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Latvia: First taste of the Baltics

Budapest was the worst weekend away of my life – drab, grey, artificially touristy and, bar a couple of lukewarm swimming pools, pretty dull. I have, however had several successful forays into Eastern Europe, sleeping in a prison cell in Ljubljana, and enjoying the vivacity of life in Zagreb’s bars and cafés. With my dad being number one cheerleader for early morning Ryanair flights eastward, Riga was recommended to me. I was soon awake for a devilishly early trip to Stansted.

Victoria Coach station at 2:30am on a cold February morn is as grim as you would imagine. That said, National Express’ coaches always impress, with lovely leather seats and a belligerent approach to London’s inner streets. Our flight was full, yet punctual. We touched down in the Latvian capital mid-morning, and it was, as they say, Baltic.

The bus ride to the city centre followed a similar pattern to most Eastern European entries, passing grey apartment blocks, grey car garages, and a few ageing locals trudging along grey pavements. Our interest peaked seeing two ice fishermen sitting in the middle of a frozen lake, then we crossed the expansive Daugava River (frozen), at which point the view gained a lot more character.

For some reason my new phone never works abroad, but having taken a momentary glance at a map two days previously, I plotted a vague course towards the old town’s spires and cobbles and stumbled upon the very same Hotel Justus as per our reservation. A welcome few hours kip followed.

Refreshed and wrapped up head to toe, we wandered around the city’s old quarter with its various squares, churches, and outlets of Double Coffee. It’s quaint, quiet and intriguing, probably serves little purpose to locals on a day to day basis, and thus perfect for aimless strolling.

Riga, in various forms has existed along the Daugava since 1201, and been a territorial ragdoll ever since. Prominent periods of Russian and German rule are reflected in the city’s social and architectural makeup, and we got our first proper taste of Russian relations at the aptly named Colonel restaurant. Rarely does a hearty plate of sausage and sauerkraut get overshadowed in my book – but fast-forward a few hours and the whole restaurant was dancing around tables and ordering champagne by the bottle. Fellow patron and adopted ringleader of these shenanigans was a young Russian chap, revelling in his accomplishment of uniting a roomful of strangers, arm in arm, dancing to motherland folksongs. Returning with red roses for each woman, his individual warmth has single-handedly put Russia on my lengthy shortlist.

The downside to partying with Russians is the cracking headache the following morn, but nothing a decent hotel buffet breakfast couldn’t remedy. Turns out the Latvian’s do a mean pastry, and harbour an unrivalled love for rye bread and potatoes.

Sunday’s activity was a walking tour of the city, exploring the less obvious but intriguing areas of Riga. Warm beverage in hand, we crossed under the railway tracks towards Riga’s imposing market – one of, if not the busiest in Europe, attracting up to 100,000 people per day to haggle over fresh and local produce. Architecturally bold, these four plus one buildings were constructed from materials originally destined to be Zeppelin hangars, and is now firmly on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Our tour continued to a number of other sites, which I’ll keep secret to encourage you to go, ending up at the nation’s Freedom Monument. I learnt more about the history of Eastern Europe in these 3 hours wandering than I have in the last 25 years. I’m now a convert to the ‘free walking tour’ concept, despite the bitter temperatures and uncontrollable shiver. Latvians, however, have adapted to these cold temperatures by shooting an array of wild animals for cherished fur coats. The fur on display was quite extraordinary, with various shades of mink, fox and beaver wandering along the high street. Regardless of your ethical stance, these locals looked considerably warmer than us.

 

Our final hurrah was to celebrate the weekend’s success atop Stalin’s Birthday Cake, now officially the Latvian Academy of Sciences. A daunting structure, built slowly since 1951 and at the time one of the tallest concrete buildings in the world, it now stands solemnly at the back of the market. It is open to the public, not that you’d know if for the lack of signs, or people. Once in the lobby, we tentatively suggested that maybe we could potentially see the view – an old boy wobbles over to a service lift, turning on the lights as he goes. After creaking up to floor 15, you then walk the final two levels, opening out onto an icy observation deck. As the only two people up there, we enjoyed the view despite swirling snow and bitter temperatures. Just below the deck are some of the only remaining hammer and sickle symbols in Riga, keeping watch over the city from their lonely vantage.

Following a 20p jam pastry from the market, we were back on the airport bendy-bus. High praise, but I’m going to say Riga airport is one of my absolute favourites – quiet, stylish, and efficient. Likewise, WizzAir always impresses, with comfortable seats and upbeat pink aircraft. The dream journey does end when you arrive into Luton however, which has the artistic flare of a corrugated iron cattle shed.

 

Considering we nearly sacked this trip off entirely due to illness, Riga far exceeded our expectations. Historically different yet achievably close for a weekend mini-break, the city has plenty to offer and reasonably priced. Even the cold seems to suit the surroundings, adding a dash of adventure to each short wander. Certainly better than Budapest.

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