For long-term stay in Europe, when travelling on an Australian passport, you must comply with the restrictions of the Schengen Visa. If you are visiting Europe for less than 90 days then you have no concerns. We will be here for a couple of years and this will take some effort to conform to the 90 day stay in every 180 days, allowed in the Schengen visa zone. Our 90 days started the day we entered Estonia. I will post a detailed breakdown of the Schengen Visa and how we are complying with the requirements after we have been here a while and have experienced the visa requirements.
We left Parnu in Estonia bound for Riga in Latvia on an EcoLine bus. The bus was very comfortable and had all the modern facilities. The journey was two hours and cost a mere 8 Euros each (AUD$11).
This was going to be our first European border crossing by bus. Well, if you blinked you missed the border crossing. When entering one Schengen country from another Schengen country there are no border checks, the bus just sails on through. That is why several years ago the ‘illegal’ immigrants making the journey from Africa and the Middle East to countries like Greece and Italy were able, once they arrived, to simply head to France, Germany, or whatever their preferred destination was, completely unrestricted – there are no border checks. Without the border check some of that new country excitement has been removed – it was a little disappointing to be honest!
My first impressions of Riga were not positive; thankfully first impressions can be wrong. Riga was cold, wet, bleak and miserable when we arrived at the bus station. The Latvians have that miserable Russian expression on their faces and are very wary of foreigners – that is how it felt to me. We had a two kilometre walk through the cold and drizzle and my mood did not improve.
When we arrived at our apartment my concerns fell to the depths of despair and I wondered what we had got ourselves into. The apartment was through an old decaying tunnel which was suffocating in graffiti. Through the tunnel and we were confronted with several rundown shabby apartments that surrounded a grimy car park – not a good look and I made sure my wallet was secure.
Our host lady was there to meet us and she was a lovely vibrant lady, who tried so hard to speak English. She led us to the worst corner of the apartment block and up to an old steel door that looked like a gothic, gaol cell door.
We lugged our bags up the sterile three floors to our apartment, and ……. the place was lovely and clean, in fact it was very nice indeed. I have to learn to never judge a book by its cover. The cost per night of our apartment was AUD$53.
The apartment was well located in the centre of the city, and when the glorious sun came out the next morning and the temperature rose to a balmy 16 degrees Celsius, the whole city had a different feel to it – it was charming.
Di and I retraced our steps past the bus station and in the sunlight it looked rather quaint rather than the foreboding look it had the previous day – what a difference a day makes. The Old Town of Riga was about a two kilometre walk and that’s where we headed.
Riga Old Town is situated by the Daugava River and has a small canal looping around it; the Pilsetas Canal. We wandered the streets of Old Town over the next two days in brilliant sunshine.
Along the canal there are several walks through lovely gardens. There are several bridges crossing the canal and several fountains spraying water into the air – very picturesque indeed. We liked to enter the Old Town past Freedom Monument as this seemed to be a formal gateway.
Once past the monument and over the canal bridge you have the Opera House to the left and the Powder Tower to the right. The streets are narrow and cobblestoned and are delightful to wander.
The Town Hall square is at the centre and there you will find the Riga Cathedral and loads of outdoor dining.
For some bizarre reason ‘The House of the Blackheads’ fascinated Diane, you know now why the zits on the back of my neck quiver when she walks past!! Well, Di was intrigued to see this building – the building is a grand old place, unfortunately though it was all covered over and under renovation – she never got to see the Blackheads!! The renovations were not shrouded in green cloth but was covered in material depicting the House of Blackheads, so the photo kind of hides the renovations and appears normalish!!
There is also the obligatory St Peter’s Church to see. From there a street with all the pubs and sports bars can be found. We were there on a Saturday and I went to the Irish Bar, Donegan’s on my own to watch the English Premier League game on TV. The pub was full of groups of English guys, some aged in their twenties, whilst others were aged in their fifties. Sitting there listening to them it appeared they had all come over from England for the weekend and have a cheap alcohol fuelled weekend – an interpreter would not have gone astray to improve my eavesdropping of all the various accents!!! I later saw a group of a dozen English girls on a ‘Hens Night,’ they had their Essex voices screeching away and looked a lovely old sight stumbling along the cobblestone streets in miniskirts, high heels and wine glass in hand! This got me thinking of just how cheap the alcohol had been so far in these Baltic countries.
