How to Have “a Lat” of Fun in Latvia (and Estonia, for that matter)

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After a short day in Copenhagen, we made it to sunny Riga, Latvia!  After waking up at our very reasonably priced and comfortable hostel, we headed for the medieval streets of Old Town.

We spent the morning ambling through cobblestone streets snapping shots of the 17th century architecture and crumbling buildings.  Many of the buildings were pillaged in WWII and have been restored to their original beauty.  One of the most notable is the House of Blackheads built in 1344 by the Brotherhood of Blackheads merchant guild.

After listening to a somber street violinist in the square, it was time for some snacks at the Central Market.

The market is housed in four Zeppelin hangars built in 1930.  These hangars were never actually used for aircraft but immediately became the home of one of the world’s largest markets with over 80,000 visitors each day.  Each building has a different theme– meat/dairy, fish, produce, clothing, etc.  Merchants sell everything from hand-knit socks to amazing pastries.

We stuck more to the pastries.

There were plenty of locals stocking up on food, so this was an excellent opportunity to snap a few photos of Latvians in action.  Still being new at that kind of thing, I wasn’t sure how to go about this.  Do you try to take it while they aren’t looking?  Do you ask them?  I went with the former strategy and pretended to take photos of a lot of things around me and then snapped several quick shots when my subject wasn’t looking

This method was only moderately effective.

I got the photo, but apparently the woman with the pink bag was a little camera shy.  She began shouting at me in Latvian and flailing her arms wildly.  Oops.  The people around us stopped and stared while I retreated horrified.  I’ll try the other approach next time!  I did, however, manage to get a second photo of the man with the flowers.

Pre-yelling shotPre-yelling shot

Luckily, we found some great street food at the market.  Nearly everything cost about 1 Latvian Lat (approx. $1.70) or less, which made for a cheap day of eating.  We enjoyed a black tea for 0.80 Ls, ½ a kilo of amazing strawberries for 0.75 Ls, a fresh homemade donut for 0.10 Ls, an apple filled pastry for 0.16 Ls, a loaf of rye bread for 0.58 Ls, potato pancakes for 1.16 Ls, a stick of cured sausage for 1.07 Ls, smoked salmon for 1.6 Ls, fresh bread and cheese for 1.04 Ls, and 2 beers for 1 Ls each!  This came to a grand total of only 8.22 Lats– about $14– for two days of food.  Not bad.

Estonia was a different story.  A Lat Kroon doesn’t quite go as far north of the border.  The two Baltic countries are somewhat similar in feel except the noticeable differences in quality of life and per capita income.  Riga had a very gritty atmosphere with very few tourists.  It felt like dropping in on the daily life of the local culture, which we really enjoy.

Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, relies heavily on tourism.  Their Old Town is filled with fancy restaurants, chic coffee shops, and costumed peasants and monks to recreate the Middle Ages for the masses.  There are some great views of the old city wall and towers, and it is undoubtedly a beautiful city.  However, it felt a little disingenuous at times.  Check out our Flickr gallery of Estonia.

Our CouchSurfing host, Mirjam, showed us some of the “real” city.  She also took us around to some other great sights like the open-air museum and the Kadroirg art museum.

On a side note, the lengthened daylight hours in the Baltics requires some adjustment.  The sun doesn’t set until long after midnight and rises around 4:00 a.m.  Add in cross-Atlantic jet lag, and you’ve got a seriously screwed up sleeping and eating schedule.  By the time we were ready for dinner, it would sometimes be 11:00 p.m. or later!

We said goodbye to Mirjam and Estonia last night, and we are currently relaxing in Stockholm after our overnight cruise on the M/S Victoria I.   Our journey through Northern Europe will be wrapping up Wednesday when we fly to Barcelona.  We found some unexpected treasures buried in the former Soviet States, and I’m very glad we started our journey here.

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