Settling in has been much harder than I had anticipated (but that is a story for another day) and after giving myself just over a month to find my feet in my new life in Cambridge, it was time to start exploring beyond my new backyard.
So, with my budget airline approved cabin baggage I drove to Luton airport (just over an hour away) for my first trip of the year – to Riga in Latvia. Not only my first European trip for the year, but also my first trip to the Balkans ever.
This was also my first experience on WizzAir, an airline I had actually never heard of it before but it was a typical budget airline with typical budget airline type seats. Thankfully I had prepaid for extras like priority security and boarding so things went pretty smoothly.
Except …. I was randomly selected to have extra screening at security – that meant they wanted to ‘test’ my liquids and apparently Simple hydration face moisturiser has something in it that can be used to make explosives 🤔🤔🤔 – so much for the ‘no harsh chemicals’ claim! So, with my bomb making moisturiser confiscated I was allowed through. It’s odd to be back to a world where there is no immigration to leave the country … will be interesting to see how that changes in a post Brexit world!
I must admit I do not feel like that adventurous back packer I once was. Paying for the extras on the so-called budget airline and hey, why wait for a bus in -3 at midday when you arrive when you get a taxi for less than euro 12!! Back in the day that would have been 3 meals! 😂
As I was arriving very late, the hostel had sent me very detailed instructions to find the hostel, get in the door and find my room which could not be missed with a large hand drawn sign with my name on it 😂. All very well organised and in fact, it was a great hostel (highly recommend the Tree House hostel, very central and very warm and comfortable).
My next ‘I am no longer a backpacker’ move was a private driver to take me to Sigulda in the east of the country and only 50 minutes’ drive from the city centre. Unfortunately, it is too early in the year for the normal tours to run, and yes, I could have caught the train … but that would have taken all day and with only 2 days I already have limited time. So I could easily justify the additional expense of a half day private tour to myself and it meant I got to see some of the best of the Latvian county side and not just Riga.
(Oddly I feel a little guilty about not being a ‘backpacker’ anymore. 🤔 Not really sure why – that style of travel is great when you have a lot of time and not a lot of money but when time is limited (and money slightly less so) I want to make sure my time is used wisely. I don’t think it lessens the experience and in fact I get to see more.)
As we drove out of the old city centre, much of the suburban areas were made up from grey Soviet era buildings– coupled with the snow on the ground and the greying skies, it all added to that the ambience I expected from part of the old Soviet Union. But, as we drove out of town, I was pleasantly surprised by the beauty.
The downside of coming at this time of year is that it is cold, bitterly cold and not everything is open – on the positive side I had the castles almost to myself.
Unfortunately, my driver was not very talkative despite his excellent English. He would answer questions but did not volunteer any information but lucky I had a guide book with met read up on what I was seeing.
First stop was at Sigulda Medieval castle, now not much more than ruins located on the edge of Gauja National Park. The original castle was built in 1207 as a fortress and subsequently has had lives as a convent and a residence and headquarters to the Livonian Brothers of the Sword.
Not long after I arrive, the light snow turned in to heavier snow as I wandered around the site. For some reason I felt that it added to the medieval atmosphere.
I jumped back in to the van to warm up as we drove through the snow to the next stop at Turaida Castle and Museum Reserve. This castle was a far better preserved site. Work on the stone castle began in 1214 and it was an important castle for the archbishops of Riga during the middle ages with additional fortifications and guard towers during the 16th century. As it ia set up as a museum, this site was well documented and signed in several languages including English.
Arriving here in the snow, it soon cleared and ended up with the most beautiful skies with the sun breaking through and I was so glad I got out of the city to see the castles and countryside.
Back in the city and I got dropped off at the Museum of Occupation – it was a smaller exhibition than normal as the normal building is being refurbished so it is being housed in the old US embassy. As I entered the building, my attention was drawn to a sign on the very heavy bullet Proof door. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, most American Embassies were additional secured, adding heavy bullet proof doors like this one! It certainly makes you stop and think – well it did me anyway.
I will be the first to admit, I only had a brief knowledge of more recent history of Latvian occupation including Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, but I was interested to learn that the history of foreign occupation dates back to the German crusaders in 1201! Having been occupied by Germany, Sweden, Poland, Russia … some of them more than once!
