Riga, Latvia



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Puddle jumper time! I snapped this outside my plane window and later realized it's a perfect ad for Norwegian Air. 
Early, early early in the morning, Justin and I hopped on a quick flight from Bergen back to Oslo where it was snowing as we were getting on our plane to Riga. Thankfully that was the only time we got snowed on, seeing as it was borderline winter and all. Rain is another story. After they de-iced the plane we were off!
And very shortly (less than an hour if I remember) we landed in Latvia with Riga being our main destination for the next 24ish hours. Justin snapped this photo of where the river meets the sea. To get to the city center from the airport we had to take a local bus where we gave up our seats to a couple of old babushkas who were being grumpy with each other (in an endearing sort of way.) That bus ride through the countryside into the city sort of shocked me. Whoa. There was a war here. Actually, probably quite a few wars. That was my thought as we passed old USSR apartment blocks and bombed out buildings that never quite recovered. The Cold War may have ended a few decades ago but here it looked like it was a very recent memory.
We were staying right in Old Town Riga so it was easy to find our place and drop our stuff and start exploring right away. This is St. Peter's Church. You know a church is old when it has it's own lengthy wikipedia page. 1209 AD in this case.
Riga immediately struck me as strange juxtaposition of a fairy tale land with a large dose of Soviet influence. Seriously, many areas look like something out of a Disney princess movie and then you turn a corner and the next building is crumbling to pieces. Very unique, but actually quite beautiful. A lot of the pre-war buildings are undergoing renovations to restore them to what they once were. Shops advertising items made in amber were very common all over the Baltic countries.
This guy was just hangout out on the corner. I think that's a restaurant set in the Middle Ages, maybe he was on his 15 minute jousting break. 
Art Nouveau is prevalent throughout the city. I learned that at one time Riga was the 4th largest city in Russia and had a really great economy going on. The bourgeoisie had cash to burn and they spent a good chunk on some really amazing architecture. The Old Town section of the city itself is a UNESCO site.
My personal favorite of the architecture was this building with an extra large door and an extra small door, I guess to accommodate people of all sizes? The small one was probably 3 feet high, if that.
We found our way into a couple of churches. Most of them required a "donation" of a few euros to go in so we just ducked in and out real quick and didn't spend too much time there. (ok really though, if it's required it's not really a donation, is it. hmm...)
Speaking of euros, Latvia is SO CHEAP, it was the best surprise. The guy who's apartment we were renting warned us that Riga was very expensive, and Justin and I just looked at each other like ummm ok... haha. The euro to US dollar isn't anything special, just everything in Riga was priced way low. We only ate at one restaurant, just to say we tried a local dish, but all our food was mostly from this market that had fresh bread and pastries and these little pizza-like things and fruit and european chocolate (yum). It was like 20 cents for this, 40 cents for that, good stuff! 
One of my favorite observations was that even though it's an "Old Town" part of the city and you'd expect it to be a total tourist trap, it's NOT. I would say it's more like 30% geared towards foreigners, and 70% were just normal businesses and people living their every day lives. This became especially clear in the early afternoon when schools got out and kids were running around everywhere. I think this is the ideal for historic cities. Keep them functioning as they always have been, but welcome visitors in to enjoy it as well. 
Another picturesque church, if I recall correctly, this one didn't charge us to go in.
Riga is NOT so much on a grid system like I am used to so we kept making wrong turns, going in circles, mysteriously ending up back in places we'd seen hours prior, etc. It's the perfect place to get lost if you don't have anywhere to be. :)
 Politiet, policija, politsei, polis & politi. You'd think they'd come up with a universal name for it. 
 The Swedish Gate leading in and out of Riga. Just goes to show you how crazy thick those city walls were.
Riga is built on a river. Crossing this bridge at night I felt like I was a spy in a Mission: Impossible movie. 
The Freedom Monument (pretty sure that spotlight is supposed to be aimed a little higher). The country was celebrating Latvian Independence Day on November 18th (we were there Nov. 16-17) and everyone had little red flowers pinned to their lapels.
Backtracking a little, we arrived in Europe on November 13th. We were out seeing Oslo that night and fell straight into bed that night exhausted. I have a habit of skimming headlines on my phone when I wake up and the next morning was nothing but stories of a terrorist attack that had just happened in Paris. A few days later when Justin and I saw these flowers across the street from the Freedom Monument we thought it was just for the Latvian remembrance day until we got closer.
