvian National Museum of Art. I mean, the art museum we saw two days ago was nice enough, but it didn’t give an indication of what Latvian art was.

In the various walks around the Old Town and Christmas markets we’d passed the museum building a number of times already. It’s a grand and gorgeous looking building, like many of the others I have already come across in a Riga that has recently had a renovation – so we’d arguably be getting the best experience that we could. Still, I went into this thinking that it would be a good way to kill time and that, if worse comes to worse, there’s a café to eat up any extra time.

We ran out of time. And it was a bloody shame.

I’ve seen a lot of regional galleries and they border from the okay to rather interesting. This one in Riga was extraordinary and has opened my eyes to how great Latvian art can be – keeping in mind that the oldest piece that they have here is from the late 18th century.

Since the whole museum runs the gamut of older to modern art, you get a really interesting quick tour of various styles and how the rise and fall of these are linked to Latvia’s history. I’ve come away with a list of Latvian artists that I need to learn more about (including Ludolfs Liberts, Uga Skulme and Janis Rozentāls whose works spanned multiple movements) because there were things here that I would love to grab prints of.

Until then I took a lot of pictures of my favourite pictures and I can get some joy of having these on stored on a hard disk so I can have a flick through from time to time.

As if the art wasn’t good enough, but the setting was exemplary. The top floor, rafters and all, was kitted out with speakers playing bird calls and nature sounds to compliment the pictures of dead birds. Also, the staircases and adjacent hallways were brightly coloured and covered in gorgeous landscapes.

It’s such a pity that we ran out of time that we didn’t manage to have a good nose around the basement ‘great exhibition hall’ galleries, but we did have a chance to sprint through and even see a display of where some of the non-exhibited paintings are stored. The mind boggles at how many paintings are acquired by galleries and museums to just have them stored away to not be seen again. Reminds me a bit of the song ‘All The Rowboats’ by Regina Spektor and makes me grateful for places like Taipei’s National Palace Museum that actually rotate their piece.

Right that’s enough of my soapbox. We’d spent so long in the museum that we didn’t have enough time in the gift shop or to really say goodbye to Riga’s old town before collecting our bags and getting to the airport. Good thing we did that last night went there was still snow on the ground and the Christmas lights were illuminated.

Lunch was at the airport at a local chain that I went to last year in Tallinn. If any Latvians are reading this they’re probably going to roll their eyes at my enjoyment of Lido. We don’t really have anything quite like it in the UK, other than the restaurants than the semi-self service places you get in department stores. However, because this serves regional food and had a large number of reasonably priced options in a setting with wood carvings and themed decor… I’m a bit of a fan. Also, the soup and filled pancakes that I had were pretty delicious.

Now that’s really it for my trip to Riga. The clouds outside the aircraft look like cotton candy since we’re chasing the sunset and I’m enjoying the generous legroom provided by Air Baltic. I don’t think I have been so pleasantly surprised by a city since Vilnius and even then I knew I had the Hill of Crosses and Trakai castle coming. Thanks again Riga, maybe I’ll see you again when it’s warmer.

The Great EU Quest: Latvia – Snow In The Forest

For those who may note be aware, being a tourist in Riga on a Monday is being a tourist in a city where the majority of museums and other sites are closed. I’d already cottoned onto this, so made sure that today’s itinerary would reflect that.

Starting off was a trip to Riga’s Central Market as we did not have time to fit it in. However, we first went back to the Blackheads’ House. Last night, having read up on the building, I found out about there being some sort of monument to the site of the first Christmas tree from 1510. Being that we are in advent, the city have put up a little model Christmas tree to ensure that people are aware of the history. Coming back to this building again really reminds me just how beautiful it is.

The Central Market was a bit of a blustery walk away down the riverfront, which might be the coldest that I have felt all holiday. The market itself is situated in a number of large warehouses where it seems that different warehouses lend themselves to different food types. For example, we found ourselves in a huge building where nearly everyone was selling meat. Some of the sausages looked and smelled amazing, if I was a native I wonder how often I would end up buying things here.

This wasn’t the longest trip, as there wasn’t really anything we could buy, so it was time to find the bus stop that would take us to the Latvian Ethnographic Open Air Museum. A bit of a stress because the bus we were looking for (the 6822) isn’t listed on any bus stops, so it’s a bit of a miracle that we found it at all.

