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Riga, Latvia, and nearby cities

September 22-29, 2009


Map of Latvia

Jenny and Charlie went to Riga, Latvia September 22-29, 2009. Where? An hour flight southeast of Stockholm, and farther northeast of Germany. See the tiny globe in the lower right corner of the United Nations map above.

Why Riga? Charlie's father was born there, and lived in Latvia for many years (a graduate of the Latvian naval academy and an officer in the Latvian navy). There are no known relatives there, and family homes are long gone through the war and occupation. But Jenny has been anxious to visit Latvia since we were married in 1970, and Charlie is always delighted to see new places. (Latvia seemed interesting, but not because of family history.) Maybe Jenny was just trying to figure how Charlie got the way he is.

Very Brief History

Latvian tribal history dates back to 2500 BC. The Latvian and Lithuanian languages today are closely related to those tribal languages. The city of Riga was settled by German traders in the 1100s, and formally founded in 1201 when Bishop Albert (from Germany) built a castle in Riga. The foundation of the Dome Cathedral was laid in 1211(and still exists, although rebuilt as required by time and turmoil, and supported today with auxiliary steel beams while awaiting further restoration).

Prior to World War I (see 1914 map) Latvia consisted primarily of two "states," Kurliandiia to the southwest, and Lifliandiia to the northeast. (Estonia was Estliandiia.) My grandfather was the postmaster, in the service of the Tsar. During World War I the Latvian military fought under the Russian Tsar, against the Germans, and finally regained their independence in 1921 (map 1921-1938).

At the beginning of World War II, in 1939, Latvia was occupied (map 1939-1940) by the Soviet Union. Then in 1941 Hitler's armies invaded the Soviet Union, including occupation of Latvia (map 1942), with the extermination of the Jewish population. The red army retook Latvia again in 1944 (map 1945-1991) and retained control as a Latvian republic in the Soviet Union until 1991 (current map). Since the Soviet Union had almost no western seaport, Latvia's ports on the Baltic Sea (open year around with the aid of icebreakers) made the country a valuable territory to the Soviet Union.

Part of the foreign occupation was to replace much of the population with native Soviet (or German) citizens, so they would represent a majority of the population. Most of the leaders (including naval officers) were executed during the occupations, and others who might organize resistance were deported to labor camps, and their property confiscated. Fortunately (at least for me, but not for my older brother and sister, George and Nina, who were left behind) my father - a Latvian Navy Officer - had left in the 1930s to become a professional adventurer.

When Latvia became a free country again in 1991, many Latvians in exile returned, hoping to reclaim their property - which had been "owned" by others for the last 50 years. Imagine a Russian or German answering the door to someone who said "get out, this is my house" when they and their parents had lived there for a couple generations. Obviously visitors were not always warmly received, and the country was struggling to recover from the wars and 50 year occupation. Therefore we weren't anxious to go to Latvia (especially with a very distinctly Latvian name like Plesums) until the last few years.

These maps, and a perspective of the history of the occupation of Latvia (twice by the Soviets, with the German Socialist regime between), came from the Museum of Occupation. Ironically the building was constructed by the Soviets to promote socialism, but has been converted to a very compelling story and collection of artifacts of the occupation by the Germans and Soviets.

Museum of Occupation 1128

Getting There

There are no direct flights from Austin, Texas to Riga, so we had to make a couple connections. In fact it took four flight legs - Austin - Chicago - London - Stockholm - Riga. Whether it was bad luck or the search for cheap tickets, those connections were horrible - typically a 5 hour layover between flights, made longer because each flight landed early (why do they never land early when you have a tight connection?).

Each airport had a huge terminal. For example, we landed at Terminal 3 in London Heathrow, and had to go through security to get into the terminal so we could do 4 hours of our   imprisonment    wait in the Admiral's Club (free food and drinks). Then 90 minutes to get to our departure gate in Terminal 5, including a 15 minute bus ride and going through security again at Terminal 5. The new Heathrow terminal 5 brags that the terminal building is larger than the entire London Stansted international airport. (In fact on the airport expressway the bus took between terminals, there were three exits for Terminal 5) Rather than bragging, I think they should have apologized... it felt like we were walking farther than we had flown.

