After leaving behind the sad beaches in Parnu, it wasn’t long before we were in Latvia, country #20! We though that we had finally encountered a border that was stopping to check passports and inspect vehicles, but it was just roadworks stopping traffic to a single lane.
The roads were somewhat terrible, with near constant lumps/bumps causing the sagging rear of our car to scrape bodywork on the tyres. Thankfully it’s just a bit of fibreglass trim, and it’s not going to do damage to the tyre or the bodywork.
The fuel was cheaper here than Estonia, too, which came as a surprise, since Estonia seemed cheaper than Andorra – which is meant to be tax-free.
And, if the bumpy roads weren’t bad enough, we had to deal with drivers that had zero patience, and were willing to overtake around blind corners and let the other cars (us included) to sort it out to avoid an incident. A friend wrote a great piece about riding his motorbike through Siberia. I realise that we’re not at those levels of crazy, which terrifies me that things can still get worse.
It felt like there were more farms here than what we saw in Estonia. The houses were built from raw timber, and their rooves were sagging and broken, like broken backs. Of course, there were still huge tracts of pine forest to drive through, it just didn’t feel as long, or as dense as it had further north.
We tried to take a few detours to see more of Latvia than just Riga – just as we try to see more of other countries, rather than passing straight through. We made a detour to travel through Gauja National Park, and some of the towns inside.
Lonely Planet described Cēsis as the “Most Latvian town in Latvia”, so with a title like that, how could we not visit? It took a while to see the charm, but we managed to find some of the cute wooden gingerbread styles houses – much like we’d seen in Russia. They had seen better days, with most of them covered in flakes of peeling paint.
The main street too had seen better days, or at least was in a state of metamorphosis. Temporary fencing was installed, and the street itself had been dug up. I guess summer is over, and it’s time to get work done before winter hits.
The town is dominated by the tower of St. John’s Church, which is also looking a little shabby. It’s pretty, but nothing exceptional. Inside was much like the outside, quite simplistic – other than being an interesting shade of yellow.
However, the main attraction is the town’s castle. But, we were too late to enter, and had to settle for the glimpses we could steal through gates and fences as we walked around the perimeter. It did look rather old and imposing – but just a shame we couldn’t get closer.
We were both a little confused as to what the attraction was. It was pleasant enough, but I’m glad we didn’t take too much of a detour to visit.
The main town in the national park, and also with a large castle. It was described as Latvia’s Switzerland, which having already visited Switzerland and been amazed with the mountains, confused us no end. There were definitely hills here, and a river that cut down forming a shallow gorge, but Switzerland it wasn’t.
There were all sorts of extreme sports on offer, from rafting and canoeing, to mountain biking, to bungee jumping from a suspended cable that crosses the Gauja River.
But, when we saw a ski resort, on a slope that was at best 5% gradient, we had to laugh to ourselves – and I thought that the small ski resort in the town I lived in in Japan (Yakumo) was tiny!
Rather than stopping to explore the sites, we opted to make an early stop for the evening in a secluded forest, near the river. We were surrounded by tall trees. I thought I could hear the river, but it was just the sound of the wind whooshing through the leaves above and around us. It was beautifully serene, until another camper arrived and started his generator. And then the rain came, and giant drops fell from the tall trees we were parked under. We drowned it all out by watching a movie – Café Society (not my favourite Woody Allen).
It was still raining in the morning, and combined with a feeling of fatigue, I was tempted to just stay in the car and watch movies all day. It sounded like a great idea, but I realised that the battery would probably go flat, since we didn’t have a generator like our lovely German neighbours.
We were lucky to receive a few tips from friends for Riga. We started by visiting a recommended coffee shop, Rocket Bean, just north of the old town. They were busy roasting coffee, and it smelt amazing. The coffee however, was little bitter – and crazy strong. Even after resting there for 1.5hr, making use of their free parking and wifi, I was still shaking, and not in a particularly healthy state.
Risa really wanted to visit an Art Nouveau museum in town, so I dropped her and drove just out of town to our campsite for the night. Fortunately that coffee was still working overdrive, and the 4.5km walk into town went by in no time at all. When we’re not on holiday, I’d never consider a 4.5km walk unless it was really the only option, but now it’s become so common. At least there was some interesting things to look at, like old wooden buildings, and a great view of the town from the large suspension bridge.
Risa had completed her visit to the rather tiny Art Nouveau museum, which turned out to be little more than a small apartment decorated with period furniture. I quickly popped my head in to see the beautiful internal staircase. It’s gorgeous, but not my style.
