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A Baltic Capital Adventure-3 Days Each Riga & Vilnius

A Baltic Capital Adventure-3 Days Each Riga & Vilnius

Old Nov 20th, 2019, 01:24 PM
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A Baltic Capital Adventure-3 Days Each Riga & Vilnius

I have copied and pasted this from my blog but I always like to give back to these forums so here is the relevant info:

October 23
I was prepared for our arrival in Riga by previously downloading the Bolt app (the Latvian equivalent to Uber). I had read all about how badly the taxis scam you here and was glad to see it reconfirmed by the signs posted everywhere in the luggage claim area. Our Bolt driver spoke no English but lucky for me he spoke Spanish so communicating was no problem.

After our early morning, we all took a quick nap and chilled for a bit before heading out for dinner at Neiburgs. It was a very quiet evening, but our dinners were quite good and we enjoyed the walk back home through the winding cobblestoned streets of Riga. Our brief introduction to Riga certainly left us intrigued and we laid out plans for what we would like to visit over our next two days.

Jenny had wanted to go to the Central Market, so we decided that would make a great first stop. The Central Market is housed in and around five 1930’s era German Zeppelin hangars. Each one houses a mainstay of the diet-fruit and vegetables in one, fish in another, meat in another, breads and dairy in the other with the fifth one's interior currently under construction. A stop at a local market is always top on Jenny’s list of things to do while we are in foreign lands. She always says there is nothing like seeing the foods that people eat to give you an even better insight to their culture.

After the market, we decided to stay in and around the immediate area of Old Town Riga. Riga was founded as a port town in 1201 and UNESCO has designated its Old Town as one of their sites of culture. We figured we would wander through the streets and turn here and there as interest captured us, but we also had a few planned stops for the day.

The first was to go to the top of the tower of Saint Peter’s Church. The original church had been totally destroyed during WWII, so the current edifice was built thereafter however, it was still lovely inside with its mostly brick nave and dark wooden altar. But the real gem was the view from the top! Wow! So nice with all of the red tile roofs and the spires from the many churches. The juxtaposition of old and new actually worked, for the most part and only seemed to interrupt one vantage point.

Our walk from there took on a mind of its own as we weaved in and out of twisted cobblestoned streets, turning down ones that were photogenic or appeared to have something of great interest at the other end. We stopped by the Swedish Gate, the only gate of the Old Town wall that still stands today, and so named for the courageous Swedes who protected Riga in 1710 during the siege of the Russian Empire. We stopped for cappuccinos and a sweet (or two) along the way before coming to the second planned stop of the day-the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia.

The Museum is being temporarily housed in the former American Embassy. A note on the door warning one that they would need to heave the doors open was the only outward sign of the building’s former purpose. Apparently following 9-11, the embassy beefed up its security with bullet proof doors that are still in use as the museum has decided to keep them as a reminder to all who enter of current world tensions.

The museum was somber, to say the least. We certainly didn’t expect it to be uplifting but wow, it was a shocking narrative. Latvia was brutally occupied for over fifty years, from 1940-1991, by both Germany and the Soviet Union, losing more than 1/3 of its indigenous population during that time. A horrible time in world history; a time that should never be forgotten. Their hopes for independence were realized in 1989 when the “Baltic Way” (a human chain of more than 2 million people, holding hands through the three Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) brought world wide attention to their plight-a true testament to the strength of man’s determination.

From the museum we walked on passed the National Theater and Riga Castle (closed to the public now) and on to the “Three Brothers” some of the oldest buildings (early 16th century) still standing in Riga. We headed back towards the apartment, stopping for another cappuccino and by this time a cocktail for us before making our way to the apartment to chill for an hour or so before heading for dinner.

Our dinner this evening at Restorans 1221 was delicious. We actually couldn’t stomach dessert as we had stuffed ourselves with appetizers and entrees. After dinner, we enjoyed another walk home through the charming streets.

Some of our observations from today were:
-Dark shoes are the footwear of choice-Jenny and I certainly stood out in our white sneakers!
-The Latvians are serious, the restaurant workers show little enthusiasm or friendliness, though we have managed to sway a few with our sincere enthusiasm
-Navigating through the crowds of locals is a bit challenging-they don’t concede any space and they exchange no pleasantries with you along the way
-We are bike rider deprived-no one rides a bike here!

