Latvia

House of the Blackheads

We had packed our bags the day before. We had left Rome, our home for the past week. We arrived in our plane, and even at the second I arrived, I noticed one huge difference. While Rome was huge and cosmopolitan, Latvia was not. From the small baggage claim and airport, to the general lack of visitors, Latvia felt that much more relaxed and pristine. It was a dark night, and we were all tired and wanted to sleep, as my sister had. Yet we stayed awake, for we still had one step of the journey to go. In Rome, we used our feet and public transportation to go. This time we would be returning to the car. After security, we got out and found the vehicle we rented.

“It’s cold,” I said, my teeth chattering. 80 degrees Rome felt like a different planet when compared with 45 degrees Riga nights. I stayed warm the best I could, and we rushed to the car. A few minutes later, we were in the car, my dad figuring out its features, while we warmed up. I was sleepy already. We had rented an Airbnb for a few days, and it was in central Riga, a surprisingly small city.

 Once we parked our car in the parking zone, my dad and I got into the building, up the five sets of stairs (there was no elevator to be heard of), to get the baggage all in the apartment. My dad got the key, and tried to open the door. No such luck. We tried again. Failure. After a few more tries, my dad went and called the owner of the apartment. It turned out we were at the wrong number. We opened the door, and we saw our Airbnb. It wasn’t too big, just a bedroom, a bathroom, and a main room, but it was enough for us, and I settled in the building. Sadly, we still needed to get the baggage, and the steps didn’t look easy to traverse. My dad saved the day, taking two suitcases at a time up the stairs, and managing to get them all up in time. I was ready to collapse, but we needed to take our backpacks out, as well as the other baggage. My mom and sister left the car, and we were all ready for a good night’s rest. 

Daylight peered through the windows. We were all hungry, and needed some food, and decided to get some local food. When we exited the building, I was able to examine the city. Our block looked like a mix of a dystopia, and modern city. The remnants of former Soviet rule were easy to uncover in Riga. Our building was an old building, looking as if repairs would do it much good. However, not all shops looked like that. As we turned the block for the nearest restaurant, we saw many modern vegan restaurants, advertising modern food trends, yet just looking above the fancy sign and shop would lead to the same utilitarian, communist architecture. Yet the split between a communist history and a capitalist present is featured all around Eastern Europe. The difference in Riga was the magnitude to which both influenced the architecture. Eastern Europe is interesting to visit because unlike Western Europe, the mark of the past century is still present in all facets of life. 

I was hungry. We turned right again, and I could already smell it. Fresh food. The scent carried through the street, attracting customers. In fact, we seemed to have the hottest restaurant in town just behind our street. 

It was a modern building. We opened the doors, and suiting the less formal atmosphere of the nation, it was a buffet. We took rolls, a salad, and some other foods, not knowing what to expect. 

“It’s good,” my mom said, taking a bite. 

We agreed. We began eating the food, and in what felt like seconds, it was gone. We decided to walk around the town, and yet again, we saw Latvia’s modernization. We came across modern buildings, modern lifestyles, and even modern currencies. Latvia is one of the most bitcoin-friendly countries in the world, and even found a bank exchanging for bitcoin. Walking around the streets of Riga is a very relaxing  experience.

However, we had places to visit, and deadlines to meet. We took less stops, and ventured to the center of Riga, where we saw the massive train station. More than a tourist site, it was another sign of modernization; a huge metal structure with a modern clock to top it all. We took some photos there, and remembered to use it as a checkpoint. From there we continued, walking for quite a long time. We saw lots of communist architecture, but we also saw a fair share of modern sights. One thing I noticed was the increased amount of older buildings nearer to the center of the city. We seemed to be in the old town.

In Riga, there is no real old town. We learned that when we looked for monuments. The two defining factors of an old town are high concentrations of tourists, and high concentrations of attractions. Interestingly, Lavia lacked both. Instead, where you would find Renaissance architecture in Rome, we found casual squares and occasional churches. It was the perfect place to relax. We took pictures throughout, and we had a nice time. When we explored an alley, we came across a bookstore. We were a little tired from all of the walking, and decided to take a look inside. To our surprise, there was quite some action there. We found a cafe, and a few toys as well as books. It looked like Latvia had a library culture. I cozied myself, and read The Art of War, as I thought it would be an interesting read. My sister looked at the toys; her interests were captured by a doll on the opposite wall, while my parents got some coffee. It was the perfect place to relax.

