Monday, September 3, 2018

Our Trip to Europe: We Have a Layover in Riga

The next stop on our trip was supposed to be a visit to our friends in Sweden, but it turns out that getting from Belgium to Sweden is not as simple as you’d think it would be.  Kim investigated the airfares and discovered that despite the fact that it meant having to take twice as many aircraft and was several hundred miles out of the way, it was actually cheaper to have a 23-hour layover in Riga, Latvia and pay for two hotel rooms and both lunch and dinner for four people than it was to get a direct flight from Brussels to Stockholm.  Plus this way we’d get to see a whole new place!

So that became the plan.

Of course, this also meant that we would be flying fairly early in the day in order to spend some time actually exploring Riga.  When we did the math, it meant that we needed to be on the road from Wevelgem to Brussels at about 6am, which meant that we would be eating breakfast at about 5:30, or so we thought. 

I completely forgot to take this into account when setting my alarm, and we were fortunate that Ilse thought to knock on our door at 5:30 to see where we were.  It’s amazing how fast you can move when you have to.  We ate and were on the road more or less on time.

This was a good thing, since we weren’t sure what the traffic would be like heading into Brussels on a workday.  Roeland pointed out that given the small size of the country a single traffic accident could gum things up for quite some time, but we were fortunate and got to the airport with no difficulties.  Roeland came in to help us find the check-in counter for our airline, and then we said our goodbyes.

Happily checked in we headed toward our gate through what may well have been the largest shopping mall in northern Europe.  You have to go through it – the airport is set up on a path and there is only one route from the counters to the gates, a route that winds its way IKEA-like past miles of retail opportunities all of which are proud to tell you in several different languages that they are “duty free” and you’d be a complete fool not to stuff that empty suitcase you have with you (you did bring an empty suitcase, right?) full to the brim with the delightful bargains on display here (after paying for them, of course) – and every time you hit a blind curve you think “Surely this is the end of it” except that it isn’t and you have many more stores to go before they let you into the gate area.  Do people really do that much shopping in airports in Europe?  American airports are clearly missing out on some revenue.

The flight was short and easy, particularly since Air Baltic took the time to change our seats so we’d all sit together.  They have a five-day check-in period rather than the usual 24 hours that I’m used to, so by the time we got that taken care of we were pretty scattered across the plane.  It was nice of them to group us back together.

Riga’s airport is a fairly small place.  The first hint we got of that was when we got off the plane.  They pulled up on the tarmac not far from the terminal, pushed the stairs up to the plane, and off we went.  I don’t remember the last time I got off a plane on the tarmac, though it would not be the only time this happened on this trip.  We walked into the airport proper and – since Latvia is also an EU member – faced exactly zero bureaucracy.  No passports, no customs, just a tourist family adrift in a new city with a leaking water bottle that got my book all water damaged but now that book has a story attached to it so there you go.  It took us maybe five minutes to walk entirely through the airport and out the exit door.

Getting from the airport to the old part of Riga where we were staying is actually pretty easy.  There’s a bus that goes right there.  We didn’t have that much luggage – we’d only checked one bag and that went straight through to Stockholm – so it was simply a matter of finding the bus stop (not hard) and then figuring out how to pay for tickets.

There’s a machine right there at the bus stop, it turned out.  You slide in your credit card, tell it how many fares you want to put on the card, and it spits out a bright yellow paper card with the appropriate number of fares loaded on.  That part was easy.  Actually using the fares, however, was more complicated.  I never did figure out how.  We got on the bus and I asked the driver how she wanted me to use the card and she pointed vaguely toward the back of the bus.  I assumed that meant we paid when we got off, but it turned out that there was a machine you were supposed to put the card into a couple of rows behind her.  This turned out to be impractical given the crowd on the bus so I never did officially use the fares I paid for, but since I did in fact pay for them I figured no harm done.  I still have the card, though, so if I ever get back to Riga I am set for public transportation.

It’s about a 20-minute ride into Riga through both residential and commercial areas.  It was kind of fun just watching a whole new country pass by.  Eventually you cross the river on the bridge to the right in the photo below, and suddenly – BOOM! – you’re in the historic part of Riga.

The mountainous building there is the national library of Latvia, which we thought to go inside on our way back out – you’re looking out from the historic part of Riga toward the airport, more or less, in that photo – but it would have required getting off and back on the bus just to poke into a building for two minutes and ultimately we decided that was too much.  It’s a pretty cool building, though.  It’s nice that they value their national library enough to build that.

The bus drops you off on the outskirts of the historic Riga and from there we walked over to our hotel – the Rixwell Old Riga Palace, which apparently was an actual palace at one time but is now full of small but clean, comfortable , and surprisingly affordable hotel rooms.  We stood in line behind the entire population of Croatia (there on a group tour) and eventually checked in and found our rooms.  Kim and I ended up a floor above Tabitha and Lauren. 