We have enjoyed Riga so far. It is a beautiful city with lots of charm. Wandering the Old Town has felt perfectly safe-even crossing over into the Central Market area was not a problem. The weather has held out for us. After almost eleven constant days of rain in The Netherlands, Riga has remained dry, albeit chilly. The Baltics in October was a BIG gamble weather wise-so far so good even with snow in the forecast for next week! Fingers crossed for us!

October 24
This morning was another later start, and after a breakfast at a semi-decent bakery, we headed out for our planned trip. Our morning consisted of grey skies again, a bit of a bummer as it really does create a bit of a somber feeling here, but still we were glad it was not raining, as we had expected to be the case.

Our first stop was the Freedom Monument which was erected in 1935 and has been Riga's central landmark for almost a century-amazingly surviving Latvia’s occupations and WWII. It is a roughly 130 foot tall granite and copper work of art with the top depicting a woman holding up three golden stars, which represent Latvia's unification of the historical regions of Kurzeme, Vidzeme, and Latgale. There is a two man honor guard standing watch at the base of the monument.

Our next stop was the Riga Nativity of Christ Cathedral, the largest Orthodox church in Riga, originally opened in 1884. It is a work of art from the outside and although the cathedral has survived both world wars, in the early 1960s Soviet authorities closed the cathedral and converted it into a planetarium, called the Republic House of Knowledge. The restoration back to house of worship began in the late 1990s and today it has been restored to its former glory. We entered and were immediately struck by the singing and chanting going on somewhere where we could not see the participants. As we approached closer, we realized there was a funeral taking place. There were seven mourners standing alongside the body of an elderly gentleman while three men and two women, clearly of the church, sang songs and chanted prayers of some kind-the sounds were mesmerizing. Jenny has never seen a deceased person before, so for her, it was almost hypnotizing listening to the beauty of the rhythms, echoing through these chambers and watching the man lie in view for all who entered the sacred house to see. She was really captivated by it, in a peaceful, empathetic sense; and believe it or not, it was hard for both of us to pull ourselves away from the scene.

From there we set our sights on one of two planned destinations for today, a museum known as the “Corner House”-the former KGB Operative Headquarters in Riga. So as most everybody knows, we are not museum goers in the traditional sense, but there are museums that tend to catch our fancy; this being one of them. We arrived having missed the last English tour by 15 minutes. The next scheduled tour was going to be in Latvian, so we decided instead to look into the exhibition prepared on the first floor which tells the story about the activity of the State Security Committee (KGB), during the occupation of Latvia. When I suggested to Jenny we would have to skip the tour of the basement and cell blocks as the following 2:00 tour was in Latvian, with the subsequent English tour not being held until 3:00, she said we should take the Latvian tour-even if we would have no idea what was being said, at least we could see it. I understood at this point, that she really wanted to see what this place was all about, and I will admit, I was not surprised given her future interests in career paths. So, I approached the tour guides to let them know that despite our lack of the Latvian language, we would be taking the 2:00 tour whether we could understand a lick of what they were saying or not. They looked at me as though I was crazy but I explained that we would rather see it than not, to at least have an understanding of what happened here and with that, they kindly offered that if no one showed up for the 2:00 tour, they would give it to us in English-and so it was!

In 1940-1941 and 1944-1990, chekists (aka KGB officers) imprisoned, interrogated and, executed citizens who were considered to be opponents to the occupation regime here, inside the Corner House. Over 47,000 people were imprisoned here at one time or another.

Our visit to the Corner House was a revelation on Latvia’s recent past. Yesterday our tour of the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia was somber, today our tour was haunting-yet actually fascinating in a macabre sort of way. The tour serves as a memorial for those who suffered within those walls; a disturbing reminder of a dark period in the city’s history that as I mentioned yesterday, and was reiterated by our guide today-should NEVER be forgotten nor repeated.

The good news was once we emerged from the depths of the cell blocks, the sun was shining and the sky was a brilliant blue! What a profound feeling it was to walk out from the dark, dank cellars of this building into the fresh air and sunshine-it certainly gave us a whole new respect for our freedom and offered us the chance to reflect on the few who might have been as lucky, but more than likely, were not…

In the early 1900’s Riga became the European city with the highest concentration of Art Nouveau architecture with around 50 Art Nouveau buildings of high architectural value in the medieval part and more than 300 in the rest of the Historic Centre. Seeing these buildings was our intended next stop. While the buildings are scattered throughout Riga, there is one area in particular that holds the largest concentration of these particular architectural gems. We all really enjoyed this mental uplift from the museum we had just left. But, it was closing in on 4:30 and we were all getting a little tired of being on our feet and a bit thirsty. We stumbled upon an ultra cozy bar where we grabbed some beers, fries and cappuccinos while watching a rerun of the Vuelta de Espańa bike race and then a vicious, yet almost comical match of USA vs China in table tennis.

