|October 28, 2010
Leaving Estonia was a bit of a drag, not least because we’d had fun here but also because we had to be up at 5am to catch a bus just after 6! It was a bit of an effort but once we were at the bus station the bus stop was easy to find and we were soon onboard and I was asleep!
The bus to Riga was about 4 hours and we had a short walk to get to the hostel. We didn’t exactly take the shortest or quickest route but we found it easily and got checked in, although we had to just hang out for a while until room was ready. We were both starving by lunchtime so after dumping our bags we went looking for food. I’m ashamed to say that the most appealing place we saw was an Irish bar and we didn’t hesitate in leaping right on in and tucking into a large burger! We did try two local beers though called Zelta and Bauska. Even when we aren’t being overly adventurous we’re still drinking the local brews!
The afternoon is not much to write about as all we did was laze around and take an afternoon nap before heading out for dinner. The hostel was having a karaoke night at one of the local bars but Friday night was their pub crawl night and we decided to save our energies for that! We went out for dinner looking for a particular bar to try some local food but we couldn’t find it, or it wasn’t where it was supposed to be, so we walked around for a while and found a place called Province, which sounded a little French but was actually serving local food. Similar in style to some of the Estonian food we had, I had a potato, cheese and bacon dish and Elizabeth had black peas and bacon. I wasn’t so keen on her dish but mine was yummy – honestly, how can you go wrong with a huge pile of potatoes and bacon smeared with melted cheese?!
October 29, 2010
After the laziness of yesterday we sure made up for it today with a walk around the city which pretty much covered the whole of the old town and bits beyond! Leaving from our hostel we first went past the St John’s church, with a quite strange looking stepped roof, and the nearby massive St Peter’s church which, dating from the 13th Century, is one of the oldest in the Baltic region. Around the corner from these two churches was the tourist information office and we stopped to pick up a couple of more detailed maps. The old town is full of tiny little streets and un-marked side streets and so we thought the more maps we had the more chance we had of finding anything! The tourist information centre was inside a building known as the House of the Blackheads, which has nothing to do with teenage acne as far as I’m aware. The ornate exterior and décor of this building date back to the 14th century and is actually so-called because it was used by the Blackhead’s Society. It was destroyed during WWII but has been completely rebuilt from the original design and style since 1995. The building was really impressive and it was difficult to tell it is only 10 years old as it certainly looks a lot older!
Just opposite the House of the Blackheads was the Museum of the Occupation of Lativa. This talks about the 51 years of occupation of Latvia from 1940 to 1991 and goes through the Soviet occupation for the first couple of years, the Nazis for the next 3 to 4 years and then 45 years of Soviet rule. The displays were really good and talked about how the various groups of people were affected by the occupations. At the start of the German occupation, the Germans found a number of mass graves and these bodies were exhumed by the Nazis and almost “displayed” to the country as a way of showing them that they were not as bad as the previous Soviet rulers. The most interesting displays for me were the ones talking about the end of the Second World War when the Soviets again marched through the Baltic States and claimed them as their own. The German propaganda had stated that around 150,000 Germans would move to Latvia after the war to help “Germanise” them and this wasn’t taken to kindly by the locals. However, in the years following the war under Soviet rule, over 700,000 Russians moved into Latvia and a lot of culture and language was banished from daily use, being kept alive almost solely by underground nationalist groups. The Russians also got preferential treatment with regard to jobs and housing. As a result, some of the displays here talk of the fact that many Latvians would’ve preferred the Germans to have stayed rather than the Soviets. It was interesting to think that after all that the Nazis did to so many groups of people around Europe that there were and are still some people who were better off under them than other regimes. The agreements between Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin were really highlighted here as the Baltic States still see this joining of forces as the main reason they ended back in Soviet hands. At the Yalta conference, these three heads of state drew up plans for how post-war Europe should be divided, the main intent being that everything should revert to how it was pre-Nazi with Germany split between various occupying forces. The Baltic States assumed this would mean they would regain their full independence but Stalin thought differently and as there was no mention of them within the Yalta agreement, they were annoyed that Churchill and Roosevelt had “hung them out to dry”. Churchill later stated it was not his intent to leave these nations under Soviet rule and pushed for their independence but it took some 40 more years for this to arrive. The US in fact never officially recognised Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia as part of the Soviet Socialist Republic and always considered them as independent nations.
We stopped for a quick pasta lunch at a small café before continuing around the city. The next stop was the Large and Small Guild where much of the trade in the city was carried out and the “Cat’s” house, a building known solely for the two cats which adorn the two ends of the roof. The owner of this building, a rich Latvian dealer, had not been accepted into the Large Guild and in protest he purchased the opposite house and placed two cats on the roof, both of them with their rear ends facing the Guild. The offence caused by the cats was such that the city council ordered the cats to be turned around so that their heads were facing the opposing building!