The most interesting part of the hotel rooms was that in order to get the lights to work you had to put your room card into a slot by the front door.  I guess too many people were just leaving the lights on when they weren’t there.  It did take a bit to figure that out, though.  In the dark.

Our first order of business was lunch, since by this point it was mid-afternoon and we really hadn’t had much to eat since we left Wevelgem.  Fortunately right around the corner from the hotel was a restaurant proudly serving Latvian and Lithuanian food, so we rolled on up to the terrace and placed our order.

The Latvians really need to work on their marketing.  The appetizer we shared was “Latvian traditional grey peas with fried smoked bacon and onion” which needs rather less use of the word “grey” in conjunction with vegetables but was surprisingly tasty, as were the pan-fried cepelinai – fried potato halves filled with meat, sour cream, and greens.  It was good food even if it took a while, but then Riga is even further north than Belgium so we had plenty of daylight left to explore the Old City when we were done eating.  It was a sunny day, but not as hot as it had been in Belgium as the heat wave had finally broken.

The historic part of Riga is actually pretty small.  You can walk across it entirely in less than half an hour, in any direction, and it is full of things to see and do.  It’s also a pretty area, with cobblestone streets and buildings that range from medieval to Soviet.  The Soviet buildings are the ones that look rundown.

Everywhere you look you see English – the international language of tourism, apparently, which worked in our favor so I’m not complaining.  You also see this logo, which we thought was adorable.  I’m not sure if it belonged to any particular business or chain thereof or whether it was simply something that announced a type of business (“Bar here!”), but there were a bunch of them.

There are a lot of churches in Riga, and we visited a couple of them.  The Church of St. John was a light and airy place, whitewashed and full of intricate ceiling work that you could look at in a handy mirror on the floor.  You could even take skewed perspective photos that way, so naturally we did.

For a number of reasons, though, my favorite was St. Peter’s Church.  I’ve been in a lot of churches, and this one was one of the best at sitting you down and making you be quiet for a bit.  It was dark and brick and full of light at the top from the windows.  You should go sometime.

It also has an observation deck that you can get to by climbing a few flights of stairs – go past the old chicken that used to be at the top of the steeple but has since been replaced by a much nicer chicken – and then squeezing into a small elevator that actually has an elevator operator to run it.

When you get to the top you can spend as much time as you’d like there, looking out over the city.

There are many helpful signs on the railing too, such as this one reminding you not to dangle your child from the ledge.  I wonder how many times that had to happen before they finally gave in and put up the sign.

Riga is a really pretty city, it turns out.

I was particularly intrigued by the giant tower on the right of the top photo.  I think it’s a radio tower, but it’s fairly grandiose for such a workaday purpose and it’s easily the tallest thing in town, by a whole-number multiple.

We then found our way to a little open-air craft area where we spent some time looking for souvenirs.  Lauren got her shirt, Tabitha ended up with a pin and a new winter hat, and I got my keychain.  Kim got some wooden butter knives, among other things.

Perhaps the only thing that we had any specific plans to see in Riga were the bears, since ironically enough Fran’s family had gone to Riga just a week or two before we got there and had posted pictures of the bears in the big central plaza.  They’re all fiberglass and maybe seven feet tall, and one artist in almost every country was given the task of decorating them to represent their nation.  They were arranged by country in a large circle around the plaza in alphabetical order according to their Latvian names, which took some figuring.  The American one was right where we started.

We also found the British bear, the Belgian bear, and right at the very end – because it starts with Z in Latvian – the Swedish bear.

For some reason Lauren was insistent that she find the bear from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and eventually she did.

From there we mostly wandered around the city, checking out the sights.  We spent some time over by the Latvian President’s house, much to the annoyance of the armed guard patrolling the street who clearly thought this family of picture-taking tourists was up to no good.  And we headed over to the Swedish gate, which was a way in through the old city wall.

By this point it was getting late in the day and we were hungry, so we looked around for a place to eat.  We found one over by the little craft area. 

Our waitress loved Kim’s shirt, which had a Batman/chemistry joke on it.  She had studied chemistry and now had moved on to a different subject at her university, which she felt was a disappointment to her old chemistry teacher.  “What’s your major now?” we asked.  “Math,” she replied.

I think her old teacher will survive.

Two other things stood out about that meal.  First, it’s actually cheaper in Latvia to buy 750ml of hard cider than it is to buy 750ml of Diet Coke, which made my choice fairly straightforward.  And second, when you’re looking for food allergens, restaurants in Riga have them listed by number on the menu.  Tree nuts are 8.  That’s a nice system.

We headed back to the hotel after that, as it had been a long day.  But if you ever get a chance, you should go to Riga.  It’s a lovely place.

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