The best way to experience a place is to see it with someone local. Someone who knows the habits, good stuff, secrets … Here is our trip to Riga with some lovely Latvian friends.
There they are again, the rye breads. Somebody ordered them and now everybody grabs for them. Dip them in a sour cream sauce and enjoy them with a beer. The bread is cut into sticks, fried in butter and dipped in grated/chopped garlic. The whole thing is called Kiploku grauzdiņi. We salute.
I look down at my arm, where a band of Latvia’s colors and traditional patterns is wrapped around my wrist. It turned out that our first full day in the capital fell on ‘Lacplesa Day’ (commemorating those who fought in the Latvian War of Independence). Military Parade, flowers, lighted candles and even a presidential speech, we have seen it all. We left the fanfares and speeches by the Statue of Liberty and went down to the old town. Suddenly I realized that we had three guides with us, our friends Henriks, his brother and Eliza.
They told us about the tower at St. Peter’s Basilica and the man who climbed up the tower to warn the city about threats. How ‘Doma laukums’ square was formed and other stories of the old town. Soon we found ourselves in front of a very old building with an interesting door. When we open it, a man in medieval costume appears from inside and a staircase leads us down into a basement where we now sit. ‘Rosengrals’ is a maze of a restaurant, which entices with local dark beer, kiploku and a dish of pickled cabbage, garlic cucumbers and other vegetables. We empty our glasses and plates and find our way back up into the sun again.
Continuing through the streets of the old town, we see the cats on top of the “Cat building” and with that, get to hear the colorful story of bitterness and revenge (read it here) from Eliza. She takes us further and shows us the gorgeous old theater building, ‘Splendid Gallery’. Unfortunately it is hidden behind a modern black block that really seems out of place. We walk along its ancient walls, where portraits of the country’s greatest sons and daughters are hanging. This includes the ballet dancer and actor Mikhail Baryshnikov. Yes, he was born in Riga.
It is still celebration day when we find ourselves immersed in a crowd listening to a local heavy metal band. However, it soon gets too cold to stand still like that, so we move on. Along the Daugava River, the road is closed off and people have lit candles in memory of brave soldiers. The closer to Riga Castle we get, the more candles we see.
The next day we wake up to overcast skies. We take a Panda taxi to the ‘wrong side’ of the river, on an errand. The west side has a rougher appearance. The buildings range from being old worn-out wooden, which once must have looked beautiful, to huge blocks from Stalin’s days. We are told that many artists have taken up residence here. No doubt in a few years this will turn into a hip and trendy area. In the midst of it all an Orthodox church lights up amid the grey with its bright colors. We need to take a closer look at it.
Later that day we do something completely different. When I flew from Poland a few weeks ago, I read in Wizz Air’s in-flight magazine about an ‘escape room’ in Riga which was based on the movie “Saw”. Eliza located the site and after discussing back and forth we book a room with a different theme. “Saw” involves being chained up. Not everyone is ready for that. Instead, we choose the “Casino Room”.
A nice girl welcomes us and explains what we should focus on. In addition to finding the code to exit again, we should steal as much money as possible. One million max. She also gives us a remote device, which we can call her on, should we need hints and help. One hour we have to get back out again. We do it! 670,000 we manage to steal, three minutes before deadline.
We are high on success and enthusiasm when we exit to the rain, which is coming down real hard. We seek shelter in the nearest bar, ‘Bar I love you’. We stay here until we are dry. It takes time, which passes quickly while we talk ourselves down from the experience in ‘Casino’. Meanwhile we taste more of the lovely dark beer and hot Riga Black Balsam. This is a cup of herbal liquor mixed with blackcurrant juice. Delicious.
The day after we are tired! No wonder. It was almost three when we made it to bed. Some stayed up even longer. While the others still sleep, Henriks and I pull ourselves out of bed. Riga has a district of Art Nouveau and some of the buildings there are absolutely brilliant. I really wanted to see it and Henriks takes the job of being my guide. We yawn, while the bright sunlight hovers over the richly ornamented buildings. The camera gets warm, especially when we are facing a lovely blue building with some amazing details. Henriks explains as I shoot.
The guys want to return to the Escape Room and do the ‘Saw’ room. Meanwhile Eliza and I sit down at the DAD café in the hipster street ‘Miera Iela’ trying to stay awake. I must admit that there is not much ‘hipster’ about the street as it happens. Eliza says that there are activities that take place here occasionally which makes it so popular.
Everybody seems to end up with different agendas in the evening. Some go to a concert, some go to sleep and some to meet their family. Everybody is happy.
The following day we are a little more awake and take a taxi down to the central market. Walk through two of five huge halls full of fish and vegetables. There is also meat, this-n-that, amber jewelry and some cafes. Had we lived here, we surely would have made our weekly shopping here. No doubt. Just the variety of seafood is amazing!
Since its Saturday, we include the ‘Kalnciema market’ as well. A new taxi, ride across the river this time. Every Saturday there is a great outdoor market here. With everything from traditional Latvian knitted mittens to jams, cakes, pies, cheeses, sausages, scarves, belts, juice, cider, wine etc.
The last thing we do in Riga, before heading for the airport, is to stop by the chocolate shop NelleUlla. Unfortunately they don’t have the white chocolate with big bits of rhubarb (our favorite) this time, but a few other goodies come home with us: Dark chocolate with whole forest berries.
The Daugava River runs through the city and makes the air cold and damp. We have been cold and wet, but it’s quickly forgotten. Riga was fun and we have really enjoyed ourselves here. As Henriks says ‘one must have some goodies to come back for’. Joe will find more exciting basements (Riga seems to be full of them). I want to find more creative cafes and interesting crafts.