The next stop was the Freedom monument just across the river before crossing back and walking through the small area of park alongside it. As we went to cross the road there was a really cool building with a whole range of shields on the side. I’ve no idea what this was but I assume it is the different city seals from around Latvia. Down another small street from here was the Powder Tower which was originally part of the city walls in the 14th century and was later used to store gunpowder. All around the city are a number of buildings designed and built in the art nouveau style and we saw lots of these on the streets around the Powder Tower. They were all extravagantly decorated and the difference between those that had been restored and those that hadn’t was pretty obvious! Even though the designs still showed through on the un-restored buildings, the colours and details just weren’t as spectacular. We passed one row with 4 or 5 restored buildings on each side and it looked very impressive.
The next stop on the seemingly endless stroll was the Dome Cathedral which sat slap bang in the middle of one of the big squares. The roof was adorned with, you guessed it, a dome or two and we had seen this cathedral from a few different spots around the city already. Next up was the “Three brothers” houses, a row of three houses which are particularly old and have been restored to maintain them. Even in a city of old buildings, many of them aren’t actually that old having been rebuilt after the Russian occupation but these buildings are just about original!
Down at the riverside we saw the Riga Castle and just in front of it was a statue of St. Kristaps, the founding saint of city. His story tells how he rescued a child by holding him above his head and carrying him across the river and for that reason, and probably a bit more detail, he is known as the city founder and local hero. And has a great name.
We headed back to the hostel and arrived just in time for happy hour and so we hung out there for a few beers and got to chat to a fair number of people staying there, mostly Aussies, Kiwis and Brits but also the couple of Latvian girls who worked at the hostel, too. Tonight was the pub crawl so once happy hour finished we had an hour before the drinking really began so made the most of the break to head around the corner and grab a kebab for our pre-drinking meal!
The pub crawl started with four different shots at the hostel and then we ventured out into the town, starting at a really crap Irish bar. It was quite busy but the thing that made it so bad was the Kiwi at the front holding the guitar and blurting out songs for the bar patrons to try and decipher. He was so out of tune it was unbelievable (we later found out he’d been going round the hostels offering to do some live songs for them for the tiny price of $400 per hour!). After we got moving around the next couple of bars we lost our bearings a bit and I don’t remember much except that the last place did beer for 0.70 Lats, about $1.40! It was almost 4am by the time we got back to the hostel and we were one of the first ones back – the last bar we were in wasn’t the same one as most people as we’d managed to lose them! We spent most of the night chatting to a couple of German girls called Katrin and Alex, an English couple called Chris and Sarah and an Aussie called Jay and we both had a great night but…
October 30, 2010
We both woke up with really bad hangovers and didn’t do a single thing in the morning. We were booked to do bobsledding tonight and in an attempt to get ourselves back to normal we dragged ourselves back to the Irish burger place for another burger but this time accompanied by just a coke! Elizabeth barely touched her burger as she felt sick so after we were done we walked back to the hostel and went back to bed. We had to get up though as at 5pm we were leaving to do the bobsled!
There was a small group of us doing the bobsledding – Mat from Australia, Hank from Texas, Elina the Latvian girl from the hostel and the two of us. We’d all been out last night apart from Hank and were all suffering! It was an hour or so drive to Sigulda where the bobsled track was and we were taken there by Jarrod, the owner of the Naughty Squirrel Hostel where we were staying. It was quite a fun ride as everyone was chatty and telling stories, including a couple of funny ones involving a naked Belgian locking himself out of his room last night and peeing in the stairwell! Sure it wasn’t funny for the cleaners but Jarrod found it funny seeing the guy wearing just a sock!
When we arrived at the bobsled track we had a wait while some of the proper sportsmen practiced. These tracks are quite rare around the world and we saw athletes from Russia, Poland and Ukraine all doing practice runs. The weather had just cooled enough so that the track was winter ready and so many national teams, including Olympic athletes, had come for their first winter training session on ice. We didn’t see any bobsled teams go but we saw a load of people going down on the luge. On TV these things look dangerous and in real life they look no different. We’d be reaching speeds of about 140km/h on our trip but at least we had some protection from the bobsled itself! Before we knew it our time had come and we were kitted out in just a helmet and met by our Latvian Olympian pilot. I went at the back, Hank was in front on me and Elizabeth was behind the driver. After the shortest safety briefing ever (neck straight, don’t let forward, don’t lean back, hold on tight) the driver climbed in and before we knew it we were being shoved down the track.
The first straight and corner didn’t feel too bad but as the bob gathered pace the corners seemed to appear thick and fast, twisting one way and then the other. It was an awesome hangover cure and just when you thought it was over you got the big one! We had a nice long straight during which I actually got a decent view of the track ahead and whilst I was enjoying the ride the thought did occur to me that there was something resembling a bend up ahead. All of a sudden we were thrown around this corner and the G-forces really hit. The force, about 4G, really made your neck feel squashed up and as we exited the final bend and slowed we were all in a bit of a daze. Hangover or not, I think my brain had decided to get out half way down and it took a good 20 seconds or so for it to catch up with me again! The whole run had taken under 40 seconds but it seemed much quicker and I was so pumped after it, the adrenalin soon removing any trace of a hangover. Unfortunately, once the adrenalin went, the hangover returned but the sheer thrill of the ride was still strong in my memory!
