Night location: Riga, Latvia
At 6:10am, Amber was in the shower when David burst in and told her that our flight was departing at 8:05, rather than 10:15 which he had originally thought. Our plan to have another delightful Swedish breakfast before catching the fast train to the airport went down the drain, and after 15 minutes of rushed dressing and final packing, we were down the elevator, checked out and in a taxi that was providentially waiting for us. In the land of Volvos, we were thankfully in a Mercedes with a driver who drove like Jehu to the airport, avoiding kilometers of banked traffic, and when possible travelling at 130km/h. As we were driving, David re-read our online check-in information and learned that our flight actually departed at 8:35, so we made it with time to spare, but with our stomachs shaken and stirred.
On our 2015 holiday, Amber's suitcase made an unexpected journey on an Air Baltic flight to Riga instead of making its way with us from Lisbon to Milan. Since then she has felt uneasy that her suitcase has been somewhere that she has not, so it was lovely to finally touch the Latvian ground herself, with her suitcase in toe.
The air was cold and the sky was blanketed in a thick grey cloud but it wasn't raining, so we dropped our bags at the hotel and set off into the old town for some breakfast/lunch. Being 11:30 it was a little early for lunch so we stopped at a chocolate cafe that was housed in a converted apothecary shop from the 18th century, complete with cabinetry made up of many small drawers for herbs and other medicines.
Feeling revived after a hot chocolate and a slice of cake we continued walking to the Church of Saint Peter. This church is considered to be one of the oldest and most valuable structures of monumental architecture from the Middle Ages in the Baltic States. The first recorded mention of the church was in 1209 and the impressive tower that used baroque architectural shapes with several cupolas and galleries was unveiled in 1690. The tower has been rebuilt in the same form three times and we were able to travel up the 73 meters via a mildly terrifying lift that lurched several times before stopping at the lowest of the three galleries. The 360 degree views across the city were magnificent. Looking out towards the Vansu Bridge we could see the beautiful painted facades of the buildings overlooked by the Dome Cathedral, while in the opposite direction we could make out the soviet era building known as 'Stalin's Birthday cake', Riga's Russified Empire State Building.
We made it back to ground level and walked around the austere brick interior of the church before making our way to the House of Blackheads. Built in 1344 as a house for the guild of unmarried German merchants, it was decimated in 1941 and flattened by the Soviets seven years later. Blueprints of the building survived and an exact replica of the original was rebuilt in 1999.
After stopping for lunch at one of the many pubs we walked through the pretty streets and back out to the Monument of Freedom, erected in 1935 where a statue of the Russian ruler Peter the Great once stood. Lady Liberty tops the monument and holds three gold stars representing the original cultural regions of Latvia, while two soldiers guard her at the base. The sun had just made its way through the clouds and some blue sky could be seen which was lovely.
Last year we visited the Estonian capital of Tallinn so it has been interesting to compare the two Baltic capitals today. Riga doesn't have the medieval walls of Tallinn but the old town is instead encircled by a canal and parkland gardens that wrap right around it to the Daugava River. The buildings are equally picturesque but the streets seem positively empty of tourists. We think that in spite of Riga being named the European cultural capital of 2014, they are yet to really tap into the tourist trade as Tallinn has done.
Similar to Tallinn though, it shares a very complex history, particularly in the 20th century. To start our education we visited the National History Museum of Latvia which had a brilliant temporary exhibition commemorating the 100th anniversary of the initial declaration of national independence in 1918. An introduction established the difficulties with forming a sense of Latvian identity in the 20th century before taking us through their vexed history: the War of Independence from 1918-1920; the years of the Latvian Democratic Republic (1920-1934) and eventual authoritarian rule (1934-1940); Soviet then Nazi then Soviet occupation (1934-1991); and concluding with Latvia's move towards Europe from the early 1990s. We are really glad we visited this museum as we plan to visit the Museum of Latvia's Occupation tomorrow so this gave us a good overview to work from.
Returning to our hotel we were delighted to learn that we had been upgraded to the 'Grand Suite' which is genuinely palatial. With herringbone timber floors, a huge four poster bed, gorgeous windows that face the parkland and the old town, and delicious complimentary truffle chocolates, our day has certainly concluded in a much more pleasant way than how it started!