Riga, Latvia

Up next on Sophie’s Eastern European Odyssey: Riga, Latvia.

Riga was one of my favourite places visited in Eastern Europe. It is the largest city in the Baltic states, and has such a rich history and interesting social structure. Only about 42% of its population are ethnic Latvians, while 41% are Russian, and the remainder are Belarusian, Ukrainian, Polish and Lithuanian. The unusually high number of ethnic Russians stems from the fact that many Russians were relocated to Latvia during the Soviet occupation to increase its Russian population and to mix the ethnicities, and since Latvia’s independence, they were not granted Latvian citizenship. Riga hosts something of a Russian Diaspora in its infamous Moscow District.

A [Latvian] tour guide told us that there are three types of people that live in Riga. There are the Latvians: proud, fiercely independent and progressive; the Russians who live in Riga proper who are progressive and are becoming involved in Latvian culture and language; then there are the Russians who live in the Moscow district, whose lifestyles mirror those of their ancestors of the Soviet era. They continue to speak Russian and do not learn to speak Latvian, and, she said, even wear the same communist era styles of clothing. I really got the impression from the Latvians I met that there was a general disdain and reluctance towards Russians, but they won’t openly admit it to tourists. Our tour guide warned us against going into the Moscow district at night…she literally stated: “you’ll be walking down the street and a man in track pants and gold chains will come up to you and ask for a cigarette. If you don’t give it to him, he will take everything you have.”* Perhaps this is the reason for my nervousness felt later towards “hulking, sinister men” in Montenegro. She did, however, recommend a brief foray into the Moscow district during the day to visit a bar that specialized in the traditional Russian drinking of vodka and zakuski, which you know I am already familiar with. We also saw the current Latvian Academy of Sciences, which was described as “Stalin’s Birthday Cake“, one of the many Stalin Skyscrapers that dot the skylines of former Soviet-occupied cities.

*Disclaimer: this is not to say that I have anything against Russians, of course. I am merely repeating what was explained to me by a Latvian.

Latvians really pride themselves on obtaining independence. After decades of aggressive occupation by various forces (Soviets, Nazis), I don’t really blame them. With them, it’s not ancient history – horrible things happened to their parents, grandparents – in this generation. Deportations to Siberia, atrocities against Jews. I learned a lot about this area of the world and its tumultuous past when we visited the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia in Riga, and this is one reason I found it so fascinating. And let me tell you, Riga has not done too badly for itself in becoming a cosmopolitan city. Never have I seen so many well-dressed and stylish women walking the cobblestoned streets in their vintage stilettos.

One way to portray the difficult political times in Riga’s past is by examining the statue called “Brēmenes Muzikanti”. The statue was a gift from Riga’s sister city, Bremen, Germany, which has its own version that is quite different.

The Bremen version features 4 animals stacked one one top of the other, and is intended to represent the Brothers Grimm folk tale of the same name. It is a major tourist attraction.

Photo credit: Alan McKever (Flickr: allan5819)

The Riga version features the same 4 animals in a pyramidal shape, however the expressions on their little animal faces portray disgust, shock and disappointment. The animals are coming through an opening which is to represent the iron curtain, and the animals’ disturbing facial expressions portray the Latvians’ own shock upon seeing the world through the iron curtain, after decades of oppression. (This was all explained by our lovely tour guide in her adorable Latvian accent – don’t even get me started on how much I love the sound of the Latvian language). It is said to be good luck to rub the snouts of the animals – therefore now the brass is shined to a gleam.

*Further disclaimer: I do not claim to be an expert on political history, I’m just writing about my own impressions and thoughts gleaned from my short visit.

Phew. Okay, now on to less serious matters. Despite learning about the horrors of Latvia’s past, we did have a lot of fun there. We stayed at a hostel I mistakenly kept calling the Filthy Squirrel, but really it was the Naughty Squirrel. I have to say it was the most fun place we stayed during our entire trip, and the facilities were relatively sanitary. The staff constantly handed out free shots, beer was available on tap and super cheap at happy hour ($2 tops, or 1 Lat), and group outings were organized for every night. The first night we were enticed into signing up for Karaoke, because it included a free shot n’ a beer, then another beer once you got the Karaoke bar. A group of 20 people came along, and great times were had by all. I sang Goldfrapp. Cheesler sang Johnny Cash. I believe this was captured on video. The night ended with each respective couple in our little travel group getting into a silly fight, and for this reason the night was coined with the moniker “fight night” for the remainder of the trip. The next morning dawned on cooler tempers, however, and all was forgiven and forgotten.

Our second day in Riga was spent doing a free walking tour with the aforementioned tour guide, which took us through a small part of Old Town, which is a UNESCO world heritage site, then into the edges of the Moscow district, through the Central Market and crazy Flea Market, and back into the city where we oohed and aahed over the fabulous Art Nouveau buildings and a beautifully manicured park. Our second evening was spent wandering the streets of Old Town in the attempt to avoid drinking excessively as we had done every night so far in Europe. Having purchased food that day at the Riga Central Market, we cooked dinner in the hostel kitchen and had a relatively early night.

Our third and final day in Riga was spent having Pelmeni for breakfast, then another trip through the Central Market. God, this place was amazing. It puts my beloved St. Lawrence to shame! It is made up of a bunch of old zeppelin hangars, each one with different types of goods being sold. Each hangar is at least twice as big as the St. Lawrence, and there are 5 of them, with outdoor markets in between. For example, you have the fish market, which boasts the largest variety and selection of fresh fish I’ve ever seen, and even some gross dried ones.

Then there is the dairy market, where cheese galore can be agonized over. A bakery-type market, a meat market, a flower market, a clothing market, fresh fruits and vegetables. It’s pretty much heaven for me, a market lover. There’s something to be said for buying chantrelle mushrooms from a little old babushka who you know spent days in the forest gathering them (we observed this on the bus ride into Riga). And let me tell you, we bought a pound of those beauts for the equivalent of $2. We bought heirloom tomatoes for about 65 cents, albeit after a significant language barrier issue. I started picking through the heirlooms, looking for the prettiest ones, and the lady grumpily muttered at me, put the ones I had touched in a different spot – and I think actually told me to get lost, but her friend at the table next door told her to just sell them to me (“davai, davai!”) and jack the price up. I didn’t mind. Heirloom tomatoes are like, $10 each in the grocery stores here.

A few more quick stops for butter, cheese and bread, and we had ourselves a lovely snack of toasted tomato sandwiches back at the hostel.

Riga is definitely a place I would go back to, I don’t think 3 days did it justice – and I think my travel buddies would agree. Plus, you know how people always say they visit a place and the locals are so warm, and inviting? Well, I think most of the time it’s BS, but I do think it is the case in Latvia. The people were indeed very friendly and accommodating to bumbling tourists who don’t speak the language.

To see the entire album of photos from Riga, visit my photo sharing page.

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