I took the 5pm Ecolines service from Tallinn bus station (Bussijaam) to Riga bus station. Tickets are easily bookable online and mine cost €18.20, though they sometimes discount tickets right down to €5.
The bus ride was fine. The driver was an absolute Grade A nutcase though, trying to overtake absolutely everything! I wouldn’t recommend sitting in the upstairs front seat for a few reasons: you can see all the impending doom and it’s just better for your health not to see that; the windows are filthy anyway and you just get really hot if it’s sunny; one of the selling points of the Ecolines service is the on-board entertainment – you don’t get any at the front.
My hostel, the Naughty Squirrel, was about 5 minutes walk into the Old Town from the bus station and that was really easy. A dorm bed costs between around €16-20 per night and they are comfy and spacious. First impressions were great – the staff were really welcoming and friendly. I checked in, was given a free shot of black balzam and found my bunk, then I quickly threw on a dress and some makeup and grabbed a cherry beer from the (24-hour) hostel bar. Then a group of us hit the town including two solo Americans called Farrell and Crystal. Wednesday night in Riga is a big night, and the place to spend it is this hipster district full of bars, live music and DJs. I spent the night drinking shots of Balzam and they cost about €3.50 a shot, so not crazy prices.
If you like techno music then don’t miss Club OneOne after about 2am when the party gets going. I got the slowest fast food ever on my way back to the hostel at this place called Fontaine DeliSnack but there was quite a lot of choice.
Taxify is in operation in Riga so it’s an easy and cheap way of getting around. The 5km ride back to the hostel only cost €3.10.
One helpful thing the hostel has is a map showing a few bars to avoid, I didn’t ask questions but I’m certain that a quick online search would tell you everything. The photo here shows you the map.
I got up and bought pastries for breakfast (super cheap, fresh and good quality) from the nearby Rimi in the shopping mall then headed to the House of the Blackheads to start my free walking tour.
While I waited for the tour to start there was an incredible violinist and cellist playing in the square. Their version of Hallelujah was just out of this world, it was so powerful it made me quite emotional.
I met another English girl called Polly on the tour and we got on really well so we are going to hang out later.
Philip, the guide, is really funny and charismatic. His history is interesting; his family left Riga in the 1940s because “this area had a terrible experiment with Communism” and they were offered “an all-expenses paid one-way trip to Siberia or they could leave. They left”
Philip’s Free Walking Tour starts at 11am in the medieval old town near the House of the Blackheads. The tour was packed with so much interesting information that jumped around achronologically, so I’ll give a summary of Riga’s history rather than a summary of the tour. Go on this tour though if you come to Riga, it is excellent.
Riga is in a prime geographical position and has been an important market town for trade between Siberia and Europe for centuries.
The medieval city was founded in 1201 AD by a Christian bishop, Albert of Bremen, who was sent here by the pope to convert the pagan heathens. He also took soldiers and businessmen with him as a single-pronged approach was just not going to work.
The bishop had also brought bricklayers and stone masons with him and in 1211 he ordered the building of a brick cathedral. The impressive Riga Cathedral is the largest brick cathedral in Europe.
Spring flooding was a huge issue in the medieval period and in 1709 floods caused a huge amount of damage after a deluge of water, ice and bodies washed into the cathedral.
On a square near the waterfront sits the House of the Brotherhood of Blackheads has excellent architecture. The original building was erected in the 14th Century for the Brotherhood of Blackheads, a guild of “unmarried, ship-owners and foreigners”. The Brotherhood is so-named for its patron saint, St Mauritius/Maurice, a black Moor.
Paganism is pretty big in Latvia, i.e. traditional religions aren’t as big as usual. To this day the biggest annual celebration is the summer solstice.
The Christmas tree is said to have originated here in 1509 because of the pagan habit of taking an evergreen bough into the home at the winter solstice to bring with it hope for the greenery of spring. On the square there is a cute little Christmas tree statue.
