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Feeling at Home in Riga: The Funky Hostel & Apartments

Feeling at Home in Riga: The Funky Hostel & Apartments

It was like déjà vu all over again. I arrived in Riga, Latvia in mid-September – after three months of travel in Central Asia, visiting some of the most remote places on my itinerary and experiencing some of the most basic conditions. I longed for a taste of the West – literally and figuratively. I felt very much the same way I did ten months earlier, when I stepped foot in Riga for the first time. Last December, I had just wrapped up three months of travel in Russia, including a month of traveling across the entire country on the Trans-Siberian Railway.  After 28 days of sleeping on trains or shoddy hostel beds, I was counting on Riga to provide some welcome relief. And like last December, I was not disappointed. As I made my way from the airport bus stop a few blocks to the Funky Hostel & Apartments, things started feeling very familiar. Almost too familiar. I followed the directions copied by hand from my email confirmation – spotting the hostel sign, walking up the first flight of stairs and ringing a buzzer for the next door to open before climbing about five more flights. And I realized why it all looked so familiar. I had been there before. Yes, the Funky Hostel & Apartments (I stayed in the hostel, not the apartments) was the same Riga hostel where I sought refuge when I visited the first time. The only difference in my stay the second time around? I had the extra luxury of a private room – with a full-size bed! Everything I enjoyed about the hostel on my first visit had not changed and I found it very easy to feel right at home. Key card entry for extra security? Check. Free breakfast and coffee and tea all day? You bet. Super friendly and helpful staff? Yep. Free maps of the city? Of course. A double layer of doors separating the common area from the sleeping area? Yes, yes, yes! I stayed in dozens of hostels throughout my journey through the former Soviet Union and it was the rare hostel that provided all, if any, of the above. I especially loved the extra set of doors that made noise in the common area a non-issue.  One of the biggest problems I encountered throughout my trip was that, with many hostels simply being converted apartments, the sleeping areas were adjacent to the common areas, resulting in a lot of noise at all hours, even if I had a room to myself. The Funky Hostel completely solved that problem. I also appreciated the security of requiring a key card for entrance to...

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Five Favorite Things in Riga

Five Favorite Things in Riga

Coming from Russia, Riga was a breath of fresh air – love at first sight. While I only had a week there, I found a lot to love about the capital of Latvia.   1. Old Town.   Not surprisingly, I adored Riga’s Old Town.  I loved wandering the streets and stumbling upon different squares or churches at each turn. Fairly small in size, I also liked that it blended well with the surrounding area, with a large park called serving as a scenic divider between the Old Town and a newer shopping district.   2. Latvian Museum of War.   This was one of the best museums I have visited on my trip so far. Located in one of Riga’s 14th century towers, admission was free and explanations were available in multiple languages. While the museum focused on Latvia’s military history throughout the years, it really traced Latvia’s national history as well – not surprising considering how much of the country’s history involves armed conflicts. Particular attention was given to the German and Soviet occupations of Latvia and its independence in 1991. My favorite, and perhaps the most unique, exhibition was a collection of photographs taken by Latvian soldiers in Afghanistan.   3. Latvian National Opera House.   Dating back to 1863, the Opera House sits just outside of the Old Town. It seats fewer than 1,000 people, giving it a very intimate feel, and boasts an exquisite interior similar to that of the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg. I saw the Nutcracker while I was in Riga and both the performance and the ticket prices impressed me.  For just $20, I had a centrally located seat on the floor of the theater – pretty good considering a $30 ticket at the Mariinsky got me nose-bleed seats.   4. Rundale Palace.   This was an easy and pleasant day trip from Riga. While my Lonely Planet guide made it sound difficult to reach, the tourist office in Riga provided the necessary bus timetables to make it all very simple. To get there, I first took a bus from Riga to the town of Baukas, where I then hopped on a bus to Pilsrundale. The palace and grounds could be considered Riga’s version of Versailles, with ornate interiors and carefully laid out gardens.   5. Christmas Trees.   Okay, so these won’t be around for anyone who visits outside of the Christmas season, but I really enjoyed these. Riga placed over forty Christmas trees throughout the city and provided a map for people to try to locate all of them. I probably encountered half while I was in town and each was definitely unique.  It was a nice...

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The Day I Spent in a Snowstorm in Sigulda