The guide on my walking tour the following day summed it up well … “We have literally been conquered by everyone not too lazy to come!”
They certainly have had a rough time of it, in particular during the 20th century when much of the population was exterminated or sent to the far reaches of the Soviet Union until September 6, 1991 when Latvian independence was once again recognized by the Soviet Union.
After a long day and information filled day, it was time to sample some of the Latvian delicacies. Apparently, you have not been to Latvia if you have not had potato pancakes with spek sauce (spek is like bacon) and I must admit they were really tasty. To accompany my potato pancakes, I had what was called a hot tea cocktail (blackberry and blueberry) – didn’t really know what was is in but lots of berry, orange and spices, similar to mulled wine but without the alcohol – it was soooo good! In fact, it was so good I had to go back and find out more – apparently it was a Sbiten, hot winter Russian traditional drink which can be very spicy, sweeten with honey.
I can say I had more than 1 of them in my 2 days in the country lol.
I headed out again in the evening, just it started snowing, this time to try the infamous Riga black balsam in the famous Black Magic bar. The drink is described as a mix of botanicals (24 herbs) in spirit water and was historical used as a traditional medicine.
According to tradition only the Head Liquor master and two apprentices know the recipe passed down for over 250 years and the recipe was lost during WWII but it was pieced together again after the war and remains unchanged. It apparently also cured Catherine the Great of Russia when she became ill during a visit to Latvia!
Again, my walking tour guide had an interesting snippet about the Balsam – “Balsam makes good medicine, 2 shots and you are better or you don’t care!”
I was not keen on drinking it straight (I am not sure many are) so I had it with hot black currant juice – rather like very strong, hot medicine – not terrible on a freezing night and I felt rather regal sitting in a red leather arm chair, sipping my Hot Blackcurrant to the soundtrack of cellos playing classical music and the light of a flickering candle.
To mix it up, my next stop was a lively roadhouse style bar with a live band playing blues and rock n roll music (and a car in the middle of the restaurant) to sample some more of the local liquor 🤦🏻♀️
2 drinks and I was done – one thing was clear … Latvians don’t mess around with their spirits!! They were strong!
My final stop for the night a cafe for a raspberry gin and tonic (ok so I was not completely done after the first 2 drinks) and some traditional yeast pancakes – again delicious and I convinced myself I needed them to soak up the alcohol.
The following morning, I joined a free walking tour around the old city. Something I do in most places I visit these days and always very informative (and cheap)! Of course, it was freezing cold but initially not snowing or raining!
The guide was really interesting and it was a great couple of hours wandering around learning about the city and culture and I was happy to have a spare 30 minutes at the end to grab another Sbiten before my next tour.
With only a short time in the city, I had to make tough decisions about what to see and what to miss – 1 more day would have been ideal, but without that extra day, I decided to miss out on cupcake looking art nouveau area and instead, I opted to explore the grittier part of the city including the Jewish ghetto and memorial and some of the Soviet built suburbs and tower.
We started off in the Central market – a massive market and one of the cleanest markets I have ever seen. I could have stayed there for much longer than we did but we had to move on back in to the rain that was now falling.
It was a cold grey day, snow was forecast but instead we got rain … quite the weather for the grey and gritty Riga beyond the old town. In this side of town there were no pretty Instagram pictures to be had, but lots of fascinating human stories about life in the USSR and Nazi occupation – how individuals were conscripted into fighting for one side or the other with no choice, meaning family members were often fighting against each other.
Something else that fascinated me was learning about the Non-Citizens. When the Soviet Union fell, the resulting countries had to decide how they would determine citizenship. In Latvia, people were given citizenship if they could prove they or direct relatives lived there prior to Soviet occupation, or if they learnt Latvian and past a culture/history test.
Some choose to not learn Latvian (mostly ethnic Russians) so remained in Latvia as non-citizens. Of course, this is an aging population so the issue of non-citizens will not be around much longer. Still, they have a Latvian Non-Citizen passport and can still freely travel around the EU/Schengen region as well as to Russia visa free (Latvian’s need a visa) so not sure what they lose by this very unique status.
With my day of learning over, I headed back to the airport to head home just as the snow started again.
What a wonderful and fascinating country which has definitely given me a taste for exploring more of this part of the world.
And what a stunning sunset on the way home.