Wednesday 7th Cont…
After disembarking from the ferry we waited in the arrivals area whilist El went to order us two taxis. After a while it appeared everyone had left and although we weren’t told by security we had to move, someone came along and started to turn off the lights so we quickly moved to a different area near the main exit. El returned and we made our way to the taxis which took us to our accommodation which was a large apartment style room. Chris took a bed in the mezzanine which Matt decided to sleep on a sofa in the lounge area and the rest of us took a bed in the main room.
Once we had sorted ourselves out we went back downstairs so El could take us on a short walking tour of the city. We started off at the House of the Black Heads (I’ve explained the significance in my Tallinn blog), before continuing on to the Catherdral had a Rooster rather than a cross on top of the spire which signified it was Lutheran, but also had the purpose of being used as a wather vane.
Opposite the Cathedral was the Latvia Radio Broadcasting house which played a part in the modern independence of the country. In January 1991, following an attack in Vilnius by the Soviets, the Popular Front used a broadcast to call for people to gather in Cathedral Square and to build barricades to protect the city from another Soviet invasion.
We passed the Power Tower, once part of the cities defensces before we reached the Freedom Monument where the Guard of Honour was just taking place. El explained that the Monument honoured soldiers killed during the 1918–1920 Latvian War of Independence and that the Soviets had threatened to demolish the momument after occupation in 1940 because it represented freedom, independence, and sovereignty of Latvia.
After the walk El, Chris, Matt and I went to a traditional Latvian dumpling restaurant called Pelmini XL for lunch called. There were a variety of types so I took a sample of each and then paid based on the weight of the food I’d taken. Matt had jokingly said he craved a burger so once we had finished we then went to Hesburger. At the time I’d assumed this was a Soviet Union equivalent of McDonald’s, especially as the cheese burger seemed no different however I later learnt it was a Finnish chain.
Later in the afternoon, all of us but Jayde went to a KGB Prison which had been turned in to a museum. From the outside “The Corner House” appeared an inconspicuous building from 1912 as did the Reception Area, where the public could make enquiries about the fate of individuals. Even the interior of the main entrance hall which could be seen from the street was adorned with chandeliers and large mirrors.
Once we were inside however and turned the corner from this hallway the atmosphere changed dramatically as we saw the chilling decor of the corridor to the cells and the true horrific nature of the buildings purpose during Soviet Occupation became obvious. Our first stop was the interrogation room, where it was possible to stand behind the window which would have appeared to be a mirror to those being interrogated. It was scary to think how normal the building looked from the outside in comparison to what went on inside.
Everything about the prisoner experience was designed to break the human spirit. Sitting in an example of a cell, which were always over crowded, we learnt that the prisoners in the cell were allowed nothing but a bucket to use as toilet and this was only emptied daily. During the tour we visited the Registration Room where prisoners were completely stripped in order to degrade them, the exercise yard where prisoners were allowed 20-30 minutes day light as an armed guard sat above and the kitchen where food was made from spoiled and unwashed products.
Finally we went in to the main closed court yard where there was a moving display dedicated to those that were executed. As part of this there was a graphic 3 minute video clip from the 2007 movie Katyn which portrayed how the executions probably occurred. As the prisoner was shot in the back of the head the engine of a truck was left running (to hide the sound) and then the bodies were dumped in to it. Various sound proofing techniques were also used within the chamber and there was a hole in the corner of the floor to drain away the blood.
El had told us about a good view from the Skyline Bar of the Blu Hotel which we passed on the way back to our hostel. I ordered a small beer and we took some seats by the window over looking the Freedom Monument. After we left Chris and I walked home through the Bastejkalna Gardens and via a Soviet Statue which had not been demolished after independence. We deviated slightly more than planned however we arrived back at the hostel in time to meet the others for dinner.
That evening we went to a buffet at a traditional Latvian restaurant and then on to Folkklubs Ala Pagrabs which initially felt like a stereotypical Latvian bar for tourists, a bit like an overly English themed pub in London. It was however a genuinely traditional bar still also populated by locals where I tried a couple of the beers and we watched the locals doing their lively folk dances.
Jayde and her friend Paul met us at the bar. We got chatting and as he had worked as a guide told us some of his tales. He then asked if I’d been on any other tours and I casually mentioned I had and had broken my arm, arm wrestling. At this point he exclaimed “So your ‘Arm Guy'”? and proceeded to explain to me how I was a scenario for new recruits though our joking about it was all good natured.
Shortly after Christine joined us as she had finished dancing and couldn’t find the others so the four of us decided to leave and go to a small club called Rock Cafe. Despite the size it was quite lively and whilst the music wasn’t necessarily my style it was still fun to pull off my (now ancient) dance moves. My phone had run out of battery just after we took a selfie which meant Christine had to guide the two of us back to the hostel and to message Matt who had tried to contact me.
