I want to… but should I?… looks like I can’t… wait, maybe I can! 🙂
I fought a dozen thoughts before I caught one by its wings while I was two days from flying to Europe. It was never supposed to be a part of my plan. It was last minute. Then again, the best memories you make are never by design. I booked my tickets to Riga on a whim. And that is how I learned I should do such things more often – doing things on a whim, that is.
Love at First Sight
When I first looked at Riga, I had to take off my sunglasses to see it with my naked eyes. Dazzling under the afternoon sun, the river Daugava glowed like sapphire. The endless waters seemed to separate the new town from the old, which were joined by impressive bridges. I saw the famous railway bridge made of iron – quite hard to miss since there’s always a train crossing it with its accompanying sounds. It was my first time in Latvia, and I could not tell the old town from the new one (at least from where I stood). So, I decided to toss a coin and cross the Stone Bridge (which is for cars and pedestrians).
And that is how I ran into Latvijas Nacionālā bibliotēka, the silver building with an interesting architecture. After walking about on this side of the town for a few minutes and hardly finding any humans on the streets (the population here must really be low! 😛 ), I finally decided to open up Google Maps for help. But thanks to Murphy’s Law, it wouldn’t work! So, I did what I best do when I am lost – found me a place to eat. 🙂
In the tranquilizing ambiance of the quaint diner, I decided to stop being my own compass and texted my only friend in Riga. From our short chat, I knew I was on the wrong side of the bridge (that is, if there can ever be a “wrong” side). I ordered something with šampinjoni (mushrooms, if you really want to know) after some difficulty interpreting the Latvian menu. You will be delighted to know that English is rarely used in this country. That means, you have a great chance of picking up some Latvian. 🙂 (On the contrary, if you don’t like to open up to other cultures and languages, you will be in a tight spot! 😀 ) After crossing over to the Old Town, I managed to pose for a picture with the notable library in the background.
I entered Vecrīga (the Old Town of Riga) to the melody of a Latvian folk song. Strumming a blue acoustic guitar, stood a man by a lamppost at the centre of the old town. His partner, dressed in a long yellow frock, swayed and sang a fast paced country rhyme – or daina – as called in Latvian. Oh, how beautiful it felt to gaze at the towering steeple of St. Peter’s Church (first built in the 13th century) – with the perfect music to set the mood!
I could see that Riga was all out to impress me – first, leading me astray and building up the suspense; then, finally taking me on a musical date in the heart of Old Town. I had but 24 hours in Latvia, and my surprises had only just begun! 🙂
In Love and War…
I was awed by the impeccably maintained buildings which looked as though they had just been constructed. I soon discovered that most of these structures were first erected in the 13th and the 14th centuries. They saw the biggest of wars – The Great War (Polish-Lithuanian-Teutonic War) and the Second World War – and suffered destruction at the hands of the Germans and the Soviets.
It is almost ironical that the Germans in 1941 should bomb the House of the Blackheads – a church initially built for a guild of unmarried German merchants in Riga – Brotherhood of the Blackheads. Even its remnants could not survive for long as by 1948, the Soviets razed everything to the ground.
Riga is Born Again
Despite the wars, Latvia picked up its pieces and restored its heritage buildings. The Historic Centre of Riga is now a World Heritage Site, and tourism has gathered steam in the recent years after Latvia became independent again in 1991.
Strolling by the souvenir shops, one can’t help but notice cute figurines made of ceramic gracing the window displays. From sheep to barristers to village-huts, the mementos one can take back home are diverse. The red and white Latvian national flag is also visible everywhere.
Sauntering down the cobblestone streets of the Old Town, I counted rows and rows of houses that looked like they had come out of a children’s story book – red brick roofs, attics which looked like small houses themselves, windowpanes which appeared to have been made of ice-cream sticks, striped awnings, and even tall chimneys! So, these were the houses I had always been drawing in primary school! 😀
Meeting My Latvian Friend
I had wanted to see Riga for more reasons than one. 4 years ago, I was not even aware of a country called Latvia! I first heard of it when I was in interning in Lleida (see Lleida – A Reminiscence and Flashback to 2011: How I Started a New Life in Catalonia) and had a Latvian flatmate. This year, when I was planning my big Lithuanian run (see Running in Lithuania – My First Half Marathon Abroad), I couldn’t imagine not visiting my friend, Alise, who lived in the country right above Lithuania.
Riga did pop up once in a Bollywood movie (Agent Vinod), and I watched it at the theatre just to have a look at Riga. But that movie did no justice to the lovely capital city that Riga really is.
It was an emotional moment for both of us to meet after such a long time. Neither of us had really believed our paths would cross again in due course of time. We ate our dinners with a shot of Latvian balsam (a really strong spirit) and some pale ale from Bauskas alus, a brewery in the southern town of Bauskas. Then, my friend gave me the most beautiful parting gift by taking us on a walking tour of the city at night.
Riga at Night
Riga gets a makeover as the sun sets. From its colourful, cheerful self in the daylight, it transforms into a seductive, mysterious character. Depending on which part of the old town you are in, you will either find yourself amidst rows of nightclubs that play booming music and have a lot of partygoers celebrating loudly on the streets, or you will be able to escape into a quiet corner with not a soul in sight.
My love affair with Riga reached its crescendo when I found myself in this deserted cafe tucked inside the patio of an old building whose paint had chipped off to reveal the blood red bricks beneath.
I sat there looking up at the cloudless sky for a while before I decided to head back to my room.
I woke up next morning excited for a new day of unplanned adventure, but I was sad to have to leave Riga. I stood by my window for a long time, taking in that unforgettable picture of the Old Town until I could remember it with my eyes closed. I left Riga at dawn, and our story would have to end there, like most romances that always have to end. They just cannot be perfect otherwise. That final image of the historic centre swathed in grey, before the sun fills it up with colour, will stay with me forever.
Have you ever been to a place and fallen instantly in love with it? Or did your love grow over time? Share your travel-love-story with me!