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Beyond Words - Issue #24 48 hours in Riga

Beyond Words - Issue #24 48 hours in Riga
By Nandini Chakraborty • Issue #24 • View online
This trip report is about Riga but it is also about travel in COVID times. Hopefully some of the tips and advice will not be required in another year, 18 months, 2 years….who knows. But even if not, it will remain a record, not to forget, not to take any trip, however small or big, for granted.

I am just grateful that I am sitting here, with memories to pen. Last week this time, I was still very realistically thinking, at any moment things might change to make a weekend city trip in Europe impossible.
It was after a refreshing and hassle-free trip to Helsinki in October 2021, with a day trip to Tallinn fitted in within those five days, that we booked tickets from London Luton to Riga over the Christmas bank holiday weekend. Both my husband and me being off work throughout the bank holiday weekend is rare and has not happened in years. Hence, we decided to make the most of the opportunity. After our day out in Tallinn, we thought Riga would be a great continuation along the Baltic region. It was in early November that we bought flight tickets and booked accommodation.
Then within a few weeks Omicron struck the world. We watched rules change overnight and until the time we boarded the flight, were never sure that we were going. First France stops Brits coming in, then Germany. UK brings in a red list, then drops it. Day 2 lateral flow tests are changed to PCR. Then Latvia announces random PCR tests for travellers from the UK. Lastly, 4 days before we were due to fly Latvia says PCR within 72 hours or a lateral flow within the 48 hours before arriving in Latvia (but no more random tests). The guidance on the UK FCO website did not change until 48 hours later. Luckily, we picked up that last requirement by checking the Latvia Ministry of Foreign Affairs website daily and were able to order our kits to arrive just before Christmas eve.
And so, we flew on the 26th of December from Luton airport with Wizz Air- with passenger locator forms filled for Latvia, the results of a COVID test (lateral flow) done on 24th December and our vaccination certificates. Another lateral flow kit in the suitcase for doing and uploading before we flew back and our registration for the walk in PCR test at Luton airport on return. Our flight tickets and accommodation taken together were cheaper than the price of 2 sets of lateral flows and a PCR needed for this trip.
To avoid disappointment, I only did my research on things to do and places to eat in Riga, while waiting at Luton airport after all our paperwork was checked and we had our boarding passes in hand (the days of walking straight into security checks if you have no checked in baggage are gone, as airline staff need to check all your paperwork). I found Domini Canes, a Latvian cuisine restaurant opposite St Peter’s Church which sounded appealing and decided that would be our first stop.
Checking out of Riga airport was hassle free. By half an hour we were on bus number 22 which starts opposite car park one and heads towards city centre. Tickets are 1.15 euros from the vending machine and 2 euros from the driver. We were just trying to get our tickets from the machine when the bus arrived, so we just got them from the driver. Less than half an hour later, we got off at 11 Novembra Krastmala, the first stop just after crossing a very frozen white Daugava river. The stop is just across the street from the Old Town centre. The tall steeple of St Peter’s church is notably visible. The national library (Latvijas Nacionālā bibliotēka) cuts a modernistic asymmetrical wavy arch silhouette, in the opposite bank.
We ploughed through the snow, still soft and powdery, to Domini Canes. It was warm with a wooden and cosy décor and striped cushions. We were just grateful to feel the warmth and rest our tired feet. So, our Latvian trip began with lunch of prawns followed by mains of pasta, a venison burger and pork ribs. We tried the dessert of ‘black ice cream’ with berries- which was vanilla ice cream blacked with apple charcoal. Interesting smoky flavour. And after coffee, we were just in time to check into the Boutique Hotel Monte Kristo, a 3-minute walk away. Nothing in the Old Town is more than 5-7 minutes from each other. Even the main sightseeing outside the Old Town is never more than 20 minutes. If you are a good walker, this is a compact city best explored on foot.
The Boutique Hotel Monte Kristo did not disappoint. Beautifully located and with a décor which combined deep red rugs, wrought iron rails on the winding stairs and heavy wooden furniture- we were very pleased with our choice and the price.
After we had settled in and had a rest, we headed back to St Peter’s Church to join a free walking tour. The place looked pretty empty and we had doubts whether the tour would go ahead. But then, just with five minutes to go, our guide Rita turned up and we had two more groups join ours. So, it was a lively group of 9 people and our guide (a total four countries represented here, UK, Latvia, Malta and Estonia) who set off for a two-hour introduction to the architecture and history of Riga.
