Riga was the second destination of our Europe Trip. After spending two wonderful days in Tallinn, we took a bus from Tallinn to Riga which dropped us around noon in Riga.
The adventure in Riga began as soon as we got off at the bus terminus. We had booked a room in Central Hostel. Our hostel was close to the station, so we decided to walk it basis the directions given by our hostel’s receptionist. But due to the language barrier, we could not communicate to her where we were standing and that led to going in the wrong direction, asking around through sign language and walking and more walking. A guy tried helping through GPS but somehow even that did not work out. We even put our heads together trying to decipher the conversation and looking for landmarks more closely.
Finally, we saw an Indian Girl, a student in Riga, and asked her for help who made a few phone calls and finally put us on the right track. And that is how we reached our hostel. And trust me, later when we went around the city, we realised how close we were to the station. All the confusion happened because of two parallel roads. The receptionist was talking about one and we happened to be on the second.
As we reached Central Hostel, the first thing we noticed was the old building structure and were not sure if we were at the right place. We were expecting everything to be as beautiful as Tallinn. But our dream shattered as soon the receptionist confirmed that we were at the right place. And guess what… no lifts and our room was on the second floor and we had to carry our bags all the way up there… Welcome to Riga!
Minus the beautiful modern building structure and lifts, all the other basic amenities were there. Our room had an interesting wooden design to help in insulation and controlling temperature. It was a lovely room.
Old Town of Riga
Later in the day, we went towards the Old town of Riga. We had missed the Free walking tour of the day, so we decided to explore the place on our own and then take the tour the next day.
First things first, by the time we reached Old Town, we were very hungry and had lunch at Il Patio – we ordered spaghetti in pesto sauce, minestrone soup, eggplant-tomato-cheese dish and mussels. We finished our meal with apple strudel and tiramisu. It was a good lunch and we were happy we chose Il Patio.
After the lunch, we walked around the Old Town, but did not feel the connect like Tallinn. Riga seemed like Tallinn-in-progress. Most of the buildings were either under renovation or in shambles. The others seemed recently renovated.
All this reminded us of a conversation with a fellow traveller in Tallinn Hostel who had said Riga after Tallinn will be disappointing. We felt a kind of sadness and emptiness in the place that cannot be defined in words despite big population, full of youngsters and students.
Riga has some good universities, so it is an educational hub where students come from all over. We roamed around the entire Old Town and went up till the River Daugava. Unfortunately, the city did not inspire us to click many pictures. We were missing Tallinn and its beauty.
After walking around the Old Town as well as checking out all the branded showrooms, we decided to call it a day. We decided to go a restaurant with peppy music and enjoy the evening with some local cuisine. There seemed many such options around. We checked a few restaurants and Bars and finally settled at the Egle Bar.
A Night to Remember
The music was good, they had happy hours on drinks (hahahaha) and the place was nicely colourful. And of course, some tables were already occupied… not sure if others also came for happy hours, but that worked in favour of the place.
The dinner consisted of a small sandwich, club sandwich, huge burger, fries, and calamari. We ordered Hot Balsam – local liqueur-based drink, Lagavulin Scotch and house wine to accompany food. Nice music and ambience added to the evening.
By the time we left Egle bar, we had started liking Riga… it did not seem as uneventful. The journey back to the hostel was the best part of the day. The cameraperson as well as the dancers all are tipsy, but we managed to reach the hostel, all intact in one piece, singing, dancing and laughing.
Day Two in Riga
After our previous day’s experience in Riga Old Town, we weren’t sure about taking the walking tour but finally decided to go. Maybe there was something we had missed or maybe with guide’s help we start seeing Riga differently.
So, we got up, booked tickets to Vilnius – our next stopover, got ready and left for Old Town. We had time before the walking tour so decided to have breakfast in the meanwhile. After checking out a few places, we decided to eat at Turk kebab. The weather was cold and some hot and spicy breakfast would help. Also seeing an Indian and being able to communicate freely helped. Dhaval, the server there hailed from Gujarat and was in Riga for studies. He worked at the restaurant part-time. We ordered durum kebabs, falafel plates. The food was not great. And they had no Hummus as chickpea is expensive in Riga. Hummus was replaced with Hung Curd, and that was a big disappointment. Except for Egle Bar the previous night, Riga wasn’t yet proving to be much of an interesting place.
