Final hours in Latvia and reflections on another chapter of ‘Around the world in a bit of a haze’. AKA ‘A Really Rough Guide to Riga’?
For the first time in a week, slumber is terminated by an alarm. A lie-in is not an option today, unless we want a Latvian cleaner kicking us out of bed or to miss our flight. I still press snooze a few times but eventually drag myself out of bed, make coffee and ablute.
I pack as quickly as I can and am ready to go out for breakfast, then get frustrated by my favourite fiancé not moving with the same urgency. She then tells me check out is an hour later than I thought. I consider going back to bed. I don’t. We stroll, with all the time in the world, down to the place without a name.
We haven’t had a bad meal since we arrived. I generally like to try out as many eateries as possible, but This Place Doesn’t Need a Name impressed us, so we have come back again confident that our last meal in the city would be spot on.
Peppo’s, the best pizza in Latvia and 49th best in Europe is another place we have revisited, confident that a good meal would be in store. In fact we probably went back more often than we should have.
Both of the aforementioned were out of this world and I would recommend them to anyone. The Colonel Bar and Grill, the pub next door to our apartment is another place we ate at several times. To be honest, this was because it was so convenient for us and the staff were incredibly friendly. The food was quite nice but they didn’t have a massive range of vegetarian dishes.
The same could be said for most places. Many of the shops sold a wide variety of sandwiches and snacks, but very few of them were veggie. One pub even had a vegetarian section on their menu, which contained a list of fish dishes. I’m sure if we were fussy and looked harder we would have found vegetarian and vegan restaurants, but it’s just not how they roll here in Latvia.
We have time to kill, so I surf the book of faces. I spot mates sharing photos of Riga and things I’ve not seen. There’s the huge indoor market and the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia; I’d fancied both of them, but didn’t have time. My mate Nathan posted pictures taken from a tower somewhere, looking down on the old town with an amazing view. I didn’t even know that was an option. I’m not sure where it was, probably a church tower. I had also wanted to visit Kanepes Kulturas Centre, but never got around to it.
Wales Away involves compromises. I despair when I see lads that spend the entire trip in the pub. You can do that at home. But if you want spend the entire trip doing touristy stuff, there are fifty-one other weeks in a year to do that, and probably cheaper: accommodation and flights tend to go up in price around the football.
So whilst I am mildly frustrated by the things I could have and should have seen and done, I wouldn’t for the world have missed drinking shots till 6am in a bar that resembled the bar in Star Wars; laughing my head off sat with the Caerphilly Massive and the unadulterated joy at the final whistle in that ramshackle stadium. I’ll never forget Posh coming back to her seat after doing a royal tour and spending ten minutes talking to Becks, not realising he had gone and someone else was in his seat. It’s their honeymoon for gawdsake, the romance is dead already.
Of the things we did do:
Boat trip on the canal was probably top highlight. Don’t bother with the river cruise, the canal boats can go on the river, but the river boats can’t go on the canal. It is a thoroughly relaxing hour well spent, although I’m not sure I would want to be out on the river in stormy weather.
The Hop on Hop off bus is OK. Although £25 to drive around the lesser interesting features (it can’t drive in the pedestrianised old town) might not be best use of time and money if only in the hood for a few days.
I’ve always preferred walking tours. They help you get to know your way around and you learn the history of the buildings and landmarks that frame the town. There are loads of them to go on, some free, some inexplicably expenseive. We cheated this week though, and went on a little mini road train thing, which was the equivalent of running around town and stopping to look at points of interest. But without the actual running. It would probably be simple enough to get a guide book and do your own tour: the old town is big enough to stop you getting bored in a weekend, but small enough for you to never get lost.
I hasten to add, all of the above is very much centred on the ‘old town’, which is an Instagrammers wet dream and very touristy. There is obviously much more to the city and indeed the country. I wouldn’t expect every city in Latvia to be like Riga, but I’m definitely sold on the idea of checking out other cities and experiencing real life in the country, before it becomes a tourist destination.
