As my unnervingly quiet and modern (is this plane electric?) Air Baltic flight descended upon Riga, I looked out across the never-ending, pancake flat expanse of evergreen trees.
Latvia? More like Flatvia, amIright? Get a hill, you guys!
Latvia is one of those forgotten corners of the globe that I don’t think most Americans even know exists. Formerly part of the USSR, in many ways it seemed to me to have more in common with the cultures of nearby Sweden and Finland than with Russia itself. Latvia had passed through Russian, Swedish and Polish rule during its history, experiencing a period of hard-fought independence between the world wars before being invaded by the Russians and then the Nazis during WWII.
The Baltic republics of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia were the first to leave the Soviet Union, the process beginning with anti-Soviet protests in Latvia in 1986. This led to the “Singing Revolution,” where masses of protestors in Latvia joined together to sing “Jingle Bells, Gorbachev Smells” and other traditional Latvian folk songs. Then came the Baltic Way demonstrations in 1989, when two million people joined hands across Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in support of independence. Pro-Democracy protestors in Hong Kong recently paid homage to this demonstration by forming a 30 mile long chain of people holding hands across their city.
All three Baltic countries joined the European Union in 2004.
Gliding through the adorable Riga airport and into the street, I approached one taxi driver who spoke no English at all. I tried another but he wanted too much money. The bus it is! A woman sat next to me with a large potted plant in her lap as we slid over a quant bridge and past the bizarrely-shaped library.
Disembarking in Riga’s historical Old Town, I paid my respects to Latvia’s three biggest badasses at the Latvian Rifleman monument. The Latvian Riflemen were a Balt-rock trio known both for their hits “Thanks a Lat,” “Rifle Tower” and “You Can’t Spell U.S.S.R. Without Us” as well as their ill-advised switch to socially-conscious hip-hop in the late 90s, in an attempt to keep up with the times.
Riga’s biggest tourist attraction is probably the House of the Blackheads, which is a disgusting name for a 14th century meeting place for a guild of unmarried merchants, shipowners and foreigners who got together to complain that they couldn’t get any girls to come over to their meeting hall.
I love this bizarre club and all the questions it raises. Did you have to quit the guild if you got married? What if you sold your ship? What if you got married but for a wedding present you received a ship? That guy can probably stay. Apparently the serious answer is that these various designations prevented you from joining other, more-desirable guilds, so these guys were like the Second Sons or the Dirty Dozen of the medieval Baltics. Also, occasionally entire towns would get together and try to kill all the foreigners in their midst, so those guys needed a place to hide.
The name appears to come from the fact that the guild’s patron was Saint Maurice, a black dude from Egypt, and his black head appeared on their crest so I guess that answers that? I guess?
In front of the House of the Blackheads stands a commanding statue of skinny jeans pioneer Roland, a knight in Charlemagne’s court who apparently was so fly he didn’t need a last name.
At the base of the statue there is a bizarre fish spout, put there in case you needed to drain the knight.
In spite of this being the touristy thing to see in Riga, I had the House of the Blackheads all to myself. This was in part because it was super early in the morning and the town hadn’t even woken up yet. The only people in the streets with me were two or three other backpackers who were enjoying the eerie stillness. But that wasn’t the only reason. When I talked about over-tourism in Moscow, the obvious follow-up question is “What’s the solution?” Well, one of them is visit places that aren’t relentlessly advertised and on every other person’s bucket list. You might think this would make them lesser, also-ran destinations that are unknown for a good reason, but generally I’ve not found that to be true. I enjoyed Riga as much as any town I’ve ever visited, and I’m sure at least part of that was having it all to myself to explore.
The other famous thing to see in Riga, and I use “famous” in a very relative sense, is the “Town Musicians of Bremen” statue, located outside St Peter’s Church in the old town. Based on the Brothers Grimm tale of a band of outcast domestic animals who band together to scare off some robbers and end up making a new home in their abandoned cottage, the statue was a gift from trading partners in the town of Bremen, Germany (where a similar statue stands), on the occasion of Latvia’s independence.
The Riga statue has an additional twist, as the donkey, dog, cat and rooster in this version are bursting through the iron curtain and seeing past it, into a new world.
It’s considered good luck to touch the face of each of the four animals, which ends up being a test of your jumping ability. My friend Tia had been in Riga the previous winter and despite the snowpack advantage had only managed to reach the dog. (“I got dog.”)
