My flight was at 17.05 on Saturday afternoon. The requirement to have a negative antigen or PCR test had been lifted the previous Monday. To be on the safe side I attended the GoSafe48 clinic on Ormond Quay on Friday afternoon. The test would give me peace of mind that I was safe to travel (complete with an official travel cert) and not be a vector of the omicron Covid variant that was running rampant throughout the land.
My satchel felt slightly uncomfortable – packed to capacity with everything I might need – socks; underwear; change of t-shirt; toiletries; insulin supplies; work laptop and charger (you never know) and a copy of ‘The Corrections’ by Jonathan Franzen. The flight was non-eventful (I was asked to show my negative Covid test) and landed in Riga International Airport at 10pm. I took a taxi to the Old Town (Vecrīga – a UNESCO world heritage site) where I’d be staying. The driver was very friendly. As well he should be – I suspect he ripped me off. The lovely green ‘Baltic Taxis’ were gathered at the door of the airport. My driver who accosted me at the entrance took me to a remote car park and charged me thirty euros for the twenty-minute ride. Later research indicated the journey should have cost a maximum of fifteen euros. Not pleasant but hardly devastating.
Pandemic restrictions had recently been lifted in Latvia meaning that hospitality venues were now permitted to stay open until 11pm (far more civilised than the 8pm curfew at home). As I had only settled in my apartment in the old town at 10.30pm I decided to stay in that evening. This would allow me a full run at sightseeing on Sunday – sunset was at 4pm at this time of year so daylight was precious.
The following day was action packed. My cursory research had given me a rudimentary idea of what I needed to see. The House of the Blackheads in the Town Hall Square was beautiful. This was the house of the Blackheads – an association of unmarried merchants and seamen who were instrumental in the development of Riga as a city in the fourteenth century. Destroyed during World War 2, it was painstakingly restored after Latvia regained independence, and was reopened as a museum in 1999. Next door housed ‘The Museum of the Occupation’ about life under the Nazi and Soviet regimes. Unfortunately, this was closed as a new exhibition was being prepared.
I strolled into the Riga Dome – the Orthodox Cathedral. A service was underway –it was Sunday so not surprising. I slipped into a back pew, not wanting to draw attention to myself. I was approached by an usher/attendant who told me politely that tourists were welcome only after 3pm that day, when Service was over. Mortified I slunk out, suitably chastened.
The weather was chilly but manageable, hovering a few degrees above zero. So, I took a walk to Albert Street – famed for its beautiful, art-nouveau architecture. To my surprise I noticed the Irish tricolour flying from the side of a gorgeous building on the street. This wasn’t an Irish bar though. It was the embassy of Ireland. I felt suitably patriotic. I passed the Freedom Monument on my way to the Riga Central Market – a massive, indoor food hall where I lunched on a bowl of potato; beef and vegetable soup for two euros. I swung my way back round to the Dome, where the woman who had ejected me earlier, accepted my three-euro entrance fee.
It was now 4pm and getting dark. I repaired to a covered, terrace called ‘The Rockabilly House’ where I was soothed by 1980s music, and a Rockabilly own brand lager. You can tell by the huge number of bars in the Vecrīga, that Riga is a popular destination for stags and hens parties. They all seemed quiet today – the Baltics in January during a deadly, global pandemic was not the time for crowds? I dined alone that evening in a local Latvian restaurant where I ate a hearty meal of rice and pork meatballs. As I finished my meal, I felt a bit lonely, wishing I was in some company. I remembered that thanks to the pandemic, if I was at home, I’d be setting in for an evening alone in front of the television, so I gave myself a shake and pulled myself together. I was in a new land. I was in an enviable position.
The following morning was a Monday. It looked ominous outdoors. Having snowed overnight, the air was bitingly cold. My intention that day had been to take the bus to Jurmula. Located about an hour’s train journey outside of Riga, Jurmula is a seaside resort famed for its white, quartzite sand, fronted by art-nouveau buildings. The gale-force winds nearly knocked me off my feet, and the snow blowing directly into my face made me rethink this plan. A seaside stroll in a sub-zero, snow blizzard was not that inviting. Nor was a visit to the outdoor ethnographic museum. I needed to remain indoors. This is hardly surprising. I was in the Baltic region in the dead of winter. The conditions were unsurprising. The pleasant weather on the Sunday was the aberration. I loitered about the Stockmann department store for a few hours. This is a high end, Finnish shop that was an oasis in the desert of snow outside. I braved the elements for lunch and fought my way back to the Central Market where I dined on a four-euro meal of fish, potatoes, and sauerkraut. So inclement was the weather that I decided that the wisest way to spend my afternoon was to attend the Forum Cinemas on the top floor of the Stockmann building, where I watched the latest in the ‘Scream’ franchise.
When the film ended, I pushed my way through the blistering wind to the bus stop where I made my way to the airport for my flight home.
It was a stroke of good luck that I managed to see so much of the beautiful city of Riga on that mild Sunday in January. A note of warning however – the Baltic region can be bitterly cold and hostile. It might be wiser to wait until April to pay a visit. I don’t regret it for a single minute.