(The apostrophe does not work very well)
The home of art nouveau,a Russian black market and stag party central. Riga is an interesting and beautiful place which feels richer than Lithuania and definitely more Russian. One of the first things that we noticed was that many things are displayed in 3 languages: Latvian, English and Russian. This is, I guess, hardly surprising when around 40% of Riga's population is from Russian descent.
We arrived on a Saturday afternoon to the naughty squirrel hostel. The hostel had a really friendly atmosphere and was sooo clean!! On arriving we were given the chance to try the Rigan shot of choice, black balsam. It tasted like cough medicine and I definitely wouldn't want it on a night out.
We decided to spend the afternoon in quite a chilled way and simply went for a quick wonder around the streets. The signs of the English stag party were everywhere with numerous bars, happy hours and of course strip clubs. After a while we stopped at an Irish pub (I know) that had been recommended.... this was called Paddy Whelans. Inside were a couple of stag parties and sport was on the tv, it wasn't much of a travel experience but the beer was cheap!!
Upon return to the hostel we booked dog sledding for the following morning and were told to be downstairs for 9.30am sharp.....I do not know how we managed it the next day as the evening consisted of Foosball with 2 Lithuanian girls. Beer, Chats about the EU with a French guy, beer, ring of fire with a group of Spanish peiople and a Sri Lankan guy, beer,beer,beer...
Dog sledding was absolutely incredible and definitely worth doing if you ever get the opportunity. Although Adam had the reigns I would quite happily say that it was definitely the dogs that were in charge. At times we deviated from the road and flew over the snow. With dogs racing to following the car up ahead. At one point myself and the sled were airbourne and Adam had to run alongside to catch up. The rest of the day was spent chilling.
Riga has100s of art nouveau type buildings all over the city and the key is to look up. To be honest I wasnt entirely clear what art nouveau was but after seeing all the architecture I have a clearer understanding, even if it isn't my cup of tea. The Rigan skyline is also dominated by what is known by locals as Stalin\s biurthday cake, which is very similar to the massive building that he constructed in Warsaw. Another key area is the freedom building, built following WW1 when Latvia was first announced as an independent state. There are guards constantly as the statue and is a very important symbol to many Latvians.
We went on a free tour whilst in Riga and I thought that the guide was brilliant. She gave us loads of information about the city and took us outside the touristy old town. As part of the tour we were very pleased that she took us deep into the part of the city known as Muscava or little Moscow. This is where it gets seriously Russian. The beginning of little Moscow is dominated by 4 Zepplin hangers, which in WW2 were built by the Nazis to build Zepplins in. Happily this never happened and today they are used to host a massive central market. People were quite pushy shovvy to get to all the babouskas selling their various goods.
As we got further in to Muscava we visited a once beautiful synagogue that had been burnt down during the German occupation, sadly this is a very common tale in Eastern Europe. Surrounding this are lots of wooden houses which have been built and burnt and built and burnt over the centuries. A particular tale that the guide shared with us was during Napolen's time, the Latvians had been dreading his entry to Riga. One night, a guard called the alarm that he could see Napoleon and his armies in the distance. As a result all of the wooden houses surrounding the centre of Riga were burnt to the ground in attempt to thwart Napoleon anf to prevent him from gaining any supplies from the outskirts, it turned out that the guard was drunk and Napoleon never entered Latvia.... Our final stop in little Moscow was the black market. This was mega dodge and we had been warned to hold on to our valuables. We couldn't really take any pictures inside as the sellers don't like it whilst they hawk their junk and stolen goods. It looks like a cross between a tip, junk shop with a sprinkling of Lenin and Stalin statues.... The joke in Riga is if your bag is stolen to go their the next day and buy it back for a reasonable price!!
After our epic tour of Riga we decide to take the tram to the legendary Lido. We had been told by several Latvians that this was the place to try Latvian food and that to make sure we were hungry when we went. Lonely planet had described it as if Latvia and Disney had a lovechild. The food was excellent with an absolutely massive choice and big, big helpings. The decor was interesting with various statues and waitresses in milk maid type outfits. It was the outside which was ginormous!!There was gun games, random lit up animals and a really big ice rink. Lido was clearly the place to be seen by Latvian teeny boppers!!
From Riga we decide to visit Sigulda, an Eastern Latvian town. Our main purpose was to visit the Bobsleigh track. There are under 20 Bobsleighs in the entire world and only a handful of these allow tourists the privilege of going down. WE could either go down on the rather chunky tourist bob or book in advance and go down on a proper bonb. We of course went for the proper one. It was amazing. You get thrown about and have to try really hard to keep your neck down. The speeds reach around 105 kph and you feewl it as you hold on to a tiny metal bar and go very high on the walls of the track. I have to say that though really fun, you definitely need to be a bit of a daredevil!!!
Apart from the awesome bobsleigh, Sigulda is on the edge of a national park and a lovely place to walk around and relax. I imagine this would be a great place to visit again in the summer when there are even more walks open and the opportunity to bunjee jump and kayak open up.
Next up, Estonia.