Sunday, April 25, 2010

WHY would you go to Latvia? Part 2

After our first day back together, Madeline and I morphed into super tourists despite the rain for the second day. The lady at the tourist office who recommended the horrible Riga exhibition had also given us a walking tour map and we thought that there was no way she could recommend two bad things, so we thought we'd give the self-walking tour a chance.

The tour started smack dab in front of our hotel, in the Town Hall Square, in front of the Blackheads' House. Now, upon hearing this name, I automatically think of a pimple-faced kid. However, this building was built in 1334 as was first known as the First Building. Rebuilt many times since that, the facade that we got to see was constructed after WWII. Between the 1300s and the mid-1900s though, the building was used a place for meetings and civic activities and gained its named from a merchant association named the Blackheads Society in the 17th century.

Our walk wound us through small and curving streets in the Old Part until we came to a main square known as Dome Square, aptly named for the huge Evangelical Church that towers over the square. A mix of architectural styles stretching from the 13th century until the 20th gives the church, cloisters and dome a unique style all their own. The site of Riga's first school as well as library are housed within the church along with an organ that has been playing hymns inside since 1884.
Leaving the large open square we ended up on Mazā Pils iela which for such a small street holds quite a history. An amazing preservation of Latvian medevial architecture, the house has 3 buildings side-by-side that have been named the Three Brothers. The oldest brother is the White Brother, who was built in the 15th century and is the only building in all of Riga that survives from that time. The middle brother is the Yellow Brother with a birthday of 1646. He proudly wears his birthday year on the front of the house with iron numbers. The youngest brother is the Green Brother, and was built in the middle of the 18th century. Three impressive buildings from three completely different centuries - I was impressed to say the least!

From here we kind of got lost; which although the Old Part is only about 10 minutes from one side to the other was quite easy. Eventually we found ourselves on the map, but off the walking tour. When we were supposed to be at the north part of the Old Part and walking through the old city gates to the New Town, we were on the South Side doing the exact same, but without such a secure gate. Probably the most comical thing I have ever seen, as we approached the New Town, we expected to pass below a typical brick or stone arch, but to our surprise we only passed under half an arch! It were as if the town of Riga said 'sorry citizens, we don't have enough money to finish this arch, so you only get half of one. hope that's ok'. Chuckling and we left the Old Part and off the beaten path, we stopped off at a small restaurant to try some tasty Latvian cuisine.

Only with one other family in the restaurant, Madeline and I ordered the most typical Latvian things on the menu: Janu siers and Saldskaaba Maize - a cheese and bread. With a long and cold winter and a short summer season, janu siers (St. John's cheese) is an essential part of St. John's Eve, or as we know it - Midsummer Night. The summer solstice is named Jani and this caraway cheese and beer along with some meats make up the celebration meal. Somewhat soft, with caraway seeds, the cheese went perfectly with the meats we ordered and the typical Latvian bread - Saldskaaba Maize. A true sourdough, this dark brown bread starts with a traditional sourdough starter but actually uses no additional yeast. Quite grainy (it almost felt at some points that we were eating grains of sand), it is surprisingly tasty and filled us up quickly.
Happy we got off track, we did find our way back to the walking tour and successfully left the Old Part in the correct place and headed towards the New Town which we had heard was full of gorgeous art nouveau. With about 1/3 of the buildings in New Town in art nouveau style, I took more photos that I know what to do with. Each building showcases some balcony, window or sculpture that fits in with the creative architectural style. From roaring lions to busts that look like they could be on the front of a ship to smoothly curved balconies and rounded windows, even the gray sky couldn't take away the thunder of the buildings. On the most famous street - Elizabetes - Madeline and I each picked a house we would own if we could have one of the over 800 art nouveau buildings in the city. I selected a large pistachio green building with tall arching windows and gold sculptural details while Madeline picked a light peach buildings adorned with probably 100 carved lions looking down at us. Wandering through the New Town, we again got off track from the walking tour, but at that point we didn't care and were happy to weave in and out of streets, constantly looking upwards at the facades. The most impressive and probably most famous symbol of art nouveau sits on Elizabetes iela at 10b. Named a World Heritage Site, this blue-tiled building boasts two identical faces on the corners looking in opposite directions along with a wealth of peacocks, lions ladies and detailing. My favorite spot was the combination of this building next to the one next to it - an equally-detailed building. The huge face on the edge of the blue building juxtaposed with the smaller faces of the brown building was amazing.

