Thursday, 30 April 2015

Postcards from Riga - tour of Riga Old Town

Latvia is like Finland. Only smaller, prettier, more European and international and, unlike in Finland, everything wine is sold at supermarkets. And petrol stations. So, not at all like Finland, then. 

Latvians on the other hands feel very familiar and Finnish. A bit shy at first and not ones to make a fuss about themselves. You know, self-deprecating, much like my countrymen. Though they have plenty to be proud of - take Olympic Games for instance. This tiny nation has more medals per million inhabitants than any other country in the world. Yes, that's including US and Russia!

In many ways our histories are similar, too. Both small (and by my own admission, rather insignificant, too) nations, throughout our history being tossed around by super powers of the time. Latvia, for instance, has managed to find time to be under the rule of Germany, Poland, Lithuania, Sweden and that Russia, of course. As my own country all too well knows, they just love getting their hands on what's not theirs.

Riga was officially founded already in 1201. Its importance grew even more when the city joined the Hanseatic League in 1282 and still, during the Sweden's rule in 17th century, it was the biggest city in the whole Swedish Empire. 

The Old Town is a charming and colourful mix of buildings and fortresses built between 13th and 18th century.

On an April Sunday the city was very quiet and at times I had the narrow, cobble-stones streets all to myself!

This is one of those places where you should switch off your GPS and stash away that map and just get lost instead. Wander, wonder, explore and adore. Behind every building there's something even more beautiful just waiting to be discovered; a new surprise waiting for you around each new corner. 

And don't forget to lift your eyes up every now and then and adore what's peeking up there...

... or to take a sneaky glimpse through that gate and see what that courtyard is hiding.

Take some time to sit around in the adorable little cafes and restaurants too (you need to keep your energy levels up, after all!) - as you'll soon find out, the city is full of them!

This restaurant (apparently a good one, too!) at the corner of Jauniela and Krāmu iela-streets is one of the most photographed ones in the Old City and I can certainly see why. The street view in front of it is every bit as picturesque, too. Quite possibly the most beautiful street I've ever seen!

For those after architectural eye candy Riga is a candy store. It's famous for its thousands of Art Nouveau-buildings which has won her a place among UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Riga saw a massive building book at the turn of the last century and most of the current city centre was built in the span of just a couple of decades at the end of 19th century and the beginning of 20th century.

Riga is also home to astonishing number of old wooden buildings (some 4000 of them) out of which oldest ones date back to 18th century. The historic centre is an eclectic mix of old and new: glorious Notting Hill-like buildings towering over run-down little houses with lace curtains peering through the windows.

"The only good thing to come out of the Soviet Era was the fact that they didn't have money to touch these buildings and replace them with something dreadfully modern", The Boy Next Door pointed out. 

I have often (not just in Latvian tourism brochures, mind) hear Riga being called as the Paris of the Baltics and that doesn't surprise me. With this history, rich culture, architecture... Especially in the moonlight the resemblance becomes all the more obvious.

Don't you just love her already? What did you like best?

Hey, where to now? Are you getting hungry? 

Should we check out the markets, explore some more history or sit down and enjoy one of Riga's many restaurants?



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Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Semarah Hotel Metropole Riga - The Hotel to stay at in Riga

As for hotels, there's plenty to choose from in Riga. From hostels equipped with Finnish bars (?) to luxury spa hotels. Our home for the 5 memorable days we spent in Latvia was recently refurbished Metropole, part of the local Semarah chain. The location was perfect for our (admittedly very middle-aged-sounding) needs: all the restaurants were within walking distance and the opera (!!!) was just across the street.

I was slightly pissed at Air Baltic after our flight was delayed two hours (why, oh why won't they notify passengers with as much as a text message?!) but all that melted away the moment we walked into the hotel.

The lobby was a mind-blowing mix of Versace-like over-the-top opulence jazzed up with some very modern accents. I, ever the lover of anything bling, was sold on the spot.

