a unique perspective on this crazy world

I spent most of my time in the Baltics sleep-deprived but that will happen when you are in a time zone nine hours ahead and trying to cram as many activities as possible into a whistle stop tour.  That does mean, though, there are plenty of stories and recommendations.  I may have arrived in Riga in a state of exhaustion but the blue skies and fresh air quickly perked me up.

My explorations were a bit haphazard so I am going to group my adventures rather than documenting them chronologically.  Riga is divided into an (very old) Old Town and a (not so new) New Town.  Both are spectacular and evidence of the prosperity of the Hanseatic League.

quite the frat house

Will start in the Old Town since it came first.  The best place to start your tour is Rătslaukums, the Town Square.  It`s a large medieval square that will take you back to 1344 and the Blackheads House, a fraternity house for unmarried German merchants.  Astonishingly, the original building was flattened by the Soviets but the original blueprints survived and what you will see is an exact replica completed in 2001 for Riga`s 800th birthday.

Another noteworthy structure is St Peter`s Church.  It`s a Gothic

join a different era

church with a spire that is part of the Riga skyline, yet another structure destroyed and rebuilt.  It`s thought to be about 800 years old and one of the oldest medieval buildings in the Baltics.  There is an observation platform, which provides a spectacular view of pretty Riga.

The largest church in Riga is also the largest medieval church in the Baltics.  It`s the Riga Cathedral, founded in 1211 as a Catholic church but now

the famous brothers

Lutheran.  Nearby are the Three Brothers, three old stone houses that showcase Riga`s architectural delights.  No. 17 is over 600 years old, making it the oldest house in town.

Another place to check out is the Cat House.  The cat became a symbol of Riga and you will see it on various souvenirs.  Local legend is that the building`s owner was rejected from the Great

one of the infamous cats

Guild across the street and his revenge was to point the cats`butts toward the hall.  The members of the guild were outraged and, after a lengthy court battle, the merchant was admitted into the club on condition that the cats be turned in the opposite direction.

While these are some of the most spectacular buildings, it is rewarding just to wander Old Riga at random, imagining you are in another era – but with food and drink from a very 21st century and a region that boasts lots of great local ingredients.

It`s also a good place to shop for souvenirs.  The big thing in this part of the world is amber, which is definitely worth checking out.  There are also great textiles and some funky costume jewelry.  I now own earrings sporting the Riga Cat House cats 🙂

While you may feel like you are in medieval times, it`s a Disney style medieval world – cute but with all the modern conveniences…

 

 

 

Not surprisingly, I spend a lot of time reading about travel and am especially intrigued about new and emerging destinations so I knew about Riga for many years before my plane actually landed at Riga International Airport.  I had been told Riga was cool, contemporary and stunning.  It was a tough bill to live up to so I was prepared to be disappointed.

small city splendour

To my delight, the experience proved to be the exact opposite.  If you haven’t been reading about Riga, you might not know exactly where I was – in the capital of Latvia, on my first journey to the Baltics.  It was the closest I had been at that point to Russia.  It was part of the USSR until 1991 and shares a border with Russia.  Early Latvians were called “Baltic Vikings” and they were pagans.

They lived in a strategically important port on the Baltic Sea, however, so there was little chance of the big European powers leaving them alone.  While you may not have heard of Riga, it has had its moment in the sun at various times in the past and, as a result, there is an incredible wealth of architecture for such a small city.

Prosperity really ramped up with the Hanseatic League.  Riga became a principal trading center and attracted the attention of the key players in the region.  The borders have changed but modern day Germany, Poland, Sweden and Russia all threw their weight around trying to expand their empires.  In the eighteenth century, Russia won the contest and Latvia became one of the most developed parts of the Russian Empire.  Independence was granted after World War I but it didn’t last long.

Latvia is now part of the European Union and uses the euro and you will find an optimism and enthusiasm in the new generation.  Embrace both the old and the new.  You can walk through most of Riga and you will be richly rewarded for your efforts.  There are charming side streets, hidden architectural gems and fresh air and green spaces that will surprise your senses.

