Riga: Smiling Faces
September 5, 2014
Dear Family and Friends,
In response to my letters and photographs from Latvia, my old friend and classmate Paul G. wrote the following:
“Thanks, Jan, for the virtual tour. My wife and I will never visit many of the locations that you experienced.”
Paul’s sentiments are certainly understandable. For most Americans who travel to Europe, Latvia is not a favored destination. England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain top the list.* Who can gainsay the decisions to visit Buckingham Palace in London, the Eiffel Tower in Paris, Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin, the Coliseum in Rome, or the Plaza de Toros in Madrid?
And yet, the decisions of many Americans are now changing.
During three months in the year 2013, compared to 2012, American visitors to Slovakia increased by 45%, Iceland 35%, Croatia 25%, Serbia 12% and Latvia 12%. The numbers actually declined slightly in Germany, Spain and the UK.*
For the statistic called “US Visitor Nights in Select Destinations,” Latvia increased by a whopping 50.5%, number one on the list!** And since I spent eleven nights in Latvia, including five nights in the capital Riga, perhaps I will contribute to even higher statistical numbers.
In fact, I recommend we all consider contributing to that statistic.
Riga is convenient. A non-stop flight from Paris to Riga is 2h 45m. From Rome, 3h 10m. From Berlin, 1h 50m. Or take a ferry from Stockholm or Lubeck, Germany.
There are so many sites and museums in Riga that even in my five days there I didn’t see half of them. And by the way, the sites are splendid and comparable, if not superior, to many in Western Europe. And the best part? No crowds! Easy to wander around, get lost and discover! (Don’t worry…everyone carries a street map.)
Hotels and Restaurants. I stayed at the Old Town Boutique Hotel. The rates are one-half to one-third of similar hotels elsewhere in Europe. Even so, the rate was a bit of a splurge for me so I found local, non-touristy cafes and restaurants. You like fresh herring and borscht?
The service everywhere is friendly and helpful. None of those jaded and officious types who consider it beneath themselves to try a bit of English. (You know where I am talking about.)
It seems by their very nature that Latvians are warm and hospitable. And always smiling. Latvians speak their native language and also Russian AND English.
Riga is totally clean. Everyone is well-dressed and well-behaved.
(When I travel in former Soviet Republics, I observe the same bright phenomenon. Shoes! No one, and I mean no one, including the youngest children and even teenagers, no one goes out of the house without wearing a pair of absolutely spotless, sparkly, fashionable shoes! And what colors and designs!!)
Culture you ask? On two successive nights, I walked just ten minutes from my hotel to the Opera House. I saw Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro and on the next night, Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. The orchestra, the voices and the dancers were of the highest caliber. The scenery, creative. The costumes, dramatic.
In Swan Lake, la Danse des petits cygnes, the Dance of the Four Little Swans was astonishing! *** This two minutes of orchestral and visual brilliance will provide the motivation for anyone, including me, to return to their music in a serious way.
For each performance I paid about 25 Euros for an orchestra seat. (Take that! Lincoln Center.)
I was not surprised when I learned that the new Music Director of the famed Boston Symphony Orchestra is from Latvia. My only shock was his age. Andris Nelsons is just thirty-five!
Here’s another shocking number: The total population of The Republic of Latvia is only 2.2 million.
From Riga, Day Trips can easily be arranged or simply taken on your own. You like Castles? River Trips? The Beach? Spas? A day’s ride along first class roads gets you to the National Forests or the Baltic Coast.
Finally, to quote my friend Elaine A. in Boston:
“I would never before have thought of Riga as a destination point. I only ever think of it in terms of history and genealogy. Now I have to add it to my ‘must see’ list.”
Next spring, I’m headed back to Riga to see the half of the city I missed the first time. And to see all those smiling faces. Will you join me?