In Stockholm we landed in terminal 2, had to go through immigration (entering the European Union, since we were just "in transit" in London), and walk to terminal 5 (no bus, no Admiral's club).

Stockholm to Riga was on a separate ticket (which means we had to claim our bag, go through customs, carry it to terminal 5, and recheck it), but the ticket was interesting - the internet special price was €1 (about $1.50) each, plus taxes and fees. Not bad for an hour-long flight on a Boeing 737. (We won't mention that taxes and fees brought the total round trip for two on Air Baltic to $264.43, not the nominal €4 or US$6)

We left home for the airport in Austin at 7:30 Tuesday morning, and arrived at our hotel in Riga around 10:30 on Wednesday night. Of course with 8 hours time change, it was like arriving at 2:30 pm Austin time, so we had only been traveling 31 hours. Since we arrived at bedtime, we went to sleep promptly, and were largely on the local time zone by morning.

Hotel de Rome

Hotel de Rome (pronounced da Roma) is a 5 star hotel in the historic "Old Town" (Vecriga), but (unlike many Old Town hotels) is easy to find, on a plaza on the edge of Old Town, the corner building at the left in this picture, across from a big McDonalds on the right, and near the Freedom Monument where I am standing to take the picture. The room rate we found on the internet (advance purchase, 5 night stay) was €70 per night (including daily breakfast for two, taxes, and fees), which is less than half the rate the desk was quoting for walk-in customers. I recommend the hotel highly, especially at that rate.


Prices and foods vary in different countries. For example, in Latvia a small cup of coffee costs $2.50 to $4 (which is why we drank a lot of it at the "free" hotel breakfast), but a half liter of draft beer costs $1.50 to $3.00 (and there are no "lite" beers). (Most transactions were in Latvian "Lats" rather than euros, with one Lat worth just under US$2.) At the hotel, there were three different kinds of sugar for the coffee, but no low-cal sweeteners. The US Embassy says the tap water is safe to drink, but the hotel provided free bottled water (We believed the hotel). In Old Town (the historic tourist area) the menus are often in Latvian, Russian, and English, but the English was sometimes interesting. Our favorite was boiled Cancer, obviously referring to the sign of the Zodiac rather than the crustacean (the crab).

The "nice" restaurants are often Russian, German, or nationalities other than Latvian. So one night we had what we thought would be a typical Latvian meal in a cafeteria. My large pork cutlet was breaded and fried, topped with a melted cheese crumbles. A side order of potatoes was 5 or 6 medium size boiled potatoes with melted butter. Jenny had salmon (a huge piece). Salad was often herring or vegetables, sauerkraut was common, bread (I had a huge roll, Jenny picked a small roll that turned out to have meat inside), and everyone has desert - we had fresh fruit, which comes with heavy cream sauce, other folks had pastries. The Latvians know how to eat well!

One day at breakfast, instead of choosing scrambled or boiled eggs, sausage, bacon, fried potatoes, etc. from the buffet, I let them make me an omelet. I chose ham, cheese, and onions inside, they added cheese on the top, and probably 5-6 eggs... it looked like a 6 inch deep pan pizza. It was good, but huge!

I learned that in Latvia, all bread is   good    wonderful - whether it is a large white roll with choice of seeds on the crust, or dark rye bread, or anything between. Cheeses were wonderful - at breakfast we had a choice of four sliced cheeses, plus fresh mozzarella balls, plus a special dry cottage cheese to sprinkle on your cereal with the yogurt and fresh berries. And all meals include sausage, bacon, and other meats, as well as a selection of herring and salmon.

