Sad to Leave Riga

Saturday we will get on a bus from Riga to Vilnius, Lithuania. We’re excited to be off to a new destination, but sad to leave one of our favorite places.


Only two weeks in Riga was not enough.  Ironically, this week we met a fellow American traveler on our day trip to Cesis.  We told him we were going back to Riga, and he said that he and is wife had just come from there.  He told us that we would need only 3-4 days to see everything in Riga.  Boy, was he wrong, but we didn’t say a word.  Some people like to travel at breakneck speeds, and that is not our style at all.  We have seen several museums, but allowed ourselves the luxury of sleeping late, seeing a few movies, walks in the park,  or just hanging out at our local coffee shop. We have time to talk to people, to learn a little bit about what it’s really like to live there. We get the benefit of an education, and hope to provide a counterpoint to the impression that Americans don’t care about the rest of the world.

We stopped by our local coffee shop this morning to let our favorite barista know we would be leaving.  Oddly enough, we both felt a sudden sadness knowing we will probably never be back here.

coffee barista

Favorite things in Riga will give you an idea of the things we did here, and what we liked (and disliked) about being here.  We ranked Riga as in the top cities that we have visited. We highly recommend a visit there, whether you like history, art, good food, outdoor activities of all kinds, or just hanging out. Hope you take us up on it – but for us, it’s time to fly the coop!


Sad to Leave Riga

Observations: The People of Riga

Riga, Latvia is a great place for people watching.  Not as many tourists as in other Baltic or Scandinavian countries; hence a good look at the locals.  Everywhere we go, we have noticed restrained behavior, especially avoiding eye contact.  If fact, it seems to be the expected way to behave here.  Latvians appear to avoid acknowledging the presence of strangers.  This has been the hardest adjustment for me (Maggie).  It is as natural for me to make eye contact with total strangers in public places as it is to breathe.  Also, I have observed that people speak quietly in public places, which I like!  I suspect that 50 years of Communist domination plays a big role in the restrained behavior, but I will not address that here, because Clay will be covering that in his history of Latvia, which follows this section.

We have learned that customer service as we define it in the U.S. is not the same here.  It is not common to get a smile from a ticket seller at the bus station, a museum, a movie theater, or purchasing groceries.  It is their job to sell you something – not to be “polite” as Americans define polite.  In a grocery store, I asked one of the employees where the eggs were located.  She looked at me pointed and said “over there”  At home, the person would have explained aisle #10, top shelf on left, etc……,or as they do sometimes – “Let me show you”, and walk you there.  After much time, I finally found the eggs, and yes, she had been pointing in the general direction, to her credit.

When walking on the street or even standing in line, it has been common for people to bump into us.  I am positive that is not their intention, but since you are not to be acknowledged –  so bumping you is really “nothing.”   There is never an “excuse me” or a word exchanged.  A painful example was in an museum when I was accidentally bumped (hard!) by a man not paying attention.  I almost fell down and was so winded that he apologized profusely, as Clay came running from the next room to see what had happened.  The man was genuinely sorry and kept apologizing (YES!) in broken English.  This was an exception to the “excuse me” comment I made, but I think the especially hard hit was the reason.  Or, could it have been the sight of that large, muscular man that I am married to?

I don’t want anyone who reads what I have said to make the mistake of thinking that I don’t like the Latvians.  I do like them – a lot in fact!  I see acts of kindness that indicates to me that when someone needs help, they all come running.  An older lady was getting on the tram with difficulty, and a young man from the street offered his assistance.  This nicely dressed business woman already on the tram in front of us got up to assist the older lady with “tapping on” her ticket.  If the older lady had not needed help that day, all of the people involved would have been quietly avoiding acknowledging her. Hence, I have come to the conclusion that this lack of acknowledging strangers is not being rude, but simply a cultural difference.  We Americans have our space issue which may be considered rude to others, so we have to accept other cultures and try to operate to their cultural standards as much as we can when we visit.

The most important thing I have learned while traveling so much over the last two years has been that culturally, we are all different, but we are still one human race where there are lots of good people,  Riga has been wonderful to experience, and the cultural differences are there to observed and not to be judged.  Judging from the these children of Riga, the future is in good hands.




