Monday, November 05, 2007

Logbook: Riga, Latvia

Riga1My bus ride on Friday from Vilnius to Riga was the first significant bus ride I've taken since my TICA Bus days through Central America almost exactly a year ago. As it turns out, EuroLines is to the Baltic States almost exactly what the TICA Bus is to Central America -- an efficient, no frills "people mover" between capital cities. With daily runs on the Warsaw-Vilnius-Riga-Tallinn route, the bus actually has some advantages over the trains. You can't get up to walk around like you can on the train, but the bus is even cheaper and actually a little bit faster. Besides, since you can't get a train from Riga to Tallinn without going into Russia, most folks have to take the bus for that leg anyway. If you travel to the Baltics -- which I strongly suggest you do -- your best bet is to take the bus all the way, and look into the "Baltic Pass" which can save you even more money depending on how many legs you are going to do. Then again, at about $15 for the five hour ride from Vilnius to Riga, how much can you really save?

Although the bus was pretty full, I lucked out and had two seats to myself -- no small luxury on a five hour ride! My other luxury, of course, is my combination of iPods which let me catch up on my favorite Podcasts -- both audio and video -- plus watch an episode or two of "24" which -- I admit -- I am totally hooked on! The ride itself was uneventful, with only one moment worth sharing: At the border between Lithuania and Latvia, "The Man" came aboard to check passports and since everyone except me was from one country or the other, their passports were looked at and immediately returned. Mine was looked at, thumbed through then taken by "The Man" off the bus. We sat and waited for the next ten minutes until "The Man" came back, walked down the aisle, handed me my passport without a word then turned around and got off the bus followed by our immediate departure. Although I didn't get any sense of anyone's consternation about the delay, it was a little weird to be so obviously singled out!

While planning my "Baltics Bound" exploration, I had read and hear that Riga is a beautiful city, but my first impressions were not very positive. Of course, the bus station area of any city usually isn't very nice, and it was already almost dark by the time we arrived at around three in the afternoon. Plus, the weather was really cold and pouring down a mixture of rain, sleet and slushy snow. What city could look good with all that going on, right? I quickly made my way a block or so to the edge of the "Old Town" and found a decent little place to stay, went online for a while then went out for an early dinner of hot soup and called it an early night.

Riga2The weather on Saturday was even worse, rivaling some of my time in Antarctica for cold, wet, windy and raw. I immediately declared it an "inside day" and spent most of it in my room, catching up online, reading my book and watching some more episodes of "24" which - did I mention? -- I am totally hooked on! I did go out in the middle of the day to get some more hot soup for lunch, and made a swing through the immense public market area. Situated in and around five huge WWI-era zeppelin hangars, the market was packed with people despite the terrible weather. I was practically agog wandering around, almost overwhelmed by the size of it. I've been in a lot of markets during my travels, and this one is probably the biggest I've ever seen. What makes it really fascinating is that each of the five hangar buildings seems to have a "theme" for its products -- with one containing nothing but meat stalls, another produce, another clothing, etc. -- and in between the hangars you can find more traditional supermarkets and shops. I don't know what it was like during "the Soviet days" but it certainly is "raging commerce" today. A couple of hours of that really wore me out, and I was happy to get back to my comfy room for another bad-weather-induced early night!

Riga3I pulled back the curtains with some trepidation yesterday morning, but was delighted to find blue sky! I hit the streets early and made the most of it, starting with a two hour "overview" bus tour. With that orientation behind me, I walked for hours in what really is a beautiful city after all. (I've put some of the best of the pictures in the Photos page so you can see for yourself.) The key thing to keep in mind about Riga -- like most of its neighbors -- is that it has been under the rule of foreigners for most of its history: Germany starting in the 12th century and continuing with Poland in the 16th, Sweden in the 17th and Russia in the 18th. What's different about Riga is that it has not had the same kind of destruction in wartime that many of its neighbors have had, so it has representative architecture from each period. Also, as a thriving port city, Riga did not experience as much economic devastation during adverse occupation. Thus, walking around the city is a joyful mix of impressive buildings and lovely green spaces. If you are "into" architecture, Riga should be at the very top of your list of places to visit.

Riga4As for the people -- and while I have no complaints -- Riga has a different kind of "feel" to it. Mostly, I suspect, because this is the farthest into Easter Europe that I have been, I don't look like the local folks. Despite the fact that my clothing is dark like theirs, I think my general features make me appear obviously "Western." While there hasn't been anything the least bit negative, I have not felt entirely comfortable here. Perhaps because the city is "culturally divided" -- almost 50% of the people are of Russian rather than "native Latvian" origin -- I'm picking up on those "vibes." I don't know. My point is that when you visit here -- which you should -- don't be surprised if there's a certain "feeling" that makes you go, "Hmmm." Like elsewhere in the region, most young people generally speak pretty good English so language is not a problem, but service is generally pretty poor so you need to be patient. All in all, I have really enjoyed Riga and strongly recommend it for a visit, but I'm not inclined to "invest" myself in it.

Today has been a good mixed-use day as I prepare for a "travel day" tomorrow to Tallinn, Estonia. Besides making my arrangements going forward, I've prepared for another day on the bus. I've filled my feed bag, charged my iPods, picked up a new book and enjoyed some continued good weather to walk around in anticipation of another long sit. Everything is ship shape on The Voyage!

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