I made a mistake when I was in Helsinki….I didn’t have a plan. I thought I was part of a tour group, when really the tour company provided an hour long tour around the city and then dropped us off in the shopping district for 8 hours. I did not have a map or really any direction, and while I had a Lonely Planet guidebook, it was not much help.
I decided that my time in Riga would not be like that. I spent the four hour bus ride reading about some of the things that I wanted to see, and booked a hotel in the center of the action. I grabbed a good map from the front desk and used Google maps to make a list of how to get to each of the places. I got into Riga around dinner time, and was absolutely knackered from the whirlwind few days, so after a quick bite to eat, I took advantage of the really nice hotel bathtub and my copy of the Bell Jar. I was asleep pretty early and woke up the next morning excited to start the day.
There was really only one thing that was on my list of place to see in Riga: the only synagogue in the city. After Riga was occupied by the Nazis, all the synagogues in the city were burnt down on July 4, 1941. The Peitav Shul was the only synagogue in Riga to escape the common fate because it was located in the Old Town and there was a risk that the fire would spread to nearby buildings. During the war the synagogue was used as a warehouse. After the war it was learned that the eastern wall of the synagogue, where the bookcase with Torah scrolls (Aron Kodesh) was located, had been concealed. The synagogue did not disappoint. It was absolutely breathtaking. The rabbi let me in and allowed me 30 minutes alone in the majestic space.
In all honesty, I could devote an entire post to it. I felt peaceful in there, and felt a small connection with family who I will never get to meet, but may have gone there. Latvia was never on my radar as a place to visit, but when my aunt told us that that was where our family was from, it became a place of interest for me.
In addition to the synagogue, I saw all of the tourist attractions. By far my favorite was the Cat House. The legend has it that the wealthy tradesman who commissioned the building was refused membership of the Riga Tradesmen’s Guild, mostly just called the Great Guild. The central element of both versions is the anecdote that seeking retribution the tradesman had two copper statues of angry-looking cats with arched backs and raised tails placed on the turret rooftops with their tails turned towards the house of the Great Guild, situated across the street.
I could live in a house like that. The Riga Cat is also somewhat famous.
I also visited the oldest set of houses in Riga, as well as the Freedom Monument and a beautiful Russian Orthodox cathedral.
I took a hundred pictures. I walked around for hours admiring the views, and because I had a tourist friendly map and a plan, fell in love with the city. It reminded me a lot of my first few days in Scotland. I had a map, and my ipod. I wasn’t worried about getting lost, and I was happy to be on an adventure. I put on some of my favorite playlists and allowed myself to really get a feel for the city. I ended the day with pelmeni, only the most delicious dumplings ever, and then a Skype chat with some of my favorite ladies from Scotland. All in all, it was a great little excursion and just what I needed to curb my wanderlust for a bit.