I think it won’t be an exaggeration to say that Expat Eye on Latvia’s Linda almost literally put Latvia on a map for a lot of “far abroad” foreigners with her very active Latvia PR campaign. However, she accomplished this with a rather unusual approach, often highlighting the gloomy and dysfunctional over the pretty and delicious.
What did I know about Latvia before Linda’s blog? That it’s one of the three countries referred to as The Baltics, a former USSR republic, changed German/Russian hands a few times, with a fair bit of animosity toward Russia, the capital is Riga and it’s very pretty and thus was used for many vaguely historical European settings in the Soviet era films when studios could not send their crews outside of the USSR.
This is what I learned in a year of reading Expat Eye on Latvia: all men are named Janis, women live in leopard-print clothing and are jealousy-possessed harpies, there are lots of potholes, customer service is horrible, Latvians have no sense of humor, Latvian washing machines will kill you, there are lots of trees and mushroom and everything is the fault of the Russians. Sounds like an all-around winner!
A slightly more positive view of Latvia, not sure how Linda managed to write this one.
Good or bad, a year ago The Baltics were not on my travel radar at all. I am now going to grossly generalize, but I think that many Russians like me, having finally gotten an opportunity to travel to the “far abroad,” prefer to use it to indeed go “far” – somewhere exotic and glamorous, and usually warm. The older generations particularly does not view the former Soviet republics as truly foreign locales (think of an American going to Cancun or Niagara Falls – this hardly counts as international travel). Many places that seem exotic to foreigners and expats in Russia – Armenia, Kyrgyzstan and such – will raise a Russian’s eyebrow when mentioned as potential holiday destinations. So if you had asked me a year ago where I would go on vacation in the next 12 months and given me limitless options, I am not sure Latvia and Estonia would have cracked my top 100. And yet, in the first week of September and all thanks to a little Irish girl, there I was, on a 90-minute Air Baltic flight to Riga. I guess the PR campaign worked!
And now I get to report to you my own take on the place so skillfully badmouthed by Linda that she got me to spend my fast-devaluating rubles there 😉
In short: I loved it. Riga was lovely, with small-town charm yet cosmopolitan air befitting a larger international city. And the bit of anti-Russian nastiness aside, so were the Latvians (when they didn’t ask me where I was from). Food was good, prices – reasonable, architecture – beautiful, downtown crowd – diverse, transport – efficient, customer service – friendly, WiFi – fast (on a bus!!!) and the anti-Russian tour guide – knowledgeable about the city’s cultural legacy. Absolutely gorgeous weather made everything even better, and as a bonus Linda seemed to know every watering hole and barkeep in town.
Here are the highlights of my two-day Riga trip:
If there is one thing that I might forever associate with Riga, it’s that black, viscous, 45%-alcohol liquor made from 24 kinds of plants. I haven’t tasted anything like it before or since. It is … interesting. And strong! Linda, a doll that she is, documented my facial contortions as I sipped the original, liquorish-ish version for the very first time, at the very aptly named Black Magic Balsams. The verdict? Hmmmm…not for me. However, I did take to the slightly milder – only 35%! – but very flavorful black currant iteration of this local specialty, which I subsequently repeatedly requested in bars around town. By the way, according to legend, Russian Empress Catherine II was cured by Riga’s Black Balsams when she fell ill on a visit to Latvia back in mid-1700s.
Renaissance Old Town.
I always like wandering the cobblestone streets of old cities. Riga did not disappoint, with houses, churches and great halls dating back to early 1600s. Here’s a fun bit of history, courtesy of our walking tour/Wikipedia “The first known Riga Cathedral organ was the largest in the world, but it was lost in 1547 during a fire. In the 16th century, the Cathedral Church built a new organ, which sounded for 280 years.” Riga really is a perfect place to shoot The Three Musketeers or any other kind of historic adventure, with little set decoration required. I also liked little touches of whimsy throughout the town, like the cat topper on a roof (photo at the top) that was intended as an insult by the owner of the house to his neighbor and trade guild rival. The cat was originally positioned to “spray” the neighbor’s house, but the municipal court ordered the owner to turn it around. Just imagine Judge Judy presiding over this case!
For an extra touch of Old Europe I recommend the touristy-but-totally-worth-it Rozengrals, stylized like an authentic medieval tavern, from the all-candle lighting to the [very reasonably priced] menu that features local fare of the days of yore.
Did you know that Riga has 26 parks and 81 squares, despite being a home to only 700,000 people? I didn’t either. But it does! The city’s green spaces are very well-kept, especially the central park. I also got to take in a cornucopia of forest goods, from herbs to mushrooms to wild berries, that covered the stalls of Riga’s Central Market.
The choreographed folk dancing at Folk Klubs absolutely blew me away. I was dying to join in, even though I’d look like a fool. Why don’t we do this in Russia? Actually, per our tour guide, Latvians hold on to their folk songs and dances particularly strongly, as for centuries of being in either German or Russian sphere of influence, these forms of expression were the main ways of preserving Latvian national identity. As such, they are cultivated and widely practiced by the young and the old alike. But if this kind of scene is not for you, Riga has plenty more to offer, from cheap expat dives to eccentric (to the point of WTF?) bars.
Linda’s quirky little neighborhood.
Avotu Iela has seen a lot of grief on Linda’s blog, but I found it a-okay. I was pretty surprised to see so many two-story wooden houses 10 minutes from the center of a rather modern city, and I was delighted by the “weddings quarter” that made its home there – just imagine a whole street of sparkles, pink signs and puffy dresses!
Riga’s squares display fun and funky sculpture installations, including the famous Bremen musicians (that would be the tower of animals), and a statue of Russia’s most illustrious poet and writer, Alexander Pushkin.
Odd Latvian food at Lido.
I am all about trying new foods when I travel. Knowing this, Linda took me to the fairgrounds / entertainment complex called Lido, which houses a huuuuuuuge buffet of local dishes. The cold beet and cream soup with egg was something interesting, and not at all like its Russian cousin borscht. The pickled herring came in a wide range of mustard-, sour cream- and mayo-based sauces. But my favorite dish was the crispy, crouton-crusted, bacon-stuffed chicken, which went perfectly with dill cream sauce (this combination is a surefire way to my heart) and awesome Latvian light beer. And the bill for this huge plate of stuff you see here didn’t even crack €13!
Impressive display of Art Nouveau architecture – but that’s deserving of its own post, which will be coming up next!