I visited the Baltics in September.  I think I got lucky with blue skies and lovely temperatures but it is not a bad time to visit as it is just outside the big summer

tourist season.  I stayed at the Avalon Hotel, which still seems to have great deals.  I even got a complimentary dinner with a charming server!

floral dreamscape

hungry?

It’s located just across the street from the Riga Central Market, which is actually Europe’s largest!  A lot of it is housed in aircraft hangers.  It’s a great place to shop for food and souvenirs but what is most impressive are the flowers.

The hotel is also on the edge of the Old Town and an easy walk from the Art Deco splendours of early modern Riga.  The Baltics prove the rewards of venturing off the beaten path…

Stay tuned – more to come…

 

my dexter moment ;)

finally, some time to continue with the travel stories…

The Aubrey is very close to Parque Metropoliano where you can see the entire city and ride on a vintage funicular.  It’s definitely worth doing but Santiago is

not LA 😉

famous for smog so the view might not be as spectacular as you were hoping.  If the view disappoints, you can still enjoy the spectacular religious statues.  Latin America is a very Catholic place so there is lots of religious symbolism in unexpected places.  The funicular is a great transport back in time.  From the top of the hill, you can see the sprawl of increasingly modern Santiago.  It’s also a park so pleasant to walk around for a little while before heading back down to the city streets.

the better view…

It’s always a bit odd celebrating your birthday alone, especially in a city where you don’t speak the language.  It can feel lonely but I’ve learned to push myself and engage with strangers and try new things and every foreign birthday has turned into a magical experience full of serendipity and experiences I would never have had staying home where everything is easy and familiar.  This one was no different 🙂

a fun way to get to the top

The day was fairly quiet.  After I’d had my overview of the city, I went back to the Aubrey for the free afternoon tea.  It wasn’t too elaborate but I did get a cup of tea and cake.  Then I headed back to my old ‘hood, Lastarria, for the ice cream indulgence that had become part of my Santiago routine.  It was my birthday – I could have cake AND ice cream 😉  The ice cream shop is called Sociedad Emporio La Rosa, The ice cream is sublime and it seems to be a Santiago institution so be prepared for a line – but it’s worth the wait!

There is also a sort of informal street market in Lastarria so added more quirky locally made costume jewelry to my collection.  Santiago’s weather (in March at least) is interesting as it starts quite cool, the heat rises to a climax in late afternoon and then cools down for the evening.  It’s a pretty great climate for tourists but I started showering before dinner as that made the most sense.  Tonight I was going to be more adventurous and my plan was to get to the W Hotel in time for sunset.

The W Hotel is in the Las Condes neighborhood, in an area referred to as Sanhattan.  It’s the kind of thing I normally avoid when I travel.  I want to see a foreign culture, not a new approximation of my own culture.  I do try to be open-minded as well.  It’s easy as someone growing up in the very prosperous G7 to want other countries to stay quaint for my tourist photos but it’s not very fair so I am welcoming of development that improves the lives of local citizens in emerging economies.  Of course, totally achieving that goal, especially for all the citizens, is inevitably a challenging endeavour.

I felt a bit guilty after my night hanging out with the Marxists but my guidebook said the W had a spectacular rooftop bar/restaurant where you could watch the sun set over the Andes from the most spectacular setting in Santiago.  It seemed the right place to celebrate your birthday solo.  The sunset could be my dinner companion.

Normally I try not to stray too far from my hotel in a foreign city where few people speak English.  Ideally, I can walk back to the hotel if necessary.  While my passport fiasco is still costing me money and grief (do not decide you have lost your passport when you have merely put it in a different place :)), it had unexpected benefits as unexpected events in life often do.  Since I had to spend so much time going from Lastarria to the Canadian embassy and it was an expensive taxi ride, I bought a bip! card and learned how to use the metro.  It works really well and I would highly recommend this to visitors.

According to the map, the W Hotel was not far from the Canadian embassy so I should be able to find it easily, which indeed was the case.  Finding the W was easy.  Finding the rooftop restaurant proved a lot more challenging but I finally asked for help and got seated in time for sunset.

