Train to Jūrmala, Latvia

Train to Jūrmala

Last week, we were in Riga, Latvia.

I had read that Jūrmala was a good place to visit from Riga, and we had a day when Husband wasn’t working, so I persuaded him that he would like to go. We walked to the station, which is on the edge of the Old Town, near the zeppelin hangers that house the central market. The weather was dry but cold.

At the station we found a ticket booth where the woman spoke a little English, and we managed to mime that we wanted return tickets to Majori. Jūrmala is the Latvian for ‘seaside‘ and there are several stations along the coast, with Majori being in the middle. I used my phone to photograph the timetable (because I have seen my children do this sort of thing). Finding the correct platform was more complicated, but we found a timetable that showed platforms, and then followed signposts to platform 3. If they had announced a change of platform over the tannoy, we’d have been stumped, and possibly ended up in Russia. But the sign on the platform showed we were at least travelling in the right direction, so we climbed the steep narrow steps up into the carriage, and sat down. A doorbell sound announced the doors were shutting, and we eased away from the station.

I like catching trains in foreign countries, watching the changing scenes through the window. I used my photographed timetable to check the stations we passed through, so we would know when to get off. As we left Riga, we saw many apartment blocks, small industries, red-brick factories. The houses varied, some must once have been grand, with towers and pillars, but all were faded now, the painted plaster cracked, weeds filling the dried gardens. Every wall we passed was decorated with graffiti, none of it clever. Tall brick chimneys piercing the blue sky and modern warehouses swept past the window.

Then we plunged into woods of pine trees, and out the other side. The land was flat, not a hill in sight. As we drew near to Majori there were more forests, and large houses nestled amongst the pine trees.

Majori station is next to a flooded river. One side of the platform is a road, the other is the river. You could see the railway as it curved away from the town, past the tall bulrushes and the fishermen. We left the station, and walked into town.

The town has echoes of the Jersey shore in the US, with painted houses and little shops, and a sandy beach with a long boardwalk. We had a quick lunch in a cafe (De Gusto—a pretty little cafe with nice pastries and good coffee). The walk to the beach was signed, and we set off along the boardwalk.

The beach was sandy, the sea calm, the wind cold. To our left were houses, right up to the weeds that lined the beach. They were large, ugly 1950’s constructions, and mostly deserted, with peeling plaster and boarded windows and brambles growing up to the doorstep. I decided they were Russian-owned holiday homes, abandoned in 1991 when the Latvians defended their land against invasion, the Russians refusing to sell them in the belief that one day they would return. Husband informed me they were more likely owned by a developer, who was waiting for them to become completely derelict so that renovation was impossible and he would get planning permission to demolish them and build modern holiday homes and hotels. I prefer my version.

Among the ugly buildings was an ugly look-out tower with radio masts and a high window and speakers for broadcasting instructions. This was the police station, and a man in the window was guarding the safety of everyone on the beach. There was also a cubed building, right on the sand, with a large picture window facing the sea. It was a cafe, large extractor fans whooshing the smell of fried potatoes onto the beach, the steamy windows showing hazy images of tourists huddled inside with mugs of coffee. But the best part was the position, which was below the tide mark, so at high tide, the people inside would be trapped, and they would have to sit there, watching in horror as the sea swept up the beach, past the door, trapping them inside for a couple of hours until the tide went out again. It would, I felt, be great fun to come back at high tide, and watch them as they gradually realised their mistake—but perhaps that’s a little mean of me.

We went back to the main street and walked along it, peering into gift shops and cafes and windows displaying knitted goods and thick coats. At the end of the street was an ornate church, gleaming in the sunshine and looking for all the world as if it had been flown there from Disney Land. We walked back to the same cafe we had lunched in, as they had the freshest cakes. We had tea, and I chose a rather too sickly white chocolate eclair, and Husband chose a completely delicious apple cinnamon tart (why does he always choose better food than me?) Then we walked back to the little station, and watched the train as it wound its way back along the curve of the river, until it reached Majori, and we clambered aboard, ready to return to Riga.

I hope you go somewhere nice this week too. Thanks for reading.
Take care.
Love, Anne x

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St. Peter’s Church, Riga

 St Peter’s Church, Riga

One of the landmarks of Riga Old Town is St. Peter’s Church; the multi-layered barrel-shaped spire can be seen from almost anywhere. This makes it hugely useful for lost tourists trying to find their bearings, and I have often been grateful to the church for its distinctive hugeness. But I have never ventured inside. The weather was dry but cold, and I had at least an hour before Husband finished at the office, so I decided to join the few woolly-hatted tourists through the heavy doors, into the church.