Outside the reception area and restaurant the atmosphere was, along with its Art Nouveau-style signs,  straight out of Agatha Christie novel.

The feel of the rooms varies from room to another. Our Classic room was adorably old-fashioned, but clean and cosy. Rooms in this category have no tubs, so we had to do with showers. As a result, there were no robes either. 

Though, with the packed schedule we had, we only popped in to get some sleep and for that the room served its purpose brilliantly: the beds were heavenly. Hotel Wi-Fi was everything it should: free and fully functional everywhere in the hotel.

Breakfast left absolutely no room for improvement - it was one of the best hotel breakfasts I've ever had. There was everything and plenty of it. 

The Boy Next Door raved about the local cheeses (Latvia is famous for them and they truly keep additives and preservatives to minimum!) and I couldn't get enough of the charcuterie. Or the fish selection: there was herring, smoked fish,salmon and mackerel. Wide selection of breads changed each breakfast and there was wide variety of sweet treats, too. 

The hotel staff's great, friendly service deserves its own entry.

I was also happy to discover a proper tea selection as opposed to the Earl Grey too many hotels offer as their only option. Let's go through this one more time. Earl Grey is for afternoon teas. At breakfast you drink English Breakfast Blend (see the connection?)

A strong recommendation for anyone heading to Riga. There's also a spa close by where the hotel residents get a discount. And hey - residents also get 15% off everything in the hotel's gastro pub-style restaurant!

I hope you're all well rested and full of energy to continue our excursion! Where to now? Shall we start touring the Old Town or do you feel like doing some culture?



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Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Destination: Riga

Travelling has its definite upsides. But, as you learn when peering through sleepy eyelids in a desperate attempt to get some of that conditioner into that minuscule bottle safety regulations allow you to have on you in the middle of the night, only hours before you're expected at the airport, there are some downsides, too. Or, as you're forced to display all your possessions for the whole world to see at the X-ray machines (do not, I repeat, DO NOT ever travel with handcuffs. Just don't). "Any liquids? Electronics? Sharp objects? Some dignity still left?"

Guess the baffled answer of yours truly when asked if I had any tablets on me? "Sure, but they're all prescription-free..." (And none of them say Apple or Samsung!)

One of the best thing about travelling is exploring new places and meeting new people, but as the last-minute packing operation drags on I find it increasingly difficult to feel any sympathy for people whose idea of in-flight entertainment is a terrorist attack. Seriously - you can always switch the channel! You don't have to watch those dreadful Canadian hidden camera shows!

(Why is it by the way, that the packing always gets left to the last possible moment? You've been counting down minutes to the holiday ever since you booked the flights, yet it always comes as a surprise that pajamas are still not the desirable attire anywhere in the world?)

What ever the destination is, excitement fills me with such giddiness I find it hard to sleep the night before anyway.What if I forgot to pack something (the only time in West Bank I didn't pack my trusty little black dress just in case, I got invited to meet the President)? What if I fail to wake up (that's happened too and so I missed a plane to Ireland)? What if I've packed all wrong things (yes, that too is possible...)?

I learnt a lesson in the last example during my first summer Israel. I had carefully built a capsule wardrobe that was supposed to see me through any occasion. Key colour being my favourite at the time: orange. As I got to Israel I congratulated myself on a good choice - orange seemed to be the trendiest colour around and the locals welcomed me with such warmth it was unheard of. 

A couple of days into my visit I learnt why. That was the summer of Gaza disengagement and orange colour had become the symbol of resistance to it and it was used to show solidarity to the settlers that faced eviction from Gaza. Whoopsydaisies. Though, how often do you ever have a politically pressing reasons to hit the shops in the search of a new wardrobe?

Due to the strange course my life has taken, my travels have followed the same pattern year in, year out. A couple of trips to Tallinn and Stockholm, summer somewhere in the Middle East and Spain every chance I got. I can't even remember the last time I travelled somewhere For The Very First Time

See, first times are always special. Be them... well, you get the point. Special. 

