Road Trip to Riga

I had booked a flight from Riga at an ungodly hour, so arriving just in time for the flight wasn’t going to work without paying a fortune… Except, I remembered that a couple of people had told me about a great Tallinn to Riga sightseeing day trip which arrives at 9pm in the city! Just enough time to have dinner and chill before the airport!

I easily found and booked this twelve hour tour online at the Traveller.ee website. The cost is €65 and it’s excellent value when you compare it to the inconvenience of the other options. Plus I got to see all the bits that I didn’t get to see in Estonia and Latvia on the way. Most other bus options cost about €18 and last around 5 hours.

Tallinn to Riga Sightseeing Day

At 9am I arrived at the Tallinn tourist office and met Katarina, my driver and guide for the long journey to Riga. She immediately seems lovely. There are seven of us on the trip today, an Italian couple, a pair of young women from Maine and a pair of middle-aged women from Aberdeen.

Our first stop after two hours driving was Viljandi.

Giant Strawberry in Viljandi Estonia

We spotted a giant painted strawberry made out of concrete in the town and then walked past another outside the museum of naive art. Fascinating. I hadn’t heard about naive artists before; amateurs without training who tended to continue to paint in childish styles. The strawberries are here because of a very famous naive painting called The Strawberry Eaters. Check out their eyes in this painting though, perhaps they should be called the Mushroom Eaters.

Strawberry Eaters Painting Viljandi Estonia

The medieval castle had three moats! I’ve never seen this before. It’s a gorgeous walk to the castle over the bridges spanning the valleys across the moats.

Giant traditional wooden Estonian swing at Viljandi Castle

We also saw the biggest swing I’ve spotted in Estonia and thankfully it was part of our tour to give it a go and it was great fun!

Katarina gave us a really informative tour of the Viljandi Castle and started with some information on the history of the Estonian language.

Our guide, Katarin explaining the history of Estonian language and Viljandi Castle

Having stated a couple of times already that the language is part of the very strange Finno-Ugric branch of language with Finnish and Hungarian, the language is actually also linked to some dying languages in Siberia as well as the Lapland tribe. Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians are actually genetically “the same” so it’s not quite understood how they inherited and kept the language of the Ural mountains.

The Good Old Swedish time is partly due to the Swedish King treating the peasants slightly better than expected because of the harsher way he treated the nobility – he decided to tax the nobility for living in their manor houses.

Reformation was around this period – the Bible was translated so that nobody needed a mediator to understand the word of God. Schools and the university were established in this period in the 1600s. The Estonian language had a better status at this point.

Serfdom was abolished here in Estonia as an experiment for the Russian Empire – the theory was that people work better when they are paid for working and have something to gain. It worked and within 40 years Serfdom was abolished across the Russian empire.

The Russian Empire allowed Estonia greater freedom than most areas but in 1917 the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia was really damaging to the way the empire allowed freedoms. In 1918 the Russians left and Estonia declared independence. This lasted even less time than I had previously remembered. It lasted 6 hours until the Germans arrived. The Russians changed their mind about the Germans being allowed to keep this area, so before the end of 1918 they came to retake Estonia. At which point the Estonian war of independence kicked off because that 6 hour taste of freedom had made all the difference.

We stopped in Valga for lunch, at a restaurant called Metsis. The food was incredible, far from the quality I found when I was here on my road trip. The only note of caution, if you are offended by taxidermy then please stay away. There are more stuffed animals here than I ever remember seeing before. In a side room there is a lynx that is so life-like that I struggled for a while to go right up to it. For lunch I had a creamy pumpkin soup with crispy bacon and a salad with warm lightly pickled vegetables and chicken. I paid €8.50 in total!

We came to the Valga military museum and Katarina explained to us more about the 1918-20 war of independence.

Estonian language hadn’t had any terms for scientific concepts for example but after the war of independence there was a sudden spurt in development of the language so that it could be used in all educational institutions within Estonia.

Katarina went on to tell us a harrowing story of her grandparents and her husband’s grandparents and how they were affected by the occupation. It was so shocking and matter of fact that I welled up with emotion. One of her great uncles became a forest brother (partisan) and was never seen again. One grandfather joined the “safest” option of military unit and was a volunteer SS guard in Tallinn, it when the Soviets took Tallinn he was immediately shot dead. None of the stories had particularly good endings.

Poster showing the development of the Estonian War of Independence

We were shown a peculiar object from the time of the KGB, a specially made kettle/steamer to steam open envelopes as the letters started to come back in from the thousands of Estonian citizens who escaped the Soviet Union.

There is an interesting display designed to show the rising criminality in Estonia towards the end of the Soviet Union, when freedom could be smelled by the population. The display shows fake money, improvised weapons, lock picking tools which helped some people to scramble to become rich in the oncoming power vacuum and rise of capitalism.

Display case with lock picks and counterfeit goods in the Valga Military Museum

We crossed into Latvia, where the city goes from Valga (Estonia) to Valka (Latvia).

Our first stop in Latvia was Sietniezis, in Gaujas National Park where there is a lazy river flowing through a valley with steep sandstone cliffs.

Rock carvings at Gaujas National Park in Latvia

The cliffs are absolutely amazing! They are heavily graffitied and I think that is a huge part of the charm now. The path is excellent with neat wooden steps and the trail takes you along the cliffs and then up over them. As you reach the end of the wooden boardwalk there is a beautiful area of woodland that is just packed to the brim with blueberries. The season peaked about a month ago but there are still so many.

Blueberry picking in Gaujas National Park Latvia

The others gradually moved on and eventually I was alone in the woods foraging for blueberries. Heaven.

We arrived at Cēsis and had some time to walk around the town.

Main Square in Cēsis Latvia

The castle here was besieged by Ivan the Terrible and he was known for not keeping his words so the inhabitants that had been sheltering themselves in the castle famously blew themselves and the church up.

Part of Old Town Defenses of Cēsis Latvia
Part of the Old Town defences of Cēsis

Our next and final stop before Riga was the bobsled track at Sigulda. This was built when Latvia was part of the Soviet Union and there is some discrepancy over the opening date as this track is a near perfect replica of the Sarajevo track used in the 1984 Winter Olympics.

Bobsled at Sigulda Track

The official opening date is quoted as 1986, but many people suspect that it was opened in time to allow the Soviet Union team to practice before the 1984 Sarajevo games.

Bobsled track at Sigulda

Whatever its history, it is a great place to check out!! If you book in advance then at the weekends you can be taken down the bobsled track with a professional driver! And during the week it’s fun enough just to be able to walk down it. The views from the top are lovely. We were there around sunset and mist was rolling in across the valley.

Walking down the bobsled track at Sigulda Latvia

Then it was off to Riga for 9pm where I had time for dinner (cheekily stashing my bags at the Naughty Squirrel Hostel). I decided that it was right to have one more epic dumpling meal so I went to XL Pelmeni.

I made my way to the airport at around 2am ready for my 6:15am flight to….

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