An Autumnal City Break to the Wonderful Latvian Capital Riga
Where: Riga, Latvia. Europe.
When: October 2011
What: Academy of Sciences Stalin Palace, Riga Radio & Television Tower - the tallest tower in the European Union, Riga Central Market - one of the biggest indoor markets in Europe, Rabbit Island, Victory Monument, Uzvaras Park, Riga Market Square, Russian Orthodox Church, Soviet symbolism.
How: International flight, Taxi, Walking.
Country counter: +1 country
Illnesses or mishaps: Thick, freezing fog enveloping the city on our final day making it difficult to see in front of us - and utterly impossible to take any photographs.
Latvia, sandwiched between Estonia in the north and Lithuania to the south, was my third and final Baltic country.
We arrived on a bright and sunny autumnal, but decidedly chilly, morning. The bright ambers and yellows of the trees softened some of the less-appealing aspects of Riga. Bastejkalns Park, which divides Riga Old Town from the city's central district, was wonderful in the autumn sun - the Freedom Monument at one end, and with the Pilsetas Canal meandering through it. It was a truly idyllic sight and rekindled my memories of the canals of Amsterdam some years previous. Little did we know that this weather would deteriorate quite suddenly; the beautiful autumn sunshine of Dr Jekyll replaced by thick dense fog of Mr Hyde. In fact, the fog was so thick that seeing any building or even to the other side of the river was rendered near-impossible. Indeed, buying a pair of extra thick woollen socks and a pair of fingerless gloves from Riga Central Market were, I felt at the time, both essential purchases. The market was a veritable feast of goods and one of the tidiest markets I had ever had the pleasure of wandering around. Its five giant arches, which cleverly extend the arches of the Riga Railway Bridge spanning the river, enable it to be given the coveted title of the largest indoor market in Europe. Inside, the market was appealing and lively - lots of local character and, indeed, lots of local characters. Women were the face of the market and clearly got dressed up for their work; behind their utility aprons and functional money belts lay thoughtfully applied make-up, carefully coiffed hairdos and a dash of glamour Latvian-style. Outside, however, more dubious scenes greeted us; gaggles of men drinking from bottles and hanging around in gnarly knots of threes, fours or fives.
I was thankful that we had completed so much sightseeing early on in the trip, having made it to the top of the Stalin palace, or the Academy of Sciences building, for superb outdoor views out across Riga, as well as to the viewing area of the Riga Radio and Television Tower. Despite the unforgiving wintry blast which followed, and feeling much more prepared with my thermal socks and gloves, we pressed ahead to see some of the remnants of Soviet occupation in the Kipsala district of the city which lies a little beyond the quaint Old Town. Just like Estonia, Latvia's eastern edge borders Russia. However, travellers hoping to visit Riga to see Soviet iconography aplenty will be left a little disappointed. Many of the statues installed during the Soviet era have been removed. What is a partial erasing of the past seems, however, a little half-hearted - or, at least, incomplete. Whilst many of the more obvious hallmarks and symbols have been removed, locked away or destroyed, some of the less obvious, more subtle signs of communist rule, are everywhere - that's if you take the time to search for them like I did. It's a paradox that evidence of Soviet occupation is hiding in plain sight. Seek and ye shall find... Indeed, it is present in the little old man in Riga's Central Market selling miniature silver busts of Stalin and Lenin; it is present in the partially-forgotten hammer and sickle motifs still in existence on metal fencing along neglected parts of the Daugava River; and it is present in the lofty reverence with which some Latvians hold the Stalin Palace in central Riga as they walk to and from work, its symbolic red flashing lights on each of its architectural pinnacles a comforting reminder to some of bygone days and a political ideology now painfully confined to the dustbin of history.
Half-way across the Akmens Tilts Stone Bridge we could no longer see the bank; it had completely disappeared into the fog. It was rather ghostly but, I mused at the time, this was rather apt being that we were on the hunt for the ghosts of communism... Small hammer and sickles could be seen on the railings running along the Daugava River but the Soviet piece de resistance was the huge Victory monument in Uzvaras Park - impressive no matter what your politics. A few stops to the Double Coffee chain, common in the Baltic region and other countries of the former Eastern Bloc, helped to keep the cold out during this chilly, but very atmospheric, walk around the city's environs.
Riga is one of Europe's hidden gems. Forget Paris, Rome or Barcelona: Riga is beautiful, evocative and one of my most favourite European city breaks.
The bright autumn weather creates fantastic reflections on the waters of the Pilsetas Canal in Bastejkalns Park.
Riga's Russian Orthodox Church.
Riga's elegantly-shaped TV Tower - the tallest tower in the European Union.
The Academy of Sciences, known locally as 'Stalin's Birthday Cake' or 'The Kremlin'.
Riga's main town square, partially destroyed in World War II and subsequently rebuilt.
The wonderful city of Riga nestles along the banks of the Daugava River.
Down by the banks of the Daugava River. Wonderful views of a wonderful city on a wonderful Autumn day.
Riga's beautiful decay is romantic and evocative.
This graffiti on concrete seems to capture something of the Soviet legacy of Latvia.
travel tips, links & resources
- Riga is such a beautiful city my only advice is to visit. It is without doubt one of the best European city breaks I have ever had. It's one of Europe's hidden gems. Enjoy the beauty of Europe without the tourist hordes associated with Paris, Milan or Barcelona.
- If the sky is clear during your stay be sure to head to the viewing area at the top of the Riga Television Tower for wonderful views across Rabbit Peninsula. The windows are a little grubby but I still managed to take photographs that I was really pleased with.
- Riga is perfectly navigable by foot and it's quite possible to see the main sights in a couple of days. Plan for at least two days and add at least another 24 hours of you want a more relaxing saunter around the city.
- If you're into your Soviet history, there are remnants of communist occupation in Riga. You just have to take the time to search for them like I did. Seek and ye shall find.
- If you love your western-style coffee, I found the 'Double Coffee' chain served a great cup. This chain appears across the Baltic region.
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