a unique perspective on this crazy world

Archive for July, 2017

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…

 

a journey to medieval times…

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…

 

 

 

better than advertised :)

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 😉

 

 

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