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krisek Riga - A travel report by Krys
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Riga,  Latvia - flag Latvia -  Riga
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krisek's travel reports

Super clean Riga packed with chocolate box houses.

  9 votes
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This might have been one of the best weekend breaks I made. The Latvian capital was colourful, lovely and very clean. The old town was picturesque, the pavement cafes inviting. A side trip to Sigulda brought funny memories from the past.


Three brothers
Three brothers
I loved Riga. It had this great Hanseatic feel and the squares filled with beer places offering the Paulaner hefe weizen! It was a great pleasure to wander around the old town.

The matchless Art Nouveau city of Riga was one of the seven chief cities of the Hanseatic League. The League was an association of trade cities maintaining a monopoly of commerce in the Northern Europe between the 13th and 16th centuries. After Riga was granted town rights in 1225, it soon became a key trading post for the Oder of Livonian Brothers of the Sword. As the order, combined with the Teutonic Knights, fell after the wars with the United Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania, Riga maintained a status of a Free Imperial City, then joined Poland and eventually was conquered by Sweden. Until early 18th century, Riga was Sweden's largest city, before being scooped by Russia's Tsar Peter the Great in 1721. It was then Russia's third largest city, after Moscow and the brand new St Petersburg. The changing of hands from the Germany-influenced Hanseatic League to Poland, then to Sweden and to Russia, left a considereably diversified footprint in the city's landscape and skyline. This is why it is so interesting to explore today.

The core UNESCO-listed historic centre is relatively compact and can be visited in a few hours. I managed to sweep it twice in the morning, snapping along, and then made a mistake and went to see parts of the upcountry by train. The train was excruciatingly slow, like in the old Soviet Union and the countries of the Warsaw Pact! This brought a few funny memories from childhood, so I have no regrets at all - apart from taking so long to get a few miles outside town. But I so wanted to visit the castles in Sigulda and Krimulda. They were positively interesting, but I expected a little more... A guess a little more grandeur, mystery, and association with the Middle Ages.

Favourite spots:
Riga travelogue picture
For some reason, I really liked the square about the Townhall. Nearby there were two grand merchant houses (The House of Blackheads) built in the 14th century restored to their former glory (picture below) - standing close to possibly the ugliest building in the world, now housing the Museum of Occupation. Perhaps it was the contrast that stunned me.

The Townhall was very elegant but simple in its form. Almost majestic. The merchant houses with their red, almost triangular facades, richly decorated with reliefs and ornaments typical for an Hanseatic trading building, were lovely. My mind suddenly demanded to see more of them around. Perhaps in the past there were more of them. And then, the grey, cubic building of the museum was impossibly cold and austere.

Not far from the city walls, there was a building called the Swedish Gate (picture above), which was very intriguing. It dates back to 1698 and was surrounded with photogenic houses, some of which housed restaurants, some shops.

What's really great:
Riga travelogue picture
The city was super clean. Every morning I saw the locals sweeping the streets carefully, almost as if the entire street was an extention of their living rooms. And then even during the day, little if at all rubbish accumulated on the pavements and other public areas. What was eventually swept was some dust and leaves, really.

It was also great to see how quickly Latvia recovered from the oppression of communism. The old town was in a great shape, few buildings required repairs (the Soviet Union did not care much about the historical buildings outside Moscow) and the number of little businesses, which mashroomed on every corner was comforting and reassuring that the society was free and was returning to normality.

Sights:
The castle
The castle
The first photograph of this report shows one of Riga's most famous landmarks - three very old buildings called The Three Brothers, which looked as if being taken from a fairy-tale. But there was more to see in the old town. The bright Riga Castle (the 14th century) set near the river and a park on the other side appeared extremely well maintained (now museums of Latvian History and Foreign Art). It was fascinating. The largest church in the Baltic states, the Lutheran Cathedral from the 13th century, with a golden clock on its bulky spire, took a vast chunk of space on one of the main squares. Riga had a few other interesting churches, including a Roman Catholic Cathedral started in the 15th century by the Teutonic Knights.

A great feature in the old town was the cylindric Powder Tower, the oldest piece that remains from the medieval 13th century city walls. But I loved the Guild Hall and the rows of picturesque little houses scattered around the town, many painted in vivid colours.

Accommodations:
Townhall
Townhall
After a rather tedious research, I finally decided to stay at hotel Viesturs. It is a boutique hotel based on a quiet street within the historic old town. It charged about €60 for a single room (inlcuding a so-so breakfast), which was a bit expensive for what you were getting. Although boutique, the hotel was not that special. It was adequate, the personnel was attentive and helpful. Obviously its location in a 17th century terrace house in the old town was a bonus, and its terrace on the roof with good views (closed when I visited) over the town, tried to make up for a relatively steep price, but I think I would have chosen a different hotel next time I am in Riga. Yet, one can expect all amenities as from any other three star establishment in the Baltic states, and this one can get fully booked as it has only 15 rooms and is very conveniently located. The train station in only about 10 minutes walk away.

