Post written by Laura
Date visited: July 2006
Today begins a series of three short TBT posts which cover three capital cities visited as part of a mini Baltic backpacking trip. For each of these cities I will extract the highlights of each:
I’ve found that producing these posts has been quite an eye-opener. It is surprising how much forgotten detail has forced me to search deep into the recess of my memory to even remember visiting some of the places. For example, I found notes and photographs of a place in Latvia called Sigulda and I had forgotten ever having been there!
This shows how easy it is to forget events of the past and the benefits of keeping a journal should you wish to remember more detail about places visited.
Having arrived at Riga Airport at 7.15 pm I was amazed to step off the plane into temperatures in excess of 30 degrees! The Balkan countries were experiencing a heatwave at that time. The airport was clean, modern and airy and an 8 seater taxi provided the transfer straight to the Kings Court Hostel where I would be staying for the next 3 nights.
Having obtained a map from the hostel reception myself and my travel companion made our way towards the Old Town which took around 20 minutes. The straight streets were almost like a grid with tall nondescript buildings on either side of the quiet roads.
The Old Town was pedestrianised and here we came across a square full of open air restaurants which reminded me of Prague’s old town square although smaller. All of the bars were busy however we found a table, sat outside in the heat and I enjoyed a cocktail.
After one drink it was time for food and after more wandering around we found another square where we had a meal in one of the open air restaurants. The service was really slow but the staff were busy and rushed off their feet! The World Cup 3rd and 4th place game was taking place between Germany and Portugal which resulted in a few excitable Germans!
We had a selection of cheeses together with a bottle of Chardonnay for a starter which was delicious. The cheese was warm and oozing and consisted of a couple of chunks of blue cheese and some that was similar to Dutch Gouda. It felt a bit unusual to be having cheese before the main meal instead of after!
The main course kebabs and chips was fairly average but the bill for two with the wine, starters, mains and another drink each was only the equivalent of around £28.
It had got dark during the meal and was getting late when we walked back to the hostel. This should have taken 20 minutes but it took an hour to find as the streets all looked the same. Back then we didn’t have Google maps!
After a good nights sleep and a basic breakfast of coffee, toast and jam we headed to a nearby bus stop. We had spoken with a couple of English backpackers at breakfast who had suggested a boat trip for £1 and also that a bus to the Old Town would cost only 20p.
The first thing we did was to locate St Peters Church, a large church in the centre of Riga. This church had a tower and also a lift even better it had a lift! The panoramic views from the top were amazing and provided a great perspective of the city!
Upon continuing our walk through the cobbled streets of Riga Old Town we came across a tourist information place where we obtained guidance of interesting things to do.
Rathausplatz is a large cobbled square where historical landmark buildings such as the Town Hall and the House of the Black Heads can be found. This medieval 13th century market square was rebuilt after the 2nd world war. If you are interesting in learning more about the House of the Black Heads you could visit their website and took a tour.
We walked to the river but couldn’t see any available boat trips so instead we found a cafe where we shared more wine and cheese which was similar to that we enjoyed last night.
We spent the day exploring the picturesque and historic streets of Riga and generally soaking up the atmosphere in the gorgeous hot weather.
Riga Central Market is the largest in Europe and was constructed in the late 1920’s in art deco style from reusing German hangers. We had a look in the huge indoor market which sold fruit and vegetables, meat, fish and a whole range of regional produce.
We had located the venue for the £1 boat trip and did this at 4 pm. This took an hour as the boat sailed up the river, round an island with a huge TV tower, up to another bridge and back again. It was extremely hot this afternoon so quite refreshing to have taken a river boat trip.
From the boat trip we walked to Bastejkalna Park which was pleasant and well maintained. There are many benches and here we enjoyed a fruit ice-cream sundae while sitting near a small river.
Once rested we headed back through a shopping centre to the Old Town and as it was 7 pm by now we located a restaurant which had been recommended by the tourist information centre.
We had asked for recommendations for somewhere traditional and atmospheric. We were not disappointed! The restaurant was located down some stairs in a converted cellar. We had a fantastic Armenian style meal. Not exactly traditional Latvian but possibly similar! We enjoyed a feast which began with thin flatbread and a delicious Armenian sauce to dip the bread into.
