Riga & Liepaja

Sorry I’m falling behind on my keeping you all updated. I’ve been insanely social and busy, shocking as that may be to some of you. I headed down to Riga, Latvia with the intention of going over to Sigulda and Gauja National Park. Turns out, I loved Riga so much I never made it to Sigulda or Gauja and stayed an extra night in Riga. Riga has been my favourite town on my travels by far (I’ve now made it all the way over to Vilnius, Lithuania). There are varying reasons for this methinks. First of all, it has a really hoppin’ Old Town, but there is also just as much to see (if not more) outside of Old Town as there is in it. I also chose to stay in a hostel due to the fact that I had no internet up in Soomaa so didn’t have time to contact a couchsurfing host and met a lot of really awesome people, which led to a great time.

I got to Riga after 3 days with pretty much no caffeine, no chocolate and no alcohol. Those three days taught me that I’m an addict of chocolate, caffeine and possibly alcohol. However, I’m alright with that, so we’ll overlook it. I got to Riga, dropped of my bags at the hostel, found a phone company to buy a new SIM card and headed to a beer garden for a nice, cold local beer and some grub. For dining in Riga I recommend avoiding the beer gardens unless you are just having some drinks with friends or are there for the live music. There is a great little buffet that is insanely cheap (or as cheap as Latvia can be) called Lido’s and they have a restaurant right near the beer gardens. Go to Lido’s instead.

I ended up staying at the Naughty Squirrel Hostel in the Old Town and I highly recommend it. The owner is an Australian expat and the staff consists of Latvians which means you can get lots of insider information from the locals and there is a great friendly atmosphere. It’s a cheap, clean place to stay (quiet as well) and if you value a bit more privacy but still want cheap and to self-cater they do have a very well stocked kitchen and private rooms available. No, I was not asked to advertise for them and I’m not getting any kickbacks if you book with them through the link on the name. I just highly recommend them.

Anyway, between great conversations with travellers who weren’t constantly trying to one up each other on where they had been and what they’ve done (admittedly something I am shamefully guilty of doing) and cheap beer we had an amazing time. In the evenings we would play kings cup (a drinking game), go to karaoke (my first time. I sang ‘Don’t go breaking my heart’ by Elton John and Kiki Dee with a new friend of mine), or go pub crawling. I even got some pole dance in! I did the obligatory street poling but when we went to a club after karaoke, Jarrod, the owner of the hostel and my new best friend, showed me a dance pole in the lower level of the club. I’ll admit I was so excited that I was not being at all ladylike and was doing butterflies and DVD covers with my dress up around my neck. Thank goodness for full coverage knickers. On top of that, when we went on a pub crawl the next night, the first club had an actual dance pole and I spent the entire time at that club either amazing the crowd with my mad skills (I had to back up my bragging at the hostel) or teaching the guys and random drunk girls how to do basic tandem pole moves. All in all it was a freaking awesome night.

Street poling in Riga between karaoke and a nightclub.
Who doesn’t love a good jagged edge!

Other than the amazing nightlife in Riga there is so much to see, most of it outside of Old Town. Below are just a few of the things that I did that there are to see and do.

Museum of Occupation– This is an absolute must. If you are only stopping in Riga for a day you cannot miss this museum. There is so much to see in there and the way it is set up you really have no idea how long you are there. It covers both Nazi and Soviet occupation in Latvia and has excellent descriptions on the artefacts and information on the occupation in Latvian, English, German and Russian. I went wandering around Riga with two Canadian girls that I met and we spent 2 hours in the museum and didn’t even realise it. They also have a small selection of books on Latvian occupation in English, which I greatly appreciated.

Freedom Monument– Other than being an insanely large obelisk with a Lady Liberty-esque woman on top, there is more than one reason to go. The monument is next to a beautiful park that is split by a canal. We ended up sitting there for the better part of an hour eating ice cream and people watching. Highly recommended.

