Riga, the capital of Lativa, the first of the 3 countries I would be visiting before my long flight to Singapore. A former property of the USSR through military oppression, today Latvia is now a fascinating blend of old Soviet meets modern Europe. I had so much to learn but so little time.
With that in mind, the first thing I did on arrival at my hostel was to have a shot of alcohol, a local spirit called Riga Black Balsam. The girl at reception poured me the shot on check-in, it was a welcome tradition at the hostel. The backstory goes that the drink was originally created by a black smith, who also moonlighted as a pharmacist. The drink was a rather strong mixture of vodka and herbs and was supposed to cure everything, from broken bones to broken hearts. It tasted very rough, like a mixture of Jagermeister and cough syrup. Definitely the type of drink you would expect a blacksmith to make.
After polishing off the shot and dropping off my bags, I went to attend a free walking tour. I have always been a big fan of free walking tours, there is no better way of learning about the history of a city than to be guided around by a well informed, passionate individual, usually a history student. Our guide today was all of those. There is so much history to talk about it is difficult to condense for a travel photography blog, but I will try.
The history of Latvia is similar to that of Estonia and Lithuania, the three of which are known collectively as the Baltic States. These countries spent most of their modern history being invaded and oppressed by their larger neighbours, particularly Russia. During the aftermath of World War I, Latvia declared independence and was immediately invaded by Russian, the Latvian War of Independence followed with the Russians being successfully driven out. This independence was short lived however as during the chaos of the Second World War, Latvia was once again absorbed by Russia to become part of the USSR. It wasn't then until 1991 and the collapse of the USSR that Latvia finally regain it's hard fought independence. They quickly applied and were accepted for EU membership. With EU and NATO membership, Latvia's independence should now be guaranteed. Another important EU contribution was funding. After the USSR was ousted from Latvia the industrial areas of the city, which had already been deeply neglected, were left abandoned. These areas quickly became uninhabitable crime hotspots, however with EU grants, they were transformed into modern housing, museums, art exhibitions and public spaces. All very nice areas as we saw on our tour.
A monument to Freedom
Or to Russia, depending on where you are from
The tour ended outside the Freedom Monument, a 42 meter high statue built to commemorate those who died in the Latvian War of Independence. It was first unveiled back in 1935. After Latvia was again absorbed by Russia, the statue was listed for demolition as it was very anti-soviet. However the statue did survive due to various reasons and last minute interventions. Instead Russia attempted to rewrite the meaning of the monument. Rather than it being a symbol of freedom with the three stars representing the three states of Latvia, in Russian books the statue represents Mother Russia holding up the three Baltic countries. I can't decide what is worse. Today the statue is proudly guarded by Latvian soldiers, in their ceremonial uniform. Although our guide joked that they only guard it when the weather is nice.
If it can be pickled
You will find it here
We actually visited the markets early on in the tour, but I wanted to cover the history side of Latvia first. Riga boasts the largest marketplace in Europe. Here you can find your standard variety of meats, poultry, fish, dairy and vegetables, with a special emphasis on pickled food. If It can be pickled, it will be at Riga Central market. The main bazaar was built in the 1930s with the roof being constructed out of the leftovers of five Germany zeppelin hangers which, themselves were built during the first world war, back when zeppelins were still a thing. At the time, it was the biggest marketplace in the world with tourists coming from as far as German and the UK. It is still a big and somewhat busy marketplace today and strangely enough almost exclusively staff by women.
The Science Academy
Affectionately known as "Stalin's birthday cake". Construction started in 1951 and the completed building was going to be presented to Stalin on his birthday, but he popped his communistic clogs before it was finished. Angular and extremely beige, it is a great example of Stalinist architecture. The lobby was also beige and very gloomy, a single light illuminating the reception booth. Here, a depressed looking old man sat, two old cube shape TV screens behind him, playing some Russian daytime TV in the background. This place felt like a soviet era time capsule. The views from the top overlooking downtown Riga were great, a must do whilst in Riga, but make sure you go at sunset.
The KGB Museum
If by this point you still haven't got your Stalin fix, the KGB museum is a good place to visit. Small and unassuming, I walked past its unmarked door several times. Inside is a long rectangular room with a parade of chronologically ordered story boards, each detailing another story or era relating to the soviet oppression. Some of them make grim reading, particularly the stories focused on the Latvian people who were identified by the KGB as rebels or resistance members. These people ranged from all out saboteurs, to normal everyday people who might have accidentally said something that wasn't positive about the USSR. Either way, they were subsequently arrested for a unspecified crime, or just outright vanished. Calling this place a museum is a bit of a stretch, really it is just an exhibition room. The experience was educational, but also grim and sobering. I do like the soviet propaganda posters though.
With so much of my time spent with my head in soviet Riga that I neglected modern Riga. I hadn't really socialised with anyone in the hostel and I didn't go out to sample Riga's nightlife, although I did learn that you have to be wary about some of the bars and clubs in Riga. In particular, the empty bars with the group of attractive girls sat by the window. According to the receptionist, they act as a honey trap and lure gullible tourist into joining them for drinks not knowing that they would be buying the drinks at a extortionately high price. The hostel even had a map of the city pinned up at reception with a cross over all the clubs to avoid and the map was worryingly well populated with cross marks. Despite this, Riga did seem like a great modern city, to both live in and visit. There was so much more I wanted to see, but it was time to head back north, to Tallinn.