Travels With Myself

A Personalized Periodic Update, just for my family and friends, of the Ongoing Adventures of Your Favorite World Traveler

Location: Budapest, Hungary

After nearly 30 years in the financial industry in the US (mostly California and New Mexico), I decided it was time for my second life. I sold my house, sold my car, sold all my furniture, took a TEFL course and moved to Budapest to teach Business English to the business people of Hungary. Amazing mid-life change! I taught for about eight years, then pretty much retired. Since then I have traveled extensively, and have been to nearly 75 countries. I have had six books published, mostly about my travels - see my author's page on I have made friends all over the world. Becoming an expat is the best move I ever made and I plan to continue my travels indefinitely. Come join me on this blog and enjoy the places I've been and the people I've met in the past and present and hopefully will meet in the future.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Riga -- Pearl of the Baltic

My counting skills have apparently begun to erode in my middle years; I keep coming up with a different number of countries I’ve visited, depending on the list I use and the maps I consult. Anyway, it appears Latvia is at least my 50th country and, at most, my 55th country. We’ll leave it at that for the time being and just say I’ve been to a lot of countries.
Anyway, it turns out Riga, Latvia, is a pretty cool place. It’s squeezed in between Lithuania to the south and Estonia to the north. I loved Tallinn, Estonia, when I was there a few years ago, and I can see why the Baltic States have such a great reputation. Classic architecture, mild climate in the summer, great meandering Old Town city streets, fantastic restaurants, excellent pubs and bars, all types of music, friendly people…..what more could one want?
After a relatively short flight from Budapest of a little over two hours, I arrived at the Riga airport around 6:30 PM. I caught a local bus from the airport to right near my hotel, which was on the edge of the Old Town District, just a soccer ball kick from the train and bus stations. Checked in easily to my basic, but adequate, room and headed out to see what Riga had to offer me. And it had a lot!
It was raining when I started out on my initial exploration of the city, but the downpour quickly passed and it was clean, wet streets and fresh air – something I’d been missing in the steambath that was Budapest for the past month or so. I easily found Paddy Whelan’s Irish Pub, just a three-minute walk from my hotel, where I had my first Guinness of this adventure. The pub was quiet and not very energetic, but it was early on a Thursday night, so I supposed it would pick up later.
I continued wending my way through the narrow cobblestone streets, through the Old Town center and Doma Square and finally happened upon my destination for dinner: The Kiploku Krogs, also known as The Garlic Café. It was wonderful. I opted for the appetizer plates: garlic tapas, escargot, garlic bread and a nice local dark beer. I definitely OGed (Over Garlic-ed) that night, but it was worth it. I polished off everything with gusto and left secure in the knowledge that no vampires would be bothering me for a while – or, probably, any pretty girls either.
I walked back through the center of old Riga and stumbled upon one of the several open-air terraces abounding in that area; this one contained the Rockabilly House, with a live band playing what you might expect from the name. Rockin’ and rollin’ in Riga! Another beer or two, some funky music and I was in love with Riga.
I had planned some activities for the following day, Friday, but, as usually happens, I went off on my own and found other things to do. I walked all over, through the New Town along one of the lovely canals, through some green and lush parks, around the Freedom Monument and on around the Old Town areas I’d missed the previous night. I saw St. Peter’s Basilica close up and caught the morning sun behind the House of Blackheads (obviously a place where no teenage boys ever go). I hit Pelmenyi XL for a lunch of, what else, pelmenyi, those little boiled dumplings stuffed with various fillings, a couple of pirogis and a drink, and all for only about $5 US – an amazingly cheap feast.
Riga is a great walking town, and I did most of it that day, including a stroll along the riverbank. I’d heard one of the best views in town was from the Skyline Bar at the top of the Radisson Blu hotel, so thought an evening drink up there would give my night a good start. It was a nice stroll to get there, then up to the 26th floor to the bar. Imagine my surprise when I was charged 2 Lat just to get into the bar (about $4 US). OK, I paid it anyway, then had my expensive vodka tonic and wandered around and checked out the view of Riga from several angles. Not bad. Of course, the cocktails ran from around $9 US to $16 US, so one would have to suffice for the time being.
I walked back to Old Town, looking for the next restaurant on my Internet-researched list, the Livonija. Turned out it was no more, an occurrence that happens all too often to me in my travels. Internet tourist sites aren’t updated frequently enough, so many of the places at which I want to eat and drink are no longer in existence. Sigh. The difficulties of traveling too often.
I settled for a nice big juicy burger at Moloney’s Irish Pub; good burger, but there was so much sauce the damn meat patties kept sliding out of the bun. Europeans tend to eat their burgers with knife and fork anyway, so not a problem for them, but we westerners are used to sandwiches, and like to pick up our burgers. A major cultural clash. I persevered, but with some slight sauce damage to my shorts and sandals.