Eating like this, the people must be overweight - right? NOT! Tall, yes (at home, at just over 6'3", I am probably in the 95th percentile of height, but in Latvia (at 193 cm) I was only average. At home I consider my slight waistline protrusion only average, but there I would be in the 95th percentile of fat. They practically all had blue eyes and dark hair. And the only Negro I saw was an obviously adopted toddler of a white American (based on the yell from his mother as he ran off).

Steiku Haoss Restorans 1036

The first night we couldn't find the restaurant we were looking for, nor the alternate choice, and it was raining so we ended up at a Steiku Haoss Restorans - yes, a Texas or Buenos Aires style steak house. The food was good, but it didn't seem foreign except in the spelling of the name.

The second night we found the missing restaurant - an upscale but cozy Russian restaurant, on a street largely closed by construction. We had a great dinner with Borscht (cabbage and beet soup) and Caesar salad, stroganoff and veal cutlets, desert, and a very nice bottle of wine for about $50 for both of us, plus the wine. Another night we ventured to a recommended restaurant near the Russian embassy. I worry about restaurants that are almost empty, but we got a great dinner, including adult beverages, for a total cost with drinks and tip of about $25.

Riga, The City

Freedom Monument

Near our hotel was the Freedom Monument, built in the 1930s with contributions from the citizens. Traditionally flowers are placed at the foot, and soldiers guard it like the American Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Everyone was amazed that the Soviets left it in place during the occupation, but reportedly anyone who put flowers on the monument disappeared (was mysteriously deported).

There were many web-cams offering live pictures of Riga, that we watched (in part to see the weather and how people dressed). If you wish to try the webcams note date and time in upper left, the weather above the picture, and additional choices at the right.

Daugava River 1067

If I stood on top of the red brick building above, this would be the view of the Daugava River, which runs through Riga next to "Old Town". When I was young my father told me a story that I didn't appreciate until recently - with regret 30 years after he died.

If you look further down the river, you can see from the many ship-loading cranes that Riga is a seaport on the Baltic Sea.

Riga as a Seaport 1072
Enclosed public market 1050

The enclosed market was a series of buildings near the river, train station, and bus station, but no photographs allowed (darn, why?).

The open air market outside the main market halls was extensive. The exchange rate was interesting - the Latvian currency, the Lat, was worth about US$2 (and was broken into 100 santimi). In the market the price was often per kilo, or a little over 2 pounds, so you could look at the price for food in the same mindset as in the United States - 50 cents per pound was roughly equivalent to 50 santimi per kilogram. 40 cents per pound for beautiful roma tomatoes. Or 49 cents per pound for "plumes"!

Market prices 1058

Open Air Public Market 1056
Flowers 1060

The Latvians love fresh flowers. There were flower stands in practically every block of old town as well as in the market. Lots of people going home on the train had a bouquet of fresh flowers.

The streets in old town were narrow, with relief at frequent open "squares." And practically all the streets were cobblestone. Nice old streets, right? Then you haven't seen a cobblestone speed bump. They have installed the big modern speed bumps in cobblestone, but no yellow paint to warn you that you are about to be punished for going too fast. Outside the historic district, they have modern highways and expressways, like any modern city.

Narrow street 1100
Three Churches 1073

There were churches everywhere. Count the churches in this picture... and there may be more that I missed. It was not uncommon for church properties to be next to each other - back to back or across the street.

The Riga Dome is a large cathedral with a public plaza outside. The walls are 6 feet thick, It was initially Roman Catholic (remember, foundation laid in 1211), but now is Lutheran. Since it has one of the largest organs in Europe, it is primarily a concert hall (we attended an organ concert there, one of several each week, but didn't find the schedule for church services.) The folk festival, described below, was in the plaza outside the "Dome"

Side of the Dome Cathedral 1136
Riga Dome 1086
Organ 1036

The organ has 6,768 pipes, two consoles (at least one with four manuals), and is constantly being refurbished. The two consoles apparently have different features, because during the concert, we saw the organist climb the circular stairs (that you can see on the left and right side of the first balcony in the picture) to the other console a couple times.

