Part of a Cox & Kings' trip to Russia and the Baltic States
Monday 27th June
We had left our hotel (Von Stackleberg) in Tallinn at 8.00 a.m. and had passed through the border between Estonia and Latvia at around mid-day.
Initially, the Latvian countryside did not differ substantially from that of Estonia – however, the roads were very much more in need of repair than those we had become used to in Tallinn and beyond.
Lunch today was included and we learned that it was to be a set meal of pork and vegetables. C&K had not passed on the information that we required vegetarian meals. Our driver was Lithuanian and spoke no English – needing to converse with Margit in their only common language: Russian. Although he had been to Riga some 200 times, he had never been to our lunch venue previously and we had great trouble finding it. It transpired that it was in a very rural area, accessed by an unmade road and we eventually arrived there a good hour late. In the event, they managed to find one vegetarian meal for Jill and Adrian will have one also on all future occasions.
After lunch we drove a relatively short distance to Sigulda where we visited Turaida Castle and Museum together with an 18th century Lutheran church. The castle was unusual in being built of brick but dated from the 13th century. We took the option to climb up the 100 foot tower from which there was a good view of the surrounding area and some sculptures nearby.
At around 5.30 p.m. we re-boarded our coach for the final part of today’s journey to Riga. We arrived in our hotel room at about 7.00 p.m. to find it had drawers!!! This was significant in that its counterpart in Tallinn had had nowhere to put our clothes although it DID have a safe and working wifi. Here in Riga, there was indeed a safe although Jill had considerable problems getting the wireless internet in our room to co-operate at first.
Later in the evening we went out for a quick meal at Double Coffee, opposite the hotel and again ate with Jean and Linda. The food was quite affordable and the menu varied. After this and getting all the photos edited and uploaded, we had a relatively early night and slept much more soundly than at the previous hotel.
Tuesday 28th June
The morning was taken up by a walking tour of Riga, lead by our new local guide – Margit having returned to Tallinn earlier today. For the first hour, we walked around the area near our hotel where it was pointed out to us how many Art Nouveau buildings existed. In Latvia they took the form of highly decorated external ornamentation with many statues, faces and fruit/vegetation.
We moved on to the Old Town and a short drive around, before walking through the Square in which are the House of Blackheads and St. Peter’s Cathedral. Again there were a number of Art Nouveau buildings together with very old churches and even one of the towers of the old city wall. Our initial impression of Riga had been of a dirty and unattractive city. This was certainly dispelled when viewing the Old Town.
After having lunch by ourselves in an open air restaurant “No Problem” near the Dome Cathedral, we set off to visit the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia. This showed a very similar history to that of Estonia. Many of the Latvians had been deported to gulags or simply to work in Russia. In turn, many Russians had been sent to occupy Latvia. In consequence, Riga currently has a population that is nearly 50% Russian.
We then took a boat tour of the canal and river before walking back to the hotel through parkland. With the brilliant sunshine, the whole place appeared extremely attractive.
Wednesday 29th June
The day was spent travelling from Riga to Klaipeda, a road journey of some 300 km.
Our guide gave background information on Latvia and our own observation adds a little to her account.
The three Baltic States share a fairly common history of occupation by Germans and then Russians - both in the 20th century and also earlier.
Latvia is a fairly poor country of 1.9 million inhabitants which they had thought was higher but many have emigrated recently. There was a boom in 2004-7. We noticed that the roads were poor and that much former agricultural land lay fallow. They now depend on services, logistics, I.T. and tourism. Much of the land is forested and apparently supports lynx, boars, elks and wolves.
There is some social security but unemployment benefit ceases after 9 months. There used to be 22% unemployment, but with many having now emigrated – especially to the UK – it stands at 13%. The pension age is 62, changing to 65 but life expectancy for men is only 64 and for women 78. The figure for men is skewed because so many young men die following drink/drive accidents.
Due to a policy of Russification, Russians now form 45% of the population. Many of them watch Russian TV and read the Russian press. There is therefore considerable nostalgia regarding the Soviet past, with its full employment and free medical care. Life is more difficult now economically and prices are higher.
We also noticed that all side roads outside the cities were unmade and the country areas looked pretty poor.
Nowadays a public doctor involves a long wait and a nominal charge of 10% of the private charge is made. There used to be more than 300 hospitals but there are now only 9 regional ones – involving many people in travelling great distances for hospital care.
There remains much corruption in government.
We crossed the Latvian/Lithuanian border before stopping at the Hill of Crosses. This diary therefore continues under that for Lithuania 2011.