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Latvia

Rundale Palace


View World Tour 2016 on Glichez's travel map.

The plan for today centered around visiting Rundale Palace, which was about an hour away from Riga.

I had found the local buses to take to get out to Rundale, as all of the guided tours were far too expensive (averaging around $120 USD, not including admission to the palace itself!). I arrived at the Riga bus station far too early; I thought that it would be quite busy early in the morning, so left the hotel with plenty of time to spare; turns out that I was wrong and the bus station wasn't busy at all. I spent the time wandering around the local market, which is across the street (this is the same market that I'd visited yesterday on the free walking tour).

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The bus ride out to Rundale was rather uneventful. I had to change buses in the town of Bauska and I had about an hour wait time between buses in that city. Bauska is a fairly small town and I spent the hour walking around. I saw the small Russian Orthodox church and the Bauska castle.

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The bus ride to Rundale Palace lasts only about 15 minutes, though when the bus dropped us off, it wasn't exactly clear where to go to reach the palace. We were on a small road, surrounded by farmland. There was a small cafe nearby and I decided to walk around to see if I could find the palace. Thankfully there was a path behind the cafe and I saw some other tourists walking along it, so I followed them to the palace itself.

The exterior of the palace was quite impressive, almost like a smaller version of Versailles. There were very few people there when I arrived and I was able to admire the main courtyard, which was quite grand. Rundale Palace was built for the Dukes of Courland in the mid-1700s.

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Access to the interior of the palace was through the front doors, though there wasn't any signage to point the way; I just walked up the stairs and let myself in. I paid for the "long tour" of the palace rooms, as well as the small fee for taking photos inside the palace. The palace rooms were really well renovated, having been completed during the past 10 to 20 years. Everything was meticulously recreated; each room was breathtaking, especially the ballroom with the gold-trimmed walls and ceiling. I could go on and on describing the interior of the palace, but I will let the numerous photos do the work for me.

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After exploring the interior of the palace, I headed out to the exquisite gardens. Thankfully the gardens were rather deserted when I got there, so I was able to explore in solitude and take some amazing pictures without people being crowded in them. The gardens had some absolutely beautiful rose bushes and other flowers scattered all around. The entire garden was incredibly tranquil and peaceful; I spent nearly an hour just wandering about.

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I caught the bus back to Bauska around 14:30, which allowed me to catch the bus back to Riga at 15:00. It was quite difficult to stay awake during the ride back to town; I must have dozed off a few times, but I got a burst of energy once I was back in Riga. I made a brief stop back at my hotel before heading out to grab a bite to eat for dinner.

I decided to visit the Folkklubs Ala, which the tour guide Arthurs had recommended yesterday. It was a traditional Latvian restaurant that has nothing but local Latvian beers. Once you reach the restaurant, you have to descend into the basement of the building in the old town to reach the actual seating area. The walls are all lined with the old stones; the tables and chairs are all large and made of wood; there are two bar areas and a small stage for live bands. You could also order 3L pitchers of beer, which was served in an old stone pitcher!

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I decided to sit at one of the bars and had the bartender pick one of his favorite local beers; he gave me a Valmiermuizas unfiltered light beer, which was quite good. I ordered dinner there as well, deciding to have the Latvian meatballs with sauerkraut; Philip ate the same dish yesterday and mentioned that it was very good, so I decided to try it myself. The food was outstanding - quite possible the best meal that I have had on the trip thus far. The food came with potato wedges as well.

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I devoured my meal and ordered another beer as well, this time having an Aldaris (another bartender recommentation). This beer was like an IPA, which was more hoppy than the first beer, but still quite good.

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I decided to have dessert as well, but I was undecided on which one to order. I asked one of the bartenders, who suggested the beer fritters, so I went with those. They were fried fritters with small slices of apples and an amazing whipped cream. I was in heaven as I ate them, but with each bite I became more and more full... but I had to finish them all! By this point I was onto my third beer, another bartender suggestion; this one was a Bauskas - a beer from the town of Bauska!

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Finally, I decided to leave the bar and head back to my hotel. A band was starting to play and I wanted to stay for a little while longer, but my phone battery was running quite low. So I came back to my hotel to spend a few minutes charging my phone (and writing this blog entry). I was able to Skype with my nephew, sister, and mother... and most importantly, with the amazing Orange Kitty. Now my phone is somewhat charged up and I think it is time to head back out to the bar for one or two more drinks.

Why am I doing this when I have a bus to catch at 07:00? It's my last night in Riga and I want to make the most of it!

