Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Latvia (Riga)

To sum up: I went to Eastern Europe by myself and it was the scariest, most amazing experience of my life. I headed out to Riga, the capital of Latvia, on Saturday afternoon. My first Ryanair flight was quite successful, except literally every screaming and crying child/baby in the UK happened to be on this flight. It was so obnoxious. Reason #487 I hate children. I took a bus from the airport into the city centre, and by some miracle I made it to my hostel! Now officially 2/2 getting to my hostel walking alone at night in the dark! I was way too tired to try to do anything that night, and I really wish I had had a real weekend night there! Riga goes hard and parties like no other. Most people stay out until 6:00am or 7:00am on the weekends. Latvia…

Sunday I had my main tourist day, and of course it rained basically all day and I never saw the sun. First I saw one of the main churches, St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, and Ratslaukums, the town square, to see the Blackheads House. It’s hard to describe but basically it’s this house place that was connected to guildhalls and trading? I honestly have no idea, I could be totally wrong. BUT it’s a classic Riga tourist site and honestly it was completely stunning. The house has a big clock and all this gold weather vanes and little touches. It was so crazy and so different and unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.

Also looked amazing at night!

After that I really just wandered around Old Town and the rest of Riga. I saw a lot of beautiful churches and saw some pretty parks. I went to my first ever Russian Orthodox Church, which was totally different than anything I’ve ever experienced. First of all, the church itself was so beautiful. All the walls were this bright blue and gold, and there were so many icons and candles everywhere. I sat down and just watched people as well—I’ve never been in a place of worship like that before. People were crossing themselves (usually three times), bowing, kneeling, kissing the icons, lighting candles, everything. It was so fascinating to watch. People there had so much conviction about their religion and their beliefs, it was really something I’ve never experienced before. I also was told by a priest not to sit with my legs crossed and I don’t know what that’s about… I’m not sure if it was because I was a woman (he also told another woman sitting by me to uncross her legs) or what. Very interesting.

Riga is famous for it’s Art Nouveau buildings, and even though I don’t care too much about art I wandered around that section of town. I’m so glad I did! The buildings were gorgeous and just walking there I felt like I was in a different world. By this time it was raining pretty heavily (my favorite warm mittens got soaked through, which hasn’t happened in the 3 Minnesota winters I’ve had them) and I was cold and my feet were wet, so I decided I needed to go somewhere inside. Riga was pretty cold, about the same temperature as it usually is in Minnesota around this time of year (although Latvian winter doesn’t start until later, so it gets colder). I’m really okay with that since being Minnesotan means you’re tough, but I’m not used to being outside for 7+ hours a day in the Minnesota cold. So I decided I wanted to not be in the rain anymore.

I went to St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, and first I went up to see the view of Riga from the tower. It was an amazing view—you could see so much of the city! But it was insanely windy up top and made it even colder, so I wasn’t up there all that long. Then I decided to just sit down for a bit, and somehow by some miracle, there was a choir and orchestra Christmas concert soon and I just happened to be there. The church eventually filled up and by the time the concert started it was totally packed—tons of people were standing in the back. The first two songs were orchestra only, medleys of the usual Christmas songs. Then they sang two songs in a language I assume was Latvian (I didn’t understand it, and it wasn’t English or Russian), and the rest of the concert they did songs in English!!! They did several of my favorites, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, my sister’s favorite Christmas song of all time O Come All Ye Faithful, and Have Yourself a Very Merry Christmas. I definitely cried throughout the concert, especially during Have Yourself A Very Merry Christmas. That song always gets me, I’m still not entirely sure why. And just being in this beautiful famous church, in the middle of fucking Latvia, hearing my favorite Christmas carols sung by a choir, missing my family and knowing I won’t get to be with most of my relatives this Christmas, I just felt like it was so surreal. I’m still not sure how I ended up being at the right place at the right time for this concert, but it was unbelievable.

