Riga is not what I expected (in a good way)

Riga is NOTHING like I expected. To be honest, I was expecting just a larger version of Tallinn. In common with Estonia, Latvia is on the Baltic, and has been dominated over many hundreds of years by foreign powers including Germany, Sweden, Russia (and of course the USSR). But it’s so incredibly different from Tallinn in so many ways.

First, there’s the language. While Estonian is actually quite close to Finnish, Latvian is more of a language you would associate with Central Europe. And on top of that, you have a greater percentage of Russian speakers. As you walk around town, a significant number of signs are in Russia, and you can hear a lot of people speaking Russian.

These are the people who were either left-behind when the Soviet Union collapsed, or who were born and raised here, and who consider themselves to be Latvian, albeit Russian-speaking Latvians.

Second, the people look different. While in Tallinn there was a significant number of people who you would describe as “Nordic looking”, here there’s a far greater number of people who would say “look Russian” or “look Central European” (if you know what I mean). It’s a clumsy way to describe someone as “looking Russian” because of the large physical diversity that represents, but I hope you get my meaning.

The town also looks quite different to Tallinn. There are a lot of buildings still standing which were created in the last years of the nineteenth century and the first years of the twentieth century. These grand buildings escaped much of the damage of the Second World War bombing. You get the impression from the architecture that Riga was once a very grand city, and probably quite wealthy.

Whereas the Old Town dominated Tallinn, here it’s also just a part of a much larger city. Riga has much more of a “Western” feel to it, with many more of the trappings of Western society including a lot more street advertising, and more modern buildings including a few sky-scrapers.

After arriving on the bus this morning, I checked into my hostel. It’s on Barona Street and is called Barons Hostel. It’s a decidely English language variation of the street name, possibly because the owners are Australian (and the building is also the home to the Australian Business Chamber in Riga). We’re on the top four of an old building, with reasonably large spacious rooms, free internet, free tea and coffee. And there’s hardly anyone here. I’m sharing a 6-bedroom dorm with just one other person, a young French speaking woman. It’s dinner time now and I haven’t seen another person, aside from the woman who checked me in. At a cost of about $25 Australian per night, I think it seems like exceptionally good value.

The bus tour was similarly under-utilised today. For a while I was the only person on one of those hop-on/hop-off tours. The tour I went on cost $25 Australian for a 90 minute audio -guided tour. And if I want to, I can hop back on again tomorrow. Also quite good value, I think.

I thought it was a good way to get an introduction to the town. Of course I also did some unguided sught-seeing too. In doing so, I I saw a wedding underway at the Russian Orthodox Cathedral which spectacularly dominates the area in which it’s located. I also learned of a really great local wedding custom where couples attach an inscribed lock to the bridge where, presumably, they have their wedding photographs taken.

For lunch today I risked having a pizza. “Risked” because I haven’t been all that lucky so far with “ethnic cuisine”. But the Proscuitto and Parmesan pizza I had at Velvet Cafe and Nattklub was quite good. “We don’t have local beers”, the waitress told me, so I had a Heineken to accompany.

Compared with the last few days, food seems a little more expensive here, so I’ll have to think hard about how I spend my money. By the way, the Latvian Lat is actually worth more than the Euro. The exchange rate to Australian dollars is about two and a half to one.

I’m gonna head out for a bite to eat shortly, and then maybe have a look at one of the local bars. The gay scene here is quite underground, even compared with Tallinn where things were much more open. When they first attempted a Pride Parade a couple of years ago, it was stopped by Neo-nazi and Christian protestors. The following year it was banned by the government as a “threat to national stability”. The parade is back on track, according to what I’ve read, though the guide books advise discretion.

Another local guide book warns of the high rate of organised crime (something I’ve neglected to mention to my family for obvious reasons). And in one of the magazines I’ve read today, there’s about half a dozen venues the United States Government has warned its citizens against going to. Mostly they’re strip joints and they weren’t high on my list of priorities anyway…