I had “dessert” at La Belle Epoque bar nearby, billed as a French-style hangout with great apple pie shots. Well, sports fans, it was a teeny, tiny little cellar bar, frequented by college students and other budget-conscious travelers. I did have my apple pie shot, which was pretty good, but was disappointed at the complete lack of any sort of ambience in the place, and certainly no evocation of the Belle Epoque era in Paris. Another expectation crushed to earth.
Another session with the rockabilly folks and some late-night strolling through the buskers and street musicians, and that was it for my Friday.
Saturday was my stroll around the New Town area. I checked out the Central Market, which is actually what looks like four gigantic blimp hangars set side by side, each with a different food specialty plus, of course, souvenirs, clothes, kitchenware, etc. I briefly walked through the Stockmann Center nearby, a large Finnish store, then decided, well, why not, and did the Hop On/Hop Off bus tour for about an hour or so. I got to see parts of the city I probably wouldn’t have seen on foot, like the art deco street, more large parks and the other side of the Daugava River.
Lunch was Chinese at the Wok to Walk restaurant; basically a takeaway place, but I was able to sit and enjoy my noodles with beef and broccoli. A lazy afternoon followed by a fun evening. I decided it would be a bar night, so first checked on The Dubliner to see what it had to offer. It wasn’t much, a small crowd at the bar and the bartendress was more interested in being entertained by her new friends than in waiting on any newcomers, so I ambled on.
I found Donegan’s Pub just off Kalku street in the center of Old Town, which was much livelier, much friendlier, with smiling (and beautiful!) bartendresses and a fun crowd. I had a couple of local beers then decided a pizza was in order, so off I went again to the Town Square, where I had spotted a Can Can Pizza place. I sat down at an outside table and perused the menu. Hah! Just what I wanted: a small (20 or 22cm) pizza and a beer – just right. When I ordered my pizza, the waitress unsmilingly informed me, “Oh, we don’t have that, only the 30 cm pizzas.”
Is it me? Do I have something tattooed on my forehead that says, “Don’t give this guy what he orders?” In addition to places advertised on the internet which I then find are no longer in existence, I find this lack of items on the menu another too-common occurrence in my travels. And, quite honestly, I am getting tired of it. How much trouble would it be for wait staff to TELL me about the things they don’t have, rather than have me get all excited about a dish I really crave and then wait for me to order and then tell me they don’t have it? Talk about a way to spoil one’s dinner plans! (And as a final thought, how difficult would it be to take 2/3 of the 30-cm pizza dough and make up a 20 cm pizza? Customer service is still dead in Central Europe).
I made a move to snatch up my spoon and stab the offending waitress in the abdomen, but then thought, aaahh, hell, what for. I told her what I thought of her restaurant, and wandered away to find something better. Pelmenyi XL was, as always, jammed packed, with a line still out the door, so I settled on Donegan’s again, which I should have done in the first place. They had nice appetizer plates, which was all I really wanted, just a large snack to absorb the beer to come. I had the six-piece chicken nuggets, which turned out to be chicken strips, which was just perfect. I enjoyed my dinner and beers, then sauntered back to Town Hall Square to hear the ten-foot-tall opera singers perched on their gigantic dresses. Then off to hear the Latvian Blues Band, a little more Rockabilly House and finally back to Donegan’s in time to catch the live music. And you’ll never guess who was performing that night: Elvis!
Yes, The King is alive and well in Riga, Latvia. Of course, death has not treated Elvis very well; he’s shorter and skinnier (well, he did need to lose a few pounds) and has long scraggly brown hair and his voice isn’t as good as it was, but it was definitely him, still going strong, and even accompanied by a friend playing what looked like a trumpet on steroids, who was the perfect partner for the dead Elvis. What a treat!
I originally had no plans for Sunday, but then thought, well, why not take that Free Walking Tour I passed on Friday? So I did. I opted for the City Center Tour, outside of Old Town, and again was able to see more things that I usually would not have seen, including the building known as Stalin’s Birthday Cake and the trendy art nouveau buildings in the New Town quarter.
After the two-and-one-half-hour walking tour, I was due for lunch and a nap, so I had both. Since it was my last night in Riga, I decided to splurge on dinner. Near my hotel was a new restaurant called The Wind in The Willows (I won’t give you the Latvian name, as my keyboard doesn’t have those letters). It’s an outdoor terrace next to the rear of St. Peter’s, complete with a light jazz trio and, later in the evening, old Harold Lloyd movies shown on a giant screen (hmmm).
In line with my dining philosophy of trying new and local foods I can’t get in Budapest, I had the grilled quail with veggies, accompanied by a lovely Nahe Reisling (for those of you who don’t know my past, I lived next to the Nahe River in West Germany lo those many years ago). . For dessert it was a white chocolate cheesecake and a shot of limoncello. It wasn’t inexpensive, but it was worth every Lat.
So, fellow blog enthusiasts, that’s basically it for my trip to Riga. Monday I breakfasted early and was at the airport by 11 AM and back home in Budapest by around 3 PM. Safe! Riga is definitely a fun weekend getaway and I can chalk up another country on my ever-growing list of new countries I’ve visited.
I’ll be in Budapest for a month or two to get my residence permit renewed, but after that it will be Off Again to Who Knows Where. Watch this space for sequels. And to all a Good Night.