May weekend break. They say that the queue for Kasprowy is never-ending, they say there are crowds on Krupówki and in Mazuria lake district, and that you will find crowds instead of silence and peace in Bieszczady. Maybe for your next May weekend break or other popular, long weekend, you should choose a destination different than everybody else? An original, unique, unknown one, but still close enough to go there just like that for 2-5 days???
What about Latvia??? What do you really know about Latvia?? That its one of the Baltic States, usually mentioned breathlessly with Lithuania and Estonia, that its capitol is Riga, that it used to be a part of the Soviet Union. What else??? What to see there? What do they eat there? What are they famous for? That’s where you start to struggle! We didn’t know much about Latvia either, that’s why we were immediately intrigued by the invitation sent to us by Latvia Travel! Let’s go and find out something more!
Compared to Poland, Latvia is tiny – it has about 2 million residents and about 60 percent of them are Latvian and over 25% are Russian! Russian people were deported to Latvia during the times of the Soviet Union and they make up to 40% of residents in some regions even now. Official language is Latvian, even though the Russian minority was fighting for their language to be one as well. If you know Russian, you’ll be able to talk to people – they speak Russian better than English, and when they hear Polish, they start speaking Russian like our cab driver, who started reminiscing abut Szarik’s dog and Czterej Pancerni. Since 2014, Euro is Latvia’s currency.
A few fun facts about Latvia (they say Latvian know much more about Poles than Poles know about Latvian;):
1)they celebrate their independance soon after we do – they got it back on the 18th of November 1918
2) they support equal rights – 41% managers of high significance are women, which makes them second in the world!!!
3) American painter Mark Rothko came from Latvia
4) in 2004 they became a part of NATO and UE
5) second “biggest” town in Latvia is only 87 thousand residents – it’s Daugavpils
6) their coast is almost 500 kilometeres long – 498 to be exact 🙂
7)…. and 2 256 lakes!
8) they’re one of the most multilingual countries in Europe – 95% know at least one foreign language and 55% know at least 2 foreign languages
9) 2,2% of its residents are Poles
You should start sightseeing in Riga, where one third of Latvia’s residents live!
Riga. We didn’t really know what to expect. We silently wanted to see a mix of Vilnius and Tallinn. One the one hand Tallinn impressed us with its magic, mystery, postindustrial climate, on the other hand I felt like eating Lithuanian potato cuisine and I was hoping Latvia would be similar. Riga welcomed us with sun, strongly relaxing climate, parks, the green, pleasant old town and a lazy cruise around Riga’s center and on the River Daugava.
FREEDOM MONUMENT, ESPLANADE, THE NATIVITY OF CHRIST CATHEDRAL…
It’s best to start exploring the town by the Freedom Monument – it’s the best landmark! The monument was built it 1935 as a tribute to those who had died while fighting for Latvia’s independency between 1918 and 1920. It’s located right where Peter the Great’s statue used to be. When the Soviet Union was still a thing, authorities wanted to blow the statue up, but it stayed where it stood eventually, but as a sign of counterbalance, Lenin’s statue was built on the other side of the boulevard – luckily it’s gone by now (it was destroyed in 1991), and the current one symbolizes independency and Latvia’s unity.
You will get to most of Riga’s attractions by feet, or you could go on a cruise or a drive by two-story bus.
Right next to the Freedom Monument you will find one of the Old Town’s main streets, a nice park with canals on which boats mentioned above swim. A little bit further you will find Esplanade Park with the impressive Nativity of Christ Cathedral. The cathedral was built by the end of the 19th century – at first it was Orthodox, then, during the World War I, it turned into a Lutheran community church. In 1921 it once again became an important place for the Orthodox. In the 60’s, the Soviet Union’s authorities closed the Orthodox church and created a planetarium inside!!! Luckily it was opened once again in 1991 in independent Latvia. Today it’s one of the biggest Orthodox cathedrals in the Baltic states – the shining, gold dome immediately catches your attention. You should go inside and see how everything’s gold and how there are Orthodox icons everywhere. The cathedral is surrounded by a nice park – if you’re traveling with a kid, the playground and trampolines are mandatory 🙂
BOAT TOUR THROUGH RIGA…
If you’re by the Freedom Monument, you can go explore the Old Town or pick a boat cruise. It swims on a small canal through the park in the city centre and then it swims on to the River Daugava. The cruise is about one hour long, it doesn’t cost a little (18 Euros per person, children don’t pay), but it will really let you see every single one of Riga’s attractions. Maks was the one voting for the cruise, so we decided to go for it for him!
