a unique perspective on this crazy world

Casco Viejo has a long history.  It was first built in 1673 when pirates destroyed the first settlement, Panama Viejo.  It was declared a World Heritage site in 1997.  Panama City was founded in 1519 and taken down by the notorious pirate Henry Morgan.  The new city was on a peninsula surrounded by the sea and defensive walls.  Panama Viejo is the oldest European settlement on the Pacific coast of the Americas.  It is a mix of French, Spanish and American architecture and ancient city planning.

Like so many cities, wealthy people starting moving to the suburbs in the mid 20th century and it became a neglected neighborhood eventually rife with rival gangs.  It’s not a place for a naïve tourist but it’s easy to navigate and hotels will supply you with a map that tells you where NOT to wander.  I spent almost a week there and was perfectly safe.

casco upgrade

If you are an idealist like me, it is gratifying to be supporting positive social change.  The revitalization of Casco Viejo is a model in development.  From what I’ve read, you can thank a corporate lawyer.  HUH?  His name is K.C. Hardin and apparently he moved to Panama to surf and accidentally fell into real estate development.  The company is called Conservatorio and is redeveloping Casco Viejo using a business model that is a model in many other ways.

The American Trade Building is four stories high and was built in 1917 to profit from the new Panama Canal.  By the time that Conservatorio got involved, it had been abandoned and was headquarters for a gang.  It’s hard to imagine that now, which is to the credit of the sensitive restoration and Conservatorio’s inclusive attitude toward development.  Gang members have been turned into entrepreneurs!

The American Trade Hotel is definitely a great pick if you can afford the tariff.  I went for lower prices but did

it lured me in…

indulge in a night of jazz at Danilo’s Jazz Club and highly recommend it.  The American Trade Hotel has created a revolution (of the peaceful kind) in Casco Viejo.  Across the street is Casa Casco, which also has four stories.  It is definitely the new Panama and one of my favourite hangouts during the trip.  Each level provides a different experience and cuisine.  The rooftop is lovely but the food selection is a bit bizarre.  It advertises itself as tapas but the selection is more sandwiches and pizza.  One level does Japanese food so decided to go for sashimi.  Really wanted tuna AND salmon but bizarrely that was not an option so went for tuna.  I had to eat it in the dark and there was no rice but the tuna was outstanding, far better than my recent food in Japan…

I went again and tried the third floor, which was Mediterranean.  Had an Instagram-worthy creative modern lamb dish.

Tantalo Hotel was also a great place to hang out.  There is a bar and restaurant on the main level in addition to the rooftop.  My food on the rooftop just OK but

head to the roof

the downstairs restaurant packed so likely worth trying.  There is definitely a lively scene on the rooftop and it is an excellent place to hang out.

The hotel staff were very welcoming.  I got a free drink in the bar upon arrival and they booked my birthday dinner in a sister restaurant called Caliope, where you get a discount as a hotel guest, as well as getting me VIP access to Teatro Amador.  Not everyone speaks English so communication can be a bit challenging but it was a wonderful day.  Got to spend my birthday evening in the VIP section at the Tantalo Rooftop and even got a piece of cheesecake with a sparkler in it just after midnight, when my birthday actually began.  Jose was amazing and took me through the staff entrance so that I could put it in the fridge in my room to enjoy as breakfast on my birthday 🙂

You will need to beware of the touts preying on tourists.  They are Latin so very charming and convincing.  The places they steered me weren’t bad but you can likely do better.  Probably my best meal was at Aki Sake Bar and Japanese Kitchen.  A great cocktail and outstanding sushi rolls for an incredibly modest price.  Casa Sucre is very good but not cheap.  Do go for a drink at sunset on Plaza Bolivar – there are several options.  The atmosphere is the main component.  Do have at least one Balboa beer but, if beer is your thing, check out La Rana Dorado, especially during happy hour (the Hop on Hop Off bus happened to drop me off at just the right moment 🙂

If one of your guilty pleasures in life is all versions of ice cream, you will need some steely self-discipline to avoid spending your entire time in Panama at Granclement.  It was just as well I didn’t find it until the end of my visit. I love ice cream but this is the first time I went twice in the same day!  I did walk a lot between visits…

Casco Viejo is a capitalist Havana.  It’s a fascinating place full of history and promise.