St. Peter's Lutheran Church
View from the top!
After that I wandered around some more, but that got boring since it was dark and still raining, and the rain was now turning to freezing sleet. So I had a brief resting period at my hostel, and then went to a coffee shop for food and relaxing. Also got asked for directions—23 hours in a new city and already looking like a local! A new record! I met some guys at my hostel, a couple of guys from Holland and one from Detroit, and we all hung out at the bar in the hostel and then went out to another bar later. It’s one of the main reasons I love hostels and I love traveling by myself—you meet people from all over the world and just get to talk to them and hang out! Also the people I’ve met at hostels are basically awesome. It’s so great and refreshing to talk about cultural differences and the way things are in our countries in such a relaxed setting. And I always love talking to people about traveling and finding out where people have been. Those discussions are the best. The bar we went to did live music until 11:00pm and then they did karaoke, which I have to admit I did after I had enough to drink. My song: I Want It That Way by the Backstreet Boys. Classic.

 Monday I took it easy since we were out until 3:00am or so, so I stayed in bed and then checked out right before check-out time. The hostel I stayed at (the Naughty Squirrel) is literally one of the best hostels I’ve stayed at. Ever. Everything is clean, they have computers with internet you can use for free, two common rooms, 24/7 reception aka 24/7 bar, and some of the friendliest, most helpful staff I’ve ever encountered. As I was checking out, one of the women working there had just made chocolate cake and offered me a piece. Free cake! Best hostel ever! Oh, and they gave me a free shot of the Latvian spirit, Balsam, when I checked in. Again, best hostel ever.

First I went to Riga Dome Cathedral (Lutheran). It was a pretty church, with beautiful light fixtures and its organ, during the time it was done, was the fourth largest organ in the world at the time! I wandered around inside the church for a bit, and then I went into the courtyard. All through the sides of the church around the courtyard there were artifacts and items sitting there with descriptions. For the first time, I really felt like I was in Eastern Europe. It wasn’t that it was sketchy or not taken care of, but it was a little old and random and not paid attention to. Maybe that’s a super shitty way to describe it, but this church really seemed to represent Eastern Europe to me. The worn floors, cracks in the walls, it just seemed very old and very much like I was in Eastern Europe.

Dome Cathedral

After the Dome Cathedral I wandered around some more, walked past Riga Castle (of course it was under construction when I was there), and went to Lidos, a must for any trip to Riga. There are a couple of them in the city centre, and it’s basically a classic Latvian place, done buffet-style. The tourists love it because the women who work there are dressed in the traditional Latvian dress, and it’s cute and has that old-timey feel. The food was excellent and just so delicious. I ate a ton and then walked to the Central Market. It was definitely an experience. It was cool just to walk around and look at stuff—I didn’t buy anything, but they had everything you could ever want there. All types of food (pastries, bread, dairy, fruit, and ever different type of meat possible), and then stalls outside had hats, mittens, socks, etc. I explored a lot of the Christmas markets around Old Town after that. Riga (and probably Latvia) seemed to be super obsessed with Christmas, but that might just be me, who just finished up with Thanksgiving. Fun fact! Riga is home to the world’s first Christmas tree, 1510! The Christmas markets were quaint and so cute, and it just made me so excited for Christmas! I also went into this Catholic church, which was a really weird experience. The whole place was super dark (there were barely any lights on), there was only one other person in there, but I just looked around and sat down for some thinking time. The woman there asked me if I was Latvian when I was on my way out, and I used my Russian and we had a brief interaction in Russian! УРА!

Christmas market in the square!

By that time I was cold and tired again, so I went and hung out the hostel until I left for the bus for the airport. My flight left at 10:00pm, and I was due to arrive Nottingham time 11:00pm. So then it was waiting for my plane, a 2.5 hour flight back to East Midlands Airport, waiting 40 minutes for a bus, a 45 minute bus ride back to the city centre, a cab ride since it was 1:00am and none of the city buses were running, and finally home.

I have never been more exhausted during travel, but I can honestly say that this weekend was one of the most amazing experiences of my entire life. Not only had I never been to Europe by myself before, I had never been to a country where I don't speak the language before. I was so scared that I almost started crying at the bus station, waiting for my bus to the airport on Saturday. However, I can say without a doubt that it was one of the most rewarding experiences ever. Never have I ever felt so accomplished, so independent, so invincible, so amazing, so strong, so brave.

A word about traveling on your own: it is scary and it can be hard at first. But the reward will be worth it. I strongly encourage everyone to do it, at least once in your life. And also a word to any female friends: they will try and stop you. They will tell you it's too dangerous, it's unsafe, that you shouldn't go. Do it anyway. Be smart and be safe and go anyway and prove them wrong. The experience will be so worth it!

I literally just went to Latvia by myself. I couldn't be more proud!

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