Observations: The People of Riga

One Darned Thing After Another


Geographically, the Baltics (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania) are in a tough spot. They’re sandwiched between Russia, Poland and Sweden, with Germany not too far off: great powers that have invaded each other again and again, often going through the Baltics on their way. Baltic land has been ripped up, their industries destroyed and the people killed or deported time and time again. They are basically the doormat of Eastern Europe.

Consider this: since the Renaissance, the Baltics have been independent countries for about 50 years: 1920 to 1939 and 1991 to the present. When the sides change, they’re the next battlefield, with the people having to take sides with one invader or the other.

Rarely has there been a clear choice of what side to be on. Take Latvia as an example. In Medieval times, much of modern Latvia was ruled by the pagan Livonian Order, which was riven by internal conflicts, wars with Lithuania, Viking raids, invaders from Russia and Crusaders from the Holy Roman Empire.

That went on until the late 16th century, when the Livonian order was defeated and became part of the Polish – Lithuanian Commonwealth. The early 17th century saw thirty years of war between Sweden and Poland, the result of which was a Swedish victory, bringing Latvia under Swedish control. The 18th century started with twenty years of the Great Northern War, which made Russia the new rulers of Latvia. Russian rule established serfdom in Latvia, brought on Napoleon’s invasion (which Russia defended against with a scorched earth policy, burning farmland and wrecking cities), and sparked a series of often bloody peasant revolts.

The Russian Empire collapsed in 1917, giving Latvia a chance to become free again. The Versailles treaty ended WWI in the West, but didn’t cover the countries on Germany’s Eastern front, leaving them to fight for their own independence. In the case of Latvia, that pitted the newly formed Latvian Guards Organization, or Aizsargi, against the remains of the German army, the Red (Communist) Russians, and the White (non-Communist) Russians. After three years of fighting, the foreign armies were expelled and Latvia was again independent, after nearly 400 years.

That brief period lasted until 1939, when the Russians invaded again. Tens of thousands of people were deported to Siberia, along with the industries they worked in. When the Nazis invaded a year later, Many Latvians fought on their side, as the best bet to oust the Russians and believing Nazi promises of self-determination. As the Russians retreated, they again used the scorched earth policy, so Latvia ws devastated again.  Self determination was an empty promise; Latvia was absorbed into “Ostland” and subjected to the Holocaust, in which tens of thousands more Latvian Jews, gays and Gypsies were murdered. When the Russians advanced through Latvia in 1944, once again cities were bombed, infrastructure destroyed and people killed. Many Latvians took advantage of the chaos to flee to neutral Sweden, but most were not so lucky.

Latvia became the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic; not a satellite country like Poland or East Germany, but under the direct rule of Moscow.  In Latvia, Russification meant deportations of thousands of Latvia citizens to Siberia and the importation of tens of thousands of Soviet immigrants into Latvia. At its peak, about 50% of the Latvian population was from the Soviet Union. The Soviet system couldn’t keep up with the population increase, so two to three families were forced to share the same apartment. They would each have their own living room, but shared the single kitchen and bathroom.

That went on until 1990, when Mikhail Gorbachov’s policies of glasnost and perestroika resulted in a loosening of control. The Baltic countries tested the limits of freedom, declaring their independence from the Soviet Union. The Soviet Army responded by crashing into Lithuania in January 1991. Fourteen people were killed and more than 100 were wounded. Fearing they were next, the Latvians built anti-tank barricades out of whatever they had: rows of dump trucks were parked on the major roads; concrete blocks  were  stacked and cemented together to form walls around public buildings, the Riga TV transmission tower and telephone exchange; construction debris was piled in other places. None of these would stop a column of tanks, but they would have to blasted down. On the other side would be rows and rows of Latvian citizens, sacrificing themselves for freedom. Their only protection was the cameras of the news agencies, broadcasting every minute. In the end, twenty people were killed by Soviet militia and unidentified supporters. When 100,000 people matched in Moscow, demanding freedom for the Baltics, the outcome was clear. The Soviet army withdrew and the defenders of the barricades went home. Latvia declared full independence in August 1991.