The boat swims reeeaaally slow, so you can see everything. First of all, you’ll see the National Opera, a few nice views of the park and then you will swim through a tunnel and arrive right by Centraltirgus, which is a bunch of bazaars that have been here since 1930. Their history is pretty amazing because they were built somewhere else (by Liepāja) for a completely different purpose (as hangars for zeppelins used during the World War I). After the war was over, in 1926 they were moved to Riga. In the 30’s, they were some of the biggest and most modern halls of this kind.
Today they have 3000 stands with groceries and local treats there. Everyday they are visited by 80-100 thousand people! At first, we looked at the halls from the outside, from the boat, and on Monday morning we went inside. What’s so characteristic about them, each hall is for something else – meat, cheeses, fruits and vegetables, fish. We were most intrigued by the ones with bread, Uzbekisant’s cuisine and a huuuuuge fish hall! You’ll never find so much raw and smoked fish in our country!!! While walking around the halls, you will definitely see a building similar to Warsaw’s Palace of Culture and Science on the horizon – it’s Academy of Sciences of Latvia, built in the 50’s in a style typical in those times.
Then the boat swims onto the River Daugava, right next to pretty picturesque railway bridge… during your trip you will see National Library of Latvia‘s modern building (built in 2014), but the Old Town’s panorama and Riga Castle will catch most of your attention. Back in the day it was the Livonian Brothers of the Sword’s headquarters. There was a time when even Stephen Báthory resided there. Since 1995 the castle has been the headquarters of Latvia’s president. There are also some museums inside. When the boat reaches ferry slip, it takes a turn, swims through a small yacht club and we find ourselves again in the picturesque, green park…
By the time our cruise is done, we’ve had seen most of Riga’s attractions from afar – it’s time to get close to them. We’re about to see the Old Town.
RIGA – OLD TOWN
Riga’s Old Town is a key point – you will find listed buildings most worthy of your time right here. The Old Town is on UNESCO’s World Heritage Site. Riga’s Old Town is not as magical and mysterious as the one in Tallinn, sometimes it even looks like ours, although it has a lot of characteristic red brick building, like a huge cathedral or St. Peter’s Church with a tower that stands out in Riga’s scenery. It’s nice to walk through the Old Town both during the day and in the evening, when it becomes empty and the streets get their climate.
On our way to the Freedom Monument, we come across Livu laukums square – small, but full of life. There’s a cafe, a restaurants, doves, stands with local products. Then we go towards St. Peter’s Church – the most important church in medieval Riga, which has existed since 1209. There’s a vantage point on its tower, so you can climb upstairs and see the Old Town from there. Not so far away there is also the picturesque House of the Blackheads, built in the 14th century by German merchants, destroyed during the World War II and rebuilt not that long ago – by the end of the 90’s. Latvia’s president has been working here since 2012 regarding the castle’s renovation.
One of the nicer squares in the Old Town is the one next to the Dome Cathedral built in 1211. The cathedral is the biggest medieval church in the Baltic states, and right in front of it you will see Art Museum “Riga Bourse”, which has been placed in the stock market’s old headquarters. Cafes haven’t put their tables outside yet, but they’re getting ready to do that for summer. A lot of people, someone’s blowing bubbles, kids are running, Maks being one of them. Sunday relax. From here it’s not far to the brick Pulvertornis which is a part of Latvia’s War Museum.
WHERE TO EAT?
In the Old Town it’s good to take a break from exploring and eat lunch or dinner in Niklavs. It’s a nice, modern place with two menus – international and typical Latvian one. As soon as you get here, you will see that a lot of dishes are similar to ours. They have potato pancakes (very good!), herrings, dock soup, some meat, hock. We are most touched by traditional Latvian drinks – kefir, camomile and mint tea. Feels like home!!! 🙂 You definitely need to taste fried herring with potatoes and cottage cheese! Yummy! We’re off to look for traditional Latvian cuisine in Latgale… We already know that a lot of dishes taste veeeery similar. We’ll see what’s next for us! 🙂 To be continued…
WHERE TO LIVE?
Where to live, you’d ask? We lived in Albert Hotel and we were very happy – good localization, a few steps away from Esplanade Park, which is very close to the Freedom Monument and to the Old Town. They have big, delicious breakfasts and a nice bar on the 10th floor with a view over Riga.