The 20th Century was incredibly tough on Latvia; it was occupied twice by the Soviet Union (1940/41 and 1944-1991) and once by the Nazis (1941-44).
The House of Blackheads building was partly destroyed in World War II and then, in 1948, instead of repairing the salvageable symbol of commerce in the city, the Soviets went in and utterly destroyed it. It was literally rebuilt by the people in the 90s when the Soviets finally left. Citizens of Riga were able to pay and lay a brick themselves to rebuild this symbolic building.
St Peters church wooden tower was hit by an artillery shell in WWII and the tower caught fire and fell down. The Soviets wouldn’t let the people rebuild it as a church, but as a museum! Now it’s a museum, concert venue and Lutheran church.
Lutheranism is the biggest religion in Latvia. However, Latvian pagan roots are still honoured – they generally remain a nation of nature worshippers to their core to this day. They are open to new ideas but are also very happy to combine all this new stuff with their pagan beliefs
Art nouveau building built by the rich man and the guilds turned him away. He put two black cats on the turrets of his building and faced the butts towards the guild! The guild took him to court and he had to turn them around but he probably made his point. Rigans like that one of the symbols of their city is one of defiance.
Peter the Great invaded and then used to visit frequently on his travels to learn more and build up the Russian nation.
Saint James Cathedral. The northernmost area where pilgrims made the incredible journey to Santiago de Compostela. Pope Francis visits here in September.
1914 Baltics are on the front line. Riga has the eastern front trenches outside. An army was set up to kick out Germans and Bolsheviks with their own plans on what will happen in Latvia. Olympic Games Latvia won two silver medals in long-distance walking events and this is a big deal.
Eastern Europe was carved up between Hitler and Stalin. The Baltics were given to Stalin then Hitler changed his mind. Communism was a tough time with restrictions on religion, politics, travel and other things. Anyone who says they aren’t happy must be insane so there were a lot of mental hospitals. Communism had in general been run by old guys. Who kept dieing.
Gorbachev was a breath of fresh air. He allowed freedom of speech. Wanted to know how could we improve socialism. But suddenly there was huge amount of independence movements. The national flags came out. A key part of the singing revolution was known as The Baltic Way when about 2 million people held hands from Tallinn, through Riga to Vilnius, an unbroken chain of peaceful protesters spanning over 675 kilometres on 23rd August 1989.
Latvia’s approach to leaving communism behind was to say “We are restoring our independence” and they began to negotiate over it.
Jan 1991 there was a huge Soviet push back with tanks shooting people and thousands of unarmed citizens created road blocks to protect the flame of their independence. The courage of ordinary people protected the independence of the nation in Latvia Lithuania and Estonia in 1991.
In the 16th Century, during the occupation of the King of Sweden, the defences were completely renewed. The complex layered defences included high walls and towers, canals, bastions and then a low zone where any intruders could be seen and killed.
Everything within the walls had to be built from stone. Everything outside the wall had to be wooden and flammable so the suburbs could be set alight and destroyed to cripple any sieging forces.
Riga tore down most of the walls to allow fresh air into the city in 1857 and this enabled a period of development and new styles including boulevards and canals, which characterise the new city.
Art nouveau brings nature into the city. It arrived in Riga at the time of the industrial revolution, a time when there was a lot of pollution and smog in the city.
People were moved around during Soviet times and families were allocated a room in a building. At the fall of the regime, there was a huge mess trying to reunite people with their former property but the area has been hugely renovated over the last 20 years now that people own things for themselves again.
€1100 rent per month in the art nouveau area of Riga.
Architecture by Eisenstein. He was an engineer but a hobbyist architect and there was a severe shortage of engineers so he was asked to design lots of the buildings in the new area of Riga. In particular visit Alberta Iela to see this work
Peckshanc was another massive designer in Riga. This building in the corner looks like a ship. There’s a lighthouse on the top and anchors on the side. It was visible from the river until the newer buildings sprung up.
