Traveling the world, learning languages, and immersing myself in new cultures.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Riga, Latvia: Lots of Firsts

...and people wonder why I love Europe!

Synopsis: "European Capital of Culture 2014" means that Riga is a must-see destination, and I am a must-see kind of guy. I had some friends who were going to come with me, but they bailed at the last minute, so I'll go by myself. I try to find a couchsurfing host but have no luck. So, I just go to the city and hope for the best. Maybe, I'll try a hostel for the first time ever in my entire life?

Supporting Cast: Since I mention some people by groups in this post, here is a quick who's who.

"Dutch guys" - Chris, Don, Rueben
"Finnish group" - Alexandra, Stephanie, Markus, Christopher
"Finnish guys" - Zachary, Olli
"Italian guys" - Simon, Andrea
"Polish girls" - Agnieszka, Marzena 

Trip Overview:
Day 1: Flight out of Zaventem and it's the first time I use my phone as my boarding pass. Pretty neat and convenient. When I land in Riga, I take bus 22 to Old Town. I sit next to a girl who I try to practice my Latvian with but she is so shy, she just giggles and speaks too fast. I get off at Rifleman Square and there is an really cool giant snail exhibit (a group of artists' commentary on the government: slow as snails). At the square, I jump on the hop on/off bus to get my geographic bearings, plus now I have public transport for 48hrs. The English speaker on the recording is from Scotland; first time I've heard that. 

After the bus tour arrives back at Rifleman Square, I see a hostel, Friendly Fun Franks Backpackers Hostel, and walk to it to check it out and end up booking a room. I walk in right before it gets busy, which is not good because only one person is trying to help many people at the same time.

After booking,  I venture out into the city. I walk up and down the streets of old town until I find myself in the park, Esplanāde, with a canal running through it, that separates Old Town and the Art Nouveau district. It's a beautiful park and they have free, clean toilets. I see the National Opera, Freedom Monument, Riga Castle, and many other places. I head to the Central Market, which is 4 airplane hangars plus an outdoor area, turned into a fresh food and artisan/craft market. The food is making me hungry.

Both the hop on/off and the hostel recommend Lido for traditional Latvian food, so after searching over an hour for it, I find it. It's reasonably priced for a touristic restaurant and the grey beans (the chef recommends it with sour cream) and chicken, strawberries in cream, and mint tea are delicious!

Afterward, I head back to the hostel and meet four of my roommates, the Finnish group. They are finishing up a summer tour of Europe and this is their last stop. I then go out into the community area and there are about 15 guys and no girls. A bit later, 4 girls show up plus 10 more guys. One of the girls says it is a sausage fest, lol. Only problem with the common area is that the smoke area is adjacent, behind a glass wall, but it's overpowering the clean-air area. I meet the three Dutch guys who are pretty cool and are going on the pub crawl. I decide to join in, on my first pub crawl. 

We (the Finnish group, the Dutch guys, the Italian guys, and me and the guide) start the pub crawl at 830pm and go to four different bars. Our guide is really nice, but some of the professional pub crawlers say she isn't a great pub crawl leader. At the last bar, our guide leaves, but most of us stick around to play some drinking games and listen to the occasionally decent karaoke singers. Around 230am we leave to go get pizza. Stop at one last bar/club and it's pretty weak so we leave after an hour. Get back to the hostel around 4am.

Thoughts: This is the first trip I've been on by myself in a long time. I have no plan and I'm just going to let the wind direct my sails. Most places you could pay in in euros or Latvian lats, since they just transitioned to the euro January 14 of this year.

Bus police boarded the 22 bus, and it's funny, because in four years of living in Brussels, I've never seen a transit cop, but saw one in Bucharest, Warsaw, and Riga, on the first bus I got on. First hostel. First pub crawl. Lots of firsts for me.

For those who have never been to a hostel, let me give you a brief scoop. Hostels are designed for travelers who don't need the luxury of a hotel, but prefer not to sleep on a park bench. They have great info and amenities like local maps and discount offers on restaurants and bars, walking tours, kitchens for personal cooking, in-house bar, free wifi, and organized events. They have towels, mixed dorm rooms with bunk beds and linen, and common toilets and showers, as well as a safe room for valuables. The kitchen is open 24/7 and there is unlimited free tea and coffee. At this hostel, I got a free Latvian sparkling wine (I know it's only "champagne" in France) as a welcome gift. The doors are always locked and you have to be buzzed into the building.