With tired eyes we stopped into a small cafe for a relaxing moment and ordered two coffees. Along with our coffee we got a little bowl of sugar cubes and two glasses of water. A few moments after we got our coffees a little blond-haired boy toddled over to our table, quickly stole a sugar cube, popped it into his mouth and washed it down with my cup of water. Adorable and sneaky, Madeline and I couldn't help but laughing. His mom didn't seem to notice he was gone, so he happily shoved another sugar cube into his little mouth and looked at us curiously. Why do these girls think it is so funny I am eating? One sugar cube later we decided he was going to be quite a lot of energy if he continued in this way and called his mom over and she whisked him away.

After the coffee we popped into a small tourist shop filled with babushka dolls (the ones where you open the doll and another one comes out and then another and then another, etc). Elaboratley decorated, I saw some babushka dolls with 15 pieces! However, the one that impressed me the most was the Christmas one, which started as a Christmas tree, then became a Santa Claus and finished as a snowman. It will make a perfect Christmas ornament, or 3 I suppose! Also, there was a set of dolls from The Nutcracker - Nutcracker, Clara and the Rat King - which took me back to my Bon-Bon days at the Columbia Theater.

To take cover from the rain we popped in another café, this one a wine bar and sipped a wine from Argentina and one from Australia while it poured outside. It was a perfect time to catch up - even though it had only been three months, Madeline and I used to see each other almost every day, so we had lots to catch up on! When the cats and dogs turned to sprinkles, we headed back towards the Old Town, but rain got in our away again and we stopped off for one last drink before dinner. This one was a special bar - the Sky Bar. With a bar on the 27th floor, you can see out over the entire Old Part. We were lucky enough to snag a table next to the floor-to-ceiling windows and sipped our drinks as we waited for the weather to improve. Somehow, I got carded when I went to buy the drinks. The drinking age in Latvia is 18. I kind of chuckled when the boy asked for my ID and asked how old he thought I was and he said 17. I laughed even more when I showed him my ID and he seemed quite surprised to find out I am 25. I think that is the second time in Europe I have ever been carded. Young at heart haha.

We watched the sunset from the top of the world (well, the top of Riga) and took the quick glass elevator back down to reality and headed towards our dinner destination. Along the way, we passed a anther lovely onion-dome topped church and stopped in to check it out. Seeing as Easter was in two days, they were already having Easter-related services inside. No photos allowed of course, but the feeling inside the church wouldn't have been able to be captured through a camera. The church was filled with old ladies with head scarves, young kids with sweaters and gloves and families standing because it was a packed house all singing along with the choir and organ. The ambiance was warm and loving and felt like a church should feel. It seemed like a special moment and being tourists Madeline and I felt like we had kind of intruded on a private moment of worship so we didn't stay long but just long enough to see real Rigans during their every-day life.

Next stop on our long walking day was a restaurant called Kiploku Krogs, which somehow translates to The Garlic Pub. We had read about this restaurant before coming and decided it was a must - garlic was a part of almost everything on the menu, which sounded delicious. I ordered a tasty chicken dish and Madeline a beef dish to go with our wine. For dessert we even ordered a cake with a hint of garlic sauce. All delicious, but biggest mistake ever! While it was very very tasty, we soon figured out we would taste it for days to come. No good! I think that in the next two days we brushed our teeth about 15 times each desperately trying to get the taste out of our mouths.

Full and reeking of garlic we headed back to Fun Friendly Franks to go to bed, but when we got there everyone was in the hostel bar getting ready to go to a dance club. The host said it was free for girls, so we thought why not and jumped on the bandwagon. We danced the night away - even with the Easter Bunny and went to bed and dreamed that we would wake up without garlic breath...which did not come true. Regardless, we had a big plans in store for our next Latvian day! That to come next!

Skūpstīties! (with garlic breath)

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