Back at the hostel we decided to go and grab some dinner, feeling like we both still needed a real hangover cure and so we went for a pizza. We hadn’t exactly tried much local food so far here (pizza, kebab and burger twice!) but we’ve had a lot of fun so we’ll let that slide! After two very good spicy pizzas, we had an early night because we hadn’t slept enough during the day!
October 31, 2010
We had a plan for today but it didn’t start until the afternoon so we just lazed around in the morning, getting up briefly only to buy stamps. We were planning on going to see the football in the afternoon and I’d managed to persuade a couple of other people to come with us, too.
The match we were going to see was between Skonto Riga and Ventspils in the Latvian League. These two teams were first and second in the standings and there wasn’t too many more matches left until the end of the season. We left the hostel just after 1pm and made our way to the stadium, a 30 minute or so walk across the city and when we reached the ground I was reasonably impressed by how, well, modern it seemed. We got to the main entrance and joined the first queue we saw and when we reached the front I asked how much tickets were. The lady behind the desk looked at me rather strangely and said “For the dog show?” We’d noticed a lot of dogs around but didn’t think much of it but when I replied we were coming to the football she just pointed us straight into the stands. The girl at the hostel had told us it was free but we hadn’t really believed her! Who gives away free entry to a top of the table clash?! More amusingly, the cost to get into the dog show was 3Lts – about $6!!!
There was a decent enough crowd although the stand opposite us was empty. To our left, a small group of Riga fans had formed and were singing and to the right the away fans, from Ventspils, were being very loud and had their flags waving. Prior to the match we were treated to a troupe of cheerleaders dressed in tiny shorts and giving it “their all” for the crowd. I think I took more pictures of them than I did of the game itself!
But the game was pretty good, too. Ventspils took the lead but before half-time Riga equalized. This goal was especially good as the woman in front of us was going crazy. She was obviously a Riga fan but she soon turned to us and told us proudly that it was her son who had scored the goal! Now her reaction was even more understandable!
At half-time we hung around to watch some more of the cheerleaders before joining the queue for beer and hotdogs. As a Palace fan we often complain about the service but it took us over 20 minutes to get served as they had to cook more sausages and by the time we got back to the stand we had missed Ventspils scoring a second to go 2-1 ahead. However, about 15 minutes from the end a brilliant header drew Riga level. As the game neared its conclusion the Ventspils fans unrolled a huge banner and lit a load of flares. The smoke was so thick the referee had to stop the game for a few minutes! Their banner was in Russian but it roughly translated to a message to the players saying they were proud of them for their efforts. At the end of the game the Riga players rushed the field and it became apparent that the 2-2 draw meant Riga had won the league! We even got to see more flares, a crap firework display and the Skonto players lifting the league trophy! It was all quite amusing in the end but it was great that the game had some real meaning. The two guys with us, Chris and Jay, hadn’t been to a football match before and couldn’t believe the crazy fans and flares and such like. Even I thought it was quite amusing and even though the crowd was small the atmosphere was fun and we celebrated with the locals!
For anyone wanting more, see this link which includes a video of the match! Seems the goal we missed was a beauty!
After the match we went to the Skyline Bar for some drinks and views over city. We got there just after 4pm and it was perfectly timed to see the sunset. The two German girls, Katrin and Alez, met us up there and we stayed for a couple of drinks before heading to a place called Lido for dinner. Lido is a traditional style Latvian canteen and I was able to get a massive plate of potatoes with cabbage rolls stuffed with meat and covered in a cheesy sauce! I wasn’t allowed vegetables though as apparently my plate was too full. Oh well, meat and spuds are good enough for me, plus I did have cabbage! The food was unbelievably cheap here, too and even better was that we timed our return to the hostel to coincide with happy hour! Chris commented that my timings today had been excellent – the local team won the league, we saw sunset from the Skyline Bar and we got back in time for cheap beer! We sat and chatted and had a few more drinks before bed but soon enough we decided we should sleep. Riga is obviously an ideal weekend retreat because all of us were leaving here tomorrow!
We’d only had three full days in Riga but it was really good fun. The old town is great, the drinking and local food was good, the bobsledding was amazing, the football was a lot of fun and we’d met a load more fun people along the way. In many ways our timing has once again been good as we’ve hit the main cities (Tallinn and Riga) at the weekends and, thankfully, the same goes for Vilnius and then Warsaw in the next two weekends (and Kyiv and Krakow after that, too, but don’t let me lead you into thinking I’d planned that)! Even better is that I want to go to the football in Warsaw, Kyiv and Krakow and there is a chance Elizabeth might even let me!