If you are into sunsets, I would highly recommend a visit to Canada.  I think it’s because the country is so far north.  I am always up for a sunset but I don’t think I’ve ever seen one more spectacular than the ones I’ve seen in Canada.  I am still thrilled when by accident I happen to look out the window at sunrise or sunset and see a particularly fantastic one.  So, you SHOULD go to the W for the sunset but it may not thrill you 🙂

It is a spectacular setting though and the food and drink is of a high standard.  You may want to avoid red wine though…

First, I need to set the scene.  For some reason, the outdoor balcony of the W is filled with white plastic.  Everything is white and most is plastic.  Perhaps it’s because of the red wine glasses…

I am a bit of a klutz but I don’t spill things that often.  I have great reflexes from so many almost tumbles so can normally compensate and impress others 🙂  I could tell there might be trouble as the glass was poorly engineered.  When I held it, the top felt way too heavy for the thin stem.  I’d finished my meal and was going to finish the red wine and then head back to Bellavista.  But it was not to be.  I felt the glass tipping over but the top was too heavy to stop it from gravity and seconds later there was red wine and shattered glass everywhere.  Since everything was white and either plastic or concrete, the glass broke spectacularly and it was impossible to hide my clumsiness.

The staff were spectacular and moved me to another table away from the scene of the crime while they cleaned up my mess.  It seemed rude after all their effort to leave so I ordered another glass of wine.  This time I made sure to sip very carefully and secure it on the table between sips rather than holding it in my hand.

It seemed a spectacularly bad end to my Chilean birthday but making a scene got me noticed by a couple of gentlemen at another table who told the server they wanted to buy me another glass of wine.  I ended up joining them and having another conversation involving broken English and mobile phone translation apps.  They were businessmen from the gorgeous city of Valencia in Spain and came to Santiago regularly.  They were quite excited that it was my birthday and creating a scene ended up meaning another memorable birthday in a foreign city.

p.s. Also wanted to include a shout-out to Barrica 94 if you are interested in Chilean wine.  There aren’t many wine bars yet in Chile so it’s hard to try a lot of things if you are only ordering a glass but here it is different as the owner has some American influence.  It’s in a complex that I initially wrote off as too commercial but my visit here on my last day in Chile proved that you shouldn’t be a snob 🙂

hipster heaven

p.p.s.  It’s also good to explore new neighborhoods.  Brasil was full of friendly people who didn’t speak English and Barrio Italia would satisfy any hipster seeking quirky artisanal goods and services 😉

 

 

trying to be cool :)

I grew up as one of those geeky egg-head types who didn’t care if I was cool.  I absolutely was not!  Over the years, though, both the world and I changed significantly so I have had accidental moments of coolness and have a lot better instincts.

While I still love Argentina and want to return at some point, I was really happy to see Santiago again!  Since it was my birthday, I splurged on an even swankier hotel for my last few days in Chile.  Not five star chain swank but rather super cool entrepreneur-run boutique hotel in trendy neighborhood.

nicer than my real home |:)

The Aubrey is set in a 1927 family mansion lovingly restored by an ex-pat couple.  It’s especially well-suited to couples.  It has a bit of a gated community feel, which I found a bit unsettling but it’s located in Bellavista, which is possibly the most fun neighbourhood.  It felt perfectly

bellavista

safe and the gate seemed unnecessary.  It’s a gorgeous space and you get wonderful staff, free breakfast and some other perks like a welcome cocktail.

fancy some seafood?

I finally made it to the Fish Market.  You can walk from Bellavista and I would recommend it as you will see the history of Santiago, from the colonial era treasures through the fin de siècle opulence to the shiny glass surfaces of prosperous, modern Chile.  The Mercado Central is a zoo but definitely worth checking out.  One lovely fishmonger even took a tourist photo for me.  It’s also close to the Plaza de Armas.

Nearby is the Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino, a

shiny objects from the past

definite must-see for anyone interested in history or anthropology.  The exhibits are well curated and there are all sorts of ancient treasures where you can learn about the indigenous tribes of Chile and the Americas.

