Riga, Latvia

How many times have you asked someone how their holiday was only to be met with “it was okay”?

When we visit somewhere there’s always the hope that it will be a fantastic trip, maybe the best yet. Hard-earned money spent on well-deserved time off, everyone wants it to be great regardless of the type of travelling you do or the type of tourist you are. But it stands to reason that not every trip can be the best, and not every trip will be brilliant. Some are just okay, and that’s fine.

Riga was okay.

I arrived on the bus from Pärnu having spent just one night in the Estonian summer town; a wonderful, relaxing evening watching one of the best sunsets I’ve seen. In fact, it was one of my favourite nights I’ve had on any trip. The short journey to Riga the next day was easy, cruising by the empty border gate and on to the capital.

The bus station in Riga is on the edge of the old town. My first stop, rather than heading to my accommodation, was to turn right instead and have a wander around Central Market. I love these kind of places, and I wish they were more common across the UK. Rather than going to a large supermarket, it’s a chance to shop locally, buy all sorts of fresh food and some hot food for a snack. It’s mixed in with stalls selling flowers, hardware items, collectors items, clothes, almost anything you might want. It’s not a market geared at tourists but it’s certainly worth a visit and a wander around to buy some food and snack for the day.

The old town felt a little quiet when I ventured that way. Having been in Tallinn a couple of days before, maybe Riga just felt comparatively quiet, but even on a sunny day there weren’t too many people wandering many of the cobbled streets.

Like many places across Europe, Riga has a well preserved and picturesque old town. It’s the natural draw for the majority of tourists and has the usual array of little shops, cafes and restaurants to unwind and let the mind drift. I did quite a lot of that (coffee and cake is a dangerous and common combination when travelling).

The old town didn’t have much of a stand out. By that I mean the squares and churches were nice, very pleasant, and maybe I was still comparing it too much to Tallinn, but it didn’t have anything hugely memorable. Some of the church towers provide a viewpoint across the city rooftops, but the one I spotted, at nearly £10 to climb a set of stairs, I decided against it.

While I might be sounding a bit dispirited about Riga as a city, there were certainly some standouts. As an outsider I find the fall of the USSR and the end of the Soviet occupation to be absolutely fascinating and something I always want to learn more about. The Museum of the Occupation of Latvia tells of this era in the country’s history and it is an absolute must-see. Alongside this, although something that locals may not shout about or recommend too loudly, is the KGB corner house.

The KGB house is a short walk from the old town. It’s a nondescript house on the corner of Stabu and Brīvības. You could walk by it and never know what it was, what it had been. Even when it was in use, you may have walked by and only seen soldiers through the window eating their lunch and chatting. But this is the house where people were taken to be disappeared. Standing in the interrogation room, knowing that this is where people were brought in to be found guilty of something, anything, is chilling. And the history, the stories, the cells, the courtyard, it’s all really quite haunting.

The guide at the KGB house tells the story of the last days of its use, just as the end of the Soviet era arrived. There was one person still held there. When the house was raided, a briefcase was found which turned out to have the names (real and code) of all of the KGB informants, both the eager and reluctant ones. Seemingly this case is still hauled out once every so often at election time to ensure that no-one standing for public office had relatives who were KGB informants.

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All in all, this may sound like a bit of a downer on Riga but I’ll stress that it isn’t the intention. The old town and the area stretching north is really pleasant, with some beautiful architecture and lovely areas to sit and relax. The city is one of the few that seems to do less with its main riverfront than Glasgow, which is always a shame. And, as always, I’m fully aware that there is a whole lot to see in the city that a few days there could never cover.

For me, it was a fairly laid back and pleasant trip there. I didn’t end up meeting anyone there. Eating out was fine, but I didn’t end up anywhere spectacular. And I had an alright time just exploring. Riga was okay.

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