Alcohol is sold in any food store or convenience shop. It appears Australia is one of the few countries in the world you cannot pop into a 7/11 to buy your beer or wine. I would buy two local bottles of beer, 500 mls to 600 mls, and a bottle of wine; usually from Italy, Spain, Chile or Georgia and have change from 10 Euros (AUD$13). In most of the bars a pint will cost 3.20 – 3.60 Euros so about AUD$5.
You can buy very cheap local beer from the shops in large plastic bottles if you are so inclined. I bought a 1.5 litre beer in a plastic bottle with its cup as a lid – the price was 2 Euros – a bargain and it tasted okay, but I am not a fan of beer in plastic, even though the plastic bottle was made from recycled plastic, so it was environmentally friendly.
There are shops that just sell alcohol (who cater for the alcoholics – I say this in jest).
There are shops for the people who just want ‘Booze’.
In fact, beer and wine lovers are looked after too. Seriously, I thought Australia had an obsession with alcohol – here the alcohol section in a supermarket is like a shrine in the middle of the store, with all the other products surrounding it in worship!
I felt the Irish Pub full of alcohol fuelled English louts may be a bit much for Diane, as she was joining me later for the second game and for dinner. I moved out of Old Town and found a pub that was with only Latvian people (I could tell by the way they spoke, they sounded Latvian, that was enough for me). Now I am a Manchester City supporter and have been since the late 1960’s. This pub turned out to be full of Latvian Manchester United supporters – bitter rivalry there my friends. Sadly, only the Manchester United game was on TV and I endured in silence as they won. Di joined me and during the game kept reminding me NOT to support the opposing team loudly. These Latvian Man U supporters all had their own Man United beer glasses behind the bar – I took a quick photo at half time when they all went outside for a cigarette!!
Anyway, Riga is big with foreigners to come for weekend drinking sessions, so Old Town gets a bit rowdy on Saturday.
There are many great places to wander outside of Old Town. You can walk through Old Town to the river and then turn left there and follow the river to the Riga Central Markets. This area has several massive hanger type markets which are full of either clothes, bags, or fruit, fish, meat. Just beyond the markets is another restaurant and bar area. Then a short walk to the Holocaust Museum, which if free to enter but you should donate.
If you walk away from Old Town past the Freedom Monument, for about 300 metres, you will come to a large park area. Inside the park there is the very impressive Riga Nativity of Christ Cathedral, in fact this church impressed me as much as the ones in Moscow.
The park also contains the Venus of Willendorf statue, the Latvian National Museum of Art and the Art Academy Building – all impressive locations.
You will have to mind my art ignorance here, but Riga is famous for its German Art Nouveau buildings. The main streets in Riga where this German Art Nouveau can be found was not far from the Riga Nativity of Christ Cathedral and is called Alberta Lela.
I must admit it was rather mesmerising wandering the streets of the Alberta Lela area, admiring the lions, Pharos, angels, faces, etc. So for me, my illiterate understanding; is that Art Nouveau is all to do with decoration and using all forms of art, hence, the elaborately decorated buildings throughout the streets. I actually felt I had learnt something.
A good day trip from Riga is out to Jurmala. Jurmala is the beach resort area of Riga. We caught a train out there which takes about 30 minutes and costs a few Euros. You catch the trains bound for Skolas or Dubultu from Riga central train station. You exit the train at Dzintari and once off the train you walk across the road into a large forest.
The forest is a great little walk. It is full of bike tracks and walking paths. There are also a high ropes and low ropes through the trees which cost about 18 Euros.
There is a large tower in the middle of the forest with some 220 steps to its top. I must warn you that when I climbed to the top of the tower there was hardly any wind, having said that, the top quarter of the tower swayed from side to side.
On a windy day I think motion sickness could be a real issue. The steps of the tower are also a grate, which means when you look down you can see through the grate all the way to the ground – thus if you have issues with high places, this may not be for you.
Once through the forest, takes about fifteen minutes walking to cross through, you come to a street adorned with some wonderful houses – it is hard not to peer over fences and snap away with the camera.
It is then a short walk on to the beach and the beach is what Jurmala is famous for.
The beach is long and wide. The sand though is very hard packed and there will be bikes riding along the beach.
The beach was packed with people strolling along. The day was cool, but not cold, but most people were still rugged up. I am not a fan of the Latvian habit of sticking a portable loo in the middle of the beach; a word of warning, entering these loos is an attack on your senses both visually and nasally – not for the fainted hearted, but the Latvians do not seem to mind.
Di and I wove a path from Dzintari through Majori to Dubultu, alternating between walking on the beach and through the tree-lined streets admiring the houses. There are some restaurants and cafes on the beach, but on the streets there are very few of these. Some of the streets you walk along also run next to the river. We caught the train back to Riga from Dubultu.