The door is not particularly welcoming, as it is very heavy and very determined to remain closed, but I managed to struggle inside. The signs (in various languages) and the woman behind the desk (in determined Latvian) were also not terribly welcoming, but having defeated the door, I was not to be dissuaded. I paid my €3 and was allowed through the glass barrier into the main sanctuary. Another woman called me over, insisting on inspecting my ticket. There was clearly a lot of angst over non-paying tourists visiting this church. Guess they have big overheads.

 Inside, there are a few things to look at, plus a tower to climb (if you pay extra). I was content to simply be inside and wandered around. Brick pillars hold up the high arching roof, and organ music hummed from speakers. It was a peaceful place to be (maybe noisy tourists object to paying for entry, or are dissuaded from visiting by the two grumpy ladies and the spiteful door).

There was a display showing a massive bell, the Peace Bell, which is a feature of a multi-national festival of competing choirs. Next to the giant bell is a giant rooster, which was once the weather-vane on the steeple, but now shelters inside. (It was made in 1690, so has earned a rest from the elements.)

The main sanctuary had various paintings and sculptures, of people who looked religious but I’d never heard of them so possibly not. A local artist, Laine Kainaize, had an exhibition of paintings. They were simplistic in style, and full of colour and I liked them (but not in my house).

The rear of the church was dominated by a statue of Roland. I don’t know who Roland is, and reading the plaque, I’m not sure anyone else does either! A copy of his statue stands outside one of the guilds, like a lucky charm; but like the ancient rooster, he has been retired to the shelter of the church. He stands with a heap of rubble, which I think are bits of the church which have fallen off.

The question that always begs an answer in a church is: does anyone pray here? Did the sanctuary feel holy? The high ceiling and warm architecture do inspire a feeling of holiness/prayer, but the atmosphere is rather shattered by the grumpy money ladies gossiping at the back. Perhaps, in days gone by, this was a place where people honestly sought God’s will. Today, I’m not so sure—but how much can a mere building convey anyway? Surely a church—any church—is the people who attend, and I wasn’t there for a service, so I cannot comment.

If you have €3 and an hour to spend, there are worse things you could do.

Thanks for reading. I hope you find somewhere to pray today.
Take care.
Love, Anne x

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A Cafe in Riga

I am writing this in a cafe in Riga. Going to a cafe on my own and buying a coffee is fairly high on my scary list, so I am feeling somewhat tense, but there were no real options. Husband was at work all morning, and has returned to make phone calls and I know from past experience that these will be very loud/shouty and the chance of being able to concentrate and write to you is tiny. So I left, and found a cafe that looked empty and might not mind a lonely blogger making a coffee last an hour while they type. And I am very keen to write this, because I want to tell you about my morning. I was brave this morning too.

I walked to Modes Muzeja Kafejnica, which is the fashion museum and cafe tucked away behind St Peter’s Church. This is the first cafe in Riga that I have dared to visit on my own (at some point this will be normal) and I had passed it yesterday. It looked so pretty, I was determined to go in. As soon as I stepped inside a lady in an old-fashioned apron and cap welcomed me and showed me to a round wooden table and sofa. I was given a multi-lingual menu; old-time dance music was playing and I felt like I had stepped back in time and should have been wearing a long skirt and lacey blouse with a fat broach at the collar. But I wasn’t. I was wearing jeans and boots and a thick ski jacket that I folded onto the seat next to me and opened the menu. The cafe served drinks and cakes—this was so my kind of place.

I ordered at the counter: a filter coffee which customers pour themselves, and an eclair. There were several types of eclair and I chose one dusted with icing sugar and oozing with cream and strawberry conserve. It was delicious.

Pictures of fashion throughout the ages were strung from the ceiling, reminding me of pictures in books from my mother’s childhood—little girls holding puppies, suited gentlemen with cigarettes, while the women fluttered fans and eye-lashes over their pearls. It was all wonderfully art deco 1920’s. It even smelt 1920’s, with a sort of fruity floral undercurrent.

There is a discount if you buy a museum ticket, so when I had finished my coffee and daydream, I paid for both at the desk. The girl suggested I could leave my jacket on a peg in the cafe, but I am too foreign to trust things like that, so I thanked her and left, hugging my bulky jacket with gloves and hat to my overheated body like some sort of nervous sweating snail.

The entrance to the museum was slightly confusing, with a man who seemed to be shouting at a woman in a ticket booth—but he may not have been shouting, Latvian tends to sound cross. I waved my receipt over his shoulder, so the woman could see I had paid. The woman checked it, and offered to hang my jacket in the wardrobe (I’m not sure if I had pushed in, I hope not. It’s easy to be rude by mistake when you’re foreign).

I walked into the museum (still clutching coat and gloves and hat) and was greeted by glass display cases of dresses. They were long with bouffant skirts and the little girl in me wanted to try them on and twirl. Especially as dance music was playing—ideal for twirling in flowing skirts.

