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Riga Latvia

Rainy Riga

I’m generally not a negative person. Not really. I very consciously try and take a ‘glass half full’ approach to life most of the time, and I’ve generally got no time for people who moan and complain perpetually.

That said, I’m also a realist: when I see something and think its shit, then I will generally go ‘This is shit isn’t it’. I won’t go on about it. But I like to call a duck a duck.

Stalin's Birthday Cake.
Stalin’s Birthday Cake.
The view from the top of Stalin's Birthday Cake.
The view from the top of Stalin’s Birthday Cake.
This would be a lovely town square. If they hadn't rammed it full of STUFF!
This would be a lovely town square. If they hadn’t rammed it full of STUFF!
The vast an bewildering Riga central market. Where anything is possible!
The vast an bewildering Riga central market. Where anything is possible!
The wonderful, cosy Kama tea house.
The wonderful, cosy Kama tea house.
Tea at Kama, ceremonial stylee.
Tea at Kama, ceremonial stylee.
In Palmeni dumpling house they weigh your dumplings!
In Palmeni dumpling house they weigh your dumplings!
Beer in a jam jar at Tim's Mints.
Beer in a jam jar at Tim’s Mints.
This is Victor. He got me drunk. I blame it all on him.
This is Victor. He got me drunk. I blame it all on him.
Erm........
Erm……..

And so, we come to the particular duck that I wish to identify now: that of Riga, the capital of Latvia, and the second stop of Adam’s Grand Tour. Now first things first: I had a belting time. I really did. The hostel I stayed in was outstanding – the Blue Cow Backpackers. I choose my hostels with great care, and this is exactly why. I met some lovely people.

Riga itself is actually a very nice place. Compared to Vilnius it felt a bit bigger, a little grander, and it had a bit more going on. I spent Saturday night drinking heavily with a Brazillian lad I met in my hostel, named Victor. We somehow became embroiled in a Russian hen party, which in and of itself was an experience. You could say Russian girls know how to drink… I’d like to take this opportunity to wish Tanya a very happy wedding next weekend. And I should also probably apologise to her bridesmaids. I don’t know what for, precisely, but there is doubtless something.

So look, it was a laugh. But… But. But but but. There’s a but. I feel there should be a but at this point.

I had a laugh. But… I didn’t come away in love with the place, quite like I did with Vilnius. I didn’t leave Riga thinking ‘I’m really sad to be leaving Riga’. Don’t get me wrong, it is a very nice place. If you’re into art nouveau architecture, then come here. And if you want to know what art nouveau architecture is, come here. The best piece of advice I can give you when walking around Riga is ‘look upwards’ – because the best bits of this city are towering above in the ornate buildings that line every street.

But there’s another reason to look up, and that’s because what you see at eye level, on the ground, is actually a little bit sad. The best word I can find for a lot of Riga is, ‘tacky’. And it breaks my heart to say that. But honestly, that’s the sense I left with. I got the feeling that they were just trying a little bit too hard with it all. This is a city known as a top venue for a good stag party. As a result, streets have become stuffed with Irish pubs, gift shops and even fancy dress outlets.

The Old Town – where any visitor is likely to spend most of their time – is made up of cobbled streets linking together big open squares. It would be lovely, captivating even, if they hadn’t gone and snarled up those squares with pop-up bars and restaurants, and with small pop up stages where ‘traditional’ music is performed. Wandering those streets would be a nice way to amble around for a few hours, if only you weren’t confronted with a Costa Coffee or a McDonalds every other turn. Or, potentially worse, a TGI Fridays, with barmaids dressed in the most ridiculous costumes wooing gangs of lads in for plates piled high with burgers and steaks.

It felt like Blackpool.

I still wouldn’t say ‘don’t come here’. I’m probably making it out to be worse than it was. And I did still have a lovely time. There is a really wonderful tea shop, called Kama, a cosy place misty with burning incense where ceremonial Chinese tea is served. Exhausted with the throb of Riga (and nursing a Russian hen’s hangover), I hid away there yesterday for a solid five hours, sipping milk flavoured Oolong tea and reading my book.

Then there is the Latvian Academy of Sciences – or Stalin’s Birthday Cake as its better known. The 26th floor of this imposing Soviet era building, which was build to mark Stalin’s 80th birthday, includes a viewing deck offering unparalleled views across the city. Just wandering around the building itself is an experience, with vast musty concrete stairwells and rattling lifts. The whole thing screams ‘Communist’ at you.

There is a cafe called Tims Mints – I don’t know who Tim is, and I don’t know what his mints have to do with anything. But they serve beer in jam jars for £1 a can. And there is a decent walking tour of Riga as well – it leaves at 12pm every day from outside St Peter’s Church, and features around two hours of a young Latvian gent named Angelos taking you outside the Old Town and off the beaten tourist track, to try and get under the skin of Riga a little more. Its nominally a ‘free’ tour, but tip the feller a fiver or so and he’ll be happy.

So look, its been a fun couple of days. No doubt about it. There’s loads to do in Riga, and you really won’t get bored. But it didn’t leave me with that little glow of having discovered somewhere really special. I probably wouldn’t go back there again. And if someone asked me for an idea for a weekend away in the Baltics? I’d say, ‘Go to Vilnius.’

Unless you particularly like drunk Russian Hen parties.

Adam’s Top Tips: Riga

So, I shouldn’t bother with it then?

No you should. Its worth a look, and if you’re on a tour of this part of the world you can’t really afford to leave it out. I just wouldn’t put it at the top of your list. One thing though – Riga is going to be European Capital of Culture in 2014. Come during the summer next year and it might just be a different prospect altogether…

I see. How long can you comfortably spend there?

Two or three days, I’d say. Its not charming enough to spend a whole week here. I felt as if I was hiding away after a while, as opposed to getting stuck in. Why else would I have spent five hours sat in a tea shop?

You tell me, although the Russian girls and the night before probably had something to do with it.

I suppose so. And that’s a good point actually – if you want a boozy weekend away, this is actually a pretty great place to come!

Cheap, is it?

Ah. Not really. I found it more expensive than Vilnius. A typical meal plus a pint will set you back a tenner. Pints come in at £2.50+. Similar to England, really. But there are cheaper ways too. A bowl of dumplings at Pelmeni cost me just £2.50, and a trip to the top of Stalin’s Birthday Cake is about the same.

Hmm. Ok, I’ll have a think about it.

Be sure that you do.