Credit to Rita for bringing Riga truly alive to us that dark, cold, and sometimes blustery and snowy evening. She was enthusiastic, answered every question and added both facts and her local perspective. Without her, it would have been a rather dull evening in a town with no Christmas markets and few crowds to liven up the place.
Riga as the European Capital of Culture in 2014, is slowly but certainly finding its place but is hardly still on the beaten tourist track. Even for this trip, when we said we were off to Riga, quite a few of our friends were ‘Where???’ The history of the country and its capital is fascinating. I will not write an essay here and not sure I remember all of Rita’s extensive discourse but there were certain points which struck me.
The first sea faring tribes to reach the shores of the land came 3000 years ago. These tribes are ancestors mostly to Estonian people and spoke languages which branched into Finnish, Estonian and Hungarian. More tribes arrived 2000 years ago and became ancestors to the Latvians and Lithuanians. Hence strangely enough, though many cultural overlaps may be shared by Estonians and Latvians, their languages are very different.
The area of Riga was strategically important because of a navigable river which could connect from the sea to far inland. The Daugava river still garlands the city but in older times there was also the Riga river from which the city gets its name. The river was eventually filled in a claimed for land as it was getting blocked and filthy. There are still streets which follow the course of the river and there are curves and dips which result from it. The main shopping centre Galleria Riga stands where a river once flowed. During the digging of its foundations, builders found an ancient shipwreck which showed not only that the river once existed there, but it was navigable. So, embraced by two navigable rivers, Riga was prime trading area and hence has seen many peoples vie for its land. Besides the ancient tribal ancestors of the Baltic people, there have been Germanic crusaders who introduced Christianity to a land where the people worshipped different nature Gods.
Latvia was born as a country in 1918, winning independence from the Russian Empire. But it had to win independence again, in 1991 from the Soviet Union. Years of communist rule have left a mark on religious practices. Christian practice though present, is muted and non-exuberant. Recently a lot of young people do not identify with religion but with spirituality. Interest has been revived in the ancient Gods- not as a form of worship but to explore Latvian culture and roots. Every five years Latvia holds a lavish song and dance festival to celebrate Latvian culture. Groups of 16 (8 couples) have to compete for places in the festival. Rita showed us pictures of the dancing group in various complex formations which recreate ancient symbols. Folk songs and traditional dances mark these festivals where the old deities are mentioned, not as a form of worship but an unconscious revival of culture and traditions which mention the old beliefs. The last such festival was in 2018 in a grand celebration of the birth centenary of the country. Hopefully the country will be able to hold the next one in 2023.
Snow crunching underneath our boots, twinkling lights illuminating the squares and Christmas trees, wrapped warm, we traipsed behind Rita by St Peter’s Church, Dome Church and square, St James’ Church and its courtyard, Swedish Gate, market square, House of the Blackheads, Cat House with the silhouette of an arched cat gracing its tower and the old city walls. Rita told us to look out for snow and icicles which might slide off the roofs and lining gutters on to pedestrians passing below. Many houses had ribbons of white and red bordering off areas of the pavement- this now made sense.
The house of the Blackheads had a huge Christmas tree and a model of another one which was proclaimed as the world’s first Christmas tree. There is debate with Tallinn though, about which city gave the world this tradition. The other interesting story is that of the musicians of Bremen, a sculpture gifted to Riga by sister city Bremen. It shows the rooster, atop a cat, atop a dog, atop a donkey, breaking through a frame which signifies the penetration of the iron wall. The animals have shiny noses, resulting from numerous rubbings for good luck. The donkey and dog are reachable. The cat and rooster need more effort, but people can go to great lengths to make sure their wishes are met. Notably, roosters adorn most church steeples here, a guard against evil and to bless the building. Pagan beliefs merge with Christian down the ages.
After the walk, we found the restaurant Province, near the House of the Blackheads. Cosy with traditional décor, the tables with ornate Latvian patterns, it was a warm welcome to the frosty roads outside where snow was swirling down in soft spirals. We had hot pea soup in a bowl of rye bread, grilled vegetables, and black beans with bacon, followed by a dessert of mini pancakes and cream.
A short walk back to Boutique Hotel Monte Kristo. Then we did our lateral flow tests before bed. Emailed our pictures and got our certificates back within a few minutes. Relieved with another step of the process done in COVID time travels, we settled down for the night.
