Day 8 – Riga City Tour, Latvia

1 Oct

The morning started without the promised hot water shortage.  8am – 10pm was advertised, but there was still hot water at 8:30am.  Breakfast was then necessarily brief – with a different tasting porridge (maybe buckwheat?) and the slowest toaster in the world.  The ladies Latvian and Estonian volleyball teams were in the breakfast room together with another ladies sports team, so it wasn’t so bad.  Volleyball – making small people feel even smaller.  No problems with the dusting anyway.

We met our guide – Aija – who conducted a very good city tour over the next three hours.  We took in a lot of art nouveau architecture as well as some gothic buildings along the way.  Riga has at least 25% of land as green or open space, and the centre is no exception.  In one of the parks, we saw an exceptionally large monkey in a spacesuit.  I’m not sure it was a Latvian monkey taking part in the Latvian space programme, but you never know.  We passed lots of embassies, including the Azerbaijan embassy, which of course had a bigger flag pole than the Georgian embassy next door.  The Armenian embassy was no where to be seen.  The Irish embassy looked a bit like Moloney’s Pub.  No, hang on, it WAS Moloney’s Pub.

We stopped for cakes and coffee at the scene of the killing of several people on 20th January 1991, including two cameramen, one of whose final words were “Film Me, Film Me”.  Lone rocks mark the spots where 5 people were gunned down.  This two week period in Latvian history is marked by a memorial to “The Barricades” outside the parliament building, which we also visited.

On a lighter note, we passed a swan house, that the swans didn’t like and is now used by ducks.  Also in the park was a bridge where romantic couples padlocks their names to a bridge.  We witnessed a newlywed couple to this later in the day.  Later on we also passed a cat hotel.  Who knows?

We visited the Liberty monument, which was saved from Soviet destruction by a Soviet poet writing good things about it.  Next to it, soldiers guard the monument 24 hours. Well, during the day, and when it isn’t raining!  A clock, sponsored by the chocolate manufacturer Laima doubled as the equivalent of Big Ben, and was erected to make sure employees got to work on time.

Managed to skip past the McExpress – seemingly a walk past queue to McDs.  Totally not sure why such a thing exists – the queues inside were just as long.

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Studied quite a few menus on the walking tour, with most being much of a muchness.  The occasional wild boar make it on there, but one in particular boasted of “We guarantee fast service – no matter how long it takes”.

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The Three Brothers of Riga

Other buildings visited included the Great Guild Hall and the smaller (craftsmen’s) guild hall, the building used by SMERSH to torture, humiliate and kill the Latvian Resistance Movement, the Roman Catholic Dome Cathedral, the Lutheran St. Jacob’s Church and St. Peter’s Church, the Swedish Gate and The Three Brothers – similar to the Three Sisters in Tallinn – three buildings next to each other.  Our guide entertained us by singing some Latvian folk songs, some to some rather familiar tunes.

We also stopped off at a bottle shop (Australians know what I mean here), where free samples were available of the medicinal Riga Black Balsam drink.  Rather potent at 30-40%, three flavours were tried – original, blackcurrant and rum (as though one alcoholic drink wasn’t enough, why not mix it with another as well!)  Also on offer was a unique drink, kept in the freezer, of which the Queen orders 32 bottles every year for Christmas – it’s only available in Riga!  Philip must like it a lot.  It’s called Allažu ķimelis and is made from caraway seeds.  We also tried the cinnamon version later.  Both are almost syrup-like, and incredibly sweet.

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Had a sligh panic as she led us through the courtyard of the Art Museum, but thankfully this was just a shortcut to the Dome Square, where the Roman Catholic cathedral was located.  It’s worth pointing out at this point that nearly all Christian churches in Estonia and Latvia have a golden cockerel as a weather vane at their highest point.  This is supposed to symbolise waking up, or something else – no one appears to remember.

We managed to skip over some rather dodgy roadworks and reach the town hall square, which was bombed in WWII, and therefore consisted of mainly modern buildings – including a 1999 restoration of the “House of the Blackheads” – a very impressive building.  The same organisation had existed in Tallinn.  While some took some free time to explore the shopping areas, Ruth, Steve and myself headed back to the Dome Cathedral for an organ recital.  I have to admit that I hadn’t quite realised what I was letting myself in for.  The front of the organ was hidden from view, as other restoration works were in progress.  The organ itself was originally the biggest, but is now the 4th biggest (not sure if that was in Eastern Europe, Europe or the world!)  Anyway, we happily mingled with the sleeping locals, the bored children and the casually interested tourists.

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Back meeting the group, we discovered that some highly noticable headwear had been purchased – it did prove useful for identifying the group in a crowd though.  Tauno led us off to the central market, which is based in 5 former zeppelin hangers.  Stopping only briefly for a convenience stop.  Walking past the beautiful toilets in KFC, several ladies managed to get lost in a 4 storey shopping centre for the best part of 20 minutes.  How convenient.

The central market itself had a wide selection of well presented food items – sea buckthorn berries and juice amongst them.  Tauno walked as around the various areas of fruit and veg, cheese and bread, and fish.  The meat section was closed.  One of the sections had a bar!  Honey and honeycomb was quite popular, as was anything you could pickle.  Ugh.

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We moved outside to a quiet bench in the Spikeri neighbourhood of fancy redeveloped warehouses, now used as private housing and office space.  Tauno produced the range of goods he had bought on our behalf at the market including Latvian bread, cheese with caraway seeds, hemp butter, salty cucumbers, sea buckthorn juice and marinated apples (marinated in what, we never quite established).  Some repeated, some are more repeatable.

Leaving us to our own devices, the fab 5 headed back into town to top up with some cake and coffee.  Thankfully, I witnessed the previous customer asking for a Riga Black Balsam to be added to his coffee.  This actually made both the coffee and the Balsam taste better.  A good combination.  Watching the world go by, we saw the “PartyBike” – where up to 8 people need to pedal as they face each other.  Who steers?  There were strict rules though – obviously brought about by previous experience.

“Riga by Canal” was our next agreed stop.  We spent the next 60 minutes on a boat with one other young Chinese guy with perfect English.  Our captain was an almost jolly Russian who spent most of it on his phone.  We toured the canal and river of Riga, seeing all the sights again from the water.  It was almost quite peaceful, except that the blokes were doing the “dance of the photographers” to constantly get the best angle.  One low lying bridge required us to all move to the front of the boat, so that we could scrape underneath – and then move to back to stop the actual scrapping happening for too long.

One Viking longboat, Stockholm ferry, German navy frigate and a motorised paraglider flying thingy later and we deboated (is that a word?)

Steve and I wandered back through town to the hotel, doing some shopping on the way.  Seven of us met again for dinner and after a 4 block walk, we reached a restaurant that Yok Leng had suggested we visit.  Only outside seating was available, so we trekked a few more blocks to another one – “Fazenda”.  This offered a very nice, large table and a good, varied menu.  The duck was delicious, although there was some debate about how “pumpkiny” the pumpkin pannacotta was.

Back at the hotel, we made some plans to meet in the evening of our free day tomorrow – we’ll see how that works out.  Certainly, a longer lie will be appreciated.

Today was mostly about seeing the people of Riga in their own environment – following are just a few …

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