From the moment that I became part of the Latvian Community in Kalamazoo, I wanted to experience the place that so many of them love. My family and friends have such a deep connection to their motherland. I wanted very much to share that experience. So, when word came around that Matiss Kukainis was finally getting married AND holding the wedding in Latvia, there was nothing that would stop me from going to Latvia and taking my family along.
One of the most beautiful cities I have ever visited is the old part of Riga, called Vecrīga. I’m not sure why but I have a deep admiration for centuries old cities filled with character and charm. Maastricht, Sienna and Vecrīga round out the top of my list. One of the great things about Vecrīga is that very few to no cars drive through the streets of Vecrīga. It allows you to wander through a maze of cobble stone streets while gazing at amazing architecture. The only thing you need to be wary is of bumping into relatives coming out of a corner cafe while your gawking at St. Janis church.
When you run into a cousin (or two) be prepared to be carried along to the next outdoor cafe residing in the shadow of St. Peter’s church, the tallest church in VecsRiga, where more friends will be gathering. If you are visiting in July like we did, it will likely be a warm (but not hot) sunny day. Never fear, however, if it isn’t as warm as you’d like, the cafes keep a blanket on the back of each chair for patrons to be cozy comfortable.
This was an amazing once in a lifetime trip. But, to make this easy on myself, because I don’t want to forget a thing from my dream vacation, I will recount everything from the beginning. It might not be my best writing but this is mostly for me so be it.
Four months before our arrival, I used Trip Advisor to rent a one bedroom apartment. I spent hours pouring through pictures of apartments finally settling on good location, reasonable price and ability to sleep 4. PK and I stayed in a large bedroom while the boys slept on a couch with a rumble bed. It was much better than renting two hotel rooms like we had to do in Munich. The agency renting the apartment to us arranged for strees free transportation from the airport.
We left Minich that morning before lunch and arrived in Riga with grumbling tummies. Our apartment was located a block down from Vermanes Garden with City Diner on the corner. Being hungry and new to the city, we figured the first place we found would be just fine. We didn’t realize our first restaurant, City Diner, would be an American themed diner! It was a little disappointing to have our first exposure to Riga be American cheeseburgers. Additionally, practicing my Latvian language skills was pointless because the waitress was Russian.
Still, it was early, I was in Latvia and nothing, not even American food, would ruin my dream.
The next stop was Riga Galleria. Renting the apartment meant we had a kitchen and we wanted to fill that kitchen with breakfast and snack items to make vacation a little more convenient when hunger called. The grocery store is located on the bottom floor of a shopping mall. We wandered through the aisles looking for unusual candies or other interesting items. We filled our basket with salami, cheese and candy then headed to the bakery section. By far the best part of grocery shopping was that despite it being mid-afternoon, we were still able to buy warm bread from the bakery to go with our salami and cheese.
After depositing our grocery goods in our rental kitchen, I texted cousin-in-law and friend, Liene, for a meet up. Liene was with the two rambunctious boys and the “nearly still a baby” at the park by our apartment hanging out at the Latvian culture festival while her husband, Rob was with the groom on a bachelor boat cruise. These kinds of moments in the park make you thankful to have family (with kids) traveling to Latvia at the same time. Mik and Karlis ran off to play with the two older boys so that “nearly still a baby” could nap. PK and I walked through the booths looking over authentic Latvian goods like linens, wooden bowls, and amber jewelry promising myself that I would come back to buy every beautiful thing I saw. I regret that I never went back.
After a little bit of free time for the boys in the park, Liene took us to see the Freedom monument. Latvia has a long and determined history. A must see landmark is the Fredom Monument. Unveiled in 1935, it honors the soldiers killed in the Latvian War of Independance (1918-1920). Fortunately, it later survived the Soviet Occupation (1940-1996) and remained a symbol of national independence during those tough times. The Latvians have such revenence for this monument that no one is even allowed to sit on the stairs at the base of the monument. It is permissible to leave a bouquet of flowers at the base.
For Fatherland and Freedom
The next must see memorial is the surrounding park, Bastejkalns. A canal winds through beautiful gardens. You can climb the hill to view Freedom monument through the trees. The winding sidewalks provide ample opportunity for boys to be boys. In addition to colorful flowers, this park has 5 memorials dedicated to the journalists, the student and the policemen that lost their lives in 1991 when Russian OMON (Special Forces) attacked the building of Interior Ministry of Latvia.
With some of the energy burned off, we were ready to try our hand at eating once again. This time, we had our own personal Riga tour guide to keep us on the right edible track. Liene guided us to Lido for economical Latvian food. At Lido, you walk through a buffet/cafeteria type kitchen selecting genuine Latvian food. In our excitement, we certainly didn’t hold back on the kotlets (cutlets), kartupeļi (potatoes) and other dishes. I noticed that we had about three times the number of plates per person as any Latvian in the restaurant which was just enough for this American family!
Since we were still acclimating to the time zone change, we accompanied Liene back to their apartment to let the younger boys have some down time before bed. We weren’t sitting there for long when Janis, PK’s uncle, leaned out the apartment window across the courtyard and silently summonded PK to join him in tasting some scotch(es).
Before too long, I felt that it was time for us to return to our apartment. I received protests all around but I insisted that we depart. The sky, still shining bright at 9:45 pm, had deceived everyone in my family except me, but, then, I had an iPhone to tell me the truth. Riga sits at Latitude 56° 57′ 0″ N. In translation, there is little darkness in the summer and little light in the winter.
I allowed one stop on the way to the apartment at a convenience store (or what looked like it might be one) to buy a bag of ice. Let’s just say that ice is a pretty rare thing in Latvia and it would become a moderate obsession of ours to procure ice over the next 10 days.
I completed the first day of my dream vacation in the Motherland with such wonders to hold already. We collapsed in bed and fell into a fast dreamless sleep only to be woken by mid-day sunlight streaming through the windows at 5 am.
…Which is where I will pick up the story in my next blog post…