Next arrived a large plate of mixed meats served with a Greek salad for starters. I had pork for my main course which was really nice but I was too full from the starter to eat much. This was all washed down with a lovely bottle of Chilean Merlot. This lot came to £28 pounds and also included a Tequila Sunrise and a beer. The food, service, price and atmosphere were excellent.
We decided to get the bus back to the hostel, which we did, but still managed to get lost once we got off the bus. Eventually we found it!
Day trip to Sigulda and the Gauja National Park
We arrived by bus back into the Old Town and located the starting point of the excursion which was a mini bus bound for Sigulda. We didn’t have to book the trip and the greater the number of people the cheaper the cost! Once there were five of us on board (us, a Norwegian couple and an older English guy) the driver set off.
We were driven through Riga and onto the main highway to Segula, 52 km away. We drove most of the way through forests and learned that over 50% of northern Latvia is still covered in forests.
As we approached the Gauja National Park our first port of call was the castle ruins of Krimulda. The castle dates from the 14th century and was destroyed in a war in 1601. The ruins offer scenic views of the Gauja valley in which it’s located.
Next we stopped to have a look at Gutmanis Cave which is the largest cave in the Baltics. It started forming over 10,000 years ago shortly after the Ice Age when the sandstone rock started to be eroded by meltwater. The cave is said to be shrouded in myth and legend. The cave walls contain inscriptions and graffiti from the 19th and early 20th centuries.
The Gauja National Park is considered to be the adventure capital of Latvia and you can participate in many activities including hiking through its extensive range of trails as well as kayaking, cycling and camping.
Next we stopped at Turaida Castle and began with a relaxing wander around the sculpture garden where about 25 different sculptures can be found.
At Turaida Castle we went into a small museum, had a look around the castle then climbed to the top of the tower for magnificent views of the Gauja Valley.
We stopped for lunch in a weird quirky restaurant called Raganas Kēķis which was themed with trolls! Trolls were everywhere including on their own table in the garden. The food was reasonable. I had some cold beetroot soup for starters which tasted better than it sounded and my main course looked like a pizza but was actually some kind of pork schnizel.
The final part of the trip was to the coast where we had a short time to walk across the sand dunes and have a quick paddle in the sea. The sand was lovely and soft but in this current heatwave, it was very hot.
We arrived back in Riga at around 5 pm and headed straight to the Radisson Blue Hotel. Up on Floor 26 there was a panoramic sky bar with fantastic views over the city. We had a couple of cocktails each, all made using ‘proper’ spirits and fresh fruit and very cheap, probably about half the cost of something similar in London.
We stayed there for a while, admiring the views and enjoying a bit of sophistication with the cocktails.
That night we skipped dinner, brought some snacks and had an early night ready for our early bus to Tallinn the next morning.
The next day
Following an early start when the alarm went off at 5 am we were soon setting off towards the main bus station ready for the next destination of our Baltic adventures.
There were a few people about, including those who were still leftover from the night before, people going work and a puzzlingly large number of elderly ladies in floral print dresses.
Anyway – with buses and trams being in rather short supply we walked through the train station and to the bus station. Upon arrival at about 6 am we located our bus gate number and waited for our bus to arrive.
The Eurolines bus arrived at 6:15 am and the bus left promptly at 6:30 am with 300 km to go. Within an hour or so we had been trundling along the Latvian countryside with an almost constant landscape of trees and forests. A gap in the trees revealed the sea and sandy beaches.
We came to some roadworks but this didn’t result particularly in traffic jams, just lots of traffic lights which meant we kept stopping.
Upon arrival at the Estonia border an official boarded the bus and checked everyone’s passport’s. From there we had crossed into Estonia where we stopped at Parnu although I don’t think any new passengers boarded the bus.
A few days in Riga is highly recommended! With its preserved Old Town, historic buildings lining the cobbled streets and good quality restaurants Riga makes the ideal city for a short break. And the low prices make it even more attractive.