By the time we finished breakfast, it was time for the walking tour, so we walked towards St. Peter’s Church, the meeting point with our guide.
Free Walking Tour
A group of people had gathered, and a man was standing in the centre with a yellow umbrella and a battered yellow suitcase. So, we checked and found out that the gathering was for the walking tour and the man with the umbrella and battered yellow suitcase was our guide. His name was Kaspars and umbrella and yellow suitcase were trademarks of the group organising the walking tours.
Later, during the trip we found out, that every place and every group have created symbols for themselves so that people from far off too can find them. Most of the people coming to them are tourists and language is a big hindrance, so this is one of the ways to identify your tour guide.
Instead of the old town walking tour, we opted for Alternative Walking Tour. That way, we got to see the landmark places of Old Town as well as other historic places of Riga. We got to See Riga beyond old town. Our Guide, Kaspars, was very good. Being a Historian, he was quite experienced and knowledgeable. Also, he told the history in a manner that was not boring or serious, even though Riga has had its share of black history. His one liners and sense of humour kept the long walking tour light and entertaining.
Everywhere we went, renovations were going on, so Kaspars told us that 2018 marks the hundredth year of Riga and so preparations are in full swing.
Riga After Walking Tour
Latvia is living between two superpowers – Russia and Germany and one can see the influence of their language, culture and people too. The alternative Walking tour is a good way to introduce people to new Riga. It is an effort to fuse the old and new Riga and take both along. It is a good way to introduce the world to the all-new and developing Riga beyond the old city.
The Alternative Walking Tour marked the change in the way we were looking at Riga till then. From a boring regular city where we did not know what to do, it turned into a really happening city in less than 48 hours.
The walking tour ended in Old Town itself at the Freedom Monument after going though Jewish Quarter, Soviet Riga, Central Market, Flower Market etc. After the tour, we asked Kaspars for recommendations for local shopping and the best place to get local alcohol apart from Balsam. We had tried it the day before at Egle Bar as well as during the tour by pouring it in our coffee… after all the weather was good enough for a local drink and do not forget, we were on vacation. He told us to try the honey beer, which is a very Baltic-region beer. He recommended two places – Labietis, 30 minutes from the old city, and Ala.
Life Goes on at The Tea House
After the Tour, we walked around the market, bought souvenirs and a jacket, went to a nearby church. Then we decided to go to Tea House which was on the way to our hostel and we had been seeing it every time we came to Old Town. Its location was very interesting – one side was the main road with people and vehicles moving, other was greenery with a small pond in between. It was just lovely to sit there with a cup of tea or coffee and watch the city. The seating was outward facing in circular form. One can sit there for hours and watch the city pass by.
We ordered roar-mint tea, cappuccino, plum cookie, mixed seed cookie, carrot cake and Chico pastry. Once again, we mixed coffee-flavoured balsam liqueur in cappuccino. The liqueur enhanced the taste of coffee by many notches and weather was also supporting. The Chico Pastry was average, but rest of the stuff was good. The roar-mint tea had an interesting flavour. The seats were comfortable, the view was nice and coffee relaxing. We don’t know we sat there for how long. Some also took a power nap.
Friend for Life
After that we decided to go back to the hostel and were craving for a kadak adrak wali chai (aka strong ginger tea with milk). On the way back, we saw a small food joint called Hasana Kebab two minutes walking from our hostel and decided to try our luck for tea there. The owner Hasan was from Pakistan. Even though they did not serve tea, he made tea specially for us and we chatted for a while.
Later we went back for some spicy kebab rolls. He made special rolls and played Hindi and Sufi songs. We chatted more about struggles he went through, running a successful business, his family and Riga in general. He didn’t even charge us saying – aap to apne hain aur apno se kya paise lena. Is pardes mein apni zubaan mein thodi baat ho gayi, bas yahi bahut hai (we are family and who takes money from family. In this foreign land, talking to someone is mother tongue is a bigger thing than money).
Time to say Goodbye
After that we went, packed and left for the overnight-bus journey to Vilnius, our next stopover of the Europe Trip. And thus, we finally left Riga with a nice friend and a lot of good memories because Riga is a city that grows on you… Slowly!