Jayde and Paul had decided to stay at the club but as Christine and I returned to the hostel we saw Matt, El and El’s friend who worked there standing outside. The others were about to go to a secret rooftop view and easily convinced we decided to follow along. We climbed up the stairs to the top floor of the hostel, then up a ladder in to the attic where finally there was a hatch we had to haul ourselves through which led on to the roof. We enjoyed a couple of plastic cups of wine and admired the view of the Cathedral Square below. It had been a thoroughly random night and I can honestly say I had never expected to end up on a roof over looking the city at the end of it.
We probably spent just under an hour when Christine, Matt and I decided we were ready to go back to our room. On our return I discovered Jayde was back and after she’s expressed concern at where we had been she then immediately asked if I’d brought her food. I hadn’t and the message I’d received which apparently asked me to bring food simply read “The”. We were both slightly drunk and there was a lot of laughing especially when I told her to respect her elders when she was teasing me about something.
Thursday 8th September
It was hardly surprising that I was initially feeling slightly tired and hungover the next morning however as I was due to fire some quite powerful guns I quickly sobered up especially after a shower and some breakfast. We arrived at the Shooting Range and once inside got to choose which target we wanted to use. I opted for one that is best described as a damsel in distress, being held hostage by a villain.
The first gun was the Glock and even with ear protectors, I have to admit I still jumped out of my skin when the first shot went off and jumped again as what I assume was part of the casing ricochet off the wall and landed near my foot. I was filled with nerves as I lined up my shot convinced the gun would in a Murphy’s law way backfire. It didn’t and as the 6 rounds progressed I became more steady but was still relieved more than anything when I was done. We looked at our progress and rather unfortunately I’d hit the girl in the neck and leg, and the villain appeared unscathed. Clearly I was not James Bond.
Next up was the AK-47 which had been the one I was most excited to try. It ended up being a slightly disappointing experience because when we looked at our targets after we’d finished I realised I’d totally missed on all 6 attempts. The final gun, the Winchester 1300 Shotgun was the most powerful of the three and the motion and sound of it reloading did feel me with a bit of adrenaline and this possibly resulted in what was also arguably my best round as I finally only hit ‘the villain’.
I needed a drink to settle my nerves so it was a bonus that a free drink at the Funny Fox Bar was included in the deal. I’d taken a liking to the Estonian cider Kiss so ordered a pint of that before Matt, El and I went back to Hesburger for lunch where I tried the Big Mac equivalent. After we had finished we all went in different directions.
I walked to the central market which is situated in 4 German Zeppelin hangars and is apparently the largest market in Europe. Unfortunately when I got there I didn’t fancy really anything to eat, not even one of the cheap dessert pastries, so after taking a few photographs I returned back to the city. I continued to to a row of old houses called “Three Brothers” the oldest of which is dated back to the late 15th century.
From there I planned to visit the ‘Museum of the Occupation of Latvia’ however when I arrived I realised it had temporarily been relocated. I was feeling a bit tired and couldn’t contemplate another 20 minute walk so returned to the hostel where I planned to nap. I hadn’t been there long when Jayde and Giulia seemingly full of energy burst in and the three of us decided to walk to the district renowned for the Art Nouveaux style.
Ironically on the way to the Art Nouveaux district we passed the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia which meant in hindsight I could have visited and met Jayde there. Riga has the highest concentration of Art Nouveau architecture in the world however it is Albert Iela that tourists visit where most of the buildings were designed by the Russian architect Mikhail Eisenstein. This included Alberta iela 8 which was a rather stunning example of the Eclectic Art Nouveau, the earliest style.
Some may have decided to head back at this stage but Jayde and I wanted to visit another district called Agenskalns that Paul had also recommended. It was a long walk but quite pretty especially crossing the river and from the bridge on the waterfront we could see a large Riga sign that we planned to visit on the way back. Whilst we did explore Agenskalns we were never really sure if we reached the area Paul had recommended and if we did then it wasn’t worth the strain my feet were feeling. The walk through Uzvaras park was pleasant and eventually we reached the Riga sign which, whilst vandalised did not prevent us from getting some pictures before we power walked back to the hostel.
That evening we had another burger this time at a gourmet restaurant called “B Burger” before we continued to the Kaņepes Kultūras Centrs (Culture Centre) which as the name suggested had a decor that was quite alternative. On the way back Chrstine and I decided to get some night pictures of the House of the Blackheads and were then drawn towards a 50s style American band performing at a lively looking open air bar called Egle which was located in the market by the hostel. Whilst Chrstine managed to get two seats near the front I got the drinks and then we chilled to some Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley and others though we were equally impressed at the dance moves from some of the older generation audience members.
Friday 9th September
Unfortunately with a long drive ahead there was a rather unpleasant surprise when first down to breakfast I realised there had been a misunderstanding and the hostel hadn’t provided our supplies. Jayde and I walked to a nearby supermarket to buy some cheap pastries and shortly after we arrived back El successfully resolved the issue. The stay in Riga had been brief but action packed. Far from only being a cheap party city, which is what I’d been led to believe, it was also rather pretty and packed full of interesting architecture.