This convoluted history is hard for us to get used to. We of the Shining Light on the Hill, the Exceptional Americans are used to preaching to the rest of the world about How We Do It – but that wears thin quickly here. After all, we’re talking to people whose recent ancestors fought bloody wars for their independence; the defense of the barricades were mostly non-violent, but involved considerable risk.  To their further credit, they forgave the West for abandoning them to the Soviets in the first place, and joined NATO and the EU as soon as they could. (Not that they had much choice, once again.)

This sounds like a story with a happy ending, but it’s not over yet. Russia continues to support anti-democratic groups all over the world, especially in the Europe and the U.S. Nothing would suit them better than to destroy people’s faith in democracy, so they could install Russia-friendly autocrats and re-establish a form of the old Russian Empire.

One Darned Thing After Another

Favorite things in Riga

So many things to do in Riga!  We even managed a couple of day trips from Riga as well.  Here are a few of our favorites!

Beautiful Parks

Walking was our preferred method of getting around town because of the beautiful paved paths for both pedestrians and bicyclists.  It was less than a mile to Old Town Riga from our apartment with 4 different trams running almost at our apartment’s door step.  Sometimes we would just walk!  Take a look at these photos from our first full day in Riga – sunny and warm (if you call low 70’s as warm).

Latvian National Museum of Art

The biggest surprise in Riga was our visit to the Latvian National Museum of Art.  We didn’t know a lot about art from the Baltic region.   I discovered an artist that I love, and truthfully had never heard of before. His name was Janis Rozentāls (1866-1916). He was one of the first famous Latvian artist who achieved success outside of Latvia in both Russia and France. He was born in Russia but moved to Riga when he was 15. Check out some of his paintings!

The museum building was built in 1905  It just underwent a major renovation and is absolutely gorgeous. Inside you witness the development of art in Latvia, the Baltics, & Russia from the 18th century until now. That lovely man below in the lobby of the museum is Clay.

clay at museum

Riga Art Nouveau District

We had a sunny day to cruise around the Art Nouveau section of Riga.  These people were seriously nuts.  There’s decoration on every part of the buildings, including the bottoms of the staircases and the glass in the windows.  These are just two examples, but about a third of the city center is done in this style.  Later after visiting more areas of Riga, we learned that this Art Nouveau is not just in the city center, but in the suburbs as well.  Stunning.

Riga Central Market – Foodie Paradise

Riga’s Central Market is nothing short of amazing. Not only is it the largest market in the Baltics, but it is the largest market in Europe! The main structures of the market are five pavilions constructed by reusing old German Zeppelin hangars. (see aerial view). Each hangar has a specific market for example the fish is all in one hangar, meat in a separate hangar, etc. Behind the hangars are yet more veggie and flower markets.

While at the Central Food Market later in the week, we had a delicious lunch at a local pelmeni (ravioli or dumpling) restaurant in one of the hangars. The pelmeni is not traditional Latvian food we learned, but Russian. It is served in many places across Riga. This one had a Trip Advisor “stamp of approval”. Maggie and Clay agreed.  I had the meat (beef and pork combo) pelmeni, and of course how could I pass on cold beet soup. It was full of chopped cucumbers, green onions, & celery. (next to the last photo) Regardless, it was delicious.  Clay had the cheese pelmeni and lamb soup (last photo).


Day Trip #1 to Jūrmala

Took a field trip to the beach community of Jūrmala.  It was about 68 degrees and the water was 61, so no swimming for us, and not many other people, either. Still a nice trip through the countryside to a pretty place. Maggie had a traditional Latvian lunch: Perch sausage with gray peas (which weren’t gray, but so dark brown they were almost purple). No food pictures today – we gobbled it all down as soon as the plates hit the table.


Day Trip #2 Cēsis

Day trip via bus to Cēsis (population 18K). Cēsis is known for their Medieval Castle, We arrived mid-morning, and headed straight to the visitor center to get a walking tour map. We decided to see the Medieval Castle, after we had a nice long walk and lunch. Attached are some photos from our walk around the city. Tuesday was a perfect day to go because few tourists and sunny & high 71 degrees.


The hilltop Russian Orthodox church of Transfiguration (above), which the von Sievers built at their family cemetery (like many Germans on Russian service they converted to Orthodoxy)

The next photos we saw on our walk were of the local kindergarten on left, and St. John the Baptist Church on the right.


After lunch we headed to the 12th century castle which is the #1 reason tourists come to Cēsis.  It was fun taking a lantern through the dark places and trying to not use our cell phone.