The walls of the cathedral are so thick, and the building is so heavy, that the cathedral is sinking into the ground. The space between the sinking walls and the ground can also provide a food table during a festival!

Dome Cathedral is sinking 1157
Sign for Michaelmas market 1150

We asked several people what the festival was at the Dome Cathedral, and the answer was always "it is every year, lots of people come." Why? Shrug. When we got home, we looked up the translation of this sign - "Mikeldienas gada tirgus" which Google says is "Michaelmas on the market" (but if you put a space in the wrong place "Mikeldienas gada tirg us" it becomes "Michaelmas market by the U.S." - I don't think so!) Michaelmas is the Latvian festival to welcome the arrival of fall, obviously with harvest and crafts.

There was a large stage with various folk groups - this was a talented group of teenage folk dancers, that followed a singing group (Think barbershop octet - 7 or 8 - in Tuxedos), followed by a folk band, and while the group was changing, the emcee entertained by reciting poetry (the reading style and audience reaction was like an American would read "Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house, not a creature was stirring.... " but it wasn't Christmas, and I don't understand Latvian.)

Folk dance group 1056

Folk dance group 1055
Apparently traditonal Latvian food 1140

There were lots of different types of food for sale by various vendors. This was apparently traditional Latvian... lots of boiled potatoes and sauerkraut. Vendors sold ice cream by weight - no worry about a fair serving (put a little more on the cone... how much does that cost now? Okay.) We bought caramel wrapped in a waffle cone - delicious. Sausage on a stick, potatoes on a plate, all very good.

This craftsman had just sold the handmade wooden toy fort... which he packed in wood shavings from his workshop, not foam peanuts. There were lots of other crafts - such as a couple women selling cloth bookmarks with your name woven into the fabric... they had books of names in every language (the kind you use to help choose names for your children), and had woven every name - Jenny bought one with "Jenny" = box 14 row 3.

Lots more pictures of the festival are on a separate web page, if you are interested

Traditional Craftsman 1143
Cat House 1137

There is a great fascination with roof-top ornaments such as this lifelike metal cat. It is known locally as the "cat house."

Close up of cat rooftop ornament

Or this sculpted rooftop worker, taking a break enjoying a bunch of grapes... note the master in the window below, looking for the craftsman.

Rooftop craftsman
St Peter's Church tower

St. Peter's church, in the background behind the carillon bells, was first mentioned in written history in 1209. It had the tallest wooden tower when it was built (and rebuilt several times after collapsing, burning down, and being shot down by artillery). It was finally rebuilt in 1973 with metal support and an elevator to take people to the top.

Panorama of Riga from St. Peters Church tower

Okay, so I couldn't resist playing with some software to combine pictures from the top, into a panorama. But the view was great. The Daugava river is in the center. The square where I took the early pictures is at the end of the bridge in the center of the picture. The market is at the left, near the end of the bridge with the curved superstructure (it looks far away, but was an easy walk). The white building in the picture above is in the center bottom of this picture.

Riga Castle 1124

Riga Castle, along the river, was large and impressive, but there was not a good position to catch a pretty picture of the home and office of the President of Latvia. It also houses museums.

We got a kick out of someone trying to simulate a Mississippi River paddle wheel boat on the Daugava River. They obviously hadn't seen one, nor had they learned how to spell Mississippi!

Riverboad 1127
Art Nouveau Architecture 1268

Riga is known for it's Art Nouveau architecture (incorrectly called Art Deco in some guides). This is a fine example of many that were in one section of town we visited. Some of the best-restored are now embassies of various countries - a nice contribution to "fixing up" a historic area.

Art Nouveau 1281

The National Art Museum displayed the drawings, paintings, and sculpture of Latvians, showing skill and technique comparable to the best anywhere - of course, the artists had studied with the best throughout the world, as well as locally. The museum building itself was a beautiful showplace, with murials showing scenes of Latvia, and a large reception area at the top of the grand staircase. During the occupation, a huge statue of Lenin dominated the landing and overlooked both the first and second floor - maybe that could be considered the price for keeping the facility. We saw pictures with the statue, and the improvement as the workers removed the huge statue after Latvia's liberation.

