After having a close encounter with an Estonian dog, the bar for Baltic stimulation was set pretty high. But Latvia did not disappoint. First things first: travelling between the Baltics is brilliant. You know how National Express has no leg room and dubious WiFi? You know how Megabus is cheap but the toilets haven’t been cleaned for weeks? I took the coach from Tallinn to Riga for £8. It had free internet and a sanitised toilet, my knees didn’t scrape the seat in front and I watched Me and Earl and the Dying Girl on my own personal in-ride entertainment tablet. So yeah, it was pretty good.
Riga: More than an Old Town
As pretty as Tallinn was, the Old Town admittedly becomes somewhat boring after three days. Riga was a welcome relief. One of the first buildings I notice is the Latvian Academy of Sciences, a beautifully imposing Stalinist construction reminiscient of the Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw. Riga is the largest of the Baltic cities and this is what I really enjoy about it. Over the next few days I walk through the (very typical) Old Town, but am also able to explore its Art Nouveau district (complete with creepy-melancholic-stalker-face man), enjoy the craft-beer-flavoured fruits of mild gentrification and see what’s left of the Riga Ghetto (i.e. not a lot).
A spontanteous encounter leads to my best day in Riga. After visiting a museum about Latvia’s independence movement (ever heard of the 1989 Baltic Way, where 2 million people formed a 675km human chain from Tallinn to Vilnius via Riga?), I meet a local who contacted me via Couchsurfing. For the next 8 hours, she proceeds to show me all the cool shit in Riga that you don’t really experience unless you live there. The highlight was sitting behind the shipyard on the river Daugava, drinking beers and chatting. We discuss voter participation in Latvia (high) versus UK (low), BADBADNOTGOOD, and how Riga is home to some residential twin towers located at street number 9/11.
The next day I visit Ķemeri National Park, a stretch of sprawling green nature about half an hour on the train from Riga. On the walk back, I accidentally stumble through what appears to be a Russian funeral, full of solemnly threatening men, Orthodox crosses and tearful but expensively-dressed women. I escape unscathed, soak in the happiness that a day spent in the sun brings and get ready for my VIP coach ride to Lithuania…