All the walking meant a few blisters but I sucked it up and walked the streets a bit in the evening to try and find something interesting.  In the Latin world, the night starts late so that can be challenging as a tourist.  I finally settled on La Casa en el Aire.  The friendly tout outside assured me there would be music and that is a great choice when you are travelling alone.  He didn’t lie and the featured artist was very good so it seemed an excellent way to spend the night before my birthday.

I was fine sitting alone and enjoying the music and my pisco sour but a woman spotted me and came over to ask if I was alone.  She then invited me to join her and her friend.  They were both lovely and it meant that my birthday started at midnight on a spectacular note.  Melissa spoke English but her friend did not so we used her mobile phone and a translation app to have a pretty sophisticated conversation.  The ways of the modern world 🙂

Her boyfriend was at an Iron Maiden concert so they had come out instead to listen to Cuban music.  I would be in Cuba a short time later so it was especially poignant.  And they were both Marxists!  How many Marxists do you meet these days?  But Marxism brought benefits to Chile so it was intriguing to see it was still part of local politics.

We hugged on the street and I thanked them for such an amazing night.  One of the greatest things I have learned from travel is how many kind, friendly, interesting people there are in the world.  This seems especially true in Latin America.

It’s an excellent place to celebrate your birthday!

We are jumping continents again… back to finish my South America adventures…

Argentina was the first country I visited in South America.  The trip had an unusual origin.  I invited a friend who had just come back from a five month sabbatical in South America to a wine dinner with some Aussie friends.  They asked him his favourite country and he replied Argentina.  At that point I had never been to South America.  It was my missing continent so when my Australian friend decided we should go, I was in.  She was married so we only had 10 days since she was leaving her husband at home in Canada.

That’s when I discovered Argentina is the eighth largest country in the world!  So we wouldn’t be seeing all of it in 10 days… I decided we could spend some time in Buenos Aires, drink wine in Mendoza and check out Iguazu Falls.  It was a magical trip.  What was most amazing is that the logistics mostly worked.  We never got to the Brazilian side of the falls (despite paying a hefty fee and enduring insane archaic bureaucracy to get a visa so we could spend a day in Brazil) because there was a strike…  There were also strikes and protests that meant we never got to eat steak as the strikers were blocking its delivery to restaurants.

part of the culture

Welcome to Argentina!  You should absolutely go!  Just recognize that it is the kind of place for which the term banana republic was created.  It’s a gorgeous country full of natural resources and some of the world’s most beautiful people.  Part of the reason Danny was so keen on Argentina was how many attractive people he met there.  I’m not sure what they put in the water but he was right 😉  While strikes and protests can mar your travel plans, there are lots of lovely people in Argentina.  You feel so sorry that their country is such a mess as they don’t deserve it.

My first trip was back in 2008 when the economy was only starting to recover from the most recent economic catastrophe so there were a lot of cynical Argentinians jealous of Chile.  Buenos Aires was once the Paris of South America and it was the 10th wealthiest nation per capita in 1913.  They did elect Macri and there is finally some hope.

That’s the Argentina that I visited the second time.  When you take the Australis ship you can do a return trip or you can go in one direction.  It’s very expensive and I didn’t get the sense I would see a lot more returning to Chile so chose the Punta Arenas – Ushuaia route.  Ushuaia bills itself as “The End of the World” as there is no population settlement further south anywhere in the world.  It’s where you go if you want to check out Antarctica (so I will likely be back at some point ;).

You likely want to spend the extra to get a transfer to your hotel when you leave the ship.  I was cheap and did not… it all looked easy on the map 🙂  It wasn’t very many blocks to drag my suitcase but what I hadn’t realized was that the entire journey would be on a steep incline with questionable infrastructure like sidewalks… I made it without succumbing to a taxi and the reward at the end of the journey made it very worthwhile.  I would highly recommend the Alto Andino Hotel.  It’s quite small, the staff are very friendly, there is a good breakfast and – the biggest treat – there are sweeping views of the mountains and the Beagle Channel from the top floor. On top of all that, I also had a Jacuzzi bath in my room.  Ushuaia is a small frontier town so it’s an easy walk (without a suitcase!) to find souvenirs, food or drink.  I did have an incredibly difficult time finding water, though. so you may want to pack some.

beautiful breakfast

Just to make sure I knew I wasn’t in Chile any longer, there was a giant protest!  Welcome to Argentina…  Didn’t do anything especially memorable in Ushuaia.  It’s really a transit hub – but it is in a gorgeous location so worth a day if you end up there on your way to somewhere else.

