a unique perspective on this crazy world

Or just people looking to check out new neighborhoods in London 😉  I grew up fairly poor by western standards in the 1980s.  That decade became associated with Donald Trump, jerks on Wall Street and conspicuous consumption – and there was some of that.  In many places, though, it was a decade of recession, runaway interest rates and social strife.  That was the decade I lived in.  It was a time when there were thrift stores instead of vintage boutiques and if your jeans had holes, it was because they were old and you couldn’t afford a new pair…

It was an interesting time and possibly one of the best decades in history in which to be young.  I was fortunate to meet and date a lot of people who had a phenomenal impact on my life (many still part of it) and, without them, I would likely not even be IN London, let alone so much like a local that I was searching for new neighborhoods to keep the experience fresh.

I began the decade about as far from cool as one could be but, by happy accident and forcing myself to acquire better social skills, I inched a little further in that direction during a summer spent in Calgary.  Calgary is hardly a major international center of chic but it was the biggest city I had ever lived in at the time and it was exciting.  Toronto was even more exciting.  My father was very well read so I knew about Bay Street but the idea that I was now WORKING on Bay Street.  OMG!  It was a childhood dream come true.

What was even better was that I had an amazing boyfriend who had grown up in the city and was a fan of indie rock back in the day when you whispered the names of bands like insider secrets.  I still remember the party where someone said, “you need to listen to The Smiths.  They are amazing”…

There was a lot of music to love in the 1980s but the most radical part that changed my life is that indie rock bands were poor so they played in scruffy venues rather than glossy stadiums.  Long before the word gentrification was even coined, I was hanging out in the neighborhoods that would fall prey to it.

It’s made the new century very interesting for me.  I will never be any part of the hipster universe but I hang out with them a lot because I love exploring cities and know that the east side (almost always…) is the more interesting place to be.  I like character and action, living in the real future rather than the fake past.

If you are coming to London for the first time, the best place to hang out is the West End if you can afford the tariff.  If you are looking for something cheaper but super comfortable, Earl’s Court is a popular option.  If you are OK with a little edge – or have a tiny budget – head east to the London of Jack the Ripper and the working class.

beautiful graffiti

At minimum, stop by for dinner.  That was my initial foray into Shoreditch.  London is very old place.  Shoreditch has been through several centuries of history and its star has risen and fallen.  These days it is definitely on the rise.  London is one of the great cities of the world.  I have lost count of the number of times I have visited but it is so vast in both geographic size and scope of things to see and do that there are still plenty of things I have not yet done.

The first time I set foot in the city of London was 28 years ago.  I got my first passport to visit my boyfriend who was travelling through Europe on an extended trip I couldn’t afford but I discovered the airfare to London wasn’t too bad so I could buy a backpack and make a short visit since we could sleep on the sofa at his Australian friends’ flat in Earl’s Court.  Back then, it was best to just stick to an English cooked breakfast and fish and chips.  Pretty much everything else was cooked to death and tasted a little like cardboard.

Luckily, I have found lots of reasons to continue to return to England’s capital so saw the rise of British cuisine first hand.  For a long time now, I have been fortunate to have at least one friend living in London and it makes me an especially privileged tourist.  We’ve been going to Shoreditch for dinner for a few years now so I decided it was time to see if I could STAY in Shoreditch and expand my knowledge of the city.

There are a few options.  I decided to stay at the Hoxton.  I would highly recommend it if you are comfortable with hipsters 😉  It’s very lively.  They have done a

hangin at the hoxton

good job of being part of the neighborhood while catering to tourists and it’s packed on the weekend.  I spent some time with my friends but was also at the hotel alone at points so could go into observation mode.

exploring the ‘hood

It was quite hilarious.  In my normal life, I don’t spend a lot of time with hipsters so had not appreciated how little individuality there was.  Practically everyone looked the same, especially the men.  For sure, curated facial hair, often a man-bun.  Expensive sneakers with little personality.  Untucked shirt, invariably white but possibly black.  Skinny jeans.  It was a little creepy, like looking at a version of youth programmed as Stepford Wives.