Air Baltic owes me 1,000 lats for this picture

With the snails at Rifleman Square

Old school headphones on the hop on/off

Monta welcoming me to Frank's

The common area of Frank's

My bed, that Cassie will steal from me on the last night

Riga is Eiropas Kultūras Galvaspilsēta 2014 (Europe's Culture Capital 2014)

Freedom Monument

National Opera from the park

Central Market

Latvian cuisine, and I was impressed with the grey peas and chicken

Pub crawl participants

The Dutch guys led us in all of our drinking games

Day 2: About 6am you can hear people talking in the room and someone yells shut up. It goes quiet. Then an hour later someone else talks too loud, but they leave before anyone says anything. I wake up around 9am to check out the continental breakfast. Must be Antartican, cuz it's barely anything. Hang out and talk with quite a few people (a Belarusian, an Estonian, the Finnish guys) and hear some interesting stories. 

Head to Museum of Occupation, at Rifleman Square, with the Finnish guys. So much new info, and worth the donation-only entrance fee. I had no idea about the Baltics' involvement before, during, and after WWII, and I went to good schools! After, I relax and chat at the square a bit with Zachary, as we wait for Olli, I head to new gigantic national library. I saw an awesome spot for a headstand shot yesterday, so I go there after the library, only to fail the headstand. On my way back to the hostel I see a street fair and stop by for a few minutes, but have to go to catch the walking tour.

Anette is the walking tour guide from the hostel. Eva is a future tour guide and tagging along. The Finnish group, Dougie - a Scottish guy, and I, are the guided. After the tour, Eva takes Dougie and I to Fontaine Delisnack for some good and cheap food. Then, Dougie and I go to Ezīšfests, in the square behind the Technical University, with live music, dancing, games and activities for kids and adults. We eat YoYo frozen yogurt there.

Then we head to the "Ghetto Games" to see the dance battle, football, and floor ball championships. This event is put on by a Latvian group utilizing the American hip-hop culture as a theme. It was actually really cool: there were blow up games for kids, stuntman activities for people to try, DJs playing music, plus the sporting events that we saw. It gets a bit cold and dark, so we head back.

At the hostel, the Italian guys are cooking and offer me a plate. Gratzie! They are finished eating, so I eat with the Polish girls. I share my Warsaw blog with them and they love it. Later, Kertu, an Estonian girl, joins us.

Around 9pm I head out with the Finnish group to the Skyline Bar on the 26th floor of the Radisson hotel. It's free before 8pm, but costs 7€ after 8pm, and 3€ after midnight. The Dutch guys are already there and we all hang out for awhile in the lounge area. The Finnish group leaves earlier than we do, since they have a 6am departure. The Dutch guys and I leave around midnight, and we are hungry.

Head to Fontaine Delisnack , again, since it was so good, and this time I get pizza instead of a burger. On the way back to the hostel, I see the Italian guys and Dougie with some others, at the Funny Fox. The Dutch guys go back to the hostel, but I stay and watch some karaoke before heading back to the hostel with Kertu. Back at the hostel we have a good conversation about our best/worst couchsurfing experiences, over a hot tea, before heading to sleep. 

Thoughts: A hostel is a great place to meet a bunch of people from different cultures and to find people who have things in common, so you can go around the city together. Today was a looong day.

Kitchen during the continental breakfast

Museum of Occupation: Latvians couldn't catch a break. Soviets, Nazis, then Soviets again

With the Finnish guys, Olli (l) and Zachary (r)

New National Library of Latvia

Inside the library

Failed the headstand, so went for a traditional photo

House of the Blackheads, and I couldn't get in free???

Our walking tour guide, Annette

Riga Cathedral

Christopher and I in front of the Three Brothers: the oldest houses in Riga

Saw a falcon kill and fly off with a pigeon. 'Twas spectacular!

At Fontaine Delisnack, what an interesting burger name

Eva, who guided us to good food

Strawberry kiwi yogurt with snickers, kiwi, blueberries, caramel, and hazelnuts

at the Ezīšfests
Try your hand at being a stuntman

Ghetto Games getting ready for floor hockey

Dougie was such a good supporter

Floor hockey championship 

Football championship 

26 floors up in the Skyline Bar

Day 3: Wake up at 915am and all but two of my roommates are gone. I grab a quick bite to eat before jumping on the hop on /off. I listen to the recording in French this time. It's a partly cloudy day, a bit cooler than yesterday. I jump off in the art nouveau district to walk around and see the art nouveau architecture. As an art novice I have no idea what I'm looking at, but by looking up at the building with awe and appreciation, and snapping pictures of buildings, passers-by (passer-byers?) think I know what I'm doing. After a half hour of pretending to be an art aficionado, I actually I learn something about art nouveau, at least now I can tell it from other styles, like art oldveau. 

