Latvia, so close to Lithuania, yet so different. We spent our five days in Latvia between the capital city of Riga and the quiet countryside around Sigulda. Once our bus from the Curonian Spit crossed the border into Latvia, the Soviet influence prevailed, as we drove through several small Latvian towns. Riga felt like a world away from the atmosphere of Vilnius. While the capital’s old city streets were charming, their attempt to highlight the stunning Baroque architecture felt forced to please tourists. International chains such as TGI Fridays, hamburger and rib joints were prevalent…… replacing the precious local family run restaurants, cafes and beer joints we all love. To summarize, the old city felt very compact and lacked the culture and local life that we found in Vilnius. However, walking the streets did make you feel like you were in a storybook land.
With about 700,000 residents, Riga is the largest city in the Baltic Region. Ethnic Russians make up 40% of the people there. Riga does a good job of keeping its parks green and there were a few lovely areas with outdoor activities such as biking and boating along the canal. We did venture across the city and hit up the huge local market, which was our favorite part of the city. We picked up some fresh food for dinner and stopped at a small market pub for tasty Latvian beer.
We were happy we decided to stay in a local part of town away from the Old City. Our neighborhood was a mix of spectacular Baroque style buildings and Soviet apartment complexes. We ventured to a few local restaurants and a wine bar that served only Georgian wine. Now we are thinking we have to go to Georgia to explore their wine country!
While the Old City left little to be desired, we enjoyed the local neighborhoods and market life in Riga. We are still not sure why Riga is called the “Paris of Eastern Europe”. We assume the lack of Latvian culture in Riga is due to the overwhelming majority of Russians living in the city. There were quite a lot more Russians in Riga than in Lithuania, giving us the feeling they have taken over the Latvian culture. They are even trying to push the nesting Matryoshka dolls.
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