Getting back to Santiago was challenging.  There are only a couple of flights a day from Ushuaia to Buenos Aires so I spent hours at the airport.  It was one of the most abysmal airport experiences of my life.  I had far more fun drinking beer at the outdoor café in Arusha watching the tourist groups come and go and local Tanzanians hang out.  The food and entertainment options were extremely limited and the pizza I finally decided to try tasted like cardboard!  They made it fresh so I was hopeful but maybe they forgot the yeast… At least I didn’t have to switch airports!  LAN Argentina changed my flight several times and I had to call them to finally sort everything out to make sure I could connect to Santiago and what airport I needed.

Argentina is like a telenovela star.  Gorgeous –  but temperamental and difficult at times.  She drives you crazy but she is so seductive you can’t resist… The people of Argentina need your pesos.  Go and meet them.  You’ll fall in love…

 

czech nouveau riche

FINALLY…. writing something new… have been travelling a lot so definitely more to talk about – and had enough time to find the Prague photos!

As already noted, Prague has come a long way, baby… Luckily, there is still plenty you can do on a budget but, if you have a little more money to blow, it’s even more enchanting.  There are now boutique hotels and one of the best is Hotel Josef.  You can walk to many attractions and there is a metro stop a couple of blocks away if you want to do something more adventurous.  Included in the price of your room is a sumptuous breakfast.  On the plus side, you will likely do plenty of walking, some of it uphill, so you can indulge without guilt.

worth the walk

A great journey is to walk through the Old Town over the Charles Bridge (or a less famous one if you don’t like crowds) to Malá Strana.  It’s the baroque neighborhood near the castle.  It’s worth checking out St. Nicholas Church but even more interesting is just walking the medieval streets.  Nearby is Hradčany, the homeland of the support staff for the castle in medieval Prague.  The castle is the obvious draw but it’s also worth checking out the Loreta.

It’s a baroque place of pilgrimage.  It’s modelled on the Santa Casa in Loreto, Italy.  The Santa Casa is

how the aristocrats live

supposed to be the home of the Virgin Mary.  Dorothy wasn’t the only one to have magical journeys.  The Santa Casa was moved by angels to Croatia when the Turks threatened Nazareth.  When the Turks got close to Croatia, the angels delivered the house to Italy, finally landing in Loreto.  There are some impressive frescoes and a spectacular treasury.

One of the reasons Prague has become such a popular destination is that there is gorgeous architecture from all sorts of periods, especially older periods when elaborate, unnecessary details were standard fare.  This architectural splendour extends beyond tourist attractions.  The night I arrived I was dining alone and didn’t know the neighborhood yet so spent quite a while wandering the streets and was starting to worry there might not be a seat for me so decided I needed to make a decision.

art deco extravagance

Then I saw it… a stunning art deco building that looked to have empty seats.  Francouzska Restaurace.  The space is sublime.  The staff were friendly.  What was most impressive though was the food.  An exquisite meal at a great price, including foie gras terrine with chocolate, lobster bisque and champagne!  It was so fabulous I made a second visit with my Toronto friend.  He was equally impressed.

If you are more into beer than champagne, Prague is also wonderful.  Czech beer is world famous and they didn’t need to wait for the craft beer movement to start making great beer.  There is actually a place called the Prague Beer Museum, which is highly recommended.  Most fun is to do flights so you can try different styles before committing.

There is definitely nightlife, although a lot of it is low key and sometimes quirky.  In one nightclub, they showed a ski movie as part of the entertainment and the crowd was really into it.

artistic cerny

Quirky is definitely part of Prague’s character.  One of the best ways to experience that aspect of the Czech

not your average sculpture

identity is to seek out David Cerny’s sculptures.  I didn’t see them all.  An excuse for another trip to Prague?

