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Rīga

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In an attempt to visit another country I hadn’t been to before, I found myself in Rīga. Situated at the Baltic Sea and with its history in both the Hanse and the Soviet empire, I perceive Latvia to be vaguely familiar but also far away – situated between the East and the West. In fact, my main awareness of the city comes from the computer game Hanse which we played a lot on C-64s in the 1980s. As a bonus, the city promised a Northern feel, possibly with a Scandinavian touch, but also manages to be reasonably warm and have nice beaches nearby.

Getting There

Travelling to Baltic countries used to be a bit tricky in decades past, with few flights being available, plane changes being required and prices being high. These days, however, many airlines, including some on the affordable side, fly to Rīga. For example, Ryanair offer a few flights a week from Bremen. But eventually we picked a flight with Air Baltic from Hamburg. It turned out that booking with Air Baltic was pretty much as annoying and full-of-upselling – including extra charges for checked-in luggage – as buying flights with Ryanair is, but apart from that, things were a bit more civilised (a tamer colour scheme, the plane not being plastered with ads on the inside and the ability to pick seats during the online check-in).

After a short stop in Hamburg on the way to look at the ugly-ish (I’d say uninspired, serving architect-vanity at best, and without doubt expensive) new buildings in Hafen-City along with the new Elbphilharmonie concert hall they are building there, we were off from Hamburg Airport which I haven’t used in ages. Despite Hamburg being a big city, it seems to be a quiet airport. It’s conveniently connected to the city by S-Bahn, seems quite spacious, and the inevitable queues for ‘security’ checks were so short that the ordeal took but a few minutes. Once you enter the boarding area, they provide a number of restaurants on a balcony in the top floor in what looks like a nice setup for an airport.

Terminal 1 at Hamburg Airport

Air Baltic’s performance wasn’t perfect. Their staff seemed mostly disinterested in their work and annoyed about having to work longer because the plane arrived half an hour late. The flight, however, was fine and uneventful, as was the arrival at Rīga airport, thanks to everything being in the Schengen area.

At Rīga airport, it also became apparent that Air Baltic really make an effort to get the most profit possible from their customers as they operate both shuttle buses and taxis from the airport to town. While probably being a bit more expensive than their public transport or regular taxi equivalents, that turned out to be a nice service as they offer fixed rate (9LVL) taxi rides with people at the airport making sure you get on a cab with a driver knowing the place you want to go to and no need to discuss the rates, potential detours &c in the middle of the night.

Albert Hotel

Just as for flights, the internet is a great resource when shopping for hotel stays. I quite like using Kayak for this as they seem to compare offers from a wide range of airline and hotel sites and let you compare options and prices with not perfect but reasonable ease. [For fun’s sake, they also have an iPhone app; I didn’t quite understand how they make money, though, as they seem to refer you to other hotel booking sites, rather than performing the actual booking for you.]

It seems that a reasonably nice room with breakfast in Rīga costs around €40 a night (of course you can choose to spend less for hostel-style accommodation or significantly more if you’re into bigger luxuries and brand names). Leaving out the choices with poor reviews (the internet is an evil bitch) about Soviet-style unrenovated bathrooms and keeping an eye on a new-ish look and free WiFi on web sites, we ended up with the Albert Hotel. It’s a modern-ish building in Dzirnavu street, not in the old-town but next road to those with the main Art Nouveau area.

The hotel’s name is a reference to Albert Einstein and it is fully themed in that way. While that’s as tacky as you expect it to be when designers try to turn science into marketing, the styling is done in a refreshingly thorough way with the hotel font being used on all signs, each level having a board with a ‘formula’ on it and many parts of the hotel being equipped with an ‘atom’ logo: e.g. as the pattern on the carpet or etched on glass in the bathrooms.

Pseudo-formula on a board designating the number of the floor you are on at Albert Hotel in Rīga

Atom logos on the carpet at Albert Hotel in Rīga

The room wasn’t particularly big but came with everything that’s needed, ranging from a bathroom with a walk-in shower, to a LCD-telly with a number of international channels and, invisibly, a working wireless network. Given how difficult it is to create good wireless network coverage, and how frequently people fail to provide it at all, let along at no extra cost, I was delighted to find such a good signal right in the room – even strong enough for the notoriously poor reception of the iPod touch.

Atom logo on a window in the bathroom at Albert Hotel in Rīga

Food and drinks were nice as well. That was true for the complimentary self-service breakfast which offered food on the nice side of hotel breakfasts, including particularly nice fried tomatoes, as well as for the 11th floor bar which offered a nice view over the city from its balcony. Staff were friendly and the hotel had no problems storing our luggage in their luggage room on our departure day. All in all the hotel may not the cheapest or most ‘authentic’ (whatever that would mean) stay you can book, but it seemed like a really good choice while we stayed there.