27th of December was dry and crisp. We started off with a generous breakfast at the hotel in a cove like café. Around 9 am we set off on foot with a Riga map and our own walking trip to take in the sights.
We passed by the Latvian National Opera, Freedom Monument, the snow blanketed Esplanade and the Russian Orthodox church with its golden domes. We had a look around within the compact interiors of the Church. We then skirted around the Esplanade, passed the National Museum of Arts and Academy of Arts. Then we made our way to the Art Nouveau district mainly on Alberta Street (Iela). Riga has a high concentration of art nouveau buildings but the entire line up on Alberta Iela is a treat to the senses. Classical statues, Egyptian inspired sculptures, pastel shades, flowery borders, intricate arches and gates make these buildings a loud and unapologetically lavish.
Then we turned back towards the old town again, passed by the National Theatre where the statues on the gates had been given festive Christmassy hats. We re-entered the old Town near the Powder Tower with its conical roof. We found the old pastel-coloured houses of the 3 Brothers. We had a look around inside Dome Church, the most notable decoration being its golden and dusky blue organ, one of the most expensive in Europe. We had another look around Dome Square, House of the Blackheads and Cat House- in the daylight. Near House of the Blackheads, we had another tourist click a family picture from us. He was from France. ‘Not easy to travel nowadays, is it?’ He smiled. We agreed thinking that Brits were no longer allowed to cross into France without very good reason. But still okay for Brits and the French to meet in Latvia!
We crossed over to the riverside again, to near the bus stop on 11 Novembra Krastmala, taking in views of the frozen Daugava and the National library again. This time we walked along the promenade to the Red warehouses and the Market Pavilions. We needed our COVID passes to scan in for the markets (we had needed them for all the restaurants and coffee places we had entered in Riga. Not just sight of the paper like we had in Tallinn a few weeks ago, but they actually have to scan properly. The UK passes after 1 November, scan smoothly. Use the QR code of the second vaccine).
The market pavilions were emptyish and there was very little seating arrangement for food and drink. So we found an empty space and made space for ourselves to have coffee, pastries and cake.
We then headed to the Academy of Sciences which offers a 360-degree panorama of Riga from its 17th floor. Lifts go up to the 15th floor and then you walk up another 2 flights of steps. The views are absolutely worth it- stunning. The roof tops were sparkling with snow in the sun. On one building, we watched a chunk dramatically slide off and crash below in a powdery explosion. The old town with its numerous church steeples spreads out like a map. In fact, we could chart out our morning’s walk through the city like tracing a giant map. (St Peter’s Church is usually noted to be the best place for a Riga panorama, but it was closed on a Monday. Academy of Sciences however was very satisfying, and we could see the whole of the old Town including St Peters from there).
By the time we got out, it was late afternoon. Sunset was at 3:45 pm and the colours were already changing. The buildings were turning a deep rust red and the bridges across Daugava were glowing in the sun as were the pavilions of the market. We watched the sun go down on the river before turning back to the hotel to rest our tired feet and fill in our passenger locator forms for the UK
Just after 7 pm, we headed back to the Province for dinner again. This time dumplings, fish cake and pork roast, washed down with Kvass (rye bread drink. Tastes like coke with no sweet in it, I liked it). A dessert of crème Brule with a splash of Latvian Balsam. On the way back to the hotel we stopped at the musicians of Bremen sculpture. Not many people around. My husband and daughter took their turns at jumping high enough to touch all four noses. We hope the wishes for a safer 2022 come true. I am too short, so I kept the video record. We were a thoroughly satisfied trio who traipsed back to the hotel for the last time. We had walked just 300 steps short of 25000.
Next morning it was a leisurely breakfast and bus back to the airport. On the way back we noticed better the National library from up close and the district full of wooden houses. In the airport checks for COVID pass, COVID test and passenger locator forms before we were handed boarding passes.
Back to the UK, our PCR tests at the Luton airport walk in centre were a breeze.
We are now back home safely. Our tests came back negative within 24 hours. It has been a week and we are still reminiscing with pleasure.
Happy New Year.
Did you enjoy this issue?
Nandini Chakraborty

Stories from travel. There is nothing that teaches us more than human interaction, culture, and history. Travel breaks misconceptions, challenges assumptions and teaches us the true worth of this world of ours.

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