While the concept of individuality may have gotten a little lost, there was a lot to like once you indulged in conversation.  It’s a great bolthole from which to experience Shoreditch and environs.

We’ll continue the Shoreditch adventures… and eventually I will write more about London… but to get you started I am going to defer to TimeOut.   I can vouch for Lyle’s and Andina.  I have been using TimeOut guides for most of my adult life.  I can’t remember if I discovered it in London or in New York City.  Like so many things, it has gone from cool entrepreneurial quirk to ubiquitous corporate presence but it’s still one of the best resources for travellers who like the path less travelled…

 

 

 

bye bye USSR…

If you think of Eastern Europe as a drab Soviet era anti-paradise, you will be shocked.  Back when I visited Prague in the late 90s, you could still see communism in action but these days you are more likely to wonder if you are in a parallel universe where you could be in New York City, London, Sydney – or Vilnius!  In some ways I find it disturbing – the globalization of culture… but you have to be careful to check your western privilege.

There is definitely an unconscious bias for prosperous citizens of developed countries to want to find cute cultures that allow them to be nostalgic or surprised.  Culture is a very complex subject and I am definitely not a fan of the homogenized American propaganda marketing machine but I am a fan of development and prosperity.

In an ideal world, different cultures will adopt new technologies but in a way that makes them special and true to the region.  It’s a tough ask and one needs to be open minded.

Some of my greatest travel experiences have been in luxe safari lodges in Africa where the companies seem to be making responsible decisions about the environment, the wildlife and the local population, appreciating it’s an ecosystem and behaving honorably will create the best results for all involved.  The US seems to have gone bonkers and corrupted capitalism but it wasn’t always that way.  Some of the early American entrepreneurs actually cared about their employees and their communities.  There are pockets of a return to that vision that should be embraced by consumers.

I really hope that kind of capitalism can see a broad resurgence in the country that defines itself by that moniker but I have been more enthused by capitalism in developing economies.

I’m pretty good at research and seem to have a nose for finding cool things so, once I had seen the Old Town, I looked for 21st century Vilnius.  It’s the capital city so I really saw only a tiny acreage of its possibilities but you can wander just a few metres from the storybook Old Town and wonder if you have wandered into Brooklyn…

It will be cooler than Brooklyn, though, as there will still be cobblestone streets and old houses… but there will also be cocktails, tapas and live music.

extra entertainment

The great part is that if you have only one night, it can all happen on one street and environs.  You can eat there too but I found it a little hit and miss on the service front so you are likely better advised to follow my lead from my first night in Vilnius.  Zuvine in the Old Town showcases the seafood of the Baltics.  There is even a scientific chart!  I am a huge seafood fan and one of the really cool elements of that is that seafood is a regional thing so you can eat it all over the world but you should try the local delicacies rather than sticking to stuff you already know.

When I lived in Germany, one of my favourite fish was Zanderfilet.  What I loved even more was that there wasn’t a precise English translation.  It was just awesome fish from pristine German fresh water lakes.  That’s really all you needed to know.  At Zuvine you can also sit outside and dine across from a fabulous church and you might get lucky and see hot air balloons as you munch on your fish.

Once you have a full belly, you can head to Vilniaus and start your bar crawl.  I started at Distilerija and had the Smoked Manhattan – the showcase cocktail.  It was fine.  I am very spoiled when it comes to cocktails so you might think it better than fine. It’s worth checking out just to people watch.  It’s definitely young happening Vilnius.  I tried to order salmon tartare but it was going to take about an hour so I gave up.

Considered The Bubbles, a spot specializing in all things sparkling, and Alchemikas,

rum sublime

supposedly a very serious cocktail bar, but they were too quiet, so chose the Rhum Room instead.  It was mostly a large boisterous birthday party but they gave it a lively vibe.  According to my lovely server, it opened in November 2015.  She carefully constructed an excellent mojito and was very pleased when I told her it was better than the ones I’d had in Cuba.

