Heading south out of Estonia we crossed into our second Baltic country, Latvia (Lithuania will be our third) to be met by a Morgan tour!
Latvia has an amazing history of belonging to other countries: the German Crusades stayed a while (1200 ->), then the Swedes in 1621, with a bit going to Poland at the time, the Russians in the 1800s (Riga was once the second largest Swedish city and then the third largest Russian city!) followed by independence in 1918. However the Russians arrived back in 1940 (when Russia and Germany divided up northern Europe), the Germans 1941-44, then the Russians again until the second (or is it third) independence in 1989 with the break-up of the USSR.
On to Riga. Set on the Daugava River, which allowed it to trade and become a Hanseatic City, Riga grew into a wealthy, walled, medieval city. And guess what, it’s a UNESCO heritage town. We are seeing a few of these; and enjoying them.
Ros found a great hotel right in the old city. Arranging parking was a hoot: “the parking is off site and an attendant will come around and drive your car to the parking lot”. Well…. we weren’t too keen on that and nor was the parking attendant who took six photos of the car and then ran away! Fortunately the hotel had a small court yard and could fit two cars in there and offered this to us.
We walked out and straight into a display of two meter tall bears, over 140 of them, each painted by a respected painter from the different countries represented (Ken Done for Australia). The bears were United Buddy Bears that travel around the world to raise money for children to ensure they have ‘better lives’. Starting in Berlin in 2002, the Exhibition travels around the world promoting “peace, international understanding and tolerance among the nations, cultures and religions of this world”. The bears were in Sydney in 2006, at the Opera House.
Sights on the streets included the town hall and the Blackheads House. Not heard of Blackheads? A Hanseatic guild for unmarried German men (as they were not allowed to mix with the locals). These boys went one further than everyone else: they dragged a pine tree inside for Christmas and decorated it. They started a bit of a tradition! These old cities have many churches (these medieval towns sure do churches well – they are often cheek by jowl) and 3 or 4 cathedrals (one for each brand). across the river the new town has a library that (sort of) reflects the Balckheads house!
Our hotel had a roof top restaurant so we dined there the first night, looking out over numerous spirals and decorated roof tops. The food was excellent and our waiter encouraged us to sample the local firewater, Black Balsam, made from a concoction of herbs such as wormwood, ginger, balsamic oil etc. It came in different varieties (we had a few too many) with different flavourings to add to the taste! (Ros: For those of you familiar with Waterbury’s Compound, the original was very reminiscent of this childhood medicine, but about four times the strength! The one flavoured with blackcurrent was palatable, but a bit like vegemite – an acquired taste!)
As Riga was originally built on islands (as it seems are all the cities we have visited) it still has a canal running off the river and around the city so we took a boat trip. This is an interesting and relaxing way to see the city, docks etc.
We also ventured outside the old city to visit the most amazing collection of art nouveau buildings, constructed between approximately 1890 to 1912. Look up and see the amazing decorations on the over 700 buildings (we are told – we certainly saw a lot): there are geometric designs, mystical beasts, screaming masks, flora, goddesses (often with long braids of hair strategically placed) and numerous different external materials (often on the same building).
As part of the attraction, one building’s apartment has been redecorated in 1910s style. We noticed that some of the features were similar to our ‘Edwardian’ or Federation style house at home.
An advantage of travelling in Europe at this time of year is sport! Watching the Tour de France, Wimbledon, the Open and World Cup semi finals and finals live while having dinner and a beer is great. (Did you hear about the Englishman and Frenchie who met in a bar before the semi finals. The pom said to the frog: we are playing Croatia on Wednesday. The frog says: that’s funny we are playing them on Sunday! And the French did in fact play [and beat] the Croatians on Sunday!).
Overall a great time in Riga, enjoying days of no driving and wandering interesting, cobbled streets and alleyways while stopping in outdoor restaurants for coffee and beer in the warm 25oC plus temperatures.