The young man above was making a die, using techniques that predate the castle.

Folkklubs ALA Pagrabs

One of our favorite places in Riga is a music venue/restaurant called Folkklubs ALA Pagrabs.  Live music every night, and good food – Latvian home cooking at it’s best.  One of our favorite bands was Retro Limited – a fun and energetic group to say the least.  They describe themselves as gypsy jazz.  Clay asked the question –  how do you describe a band that plays, “All Of Me,” “The Mario Brothers Theme Song,” and “Smells Like Team Spirit the same night?  We went to this place 4 times in our 2 weeks stay in Riga.  I think that sums up our experience.  If you go you must have the the traditional Latvian meatballs made according to grandma’s recipe served with baked potatoes and sauteed sauerkraut and a rich onion-tomato cream glaze.   Or, perhaps the traditional battered chicken fillet with mushrooms, caramelized onions, pickled cucumber and goat cheese topping –  served with green pea-potato mash and brown onion cream sauce.  YUM, YUM!


Riga Motor Museum

Another favorite was the Motor Museum. This one not only has cars, but plenty of films and interactive displays to keep the non-car buffs entertained: like a bus ride out to the country, where you could sit in a bus and watch a 1950’s landscape roll by, or an ottoman where sitting in front of a race car activated the sounds and vibration of an auto race. The displays start with horse-drawn carts, move on to early bicycles, but quickly get to cars, cars, cars.

They show the development of the first cars and motorcycles, showing bad ideas, like the 1904 Overland, which was fueled by acetylene – the idea was to get the whole tank replaced every time you went in for a fill-up; or the 1920’s Selve, which went out of business when Mr. Selve ran off with another woman, possibly forgetting that Mrs. Selve was the primary financial backer.

The unique part of this museum was the display of Russian cars, contrasting the simple, boxy cars made for “the people” (not that everybody could buy one) and those for the Communist leadership: mountains of metal, menacing even when they were standing still.

On a related note, they had two BMW 326’s from the 1930’s, one of which had been owned by a man in East Germany who kept it in running order by replacing parts with whatever was available from other cars, trucks and even tractors. Over the years, there was very little left of the original past the BMW logos on the front and back.


We also like the display of cult cars: the Citroën 2CV, East German Trabant, and of course the Volkswagen Beetle. Maggie had to tear me away from the loop of VW TV ads from the 60’s. I remembered every one, and could even say some of them along with the announcer. Very annoying to people around us.


Žanis Lipke Memorial

Our last thing to report on from Latvia: the Žanis Lipke Memorial – a tribute to a Latvian man, a smuggler, a non-Jew, who saved at least 50 Jews from extermination during the Nazi occupation of Latvia. He built a hideout for escapees under his shed at home. He then got a job with the Luftwaffe, transporting workers from the Jewish ghetto to the airplane factory in Riga. As he was transferring workers, he would substitute escapees for workers and workers for escapees, and one by one, he, his wife Johanna, their children and other helpers would stash people away into their network of hideouts. The Nazis counted the number of people he brought in and out, but didn’t keep track of their identities, so with trickery and bribes, he was able to distract the guards long enough to make the transfers.

That went on until the Soviet Army recaptured Riga in October 1944. The detained people were free of the Nazis, but Žanis was questioned by the Communists for years. They couldn’t believe that he did all of this for nothing – they kept asking him about the Jewish gold he must have retained as payment. Finally in frustration, he shouted to the Soviet interrogator that  the Communists were the same as the Nazis, except Nazis shoot you while looking you in the eye, but Soviets shoot you in the back. Instead of getting shot himself, he earned the respect of his interrogators, and they never questioned him again.

In the end, Žanis and Johanna and the network saved 50 Jews out of the 400 to 500  Jews who were saved in Latvia, out of the nearly 20,000 who were killed. This was at the cost of several people being captured, questioned and tortured, and at least two members of  the network killed by the Nazis. For that, Žanis was named “Righteous Among the Nations” by the state of Israel, an honor for non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust.

Here are pictures of the memorial and a recreation of the shed, below which is a recreation of the hideout. On the floor of the hideout is a video of an interview with Johanna. In this frame, she talking about watching people starve and asking, “What could we do?”



Favorite things in Riga