31.08.2016 - 31.08.2016
My first - and only - full day in Riga was jam-packed and was spectacular.
I ventured out to explore some of the city after breakfast; my first goal was to locate the bus station where I'll be leaving for Rundale tomorrow. Thankfully the bus station was only about ten minutes away and quite easy to find. I next wandered over towards the national opera building. During the drive in from Tallinn, Philip and his mother mentioned that they were going to see "Madam Butterfly" at the opera tonight and I thought it sounded like a wonderful event to see. The box office didn't open until 11:00, so I spent the next hour or so walking around the nearby park area.
The park was very nice, with a lake in the middle of it; flowers were all over the place, adding some wonderful color to the park.
After walking through the park I stumbled upon the monument to freedom, which is an impressive monument (far more so than the one in Tallinn!). There were two military guards slowing patrolling in front of the monument. After pacing back and forth several times they took up position on either side of it, with a fellow military guy off to the side monitoring them.
I spent some more time wandering around the various parks near the city center before making my way over to Alberta iela, where there were quite a few buildings in the art nouveau style. These were some of the most impressive buildings in Riga. The town was basically rebuilt during the early 1900s, so there is little of the true old town left in the city; it does not have the medieval charm of Tallinn (the old city walls were town down in the 1860s, which I think detracted from the true old town feel). However, the art nouveau buildings were very neat to see and this particular street was lined with them. At one end of the street was the Irish embassy, housed in one of the stylish buildings.
By this point it was time to head back to the opera box office and buy my ticket for tonight's performance. While waiting in line I ran into Philip and his mother, which was a pleasant surprise. We chatted for a few minutes while waiting in line; they were planning to take the free walking tour at noon as well, so we'd be seeing one another again shortly. I bought a ticket in the fifth row of the theater - for only EUR 18! I'd find out during the walking tour that the minimum wage in Latvia is around EUR 360 per month, with the average somewhere between EUR 600 and EUR 1,000 per month; with those salaries, it is understandable why the prices for the opera are so low (expensive by Latvian standards, cheap by mine).
The free walking tour of Riga kicked off at noon from the front of the St Nicholas church. I arrived early and took some pictures of the church, which was located less than a minute's walk from my hotel. I went in the first door of the church, but no further as they were charging admission; from what I could see of the inside, it wasn't worth the admission fee. As the group gathered for the tour, everyone from the trip from Tallinn showed up (except for Felix, the German).
Our tour guide, Arturs, was one of the best guides that I've had on this tour. He provided a wealth of information at each one of our many stops and made the tour quite fun. Plus he was hot. Let's be honest: he was fucking hot. Yet another incredible blond Baltic guy with a killer smile. And yes, I pulled a "creeper move" and snapped a picture of him. Don't judge me. I make no apologies. Fun fact: he was also the guy who edited the free tourist map that we all received during our drive in from Tallinn.
The walking tour didn't focus on the old town area, but on the "real" Riga that most tourists don't venture out to see. Arturs warned us that we were going into areas that may have more crime, primarily pick-pocketing. Thankfully we didn't encounter any of that. Our first stop was the local market, which was built out of five old zeppelin hangers from the First World War. There were sections for fruits, vegetables, meat, flowers, fish, and other various goods. In one area we were told that some vendors were selling smuggled cigarettes from Russia.
We next made our way to an old Soviet-era building from the 1950s. It was intended as a hotel for farmers, who would be rewarded by getting to stay there, but upon completion, it was turned over to scientists; today it houses the scientific institute. It was very similar in style to buildings that I saw in both Moscow and Minsk.
The group ventured towards the old Jewish ghetto from the 1940s, where we stopped to see an impressive church made out of wood, not stone. City laws at the time required that all buildings outside of the old town walls be built of wood so they could be burned down as a defense against attackers. We also visited the ruins of a synagogue, which was burned down with several hundred Jewish people inside. Arturs told us about the Jewish ghetto and how it was liquidated during the Holocaust: the Jews were not sent to a death camp, but rather executed in the forest nearby. There was a monument there as well to remember the efforts of Latvians to help protect the Jewish community during the Holocaust.
We headed off to the main train station for a quick break before starting to walk back to the old town area. En route we stopped to admire the beautiful Russian Orthodox church in the city.
The tour ended at the freedom monument; the two and a half hours flew by and I found myself wishing that we could explore more of the city. I decided to grab lunch at a local restaurant called B Burgers that our guide from yesterday recommended. It was a tiny place with only a few people inside. I decided to go with a Latvian-style burger: burger with horseradish sauce, pickles, tomato. As a side I went with the soup, which was a cold beet soup (it was like a borscht). The food was quite good and very cheap - all of it, plus a drink, for only EUR 5.50!
After lunch I explored the old town area on my own. There were several churches to see, along with some small squares and parks throughout the area. I had a pre-planned route for walking around the old town so I could see all of the top sights.
a trio of old style buildings in the heart of the old town
House of the Blackheads
I stopped by the hotel to change my clothes and prepare for the opera tonight. The show started at 19:00 and I'd made plans to meet for a pre-show drink with Philip and Aideen. I stopped by a local coffee shop to spend a few minutes reading and getting some caffeine for the evening. When we all met up outside the opera, we were all surprised to find the place nearly empty. We made our way up to the second floor bar and grabbed some drinks (they had champagne, I had red wine); we went out onto the balcony to enjoy our drinks and the amazing view of Riga.
We spent the next hour or so chatting and drinking (I split a second glass of red wine with Aideen). We finally made our way to our respective seats and I was stunned by the interior of the theater itself.
Madam Butterfly was spectacular! The woman playing the title role was from Japan wand was truly amazing. The rest of the cast was equally talented. The sets were from the 1920s, which gave the production and old-school feeling; they were large and elaborate and in typical Japanese style. During each of the two intermissions I met up with Philip and Aideen on the balcony; during the second intermission we grabbed a drink, though this break was far shorter than the first one. We had to rush to get back to our seats on time! After the show we all met up and walked back into the old town area, where our hotels were located. They are off to Vilnius, Lithuania tomorrow to attend a friend's wedding; I'm off to Rundale for the day tomorrow before heading to Vilnius myself on Friday.