Lights of Rīga seen from the balcony of the 11th floor bar at Hotel Albert

Sights

Of course a bit of sightseeing is obligatory when visiting a city like Rīga. While they have no world-famous Eiffel-tower like attractions, there is plenty of stuff to see nonetheless. Starting from the city itself with its nice and green park around the car-free old town with many old houses and a number of churches from different eras. The St. Peter’s-church has a lift going up into its tower and offers a great view of the city from there, the cathedral is quite plain and has nice cloisters attached to it, containing plenty of interesting historical exhibits.

View of the Rīga town, central market, TV tower from the Petri church

The Roland and Stadtmusikanten are fun things to see, particularly if you’re from Bremen, the Schwarzhäupterhaus is a historical must-see and plenty of other buildings like the National Opera, National Theatre, Three Brothers or the Freedom Monument are must-sees as well.

Liberty statue in Rīga, seen from the park surrounding the old town.

Roland and Schwarzhäupterhaus in Rīga

Bremer Stadtmusikanten in Rīga

Another really-nice must-see are the numerous Art Nouveau buildings in town. There are plenty of them left, mostly in good shape, and the Rīgans claim that their town offers the highest density of those buildings. The Art Nouveau style seen in Rīga seems a bit heavier and more solid than what I saw before. Some of the buildings are highly decorated with the typical plant-like ornaments as well as with plenty of faces. A few buildings even featured odd ‘mechanic’-looking faces on them. I can recommend visiting the Art Nouveau Museum in Albert street which is a flat the city rented in one of the Art Nouveau buildings, trying to restore the original design and filling it with original furniture. Both the building is very cool and the museum guides gave an excellent tour (in German, even) and seemed to be very knowledgable about everything in the museum.

Section of Art Nouveau building in Albert Street, Rīga

Passing the railway station, one arrives at the central market. It consists of five huge halls which have been repurposed from Zeppelin hangars, featuring separate halls for meat, fish, dairy and general stuff, while having a fruit and veg market outside. Certainly interesting, particularly the one with the fish, but not as cool as the market in Athens, I thought. Behind the market comes the Soviet-style Academy of Sciences (with a fun TV test-screen piece of art in front of it) and what seem to be Russian quarters, advertised for their old-fashioned houses which weren’t overly impressive.

Wooden house and upper floor of Academy of Sciences in Rīga

Test screen art work in Rīga

A final treat we went for was the TV tower. It’s a bit (four bus stops and a twenty minute walk) outside the old town on an island in the Daugava river and looks like a spaceship built by a James Bond supervillain. Soviet architecture at its finest, coming with a 200 year warranty and a few centimetres taller than the Berlin TV tower in summer as its steel construction grows in the heat. Arriving at the TV tower it looked pretty much abandoned. But once we passed the foutain with a fun ‘satellite’ artwork and entered the impressive entrance hall, we met an employee or two, one of which sold tickets, went 100 metres up with us in a lift and gave us a tour. The whole building seemed a bit sad, having seen better times in the past, with fancy decorations and a restaurant up there, and now having a few visitors a day. The view would be better with clean windows as well. Our guide was a friendly lady who pointed out a few sights. She spoke German but no English, so we were in luck but this might be more ‘adventurous’ for others.

TV tower in Rīga, seen from below.

Jūrmala

A further treat in Rīga is that it is quite close to the Baltic sea. And while the Baltic sea isn’t as nice and blue as the Aegaean Sea, say, they do have nice long beaches in Jūrmala, a half-hour (and cheap) train ride outside the city. They also had beach-worthy weather with all-day-sun and temperatures above 30°C during our stay; something I hadn’t expected, given the location further up North than Germany is. We picked the beach in Dubulti because the walk from the station to the sea is just a few hundred metres there. The beach is conveniently split up into areas of active recreation and those of passive recreation and there are little bars which also sell snacks every few hundred metres. Quite inexplicably there seem to be a number of unused beach-side hotels as well.

Beach in Dubulti with signs pointing to the 'active' and 'passive' recreation areas.

History

Latvian history has been rough for a while. They seem to have been invaded by pretty much every country that had a remote opportunity, including Sweden and Poland. In the Occupation Museum they tell the history of the last few decades which saw them being occupied first by the Soviets, then briefly by Nazi-Germany and then – after the Second World War was lost – by the Soviets again. Quite ironically/tragically they first welcomed the Nazi occupation as it seemed like liberation from the Soviets. But it didn’t take long for the true face of Nazi-Germany to show.

In fact, I remain struck by the sheer speed and efficiency with which the Nazi and Soviet regimes fucked countries over. People usually need months or years to finish a tiny project. Yet, in the same timeframe, those regimes migrated/killed/replaced sizeable parts of the entire population. They established new control structures and moved some of their own population to the country, thus completely shifting the balance of power. As we overheard a guide in the museum say: unlike other people Latvians don’t go and protest in those situations, they usually start singing and hope the situation improves. In Soviet times, apparently many of them worked in the cultural sector.

A remarkable detail concerning the end of the Soviet rule in Latvia is that it only happened in 1991 under Jelzin. Gorbatchev, who’s generally considered a good guy in Germany for the role he played in opening up the East Block and helping with German reunification, was against Latvia’s independence, tried to enforce that with military power and killed a few Latvians in the process. Not a way to win friends.

