Friday, August 30, 2013

Hello Baltics

House of the Balckheads

This was not planned. Oh, Baltics was, Riga was not. My initial understanding of my itinerary was that I have to go to Vilnius at some point. A lot of time was spent reading up about Vilnius and Lithuania and learning from my colleague who lives there. But, Riga came up before that and there was an exciting meeting to attend and an interesting forum to speak at. The flight, mind you could be a little terrifying at the start. The planes which ply on these regional European routes are the smallest commercial planes could ever be. It was a small Bombardier this time, Air Baltic. Pretty stripped down budget airline with a rare direct connection between Warsaw and Riga. The airplane is so small that smoothness of the flight is totally a factor of wind and weather and plane's actual weight is a non entity. Anyways, I reached Riga, the small capital of Latvia in about 1 hour of flying. A beautiful tiny capital on the baltic sea, Riga is a delight for lovers of art-nouveau buildings and quaint cobblestone alleys.
Riga is only a small city, but what it lacks in size it makes up for in character and colour. You can travel everywhere by foot, and within minutes you’ll start to notice it’s a city that takes pride on skirting away from the norm. I didn't find the same generic shops, restaurants and bars that most major cities have bought into; instead every corner invites you to learn more about Latvian / Baltic culture, whether it’s one of the many restaurants offering potato rich Latvian cuisine, or one of the many shops stacked head-to-toe with books and vinyl records. In fact, this is the first capital city I’ve been to in which I just saw 1 (yes, just ONE) McDonalds sign.
I was staying in the Old town area, so the first thing I did after reaching Riga in the evening was to stumble on the rough cobblestone streets, not once and not twice, but at least five times in a span of about a minute, simply because I was looking up at the buildings and not watching where I put my feet.
Once that bout of clumsiness was over and I figured out how to walk again, I proceeded to spend a couple of hours, just walking, turning left and turning right, choosing random streets and lanes and just seeing where it would all lead me. Riga old town is a colorful collection of restored historical buildings, which happens to contain the largest collection of German Art Nouveau architecture on the planet, a fact that, when read carefully, is quite an astonishing fact indeed. Riga and other baltic countries (Lithuania, Estonia) had a big German population until the Nazis arrived and sent them back to Germany. Riga also has a nice Indian restaurant, with a very corny name - ‘India Raja’. The food was delish and hosts nice (British, not Indian). British have become the biggest beacons for Indian food anywhere, if you go to an Indian restaurant and hear british people there, its bound to be good. They have a good palate for curry.
Lovely boats in the canal
Medieval street and very authentic medieval restaurant
Cool colorful buildings where everywhere
Bird's eye view of Riga and the daugava river
Freedom memorial
Old town 

Next day was supposed to be all business and I attended a workshop which was almost all in Latvian. So, I basically checked email and wrote a blog post while smiling and nodding to the crowd. Such huge is the difference between Baltic languages that my colleague from Lithuania, which is just 400 km away couldn't understand a word either. The binding language for the Baltics is guess what? Russian. Yes, Russians pretty much ruled these lands till the 1990s until the USSR broke down. And, they are hated here. The baltic nations have one and only one foreign policy - ‘Do anything that pinches the russians’. I also learned that in order to get sovereignty and get the russian army to leave after USSR fell, Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians created a massive human chain of millions of people holding hands and walked to the russian border. Very interesting.
Another great thing about the Baltics is the almost ubiquitous internet. Internet penetration is in the north of 80% and its incredible. When you walk into a restaurant, you are offered the menu and the password. I came to know of an interesting fact regarding this. When the Russians finally left in early 90s, Estonia thought of being a ultra modern state right away. They became the internet hub of Europe, leap-froged bureaucracy and became a totally e-governed state, almost completely paperless. Initially they even branded themselves as “e-Stonia”. High speed internet is almost a fundamental right here. Our 12% internet penetration suddenly looked a little low.
That evening was spent dining with colleagues and partners at the ‘Biggest open rooftop restaurants in the region’, quite a place to spend an evening overlooking almost all of the city in every direction. Also, helpful was the fact that the days are really really long there, sun was yet to set at 10 PM. In the conversation, I discovered that Riga was a very important Hansa port on the Baltic sea.And, that explains the very ornate ‘House of the Blackheads’ (pic at the top). I had never before heard of the ‘Hanseatic League’. It was powerful commercial and defensive confederation of merchants all along the land and sea supply lines in Europe. Hansa cities and ports also had a very unique architecture, Hamburg used to be one of the most prominent ones. Luft’hansa’ - rings a bell?
Spent the next day in more meetings (thankfully in english) and then was invited to speak at the only startup accelerator in Latvia about Enterprise Technologies. A very enthusiastic, young bunch of entrepreneurs working on the next gen mobile apps and web based services. Roamed around the city again and it was wonderful. Riga is only around half a million people and although it has recently become famous as a party destination for piss drunk teenagers from western Europe (thanks to Ryanair), the city was very pleasantly not full of people. Very walkable and full of great architecture and beautiful little sights on every turn and corner. I particularly liked the two big churches in the small town, both in brick gothic and with very high watchtowers.  One of the must dos in Riga according to tripadvisor was climbing the high watchtower of St Peter’s Basilica, I did that. I love vantage points, they give you a unique perspective of a place, they broaden your horizon, quite literally. The after a long ride on the elevator, which seemed to take ages I reached the top most part of the tower and the view was really breathtaking.  That was infact the last thing I did in the city before heading back to Warsaw and I would consider it to be the highpoint of my visit (again, quite literally). 
Impressed with how much of a unique culture, architecture and history this little country has packed in itself.Four months ago, I had not even dreamt of visiting Riga or Latvia and had a very very bleak idea of what the Baltic states are. But, having spent 3 days in this lovely city, I definitely understand more and what I had not even dreamt about is suddenly one of the coolest places I have seen. So much for four months.

More later



  1. AirBaltic service is terrible. The on board food is extremely overpriced and bad quality, not to mention the bad arrogant attitude of the cabin crew.

    Way better options flying with Lufthansa or Ryanair, they charge half price and not extras for luggage.

    Riga is a trap for tourist and Latvians will spread smiles and toasts only for money. A potato picking culture with no education.

    A waste of time and money.

  2. AirBaltic customer Serivce is really bad. Don't even try to collect a compensation if they cancel a flight or if they lose your suitcase!

    Airbaltic CallCenter is worst than a government office and if you try via email they will last weeks answering you automatic, standardrize emails.

    Who ever is in charge of the customer service should find another job!