So last week, I decided that if I did indeed go ahead with my weekend trip to Riga, then I’d write about it. If not, then I’d write about my trip to a mysterious city last weekend.
Well, I went to Riga. And I came back alive, which could be considered a miracle.
Let me start by saying that this past weekend had perhaps the coldest days during this winter season. It was -8 in Bordeaux, and I heard that the city, which rarely sees snow during winter, has been covered in white. I had just flown back to Belgium on Thursday, with a trip to Riga booked the next day. Weather forecast said that it’d be -25 in Riga during the weekend, -36 with the wind chill. Uh oh.
Hmm. Dilemma. The sudden cold attack wasn’t expected. Was I going to be conservative, cancel my trip, lose the flight cost of 50 Euros (which wasn’t all that much, really), or live the spirit of the true north strong and free and put myself through the challenge of the extreme?
Not gonna lie, but it was actually a very hard decision. I was on the brink of NOT going because as much as I’d like to say I’m not afraid of cold, I am. One can be used to cold weather, but not immune to it. And I had been away from those bleak Canadian winters for two years now (not that Canadian winters are that cold anymore, apparently), so I wasn’t sure if I was totally ready for it.
In the spirit of “Do now, regret later, then never regret” (kudos to my role model Geoff), there was no backing out. So I stuffed everything I thought I’d need into my backpack, hopped onto a train to Charleroi, and off I went into the unknown once again.
Latvia in February turned out to be quite a fantastic experience. Okay, it really wasn’t as cold as expected; I think I exaggerate everything in my mind, just to get mentally prepared. Then again, Canada has indeed trained me well for the past 15 years, hah! During my one day and a half in Riga, I made a few notes about the trip and concluded with ten (hopefully convincing) reasons to visit Riga, some particularly pertaining to a freezing February. Here we go! (Click here to see all of the pictures on Facebook.)
Reason 1: It’s cheap. The flight was cheap. The hostel was cheap. The food was cheap. Everything was cheap.
The cheap flight was ultimately what really drove me to book this trip to Riga, with return tickets from Brussels-Charleroi at 50 Euros. Winter probably has something to do with the low rates…go figure. An additional note aside from price: when given the choice, I’ll always choose a window seat over the aisle, whether it’s a flight or a train ride. Only from a window seat can I catch glimpses of breathtaking views like the one above, on the way back to Charleroi. At first I wasn’t even sure if those were clouds or snow islands…but it’s gotta be clouds. I think this is the closest I’ll ever get to viewing the Earth from the universe. Simply spectacular.
Reason 2: Latvia sounds exotic and mysterious. It’s more east than typical eastern Europe and almost as north as the Scandinavian countries! I guess I completely neglected its latitude throughout my planning…
…but the latitude indeed brought its own surprises! Approximately 10 minutes before 5 o’clock in the afternoon on Saturday, the sun was setting into the horizon. I was running towards the Daugava River to catch the final moments before the sun disappeared, racing with the orange globe. Alas, I lost. The sun sunk faster than I had anticipated, but wow, it was stunning.
Getting back on topic, Riga is not your typical popular European destination. By no means is it anything like Paris or Rome or Barcelona, and really, what did I know about it before visiting? Close to absolutely nothing, which was precisely why the visit was necessary to break out of the norm!
Reason 3: The Lat is the second (or third? or fourth?) highest-valued currency in the world. Take that, British pound!
1 Lat is approximately 1.43 Euros. It was funny when I first arrived in Europe and had to convert everything back to the Canadian dollar. Now that I’m completely used to the Euro, it was strange having to convert everything to Lats during the trip. Oh, that card in the middle, it’s an electronic bus ticket, 0.50 LVL.
Reason 4: They speak Latvian. It’s always fun to be in a place where you have absolutely no idea what anyone is saying.
Everyone should join a free walking tour during a visit to Riga or any of the Baltic States. Of course, it’s much more comfortable and preferable in the summer when your feet aren’t frozen! Here in red is our cute, energetic tour guide. Thankfully she spoke English!