Jump back on the hop on/off bus and head over to the Victory Memorial to the Soviet Army, for defeating the Germans in WWII. I stage my own little photo shoot, just as the sun comes out and gives me great natural light. Walk back to the hostel. Before heading out on the beach trip, I go buy souvenirs, in case I won't have time later. The beach tour is an hour late, so we don't leave until 2, which makes me mad because I didn't eat because I thought I wouldn't have had the time. About 18 of us, 11 Brits on a stag party, the Dutch guys, the Italian guys, me and Undina (the guide), head to the train station to go to Jūrmala beach. 

Arrive at Jūrmala and walk down the main street, and then past some nice homes with expensive cars, and then through a small forest, before arriving at the beach. Setup base camp and then a few of us walk along the beach and discover a beach volleyball tournament and some events around, in relation to the event. We walk back to the home base and hang out for awhile. Rueben and I go into the water about knee deep and it's initially very cold but is not bad by the time we get out. Some are playing football and some are playing a variation of snooker and the rest are just relaxing in the sun and chatting. 

After a few hours we head back to the train station, though I have to stop to get authentic Latvian ice cream. It is pretty good. Hop on the train to Riga and once there, stop at the grocery store, then walk back to the hostel. I cook the jambalaya that I brought for my couchsurfing host that never showed themselves. I invite the Polish girls and Dougie to join me and eat. Despite the crying and spitting it out, they like the food. While we are eating, Madara & Silvija, two Latvians who work at the hostel, ask me for a favorLater a British girl, Cassie, who stole my bed, joins us. We all move to the common area and enjoy some traditional polish Soplica and talk til about 1am. Agnieska (one of the Polish girls) is an English teacher in Spain. She stole my job... I'm moving to Italy and teaching Polish!

Thoughts: So few people out and about early in the morning. Parks make up a large portion of Riga and it is very pedestrian friendly here. It seems everyone at the hostel is on a euro-trip and I'm the only one who traveled just to Riga and then is heading home. It is definitely not swimming weather but it's not raining so we still enjoy it. My jambalaya is a hit and everyone who had some loved it. Unfortunately the Dutch guys didn't get to partake. 

Riga has the largest collection of art nouveau buildings in Europe

I've created a new art movement #selfienouveau

Victory Memorial to the Soviet Army
Privet, comrades

Waiting for the beach tour

Chris, one of the Dutch guys, and me, the non-Dutch guy

Welcome to Jūrmala beach

I just couldn't not get on it and take a pic

Testin' the waters

Saldējums (sal-day-ums) - Ice cream in Latvian

Makin' jambalaya with sausage and shrimp

They look like they're dying but that how the Poles and Scots show appreciation for food

Day 4: Cab driver show up at 415am. I see Reuben (one of the Dutch guys) on my way out, on his way in, and we say our good byes. Cab ends up costing exactly 17,60€ (you're welcome Sylvija). I get to the airport at 430am, and my flight is at 605am. Now I'm sitting down, on the free airport wifi, with two other people at the gate. 

Thoughts: I'm so sleepy......

Final Thoughts: 
I got about 12 hours of sleep between the 3 days I was there, about half of what I'm used to getting. But it was worth it because I had so much fun. 

Now, after seeing all of my photos, I  realize I took a lot of selfies, since I didn't have anyone to take photos for me. I went a lot of places alone, which is not good or bad, but I can really see the differences reflected in the pictures.

English speakers have no secrets in Europe. If you speak anything but english, when you want to tell your friends something, just speak in your native tongue, and you can say whatever, and no one else is the wiser. But everyone speaks English, so everything I say is public knowledge. I gotta learn more languages!

The hostel experience was incredible and exciting; the people I met, stepping outside my normal type of "fun", and being in Latvia. I took home some Laima chocolate and Balzams (Latvian drink) to share with friends, and they were both pretty good.

Baltic Air has the most attractive flight attendants ever.

Location: Riga, Latvia


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