It was the embassy for France and there were thousands of flowers, notes, children's drawings and candles lit in mourning and support for Paris.
We rode the elevator to the top of a tall hotel to get an aerial view of the city at night and saw this building in the distance lit up like the French flag. 
 Here is the view looking down at Riga. The Freedom Monument is at the end of the row of trees and Old Town is a little further on and to the right of the monument. Justin did a good job of holding up coats to cut the glare from the elevator window. Can I get a 4x4 floppy over here? (sorry. dumb film joke.)
The next morning as we were heading out at the last minute I thought to turn around and snap a photo of the place we stayed. It may not look like much but I thought it was kind of neat. There are businesses on the streets with little gaps in between that open to these courtyards, and the apartments are behind the shops. We went through this door and up a flight of stone steps and it was just as derelict inside the building until we opened the door to the actual flat and it was a totally normal, nice living space. Just the water tasted weird, so I stuck to bottled water after that. Going through doorways the walls were these great big thick slabs of concrete.
Heading to the Central Station we wandered around the indoor/outdoor market to get some breakfast. The best words I could describe this place would be lively and colorful. The outdoor portion was similar to a swap meet with booths selling anything and everything. Clothing, jewelry, household goods, toys and trinkets, guns. Lots and lots of guns for sale. 
Inside these old airplane hangers each section was for a type of food. One was full of fruit and vegetables, the next full of raw meat hanging everywhere (anyone who knows me knows why I was dying to get out of this one), and another full of every kind of seafood, yet another full of baked goods and fresh bread (this one smelled the best by far), 
How does that song go? Fish heads, fish heads, eat em up yum.
Fresh bread, I don't know why I picked this one to take a picture of, it's more on the expensive side. The other booths had the same stuff for half the price.
Spices! I just liked how colorful they were displayed next to each other in bulk.
We hopped on a bus that would take us from Riga to Tallinn, Estonia in about 4 hours. It started raining as we took off and I love the rain so it was a nice cozy ride for me. There were actually only like 4 other people on this huge nice bus, I don't know how that's economical for the company, but whatever it worked out great for us!
I wasn't in a position to take any photos on the initial bus ride from the Riga airport into the city, but on the way out it was no big deal and this is very much what the outskirts of the city look like in both directions. I have a feeling they don't worry so much about buildings being "up to code" here.
A little bus stop we stopped at for .02 seconds.
Latvia has the prettiest countryside. So lush and green, forests everywhere, cool old barns and farm houses popping out every once in a while.
These towers were everywhere. Not sure what they were or are used for, but they were always taller than the trees, even in places with no trees. Radio towers? Watch towers? Cell towers? Who knows.
This church was in the middle of nowhere, I wonder how many people show up on Sunday. The bus stopped when we approached the border of Estonia and I was a little bummed when they didn't care to stamp my passport. They didn't stamp it flying into Latvia either, I guess because we were already in the European Union. Nuts. 

flåm, ferry, fjords - all roads lead to bergen [norway in a nutshell]



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Justin and I woke up super early to say goodbye to Oslo. It was neat to watch the capital of the country wake up at dawn very slowly during the walk from our flat across the downtown area to the central station. Hardly a soul in sight when we left but by the time we got on our train people were up and about as usual.
This day was a travel day to Bergen and we decided to follow the scenic "Norway in a Nutshell" path  to get there. The plan for the day: train from Oslo to Myrdal, train from Myrdal to Flåm, ferry from Flåm through Aurlandsfjord and Nærøyfjord to Gudvangen, bus from Gudvangen to Voss, and finally one last train from Voss to Bergen. 
View from the last train car leaving Oslo as the sun rises. 
It did not take long to find snow, frozen lakes, and everything metal caked in ice. The day kept altering between deep snow drifts and luscious greenery, depending on the elevation. 
Our first train was really nice. I liked that the WC sign above showed the temperature outside as we traveled. 2 celsius here... Before this trip I'd never really used a train to get from Point A to Point B but by the time I ended up in Copenhagen a few weeks later, I felt like a pro. :)
More snow, less ice. We passed dozens of these perfect little lakes.
This is at the Myrdal station where we switched trains and got on the Flåm railway which is famous for this particular leg of the trip. 
