July 12, 2012
After over three months in Asia, Europe is the next continent on our journey. We have both been to Europe before but our itinerary is taking us to mostly new places in the north and east. Our new experiences began with our first stop in Europe, Latvia. We chose this country as our gateway into Europe because (believe it or not) we found an inexpensive, non-stop flight from Tashkent, Uzbekistan to Riga, Latvia’s capital city. Arriving in Latvia allows us to easily move into Scandinavia, where we will be trekking in a couple of weeks.
The flight from Tashkent left at the ungodly hour of 2:50am. We arrived at the airport at about 12:30am, ready to check in. Security was tight and our carry-on bags were scanned three different times before we arrived at the gate. During the third scan, we also had to remove our shoes and put on little plastic booties with elastic around the ankles. When our daypacks came out of the scanner, the security person called us over. He pointed to the screen which showed the x-rayed contents of our bags. In addition to our laptops, phones and cameras, we carry a wide variety of cords, plugs and adapters.
We spent the next ten minutes pulling items out of our bags that looked like the images that he pointed to on the screen in an attempt to convince him that we did not have anything that was prohibited. We pulled things out, he rescreened our bags and we repeated. Exasperated at going through all of our ‘stuff’, he finally waved us through with a smile.
The airline we were flying, AirBaltic, is a carrier that charges extra for everything over and above the base fare. So in addition to paying to check our bags for the five-hour flight, all food and drinks were an extra charge. We purposely came to the airport armed with a few remaining Uzbekistan som to buy some drinks after we cleared security. There were a couple of shops open but none of them would accept som, only euros or dollars. Hard to believe, since we were still technically in Uzbekistan!
Luckily, we already had a few euros so at least we could buy some drinks to have with the food that we had already purchased in Tashkent. Som is worthless after leaving the country and since there were no exchange places open, we gave our remaining money (the equivalent of about $7 USD) to an Uzbek man on our flight.
As we flew into the Riga airport a little after 6:00am local time, we looked out the plane window to see the Baltic Sea and beautiful green forests, idyllic rivers and pristine lakes. We saw just a few homes peaking through. Latvia, with its population of just over two million people, is one of the least densely populated countries in the European Union. It also has the fourth highest proportion of forests in the EU, after Finland, Sweden and Slovenia. When we arrived at the hotel, we continually heard the sound of seagulls just outside of our window. It had been a long time since we had been anywhere near an ocean and hearing the birds alerted us to the fact that we were not in the middle of Asia anymore!
Founded in 1201, Riga became an important trading junction between Russia and the rest of Europe. Ruled by Sweden, and then occupied by the Russians, Nazis and Soviets, Latvia is another former USSR state that became independent in 1991 (like Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan). We found the city to be delightful to wander around with several beautiful parks and a canal running right through the heart of town. Sightseeing in Riga was divided into two parts: the well-preserved old town area and the buildings around the city that feature art nouveau architecture.
We started in old Riga and explored the cobblestone streets containing gothic buildings, such as the 14th century House of Blackheads, built as a guild for German merchants. With its unique spire, St. Peter’s Lutheran Church is in the center of the old town. It is about 800 years old but has been rebuilt several times. From the spire, we had a view of the entire old town and Daugava River leading out to the Baltic Sea.
Another day we wandered the city looking for art nouveau architecture. Riga has more art nouveau structures than any other city in Europe. Buildings we saw contained classical statues, mythical beasts, screaming masks and grotesque gargoyles. We used a guidebook to steer us to specific addresses but, with over 750 structures containing this décor throughout Riga, there are literally art nouveau buildings on every street. No matter where we were walking we looked up at buildings as we passed by to ensure that we did not miss anything.
One highlight of our city wanderings was not in the old town or at an art nouveau building. We happened to walk by the Russian Orthodox Church, which was very stately sitting on the edge of a large park. Inside, there was a service going on so we took a few moments to sit and observe it, along with admiring the interior paintings. We discovered later that this church was used as a planetarium during the Soviet era.
Our last stop in Riga was the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia. Here we learned about life during the Soviet and Nazi occupations of Latvia from 1940 until its independence in 1991. Ironically, the museum is located in a former Soviet bunker.
We especially enjoyed our time spent at the Skrivanek Language Solutions English Day Camp. Here, we spoke to a class of 2nd to 4th year students about our journey and its geography emphasis. Since their English is limited we showed pictures from our journey and relied on their teacher to do some translation. We learned that the students rank English, math and social studies as their favorite subjects. They enjoy playing tennis and handball and swimming in the nearby Baltic Sea. As we were leaving, they even sang two English songs for us. We so appreciated the opportunity to get to better know these young Latvian students.
Our next destination is Tallinn, the capital city of Estonia. The most convenient way to travel there from Riga is by bus. The bus station is located next to the large city central market. We walked around the market, watching the local shoppers and taking in the amazing variety of fresh food stalls.
The market is located in and around four huge zeppelin hangers that were constructed by the Germans during World War I. Inside are the permanent markets, with each hanger featuring a different type of food. We knew we had reached the seafood hanger before we entered the building as the smell of fresh and smoked fish was almost overwhelming. Other hangers contained fresh meat, dairy and deli items. Outside, around the hangers, are fresh flower, vegetable and fruit stands. The variety of fresh berries made our mouths water.
Armed with snacks from the market and memories of a wonderful time in Riga, we are looking forward to visiting Estonia and then continuing on to Scandinavia.