National Museum of Art 1266
City Canal parks 1259

This "City Canal" just outside of Old Town (Vecriga) provided quiet parks as you walked through the city.

Lots more pictures of churches and the city are available on a separate web page if you are interested.

Jūrmala, the coast

The map shows Jurmala (try saying "your MA la"), like it were a city, but that is the coastal area on the Gulf of Riga, a large bay off the Baltic Sea - Jenny finally realized we needed to pick a specific train stop, and chose the town of Dubulti.

When we got off the train, we asked "which way to the ocean?" and were told "the ocean is not here." We learned that the large body of salt water is the "sea" not the "ocean."

As we walked to the Sea we passed a number of homes, not luxurious, but in their own way peaceful and cozy, especially with an ample supply of firewood to keep them warm for the winter.

Dubulti House 1171
Jenny on the Baltic Sea 1167

A 10 minute walk from the train station got us to the sea - beautiful beaches. Even though it was only September, the season was obviously long past. I guess the "summer on the beach" season must be a few weeks long!

The tourist brochure for Liepaja showed pictures of scantily clad ladies romping on the beach. Jenny was neither scantily clad nor romping.

The only place I have seen this many   soccer    football nets on the beach is Rio. Looks like "round" football is big here!

Soccer nets on the beach 1166
Amazing beach toys 1168

Great beach toys, but almost nobody to play. The web of climbing ropes were elastic!

As we walked back to the train station, we noticed the date on this building (1906, just above the center window). More significant than the 100+ years is how well it survived a century with two world wars, partially fought in this country, and multiple foreign occupations.

1906 Store building in Dubilti

Sigulda, the mountains

We took an hour train ride Northeast to the mountain resort town of Sigulda. There were lots of signs for amusement park activities such as riding through the trees on a cable, roller luge courses, riding a bicycle on a tightwire (looks scary, but foolproof), but rather than going to the amusement park, we confined ourselves to a cable car ride across the valley.

Note the cable car part way across the valley in the picture at the right. The valley had a river and highway below - quite pretty with the fall season just arriving and leaves starting to change. The leaf color change is similar in timing to Vermont in the United States.

River and Road under the cable car 1181

Cable Car ride 1214
Castle 1225

As you crossed the valley you could see a castle, in apparent good condition, at the top of a nearby hill

At the top of the mountain is a clinic, that was once a private home, now used for disabled children. During the summer the extra rooms circling the "yard" almost double the capacity of the clinic.

Children's Clinic
Office and Library Building 1194

This dome-shaped building, that can be seen in the back of the picture above, next to the main house, is the Library and office for the clinic.

Down the path past the office are more maintenance buildings and a small community to house some of the staff.

The firewood appears to have been collected for the winter!
Firewood supply 1198

Staff facilities 1195
Castle remains 1210

The remains of an old castle were on top of a hill near the clinic. If you don't think this site is well protected, look down from the front of the castle - the two black dots in the center of the picture are people below.

Looking down from the castle 1207

Looking down from the castle 1207

Back on the first side of the valley, another castle has become a park and restaurant. And if you continue on these grounds through the ruins, it takes you to an open-air theater.

Open air Theater 1246
Castle 1240
2009 Planter in Sigulda 1175

As we returned through town, down the hill to catch the train, there were many pretty houses and parks. This "Year 2009" planter caught Jenny's fancy

The entrance to parks and sections of Sigulda were well decorated

Keys to Sigulda 1249
Sigulda Canes 1176

Yellow walking canes are made in Sigulda, real canes and miniature souvenirs were sold many places. The tradition started a couple hundred years ago as local families made these walking sticks for the tourists from the "big city" who were not used to walking in the hills of "Little Switzerland."

