Lions, beaches and Art Nouveau – Riga, Latvia

Now let’s see, it’s me and my old friend www.skyscanners.net that determine the cheapest, most desirable place to embark on this odyssey. I punch in Helsinki to Everywhere and it’s Riga, Latvia, that catches my eye for a mere €88 return. I’d been there before and was overwhelmed by the staggering number of Art Nouveau buildings (over 800) with their shouting faces, roaring lions, exposed boobs and top storey follies, added just for the hell of it.

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The local currency Lats is artificially strong against the Euro so be careful of your conversions. When you’re paying Ls 1.50 for a large glass of wine at the Art and Music Bar just round the corner from Palasta Iela on Jauniela, it’s still a cinch at €2.14. Brave the music, the raucous laughter of zillions of students, the bright patchwork upholstery and the chairs stuck to the walls and order a tray of shots at Ls 1 each to join the party. Riga’s Old Town is bar and restaurant heaven, all at relatively reasonable prices. Lido Altus Seta’s buffet pay-at-the-end set up will set you back around €6 for a hefty plate of pork sashlik and good beer. Take your pick of whatever’s the flavor of the day, you’ll find it.

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It was hot and we were thirsty!

And since I’m on a budget and traveling alone, it’s the Naughty Squirrel Hostel that takes my fancy offering you a free shot of the local Riga’s Balsam upon arrival. Good, clean sleep for cheap with beer at a laughable price during happy hour and other hours for that matter.

When the weather’s hot it seems a shame not to take a trip to Jurmala, a half an hour by train for a whole €1 to this seaside resort with its pristine gardens and crisp, clear sea. This has to be one of Europe’s hidden treasures, an absolute paradise for kids with its shallow beaches slowly leading to more swimmable spots.

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To get a picture of these seemingly somber people with their shy smiles and hesitant conversation, it does one good to pay a visit to the Museum of Occupation. You find out that it’s not ‘the gulag’ but hundreds of gulags where hundreds of thousands of Latvians were deported, about concentration camps and the dreaded Cheka, the Soviet state security organization. The number mounts to 500 000 citizens of this beautiful country that died under the auspices of the Nazis and the subsequent Soviet regimes. Today the population stands at 2,058 million.

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But nothing deters these beautiful people during Midsummer. Fires, barbecues and strange games like looking for needles in giant haystacks or lifting barrels are enough to keep them smiling and include the rest of us in their celebrations.

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Read about Vilnius, Lithuania in Bussing Through the Baltics 2.