So, what is the Latvian Ethnographic Open Air Museum? Well, this is a place that was inspired by Skansen in Stockholm and contains a large number of preserved buildings in a natural setting. For this particular one on the outskirts of Riga, the setting is in a forest on the edge of Lake Jugla and the buildings were gathered to preserve homesteads from four cultural areas of Latvia.

As you can tell from the photos, this open air museum was practically deserted. Also, the lack of footprints in some of the snow mean that there hadn’t been many visitors here in the last few days, which really did make us feel like we had this vast park of abandoned homesteads all to ourselves. Being winter there were only two buildings that were open for entry, but that worked out fine as we still spent nearly 3 hours here.

Seeing how today was the first time in a while that the temperature was due to go above freezing, Lake Jugla was frozen solid. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a frozen lake and this really did add the beautiful bleakness of the snow covered surroundings. Oh, and I’ll mention this before I forget, it started to snow heavily when we were in the park and it seemed to stop the moment that we left. That was cool, a bit weird and like something out of The Truman Show (so, thank you television overlords I guess).

The crunch of fresh snow beneath my feet, whistling of wind through the trees and the tapping of what sounded like a curious woodpecker made this whole experience in the park a bit otherworldly – especially when you factor in over 100 empty historical buildings.

Seeing the buildings of these previous generations of potters, fishermen and farmers really does make you appreciate how we live today – although I wonder how many houses built today will still be standing after 2-300 years. The most interesting buildings, however, were the old churches and windmills that came up periodically (especially the little Orthodox Church) as well as an unusual two story granary that stood near the lake and a warehouse from the 1600s.

If I ever find myself in Riga in spring or summer I think it would be great to come back to this museum. The experience in warmer weather with more of the buildings open would be entirely different to the snowy ‘last humans alive’ vibe that I felt today.

A long bus ride later (as the more express bus just drove right by the station without stopping) and we were back in central Riga to get a really late lunch. After our folk restaurant yesterday (as well as some pretty sodden boots) having some hearty traditional Latvian fare felt like the right way to go. So, we went into a restaurant called Province and had a delicious filling meal – what you’re seeing is pork and vegetables with cheese in a pot, which I really want to learn how to make.

After a rest and a drink in the hotel room it was time for a final browse of the Christmas markets… the first stop being the bunny village in the park market. Seriously, I know I have been there every day, but this weird little showcase has so enchanted me whilst staying in Riga. If it wasn’t for the time, weather and some remnants of self-respect I could see myself as having accumulated a few hours over the last few days.

Instead of dinner there was a quick snack of a crepe from a market stall – mine contained cheese and sunflower seeds. Perfect market food to eat as you look up at the Christmas tree and marvel that 0 degrees is feeling perfectly mild after the freezing weather in the previous few days.

That basically it for Riga. There’s some time in the morning tomorrow so am going to see if we can fit in a museum before leaving for the airport. Have to say that Riga has certainly surpassed my expectations. Really made me wonder if I need to be back here in the summer so I can see more of the country than the capital city – then again I feel the same way about Estonia, Lithuania and Poland so a bit of a line is forming.

The Great EU Quest: Latvia – Exploring The Old Town

It’s weird to have a day where the temperature is the coldest in the morning and steadily warms up all evening to the point where it is the warmest as you turn in for the night. Weird, but that’s precisely what happened today as we went from -8 in the morning to a relatively balmy -4 at 9 in the evening. Even weirder is that, apart from when the wind began to blow, I still haven’t felt too much of the cold. Not even put on my gloves.

So after a good breakfast at the hotel (so much variation… although not too sure who’s having Caesar salad this early in the morning) we set out on our self guided tour of Riga’s Old Town. We started at the Freedom Monument, built to commemorate when Latvia declared independence in 1918 and fought for their right, only to have it stripped from them not too long afterwards. An impressive looking Art Deco monument symbolising the three historical regions of Latvia breaking free of Russian rule.

Down the road from here, past the McDonald’s, you can find the Rigan plaque to the 1989 Baltic Line protest. With us spotting this granite set of footprints we have now seen the plaques in Vilnius, Tallinn and now Riga. I wonder how many Brits can say that they have visited all three of these monuments? Kinda makes me weirdly proud to have sought all three of these out.

From here we walked down the road to Līvu laukums, one of the bigger squares and a host of one of the three Christmas markets in Riga. The architecture surrounding this square is beautiful, but the eyes do stray in the direction of the Cat House (whose forms have become the source of many a souvenir here in Riga). Weird to think how these cats have become a city landmark after being erected as a sign of protest for not being allowed in a guild (as part of the protest, he had the anuses of the cats facing the guild hall; the turning around of the cats being a condition of his admittance into the guild).

