Wednesday 29 April 2015

Riga - Latvia

I'm hopeless when it comes to travel posts, I find them very time consuming to write as I have to go through hundreds of pictures and try and remember all the different places I visited. I'm making a promise to myself to finish this series of Baltic posts before I make a start on my holidays since.

I sat down to write this a little while ago but once I stared looking through the pictures I couldn't remember what anything was so I've had to go home and dig out my travel book to refresh myself, anyway I digress.

Riga, the capital city of Latvia and our third overnight destination of the trip. After three nights in Lithuania, one in Kaunas and two in Vilnius we caught the bus to Riga having prebooked tickets via Ecolines for roughly £15 per person. The bus takes around 4.5 hours and is a pleasant journey through the flat, green countryside.

We spent 2 nights in Riga which was perfect, it's a small city and most sights can be done in a day. We stayed at the Old City Boutique Hotel which is a charming little place split into a modern and old section. I booked a room in the old section as it was slightly cheaper (from €60 a night) and included in the room rate was a fantastic breakfast buffet with hot and cold food a plenty. The room was nice, a little dated but comfortable and the bathroom even has a bathtub which is something not that common these days. I would definitely stay here again as the location was perfect, it only took 5 minutes to walk to the central bus station (and train station) and we were situated in the beautifully quaint old town.

We arrived in Riga in the afternoon and once we'd checked into the hotel we ventured into the town centre for lots of exploring. I'm a big fan of museums, I love checking out local art, ancient texts, and medieval artefacts but you'll find most museums in Europe closed on a Monday. Guess what day we arrived in Riga? Anyway, a quick flick through my guidebook reassured me that we weren't missing out on too much so we began our walk around the historic old town checking out plenty of beautiful buildings like churches, government offices and castle ruins.

We started at the famous Central Market which is actually next to the station, just outside the old town. Situated in five enormous zeppelin hangars, the market is a foodies paradise with rows upon rows of local produce. We picked up some lovely fresh bread and fruit to snack on whilst trying to blend in with the locals doing their weekly shop.

Blackhead's House - a 14th century fraternity for unmarried German merchants

The Blackhead's House Christmas Tree memorial plaque in the main square

The controversial Latvian Riflemen Monument i.e. Lenin's personal bodyguards

Next to this monument is the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia which we did manage to visit the following day. Much akin to the museum we visited in Vilnius the account of Nazi and Soviet occupation was informative if not harrowing. The museum has a vast amount of literature to read and you could easily spend a couple of hours taking everything in.

St Peter's Lutheran Church

One of the Three Brothers' houses - this is over 600 years old and the oldest stone dwelling in town

Jacob's Barracks next to Riga Castle

Cat House

In the old town you can also visit Riga Castle and lots of the old city gates, take your time walking around as you can easily visit these historic buildings in a few hours.

The Freedom Monument marks the border between the old and new town and is now a symbol for freedom from the fierce Soviet rule last century

The magnificent Russian Orthodox Cathedral

  Views from the Skyline bar at the Raddison Blu Hotel (do you sense a theme?)

The industrial and busy new town is in stark difference from the quaint, cobbled streets of the old town. The buildings aren't as charming and there's a very soviet feel to the big streets and grey colour scheme. Saying that, it's still an interesting place to walk around and it's here you can find the famous Art Nouveau quarter. Take a walk along the canal between the two district and bask in the sunshine as you stroll down the esplanade.

We stopped for a breather in the fantastic soviet themed bar Gauja. I'm a huge fan of soviet interiors, I love the clunky designs and muted colours. This non-fussy mid-century style is something I'd like to replicate myself one day. We enjoyed a beer and the retro play list before heading out for an early dinner around the corner.

This meal was probably my favourite of our entire trip and one of the best value so I really can't recommend it enough. I'd read about Galerija Istaba in my guidebook and was intrigued about the art gallery come cafe concept. We turned up to the gallery shop, a little confused about what to do but were told to head upstairs where we found a warm and welcoming dining room overlooking the main gallery shop. We took our seats in big comfy chairs and awaited the menu. A waitress came over and explained that there was no menu, the chef goes to the market daily and picks up whatever he fancies. She told us that the starter would be sharing plates and the main would be a choice of meats with several side plates. I went for prawns and Steve asked for duck, I was excited to see what we would get!

The starter was a delicious selection of meze style dips with a huge portion of garlic bread. The dips were sublime, I was especially fond of the vibrant beetroot and cheese dip and whilst I don't generally like olives I really enjoyed the black dip. We were also presented with an enormous salad which had to be placed on a side table as we had run out of space.

After an amazing starter we were presented with a sublime main course. The selection of meat and side dishes were impressive. Not only were they extremely flavoursome but the portions were huge.

Steve's duck was cooked to perfection, the meat was succulent, juicy and pink.

I received a huge bowl of buttery kings prawns cooked in a garlic and white wine sauce, absolutely delicious.

We were given three different side dishes, the first being a lovely bowl of steamed seasonal veg.

The second side was my least favourite, potato and mushrooms in a cream and bacon sauce. Despite my mushroom aversion I ate the potatoes which were heavenly, not too soft and not too hard.

The final side was my favourite, puy lentils and onions. So tasty and comforting this was home cooking at it's finest.

The whole meal was magnificent but the very best thing about this dinner was the price. With 2 enormous courses each and a couple of beers I couldn't believe my eyes when we were presented with a bill for €30! We were not told prices at the beginning but receiving this quality (and quantity) of food I was expecting at least €50 and I still contest that this was worth way more than 15 quid per person.

If you are ever in Riga I 100% recommend visiting this place, you will leave with a full belly and a full wallet.

After dinner and before the sun had properly set we headed back to the canal to walk around the art nouveau district, one of Riga's highlights. This area is only made up of a few streets but the choice of art nouveau architecture is impressive, look up whilst you walk around and you'll be greeted with this haunting style of decorative art everywhere. My Lonely Planet book (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) had a wonder 3km walking tour that we followed thus making sure we found all the best spots.

Riga is a lovely city and somewhere you could really enjoy for a few days. There's enough sights to keep you busy but not so many that you're rushed off your feet. Outside of the city centre is a TV tower that we didn't get a chance to visit but I'm sure it provides some impressive views. I didn't think I'd love Riga as much as I did, I expected it to be full of the stag do crowd taking advantage of the cheap beer but I didn't once experience a sleazy vibe. The city's old town is beautiful and charming, the cobbled stones are romantic and the city parks make for perfect summer time strolls. I really hope I can visit again once day.

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  1. I've never thought about visiting Latvia but it does look beautiful although that side dish looks like it has combined all of my food nightmares on one plate!! x


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