Our bus to Riga dropped us off in front of the Russian Orthodox Church
Latvia, along with Estonia and Lithuania, are the Baltic Countries and once formed part of the USSR. Riga, the capital of Latvia, is much better known than Tallin. It is also larger but still remains a very well preserved medieval city although with a young energetic vibe.
We began our next day at the marvellous Central Market.
We usually steer clear of organized tours but decided to try one this time which was led by a very charismatic young Latvian named Édgar. Please notice the accentuated ‘É’ that is part of the Latvian heritage he’s very protective about. On the tour with us were an older couple from Sweden, a young couple (she-Ukranian, he-German) who had recently settled in Riga, and her visiting parents. I’ll get to why this matters later.
Édgar took us all over town and regaled us with interesting stories of the sights. This is St. Peter’s church where we met him.
Since houses were taxed depending on the number of windows they had, some owners opted for fake windows instead: all the pizzaz/no cost.
The Brotherhood of the Blackheads was an organization of unmarried merchant men that although had its origins in the necesity of an army to defend the Baltic countries from many Russian attempts at invasion; with time became more of a social organization taken to the extreme. The House of Blackheads is currently being used as the president’s offices while the Castle undergoes renovations. It’s impossible to capture its beauty in a picture.
Latvia suffered many occupations, first by the Russians, then the Nazis and then the Russians again. Latvians have done a great job of documenting all of this history in the Museum of Occupations which is just steps away from the House of Blackheads.
When Latvia became a part of the USSR, Russia encouraged migration of Russians into Latvia with the consequence of the population now being 70% of Russian origin and 30% Latvian, according to Édgar. Now that Latvia has become independent, ethnic conflicts are boiling just beneath the surface. For instance, while Latvian is the official language, a referendum was almost passed recently to make Russian a second official language. Having been denied their own language for years, Latvians are adamantly opposed to this. Remember I told you about the German guy and his Ukranian wife? The German guy thought it would be fun to argue the Russian cause with Édgar which disturbed him very visibly. The German guy just kept goading him further. Édgar did all he could to avoid falling for it but it did make for some very tense moments during the tour.
While learning about the buildings is interesting, learning about a local’s take on his country’s history and future is much more so. The German guy was uncouth in his confrontation of Édgar but that helped us understand his views so much better. Édgar is also unhappy with Latvia’s membership in the EU. Having endured the many Russian regulations, the last thing he thinks Latvia needs is to now endure EU regulations. He mentioned the EU having rules about the proper way to smoke fish while Latvias have been smoking fish for centuries and don’t need to be told how to do it “properly”, as an example. We found Édgar’s views to be very common among younger Latvians who wish to enjoy their country’s independence. On the other hand, older Latvians cite a fear of the Russian population overwhelmingly voting to return to the Soviet block as a good reason to belong to the EU.
To finish off the tour, Édgar had us try Black Balsam, the official Riga drink.
It’s pretty good. It tastes kind of what Bailey’s would taste like if it were water based instead of cream, if that makes any sense. I wanted to bring a bottle back with me but it would probably break on the way making a mess of my backpack and so I passed. Not being able to carry souvenirs is a convenient way to save money.
In Riga we also got to try beet soup which is something the locals eat during the hot summer months. It’s alright but I prefer my soup to be hot.
After two days touring Riga, the boys insisted we do something more vacation-style and thus we ended up in Majori, a Baltic Sea beach about a 40min train ride away. Notice how I am wearing a sweater while the boys are wearing swim trunks.
We were all very surprised to find the sea water here not salty at all. It makes sense, it being the Baltic Sea; just something we hadn’t experienced before. We spent a nice relaxing afternoon before boarding an overnight bus headed for Warsaw.
We were sad to be leaving the Baltic countries as they’ve been beautiful and with a very positive hopeful feel to them, but looking forward to spending some time exploring Poland.