We took the train from Tallinn and headed south to Latvia. One of the best bus trips I’ve ever done, and thats coming from a bad traveller. Not only were they long straight roads on flat terrain but the bus was well equipped for all our creature comforts. Free wifi, tea and coffee available, individual video screens and loos of course and all this for only €14 for a four hour journey. In fact while we were booking this trip we noticed that they also offered a very economical bus trip to St Petersburg, a few hours longer, but sadly we hadn't thought ahead as we needed a visa for that trip. But if we were coming again would certainly get the paperwork sorted out as it seems an ideal opportunity to visit that exquisite city.
We arrived in Riga to a rather grey site - sadly the train station is rarely positioned in a picturesque area of the city and this was no exception. So first impression wasn't the best, but things got better.
Not far from the train station and old city was the fabulous Riga Central Market, said to be the largest in Europe. Positioned on the bank of the Daugava River which runs through the city, it's both indoor and outdoors. The fresh fruit, veggies and flowers etc are outdoors but it's when you step inside that you really get an idea of the magnitude of the place. Its housed in five big hangers that looked like something out of world war one times , which we soon discovered was quite true. Built out of town and used during the war as hangers, these humongous 240metre long, 46 metre wide and 38 metre high halls were then relocated here, precisely to house the market which was acknowledged as the largest and most modern of its kind way back in the 1930's.
What amazed us is that it's visited by somewhere between 80,000 - 100,000 people a day. It really is a foodies heaven, everything you could possibly want with the smells of freshly smoked meats and breads wafting through the place.
Red meats and poultry of every kind, local dairy products, wonderful cheeses, endless variety of fish, smoked and unsmoked, caviar, lots of pickled veggies, fascinating looking wild mushrooms, honeys, and masses of sweet delicacies like halva. Nothing twee and fancy about this place, it's a working market, not a tourist spot and we soon got waved on if we were taking up space and not purchasing. But we did find a few local bits and sat around the back of the market watching the action.
We only saw a small part of the city, although did do a walking tour. Had to laugh as it was a middle aged, rather paunchy, somewhat opinionated, retired journalist from Australia that took the tour - who would have thought we could get that lucky! So we definitely got his side of the story. Sadly it was a damp grey day which didn't paint the city in its best light but still fascinating.
Riga has a diverse history dating back over 800 years, making it one of the oldest European capitals and largest trading ports in the Baltic region. At one stage it was the largest Swedish city, and at another it the industrial centre of Russia. Occupied and influenced over the years by the likes of Sweden, Poland, Germany and of course Russia . It gained independence in 1918 but it soon fell back under the rule of the it wasn't till January 1991 that the locals revolted and once again established an independent Latvia and is now with the Euro.
We felt that there was certainly more of a Polish and Russian feel to Riga than we had noticed in Tallinn . They say the people are calmer than their other Baltic Region counterparts but we felt a little more serious and dour but colourful.
Unbeknown to us, Riga is famous for its Art Noveau architecture. So it was time to look skywards again, which doesn't come naturally when its grey and drizzling and the brollies are out, admiring some wonderful buildings, There are over 800 Art Nouveau buildings in the city, most of which are in the central area, that's a whopping 40% of the buildings in the centre of Riga. Lots of generously decorated facades of buildings, not what I had ever imagined we would find here.
Thanks to our tour guide we found a real Lativian bar/restaurant to while a way a few hours. They all talked about the local beer so we had to indulge - not that I have any idea if it was good or not. The men seemed to enjoy it and there plenty of it being drunk around us. The local cider was great and Jude did try a local cranberry beer!! It was typical local food, so we tried all sorts, from fried beans, fish, pork hocks and soup. All pretty bland, lots of it, covered in a good helping of cheese and as cheap as cheap.
So it wasn't surprising to read about Latvian cooking being not merely peasant food but surf food. Consisting of cheap home grown ingredients, no spices as these would have been expensive, high in calories , to supply enough energy for a long hard days labour in the field.
Our accomodation turned out to be in Mezaparks, one of the smarter suburbs of Riga and a good tram ride out through to the edge of the city . The area, which is close to Lake Kisezers, was once the home of some glorious summer houses, built after WW1 and the countries first stint at independence. But during WW2 many fell into disrepair or the wrong hands, and were left to rack and ruin. So it was interesting to wander thru the area and see these huge sections with some magnificent houses just left totally uncared for. But then amongst this there were cranes and lots of construction happening, even great examples of new wooden buildings.
Also around this area was the Kaiserwold Concentration Camp. Unlike other camps this was set up with the sole intention to help cover the labour shortages during WW2, even the place itself was built by prisoners from Poland and Germany. Initial inmates were German convicts but as the Riga ghettos were emptied, up to 12,000 Jews were housed here. They sold the services of the prisoners, and the money made was pocketed by the commandants. Although not an extermination camp - there were thousand murdered at the camp and out in the forests. A dreadful thought as you wander through this delightful wooded area, right on the edge of Lake Kisezers.
The city got better every day as we discovered more. Coffee was good, local street performers fun, prices great, a city with quite a buzz to it and even an Australian pub with it own Combi van!