Friday, August 29, 2008
Five minutes ago I got caught in a sudden flurry of raindrops outside my hotel in Riga, Latvia. Two hours ago it was sunny and gorgeous outside, and as I write this, the clouds are parting and the rain has almost stopped.
My time in Latvia has been about as schizophrenic as the weather I’ve experienced here. Since arriving two days ago I have done everything from exploring a giant meat market inside of a zeppelin hangar to canoeing down a river in one of Latvia’s most beautiful national parks.
Upon arriving in Riga, my boyfriend and I were upgraded to the penthouse suite of our uber-cool boutique hotel. From there we started to explore the city, beginning with the colossal Central Market, a throwback to old times where one can purchase choice cuts of cow tongue from one of many butchers or home-made jams in old mason jars from scarf-clad babushkas. In another city these old ladies of Latvia could be selling their products for a huge mark-up, calling them organic, farm-fresh, locally produced, environmentally-sustainable, geo-green artisan jams, but it doesn’t seem that the Central Market has caught up to that trend yet.
Leaving the market, we stopped for lunch at a great soup cafe that came recommended by my cousin, who’s boyfriend just spend a year in Riga on a Fulbright. After filling up on goulash and forest mushroom soup, we walked through Riga’s Old Town, which after Tallinn felt more like a modern area than a Medieval one. Nonetheless, we enjoyed the picturesque environment and got our fill of churches and aesthetically pleasing town squares.
The following day we took ourselves on a whirlwind tour of Riga’s Art Nouveau architecture. Dodging raindrops and savoring every sliver of light that filtered through the nimbus gloom, we admired Latvia’s take on turn-of-the-20th-century trends in building design.
Like the weather, we couldn’t stay in one state for too long. We visited the Occupation Museum for a briefly depressing glimpse of 20th century Latvian history, then fled Riga in the afternoon for Gauja National Park, an area notable for its beautiful natural scenery.
On the way to the park we drove along a highway surrounded by a forest full of Latvian mushroom hunters. There was a sufficient cohort of said pickers to prompt my self-proclaimed economist boyfriend to pronounce “I think it’s safe to say that the Latvian economy revolves around mushroom picking.”
At the park we rented a canoe and spent part of the afternoon paddling down the Gauja. The strong wind and heavy clouds made for a sometimes challenging journey. However, when the sun appeared, the water sparkled and the green hills lit up, illuminating the red roof of the Medieval castle on the hill above and making the entire trip worth it.
After two days of walking, hiking and canoeing our way through Latvia, we were in need of some relaxation. Our first stop was another of my cousin’s recommendations (she hasn’t had a bad one yet), a funky glassed-in octagon in the middle of a beautiful park. Part tea-house, part barefoot hippie hangout, I felt like I was back in San Francisco as I sipped my Assam.
Equally relaxing but very different from the rest of Riga was the Andrejsala area, a recommendation of a childhood friend who’s family is from Latvia. Similar to Copenhagen’s Christiana, Andrejsala was an “alternative” area in an old communist wharf-turned-art-space, where we walked around for awhile and visited a cool contemporary art museum.
No trip of mine would be complete without gorging myself on the local cuisine, and this one was no different. From cabbage to crepes, potatoes to pork, pork, pork, I have eaten my fill of the local Latvian specialties. Tonight I finished off my Rigan adventure with a fabulous meal at Vincent’s, another of my cousin’s recommendations. Feasting on confit of suckling pig and watching as the server turned apple-pear juice and liquid nitrogen into sorbet in front of my eyes, I savored every bite of my last meal in Latvia.
Now the weather is once again dry and clear in Latvia, and I’m hoping to have a smooth journey to Oslo tomorrow morning. The forecast calls for clear skies in Norway, which will be a welcome change from the rain and clouds of the past six days!