When we finally left, we decided to head to the Freedom Monument in Riga. The statue on the obelisk was the closest thing we got to a tourist attraction, and one huge difference between Rome and Riga was the lack of crowds. We took some more pictures, and continued strolling; behind the monument, the history was limited.
“We should go to the Three Brothers,” said my dad.

“What are the Three Brothers?” I asked. 

“You don’t know what the Three Brothers are? I’ll show you,” said my dad.

We walked a few more blocks, taking pictures on the way, until we reached the buildings, three of them in a line, with fancy architecture. It was unfortunate none of us knew the block’s history.

“These are the Three Brothers,” said my dad.

“That’s it?” my mom asked. “That’s a lot of visitors for that.”

However, it took so long to get to the alley housing the buildings that we decided to take as many photos as we could, and admire the beauty as best as we could. 

“Shouldn’t the day be over by now?” I asked. Though I wasn’t tired, I really was wondering why it was so light. 

“It’s the same as Iceland,” my dad explained. “We’re so north that in the summer, it’s light until 10:00 pm.”

“Oh. Okay,“ I replied.

We walked around a little more, my parents pulling up instructions to the House of the Blackheads, another building that I was clueless about. Unlike the Three Brothers, I could see the beauty in this building. Rarely in Europe could you see such interesting asymmetrical medieval architecture. What might have been even more fascinating was its location in Eastern Europe, a place known for its desecration and destruction of sites. Though it might not look captivating on photo, looking at unique buildings in Europe was definitely a sight to behold. We took photos above the constant noise of the pigeons on the street, and we looked around and rested. It was closer to night than it appeared. We decided to return in the morning.

It was the next day, the sun was shining, the pigeons were cawing, and we were prepared for another day in Latvia. Though perhaps not in as much of a rush as we thought we were, as was proven at the buffet, where we self-served wonderful rolls for an hour, we were still very keen to visit the House of the Blackheads, probably the most beautiful attraction in the whole of Riga. We took a pleasant stroll through the city, encountering the train station and the squares we saw the previous day on the way. After an hour of blissful enjoyment, we reached the house, and we did the natural thing: take more photos, and rest. We had a lot of pictures to take, and a one-hour time limit. However, a few minutes in, an elderly person came up to us. He showed us some real Soviet coins, and wanted to sell them. At that time, I didn’t think much of it, but these coins may have had value to that man (I wasn’t completely sure because even now, many people in Baltic nations don’t like talking about the Soviets). My parents asked me if I wanted to buy the coins, but I refused. My mindset was set to the one of Rome, a hustle-and-bustle city where if someone was selling a soviet coin, it would be stolen. In contrast Riga was more genuine, and I regret declining this offer. I would have the opportunity to feel a piece of history, and I would remember Latvia whenever I saw it. 

You might be wondering why it took so long for us to take photos, and sifting through all of them, I could easily see a pattern. Not only did we always document the main attraction, but we also snapped photos of the background, and I defend that. Numerous times, I’ve found that a target focused travel strategy does two things: it rushes travel, and it takes the discoveries away. When you know every end result, it’s the same as looking at a photo. 

We took a few roads, guided by maps, and though it was as long a walk as from our hotel in Rome to the Trevi fountain, this trip felt years shorter. This time, I knew exactly where we were going: the Riga Market

A market may not sound interesting at first glance, but I was interested for two reasons. First: I knew the good foods. We found a craving for fresh berries in Europe, and Northern Europe has the best berries. Second: We missed visiting the Campo de Fiori in Rome. Though much more famous, I felt that this market would, just like the nation it was home to, be more calm, relaxed, and genuine. I was excited for the market, but I didn’t anticipate its size. 

Tents stretched across a whole square, all white, a full row of them only selling strawberries, and other local foods, a huge street covered with vendors, a warehouse of people selling seafood. If you wanted it, it would be there. It appeared that the whole city of Riga was here at the market, which was about as decipherable as an enigma. 