I also managed to get some food.  The menu was limited but the jerk chicken lollipops and sweet potato fries were excellent.

plein air tunes

I also caught a band at Vasaros Tersasa.  It’s only open in summer months but there is a big, boisterous courtyard and the cover was only two euros.  It felt like you were in real Vilnius rather than Vilnius aspiring to be Brooklyn or London.  I ended the night by popping into a crowded pub on the way back to the hotel for a beer since I was in Eastern Europe and you really should drink the local beer.  It was the most authentic (and cheapest) experience of the evening, proving there are options at different price points.

So, check out aspiring hipster Vilinius (sans most of the curated facial hair) or revel in authentic Vilnius.  Or sample both.  Just make sure you go before it’s as packed with tour buses as Prague!

 

 

 

 

 

once you’re in riga…

What is cool about Eastern Europe is that you get local recommendations to places not much discussed in the west.  In Soviet times, it was a lot easier to visit other communist countries and these days it’s affordable for locals in a way the west is not.  During my conversation with a young Pole in an empty club because in Eastern Europe voting is exciting (there was a televised debate that night), I enthused about how much I loved Krakow and he told me that I should go to Vilnius.

If Riga and Latvia are off most people’s radar, Vilnius and Lithuania don’t even register…

So far, every local recommendation has been golden so the original plan was a few nights in expensive London with a side trip to affordable Vilnius… but then I discovered you had to go through Riga to get to Vilnius… and I had read about Riga and wanted to go – so why not do both?  Who needs to sleep??? 😉

You can follow my craziness and do it all in five days or you can spend more time in both.  Both countries are gorgeous.  If you are coming from London (or most of Western Europe), the forests and fresh air will be a welcome tonic for your lungs.  I just did the capitals because I live in Canada where forests and fresh air are abundant but for those from other locales, the countryside is definitely worth a visit.

I could have flown to Vilnius but it isn’t that far from Riga so I decided to gamble on Lux Express, a bus service that covers most of the region.  How often do you get to hang out at a bus station where Minsk is an option? 🙂

Something went wrong so I didn’t get the upgraded bus but the regular Lux Express is luxe enough.  There is also a non-luxe option if you are on a tight budget.  Given my insane schedule, I slept pretty much the entire four hours each way so I can’t tell you much about the countryside but it looked like forests and fresh air on my small glimpses 🙂

I stayed at the Comfort Hotel LT Rock n’ Roll.  It was close enough to the bus station I could walk.  It’s a quirky modern hotel at an amazing price.  You can stay closer to the Old Town but it’s an easy walk if you want to save a few bucks and like quirky accommodation.

a great lookout

Since I was rested and had only a small amount of time in Vilnius, I dropped my bags and headed for the Old Town and ambitiously climbed to the top of the hill for a fantastic view over the city on a blue sky day.  I never had time to check out the newer parts of the city but I did see them from a distance and I am sure it would be worthwhile if you spend more time in the city.

What is essential though is a trip to the baroque splendor of the Old Town cobblestones.  If you have the time, it’s good to explore all three Baltic cities as each has a different history.  Riga spans a huge swath of history, Vilnius celebrates the Baroque and Tallinn (Estonia) is a medieval gem.  Once you’re in Tallinn, Helsinki is a ferry ride away and St Petersburg is not far (a future trip!)

You could go blitzkrieg and see it all in a single day but I had two and that set a nice pace.  I could hit a few highlights the first day and then come back on the second and revisit and explore some side streets.

There is lots of noteworthy architecture but there are a few highlights that definitely shouldn’t be missed.  The first is Gediminas Hill.  It is in a prime location above the junction of the Neris and Vilnia Rivers, which is why it was where Vilnius was founded in the days before satellites and airplanes.  These days you don’t need those locations for the military advantage but they are pretty places for tourists to hang out and enjoy the view.

