Originally, we had planned to travel from Moscow to Istanbul, then work our way north and west as we explored eastern Europe. Unfortunately, a failed military coup and resulting formal declaration of a state of emergency left the country unstable enough that we weren’t entirely comfortable with the idea of traveling there. While Jenn was incredibly sad to be missing out on Turkey, one of her top destinations on this trip, we chose instead to head northwest from Moscow, traveling to Latvia’s capital and then heading south.
Our overnight transport to Riga was quite luxurious despite the inexpensive tickets – a brand new bus with huge seats that reclined to nearly-horizontal, legroom that might have accommodated your average NBA player, and individual televisions and power outlets. This, again, was a change from what we had grown accustomed to in Asia, where we had ceased to be surprised when our chairs were not attached to the floor, or the only entertainment was betting whether live chickens or a full-sized motorcycle would be the next thing into the baggage compartment.
Thanks to an arrival nearly 3 hours early, our apartment was not yet ready so we headed for a vegetarian restaurant I found online. At this point, Jenn had gone nearly 10 days without real food – with very little to offer vegetarians in Mongolia and aboard the Trans-Siberian, she was desperate to sit down and eat an actual meal. While I’m usually ambivalent about purely vegetarian places, this menu looked delicious, and the Fat Pumpkin did not disappoint. We were immediately greeted by the cheerful and gregarious Dutch owner, who chatted with us for a while before bringing an order of some of the best pancakes I’ve ever had. Rich, hearty pancakes layered with fresh strawberries and bananas, and served on top (and with a side) of homemade strawberry jam, they were gone almost before he had stepped away from the table. After refilling Jenn’s teapot, he was back a moment later with another espresso for me and an apology that, apparently, he was making up for failing to ask me if I wanted another one. Much to his amusement, a mere hour or so after our late breakfast, after finishing our beverages and chatting for a while, we proceeded to order lunch. His pseudo-burger menu turned out to be every bit as excellent as the pancakes, causing Jenn to declare it one of the happiest places on Earth and asking if I could just leave her there with their enormous selection of raw cakes and smoothies.
After dropping our gear in the apartment, we turned around and struck off for the old town. Riga’s historic center is a UNESCO world heritage site, and consists of a confusing nest of twisting, interconnected cobblestone streets, often running into blind alleys or narrow passageways, or suddenly opening into large squares headed by lovely brick churches, nearly all of them with some variety of large clock showcased on the steeple. Lining both sides of the streets are small, attractive cafés and bars, whose pleasant open-air tables beckon, inviting you to spend the entire day visiting them one-by-one, drinking coffees, eating pastries and watching the world go by. At nearly every open area, a musician had taken up his instrument of choice, with notes of accordions, strings and woodwinds threading through the air. Even a bass opera singer filled one of the plazas with his resonant voice. It seemed impossibly quaint.
We fought off the urge to stop at every single café and instead walked up and down the streets, admiring the art nouveau architecture and medieval-era buildings. Overlooking one of the squares was the detailed façade of the House of the Blackheads, constructed in the early 14th century for the Brotherhood of the Blackheads, a guild for unmarried merchants. Some historians have suggested that this guild is responsible for the first documented use of a Christmas tree, when decorated trees were placed in the guild houses or squares during the winter holidays, and used as central gathering places for holiday celebrations.
Adjacent to the old town, the central market in Riga attracts a huge number of local farmers and merchants. The market is housed in and around a series of old zeppelin hangars, with each hangar having a “specialty” – one hangar was full of baked goods and cheeses, while another contained every cut and type of meat imaginable, while still another announced its smelly contents as containing seafood of all kinds. Outside, vendors sold a colorful and bewildering variety of fruits and vegetables, some of which we had never seen. The selection was amazing, and the prices even better – after choosing a few pastries and a couple fresh-from-the-oil donuts, I still had change left from my Euro (~$1 USD). Jenn was delighted with half a kilo of the most amazing raspberries for a mere $2 USD. We chose a random array of vegetables and potatoes to cook for dinner, ending up with a huge, filling meal (and leftovers) for under $2 USD. A market like that could make grocery shopping significantly less of a chore!
During our exploration of the town, we naturally had to try some local food and drink. Zeppelins, grated potato molded around a meat filling and served with a creamy sauce, were both popular and delicious. While milling around the market, I saw someone selling cups of brown liquid to locals and, naturally, had to try the mystery juice. It turned out to be kvass, a drink made from fermented rye bread. Though it’s formally declared a non-alcoholic beverage, it actually contains a little bit of alcohol – around 1–1.5%. What was not low in alcohol, however, was the sampling of Latvian liquors we tried at a restaurant. Among them was Black Balsam, a traditional Latvian, herbal liqueur (45% ABV) that’s claimed to be made from 24 ingredients and dates back to the 1700s. Black Balsam is everywhere in Riga, with signs claiming that you haven’t been to Riga if you haven’t tried the popular liqueur, where local people often use it in coffee, tea and ice cream. We also tried kümmel, a similarly high-alcohol liquor made with caraway seeds, whose Dutch recipe dates back to 1575.
For our last full day in Latvia, we made an excursion to the seaside town of Jūrmala. The easy, cheap train ride (~30 minutes and costing $1.20 USD/person, one-way) brought us to the coastal town on the edge of the Baltic Sea, where high-ranking communist leaders would vacation during the Soviet occupation of Latvia. The pleasant, sleepy town has an excellent walking street, where an endless selection of food, ice cream and souvenirs was available, and long stretches of easily accessible beach stretched before us. During our visit, the moderate temperatures were not enough to overcome the chilling effect of the coastal wind, but we dipped our feet in the crisp Baltic (~63°F), watched some seriously competitive beach volleyball, and enjoyed a day along the ocean.
Contrary to our initial arrival in Asia, we could not have hoped for a better entrance into eastern Europe. Riga’s old town fits nearly every wonderful cliché about small, European cities.