Since the Cathedral was closed for services (it’s a Sunday after all) we went across the road to the Riga Bourse Art Museum, which is housed in the former stock exchange building whose clock can still be heard chiming in the nearby Doma Square. Rather than this being a collection of Latvian art, the items on display are from all over the world and seem to have mostly come from the private collections of Latvian citizens.

There are a lot of interesting pieces, most of the interesting ones from the Western collections being porcelains and sculptures – although it was a treat to find a random Monet painting here. Also, amongst the Oriental art, I found another ivory piece carved into concentric spheres – like the one from the National Palace Museum – which was a real treat.

The temperature had gone up by 1 degree during our time in the museum to -6, which was appreciated as we made our way over to the Blackheads’ House. This impressive building was once the home of the Blackheads Guild – so-called because of their use of St Maurice as a symbol. The outside is chock-full of reliefs and sculptures and begs for you to come in. Sadly the only original section of this building left is they cellar, after the German bombing laid waste to most of it… only to have the Soviets blow up anything that remained.

The cellars help to tell the story of the Blackhead Guild – whist membership was composed of bachelor merchants who liked to get drunk. It is alleged that it was outside this house that the members of the Blackheads decorated the first Christmas tree in the 1500s, before burning it to the ground because japery.

Of the restored/newly built areas the real highlight is the Conference Hall, which is vast and contains a wonderful ceiling painting. There is also some exquisite silver-work on the ground floor – in a room next to the temporary headquarters of the Latvian president (back when they were renovating the president’s usual place of work).

Next on the list was St Peter’s Church, whose tower seems to make up most of the height. We didn’t go up the tower, because cold and cost, but we did have a look inside. It’s a Lutheran church, meaning not a lot to really see – but we did luck out and catch the rehearsal of a local music group. It was a nice unexpected treat to be able to listen to some live music.

We were hungry after this visit, so we went for a late lunch at Folk Club Ala. This restaurant is underground and serves traditional Latvian food in a fun and folksy surrounding. The service is a bit on the slow side, but the restaurant is very long so what can you do. The atmosphere really helped to make up for this.

Since it was on the menu I had the grey peas and bacon, the national dish of Latvia. Served in a large hollowed out chunk of dark rye bread – this is exactly the sort of warming food that you would want on a cold day like today. Might be something that I want to make when doing Latvia for my world cooking challenge, but I’ll need to find a way to source or substitute the grey peas.

By this time the cathedral was definitely open so it was time to look around what is said to be the largest medieval cathedral in the Baltic States. This is an evangelical Lutheran place of worship, so the inside isn’t exactly full of ornate design. What there is, however, is one of the most interesting organs that I have ever seen with its light blue and black colouring. We also came across the pew build for the Blackheads, which is cool considering that I now know a bit of the background.

There was also some cloisters open for walking through, which was made all the more atmospheric with the fallen snow on the ground and the dark sky post-sunset. For renovation reasons there were a bunch of statues standing freely in the central courtyard with orange tape on them. Made the whole thing look like a modern art take on Michelangelo’s Prisoners.

 

My visit to this cathedral marks the first time where I have been chased out of a place of worship because it was closing for the day (they did this by turning out the lights until I got out). No matter though as just next door was the main Christmas market in Doma Square – tonight being the night that the tree was officially being turned on.

Picture the scene: a bell choir playing ‘Carol of the Bells’, snow beginning to fall and a weird (yet awesome) light and sound ceremony to light up their beautiful tree. Everything combined just made it one of those great holiday moments and for a long time afterwards there was live children’s choirs singing Latvian Christmas songs.

We temporarily took leave of this market to go around and explore the other markets (including a repeat visit to the Christmas Bunny village) where we bought some ornaments and other souvenirs – as well as taking some pictures of the markets now in full swing.

Dinner was sausage and sauerkraut from the main market with a chocolate banana for dessert – like with the cathedral the market started to close around us, so we took a stroll through Kronvalda Park and a local shopping mall (open until 9pm eve on a Sunday, marvellous) before heading back to the hotel.

Tomorrow the main sight is further afield, which will be great to see – especially as it is forecast to be snowing when we get there. It’s getting ridiculously late so I should be heading to bed. Looking forward to breakfast already.

The Great EU Quest: Latvia – Minus 9 and Feeling Fine

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
Progress: 21/28

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.

Country: Latvia
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
Progress: 767/1001

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
Progress: 768/1001

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!