An old movie was showing on a television. Screens projected images of clothes. Glass cases displayed gloves and fans and shoes. There was a tiny carved table holding a sewing basket, and velvet drapes covered the walls (Oh! I so wanted to twirl!) I wandered along the row of dresses, staring at the tiny waists and tight sleeves and laced necklines.

Then I realised there was a corner where you could dress up in crinoline, and I wanted to. But no one was with me to take a photo and laugh with me, and I had already been brave by having coffee alone. Maybe next time.

The next room held more dresses—mainly from England, France and America. I didn’t see any Latvian clothes. Why?

It was all so pretty, the air smelt of lily-of-the-valley, music was playing, and I wanted to go into the glass cases and touch the silk and lace and velvet. They sort of lured you to touch them. Which is perhaps why they are displayed in glass cases.

The next room was a dark cellar. I began to search for a light switch, and a helpful lady told me to just wait, and look. (She said it in Latvian, but I think that’s what she said.) The display cases all lit up individually, in time to conversation and music. Each one was a miniature drama, the manikins placed so the words and music told a story, each one in the language of the country where the clothes originated from, with accompanying music by a composer from that country. One display showed traditional Latvian dress—a much simpler peasant outfit in coloured cloth. I still don’t know what the rich women in Latvia wore, maybe they imported their clothes from England or France.

I took some last photographs, and left. I loved this museum. I am also sort of glad that Husband was at work (not saying that he would have spoilt it or anything, but I think his interest in floaty dresses is probably less than mine.) If you have a 10-year-old daughter, or played dressing-up games for hours when young, then you must come to Riga and visit this museum. It is like eating smooth chocolate.

The cafe I am now in is also nice, but very different. It is modern, with hard seats, and instead of soft music it is playing loud radio that’s difficult to ignore. Especially as it sounds just like Terry Wogan, but speaking Latvian! I will finish my coffee and leave. Thank you for reading.

I hope you see something lovely today.
Take care.
Love, Anne x

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Return Trip to Riga

Return Trip to Riga

Last week, Husband had another work trip to Riga, Latvia, so I decided to tag along. (The wonderful thing about writing is that you can do it pretty much anywhere. At least, anywhere that’s not ugly. I cannot write in ugly places.)

The taxi took us to Gatwick, and we found the airBaltic desk and then waited a very long time for the staff to arrive so we could drop our bags. We had breakfast in Pret (I don’t especially like Pret, but Husband has bit of an addiction, so we found a Pret and I didn’t make too many comments). We also bought sandwiches for lunch, to avoid having to eat aeroplane food.

The flight was quite fast due a tail wind from Storm Dennis, and it took less than the three hours I was expecting. The airport is fairly small, so going through customs and collecting our bags was very quick. I wonder if that will change after the EU transition period has ended. We walked to the taxi rank, and remembered to check the prices on the back door of each taxi (see the blog I wrote last summer—the price of a taxi varies a HUGE amount, but the price is displayed on the back door. In Riga, you do not have to take the first taxi in the line, which is likely to be the most expensive one and shunned by locals).

We stayed at the Pullman hotel, which is situated in the old part of Riga. The hotel is modern, with a horse theme (not sure why). We were met by a life-sized horse statue in the lobby, and horse art is displayed in all the corridors and rooms. Some of it is quite nice. Everything else is grey and white. It’s clean, but not especially welcoming.

We found a restaurant on TripAdvisor and walked through the cobbled streets of Old Town, past the 13th century St. Peter’s Church, to Petergailis restaurant. It was only 6.30pm (4.30pm in the UK) but it felt much later. The sky was properly dark, the shops were mostly closed, and there were very few people on the streets. The air was cold and crisp, though there was no snow (which I had been hoping for). I was glad of my thick jacket, gloves and hat—and my flat shoes, because walking on cobbled streets is fairly brutal on heels. As we walked, I began to remember Riga. In my mind, it has become entangled with Krakow, as we visited both fairly close together, and they share cobbled streets and pretty buildings, interesting markets and a sad history. Gradually Riga emerged in my memory, I recalled the beautiful guild halls, and the striking churches, and the house with a cat on top which has themed most of the souvenirs.

Petergailis restaurant was perfect. It has a cockerel theme, and we had coffee on the terrace last summer, but the terrace has gone now, only marks on the wall remain. Inside was cosy but not too hot and as we were eating relatively early, it wasn’t too crowded. The menu was full of interesting foods I’d never tried, but not so unfamiliar as to be scary. They brought us breads with flavoured butter, and tiny glasses of pumpkin soup to taste. We chose different dishes and shared, so could taste each other’s food (this turned out to be a good idea, because Husband chose better than me). I drank a single gin and tonic, and lusted after the huge glasses of red wine on the next table, but knew that after a flight and a long day I’d have a migraine if I drank it. We left feeling full.