Justin contemplating deep thoughts on life. Or maybe just thinking about lunch haha. I loved this old train from the early 1950's. 
As we got going the landscape got a bit wild and harsh but in the middle of it all, someone decided it would make a nice place to live. At least their skis probably get good use. Not sure about that bike though.
At this point I felt like I was living inside of a Warren Miller film. Which was totally fitting because it was Justin and Dad who taught me how to ski and took me to those films every year when I was growing up. (I did not see any penguins or polar bears despite what the scenery would suggest.)
And then seemingly out of nowhere the snow was gone and turned into beautiful fall countryside.
Currently where I live in LA we are restricted to 15 minutes of water for the lawns, one day out of the week, and only when the sun isn't up. Somehow I don't think these people have the same problem because their yard looks pretty green to me.
Waterfalls were a highlight of the day. I lost count after I reached a hundred. 
Coming into the colorful village Flåm. 
I would love to come back in the summer and spend a couple days here, exploring the village and venturing out to see the stave churches in the area.
Forgive me for taking a photo of a rock sitting in water. But it was so clear and blue! I don't think I've seen anything like it.
At least until I saw this.
The Flåm train stopped at this little outlook point so we could check out this HUGE waterfall, Kjosfossen. Now when I see ads for bottled water that claim to be so pure from glaciers or whatever, I think of this. 
Flåmsbana, our train about to tunnel through the mountain. 
Siblings say hello :) We were actually pretty terrible the whole trip at remembering to stop and take photos of us doing touristy stuff so it was a good reminder when everyone else hopped off the train and started passing around the cameras.
Back on our way! Back to feeling like I was living in a snow globe.  
Making friends with the locals. In Norway you are totally welcome to take your dog on the train, you just have to buy a ticket for it. 
Before I left on my trip I sat down with Grandma West and looked at her photo albums of the trips my grandparents took to Scandinavia. She said that Grandpa got such a kick out of the trolls that were everywhere and always had to stop and take a picture. I felt like two generations down the line and I'm seeing the same places they saw, so Justin and I did the same. (P.S. If I sent you a postcard from Norway, just know that I chose it from that rack of postcards in the background. And 80% of my options here were postcards of naked Nords in nature in some pose or another and I really had to resist sending those.) 
Justin snapped this photo right before we got on our ferry to sail through the fjords. 
And away we go... it was FREEZING COLD on the boat and there was a little cabin we could stay warm in, but it was worth it to venture outside to capture the view.
Think about how tall grown trees get. Then realize how tiny they look up on top of the cliff. Then realize just how huge that cliff is. Imagine repelling off that. I will stick to 9th street in Ogden, thanks.
These fjords were the first of five UNESCO world heritage I would see in three weeks time (six if Amalienborg ever gets approved.)
Bless Lady Elisabeth for not making me sea sick. More on that later.
Eventually I turned into an ice cube and had to enjoy the view from inside, but Justin stuck it out for a long time. 
Sunrise to sunset, the whole day was beautiful. When we docked at Gudvangen the sun was gone and it was not even 4pm. It was pitch black by the time we got on a bus to Voss. Now that I think about it, maybe this is where Voss water originates...
After the bus and one more quick train we finally made it to Bergen. Our little Airbnb flat was adorable and this place also had heated bathroom floors! Scandinavians really have it figured out.
Bryggen is this medieval wharf founded in the year 1070 A.D. and UNESCO site #2 for me. The sun was down but we still had hours left in the day and it was kind of fun wandering around this town after dark. 
 Ferries docked for the night with Bergenhus Fortress in the background.
In the fortress was Haakon's Hall. It's unknown exactly when this was built, the best records can pinpoint is that it wasn't there for a coronation in 1247 but it was present for a wedding in 1261. 
Foundations of buildings excavated in the fort next to Haaken's Hall. Some shadow puppet dancing definitely happened here. 
 Rosenkrantz Tower, "The Keep by the Sea"
 Also super old.
At this point it was the end of a long day and we were tired!  
But first, this church was right in front of where we were staying.  
 One thing that seems to be lacking from modern architecture is the lack of detail and craftsmenship. I mean this is just a simple door but the ironwork is stunning.
The door by the stairs is where we stayed. Exploration + sleep time = something like 14 hours in Bergen. Not enough! But we had an early morning flight to Riga, Latvia to catch in the morning so until then...

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