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Emma & Maneesh on the Big OE

Latvia

LATVIA | Thursday, 27 August 2009 | Views [653]

Our first glass of Kvass being poured. We did not know how good it would be.

Our first glass of Kvass being poured. We did not know how good it would be.

 

August 26th

We woke to yet another spectacular summers morning and after getting everything ready left the campground just after 8am. We drove to Riga, the capital city of Latvia. It was only 180km, but given the state of the roads, it took longer than our previous long distance European journeys. As soon as we crossed the border into Latvia we instantly noticed a difference which, although was probably there, was not really seen in the parts of Estonia we saw. In rural Latvia the houses looked very run down and the roads were very poor initially. It was tar-sealed, but had large grooves on the road, like tracks, which made driving a little more challenging. Given Latvia has only had 18 years of independence from the USSR, this was what we were expecting in this area of the world. We arrived in Riga at 12pm, but unfortunately my assumption that our GPS would have a campground in it was wrong, and only after spending almost an hour unsuccessfully trying to locate in information centre, we managed to get wireless internet outside a cafe, looked up the campground on the internet, and then found the campground within 10 minutes. We arrived, set up camp then walked the 1.5km over the river, into the city. After getting some Latvian Lats (money) we found a place to eat lunch, which was Russian dumplings (very tasty) then we went to another place and had pancakes (which were unhealthy but fantastic). Now our tummies were full, we went to Latvia's Museum of Occupation, which covered this part of Latvian history from 1920 until they became independent from the USSR in 1991. It was a fantastic museum, and was a very eye opening exhibition. The events that it documented – oppression and atrocities committed by the Nazis then the Soviets - are so hard to comprehend coming from New Zealand, particularly given it only ended 18 years ago. At about 5pm we finished there, and went to the large local markets at the central station. We picked up a small bit of fruit and vege, but did not explore beyond these first stalls as they were starting to close. We got back to camp at about 6:30pm, and just relaxed in the van.

August 27th

We walked into town just before 9am. We managed to pick up a walking tour brochure yesterday, that meant we could do our own 'guided tour'. We were approached by a young guy offering guided tours, who we declined, but saw several times with the tourists who went with him. After getting to our starting spot, Ratslaukums (Town hall square), we made our way around the 48 stop walking tour. It was a really good tour, with photos and small pieces of information about each spot in our brochure. It took us through the Old Town, and out into the New Town as well. After about 40 stops we stumbled across an amazing basement bakery which would hold its own in France. They had an equally impressive selection of savoury foods as they did sweet, and it was cheap. That provided morning tea for us, after which we continued on the walking tour. We added in a couple of extra stops, but all up it took just under 3 hours. By the time we finished it was lunchtime, so we found a nice restaurant for lunch, which had a large selection of traditional Latvian cuisine. It was great, and very filling. Em declared that she would be a 'fat Latvian' – the food is delicious, but very heavy on the stews, frying and cream. After lunch we wandered around some of the shops, then decided to go back to the markets we went to yesterday. We wandered around the markets but got ourselves a little lost. There were so many fruit & vege, meat, and other food stalls that there was too much to look at really. There were indoor halls as well as the outdoor stalls – a whole hall full of cheese, a whole hall of butchers, etc. We bought some great salami, and fruit and ended it there. If we had had fresh legs we could have been there for hours and still not seen everything. One fantastic thing we did try at the markets was a drink called Kvass. There was a lady sitting next to a big vat of it on a trailer, dispensing the drink in cups and bottles to the people in the queue. We were unsure of what it was but thought it may have been some sort of very low alcoholic drink, it tasted a little like malt beer, but with a sweet coca-cola taste. Thanks to Google and Wikipedia, we learned Kvass is: “a fermented mildly alcoholic beverage brewed from black rye or rye bread (which attributes to its light or dark colour). It is popular in Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Lithuania, Poland, and other Eastern and Central European countries as well as in all ex-Soviet states, like Uzbekistan, where one can see many kvass vendors in the streets. Its origins go back 5,000 years to the beginnings of beer production”. It was very tasty, and after our first glass, we went back for a second. From the markets we moved on, and after going to a bar for a drink in the charming town square, did a small amount of shopping before returning to the campground to start to eat all of the lovely fruit (Grapes, Honeydew melon, Raspberries, new season apples, nectarines) that we had purchased in our visits to the markets.
Riga was a nice city. Given we are now out of tourist season it was nice and quiet and it felt like we had a great look around the 'authentic' Riga. I found it more of a welcoming city than Tallinn, and the buildings were amazing. The old town has largely been reconstructed since Latvia became independent, but has been done in the original styles, and a large part of the new town has also been built in a similar style. The Latvian people have been very friendly, and although we struck a lot of people with no English, and us no Latvian (obviously), we managed to do everything we wanted. It will be interesting to see what Lithuania is like.

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