RIGA, LATVIA

President’s Office

I squeezed into a non-reclining seat on Ryanair at 6 am in late May for the 2.5 hour, $32 flight to Riga, capital of Latvia. The flight left from London’s Stansted Airport in driving rain and arrived in what Riga residents were calling a heat wave – a high of 85F. Since Riga is roughly on the same latitude as Moscow, this was a pleasant surprise.

I was going to Latvia because I had never been before. And I was interested in seeing how this small Baltic nation (population 2 million) was faring 25 years after the collapse of the USSR in 1991. Latvia, and its neighbors to either side, Estonia and Lithuania, had been part of the Soviet Union.

In August 1989, all three countries made a statement to the Soviet Union. They wanted out. Two million people in all three nations joined hands and formed a 420-mile chain indicating their solidarity and intention of separating from the USSR. This demonstration, called “The Baltic Way” or “Baltic Chain” was a powerful statement. In May of 1990, Latvia declared its independence; the USSR ceased to exist in 1991. Of the15 former USSR republics, the three Baltic countries and later, Georgia, were the ones that looked to the West for their future.

Orthodox Cathedral

At Riga’s airport, I went quickly through customs and immigration, no visa needed. Outside, I bought a bus ticket from a kiosk, and boarded a # 22 bus for downtown. Later, I found my way (following email instructions) to my AirBnB in central Riga.

I went to a shisha (hookah) bar on one of the main avenues and identified myself to the bar tender. Patrons, smoking water pipes, sat on sofas in the elegant salon. The bartender took a key from under the counter and led me a short distance to an apartment building, unlocked the front door, handed me the key and ushered me in. My small modern apartment was at the top of a 92-step staircase. At $29 a night, it was a bargain. When I left, I put the keys in a mail box and, unfortunately, never met the owner.

Interior of Cathedral

Art Nouveau facade

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A 10-minute walk took me to Old Riga. Riga Old Town has UNESCO status due to many Art Nouveau buildings and cultural attractions. These include a castle, numerous museums, a river (The Daugava) and a canal, churches dating to the 13th century, well-tended parks and a huge Central Market.  Tourists like me were strolling through clean streets seeing something new and interesting at every corner.

I saw a sign for a free walking tour, starting the following day at the majestic St. Peter’s Church. I found myself with 26 visitors from 11 different countries. A young man stepped forward to introduce himself as Toms Broduzs, a 30-year old with excellent English. He was dressed in shorts and a polo shirt, and carried a little extra weight that went with his ebullient personality. He was obvious an old hand at his job, connecting individually with each person in the group. An entertainer as much as a teacher, he was funny as well as well-informed. He kept our group of 27 persons intact over 2.5 hours =no mean feat- and thoroughly merited the tips everyone gave him.

 

Toms Broduzs, tour guide

The younger generation all speaks English

Pub meal with borscht

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The younger generation, and those in the tourism business, all speak English. A blonde woman passenger on the bus from the airport, hearing me asking the bus driver a question, got off the bus with me, showed me where to could leave my bag, and took me to a coffee shop where we chatted about Latvia today. She was working in the UK, and had come home to visit her family.

Later, wandering around on my own, I heard Russian spoken in the streets, usually by older persons, typically a couple of women in floral dresses smoking a cigarette. I suspect they are not visitors to pricey Old Riga and probably in from the country to do shopping. 27 % of Latvia’s population is of Russian ethnicity, many of them are farmers. Latvia’s economy is struggling and the unemployment rate hovers around 10%.

I wandered, I ate (borscht is popular) and continued doing my tourist thing in the warm sunshine. The most enjoyable event I watched was a dance exhibition in a public park. Young kids, 6-9’s, dressed in traditional costumes, were waiting with some nervousness to go on stage. Once on stage, they lost all their nerves and twirled around in intricate movements to polka music, earning big applause from their proud, watching parents.

After an easy and enjoyable four days in Riga, I left by plane for Munich, Thank you, Riga, for being helpful and courteous and for having such fine sights and good weather.

 

 

 

Jim Glendinning About Jim Glendinning

I am a Footloose Scot who has traveled to 136 countries. "I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move." Robert Louis Stevenson
Read about Jim Glendinning and his book Footloose Scot: Travels In A Time Of Change

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