As there are no real borders these days, you’d think that travelling across the border from Estonia and in to Latvia and on to Riga would be easy and without any hassles, right? Wrong!
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Long travel adventure
The flash new train (€4.40) from Tartu bound for Valga (Estonia’s border to Latvia) departs at 10:20hrs to meet the connecting train (with a 12-minute wait time between trains), which should be waiting to whisk us away across the border to Latvia and on to Riga.
The journey from Tartu to the border takes just over an hour, but also another 10-minutes late.
Once in Valga, the Riga train should have been waiting. However, there was no Latvian train anywhere to be seen, although the board stated it should be on time and waiting. Stranded on the platform in the cold and snow, we trudged our 30-kilo backpacks inside the station to enquire whether a train would arrive sometime today.
A traveller from India was also stuck at the station with us but he’s going to Riga to catch a flight to Australia – small world – we’re from Australia. Not able to wait any longer, he takes a taxi to Riga as he didn’t want to miss his flight.
A very helpful staff member tried to tell us in Estonian that a train hasn’t arrived today, but later we learn that no Latvian trains are working today.
On our way again, finally
After five and a half hours of waiting in the train station for a bus, one finally arrives but still not sure of its destination as no one speaks English…are we going to reach Riga today?
The bus takes us across the border, which is only a couple of kilometres from the train station and a further 57 kilometres to Valmeira.
Along the way, we seem to drive around many back lanes in the dark to pick up one or two people at tiny deserted train stations. Looking out, fresh deep snow covers both sides of the lanes.
Getting off the bus at Valmeira, we all pile into a tired old train, bound for Riga.
Although the train isn’t busy to start, slowly along the journey we are the only ones left in the carriage with the train conductor. On asking the name of the next station, she responds in a very slow husky, Latvian accent “Nexttt, Riiigaaa”.
The train trip is quite surreal…actually, the whole day is quite surreal!
Finally arriving in Riga at about 21:00hrs, the station and surrounding streets are a little seedy this time of night, but we still walk to the Wellton Hotel in the Old Town – about 15 minutes away.
The Latvian bus and train trips cost €5.60 in total – bargain.
Decided not to venture into museums in Riga as these are expensive for the budget.
Vecrīga – Old Town
Although not as large as the Old Town in Tallinn (Estonia), located on the east side of Daugava River, Vecrīga is still impressive.
Famous for its old churches and cathedrals, such as Riga Cathedral and St. Peter’s church, it’s a delightful site to explore.
Although still winter and snowing, it is a little busy, especially on the weekends with both local and foreign tourists.
This clock is near the Freedom Monument and apparently used to be a favourite rendezvous point for couples.
A great spot for people watching and taking photos, as the clock is in the centre of the main square.
An impressive memorial on Brīvības bulvāris (Freedom Boulevard) that honours soldiers killed during the Latvian War of Independence. And is an important symbol of the freedom, independence, and sovereignty of Latvia.
Art Nouveau District
From the Old Town, it’s easily a half-hour walk to the Art Nouveau District, which hosts an ensemble of buildings, boulevards, and parks.
Apparently, this district was created in the late 19th and 20th centuries and according to local tourist brochure, supposed to be one of the “most diverse centres of art nouveau architecture in Europe”. Sadly, this didn’t live up to this claim for me.
Wandered around this area going down multiple streets for over an hour to find some of these exceptional buildings, but after visiting the Old Town, this district didn’t offer too much.
Rīgas Centrāltirgus (Riga Central Markets)
Wow! Not only is this an amazing UNESCO-listed area that hosts a myriad of over 3,000 trade stands, but in the past this was one of the biggest and most modern markets in the world. And, at 72,300 square metres, I can see why.
Fresh and natural food, clothing, bric-a-brac stalls, and much more are housed in 5 pavilions constructed by reusing old German Zeppelin hangers – you’ll spot these from a distance.
You’ll spend hours wandering around this market and drooling at all the delicacies for sale. Great people-watching place as locals bargain for produce and goods. And unlike any SE Asian market I’ve visited, this market is spotless.
Rixwell Old Riga Palace Hotel (formerly Wellton Old Riga Palace Hotel) – The first hotel stay in Eastern Europe and although the room is small, everything is great.
The actual hotel building is very lovely. This hotel is a little pricey and usually out of our budget, but with accumulated Agoda points, the discount is too good to be missed.
The amazing part of this hotel is the buffet breakfast included in our room price. This has to be one of the best hotel breakfasts I’ve ever had!
The selection and quality are both excellent, you definitely won’t starve, and the service is great.
Breakfast starts at 07:00 and finishes at 11:00hrs. I’m sure some guests just sit and graze for the 4-hour duration, as it really is incredible value.
As we’re staying in a hotel and not a self-contained apartment this time, have to keep the costs down. So, staying in a couple of nights with wine, freshly baked bread, cheese, smoked salmon, olives, and salami – all of which you can buy at the excellent supermarkets close by.
Wok to Walk
Stumbled on this popular Asian restaurant on Aspazijas bulvaris 30, whilst wandering through the Old Town – popular with locals and tourists.
A standard noodle dish (you select the noodles, meat, and sauce) starts at about €3.29, but can quickly add up if you start adding extras to your base meal.
The meal is good but after having spent over 10 months in SE Asia, found that the dishes are tailored to the European palette and not very authentic or spicy.
For grocery shopping, visit the Rimi, Maxima, or IKI chains. Although, the Maxima (X, XX, or XXX – size of store) chains seem to be a little cheaper and have a greater selection than the others.
This building is next to the Riga Central train station and although a little more expensive, it offers more of a gourmet selection of scrumptious goods in addition to the usual staples.
The Stockmann coffee shop just outside of the supermarket has the cheapest and best Segafredo coffee around, which comes with a dark chocolate morsel on the side. Choose from savouries, salads, and pastries at great prices. The service is also pretty good.
Decided to push west from Riga and travel to Liepāja by bus (€10).
This journey takes about 3.5 hours and leaves Riga bus station many times throughout the day. You can buy tickets on the bus.