There are some old stories I may still commit to paper but it’s time to get into 2017 on the blog 😉

I have gone through various phases in my feelings about Panama.  When I grew up, it was not considered a tourist destination.  Then I had a friend visit and it got on my radar.  Not long after, I transited through Panama City airport on my way to South America and the experience was horrible so I held it against Panama and it went to the bottom of the list.  Then I read an enthusiastic article about Casco Viejo and discovered my birthday coincided with a great time to visit and airfare would be very reasonable.

Now that I’ve been, I would recommend being magnanimous about the airport and airlines who fly there because it is worth checking out but I had one of the ugliest flights of my life getting there.  The theory was great.  I would overnight to Toronto arriving early morning and then depart in a couple of hours for Panama City, sleep on the plane and arrive midafternoon to start sightseeing.  It all began well enough.  I got to Toronto and indulged in a great breakfast in the terminal.  I had about an hour of sleep on the plane so would survive a little longer.

colonial splendour

It didn’t take long for everything to go horrendously wrong.  Our boarding time came but no one was boarding.  There was something wrong with our plane and we would have to find another one.  They suggested it would take a few hours.  Not great but not terrible yet.  The day wore on and information was sketchy.  I discovered the terminal was filled with few options for either food or entertainment so a place you only want to transit through.  Instead, I got to spend about 15 hours trapped there trying to stay awake so I wouldn’t miss a flight for which I didn’t even have a departure time anymore.  I was a first world refugee.

Finally a flight came onto the board and we all lined up again, actually getting on a plane this time.  The hotel in Panama City was excellent and changed my transfer from 2pm to 4am so I arrived exhausted and disorientated but didn’t have to find a taxi.  I decided to stay in Casco Viejo, which is essentially the old town, but Panama City is an old Colonial city so it was relocated centuries ago so there is a Panama Viejo as well.

Panama has a long, bizarre and colourful history.  Not only has it tangled with Spain, Colombia and the USA, pirates, conquistadors and dictators, it even has a unique place in geological history.  We’ll talk more about all of that but, for the casual tourist, what will matter is modern Panamanian history.  Thanks to Jimmy Carter, Panama got control of the canal on December 31, 1999 and in 2015 the expansion to accommodate modern supertankers was completed. This – along with a better electoral process – has brought a lot of change to the economy.

Like most developing countries, the spoils are not shared as equally as they might be, and it’s good to do some research and not wander randomly, but Casco Viejo is beguiling and I had a wonderful visit.  You will also be supporting social change and economic revitalization (more on that in future).

a place to call home

I had a leisurely stay so split my time between two choices to get a fuller experience.  I would highly recommend both.  The choice depends on your style.  First, I stayed at the Magnolia Inn, an actual restored turn of century mansion.  It’s a mix of hotel and hostel, Staff are very friendly and prices are great.  There is no elevator and you will need to search the neighborhood for entertainment but there are many options only minutes away.

my glamorous room

If you want to glam it up at a super reasonable price and you are a sound sleeper, stay at Tantalo Hotel and gaze at Panama City from the rooftop.  That’s where I spent my birthday, having one of the best hotel experiences of my life.

Stay tuned for more details of a tiny country with a lot to offer still under most people’s radar – exactly when you want to see it 😉

 

solo adventures

I am not averse to travelling with companions but, once you reach a certain age, it can be tough to get people to commit due to their various entanglements with other people so I started travelling solo.  It was also a personal challenge since genetically I am painfully shy but have been training myself for so long now to be bolder and not let my natural personality curtail the opportunities life might present me that people laugh in my face when I suggest that I am an introvert, let alone painfully shy.  I’ve learned to just smile and wear it as a badge of honour.  On a good night, I can even “work a room” now, which still continues to amaze me.  I just feel grateful that I learned at a young age that it was NECESSARY to learn how to talk to strangers, even if it made me want to throw up from nerves when I first began the experiment.

gritty east london

exploring shoreditch

I would highly recommend getting comfortable with talking to strangers.  You will get plenty of opportunity if you stay at the Hoxton and hang out at the bar. It was a while ago so I can’t remember everyone I met but do remember it as a friendly place.  I had a couple of memorable encounters.  One night I met an Iranian immigrant on his way to Australia.  He was somewhat besotted with me despite an age difference that was ridiculous and he was dragged off by his friends to another venue.  I think part of the attraction may have been that I knew a bit about Iran and told him one of my best friends is married to a Persian.  I also have lived in Australia so bonding was easy.

More bizarre was my Sunday night adventure.  I didn’t expect much to be happening on Sunday night but, when you are a tourist travelling alone, your room is a bit boring so was sitting in the lobby area working on the blog when some locals spotted me.  It’s always nice to meet people from the actual ‘hood in which you are temporarily domiciled and these ladies were real EastEnders, born in the neighborhood before the more recent gentrification.