The following day, Husband went to the office after breakfast, and I wrote and explored the city. But I’ll tell you about that in another blog. Thanks for reading. I hope you eat some lovely food too today.
Take care.
Love, Anne x

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Jews in Latvia

The Jews in Riga

When I was in Latvia last week (that’s a fun sentence to write!) I visited the Jewish Museum. Riga has several monuments and memorials dedicated to the Latvians who died during the 1991 barricades, but there was little reference to the Jews who died during the Nazi occupation. I found directions to the Jewish museum in the guidebook, and set off.

The museum is in a tall building in the Art Nouveau section of the city. The door was locked, and I had to be buzzed inside by a lady in a booth—perhaps even today the Jewish people are unsure of their safety. The museum is in a Jewish Centre, where you can also sign up for Jewish dancing lessons, and language courses.

The displays were all in glass cases (not an attractive museum to visit) but I was given an audio guide in English, which helped. The guide was rather long-winded, and the man speaking was rather pedantic, but there was a fast-forward feature, so I gleaned what I could from his descriptions and muted the other bits (be nice to do this in real-life sometimes). The museum is Jewish, and I guess any museum is likely to have a bias. Whilst what happened to the Jews was unforgiveable and too horrid to properly grasp, I’m not sure if the pre-war Jews were all quite as perfect, fully integrated and wonderful as the museum portrays. It felt a little like when you attend a funeral, and you don’t recognise the person everyone is describing because they sound like a saint but you know they could be an awkward individual when they were alive. Is that right, or should we be more honest? I don’t know. We like our victims/heroes to be perfect and our villains to be completely evil, but life is not like that.  Here is my understanding of the history of Jews in Riga, based on what I saw:

In the early 1900s, the Jews were poor, but rather clever at business. An example was given of a merchant who could initially only afford to employ 3 men, and two years later due to clever business skills he owned 3 factories. However, there were limitations on their social status, and they were only allowed to work in certain areas.

In 1905, during the revolution, there were attempts to suppress Jewish people, and many left the Baltic region at this time.

The Jews were part of society, but they were seen as inferior. Literature shows the Jew as a figure of fun, they are portrayed as slightly dim and generally unhealthy and dishonest. They were laughed at, though not particularly disliked. Jews often appeared in children’s stories as a travelling peddler, a thin man with a big nose, who would try to trick you if you weren’t careful.

In 1918, during the Latvian fight for independence, Jews signed up to fight. The Bolsheviks, known as ‘The Red Terror’ were violent and unfair. In 1919, many Jews joined the army, some as young as 15 years old. The museum had medals, showing the awards Jewish soldiers had received for bravery, though it didn’t state what percentage of Jewish men joined the army.

In 1920, rumours began to spread that the Jews were against the new Latvian nation. There were reports that Jews had refused to fight, that no Jews had joined the army, that they were not truly part of Latvia. The Jews attempted to combat this by publishing their own newspapers, in Russian and German as well as Yiddish. Jewish students set up clubs (fraternities) to balance those that were anti-Semitic. Jewish business flourished in free Latvia, and Jewish people owned banks and businesses (though the anti-Jewish cartoons were still around). The Jews took part in sports, to try and dispel the idea that they were physically weak, and set up competitions and tournaments.

When the Nazi party took control of Germany, people in Latvia boycotted German goods in protest. Many Jewish refugees arrived in Latvia, trying to escape the Nazis.

In 1940, the Soviets entered Latvia. All Jewish societies were closed and some Jews were deported to Siberia. Then the Nazis arrived, and the horrors increased.

In August 1941 a Ghetto was set up in Riga. All Jews were forced to leave their homes and live in the Ghetto. Synagogues were burnt—sometimes when filled with people trapped inside. Propaganda depicted the Jews as weak, ugly, thick and greedy. It was said they refused to be part of society, they hid their wealth, they were the cause of all the troubles. The Nazis tried to turn Latvian citizens against the Jews, and they became outcasts.

By the autumn of 1941, the Ghetto had been emptied of all Jews apart from men deemed strong enough to work. Everyone else had been murdered.

The museum even has films of Jews being shot (after being forced to run into a pit). The Nazis were so sure of their absolute supremacy, that they would never be held to account, that they filmed and photographed the killings.

Somehow, seeing these photographs was harder than seeing the ones when I visited Auschwitz. Perhaps because the people were well-dressed and healthy. I found it more shocking, to see attractive teenaged girls being killed, rather than the gaunt pictures of starving people in the camps—it’s always easier to relate to people who look like the people around us, I suppose. And that is the point—these people were like us. They would have been good people, and not so nice people, and some who were kind and others who were rude, just like us.