Though, it is fun learning random words in different languages during travel. When you go around, you pick up words here and there. Latvian vocabulary of the week: iela = street, paldies = thank you, lidosta = airport. Simple as that!
Latvian vendor outside the central market, selling handmade Latvian crafts even in the unusually cold weather.
Reason 5: It’s fun to wander around the Old Town. Riga has a very lovely Old Town, a cute and colourful maze full of hidden surprises!
Getting lost and squeezing through the tiny streets in Vecrīga (Old Town) was certainly a lot of fun, even in the snow! You can play hide-and-seek with your friends here for hours, turning odd corners and finding random public squares all over the place. While you wander, stop to adore the charming architecture of the historic centre, painted with all sorts of bright colours, making all the buildings look like doll houses. Quite delightful!
Reason 6: Latvian cuisine is delicious. Not something I’d want to eat every single day, but unexpectedly delicious nonetheless!
So apparently Lido was the place to go for Latvian cuisine, and it was so good (and cheap) and there was such a diverse selection of food that I had lunch AND dinner there. Lunch consisted of cabbage roll with pork, some more pork with a buttery sauce, fried potatoes, and beer. I gotta say the beer wasn’t anything too out of the ordinary, but boy, the pork was amazing. That buttery sauce, whatever it was, was de-li-cious.
For dinner, I had fish with onion and cheese, a chicken (or pork) croquette, a glass of kefir and a glass of cranberry juice. Needless to say the fish and the croquette were irresistibly tasty, but I gotta comment on the kefir. It is some sort of “butter milk”, as explained by the waitress with limited English – you could probably tell by now that the Latvians like milk and butter with their food – and is apparently a common drink served with any meal in Latvia. I was warned that it could be too sour for a foreigner’s liking, but at 0.30 LVL per glass, there was no reason to not give it a try. Turned out it tasted just like your typical yoghurt, with a milkshake-like consistency, rather interesting, indeed.
Reason 7: Riga is a true winter wonderland in February. I have a legitimate excuse to look like an Eskimo in this weather.
The selected attire during the trip included: one pair of boots, two pairs of socks, three layers of pants, four layers of shirts/sweaters, two hats (I had another one on top of the gray one here), one pair of gloves, one coat, and one scarf. It was enough to keep me warm most of the time, although my hands and feet did freeze periodically and I did end up with ridiculously dry lips from which I am still recovering. I’m glad I was well-prepared with the hat though; I usually don’t wear hats, but it would have been a nightmare to have frozen ears!
Reason 8: No crowds anywhere during the winter. It’s a completely different experience from any high-season travelling!
Even the locals say that it’s an unusually cold winter, and most of them would rather stay in the warmth of their homes, not to mention travellers! There were few, however, who were as crazy as I was and chose to go for Riga during this time of the year. Go us! Shown above is the Freedom Monument that marks the independence and sovereignty of Latvia.
Reason 9: Snow. In the winter, Riga glistens in beauty in its bright, snowy gown.
To me, winter just isn’t winter without snow. And I’m not talking about snow that falls and melts right away, but the kind that STAYS! I was completely ready to dive into spring after a disappointing “winter” in December and January, but Riga brought back all the joys of winter within its glamour. The crisp sounds of boots in snow, the sparkling dazzle of the rooftops, the smell of dry, icy air as it shocks the nostrils…call me bizarre, but it made the journey all the more enjoyable.
Didn’t think I was gonna skip out on a view of the city from high above, did you? Here we are on top of St.Peter’s church in the Old Town, looking into the city of Riga.
Reason 10: The frozen Daugava River is just grand. Maybe you’ll see some ice fishing going on, if you’re lucky.
The sheer width of this river makes me doubt, once again, whether the Garonne in Bordeaux is as wide and grand as it is in my imagination. I can never seem to believe it. Anyway, the Daugava is completely frozen here, with the Stone Bridge connecting the east and the west banks. Anyone up for a skate on the ice?
This concludes my recount of the trip to Riga, Latvia. I haven’t written such a detailed post in awhile, and I hope you enjoyed my overview of this short weekend break. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to revisit the city in the summer, and perhaps add in the rest of the Baltic States too. Well, until next time!