This is a travel article I wrote that was published in Backpacker Europe Magazine about….6 years ago!
Have you ever been ice-skating at 5am? Have you ever dunked your head into a frozen Baltic river when the temperature is -19° Celsius? Have you ever tasted the diverse and unfamiliar food that is Latvian cuisine? Well, we have!
Contrary to people’s pre-conceived ideas about Eastern Europe, it must be said that Latvia truly is a hidden treasure. When the idea of a class trip to Latvia first arose, many of my classmates had reservations and cast forth images of cold winters, soviet bunkers and poverty. However, after a little research and a lot of persuasion on my behalf, a group of 22 jetted off in anticipation of arriving in a winter wonderland.
Following the directions given to us (pre-departure) by the very hospitable Frank, we arrived safely in our hostel. We were welcomed whole-heartedly with free beers for one and all. After settling into our cosy dorms overlooking the snow-covered Deguava River, we were ready to make tracks and discover Riga. We were not disappointed.
Soon after setting off, we stumbled upon an ice rink where we only had to pay the equivalent of 50 cent for one hour’s ice skating. After an hour full of fun and frolics (in my case much of this time was spent on my backside), hunger set in. We ventured en masse through the old town, along narrow and winding streets, past beautiful buildings, before descending upon ‘Lido’ – a buffet style restaurant specialising in a Latvian fayre. Suddenly decades melted away, and the wait staff appeared, all dressed in traditional Latvian costume.
After paying the total owing per head (a grand total of less than €3 per person!), we strolled along to a Local Latvian club, where Frank’s hostel staff had pre-arranged free entry for the entire gang. With vodka and cocktails flowing like water into the early hours of the morning, it has to be said that what we remember of our first night in Riga was unforgettable!
At around 4am, one bright spark suggested that we go ice-skating by the light of the silvery moon. This newfound hobby, it appears, was to become a nightly ritual for the duration of our stay. For four nights in a row, the night was never over until we had strutted our stuff on the ice rink! Even then the Latvian nights were not complete. A lively ménage of travellers in our 24-hour hostel bar kept the place buzzing, exchanging stories and experiences until sunrise.
Our second day in the Latvian capital saw us exploring its bustling open-air market, and local landmarks. The Church tower permitted celestial views of Riga and beyond from on high. The Museum of the occupation of Latvia was an eye opener. While there some classmates experienced the once in a lifetime opportunity of shooting loaded AK47s from a real soviet bunker – something never to be forgotten!
That night our first destination of choice was The Skyline Bar on the 27th floor of Hotel Latvia. Ascending floor by floor in an elevator taken directly from Willy Wonkas’ chocolate factory, views were spectacular. Later we set off for what had been described as one of the biggest and most happening clubs in the Baltic states-Club Essential!
There were so many rooms and dance floors within this amazing labyrinth of tunes that I was lost within minutes. There was music for all tastes and space for the entire world to dance, or so it seemed. After boogying until closing time (6am), we went for a refreshing round of the ice rink.
Returning home well after 9am, we decided it was a ‘do or die situation’. We decided to salvage the day ahead. summoning up any remaining energy we set off for the mountains an hour from Riga. Sigulda was our destination of choice – renowned for its bobsleigh tracks.
The quaint town was a huge contrast to Riga. Suddenly we were in a winter wonderland and there were Christmas decorations everywhere we looked. Falling snowflakes persuaded us to purchase bum boards in a local super market and venture into a nearby forest for some fun in the snow. As it got darker, our sense of adventure heightened and we flew down hillsides like the children that we used to be!
Our trip to Latvia was unforgettable. Old Riga is a beautiful place but in order to experience the full picture, a trip to the countryside is a must. Almost a year has passed since our trip and not a day has passed without one of us reminiscing, about the true hidden treasure that is Latvia.