The first few vendors sold strawberries, but generally, the better prices were located at the back, so after walking for what seemed like days, we reached the end. Juicy red strawberries, laying in boxes, illuminated by the sun so fresh and ripe, my mouth watered thinking about it. We saw cherries as sweet as day, each one just ripe, not purple, but maroon. Through the fresh food area, we saw carrots and cabbages, eggplants and spinach. The food seemed to be a never ending sequence, but we thought and decided to go home only with the cherries and strawberries. 

Passing the fresh food was the meat, and that could be found in a massive building, cooled to what felt like ice (it was a meat locker, after all). Rows and rows of chicken, beef, mutton, whatever meat you pleased was there. Through my chattering teeth I pleaded, “Can we please leave?” as we were vegetarian.

The next section was miscellaneous, and a little smaller. Selling a rainbow of items ranging from clothing to dolls to spatulas, this section really had everything. As fascinating as it looked like, however, we had other things to do, and other places to visit. Past the miscellaneous items was an indoor mall. This consisted of people selling spices, deserts, and dried fruit. What caught my eye was the desserts. Pastries that I didn’t even recognise released fragrant aromas, and only one thought remained in my mind. I want those. From what looked like brownies to croissants (I presumed), there was so much to choose from. They even sold bagels, macaroons, and a sweet made of dough, sugar, and seeds. They were all fascinating. My mom reminded me, we weren’t here for sweets, and sadly, we didn’t buy any of these delicacies. 

Slightly disheartened from not having a share of what looked like the most tasty pastries in the world, we continued on through the endless market. Through streets of flowers and food, we decided that the hours we strolled through the area were enough. 

After visiting the market, we decided to go to the Freedom Monument. My dad had researched the site a few days earlier. He read: The Freedom Monument is a monument commemorating the lives lost during the Independence of Latvia (After World War 1). As I already knew, the monument was a huge copper statue of a woman holding three golden stars (representing the three historical regions of Latvia or the three Baltic nations), on a huge pedestal. Quite like the Statue of Liberty to Americans, the Freedom Monument inspires patriotism in Latvians; there are lots of similarities between the two. However, after my dad read about it, I expected more of the statue: I felt the House of the Blackheads was much more of a sight. 

In the vicinity, we saw a few gardens. Tired from all of the walking we’d done, we decided to rest. Surprisingly, these gardens were much bigger than we initially assumed they were. On this particular sunny day, the pleasant temperature and the graceful ponds allowed for a blissful stroll where we could let the hectic travel ahead of us melt away. There could be nothing to worry about in this idyllic setting: the geese were honking in a beautiful canal, we walked over a bridge of locks, people were canoeing, and just in the distance, we could see the freedom monument. There was modern art, benches, and of course, beautiful flowers. My mom practiced photography, my dad relaxed on a bench, my sister scared away ducks, and I felt completely involved. Then we left for Estonia. The end. 

Just kidding, we returned to Estonia afterwards. Our next destination? Latvia. We hadn’t gone sightseeing again, though. Instead, we would be using it as a base to hop from country to country. I thought we would go directly to Latvia. Nope. Instead we stopped at Jurmala, a beach town. Since we had only an hour, I wouldn’t be able to play, but that was ok. What mattered was getting a stretch break, and some views. 

I wish it wasn’t a cloudy day when we went to the beach. It was a cool place, an average white sand beach, and there was lots to do, but half of the prospect of a beach is the sunny skies and breathtaking views. The clouds took the gleam off Jurmala. 

But there was still a lot to do. My sister ate cotton candy, took photos, and I played in the sand. We – oh, we had to go home. Turns out, an hour is too little time for Jurmala. Nonetheless, a nice beach experience cutting up monotonous urban adventures. 

After that, we had no time left in the day. The drive left my parents exhausted, and we had a flight to Ukraine in sight. We didn’t want to ruin the action-packed day by missing sleep. It was a quiet day. The next one wasn’t.

Tips: 

  • Latvia has many good vegetarian restaurants, so don’t miss out on the food.
  • Jurmala is one of the best Baltic beaches, and so if you want a beach to the Carribean standard, Jurmala is the place to go. 
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Beach at Jurmala

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