I managed to cock-slap the rooster, so consider me lucky for life.
St Peter’s itself was quite the striking church.
And wandering through the narrow streets full of cafes and shops nearby in the early morning light was quite a treat.
This awesome drunk hedgehog is definitely the design they should have gone with for the new Sonic the Hedgehog movie.
This bull seems conflicted about shilling for a steak house.
I loved the extremely tattered flags blowing majestically in front of the Garden Palace.
I suspect this may be a party hostel! Just tell me that’s not a gimp suit.
Giant Baltic art horse? Why not?
Giant Wright Brothers mural? Why not?
I made my way through the old town and across the river, as the rain began to lightly fall on the water.
On the other side of the river stands the Riga Freedom Monument, one of those objects that’s difficult to photograph when you’re too close to it, and it’s dark, and it’s raining. Interestingly, the monument dates back to Latvia’s original independent period back in 1935, I would have assumed it had been constructed in the post-Soviet era. Apparently the Soviet Union wanted to destroy the monument after annexing Latvia, but a prominent Soviet sculptor argued it was too beautiful to destroy. The monument became a rallying point during the independence protests of the late 80s.
I veered off the path to photograph a nearby church, and on the way some kind of road-worn Russian transient identified me as a kindred spirit and asked me a ton of practical questions about Riga that I was ill-equipped to answer, considering I had been in the country for a whole hour.
Nearby, a monument to the gigantic frogs that possibly terrorize Riga at night enjoyed the rain.
I was trekking across town to get to Albert street, a famed neighborhood of beautiful historic buildings, which did not disappoint at all.
One thing that stood out from my walk is that Latvian women are tall. Not like, “taller than your average lady.” I mean, like, tall for an NBA center. One woman who passed me on the sidewalk was easily seven feet tall. I wanted to take a photo of her for proof but that seemed rude, surely she’d got enough shit about this in her life already. Unless it’s a point of pride in Latvia? After I got home I looked it up and Latvia has, on average, the tallest women in the world. So maybe she would have palmed my head like a basketball and taken a selfie with me if I’d asked. Life is a parade of missed opportunities.
While I was walking back from Albert street, a local man with a friendly bearing who was sweeping the wet sidewalk in front of his house animatedly attempted to engage me in conversation, in Latvian. I apologized and told him I spoke English, at which point without pausing he switched to repeating “Shalom! Shalom! Shalom!”
I smiled and returned the greeting. I took this to mean he thought I was Jewish, which I’m not, but it seemed like a nice thing to say either way. Later I considered that maybe he was Jewish and this was the one English-adjacent greeting he knew. Seemed like a really nice guy.
The big tourist attraction on this side of town is the Swedish Gate. This is the last remaining section of the wall that enclosed Riga in medieval times. Apparently it used to be a house, and the merchant who owned it was tired of paying taxes to bring his goods into Riga, so he built his own private access gate straight through the house.
On the other side of the gate there’s a lion who’s not sure how he feels about all this gate nonsense.
On my way back through the old town, I passed through a maze of narrow, crooked alleyways that were completely charming.
I was fascinated by how the ancient buildings in this alleyway were leaning in toward and away from each other at all kinds of crazy angles. I felt like I was in the movie Labyrinth.
Then, suddenly, the claustrophobically narrow alleyway I was walking down was blocked by two guys doing some kind of construction work. I say “some kind” because it mostly appeared to be the older of the two guys just hitting the cobblestone street with a crowbar. There was no way I was going to be able to turn around and navigate back through the crooked, winding alleys without completely losing my sense of where I was, so I gestured to the young apprentice if it was okay for me to squeeze by. He shrugged. I hopped up onto the curb and balance-beamed my way across the torn-up street.
The older guy looked at me and started talking at me fast in Latvian. His tone wasn’t angry, but I took his salvo to be something like “What are you stupid this is a construction site” like he was bemused anyone could be so thick. I told him sorry, I don’t speak Latvian, but he continued for a long while as if I did. After he was done saying his piece I smiled, thanked him and continued on. Who knows what bizarre impression of foreigners this interaction cemented in his mind.
Back at the airport I was reflecting on how enchanting Riga had been, an impression that continued with the charming girl at the airport who tried to sell me a ham sandwich and this bizarre vending machine that tried to sell me wool slippers for my flight to Belarus.
You’re weird and you’re lovely, Latvia.