One display case showed the passage from Psalm 22, used by Jews to express their agony: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” These are familiar words for Christians, but in the later context of the crucifixion.

In 1943, the Ghetto was emptied of men, when they were sent to the death camps. The Riga ghetto was then divided, and became a stopping place for Jews from other countries who were on their way to the camps in Germany and Poland.

I was interested to read that there had been some Jewish resistance to all this. Some people smuggled weapons into the ghetto, hoping either to escape or to at least die with dignity, defending themselves. There was a big escape attempt from the Riga ghetto, but most escapees were later caught and shot, and 80 other Jews were shot in punishment. However, some Jews did manage to escape from the ghettos, and from the death marches.

One area of the museum was dedicated to people who had helped the Jews during the war. Not everyone believed the propaganda, not everyone sided with the Soviets and the Nazis. Some people were brave enough to risk their own lives, and helped Jews to survive. (Would we be wise enough today, to resist the messages in social media, to be able to discern what is actually true?)

In 1940, it was estimated that there were 95,000 Jews living in Riga. In 1945, it is thought that only 1,000 were still alive.

There is a big memorial, in a forest, in memory of the slain Jews. One day, I hope to visit it. Perhaps by remembering the horrors of the past, we can help to ensure we don’t repeat the same evils today.

I recently read a novel, which examines the idea of national bias, set amidst the more recent conflict between Zionists and Palestinians. I’ll tell you about it on Monday — why not sign up to follow my blog so you don’t miss it?

This is my final blog about Latvia for now. Next time we visit will be in the winter, I’m so looking forward to seeing the city with snow.

Live well today.

Take care,

Love, Anne x

Anne E Thompson has written several novels and writes a regular blog each week. You can follow her blog at:

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Comparing Riga and Warsaw

Central Market, Riga

I do like a good market, so when we were in Riga last week, we set off to find Central Market. It is slightly beyond the old town, and you walk under some major roads, and through some fairly dodgy-feeling areas, so I’m not sure that I would walk there on my own. It’s probably as safe as places in other cities, but there were an uncomfortable number of young men standing at corners, staring.

The market is in several huge Zeppelin Hangers (which had previously housed Zeppelins). Before you arrive at the main market there is a big market outside, with stalls selling clothes and hardware and flowers.

The inside market is mainly food stalls. We wandered around, staring at gigantic fish, and arrays of flatbreads, and mountains of olives. There were tables, and people bought things to eat there, sipping strong black coffee and discussing politics.

As you leave, you can see the tower of the Academy of Sciences looming above you. This gave me a strange feeling of deja vu, as it’s almost identical to the tower we saw in Warsaw. They even have the same name, as the local people in both cities refer to the towers as “Stalin’s Birthday Cake”. Both were built in the 1950s, both are resented today by local people as being an unwanted reminder of Soviet rule, both are too big and expensive to simply demolish.

We took the lift to the 15th Floor, where there’s an observation deck. I wasn’t hugely reassured when Husband reminded me, as I stepped into the lift, that it was an example of 1950s Soviet engineering; but we didn’t plummet to our deaths. The observation deck sways, but if you don’t mind heights, it’s probably a good place to visit (it costs 5 euros each, so not cheap).

The tower in Riga.

The extremely similar tower that looms above Warsaw.

Actually, there is a lot about Riga that reminds me of Warsaw. Both cities had suffered during the war. Both cities had lost most of their Jews (in 1940, there were an estimated 95,000 Jews living in Riga. In 1945 there were an estimated 1,000 Jews remaining. More about this in a later blog.).

Both cities were heavily bombed during the war, and have rebuilt the old part of their cities, so they are now delightful places to visit, with fine examples of ancient (though rebuilt) architecture. Both cities are still coming to terms with their Soviet past. However, both cities are also welcoming, and people mostly speak excellent English. I enjoyed my visits immensely, they are both worth seeing if you ever have the chance. And of course, both cities have a very good local beer!

Thanks for reading. Enjoy your day.

Anne x

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The Tangled History of Riga

The Tangled History of Riga

Riga has loads of churches, loads of scooters — and loads of museums. When I was there last week, I decided to break my usual habit, and visit a couple. Latvia has a tangled past, which lurks behind the decorated facades, and colours how people today view their city. I wanted to learn more, so visited the Barricades Museum, which aims to tell the story of the barricades set up in 1991.

The museum was the first floor of a small building, in the middle of the old town, and was spread across three rooms. There was no cost, but a man sat behind a desk, staring pointedly at the donations pot when people entered.

