Low cost airlines sometimes have flights to destinations you maybe hadn’t considered before. Always up to try something new, I arrived in Riga, the capital city of Latvia and stayed in a very affordable AirB&B in the city centre. English is widely spoken and it only cost 12 euro to get from the airport using a Bolt (car ride service)
Split between and old and new city, we stayed the beautiful and compact old town.
Riga was settled 800 years ago and has been ruled by the Germans, Poles, Scandinavians and Russians during this time. I would recommend booking on to one of the walking tours, which will help get your bearings and a chance to learn more about the city and it’s inhabitants.
The city became rich as a Balkan trading hub and buildings like the Black Head House was built by the wealthy merchant guilds (so called because their patron saint was the dark skinned Egyptian Saint Maurice).
Local food, like a lot Eastern European countries is big on dark dense breads, potatoes and pork (vegetarian offerings are available but you might need to look around). The local pototo pancakes, served with creamy mushroom sauce was the perfect meal after being out in the cold sightseeing. (word of advice, the old town is mainly paved with sometimes uneven cobblestones, so be sure to wear flat thick soled shoes). The local drink you’ll find everywhere is called black balsam and was originally brewed as a medicine. It tastes like a cross between cough syrup and Jeager Meister and is 45% proof, and drank either in shots or cocktails and will blow your socks off.
For foodies Riga has a really excellent food market, selling local smoked fish, caviar, cheese, vegetables, sweets, pastries, bread and honey. It’s housed in old zeplin hangars close the river and you can also find places inside to have lunch
As you head to the edges of the old town you’ll some amazing Art Nouveau buildings (if you’re an architecture nerd, Riga is the place for you).
I knew very little about Riga and during conversations with some locals and visiting Lithuanians it was interesting to learn about their concerns over the current war in Ukraine. I had no idea of how badly both countries had been treated during the Stalin era. 45,000 Latvians, mainly the intelligencia and professionals were sent to Siberian gulags after the second war and the survivors were only allowed to return after Stalin’s death. Those who were able to return were kept under surveillance and forced to live 100km from main cities, meaning they could not practice their professions or gain an education.
Stalin also moved 600,000 Russians into Latvia, completely changing the demographic of the country. Currently Riga is made up of 60% people of Russian descent and 40% Latvian (in the rest of the country it’s 60% Latvian and 40% Russian). In Riga both communities live separately, living in different areas, attending separate schools etc. I got the sense that there is under lying tension between the communities.
Both the Latvians and Lithuanians spoke about how they are sending support to Ukraine and how they’re stock piling food, fuel etc, or have escape plans in place if Ukraine is completely over run by Russian forces. It was sobering to consider the knock on effect the Ukrainian conflict was having on its neighbours, and is one of the reasons why it’s important to travel and learn a bit more about the world and what’s happening in it. . Despite this I would encourage anyone to visit the city, it’s a beautiful place with great people.