Russian Orthodox Cathedral– I have come to love the gilding of the Orthodox churches. It is so disgustingly gaudy and speaks of so much wealth that I find it fairly hypocritical of my idea of the Christian faith. It’s one thing for a church to be beautifully decorated, or painted with beautiful murals or to have beautiful stained glass windows, but the Orthodox cathedrals I’ve seen go above and beyond. It’s distractingly painful to the eyes and speaks of immense wealth in the church (at least formerly, if not anymore) and makes me wonder how much of that wealth goes to those in need. Regardless, they are always worth a glance. You aren’t allowed to wear shorts in the Cathedrals and it is exceedingly disrespectful to the religion if you do. Women should be wearing skirts and have their heads covered, but if you are a tourist you can get away with wearing pants.

If you walk out past the central markets (you should go to the central markets for lots of cheap, fresh, delicious food though) past this wretched soviet building you eventually come to a curve in the road. I can forgive most tourists for not making it out that far because there isn’t really anything out there, but I think it is worth going to that particular curve in the road. You’d recognise it when you got there because there is a little monument and the foundations of a stone building. This was the spot of one of the largest synagogues in Latvia but in 1941 I think it was the Nazi’s burned the building with hundreds of Jews inside. There were no survivors.

One more place in Riga that I have to highly recommend, due to my obsession with all things garlic, is Ķiploku Krogs (Garlic Bar). Everything, and I mean EVERYTHING on the menu has an element of garlic. I was in garlic heaven. I went really hungry, but wish I had a bigger stomach because I wanted more. It was also all very decently priced. It was  in a cozy, cellar type building (I think they also have an upstairs) and I very willingly had the garlic and herb bread with extra garlic butter and garlic pesto sauce, the garlic and onion soup (literally just soup made with garlic, onion and broth) and the garlic chicken with ratatouille and rice. Unfortunately I did not find the chicken to be garlicky enough, but I added some of the garlic butter to the rice and it balanced it nicely. Had I been hungry enough I would have tried one of the many garlic desserts, but I just couldn’t fit it in. I couldn’t even finish the main course! For those of you who have been to the Stinking Rose in San Fransisco, this puts that place to shame. If you like garlic you have to visit this restaurant.

Everything on the menu was garlic. Heaven.

Liepāja

So as I stated previously, I ended up staying an extra day in Riga. Originally I really wanted to go up to Cape Kolka, but with bus scheduling and all that I was going to miss the Riga Latvian beer festival so I ended up not going. I will definitely be back in Latvia at some point because there is still so much I want to do, but I’ll spend a bit more time there. At that time I can do Sigulda, Gauja and Cape Kolka.

I did, however, make it to Liepāja, a very small and eh hem…quaint…seaside town. It’s not the main seaside resort town (probably because of the wind and the downtrodden feel of the whole place). I pretty much went just to go see the beach. There frankly isn’t a lot to see there (I was there on Sunday during low season so their 2 museums were closed and I didn’t want to interrupt mass at the churches.) There is a Soviet prison that you can go to and you can either do a 2 hour tour or if you really want an interesting experience you can stay there for all of about $15 and be treated like an actual prisoner with bed checks, being woken up in the middle of the night and forced to do things like push ups and what have you. I was feeling fairly lazy and wasn’t terribly interested in seeing the prison that no one has ever broken out of (allegedly). It was a Soviet prison so they were probably killed before having a chance to escape. I spent the day people watching though and enjoyed a lovely Latvian meal before having to catch my bus down to Klaipeda in Lithuania.

More to come.

What I’m reading nowAmidst Latvians During the Holocaust- Edward Anders. This man was Jewish, lost almost his entire family during the Occupations and World War II. He managed to survive along with his mother and brother (his brother died of illness during the war) by claiming to be half-Jewish on their fathers side and then claiming to be ethnic Aryan German when they sought refuge in Germany. It’s a great read about his perspective living with gentiles during the war and gives an overview on what he did when the war was over and his attempts at recognition for those who died during the war or attempted to resist Nazi and Soviet ideals.

What I’m listening to now: Whatever is playing at the pub that I’m sitting in. Sorry, couldn’t tell you what it is.

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