The first room attempts to give a glimpse of life under Soviet rule. Apparently, the Soviet Union attempted to standardise everything, which meant that everyone owned the same furniture and kitchen appliances. A lot of people moved to Riga (from what was previously Russia) and sometimes several families shared the same space. The museum had a reconstructed kitchen, showing what it was like. Arranged around the room were keyholes, and if you peeped into them you could see scenes from the West. They were awkwardly placed, to show how although people were interested by what was happening in the rest of the world, it was difficult to see the whole picture, they just caught wisps of news.

The other rooms consist mainly of photographs and newsreels and paintings of the 1991 barricades. There is also a van (no idea how they got that up the stairs) and lumps of concrete and hunks of tree trunks around tissue-paper bonfires, enabling the visitor to perch on a bench and imagine they are part of the protest. The rooms are dimly lit—some of them so dark that you can barely see the exhibits, and for a moment you might become confused, and think you are shopping with teenagers in Hollister. I am guessing this is meant to add to the atmosphere, but as in Hollister, I simply found it annoying (I am of the grumpy generation). Of course, it’s possible that they had just run out of lightbulbs.

So what, you might be asking, were the barricades of 1991? I had the same question, and it was not properly answered by the museum (perhaps the full explanation was in one of the dark rooms). I knew that it was a protest against Russian occupation, and that after a call to action on Latvian radio, whole families took to the streets of Riga, and set up barricades around key sites (such as Latvian Radio). However, was it to stop the Soviets invading? –I thought Riga was already under Soviet rule?

The history is as follows: After WW II, Latvia was part of the Soviet Union (previously, it had also belonged to Russia, before the revolution). However, in 1989, Latvia gained its independence, as did the other Baltic states (Lithuania and Estonia). Then, in 1991, Russia, overnight, sent tanks into Estonia, alerting Latvia that their borders were vulnerable. Thus they sent out warnings on Latvia Radio, and told everyone to go into the streets of Riga. The idea was that the Russian army was unlikely to open fire on civilians (because the rest of the world was watching) and so they staged a peaceful protest. Everyone flooded to Riga. Farmers arrived with agricultural trucks, builders placed huge boulders of concrete on the roads, so that vehicles couldn’t get past; whole families—from granny down to babies—camped outside strategic sites (like Latvian Radio) protecting them by their presence. There was some shooting, and a few people were killed (I think 14 people) but it was successful, the Russians left, Latvia remained independent.

However, if you talk to Latvian citizens today, the threat remains very real. A lot of people living in Latvia are Russian, and the fear is that Russia will use this as an excuse to invade again, under the pretext of ‘protecting Russian citizens’. This happened in Cyprus, when Turkey invaded. It could happen at any time, and very quickly—it does not take many hours to get from Russia to Latvia. They hope that by belonging to NATO and being part of Europe, the rest of the world will protect them.

If you visit other key places in Riga, you begin to understand the fear. Another museum is in the old KGB headquarters, so I went to look.

The building is, on the outside, beautiful. Part of the Art Nouveau* section of the city, it has carved figurines, decorations, patterns, and was clearly built by someone rich who wanted a wealthy-looking house. But then I went inside.

The entrance is a small, heavy door on the corner of the building. Inside is a wooden box. This was the only means of (attempted) communication with people who were taken there. Relatives could place requests for information, or letters or packages inside this box, and hope that they were delivered.

The inside of the building was lined with dark veneer, and was dimly lit. There were bars at the windows (placed there after several prisoners had thrown themselves out, preferring suicide to remaining inside). Boards of photographs showed the people who had ‘disappeared’ after entering the building. There was also a film of an elderly lady, explaining her own experiences as a prisoner. What you heard was a description of mental and emotional abuse, how psychologically cruel the system was.

There were also photos of key KGB members, and one featured the famous British spy, Kim Philby.

The prisoners were people who refused to submit to the regime. Religion was outlawed, so although you were allowed to practise your religion, you would be demoted at work, paid less, open to abuse. Many religious leaders were tried in the KGB house before being deported to prisons in the Soviet Union. There were also teachers, journalists, civil servants—anyone who threatened the regime. Western art and culture were deemed to be ideologically harmful, and the people found exploring them were ‘re-educated’. It was not possible to travel outside of the Soviet Union. People simply disappeared, and the only hope of news was through the KGB, as organisations such as the Red Cross were banned. As time went on, even attending a church meant you would lose your job and your children would be excluded from education. Any interest in Latvian history was frowned upon. All written publications were censored.

The museum offered a tour of the cells, and the places where people had been tortured and executed. I declined the offer.