Once you climb down from the hill, there are some buildings to check out.  The first is the Gates of Dawn and the Chapel of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of Mercy, the only surviving gateway of the city’s ancient defence.  If you get lucky, you will see mass in progress.  There are several other noteworthy

the ancient way to enter the city

one of many spectacular houses of worship

houses of worship.  The Church of St Casimir is the city’s oldest Baroque church built by the Jesuits between 1604 and 1615.

Vilnius Cathedral is officially known as the Cathedral of St Stanislav and St Vladislav on a spot originally used for the worship of Perkunas, the Lithuanian thunder god.  St Anne’s Church history begins in 1394 when a wooden house of worship was erected in honour of Ona, wife of Vytautas the Great.  It was later turned into a Gothic masterpiece.  Peter and Paul’s Church is believed to be built on a site of worship to Milda, the pagan goddess of love.  The Baroque masterpiece you will see today was commissioned to celebrate victory over the Russians in 1668.

There are even more places to explore covering several centuries of history.  The area is quite compact and there are lots of

spectacular amber

options to relax and take a break.  You can also go shopping for amber, one of the area’s main tourist souvenirs.  I checked out the Amber Gallery, which has a small museum to fill you in on the production process and showcase some stunning pieces.  There are both stunning (and expensive) pieces and more ordinary options for purchase.

In the evening, look out for hot air balloons rising above the Baroque splendour.  I don’t know if it’s normal but I was treated to three.

My Polish friend was not wrong.  I DID enjoy Vilnius.

 

 

thoroughly modern riga

Apparently Riga blossoms at the beginning of centuries.  It was a spectacular place to be at the beginning of the 20th century.  Sadly, it then became embroiled in the challenges of that century in a very prominent way but, luckily for those of us born to be able to enjoy the 21st century, Riga is making an impressive comeback.  For visitors from the prosperous west, it is a place where you can live large – so be sure to tip generously!

so great it was spared

I’ve covered the most intriguing tourist sights but there are a few more places that are noteworthy.  There is the spectacular Riga Synagogue, built in 1905, and the only surviving synagogue.  Not far away is the Freedom Monument.  It was paid for by public donations and erected in 1935 where a statue of Peter the Great once stood.  It’s affectionately known as Milda and, during Soviet times, it was off limits to the public and people placing flowers at its base were prosecuted.  Of course, this makes the flowers you see there today

freedom a very powerful concept

more poignant.

flowers with extra meaning

If you are into flowers, you will love Riga.  Like Amsterdam, there are many flowers for sale and the quality is astonishing.  The Flower Market is near the river.  You can just enjoy its beauty from the banks or you can hop aboard a vessel and cruise along Daugava River.

In Old Riga, you will also want to check out Riga Castle, the Swedish Gate and the Powder Tower, remnants of the power struggles among European empires for this Baltic treasure.

I am no longer surprised by the amazing food and drink to be found in Eastern Europe.  There are not as many choices as there are in Paris or London but that doesn’t mean there are not sufficient choices, invariably at a fraction of the sticker shock you will encounter in London.  I was sleep deprived as I was trying to check out as many options as I could 🙂

One place to definitely check out is Gutenbergs.  (It is also a great choice for accommodation).  I snuck in without a reservation but I would recommend making one.  Then, perhaps, you could sit on the patio.  I didn’t understand why I couldn’t as there were empty seats the entire time I was there but it’s best to just play along… I still had a great view of the cathedral, Riga rooftops and the pink and blue sunset.

