In May 2010 I decided to leave my job in Australia and travel around the world before moving to the USA. This journey ended up involving travelling in 18 countries on 4 continents (North America, Europe, Asia and Australia) and taking me around the world 1.5 times over a 12 month period! I wrote a number of travel emails from that trip and I thought it would be fun to revisit them with some additional info and photos. The following blog is Part 18 of that journey (Latvia and Estonia).
August 11th, 2010
Over 5 days I have explored all the major sights of Riga the capital of Latvia (one of the Baltic States) that I am interested in. There is the usual European thing of massive churches and cathedrals, but also many interesting places to visit from the Communist period and just local day to day life in various markets and neighbourhoods. Riga is the ultimate party city, with bars and clubs all over, it is not hard to have a fun night out on the town. The Baltic States are also famous for beautiful women and Riga certainly has no shortage of gorgeous ladies! A great place to get lost in for a few days (or in some cases forever)!
The historic centre of Riga also has many decorative Art Nouveau (French for New Art) buildings from the turn of the 2oth century. They are apparently the best collection of such buildings in Europe, of which many have been restored to their former glory.
The Museum of Occupation of Latvia 1940-1991 was an interesting and sad place to visit – detailing the history of Soviet occupation (1940-1941, 1944-1991) and German occupation (1941-1944) of this area, along with the Latvian resistance movement. Latvia did not escape the Nazi Holocaust and upto 75,000 Jews were murdered. Hundreds of thousands of Latvians fled at the end of WW2 to escape the Soviets, most never returned to their homeland (unless they were captured and forced back), hundreds of thousands more were repressed, imprisoned or deported to the Gulags in Siberia in the years that followed. In return hundreds of thousands or Soviet citizens from other Russian republics were bought in to Sovieticise the state and help run industry (as there were not enough Latvians to do so). It was a crazy and devastating period in history (remember this country only has a population of less than 2.5 million people, the numbers are a massive percentage of the population base).
I also went across the river to a massive Soviet WW2 Victory Monument which had classic communist symbology – giant soldiers, Soviet stars and a woman representing liberty. I am surprised they havent torn it down given the Soviet oppression of Latvia. The locals know it as the “Monument of the Rapists“!
The Riga Central Market was quite fascinating – food, clothes, bric a brac – just about anything you could imagine in and around these huge old Zeppelin Hangers. The fish hall on a hot day was not a highlight! The Russian Market – “black market” was another in “Little Moscow” and it was amazing what they were selling there, anything from ancient old computer parts, tools, machinery and communist era mementos to mostly junk!
I went out to the Riga Aviation Museum near Riga airport (a collection of old Soviet era military aircraft) – I have never been to a more ramshackle yet brilliant air museum! It was a glorious Occupational Health & Safety nightmare – MiG’s, Sukhoi’s, Tupolev’s, Yakovlev’s and Kamov/Mil choppers (including an Mi-6 Hook – a huge transport chopper) all over the place, bits and pieces of aircraft lying all over, a giant Tupolev TU-22M Backfire bomber hidden away behind tonnes of parts etc. They had these old aircraft steps for boarding passenger jets lying all over, so I would just climb to the top of one to get good photos, no safety concerns what so ever at this place! It was truly fantastic and something that you would never find in a Western air museum!
I went on a day trip to a place an hour out of Riga called Sigulda with nice forest, castle ruins there and in the nearby town of Turaida (5km walk) there was a cave from Latvian fairy tales about two lovers, but the girl was brutally murdered by another jealous man in the cave (lovely fairy tale I know!) – it had this amazing amount of graffiti carved into the stone in Latvian and Russian dating back at least over the last 100 years, there was also a nicely partially restored castle on the hill, where a kind of folk festival was going on. Another very hot day though (we had a few days of heavy rain, but now all the hot weather from Russia is hitting the Baltics) so rather than walk back in the heat I just caught a local bus back to Sigulda.
My last day in Riga I had an incredible afternoon – 5 hours in a Soviet nuclear fallout bunker under an abandoned printing factory! A massive place formerly for the Propaganda Minister (and selected employees of the printing factory etc – meant to hold up to 600 people in 1000 square metres – pretty crowded). The young guys looking after it are amassing a collection of communist era equipment from other deserted bunkers – amazing how much effort the Soviets put into teaching their people how to survive nuclear attack. They have found Geiger counters, emergency equipment, air raid siren, radios, telephones, thousands of communist books and emergency procedure posters (nuclear, chemical or biological attack). They are trying to save all this stuff to set up a permanent museum – many people just destroy it and don’t care about the historical significance as it is Soviet.
They even still have the original red phone hotline to Moscow, plus the original telex/teleprinter machines for also communicating to Moscow. Alas no one answers anymore……..
These guys gave me a free Soviet gas mask – mint condition, with its original bag etc from up to 30 years ago (they found crate loads of them) and a nuclear attack emergency medical kit (not sure how I will get that through customs?? Although I have now made sure the drugs are not in any of the capsules – apparently a friend of one of these guys took some, ended up hallucinating, ranting and raving, talking to a toilet and eventually in hospital!).
I am now in Tartu in South Eastern Estonia, the second largest city in Estonia (which means it’s quite small as there are only about 1.5 million Estonians!). Tartu is a nice old university town, very quiet compared to Riga, and there are no glamorous women tottering around dangerously on cobble stoned streets in ridiculously high-heeled shoes! Timing has been good as “Tartuff” a film festival is happening with free movies in the city square. Thousands turned out last night to see “Micmacs” a French crime comedy – advertised as subtitles in Estonian and English – unfortunately it was not with the English ones…I watched it anyway – I could work it out relatively easily as it was mostly action! It was a bit like the forest tour I had to join in Poland to get into the restricted area of the Bialoweiski NP – it was all in Polish, I just nodded and smiled – got through it and saw what I wanted to see!
Anyway – off to explore the former KGB HQ here and some museums – apparently the anatomy museum has the giant testicles of a man with elephantiasis which weigh 5kg…should be amusing!