I emerged into sunshine. The sky was blue, the buildings smiled down, all seemed peaceful. I am unable to make sense of the horrors that humans can inflict on each other. Perhaps, now the world is ‘smaller’ and countries are more entwined, we can all help to ensure that small countries are protected from the radicalisation of powerful nations. But I fear it could happen again…

I want to tell you about the Jews in Latvia, but that’s another heavy topic, so tomorrow I will tell you about my visit to the Central Market—that should be a little more cheery!

I hope you stay safe today. Thank you for reading.

Take care.

Love, Anne x

*Art Nouveau is a style of architecture popular in France in the 1890s. It tends to have stylised leaves, vines, flowers etc decorating the building. There is a section of Riga where many buildings follow this style. It should not be confused with art deco, which was popular in 1930s, and tends to be more geometric in style.

Anne E Thompson has written several novels and writes a regular blog each week. You can follow her blog at:


Exploring Riga Old Town

Exploring Riga Old Town

Husband was working in Riga (Latvia) so I had tagged along for the ride, and we spent the second day exploring the Old Town (clue in the name!) It is full of pretty squares and interesting buildings, and although much of it was rebuilt after the war, they have preserved the historical feel of the city. It’s a nice place to be. We walked through the park which runs alongside the river, and into the pedestrianised zone. We passed Powder Tower (see yesterday’s blog) and saw The Swedish Gate, which is the only remaining gate from the old city wall, and was built below someone’s house — not sure if they were pleased, somewhat inconvenient to have people traipsing below your house I would have thought.

We arrived at St. Jacob’s Cathedral, which has a monument outside to remember the people who died in the 1991 barricades (more about this in a later blog). St. Jacob’s Cathedral is a red brick building, built outside of the original city wall. It has a cupola on the south side, which once held a bell—not to summon people to prayer, but to let them know that an execution was taking place in the city. The bell is no longer there. I am assuming the executions are also a thing of the past.


Opposite the cathedral is the Parliament building (some discussion with Husband about Riga’s flag—I can tell you that it’s red with a white stripe down the middle, and he was wrong. Just saying.)

During World War II, the building was the headquarters for the SS officer responsible for killing the Latvian Jews, gays and Roma. Later it was used by the Supreme Soviet of Latvia. This is an example, repeated around the city, of buildings which were built to look pretty, and later used for a variety of horrible things, and have now returned to simply being buildings. Latvia has a tangled history, and there are traces left wherever you go. I wonder if it’s better to not read any guidebooks or visit any museums, and to simply enjoy the beauty of the place in the sunshine and leave the ghosts in the past.

Around the corner from St. Jacob’s Cathedral is a hidden cafe in a courtyard, which claims to be the most romantic cafe in the world (good marketing strategy!) It offers free hugs at the counter (so I’m guessing it’s run by the church). There was also a Christian bookshop, and I bought my mother a scarf. Riga has lots of linen goods and knitted goods, probably because in the winter it’s usually snowy. This is the city to visit if you want to buy a warm hat that your family will mock.

There are three houses, known as The Three Brothers because they each have a distinct architectural style. Two men busk outside, playing music that the locals recognise and sing along to (I saw them there on several occasions). This means everyone has very confusing photographs, as they are of “The Three Brothers” but they show only two men.

Next on our tour was Dome Square. (To be honest, it wasn’t a very good ‘tour’ as it was simply Husband following a route on a map, regularly waving towards interesting buildings and informing me: “There’s a thing!”) Dome Cathedral has a cockerel on the spire, and the building is lower than the square, as they have raised the land since it was built, to stop the area flooding. (Not sure if this means the cathedral now floods instead—hopefully not.) There was a young girl playing a violin outside. She was very young, and played extremely well, and was receiving a lot of money, as almost everyone passing threw something into her violin case. There are a lot of buskers in Riga, many of them young, most of them excellent musicians. It’s rather lovely to wander around, looking at interesting buildings while accompanied by music.

A laugh-out-loud book about travelling the world with a family. From India to South America, and across most of Europe, this book has been described as “The Durrells meet Bill Bryson”!

Riga has several squares, and many churches/cathedrals. The next square on our tour had a very interesting building: the House of Blackheads—so named because it was a guild for foreign merchants, and their patron was St. Maurice (who was black). I began to realise that many of the buildings, built in the 1500s and 1600s, show how affluent Riga had once been. It was an important trading port, full of rich merchants, and the architecture reflects this. Further from the centre, the buildings were once beautiful, but are now faded, and sometimes derelict, whereas the ones in the centre of the old town have been rebuilt since the war. It must have been a magnificent place a few hundred years ago, and it is still pretty today. You should visit before it becomes too busy. It’s up to you whether you take a guide book and learn about the past, or simply enjoy what you see today.

Tomorrow I will show you some more pretty buildings which have rather nasty history (like the old KGB headquarters)—why not sign up to follow my blog so you don’t miss it?

Hope you have an interesting day.

Take care.