Our dinner reservations were for 7:00 so after our drinks, we hightailed it back to the apartment, to shower and change before making our way to dinner at Rozengrals. This is the sort of venue we would NEVER attend-a medieval-themed restaurant where the servers are in costume but the setting had been too much to pass on and the reviews had actually been quite good. As it turned out, the setting was stellar, the food was OK but the service was beyond subpar. We certainly did not let it wreck our evening and to recover from it, we grabbed a scrumptious dessert in an equally enchanting setting!

Our two days in Riga has been perfect. There would be no reason to spend a third, unless we left the city. The sun coming out today and the blue skies lent a different all around feel for us. They say the city is dying on the vine, that the residents, especially the younger ones are fleeing. It seems evident in the lack of pedestrian populations you encounter on the streets. The one thing that has been so nice, is the complete lack of tourists-especially the ones with the selfie sticks. The Bolt driver told Billy that Americans never come to Riga-we are not too sure why but we certainly did not mind being in the supposed, very limited minority.

October 25

We walked to the bus station this morning, pulling our suitcases behind us, feeling a bit like vagabonds as we stopped in the grocery store to stock up on provisions for our four hour bus ride. We got to the station about 30 minutes early, where we sat back and watched people come and go-I honestly believe we were the only foreigners there and certainly the only Americans.

Our Lux Express bus was only half full and it lived up to its name. For 28 Euro a piece, we had large recliner chairs, wifi, monitors in the seat back for games or shows, and coffee service-a deal we all thought.

The route to Vilnius is pretty much direct but not on a highway like one would expect. Instead, we travelled on two lane roads the whole way. We were a bit surprised there was no highway between the two capitals and wondered why. A highspeed highway would probably cut the travel time down in half when you take out the time for slowing for roundabouts, left turners and stoplights. The countryside was sparsely populated and we only passed through a couple small towns and even smaller villages. We saw few people out; even the designated bike lanes were completely devoid of any riders. The landscape shifted back and forth between vast fields of farmland and forests of pine and birch. Except for two major rivers, there were no other real waterways crossed. The weather was dreadful-about as close to raining as it could get without actual drops falling from the sky, leaving the view obscured beyond a few hundred meters, making it difficult to get a good feeling for what the countryside actually looked like. The bus ride was uneventful, thank goodness as I had my concerns about Jenny or I getting motion sick, but we were both perfectly fine.

Arrival in Vilnius was to building after building of Soviet-era block style apartment housing-not quite so welcoming. But it quickly gave way to a more modern and built up city with an actual downtown. Compared to Riga, we saw fewer rundown areas housing equally rundown homes that once shone in wealth and glory. And just an interesting side note that Jenny came across-those Soviet-era housing neighborhoods were used in filming the disturbing but riveting miniseries, Chernobyl. At one point, the bus pulled into a parking area, came to a stop and people started getting off. Billy and I started wondering if maybe we were supposed to get off too. We decided I should ask before we ended up somewhere we weren't supposed to be like Belarus. The driver said something I couldn’t understand and then, “Next stop, coach station.” OK the coach station must be the bus station so on we went.

After arriving at the central bus station, we hailed a Bolt and made our way to the old town section of Vilnius where our hotel for the next three nights is located. Hotel Pacai, a Marriott Autograph Collection Hotel is a new hotel built in seventeenth century buildings. It was such a great point redemption that it made it difficult to justify paying for an Airbnb.

Our immediate reaction was that old town Vilnius is more upscale than Riga-it is far more refined with the sidewalks in good repair and the buildings all polished off just so. There appears to be more wealth here with stores housing names like Burberry and Prada. Jenny said that Vilnius is the biggest tech startup hub in the Baltics and has one of the most advanced broadband systems in all of the EU, making sense for the clear difference in outward wealth between the two cities.

After grabbing showers, we headed over to D’eco Restaurant for dinner. It received great reviews and was right around the corner. Dinner was very good, service was a bit uneven and it was the first place we have been where there was a spot on the slip to add a tip-highly uncommon in the EU where they actually pay their employees a living wage. When we emerged from dinner, the mist had lifted and the stars were starting to come out. We are hoping tomorrow will bring clearer skies for us to set out and explore old town!