Apparently the Hoxton offers membership and discounts to locals to encourage them to hang out, especially on days when tourists may be sparse.  While you may not meet many people on Sunday night, it is also likely the people there will bond more easily.  With very little effort, my blog prep efforts were abandoned and I became part of an intriguing quasi safari observing human behaviour rather than animal 🙂

The women were old friends and very chatty.  At first, everything was pretty normal.  Where things got interesting was when it changed from chit chat about how the neighborhood had changed to being a participant in a cougar safari adventure.  I can’t remember now how the young guys got involved but they seemed happy to buy everyone drinks and flirt. One of the lads was handsome and exceptionally charming.  The other two women lapped up the attention.  It was like watching soap opera live.  After a while, the young men took off and I figured the entertainment was over but then one of the women also left.  The other lady was pretty drunk by then and very determined that I needed to stay with her.

I’ve had some interesting encounters with drunken strangers over the years 🙂  This one ended up the most bizarre of all.  An older businessman joined us in the bar.  He was staying in the hotel and they hit it off.  He seemed like a nice guy.  The very inebriated lady seemed determined to stay in my room, which would have been weird but, in the end, she decided she could stay in the gentleman’s room.  I had to walk with her there.  As soon as we arrived, the safari got a little too much like a nature documentary so I shielded my eyes as I backed out of the room as fast as possible!

If bizarre encounters with strangers aren’t your thing, there are other less adventurous things you can do in Shoreditch.  One of my favourite discoveries this trip was the Spitalfields Market.  Lots of choices at better prices than you normally find in London.

You can opt for a traditional English pub or go more locavore in a pretentious cocktail bar.  We tried to get into nightjar but you really need to make a reservation.  We did get into Happiness Forgets and the cocktails were excellent but it was uncomfortably hot.  Perhaps it’s a heritage building and you can’t install air conditioning…

You can also stay in Shoreditch and explore other parts of London.  As already noted, British cuisine has come a long way since I first encountered it.  What is funny is that London is the advance team in cultural affairs in almost all respects but, when it comes to food, it is tipping its hat to the Pacific Northwest.  I think it’s a combination of the hippie past, the affinity for nature and the lush local produce but the idea of getting creative with local ingredients has been part of the Pacific Northwest for a few decades.

Ironically the restaurant we went to in Fitzrovia is called Portland.  I don’t think the Brits realize they are eating Pacific Northwest style cuisine but it’s the formula I’ve known and loved most of my adult life – in season local produce identified by supplier, clever and creative combinations and great flavours.  I normally order European wine in Europe but they had a bottle of D2 from Washington state, which was delicious and seemed to match the menu 🙂

A more English experience, I also went to have a cocktail at the Connaught as it had been recommended by a London bartender.  It is an experience and certainly worth doing.  Just know that there will be no question you ARE in London when the bill comes so be ready for the sticker shock!  The most expensive drink of my life – now surpassing deciding to drink champagne (without first asking the price) at the legendary Victoria Falls Hotel while looking at the falls. Also worth it 🙂

While the British Empire might not have been a good idea, it does mean that London is

somerset house design biennale

incredible creativity and colour

agog in cultural treasures from all over the world.  In a 21st century acknowledgement that the world has changed, Somerset House initiated a biennale to celebrate global design and I just happened to be in London.  It was amazing and the next one isn’t until 2018 so there is plenty of time to plan for it.

My final stranger encounter this trip was one of my favourites.  I stayed in Earl’s Court when I got back from Riga as it’s on the tube line to Heathrow so made my exit faster.  Stayed at the Rockwell Hotel, a small hotel only a short walk from the station.  It’s very well priced for London.  It was Sunday night and nothing looked too interesting on the street so decided to have a mojito at the hotel bar and head to bed.  I wouldn’t recommend having a cocktail at the hotel as the bar is not really properly equipped to make them but it did lead to an interesting chat with my charming server.

posh west london

rockwell hotel ‘hood

She was from Vilnius!  I don’t think she gets too many customers who have just been there.  I expect many are not sure where Lithuania is so we had a lively chat about proper cocktails, life in London as a foreigner and the rise of the Baltics.  Yet more proof of the rewards of talking to strangers 😉

London is a multifaceted place and you can live all sorts of lives there from super posh to super gritty.  I like to mix it up and keep things fresh 😉

 

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.>

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