While she was waiting for me, she’d already walked all around the area and admired the period facades. It seemed like Alberta iela was the epicentre in Riga. Every building on this street was beautiful – though some were more beautiful than others. The faces and the details, as well as the amazing windows were hard not to love.
It was more walking to get to the old town. I set a path that would take us past the Freedom Monument, only it turns out that it’s currently being renovated/repaired. It was completely covered, and I couldn’t really see how it looked through the scaffolding, either.
It felt much, much larger than the old town in Tallinn, and also a lot more modern/polished. Though, there were still more than enough beautiful buildings to make a walk down any street enjoyable.
Renovation struck again when we went to see the House of Blackheads, as the two facades were also covered by scaffolding – but this time I was able to squint my way through and see some of the detail behind. I won’t lie, it was disappointing not to be able to see what is described as the most beautiful buildings in Riga – a town filled with beautiful buildings.
Two friends had recommended we visit a small restaurant called Folkklubs, just a litte south of Blackheads. We didn’t quite know what to expect when we walked down some dark stairs, and then through a long narrow hallway, but it eventually opened up into a beautiful cosy space. We grabbed one of the last available tables, and proceeded to make pigs of ourselves.
I ordered a starter plate, with cured meat, cheese and the most incredible fried garlic bread I’ve ever tasted – this bread was so good that I would visit again just to eat it. We also grabbed some mains each, with Risa getting a crazy rich beef/beer stew, and I grabbed some meatballs (grandma style). It was seriously incredible, and I couldn’t believe the price – €25, including a pint of kvas. Deserts sounded incredible, but there was no way we were able to eat any more.
We were sat right by the stage, and I was hoping that we’d be able to finish our meal before the band started. And then the band started, and they were fantastic! Sure, we were seated a little too close to the speakers to be able to enjoy a meal, but we’d finished eating now, and sat and watched them for a couple of songs. They were a folk four-piece, with a double bass, a jazz flute, a guitar, and some weird flat/slide guitar. The music was completely new to me, and filled with fantastic energy and passion.
It was too early to return to the van. We needed an hour or two to walk off all the food in our extended stomachs. Luckily, the old town is a fantastic place to walk without purpose and just enjoy the views. We found new places, and repeated some familiar ones in new light. The streets were really quiet, too, which made it even more pleasant. However, it was quite dark once the sun had fully set, and there wasn’t so much to see in the dark.
While I might have been happy to walk into town earlier, I wasn’t really keen for a walk back to the campsite, especially since the last 2km was down a dark semi-paved road. We opted for a €7 taxi, and didn’t regret a single cent of that purchase.
There is a bus that runs from right outside of the caravan park into town. However, it doesn’t run all day. It turned out the last bus was at 10AM – and we were ready to leave just after 10AM. Risa didn’t want to walk in to town, and I was less keen than I was yesterday. We mentally prepared to pay for a taxi instead. Thankfully there was another Australian couple also waiting for a taxi, so we decided to cancel theirs and share ours into town – which ended up being cheaper than a bus! Winner!
The town was much prettier in the daylight. We found the Three Brothers, which were really standout buildings. It was possible to enter the rightmost building, which currently housed a city-planning style museum. Some exhibits were interesting, such as the proposed subway – which was cancelled/scaled back due to fears that it would make the city too populous (among other things).
We pretty much walked back past most of the same sights that we’d covered last night, however with the benefit of daylight now. Even though it was re-treading old ground, we weren’t bored. There was always new details to find and enjoy – like the house with the cats on the roof, with their butts directed at the guildhalls.
We crossed over and out of the old town to the Central Market, which is housed in some enormous old buildings used for building/storing zeppelins! It was sprawling, and they seemed to sell just about anything you could think of. Still, Narantuul has set the benchmark for what a market can be – and this felt like a car boot sale in comparison. I really wanted a three-stripe tracksuit, but wasn’t able to find anything for sale. We also really wanted shashlyk, but again it wasn’t for sale – unlike central Asia.
Still, we grabbed a bite to eat from the super cheap canteen, picked up some fresh meats, fruit, honey and other snacks/treats.
The only other site left for me to visit was the Occupation Museum. We walked back to the House of the Blackheads, only to find that it had temporarily moved to near the Freedom Monument. We walked back across the old town again, and this time we learnt that it was shut for the afternoon for an official visit by Angela Merkel… We were deflated and exhausted. Luckily, we weren’t far from the bus station, and there was a bus scheduled to leave shortly. We hopped on and were thankful to be inside when the rain finally started to hammer down.
We quickly filled up our van, and emptied the dirty waters and were on our way out of town, thoroughly satisfied with our short visit – other than the occupation museum…