The tour ended in this district and then Polly and I went for lunch at a great restaurant called Rasols nearby. The food was great and I had my first taste of the Latvian dumplings for €7 and I treated myself to some tapas style beetroot and goats cheese (€5).
Polly’s friend, Graham, from back home joined us and then we walked to a contemporary art gallery that Graham has been told about by his tinder date of the night before.
We went for a great walk around some more of the city and found some cool parks and art.
Another dumpling restaurant was beckoning us so we gave in and had an afternoon mega-snack at XL Pelmeni, where you grab a container or bowl, fill it with whichever dumplings you fancy and then it’s weighed at the check out. Perfect! There’s plenty of sauces and toppings too, my favourite is full of aubergine, peppers and tomato, a bit like ratatouille.
We visited the amazing Riga Central Market, with its five fantastically enormous Zeppelin hangars housing the different pavilions for meat, fish, milk, vegetables and a food hall. I bought so many blueberries. In fact, I bought some and then munched on so many while I walked around that I went back to buy three times as many.
We found a courtyard with an excellent atmosphere and then we had dinner at Cydonia Gastropub. I had a lovely roasted duck leg with vegetables and it cost less than €15, not bad for Old Town prices.
The aim had always been to climb to the top of the Academy of Sciences building to watch the sun set and as we approached the building the lighting was just beautiful. We could see some interesting things from there too – a plume of smoke from a fire, a big rainbow and the TV tower.
Another tip we were following was to head to the Spikeru area near the market to watch a free outdoor screening of a film, Loving Pablo, with Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem. It was amazing night. The weather was perfect, the sky was still really colourful when we arrived and bought reasonably priced drinks and popcorn. And then during the film, the moon came up and I even saw the International Space Station go across the sky! Magical. Great end to a great day.
Today was mostly a day of museums. I started off heading to the Martina Bekereja (bakery) for delicious chocolate croissants for €0.41 each and a decent cappuccino.
Then I visited the Buddy Bear exhibition, which I saw in Berlin a few years ago. The United Buddy Bears are a set of over 140 huge bear statues painted by artists from countries around the world and displayed in exhibitions in cities that invite the display.
I managed to book at space on the 12 noon tour of the KGB Corner House and so I walked across town, past the Freedom Monument to reach this otherwise unremarkable building on one of the main roads outside the old town.
KGB Corner House Tour
The Corner House is set around a large courtyard and the tour takes you through the main areas where prisoners were registered, held, interrogated and even where some of them were murdered. Tickets cost €5 for a guided tour, though the first exhibition is free to visit.
Some of what follows is pretty much what our guide said, so it’s some interesting insight into life at the time rather than an official view.
In 1912 this was a residential house. In the time of the Russian Empire, only 40% of the population were Latvian, the rest were mainly Russians and Germans.
In 1917 the wobble (Bolshevik Revolution) in Russia left the Latvians free to become independent. Then in the 1940s Latvia was incorporated into Soviet Union and this building was taken from the government by the KGB. For one year the Soviets were here then the Nazis were here for three years then the Soviets got it back. For 50 years in the Soviet Union, the Latvians were imprisoned in the USSR. The propaganda told everyone it was the best country in the world anyway, why would you want to go anywhere else? It’s an illusion like the two opposing mirrors in the hall. Looks like it goes on forever but it’s really just a prison of glass.
In 1991 there were 12 people murdered by KGB snipers during the singing revolution for freedom. Latvians see it as a price worth paying and honour these heroes. Since then Latvia has been independent.
In the KGB building, the wonderful tiny Schindler elevator was modified to have a prisoner compartment in the back with wooden doors which would be guarded by KGB agents.
88,000 people were deported from Latvia during Soviet occupation in only 5 years in 1940/41 and 1945-49
48,000 people were arrested and held in this building over the course of 5 years. Only 5% ever returned home. 5%. Ever. That’s just such a shocking statistic.