October 26, 2019
"Vilnius/Riga, Vilnius/Riga"
Wishes for a day of blue skies was not to come true but it wasn’t raining and wasn’t nearly as gloomy as yesterday-so we will take it! After a nice simple breakfast at a cute kind of tacky cafe, we started off for our self-made foot tour of Vilnius using points on a tourist map to make our way along.

Vilnius Historic Centre is also a UNESCO World Heritage Sight. With its beginnings around 1000 AD, but with no real town being developed until the 13th century, by the 15th century Vilnius was the capital of the largest country in Europe, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.

There is definitely a difference between Old Town Riga and Old Town Vilnius-the streets here are wider and more open. There are many more people here and lots of tourists groups taking walking tours-but none with the dreaded selfie sticks. There is more color worn and more friendly faces though Vilnius has just as much a shocking and disturbing past as Riga.

In September 1941, two ghettos were established in old town Vilnius. The larger ghetto housed about 30,000 Jews, mostly skilled laborers and specialists. while the smaller housed 10,000, mostly elderly and the incapacitated. Three months later, the occupants of the smaller ghetto had been completely eradicated and this ghetto ceased to exist. From December 1941 until September 1943, the remaining occupants of the larger ghetto were spared as they were forced into labor but on Sept 23 and 24, the ghetto was emptied forcing the 14,000 occupants into concentration camps and labour camps. In early July 1944 the Red Army approached Vilnius and the last remaining Jews were killed off. When the Nazi occupation was done, only 2,000-3,000 Vilnius Jews had survived from the pre-occupation numbers of 50,000. If that doesn’t give one pause as they walk through the streets, not too sure what could; lest, again, we should never forget.

We entered the Orthodox Church here to draw comparisons to the one in Riga. It is simply fascinating just how ornate they are inside. Jenny said that of all the house of worship she has ever entered, which surprisingly has been a lot, she thinks she enjoys the Orthodox Churches the most.

We wound our way along, exiting the old town through the Gate of Dawn and turning down a pretty nondescript road where we did encounter many buildings that were pretty rundown. We came across an abandoned church-St. Church of the Heart of Jesus, completed in 1756. It was a great photo op and we all wished we could have a look inside, but alas… This area of Vilnius was seeing a lot of construction in the form of refurbishment of old buildings, that I’m sure will one day be beautiful apartments. Off to the side, was a small park with the remains of an early 17th century walled fortification and a stunning view beyond. Unlike Riga, Vilnius is built partially into hills.

In looking at the map, I realized we were looking down over an area of Vilnius Jenny had just been telling me about a few minutes previous. The Republic of Užupis is Vilnius’ boho and artistic enclave. It had at one time been the roughest neighborhood in Vilnius and home to the red light district. Nowadays it sports artsy scenes and a rather independent vibe. It has its own president, flag, and constitution (a pretty whacky one at that), which is displayed in over twenty languages along the wall of one of the main streets.

After lunch, we made stops at more churches and then on to the Palace of the Grand Dukes and Cathedral Basilica then turning back down into the heart of old town and on to the hotel. In Riga, we had covered about five miles a day, here we came in just under 4 miles.

Jenny and I have decided we like Riga better than Vilnius. Riga feels more authentic and cozier; It’s more edgy and raw, with few tourists. It feels like it is meant to be lived in with more cafes and coffee shops and less trinket stores. Vilnius is lovely, with an incredible diversity of architecture that surprisingly escaped much damage from occupation. But Riga wins out for us. And what about Billy? He said to ask him when we get home.

October 26
"A Visit to the Countryside"
Our skies this morning were cloudy but showed some promise of clearing. We woke earlier than what has been normal as we had breakfast plans this morning. Last night, walking home from dinner we passed a place called Holy Donut, and as you all know-we love our donuts! It's amazing the things Jenny will rise and shine early for!

Jenny and I headed out first to secure a table and some donuts just in case this place is some sort of cult favorite. We snagged the last table inside, ordered up four donuts to split between us all plus an açai bowl for me. Billy joined in shortly thereafter, as the line was forming out the door, and we indulged in the Lithuanian version of donuts-a bit dense but good, with the star being the cinnamon donut followed by the apple fritter.

Returning to the hotel to drop off our computers after Jenny spent some time working on schoolwork, Billy suggested we go out to Trakai to see the castle. We had only been in the city since arriving, beside our fog shrouded drive from Riga to Vilnius, so a trip to the countryside sounded nice.

