Far from the Madding Crowd

travel stories  by Laura Onea

Riga & Tallinn

The first thing that tickled our senses when we set foot in Riga was the women’s local port: fur coats and rosy cheeks. I don’t know if it’s this combination or their natural beauty, but they looked fresh and charming. If you are environmentally friendly you would probably make a wry face when you glance the first 2 or 3 ladies wearing a dead animal with such naturalness. But after a deeper breathe in and breathe out of a terribly cold air, you realise that, in a country like that, possessing a fur coat is no longer a luxury or a caprice but a necessity.

Riga during winter is like a vintage fairytale. After a springy London, an unusually grey and dry Finland, swimming through fluffy and sparkly snow in Riga was pure delight, so we slowed down our pace from the airport to the accommodation only to enjoy the childhood effect that snow had on us. It was already dark outside when we arrived, which made it possible to be welcomed by a beautiful display of festive lights. I have never seen such an abundance and diversity of winter decorations in a city before. Love at first sight. We had quite a long journey that day, changing a car, a train, a plane and a bus, but our 30-minute walk through the vibrant city splashed us with a great doze of energy.

Riga in the sunlight didn’t impress us less. It’s that attractions-free type of city where the most fulfilling thing is to wander the streets and get lost. Walking through the old city centre is like remembering a story that you never lived. Riga is considered to be the architectural Jugendstil capital of the world, while the Latvians are responsible for designing over 60% of the Art Nouveau style buildings. The undulating, flowing line and the asymmetrical form of the buildings are absolutely lovely. I am sure Hansel and Gretel would be jealous of the design! And it’s a photographer’s delight to capture all the details inlaid in the constructions (which are not few) and make up his own piece of art.

For a lover of hand crafted objects this is the place to be. It’s impossible not to bump into the cosy boutiques where you can find many nice things from traditional clothes and accessories to decorative objects. This is one of the things that, in my opinion, makes for the authenticity and character of a place. I am tired of all the kitschy touristic souvenir shops. Oh, and I think Latvians are obsessed with amber. Whether you are in a classic souvenir shop or in a fancier boutique, you will be overwhelmed by the multitude of amber jewelries. So you have plenty of choice if you are into this honey looking gemstone.

The food in the city is delicious. And cheap! There are many options available and it’s impossible not to like the international cuisine of Flying Frog (Lidojošā Varde), the medieval cates from Rozengrāls, or the treats from the Gastronome buffet. Oh, and you will find quirky tea shops and cafes everywhere. Just keep on wandering the streets. 🙂

If you go further from the centre, the scenery changes considerably. There are many old buildings begging to be renovated along with communist blocks of flats. But although there is probably room for improvement, overall, I didn’t get the feeling that the decadent vibe of this part of the city would reduce the city’s charm. On the contrary, I’ve always enjoyed this mix of displays, of history and present time. It tells stories.

Tallinn, on the other hand, is a bit more revamped, but it reflects the same beautiful medieval painting. So once you’re done with wandering the storytelling streets of Riga, but you don’t want to exit the specific state of being, head to her brother. Or sister? Never mind. ;))

Same as Riga, Tallinn is very richly decorated and lit during the holidays. I loved the hanging apples on the windows as baubles. Strolling through the old city centre of Tallinn when it gets dark is like reading several bedtime stories during the same evening. There were few people on the narrow streets that made up a magical labyrinth, and you could feel the stingy air from head to toe. But then if you peeked inside each building, the situation changed. There was laughter, and many people drinking and talking, and you could feel the warmth. Which reminded me of one beautiful but sad story by Hans Christian Andersen, ‘The Little Match Girl’, only we weren’t helpless and trembling. And I felt gratitude for that.

It’s worth mentioning that both cities are much more evolved and modern than we had imagined. Not only that most of the locals speak English and that they have English translations for almost anything on the streets, but they also set WiFi spots everywhere, including in some of the car parking areas. Estonia was the first country in the world to use online political voting and was ranked highest across Europe (96%) for schools using computers and having access to internet. All these may come as no surprise if you consider that Estonia ranks second in the world when it comes to literacy rate (99.8%). Another thing that caught my attention was that people were wearing safety reflector vests or other accessories when it was dark. Animals too. And it seems that they have a law for this.

Both Riga and Tallinn made a surprisingly good impression on us and we were seriously thinking of grabbing some friends and spend a future New Year’s Eve or Christmas here. The cities are magical during winter. And what else? Well, they are definitely incomparably less crowded than any other popular holiday destinations in Europe. The food and the accommodation are very nice and very cheap. They have plenty of colourful and quirky places, from restaurants to cafes or clubs. On the other hand, we’d like to come back when green is back, in spring or summer, to enjoy what makes almost 50% of these countries, that is forests and wildlife. Oh, and did you know that Latvia has a ‘prison experience’ hotel, where you get the chance to stay and live like a prisoner? The reviews say it’s really worth it. So let’s put it on the list. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.