The Day I Spent in a Snowstorm in Sigulda

I awoke early on my second to last day in Riga and peeked outside to see cloudy, but dry, skies. It didn’t appear ideal for a day trip to nearby Sigulda but I didn’t have much choice if I wanted to make it there before I left Latvia. So around 9:00 a.m., I headed for the bus station. Not even fifteen minutes outside of Riga, a wet mix of rain and snow began to fall. Staring out of the bus window, though, it seemed light and I was optimistic that it wouldn’t be too bad.  And sure enough, when we pulled up to the small station in Sigulda, it had diminished to not much more than a mist. I pulled out the map that the tourist office in Riga gave me and tried to be confident that I was heading the right way as I departed the small bus station. My plan was to make a 6 kilometer loop shown on the map, riding on the cable car and visiting two castles before stopping back through town to visit the Olympic caliber bobsled track and perhaps take a ride if I was feeling really brave. Occasional signage and maps helped me find my way first to the quirky Walking Stick Park.  Trying to take pictures while holding my umbrella against the blowing wind and increasingly heavy sleet proved to be nearly impossible, so I hurried on to the cable car.  As I was cruising high above the trees and river below, I realized how much the wind was whirling and the sleet had turned into a heavier snow.  It would be an understatement to say I was relieved when we arrived at the station. Although the cable car deposited me near one of Sigulda’s major sights, Krimulda Manor, it wasn’t on my list of “must-see” sights so I moved on quickly, wanting to make sure I had ample time to see everything else. From there, I followed a serpentine path down to the Gutman Cave, known best for its inscription-covered walls and role in the legend of the Turaida Rose. A path from the cave continued on toward Turaida and its castle –my primary destination.  The walk was longer and steeper than I anticipated and, without a sidewalk or even much of a shoulder on the side of the road, it felt a bit treacherous. I also resorted to carrying my umbrella in front of me to block the blowing, wet snow and partially impeding my view in the process. I didn’t stay long once I arrived at the Turaida Castle. I climbed the castle tower and braved some ferocious winds to snap some...

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A Night of Hockey in Riga

A Night of Hockey in Riga

As I approached Arena Riga, the home of Dinamo Riga, the city’s professional hockey team, I wondered if it would feel the same as a game back home. I have only been to one professional hockey game in my life, but I grew up going to high school hockey games in Minnesota and I’ve been to countless professional basketball, football and baseball games, so I was curious how the overall experience would stack up. For starters, the price couldn’t be beat. My ticket was 8 Lats (about $16) for a seat in the second row of the upper level, directly behind the goal. As I entered the arena, I was surrounded by men decked out in hockey jerseys or Dinamo Riga scarves and women with cute fake tattoos with the team logo decorating their faces.  The only thing that may have set it apart from a typical game back home was the number of women donning 4-inch heels and miniskirts to go with those fake tattoos. The vending options were lacking in diversity, but seemed standard: popcorn, hamburgers, French fries and beer. But wait, could that be right? Beer cost only $3??   Apparently the Latvians have not yet learned the art of jacking up prices at professional sporting events.   After warm ups finished, the lights went down and I could see two stages being lowered from the ceiling toward the ice. I mistakenly assumed these were for the national anthem when instead we were treated to a rousing multi-song performance by the Latvian version of Adam Lambert. Based on the crowd’s reaction, whoever he was, he must be a big thing in Latvia. Then it was time for player introductions – at which point the Dinamo Riga players skated out of a tunnel, through a large inflatable cat/bear/animal of some kind, with torches burning on either side. Yes, real live torches with real live fire. Do we do that in the United States or is it just calling for a potential lawsuit? Before the first puck was dropped, the enthusiasm of the fans impressed me. The game had a playoff atmosphere, yet it was an early season match-up between the second-worst team in the KHL (unfortunately the home team) and a team that wasn’t much better.  Several men in the lower level banged on drums continuously, leading the rest of the arena in nonstop chants – some of which I could understand and others I couldn’t make out at all. The most common? Dee-na-MO! Dee-na-MO! (yes, that is dee-na-mo, not die-na-mo as I totally thought it was beforehand) Most of the first period was played on my end of the ice. While...

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Riga: The Perfect Rebound

Riga: The Perfect Rebound

Arriving in Riga after three months in Russia was kind of like meeting a new guy right after getting out of a rocky relationship. Absolutely everything about the city was amazing in comparison. It’s not that Russia was horrible, but it was difficult at times and I had quite a bit of not-so-great mixed in with the really wonderful. And after three months, there was a lot that I got used to – and was comfortable putting up with.   I was surprised at how modern and Western Riga felt when I arrived.   I exited the train from Moscow and entered a train station that was brightly lit and well-decorated with signs in English pointing me to anything I needed – including a tourist information booth (Russia doesn’t seem to know what those are yet). I withdrew money from the ATM machine at the train station and it didn’t eat my card. I asked a woman for directions in English and when she didn’t know the answer, she asked another woman in Latvian, who responded in Russian, at which point the first woman translated back to me in English (even though I already understood).  They were both eager to help and full of smiles. I got on a trolley bus going the wrong direction and the driver kindly explained to me – in English – where I needed to go to catch the right one. In fact, I quickly realized that English is incredibly common in Riga, from the trolley bus driver to the hotel receptionist to the lady at the ticket counter at the Opera House. Once on the correct trolley, I was awestruck when I saw not only a digital sign with the name of the approaching stop scrolling across the front of the bus, but a TV screen showing all of the upcoming stops.  In Russia, I felt lucky when I boarded a bus that actually had a conductor announcing the next stop.   Riga’s old town charmed me .   I couldn’t get enough of its cute buildings, old churches and cobblestone streets – not to mention the adjacent parks and waterways. Russian cities don’t have old towns – they have kremlins, which aren’t always that attractive. It has a building with two black cats perched on top of it. How can you not love a city that has a house dedicated to cats? People crossed the street at crosswalks, not through underground pedestrian ways – and there were actually stoplights with walk signs. One of the best museums I have visited so far – the Latvian Museum of War – was free. In fact, I think I spent...

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