Our Bolt driver picked us up right in front of the hotel and as soon as we got in, he asked us where we were from. When we told him the US he asked, “Chicago?” We told him no and then he asked, “Arkansas?”... Arkansas? Where did that come from-nobody ever throws that one out there. Turns out his son had gone to the University of Arkansas, and he had gone to visit him there, along with Chicago and Colorado-a rather eclectic mix of places.

The drive to Trakai took about 35 minutes and both Jenny and I were feeling pretty car sick by the time we arrived. We were happy to be on solid ground but disappointed to see the ridiculous amount of people there-almost all families with lots of children. As we walked along there was an accordion player playing for money and a younger woman stopped to give hime change. When he spoke to her in Lithuanian, she said, “Sorry I only speak English.” He asked where she was from and she replied, “America.” To which he starting playing America the Beautiful-a touching experience!

The Trakai Island Castle was first built in the 14th century, though it was almost completely destroyed during the 17th century and left to rubble before being renovated and rebuilt, beginning in the 19th century. It looks almost completely new and while it was architecturally pleasing, the rest of it was ho-hum. Funny thing is Jenny had said that the castles she has seen on our recent trips to Europe have left her disappointed-add this one to the list. We spent all of 45 minutes there before we called for a Bolt driver to take us back to Vilnius-and wouldn’t you know it was Arkansas!

Once back in town, we grabbed a snack and drinks while the rain began to fell. We had been very lucky up to this point so as we sat inside and watched the people pass by the windows of a local cafe, with their umbrellas and head scarves, we were content. We returned to the hotel to shower and let Jenny get more work done (can you tell that perhaps she didn’t get as much work done in The Netherlands as she should have) before making our way to Gaspar’s for dinner.

The restaurant was about a 1/2 mile walk from our hotel, in a direction we had not been yet, through quite winding streets. It always amazes me walking down these dark roads that we pass so many single women walking down them-you would never see that in any city in the US.

Gaspar’s is an Indian influenced restaurant, and our meals of chicken tikka, curry, schnitzel in Indian spices, etc were outstanding. Jenny declared it the best meal of our stay in the Baltics, and Billy agreed. The only problem was we stuffed ourselves and our walk back home was done to some moaning and groaning.

Happy to answer any questions!

odie1 is offline  
Old Nov 23rd, 2019, 11:01 PM
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This is great, thank you so much for posting. Planning our trip to the Baltics for Sept 2020. Really helpful.
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Old Nov 23rd, 2019, 11:26 PM
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Unlike the OP I found Riga full of bicycles and the locals full of humour with perhaps a certain dryness. Perhaps you also have to remember that English is not their mother tongue.

I found the national library the most interesting as they have a permanent display on propoganda. With some great examples of Putin and Trump lies as star turns.

Public transport in Riga is incredibly efficient and there is lots of it and would be my tool for getting to the airport. Since cars are just about banned in old Riga I struggle to see why you would Bolt for anything.

Last edited by bilboburgler; Nov 23rd, 2019 at 11:29 PM.
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Old Nov 24th, 2019, 04:33 AM
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bilboburger-I am more than aware that English is not their native language. We have traveled to many many other countries where not only is English not their native language, some where they don't even speak a lick of it, not even "No," and I did not encounter the dourness that we encountered here, on the contrary there were always lots of smiles; this was my observation, so no need for the condescending remark. I can also assure you that we saw almost no bicycles-having just come from The Netherlands we were very aware of the lack of bicycles. Bolt was very efficient to get to our apartment in old town Riga, dropping us right at the corner. Why not use them? It is only putting money into the local's pockets-clearly they appreciated it and rely on it-the driver who took us out to Trakai Castle hung around waiting, knowing we were going to call a Bolt to return.

misskdonkey-If you would like a link to my blog to see the pictures that go with it, I would be happy to PM it to you. If not, no worries. Enjoy your trip. We did, but it just wasn't a place that captured our hearts like some of the other destinations we have been to. But in fairness, we obviously weren't there very long and didn't get out of the cities.
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Old Nov 24th, 2019, 04:49 AM
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Sorry if you felt I was snarky, not my intent. Riga sits on two Euro bike paths. It is fair to say that Netherlands Germany and Denmark have more bikes but we should tell readers that there are lots of bike paths and bikes all over Riga, just not on cobblestones.

Public transport over taxis....CO2.
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