To add to the experience, the meal was divine.  They are really into gin so ordered an Estonian gin and tonic, which was excellent.  Went full carnivore and ordered the most expensive thing on the menu – 21 day aged local entrecote.  It came with a plethora of roasted vegetables and everything was perfectly cooked and delicious for 22 euros.  That might just get you the cocktail in London…  Enjoyed the steak with a great glass of Primivito.  Better than any steakhouse dinner for probably half the price.

worth the price of the cocktail 🙂

You can get good cheap beer easily but there is also an emerging sophisticated drinking scene as well.  I started with an excellent Manhattan at the Radisson Skyline Bar in order to check out the view and the sunset.  It’s the most expensive drink I had in Riga (still probably half what you would pay in London) but it was worth it for the expansive bird’s eye view over Riga.

The thing to drink in Riga is Black Balsam.  Mittel Europa is big on boozy botanicals.  I guess it was all the forests… It’s worth trying but you may not fall in love.  You can do it straight or in a cocktail.  There is also a currant version, which is more user friendly.  As already noted, I tried it first in a cocktail at the Albert Hotel.  My most memorable experience though was when I stopped in late afternoon at an outdoor café near the Swedish Gate (Sweden used to throw its weight around via military force until they invented Ikea and H&M ;).  I was mostly tired from walking and needed to consult my guidebook but wanted to try Black Balsam in the raw before I left Riga.

I went through a shift change so ended up with two different servers.  They were both young women excited about the prospects of Latvia and one of them was anxious to see more of the world.  We ended up having a great conversation as the café wasn’t busy and I stayed long enough that it was time for an early dinner.  For some reason, almost all my great conversations in the Baltics were with young women.  Maybe the Communist influence?  There was a lot to regret about Communism but it did tend to promote women as equals.  Whatever the reason, I was very excited to see all these young women thriving and dreaming.  Each Eastern European country is different and there is no doubt they are disadvantaged compared to the West but there is also a sense of optimism and hope that is often lacking in the West.  Most young people don’t have the same sense of entitlement.  Instead they are excited to see what they can do to improve their communities.

If you like talking to cool young women then your next stop should be the Left Door Bar.  It’s in the Art Deco district close to Albert iela.  It wasn’t on my weekend route so I ended up there on a Sunday but that allowed me to chat with my server.  Apparently they had run out of Black Balsam because the weekend was so busy!  She informed me that each cocktail came in its own special glass.  I had the Philosopher Martini, which had been invented by the chef.  It included Absolut Elyx Vodka, Nordic Vermouth, Luxardo Maraschino Cherry Liqueur and was served in a vintage glass.  I drank it very carefully 🙂

It rivalled anything I had in London (also part of this trip).  My server informed me there were three cocktail bars she would recommend in Riga so you will have to do some research but it will be worth your while.

I ran around Riga a bit like a whirling dervish because it is compact, beautiful and safe so not sure my notes really do it justice but there were some other memorable experiences I can share with potential visitors.

I managed to find some of the nightlife so can offer some recommendations.  You can watch live jazz at Trompete (Peldu 24).  Unfortunately, no one was playing when I went there but did have a nice beer and it’s close to Folksklub Ala Pagrabs, which became one of my hangouts.  It’s a huge cavern filled with beer, music and Latvian pride.  The bar strives to reflect the full geography and diversity of Latvian beer.  I ended up on the dance floor a couple of times, first with a nice Latvian who was scared off by some loutish lads and then a Brazilian guy who seemed to have a complicated life.

There is music at Blues 54 Jazz (Terbatas 54).  It’s also a great street to check out for food and architecture.  If you want a surreal experience of kitsch, head to Moonshine, a Latvian tribute to 1950s America circa Happy Days (i.e the fantasy USA as exported by television).  The décor didn’t do much for me but there was a very good band upstairs.

If beer is your thing, also check out Alus darbnica Labietis, which promotes more obscure Latvian breweries.  If wine is more your thing, check out Vina Studija (Elizabetes 10) after your Art Deco tour. My server seemed to have taken his customer service tips from Soviet times but the wine was excellent and well-priced!

My final night in Riga was a Sunday so that made things a bit more difficult.  Latvia has definitely discovered the tourism industry so a lot is open but not everything.  My Left Door Bar server dissed KID so went off in search of Bibliothek or Kolanade.  I never found Bibliothek and Kolonade was closed.

