Two out of three ain’t bad

Following on from the superlative-laden Estonia, the next country that required checking off the list was Latvia, and Riga in particular.
Riga is another quiet capital city; less medieval than Tallinn but equally less tourist. Despite the plethora of churches, the city centre is modern, with wide streets and an abundance of street cafes. The whole feel is somewhat more cosmopolitan. This, in part, has given it the status of current European City of Culture. The transport infrastructure is good, but the centre can easily be explored by foot.
One of the biggest surprises is the city’s food hall. Sited as it is in five huge former Zeppelin hangers, it is a food-lover’s haven; with rich aromas and tempting displays it made me question the purpose of hotel travel. Far better an apartment; freshly cooked food and local beer: yum! But restaurant life can be good and cheap…and no flapping of plates when washing up (for the uninitiated, go overlanding)!
The other benefit of restaurant life is venturing deep in to the bowels of some cavernous cellar to eat and stumbling across a group of young people, unconnected but for their love of a capella. Strangers are more than welcome to join in…if you know he words…in Latvian. If not, clapping and banging the table to the rhythm are acceptable contributions. And when the singing stops, someone winds up the piano for impromptu playing at an extraordinarily high level.
Whereas Tallinn and Riga had their charms, I have to say Vilnius in Lithuania offered less that roused my interest. Cosmopolitan; certainly due to the excellence of it’s university. The churches are grand as always, and other architecture is up there with the best. But it just didn’t feel right…to me anyway.
So, what to do. Outside town, in Trakai, is a castle that sits on a lake and is, by accounts of those who went there, absolutely stunning. But not for me the warm glow of beauty in it’s conventional form. Two of us set off on local bus for the two hour ride to Grutas Parkas near Druskininkai. Modelled on a Siberian gulag, it hosts the largest collection of Soviet era statues and other artefacts outside modern day Russia. It is controversial. Statues of Lenin, Stalin, and others abound (87 in total); but the park doesn’t shy away from explaining what life under Soviet rule was really like. There is also a small zoo on site, but it is unkempt and just a little distressing.
Back in Vilnius one must-visit is the former KGB (and during German occupation, Gestapo) headquarters. It is a truly moving experience, and when accompanied by a guide as passionate as ours, truly memorable. History, as difficult as it might be, should not be forgotten. Local people are genuinely concerned that lessons have not been learned from episodes of their recent past; and could so easily be reenacted as currently in the Ukraine.

Riga's food hall...well one of them.
Riga’s food hall…well one of them.


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