Liepāja, the naval port and seaport

This is the naval port on the west side of Latvia (near Lithuania) where my father was stationed as a naval officer, and raised his first kids. (The best I can do for pronunciation is "LEE bow".) It is a three hour train ride each way - we didn't get there, but the tourist brochures suggested sparsely dressed women cavorting on the beaches (where were they at Jurmala?), beautiful churches and historical buildings (like Riga), Skeitparks (skate parks), kanoe laivas noma (canoe boat rental - I caught the canoe part), and other activities. We are sure it would have been nice.

Ausekla Iela 8, Liepaja

80 years ago, when my father was in the Latvian Navy, his mother-in-law, "Grandma Cinka," owned a large four story apartment building (with a fancy restaurant on the first floor) at Ausekla iela 8, in Liepaja, and also ran a private school across the street. My father, with his first wife and kids, had an apartment here, only a few blocks from the ship canal and the sea. This satellite picture doesn't look like an 80 year old house, nor does her school appear to be across the street. It was the only temptation to "visit family history" in the whole trip, but since it didn't appear to be the original, it was not worth spending a day on the train.

People, Lauguage

The Latvians are friendly, helpful people. Most spoke Latvian or Russian, or some German, but enough spoke enough English that we didn't have any problems. We basically never found anyone chatting in English as we have in practically every other country. Some language experiences...

How do you say "Plēsums"

We have heard conflicting pronunciations for our name, so a small goal was to learn how the Latvians pronounce it. The page on "saying Plesums" has been updated, but after a lifetime, I doubt if we will change.


Riga In Your Pocket

We found a "free" guidebook locally that is by far the best we have seen in any city - "Riga in your pocket." I would say it is a competitor to "This week in ....." common in US and Western European cities, but that would be an insult to ".....in your pocket" - the "in-your-pocket" guide is that much better. Further you can download a copy for many central and eastern European cities or countries, from their web site (before your trip), at www.inyourpocket.com.

Not only does "Riga in your Pocket" have the usual hotel, restaurant, cultural, nightlife, and tourist suggestions, but history, translation of basic tourist words, postage rates (for the postcards home), what to expect for your money (what locals pay for a pint of beer, a bottle of liquor, a candy bar, a loaf of bread, and a Big Mac). We no longer need to search for overpriced and out-of-date Berlitz pocket guides to give us these details.

It even describes local scams to avoid, and lists specific places doing the scams (identified by the US Embassy as well as the guide). A favorite eastern European nightclub scam is to charge a high price (maybe even $1,000) for a bottle of cheap wine, or $250 for cocktails, and the bouncer (part of the local mob) will treat you to an evening in the emergency room if you don't pay. Two of the listed problem clubs (that looked very inviting from the outside) were a block from our hotel. If you don't go there directly, attractive women of the night are sent to legitimate bars to invite gentlemen to "buy them a drink" at one of these "nicer clubs."

Not to end on this sour note, legitimate restaurants and bars bring a wireless credit card machine to your table to scan your credit card, connected directly to the bank by WiFi, so your card is never out of sight, and the restaurant never collects your card number. At one restaurant the connection was bad, and the machine printed a slip that the waiter gave us before he scanned again - from his body language we assume the slip assured us that the data was not processed from the first scan. It is a shame we are not this technically advanced in the United States.

GPS proved to be a joke. We have a Garmin GPS that we use extensively, so we invested $10 for the map of Riga (just the city). Like previous tries in old cities, the buildings lining the narrow streets block much of the satellite reception, so "in town" the GPS is of questionable value. In the plaza, directly across the street from our hotel, it finally started navigating to our hotel, in clear sight. Walk left... estimated arrival in 15 minutes. Maybe it would have taken 15 minutes if we walked left, but we walked straight ahead, and within a minute it confirmed that we were arriving at Hotel De Rome.


Overall we had a great time, and the cost wasn't that high - $3,054 for both of us for absolutely everything for a week-long trip (5 very full days in Latvia). Will we go back? Probably not, but only because there are so many other cities and countries we haven't seen.

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