Do consider checking it out though because it is also near the river in a gorgeous setting in addition to the food experience. I LIKE walking but was starting to feel both weary and hungry so headed for Old Riga, which I assumed was touristy enough to have restaurants open on Sunday night.  Locale looked promising and ended up with a nice cocktail, a glass of wine and some excellent lasagne to finish my tour of Riga on a high note.

Riga has a lot of high notes.  You really should go and meet the new generation of dreamers in one of the most spectacular settings in the world.  Latvia is still under the radar enough for a visit to paste you with a patina of cool but it’s discovered enough you won’t be a trailblazer… why I think I need to go to Tbilisi 😉

<I laughed reading this as I did a first draft a while ago but didn’t finish and post until now… and since then have booked a trip to Tbilisi!  Will actually be going to Georgia the country and Georgia the state for the first time next year.  Both very cool destinations from what I read.>

prepare to be amazed!

When you have been to over sixty countries it becomes tough to be truly astonished by something.  I’m still thrilled to see large cats in the wild and there are physical landscapes that are unexpectedly stunning but when you have seen the Pyramids, Angkor Wat and the Vatican, you start to worry that you may have lost your ability to marvel at architecture.  The architecturally jaded just need to head to Riga!

It is home to the largest display of Art Deco architecture in Europe but I think the title should be “in the world”.  I adore art deco but this was the first time I saw it on that scale.  One of the most glorious periods in Riga’s history happened to coincide with the age of Art Deco.  Like in Chicago (another city to visit if you love architecture), the alpha male merchants of the day had a lot of cash so spent some of it on ornate buildings to make sure everyone else knew they had a lot of cash.

truly stunning

Perhaps not the most worthy behaviour but definitely a boon for present day tourists.  Unlike the frequently erected modern towers filled with unimaginative steel and glass (thanks Mies!), buildings in the past often used ornate architecture so that the owners could ostentatiously show off.  Early 20th century Riga was a bit like 21st century Dubai 😉

One of the other great things about Riga is that there is an ongoing effort to restore the art deco buildings of its golden age so you can see increasingly more of it as it looked a century ago.

Riga is an easy walking city so you should do some random wandering to really appreciate how many buildings there really are focused not just on functionality but also on beauty.  If you are short on time – or hate walking – make a beeline for Alberta iela.

There you will find the most spectacular Jugendstil buildings along with the Riga Art Nouveau Museum.  Don’t make the mistake I did of being mesmerized by

the opposite of mies

the art deco staircase inside the building and being lured to another museum on a higher floor first.  The Art Deco Museum cost 6 euros but it is definitely worth the money.  It’s essentially a reproduction of an art deco apartment circa the turn of the 20th century with each room hosting all sorts of art deco treasures appropriate to the function of the room.  If you are a real art deco devotee, there is a shop in the museum and another across the street from it.

astonishing detail

On Alberta iela look out for Mikhail Eisenstein’s gift to Riga for its 700th anniversary.  Alberta iela 2a features screaming masks and horrible goblins and satyr phoenix-women.  At Alberta iela 4 you will see stone evoking Medusa.  Alberta iela 13 contains a mishmash of nightmarish imagery amid bucolic greenery and peacocks.  I suspect there may have been drugs involved in art deco design.  It’s pretty but can also feel a bit like an acid trip if you look too closely…

Since you are in the neighborhood, a great way to cap off the day is to head to the Albert Hotel.  It’s also an

obviously I really did it 🙂

interesting place to stay.  The hotel is dedicated to Albert Einstein who apparently wanted to come to Riga because of a correspondence he had with a Latvian scientist named Rudolf Karklins.

I gather Einstein never made it but it’s a lot easier to do these days and I highly recommend it.  Take a seat at the Star Lounge Bar, order a Black Balsam cocktail and make a toast to Albert while enjoying the sunshine and the view over Riga…

 

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…

 

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