The alternative is to get off at Dzintari and walk the other way along the beach to Bulduri and the river headland. There is also a large National Park at Slokas, but it seemed we would need a vehicle to get around there. Whichever way you go it is a lovely day out and we enjoyed our visit to the area.
We stayed four nights in Riga – I could have done at least another two nights. After an initial fright on the day we arrived, our stay in Riga was very good. I wish the Latvian people would lighten up a touch and not be so Russian, as they seem to follow the Russians love of misery and vodka!!!!
We caught a Nordeka bus when we left Riga and went over to Liepaja. The two hour journey was again cheap at 6 Euros each. Our host in Liepaja picked us up at the bus station and drove us to his pleasant apartment in the centre of Leipaja. We stayed three nights and it cost AUD$53 per night.
Liepaja is another coastal town with a large beach.
It is also famous in Latvia for its large concert hall, theatre, and musicians. It also was home to a large Soviet Naval Base during the cold war and the soviet occupation.
The beach front at Liepaja has a long garden park leading to it called Jurmalas Park. Inside the park there is a monument to all the Mariners Lost at Sea. The monument is a statue of a lady looking forlornly out to sea. An additional plaque was added to the monument in 2000 and this plaque was for the US crew of a Navy plane, PB4Y-2, shot down off the coast of Liepaja in 1950. The navy plane was an observation plane with a ten man crew – ‘observation’, ‘secret’ Soviet Naval Base, cold war – it all reads like a spy novel. The wreckage of PB4Y-2 was never found and the crews’ remains never recovered, it remained an unfortunate incident in the Cold War.
The Soviet Naval Base was five kilometres from Liepaja at Karosta. Di and I took a walk over to Karosta and because I planned it we walked the long way around – which made my darling Di just so appreciative.
As you enter Karosta you are greeted by abandoned building after abandoned building. These are the old Naval barracks and supply buildings. It is like walking through a ghost town. There are old run down stereotype housing blocks were people do live today, but the naval buildings are all deserted.
Karosta is home to the old Soviet Naval prison, which today is run as a hotel and a museum. The catch though to staying at the hotel is that you are locked in a cell at night and the food they feed you is the same as what the prisoners were fed. The hotel staff also take on the role of prison guards and will abuse you verbally for any slowness or if you break the rules.
In the heart of Karosta there is the stunning St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Naval Cathedral. During the Soviet occupation this cathedral was used for ‘R and R’ by the sailors. They showed movies there and held functions, such as dances.
The ruin of the Soviet Naval Base is called the Northern Fort. If you have a vehicle it is a five kilometre drive from Karosta or there is a bus from Karosta. I though walked along the shore and the beach to the ruins. Di had had enough walking by this time as we had clocked over 12 kilometres so she caught the bus back to Liepaja and I went on alone.
The coastal walk was fantastic.
The ruins of the base can be seen jutting out of the ocean. It is all a bit like Charlton Heston riding his horse along the beach at the end of the Planet of The Apes movie, from 1968, and discovering the Statue of Liberty – my imagination runs wild occasionally!!!
The base was destroyed and bulldozed but they left a lot behind with bunkers, parts of buildings, towers, etc , all either still standing or jutting out of the sea or sand. The locals have had fun with most buildings and there is an enormous amount of graffiti throughout the ruins.
The base goes a long way and when I was there I saw very few people wandering the ruins – I basically had it all to myself. It does get a little worrying wandering off the track as there are holes and crumbling foundations everywhere – but on the worn walking track it seemed okay.
It was a long walk out and back along the coast but I enjoyed it, it took about three hours. It is hard to imagine how big the base was in its heyday, but it must have been massive. If you ever go to Liepaja then this is a place you must come to if you have any interest in history.
The reason the walk to Karosta is so long is that you have to walk around the old navy port the Russians hid their ships in.
I discovered that there is a small bridge back to Liepaja that cut the walk in half. According to my Map My Walk app, I walked 30 kilometres that day, but I was never bored as the scenery of the Naval Base was intriguing.
Our two full days in Liepaja were soon over. Di and I walked into town to catch our EcoLine bus to our next country Lithuania. We only stayed a week in Latvia but overall I enjoyed it and could have stayed a few days more. Latvia was different to Estonia, my preference was for Estonia, but Latvia was impressive in its own way. The Tallinn Old Town was better for me, but it is like comparing apples and oranges – they are both fruit but completely different.
The Baltic adventure continues………………..