Language

The consequences of these population moves are still very apparent today. More than a third of the population is of Russian origin, thus you see and hear a lot of Russian as well. Not that I’m terribly good at actually recognising and distinguishing the languages as I understand pretty much nothing in them.

For the Unicode-nerd, Latvian is a feast of diacritics featuring plenty of macrons, hačeks and cedillas in the writing. This includes the curious G with cedilla ‘Ģ’, which ingeniously puts the accent atop the small g because it has a descender: ‘ģ’. Rather tragically, however, these letters also mark a Unicode tragedy as they are named ‘cedilla’ – and can be created by using cedilla combining accents – but really should be ‘comma’ accents, which was only pointed out to the Unicode people after the standard had been set.

Food

Food was all right during the stay. Neither particularly bad, nor remarkably good. Ads at the airport suggests that Latvians are proud of their rye bread, but the bread I tried wasn’t overly remarkable beside the fact that it contained traces of caraway – as Latvian dishes seem wont to do.

What absolutely delighted me were the countless bakeries in town – pretty much one per block – all of which were stocked with amazing collections of small baked sweets (‘Teilchen’ as we say in Germany). It was hard to restrain myself to not eat myself to death-by-Teilchen there.

Returning Home

Looking at Google Maps for Rīga, I noticed that ferry lines to Lübeck are drawn in the water and so the idea to return by ferry was born. Unfortunately it turned out that those lines are a bit outdated and the previous ferry line has been shut down. Instead, Latvian Aveline seemed to operate to Travemünde now. Although they do have a web site, booking with them was a bit tricky as their booking form seems to do nothing, in particular not sending you a confirmation of your booking. It took a week and some phone calls to get that sorted. Strangely we weren’t charged for the tickets beforehand but we were told we’ll pay on check-in and we could pay by credit card. While basically right that turned out to be a bit of a rip-off as you can’t just pay by credit card but have to go to the ‘bank’ counter in the same building which accepts cash only. And which will point you to the cash machine outside the building to get said cash. Thus, despite explicitly asking beforehand, we were brought into a situation where we were ripped off by banks twice. Once to convert the amount on our booking confirmation from Euro into Lats and once more to convert it back from Lats into Euro when paying the credit card bill.

Sunrise in the Rīga freight harbour

The whole setup wasn’t particularly convenient either. It seems that Aveline focuses mainly on freight and don’t care that much about passengers. Their schedule sounded like fun: Check in starting at three on Sunday morning would leave us with Saturday night in Rīga and then time to catch up on sleep on the ferry. Reality, however, looked more like them letting everybody sit in their check-in building in the freight harbour which is a bit outside town until four, then let everybody get on the ‘Baltic Amber’ ferry and then let people queue for two more hours to hand out cabin keys to passengers. All done rather slowly without much concern for our (or the other passengers’) comfort. That did give us the opportunity to watch the sunrise and see the departure of the ship after the last lorry had successfully reversed onto it, but it also meant there wasn’t much rest before seven in the morning.

We had a nicely situated cabin with a window out to the front. But generally, the ship wasn’t too attractive in terms of what you could do or where you could rest. Russian television was running everywhere, probably to please the majority of travellers who seemed to be Russian truck drivers (mostly dressed in shorts and Badeschlappen) and the dinner – while looking fairly priced – was so ridiculously bad and handed out by their impressively disinterested staff, who (partly) couldn’t even tell what they were serving, that I felt quite disgusted.

Signage on the Baltic Amber ferry

The ship itself seemed to be originally Italian and now featured labels in a mix of Latvian, Russian, Italian and English everywhere. Signage on ships may be an interesting topic to study as no metre of that boat managed to exist without emergency exit arrows and other signs on it. Frankly, after walking through a few metres of this, I felt completely disoriented and confused rather than having a good idea about the way to the next exit. What was quite amusing as well were the smoking regulations. Smoking was forbidden, except in the smoking areas. Of which they created around a dozen, marking them by painting the floor yellow. Which meant the outside of the ship was full of yellow colour and, given that there is wind, people mostly smoked where they could anyway.

Smoking areas marked on the ground on the Baltic Amber ferry

There was slightly shaky sea during the first half of the trip with the horizon moving impressively (in what translated to a meagre 2° in angle or so) and with waves splashing all over the front-facing restaurant windows a few times. All in all things were quite uneventful, though. And thanks to not sleeping the night before, quite a bit of the 28 hour journey could be spent at rest. An interesting experience. But not nice enough to justify the added inconvenience over flying.

Clouds behind the bridge of the Baltic Amber.

August 10, 2010, 18:57

Tagged as beach, ferry, hamburg, latvia, rīga, travel.

Comments

Comment by d.w.: User icon

Well, sounds like your ferry adventure was at least… interesting. :) It is quite cool to be able to visit some of those lesser known destinations.

August 12, 2010, 20:05

Comment by Stefan: User icon

Reminds me to visit Tallin sometime!

August 22, 2010, 19:23

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