The Devil Went Down to Rīga

Posted on November 19, 2008

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Today I came back from a trip to visit a Swedish family in Alberg, and then from there I went straight to Stockholm to get on a boat with 1000 other exchange students in Sweden for a two night cruise to Riga, the capital of Latvia. Because of another event this week I am going to skip over my visit to Karl-Gustave and Anne-Marie for now and save it for later this week. And so, without further delay, here is my travel report about Latvia:

Every university with exchange students in Sweden was invited to take a cruise to Latvia earlier this year, under the impression that a Swedish company, Scanbalt Experiences, had rented out a small cruise liner for a two night trip, filled almost entirely with exchange students. I booked early with Marc, Cate, and Melanie (the same crew from my large Stockholm trip last September). The total cost, between the 4 of us, was about 400 Swedish crowns, or 100 SEK each, or about $12. Two months later, I found myself boarding my first ever cruise ship, en route to Riga.

One should know that there are two required elements to a cruise on the Baltic: the tax free store on the boat (which was thoroughly mobbed by the tax-starved college students immediately after it opened), and that karaoke can get a little out of control when you have 50 college kids cheering for one another. I’m not trying to talk myself up at all, but my rebel-rousing rendition of “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” got people so excited (most importantly the MC) that I got to do a karaoke encore, which was supposed to be AC/DC but somehow turned into Roxanne by the Police. I know there were a lot of videos taken of the performance, so I might or might not share them if I ever find them.

Now about Riga. Riga is a beautiful Baltic capital, located up the Daugava river. After the first night, we awoke to be floating up the river, and this picture stands out as a good first impression of Latvia.

A little further upstream we were greeted with a better picture of the Riga skyline.

Riga skyline

We were able to disembark at about 11:00 Latvian time, which meant we had a grand total of 6 hours on land. Myself plus about 6 or 7 other kids still recovering from the night before made our way to Old Town, and here are some pics from the walk.

Bridge and bank

The sun never gets very high this far north, so it provided us with some sunrise-esque shots of the city.

One of the many churches

We finally made our way to the main square, next to the Dom Cathedral, and it was apparent that many of the people in the group were struggling in terms of having a good day of seeing the city. So, while the main group decided to take a coffee break, Andrew (my travel buddy from the first trip to Oslo) and I decided to try to get into the Dom. Much to our dismay (and very small college funds) it cost money to enter the church. So, we ended up getting a coffee as well, but I did get this great pic of the church in the low-lying sun.

The weather was especially disheartening on this trip, because within 5 minutes after entering the coffee shop it started to snow. It cleared quickly after, and, after acquiring some city guide books, we made our way to the start site of the self-guided walking tour, the House of the Blackheads.

House of Blackheads and St. Peter’s Church

Ten minutes after this picture was taking it started to rain and snow and sleet some more, especially hard with winds as well. Once again, most of the group retreated into another coffee shop, but I persisted outside and ended up getting some good shots of the Statue of Freedom.

Statue of Freedom

Close Up

At this point it became apparent that the large group we had was not going to work out, so Andrew and I split from the group to go see some more buildings (everything was closed because of the National Holiday, so exteriors are all that we got to see).

After the Freedom Statue we walked to the House of Cats. I don’t even like cats, but I wanted to see this place for some reason.

House of Cats

We then continued on to see the the tower where they used to store gunpowder and cannonballs.

The one thing we had been told to see in Riga was the Swedish Gate. When we tried to find it we were slightly disoriented because the town is much smaller than the map makes it out to look like, but when we did actually find the gate it proved to be exceptionally anti-climatic. It was just a tunnel built through a wall and people lived above it. Here is a picture of it, and I say see it if you go to Riga, but don’t expect a grandiose gate like we did.

The Swedish Gate

After the gate we meandered the streets some more until we found The Three Brothers, or three old houses that represent what most of Old Town looked like in Medieval times. The white building is the oldest building still standing in Riga, it was built in the 14th century.

The Three Brothers

The final stop of our walking tour of Old Town was the Royal Palace, which is where the president currently lives. There were a lot of important-looking people coming in and out of the entrance, and it probably had something to do with the National Holiday, but we just took pictures awkwardly and then went back into town.

Castle Corner

Guard at the Gate

After the walking tour Andrew and I decided to grab a bite of some traditional Latvian food. We had been warned by some fellow Karlstad students that the service in Riga is as slow as humanly possible, but since we had a few hours to kill we went for it anyways.

Restaurant of Choice

We found this great underground tavern where there was only one very beautiful waitress (dressed in traditional Latvian clothes). It took her 10 minutes to even notice us, 20 more to bring the drinks, and 30 more on top of that before we got food. The kickers, however, were the Riga Black Balsam shots that we tried. I don’t know if it was our poor sea legs still wearing off from the night before, our sleep deprivation, or the crazy taste, but the Balsam hit me harder than any drink I’ve ever had, including Absinthe. But it was a warm and fuzzy hit, so we didn’t mind spending yet another hour (a grand total of 2) in the Tavern enjoying our Latvian cheese soup in a rye bread bowl. I picked up a bottle on the way back to Sweden, so if it makes it back to the States I highly recommend you try some.

Andrew and I with the Balsam still present.

Waitress and resturant.

After the tasty soup we tried to find the Art-Neveau district that is also famous in Riga, but because of time constraints, the setting sun, and probably a little of the Balsam, we could not find such a place. I did get a few good shots of the city walking around, however, so I guess it worked out.

City Building Detail

Statue near a museum

Building and Bridge at Night

We made it back to the boat, where we had another great night of karaoke and the dance club, which was extra special because every time a wave would hit the boat everyone on the dance floor would shift a meter or so in one direction and then overcorrect in the other direction, and every time it became more and more magnified by the alcohol being consumed. I was up as early as possible the next morning to see some of the Stockholm Archipelago, but all I really got to see was a really cool looking sunrise.

Stockholm Archipelago

Then, after a little walking and coffee in Stockholm, I made my way back to Karlstad, where I had class earlier this evening and plan to catch up on some of the lost sleep from this trip. On Thursday I’ll be going on the final field trip with my Nordic Environmental Studies Class, which will be combined with my earlier trip to Alberg as the next post. Thanks to everyone who has left a comment or sent me an email. I’m trying to proofread these posts a little better as well, so hopefully I won’t get Jacob mixed up with Jonas again. Have you seen my Google Travel Map as well? I guess this is totally turning into a personal website, which is something I tried to have when I was in Elementary School, so it is a dream come true. I hope you like it as much as I do. Anyhow, check back this weekend and keep having fun!

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Posted in: Latvia