Ever walked around a place and been awestruck at the beauty that surrounds you? When you get that excited grin on your face and have to keep telling yourself, ‘Yes, this is real’. That’s the feeling I got strolling through the Latvian capital Riga the weekend before last. It’s a city that’s got a history dating back to before the Middle Ages, is starting to find its feet after so many decades of occupation and is filled with just some really lovely people.
Adam and I arrived in Riga early on the Saturday afternoon after long morning of travel from Malvern. Our accommodation in Riga was a lovely little loft apartment, that we found on Airbnb, right in the heart of the city. The layout was slightly odd – you passed through the shower room to get to the rest of the living space – but for £15 a night, in a location where you could walk to all the main sites, we considered it a bit of a steal.
We spent our first, rather balmy (8 degrees!) afternoon getting our bearings in Old Town. The streets are cobbled, there are dozens and dozens of colourful buildings as well as large paved squares and some of the most impressive churches I’ve ever seen.
We woke up on Sunday to much more frigid weather and headed off to the former KGB headquarters, where guided tours are taken. It was a sobering experience. The Soviet Union occupied current day Latvia in 1940, then in 1941 by Nazi Germany. In 1944 the Soviet Union re-occupied Latvia and remained in control of the country until 1991 when it finally secured its independence. The Soviet occupation is seen as being a terrible, brutal period in Latvia’s long history and I sense there is still a degree of mistrust between Latvia and the current Russian Federation. Our tour guide was a young woman, who’s great grandfather had been taken and tortured by the KGB. She works at the former KGB Headquarters as both a tour guide and a researcher, trying to piece together the stories of the people who were affected by the Soviet occupation. We saw the prison cells where Latvian residents were kept and as I stood in the building’s central concrete courtyard, watching tiny pieces of snow fall from the sky, I felt a chill go down my spine. The sadness and paint Latvian people endured at the headquarters is palpable and both Adam and I left the tour feeling quite overwhelmed.
Sunday afternoon was spent wandering around Riga’s Art Nouveau district, where we admired elaborate, artistic buildings and visited the city’s Art Nouveau Museum. It was much smaller than we expected, but still interesting nonetheless and an obvious destination for architecture lovers.
We also managed to find a local food market, that’s set up in old warehouses where zeppelins were built in the Second World War. Every warehouse had a different theme (meat, fruit and vegetables, baked goods etc). The markets were starting to wind up by the time we arrived, but it was fascinating to watch the vendors and customers interact and to get a feel for the average Latvian’s diet. Dark bread, smoked fish and pork are favourites.
Our Airbnb host Aigars, had recommended we try and find a local folk club in Old Town, so on Sunday evening we want looking for it. The club was down a fairly innocuous cobbled street full of other bars and clubs. We pushed open the club’s heavy wooden doors, wandered down a flight of steps to basement level and came to the conclusion it must of been closed, as the entrance deserted. Adam was keen to check the club out, so we kept on walking finally stumbling across a series of vaulted rooms, dimly lit with chandeliers, decorated with books and artworks and full of people sitting around large wooden tables.
The club has 28 beers on tap (most of them Latvian made) and a superb menu of modern Latvian cuisine. We enjoyed a beer tasting tray with a plate of ‘snacks’ (garlic bread made out of dark rye, carrots, cucumber, pickles and dip) and left content and slightly jolly!
On the Monday morning we awoke to a few inches of snow, which turned Riga into a wintry dreamscape. All the beautiful old buildings looked a treat with snowy roofs and I loved checking out all the different styles of winter boots, coats and hats that the Latvian women wore.
We visited the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia and learnt a little more about the country’s recent history. Like the KGB Headquarters, it was a confronting experience. Independence and membership to the European Union means a great deal to modern day Latvia and the country’s flag flies prominently everywhere.
We snuck back to the folk club on the Monday night, after enjoying ourselves so much the evening before. Adam tucked into a plate of ‘grey peas’, while I sampled some traditional meatballs. More beers were tasted! When we left the club the snow had started to fall thick and fast. We had a magical walk back to our apartment, watching the flakes pile up.
We’re pretty sure it snowed most of Monday night, as when we woke on Tuesday the city was covered in a blanket of white. It made for an interesting few days on the second part of our trip to the Gauja National Park, but more on that later this week!