Love, Anne x

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Riga in the Summer

Riga in the Summer

Riga is the capital city of the little country of Latvia, and I visited it last week, when Husband was working there. I have never visited Latvia before (I am loath to say that I didn’t even know that Latvia was across the Baltic Sea from Sweden, between Estonia and Lithuania—because that makes me look ignorant!)

Latvia has had a chequered history, belonging at different times to Sweden, Germany and Russia, and more recently being part of the Soviet Union. I had no idea what to expect from the city, but “ex-Soviet Union” musters images in my mind of austere buildings and ugly sculptures; so the pretty architecture and sunny parks were a pleasant surprise (I’ll mention the sculptures later…)

We arrived on Friday, and caught a taxi from the airport. A word of warning here: Taxis in Riga have their prices printed on the outside of the rear door, and there is quite a lot of variation in the price/km charged. There doesn’t seem to be any regulated pricing or official taxi rank at the airport. We chose a taxi with a similar price/km to others we could see, and set off. Husband (who notices these things) realised that the price that was showing on the metre, did not tally with the price displayed outside; you need to keep an eye on what you are being charged. (However, whilst this might be useful information, I have no idea what you do with the knowledge. Next time I am in Riga, if the taxi driver has an over-priced metre, I do not feel inclined to confront him and be dumped in an isolated spot with no transport. But at least you’ll know if you’re being ripped-off and can withhold the tip!) Note, we were later informed by the hotel that we had paid an inflated price. The red taxis (Red Cab) and the lime green taxis (Baltic Taxis) are much cheaper, and cost about .70/km (not 1.99/km, which is what we paid). They park slightly further away from the main exit door at the airport.

We were staying in the AC Hotel, which is an easy walk from the old town. It was okay—I’ve stayed in prettier hotels, and the rooms were as tiny as New York hotel rooms (ie they fitted a bed, but not much else). However, at about £80 a night, it compares to staying somewhere like a Premier Inn on price, and it was much nicer than that!

We set off for a walk to the old part of the city (about 15 minute walk). There was a park, complete with a river and bridges, and outside cafes. There were also lots of people on scooters. These can be rented (information according to Husband, so might be rubbish) and are left and found in random places around the city. They whoosh past you at unexpected times, and must, I imagine, be uncomfortable on the cobbled streets, but they were popular. Very popular.

The park also gave us our first taste of Latvian sculptures, which were as bad as I’d feared. They mostly have the whole cubist-looking Soviet Union chunky-art look. Apparently (read the guide book afterwards) many were put up during the Soviet rule, and many of the ones honouring Soviet people have since been removed. But the ones of famous Latvians remain, staring grimly at tourists, reminding us that the city has not always been a happy place. (Apologies if you actually like the style of Soviet sculptures, perhaps it’s an acquired taste. Everyone looks like Stalin to my eyes.) We did see some more pleasing sculptures, but the dominant ones were very ugly.

We found the Freedom Monument (called Milda—not sure if that’s her real name) and a woman was busking. During Soviet rule, there was a large statue of Lenin facing the monument, and people were not allowed to place flowers on the monument. Leaving flowers on monuments seems to be a thing in Latvia.

The main street through the old town is pedestrianised, which was good, as although there are crossings at the other roads, you are supposed to wait for the lights to go green, and they took hours. Latvians are very obedient about this. All the streets seem to be cobbled, which is probably helpful in the winter, when there’s lots of snow, but means you need to leave your heels at home.

We had coffee and beer next to the Powder Tower, which used to hold gunpowder and is now the war museum. Riga has a lot of museums. The outside of this one is interesting, because you can see cannon balls embedded in the walls, from an ancient battle.

Found ‘Cat House’. This was owned by a merchant who was told he couldn’t join one of the guilds, as it was only open to Germans. He placed two cat statues on his roof, with their tails raised, and their bottoms pointing towards the guild! Later, when the guild finally accepted him, he changed the cat’s position, but they are still on the roof. Many of the souvenirs in Riga have cats on them.

We walked back to the hotel, past lots of churches (Riga has a lot of churches) with scooters whizzing past us, watching our footing on the cobbled streets and waiting many hours at the pedestrian lights.

Riga is very pretty, especially when the sun is shining. I will show you more tomorrow–why not sign up to follow my blog so you don’t miss it?

Thanks for reading.

Take care.

Love, Anne x

Thanks for reading.
You can follow my blog at:

A laugh-out-loud book about travelling the world with a family. From India to South America, and across most of Europe, this book has been described as “The Durrells meet Bill Bryson”!

If you enjoyed this, why not read The Sarcastic Mother’s Holiday Diary?

Available from an Amazon near you…free if you have a Kindle. A travel diary to make you smile. Buy your copy today.

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