It was generally only a short-term prison; most people were interrogated here and then sent to Siberia, although, during the Year of Terror, 1940/41, 196 people were executed here by the KGB before the Nazi’s arrived. The bullets are still lodged in the walls of the room where it happened.
Gorbachev was a communist leader but he is seen as a reasonably good man. He opened windows in the glass prison. And Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians jumped out and declared freedom.
We were shown the interrogation rooms and told about the techniques that were used to get information (real or hastily dreamt up).
Our guide told us about Lydija, a 94 year old former prisoner who was here for 7 months and then sent to a gulag for 15 years. She prayed every day not to go crazy so that she could tell Latvian people the truth about what was going on in the Soviet prisons.
Even if you can’t get on to a tour here, the first exhibition room (free) is really interesting. It is set up to provide an insight into life in the Latvian SSR. One interesting board tells of life at the Baltic Sea border region – the Soviets created a 2km exclusion zone and anybody living in there had their passport stamped with “border zone inhabitant” but nobody else was allowed in. Every night, a 6 metre wide strip of the whole beach area was ploughed so that any new footsteps would be visible. The final point that was fascinating to me was how much effort was gone to to make maps as misleading as possible near secret sites.
Back out in the capitalist present day, I walked into a shop which is selling perfect festival dresses! On closer inspection I saw that they are actually created in Bath, right next to Bristol where I am from. They were even on sale so I managed to get a dress for £24 which would have cost me more than £30 back home!!
I wanted to get a great view of a beautiful golden domed church in a park so I went to the Skyline bar for an expensive but delicious mocktail.
Then I met Graham and Polly for lunch at a nice outdoor restaurant near the Latvian National Theatre called Pagalms. We all had various salads and they were excellent.
After lunch we had different things that we wanted to see. I wanted to continue my museum day and there was one place that Graham and Polly had recommended so I didn’t want to miss that.
My first stop though was the Museum of the Occupation, which is temporarily housed near the Latvian Academy of Arts. It is a private museum (donation rather than entry fee) and it is full of interesting chronological information boards written in Latvian and English. The information spans the Soviet Era and Nazi Occupation. It’s strongly worded in places and very emotive but also hugely informative. I learned about the details of the Atlantic Treaty signed in August 1941 by Churchill and Roosevelt which talked about how no nation should seek to expand its borders and should respect the right of people to choose their form of government. It was in part due to this document that Latvia hoped to be independent after the withdrawal of Nazi troops. But then the Red Army rolled in again and the Iron Curtain came into being.
Rallies and protests like I couldn’t ever imagine have taken place here in Latvia. In November 1989, over 500,000 people protested in Riga. That was almost a quarter of the whole population of the country. Also in 1989 was the Baltic Way, where a human chain of more than 2 million people joined hands from Tallinn all the way through Riga to Vilnius. It is just more staggering the more I hear about it. It’s another thing that regularly brings a lump to my throat while I’ve been here.
Next I walked over to the Latvian National Museum of Art and paid €3 to visit the permanent display. I started off up on the roof with another great view of the golden domed church.
Then I worked my way down through different eras of art, each with some information in English as you enter the room.
I found a couple of artists work that I loved. Some photo-realistic work by Julijs Feders particularly stood out. Then there is a hall downstairs which has lots of Soviet style artwork which is interesting too.
There is a whole room dedicated to the work of Auseklis Bauskenieks which has so much going on that it’s like a Where’s Wally picture.
Finally I went to the former Latvia University Biology Faculty building to see a modern art installation. There is some interesting, weird and wonderful exhibits involving every sense. There’s one about genetic modification which is strange.
There’s also a strange science laboratory set up with things bubbling and smoking, and a wall made of books. And there are rooms which are really dark, hot and noisy, so it’s very disorienting.
Tonight is the night of my bus to Belarus so I had dinner and made my way to the bus station for 9:40pm to get on the 10pm bus to Minsk for €22.