I was so ashamed to realize how little I knew about our next destination. The only thing I knew for a fact was that it was the Baltic country that wasn't Lithuania. I wouldn't have even been able to put it on the map!

So, in case you too are as ignorant, here's some information on the country that, until July, will act as the President of EU:

- Latvia became independent in 1918... and again in 1991 as the Soviet Union that had been occupying it since 1940, crumbled at last.
- The population of Latvia is about 2 million, out of which at least 300 000 (up to 30% according to some, though) are Russians. So, not entirely tension-free then.
- The written language was formalized in the late 17th century. Latvian language is related to neighbouring Lithuanian language, but not to Estonian (?) 
- Latvia's flag is among the oldest in the world and dates back to 13th century. According to a legend it was born as a white cloth was wrapped around a local chief who'd been wounded in a battle. His blood coloured the edges of the fabric red, leaving the centre white. 
- The national bird of Latvia is white wagtail, but the bird they're most famous for is stork. At least 10% of world's stork population nests here.
- Latvia gets its fair share of rain that falls mainly on the plain - the highest point of the country only measures 312 metres. So, if you intend to set up a base camp for your Mt.Everest training... this is probably not the country for you.
- Mikhail Baryshnikov (you know, the sculptor guy on Sex and the City) who defected the Soviet for Canada (and ballet dancing for acting) was born in Riga. The most popular Latvian though? Arvīds Blūmentāls from Dundaga. Oh, never heard of him? Well, maybe you've heard of the film that was modelled after him? Crocodile Dundee...?
- Latvia is also home to the widest waterfall in Europe. Ventas Rumba, located in Kuldīga, measures a whopping 110 metres in width. Though only about 2 metres in height...
- As far as gender equality goes, these guys rock. Out of those in senior managerial positions 44% are women. In Germany for instance that figure is  about 14%.
-Latvians are a nation which love to sing. Every five years they host Latvian Song and Dance amateur choral festival that brings together tens of thousands of performers for 3-day-festivities. Next one will be held in July 2018.

So, travelling in the countries close by really does have its perks. No visas, no stressing about which way to move the clocks. No lengthy flights, no hours and hours spent waiting in transit halls... a perfect weekend mini-break is just an hour away!

At the same time everything is new and exciting and yet, as globalization shrinks the world and brings down barriers, strangely familiar. The radio blasts the same hits everywhere, only language they're introduced is different. Everywhere you go, you're greeted by the same shops, only with price tags in different currency. The cinemas all show the same films, only with the names transformed to suit the local alphabets.

Latvia turned out to be the perfect destination in every way. The journey there took way less than a ferry to Tallinn and the beauty of the city in all its Art Nouveau glory was incredible. Same time zone, same currency, same voltage. Our first time will definitely not be the last.

Hey - do look outside for a moment! One of the things I never tire of when on a plane is the clouds. Still today, after hundreds of planes I've sat in, I giggle like a little kid as the plane dives into the them and hey presto -  I'm on cloud nine. Literally.

Just as I'll never understand how the planes manage to stay on air, I'll never understand the clouds. What do you mean I can't touch them? What do you mean I can't walk on them? What do you mean I can't wrap myself in them? What do you mean they "probably wouldn't taste like vanilla soft ice cream"?

But ooh - would you just look at them! Much like the eerie volcanic landscape of Cappadocia or the out-of-this-word-scenery at Nerja caves imagination is the only limit when deciphering the formations. 

Like these little babies. They look just like little sheep who just decided to take a nap...

Look at me, totally derailed. I'd better stop babbling as we don't have much time - you can already see the land! So, fasten your seat belts and get read for landing. The holiday is about to begin!

Laipni lūgti Latvijā - welcome to Latvia, everyone!

How familiar are Latvia and Riga to you guys? Recommendations? Suggestions? Where to now - shall we check out the hotel or start exploring Riga's beautiful Old Town straight away?



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