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 less money sightseeing the entire time I was in Riga than I did on one museum in Moscow.
I bought a new camera for $100 less than the same camera cost in Russia (granted, it was on sale).
The Stockmann department store carried the largest selection of gluten-free products I have ever seen.
I could flush my toilet paper down the toilet.
Of course, the luster eventually faded.
The sun went down by 3:30 p.m. in Riga, which was a shock coming from non-Daylight Savings Time Russia where the sun set closer to 5:00 or 6:00.
It took me days to find a place to buy an umbrella. When I discovered a hole in my jeans, there wasn’t a clothing repair place in sight, whereas they were on every corner in Russia.
And it rained. A lot.
Like any rebound relationship, my love affair with Riga was brief. After six days, it was time to move on.
Vilnius was waiting for me with open arms.