I’d been to Tallinn, Estonia, back in 2011, fully aware of its reputation as a riotous enclave chock-full of boozed-up Brits on stag events. There was a bit of that, but the city and its outskirts revealed so much more than a mere drinking hive. When three friends told me of their plans to visit Lithuania and Latvia on a Ryanair cheapie, I jumped right on board. A single carry-on bag with three changes of clothes and I was set.
A 6:40 a.m. flight out of Edinburgh Airport into Kaunas and we’re greeted by a mild breeze, not this ‘Baltic freeze’ I dismiss as propaganda. A €2.40 bus ride (No. 29) to our hostel on the corner of Kestucio Street – passing through Soviet-style ’80s suburbs on the way – and we head to a nearby restaurant, Berneliu Smukle, on the recommendation of the receptionist after briefly checking in.
Its interior is an indelible sight, a kind of hunting lodge theme with a taxidermist’s yearly output adorning the walls. Large stag antlers overlook our table, and we deduce that it’s definitely not a vegetarian hang-out – there are even guns plonked on shelves. I’m immediately struck by the delightful purchasing power of the Lithuanian lita. They say it’s always the Brits who compare countries based on the price of a pint. On such a basis, I’m instantly high-fiving Lithuania. I personally devour a Manhattan, a piña colada, and two local beers for the equivalent of €12.
Around the corner at the east end of Laisves aleja (Liberty Boulevard) sits the Church of St. Michael the Archangel, a Neo-Byzantine style church constructed between 1891-1895. Across the road outside the Mykolas Zilinskas Art Museum bizarrely sits a large statue of a naked man performing a ‘Come at me, bro!’ pose. When Kaunas was under the Soviet yoke, something tells me this wouldn’t be permitted.
Liberty Boulevard shouts Parisian, an exceptionally long pedestrian walkway of fountains, upmarket restaurants, cafes, and clothes stores, which segues into the Old Town, characterised by more traditional pubs and eateries. We spend the evening roaming around here from bar to bar, savouring the local beers and cocktails, arriving back at R Hostel (a splendid little hostel, with a comfy common room and secluded rooftop hideaway) for a belated sleep.
The next day and we explore the city with a lengthy afternoon bike ride, the traffic light and terrain flat. The exception is Ninth Fort, a defensive structure built between 1902–1913. Now containing a museum (which we unfortunately don’t have time to visit), it was the scene of many atrocities during the German occupation in WWII. Kaunas has a lot of this: dark events from the past, things we shouldn’t as tourists bring up in conversation with residents, especially the contentious topic of Russia.
I am informed that though Russian is spoken by the majority of the populations in both Lithuania and Latvia, it is wise in the absence of English to attempt to communicate basic phrases in the native languages. Anti-Russian sentiment can be high, especially among younger people. I recall the trip I did to Tallinn, and the advice I was given there was to never utter a word of it.
To brighter discoveries, and I am impressed by the plethora of churches and castles huddled around the city – standout highlights are the Pazaislis Monastery (complete with a garden and restaurant), and the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul, with its opulent interior of expressive sculptures. We draw our cycle to a close with an excursion into Akropolis shopping centre for supermarket supplies. Magic hour approaching, the remainder of the evening is spent on the hostel roof, drinking brandy and taking photographs as the sun sets over the Church of St. Michael the Archangel, just visible through the trees.
An Ecolines bus to Riga will set you back a mere €18, and we set off at 3:20 p.m. the next day from the bus station (Autobusa stotis) on Vytauto Avenue. We pass over the Latvian border as the light dims, arriving into Riga International Coach Terminal (Rīgas Starptautiskā autoosta) at 6:50 p.m., our hostel Friendly Fun Franks a mere 5-minute walk away.
A hostel that greets you with a free beer upon check-in is something I’ve never experienced before. The laid-back atmosphere extends to the city centre, now dark, as we take a stroll around town and venture into a couple of bars, conforming to tourist cliché by sampling some Riga Black Balsam. Let’s rule on this right now, Balsam, a liqueur concoction of 24 different herbs, is utterly revolting. A single shot can be enough to send you darting for the nearest cubicle. It’s Riga’s emblematic drink, an ethanol cough medicine cooked up in Hell’s Kitchen. We call it a night after this.