Nightlife:
Riga travelogue picture
Similarly with the Northern Europe, nightlife in Riga kicks off relatively early. People start going out at about 8 pm. Some would begin with restaurants, some with cocktail bars, depending whether they ate at home or not. Then, they would go clubbing. Night clubs in the capital of Latvia charge about 5 lats (€7) for cover, confirmed by a stamp on your hand, like anywhere else on the continent.

An interesting restaurant converting into a music club, based in the cellar, is the popular Kalku Varti, near the National Philharmonic. It has a great atmosphere when local bands go crazy with their rock and blues repertoir. It has a terrace and a summer garden. It is worth checking out also other bars playing live music, like the PULSe (absolutely no pop), the Saksofons or the Micrecbars.

Actually, in the summer, the old town squares filled with pavement cafes often play live music and therefore people usually stay there for dinner, cocktails and dancing. The Dome Square is the most popular.

Hangouts:
Riga travelogue picture
I spent a considerable amount of time just relaxing and watching people on of the squares of the old town, sitting at a beer garden sipping my Paulaner. Every now and again scoffing on a sausage or another beer snack. It was a great spot. Being surrounded by marvelous architecture representing centuries of history and just doing nothing (apart from killing time) was superb. This is what city breaks should be like. Two, three hours of history exploring narrow alleys, then long, long, lunch watching people and chatting to the locals, then again some more wandering around, browsing souvenir shops, taking pictures, seeing art in a museum or two, admiring religious architecture... Then dinner, night on the town... Yeah!

And Riga had plenty of cafes and beer gardens scattered around the historic centre, and the good thing about them was that they were frequented by the local population. Everyone is seriously spoiled for choice in terms of places to sit down and catch up on gossip.

Restaurants:
Riga travelogue picture
The Latvian cuisine, based on cabbage, pork and potatoes, picking on traditions of the former invadors (Poles, Swedes, Germans and Russians) will probably be never famous for anything specific. It is not difficult to find a good restaurant serving those dishes (all of the three ingredients in great portions on one plate at a time) in Riga, but for those, who are worried about their waists, bellies and thighs, can also choose from a large number of places serving world cuisine, like any European capital.

A good place to try Latvian fare in the old town is Alus Seta, at 6 Tirgonu, offering buffets. A restaurant with more contemporary setting, Dzirna Vas, at 76 Dzirnavu, serves good value and predictable dishes.

The most interesting one, however was Rozengrals (1 Rozena street), based in a former wine cellar. It has everything medieval about it, claiming that its waiting staff attire and menu have not changed significantly since the 13th century. Game in sweet sauces widely available!

Other recommendations:
Teutonic castle
Teutonic castle
Just 55 km from Riga, there were forrests housing two genuinely interesting castles, the Sigulda and Krimulda. The first one is situated in a lovely valley of the primeval Gauja river, which is spanned by a cable car offering spectacular views. The castle itself looks modern and extremely well maintained, but the site of a former fortress right next to it are mysterious and a little spooky. The Krimulda Castle, badly ruined, on the other side of the cable car, is even spookier. The ruins are extensive but not particularly fabulous. The nature surrounding it makes up for it, though. There are also some fascinating wooden mansions and manor houses nearby as well. Slightly beyond, on the same side of the valley, there is the reconstructed Turaida Castle (pictured above) built by the archibishop of Riga in 1214, which had lain in ruin for a few centuries. There is a good hike from the Krimulda Castle to the Turaida Castle, whose path leads through the woods. Brilliant!

Published on Wednesday December 17th, 2008


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Fri, Dec 19 2008 - 01:01 AM rating by gloriajames

great report....and now i know a new place.
btw....possible to put names /titles to all the pictures in your reports?
thnx

Thu, Dec 18 2008 - 03:10 AM rating by yuliangpang

Krys, It takes more time for me to read your report, because I have so many things to take note. For this reason I always keep your report when i have enough time. Good to learn from you. From your report a new concept Hanseatic League, I checked it from google earth, it says a monopoly of trade in Northern Europe in 13th-17th century, instead of 16th century. Anyway thanks for that. I am laughing at what you said that locals sweep the street so careful that they take the whole street like the extention of their living rooms! I like this sense of humor. So in your sense, what they should do? Like Italians, just use the machine and do a very quick job?

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