There is no question Prague is a destination where one visit doesn’t seem enough…

 

If you have nostalgia for the 1980s – or you just appreciate quirky stuff – you definitely need to spend time in eastern Europe.  Many people think the 1980s were all about doing coke in the bathroom at Studio 54 or Limelight and providing free advertising for brands by wearing logo goods like a walking billboard.  Certainly that WAS part of the decade but that was not MY 1980s.  The 1980s were also a decade of great protest, recession and budget creativity.  People shopped in thrift stores (it wasn’t vintage back then, just cheap :)), they hung out in cheap neighborhoods that had not yet been gentrified and drank terrible draft beer that cost a dollar, they went to see movies for almost nothing in repertory cinemas.

For a lot of people it was a time when you did a lot with very little.  I met an artist on a trip to Vancouver because he liked the cheap white Keds that I had decorated with coloured markers when they started to get dirty so I wouldn’t need to buy a new pair.  I still remember the thrill sitting on the floor in a rundown building on Queen Street watching a Laurie Anderson video.  I met someone who had organized a poetry slam so I started going regularly to hear people read their work in a bare bones club.  It was astonishing how much fun you could have while having almost no money.

It’s hard to find that experience these days in North America or western Europe.  Almost everything is slick now and anything trendy gets copied across major cities much like the malls are now full of the same global brands.  So, if you want to find something quirky and original, you need to head to places that are not so gentrified.  One of the best times I’ve had this decade was when I revisited Berlin for the 20th anniversary of the wall coming down and discovered Mitte, which felt like I was back in 1980s North America with cheap beer and simple pop-up nightclubs that never seemed to close.

I would certainly highly encourage a visit to Berlin but Prague is probably quirkier these days.  We saw the tourist highlights I’ve already mentioned but we also spent a day doing stuff off the beaten path.  Our first stop was Vyšehvad.  There is a cathedral as well as a cemetery.  The cemetery is the resting place of many famous Czechs.  Normally I don’t see the appeal of cemeteries but this one is really worth checking out.  We didn’t know most of the luminaries but the architecture involved in some of the tributes was spectacular.

great view!

great view!

Our second stop was totally different in almost every aspect.  It was one of the highlights of the visit for me.  One thing you

what's up with those babes?

what’s up with those babes?

will find in eastern Europe is TV towers.  Most are worth visiting because they provide a spectacular viewpoint from which to observe the city.  The TV tower in Prague is a little extra special though.  It boasts a restaurant, a very fancy bar and even a hotel room if you want the full experience.  The other notable aspect is the David Cerny sculptures attached to it.  They were meant to be temporary but proved so popular they are now part of the tower.  Just what are those babies doing???  Looking for David Cerny sculptures is a Prague adventure I would highly encourage you to indulge in.

cheap creativity :)

cheap creativity 🙂

After checking out the view from the top of the TV Tower and trying absinthe in the bar, we headed for our final quirky destination – the Cross Club.  The Cross Club is a multicultural centre that took me back to the 1980s in a big way.  Everything seems built out of necessity with a limited budget.  The creative use of rebar is worth the visit alone.  There is also a restaurant, several bars and even a nightclub.  We did a little of everything.  It’s definitely more a destination if you’re in your 20s but it’s worth getting out of your comfort zone even if you are little more ancient and it definitely felt like we were in “real” Prague.

Prague is more real than Paris but parts of it are now firmly established on the global tourist circuit so, if you are the kind of person who wants to understand a place rather than just ticking off the sites on some pedestrian bucket list, do get off the beaten path… Prague is so great at the non-beaten path you will get all kinds of suggestions just googling Prague off the beaten path…  Being quirky is synonymous with being Czech it seems 🙂

p.s. my apologies – it’s never happened before but somehow I seem to have lost most of the photos from this trip so the visual factor is not what I would like it to be.  On the plus side, there are lots of images of Bratislava, Prague and Vienna on the internet 🙂

 

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