The Neo Sky Bar-Restaurant located on the 8th, 9th and 10th floors of the central clock tower is not exceptionally high, but it is an excellent spot for a bit of photography, offering elevated landscape views as you sit down for a meal. We arrive around 11:00 a.m. the next day for a light brunch and a couple of beers, the interior a cocktail lounge decor with chill-out music dominating the soundtrack. The alternate option here is the Radisson Blu Hotel Skyline Bar. Located at a higher vantage point on the hotel’s 26th floor, but with a €3 price of admission, the vistas are meant to be impressive.
On our wanderings, the most striking building we find is that of the futuristic-like National Library of Latvia sitting on the west bank of the Daugava River. A three-dimensional triangle-shaped construction, it conspicuously stands out amidst the city’s Art Nouveau gems. Background information regarding the intention behind the building’s somewhat anachronistic appearance can be found here: http://www.lnb.lv/en/nll-new-building/gunars-birkerts-national-library-latvia-idea-project
That evening we partake in a few Zelta beers and Somersby ciders in the hostel before proceeding to Funny Fox Bar for an embarrassing session of karaoke. It’s a small, jam-packed, dimly lit establishment serving a reasonably priced selection of drinks, with an encyclopedia-sized list of music choices for those willing to act the prat on stage with a microphone. What happens in … Riga stays in Riga.
It appears that hangovers don’t befall me in these parts. What I crave upon waking up each morning is not the placebo effect of a strong coffee but the atmosphere of an unscripted saunter – the cool air and soft light, the artisanal stores tucked away on side streets, and the dirtier shops lurking behind the city’s banks and malls. As a tourist I can enjoy the aesthetic contrasts, blithely ignoring the reality of what is a difficult life for many of Riga’s inhabitants.
Through the hostel we arrange a tour of the city by a local university student, who tells us about Latvia’s history, particularly the transition to democracy after gaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. She discusses the impact of the euro, and expresses deep concerns over neighbouring Lithuania’s future in light of the current eurozone crisis. I am told that austerity measures have hit Latvia hard, and that despite subsequent growth and a reduced deficit, the unemployment rate remains high. A lot of young people have as a result emigrated in search of work and better career opportunities. Though I’ve only restricted myself to the capital, I get the impression of a country somehow wavering between the old and new, unsure of itself and wary of economic travails lying ahead.
Of the tour’s highlights, Freedom Monument I find to be particularly affecting. It’s a 42-metre high memorial on Freedom Boulevard commemorating soldiers killed in the Latvian War of Independence (1920). The elegantly designed National Opera House sits in a park just south of the monument. You can find the current programme here: http://www.opera.lv/en/all-repertoire/
Our tour culminates in a visit to Riga Central Market. Meat, grains, and vegetable stalls span the interiors of five pavilions constructed from old German Zeppelin hangars. If ever there was a more appropriate place for a spot of shopping. Goods are sold based on weight (per kilo), bargains to be found aplenty. I emerge with a hamper of goodies to take back to Scotland – chorizo, black bread, and local cheeses.
We seem to have settled into routine now, and it’s another evening of food and drinks in the hostel. We heartily gorge in the kitchen as slightly jarring pop hits blare out of a vintage Soviet-era wireless. A trek to a local bar called Pulkvedim Neviens Neraksta ensues, and we are bade farewell on our exit a few hours later by the bizarre appearance of two intoxicated Latvian sailors granting us free shots of whiskey and unlimited puffs on a bubblegum-flavoured e-cigarette. They are swiftly escorted home by a more sober companion.
I have a cheeky King Edward cigar in the smoking room back at the hostel and look out over the Daugava River at night. It’s been a superb mini-adventure – the quietness and solitude of Kaunas complemented by the relative rambunctiousness and, dare I say it, decadence of Riga’s nightlife. I came only with modest expectations of quaint pubs and leisurely strolls, but I am thoroughly delighted with what I have seen on my trip – from the variety and peculiarity of Baltic eateries and bars, to the colourful playfulness of the architecture, and the richness of the cultures on display.
The next day I atone with a morning jog by the river, shuffling over the Vanšu Bridge and back like an asthmatic hippo. I manage to complete about 11 minutes of running before collapsing in a heap by a bus stop. The locals are puzzled. One of them sighs despairingly. Travelling can take the will out of your body. After breakfast we hop on the No. 22 bus to the airport for our flight to Glasgow Prestick. We vow to return, and on this future occasion equipped with at least a small understanding of the gripping historical narratives that underpin the Lithuanian and Latvian experience.