The Blue Flag rated Varkabulli Beach is a short bus trip from the town and stretches for sixteen glorious miles of Baltic coast. The Baltic coast does not sound as inviting as the Mediterranean coast. For me it conjures images of herring, vodka and furry hats. But for our visit in early autumn, the weather was dry and in the high twenties of the centigrades. And I would imagine it is less busy than Benidorm, Ibiza or Porthcawl.
The one downside is the mosquitos. I got bitten more than any other trip I have ever been on. When in Croatia you could see the little bastards everywhere, I spent half the trip swatting them and when they bit you, you knew it. Here they are invisible and sneaky. You don’t know you have been bit till the next day. A bit like Jagerbombs.
A wild card highlight for me was the Cosmos Exhibition of Optical Illusions. It made me grin for a good hour. I won’t say too much, for fear of spoiling your visit.
Between being evicted from Air B’n’B and being picked up by minibus, we sit for a coffee outside a nice old coffee house. Well, most of us do.
Third favourite son goes for a McDonald’s. They do say the Golden Arches of McDonald’s are recognised around the world by more people than the Christian Cross. Who ‘they’ are I’m not sure, and how they came to this conclusion is anyone’s guess. It could be one of those urban myths that have been repeated so many times people think they are true. Like ‘you are never more than fourteen feet from someone who knows a fact about rats’, or ‘seagulls only defecate in flight whilst pigeons only do it when perched’.
Whilst there is a McDonald’s, there’s only one, that we saw. And it is the only evidence of globalisation we see, there are no other western chains, like KFC, WH Smith’s or Greggs that strip many cities of their originality. I didn’t even see an Irish Bar. it is unique and original, there’s only one Riga Old Town.
Sketchy Bloke walks past. He’s a fascinating, enigmatic character. He is about all hours of the day. He sits on a little stool sketching random people, then tries to sell the unsuspecting model the result. He doesn’t hang about or try to argue, you don’t need to tell him no twice, he just walks off. I can only assume that he gets a kick out of doing the sketching; practicing and perfecting his art, any profit being a bonus. He’s probably a local legend. He does me three times. I buy my sketch once, but he has others. We wonder if he goes around looking for other handsome Robert De Niro look alikes to sell his spares to.
We find lots of walking tours stopping to talk about us in a variety of foreign languages. Maybe it is because the coffee shop we are in was established in 1871 and was a hideout for dissident poets during the Soviet era, or maybe it is because they have all bought a sketch of me.
Eventually it’s time to get the minibus to the airport. Once again the driver is incredibly friendly and gives us a mini history tour. He tells us of famous black cat statues that used to moon at the guild of crafty people because the owner of the building on which the statues were erected was barred from becoming a guild member.
There are no queues at the airport and we go through security quicker than you can say, “bend over and brace yourself”. I am randomly picked out for a quick drugs test. Or it might have been an explosives test. I’m not really sure, he just swabs my bag, my trousers and my hands. It’s obviously not a piss test because no alarm bells go off. It’s certainly a less stressful than when I excited an Estonian sniffer dog in Tallin.
The airport is really nice. Orignally built in 1973 and fully refurbished in 2001 it is a bit of a hub, with many connecting flights stopping here. There are relaxing bars to, erm, relax in before you fly. Which is frustratingly ironic. When we were on the way out we wanted a drink, but Gatwick is carnage, nothing relaxing about it. Today we have to drive the other end so give the bars a miss.
Again we fly on an Airbus 220, which apparently is one of the greenest airplanes in the sky. Today’s cabin crew are mostly female with one token bloke. He looks like a cross between Snooker player Willie Thorne and Wooly Willy, the game where you could draw moustaches and shit with a magnet and iron fillings on a blank face.
We have to abort our first attempt to land because there is another plane coming the other way, but it is not long before we are on the tarmac.
Despite horror stories about queues to go through customs, we fly through security again, with literally no queue at all.
APH airport parking are super efficient and we are soon flying down the M4 plotting our next adventure.
In conclusion, I generally want to visit as many different places as I can, and try to avoid going back again. I’d rather get more destinations in than repeat. For me, the measure of how good a city is, would I go back again. Would I go back to Riga again? Absofuckinglutely. An amazing place.
But don’t take my word for it.
For all the other blog posts from this trip to Latvia, check out the Latvia Tag here