Posted by Glichez 09:56 Archived in Latvia Comments (0)

Meandering around Riga


View World Tour 2016 on Glichez's travel map.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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The Three-Brothers
a trio of old style buildings in the heart of the old town

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Riga Castle
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House of the Blackheads
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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.

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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.

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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.

Posted by Glichez 12:54 Archived in Latvia Comments (0)

Road Tripping in Estonia and Latvia


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Today was a very full day as I made my way from Tallinn, Estonia to Riga, Latvia. There are several buses and trains that travel between the two cities, but I found a guided shuttle tour that makes several stops along the way; the entire tour lasts about 12 hours.

The morning was another gray and cloudy one, but there was no rain as I made my way back into the city center with my luggage. I was quite surprised by the number of people who were going on this tour; there were 16 of us in total and we were split into two groups of 8. Thankfully I ended up with the group of younger people (20s and 30s); thankfully the older crowd grouped up together. In my group was a couple from London (Tom and Jenny); a couple from the States, but who live in London (Albert and... I forget her name); a guy from Germany (Felix); and a mother and son from Dublin (I forget their names). Albert is from Seattle as well and he went to school at Duke, though he enjoyed NC and the South.

After a 2-hour drive, we made our first stop in the charming village of Viljandi, where we got to explore the ruins of an old castle. The ruins were nestled in a forest area with a river running behind it. It was really nice to get to explore the area. I was amazed that the ruins were sitting out in the open, no efforts to maintain their integrity, no barriers to prevent people from climbing all over them; this would hold true for all ruins in Estonia and Latvia that we saw.

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Our second stop was only about 40 minutes away in the town of Helme. We saw some more stone ruins here as well before making our way down to an old limestone cave. The "cave" was really just a large hallowed out area with another room next to it; there was a smaller tunnel that led deeper into the cave (one would have to crawl on all 4s to go through the tunnel). The cave used to extended far deeper, but large sections have collapsed.

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Our final stop in Estonia was at a bizarre museum in Valga that focused on the military of the Soviet era. On display were several uniforms, guns, and various adds and ends. It was a small museum and we walked through it in about ten minutes before heading outside, where there were several old military vehicles on display (army trucks, small tanks, a helicopter). Our guide mentioned that some people rent out the space for weddings, which surprised us all. The highlight of the museum was a recreation of a forest hideout that was used after the Second World War by the Estonians who fought against the Soviets. It was a wooden bunker buried underground with some bunk-beds, which the museum lets people rent out and stay overnight in!

We stopped at a local restaurant for lunch as well. I had a delicious roast duck with cabbage with a local beer; for dessert I had white chocolate creme brulee. By this point it was 15:30 and the food gave us all some much needed energy. After lunch we crossed the border into Latvia (the town of Valga is on the border).

Up first in Latvia was Sietiniezis, where we got to explore some spectacular limestone cliffs. We drove into the national park, which was very beautiful: trees and greenery surrounded us. We had to hike a bit into the park to reach the cliffs, avoiding the large puddles of water and patches of thick mud (the rain had come and go throughout the day, but somehow we were lucky enough to avoid the rain at each of our stops). The path led us up and down along the cliffs, which people had carved their names into. Another interesting feature of the cliffs are numerous small holes burrowed into them by bees: the bees burrow in, leave their nectar and then leave; often wasps come in and start living in the holes.

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Another 20 minute drive and we stopped in the town of Cesis. This town was very quiet and seemed almost abandoned as we didn't really see many people. There was a very nice manor house nestled in among some castle ruins. This castle, like the others, was destroyed and abandoned during the Great Northern War between Imperial Russia and Sweden in the early 1700s.

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The sixth and final stop was at the bobsled track in Sigulda. The track itself is a replica of the track that was built for the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo; the track is still used and the Russian team even uses it for training. During the summer months, tourists can ride a sled on wheels; during the summer one can ride and actual bobsled. We went to the top level, where the men's teams start from, and then walked down on the track itself. It sounds silly, but we were all blown away by getting to see something like this up close - and especially getting to go out and walk on the track itself (and not the path running along the track).

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We finally reached the old town area of Riga just after 21:00 (right on time!). Thankfully my hotel was only a five minute walk away from our drop off point. The room I have is quite large, with a separate kitchen area and sleeping area. I dropped off my luggage and then headed back out to grab a quick bite to eat for dinner.

Posted by Glichez 12:00 Archived in Latvia Comments (0)

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