During my younger days I once traveled through Europe with a group from Canada, Great Britain, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand on Kon-Tiki Tours staying in campgrounds. It was an economical way to travel, but I didn’t like it because the campgrounds were not near city centers. The main value was meeting people from all over the world. But I never felt I really got to know the places visited; it was more a party atmosphere. There were two girls from Canada who had the most golden hair I had ever seen. They said their parents were from Estonia, which was then part of the Russian bloc., and from that day on, I always wanted to visit that country.
Finally, I was able to include it on my recent visit of the Baltic countries of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.
Air Baltic is a low-cost airline that flies from several European cities to Riga, Latvia. (Note: One must check for all the restrictions. Otherwise, what was a reasonable price can quickly escalate, with harsh cancellation penalties.)
I stayed at the DoDo Hotel (Jersikas Str. 1) in Riga because it matched my frugal price requirements (slightly less than $55 a night), and it also sounded like it was named just for me. There was slow though free Wi-Fi, but no phone. The whole area had many abandoned buildings. I took a streetcar to the Old Town, and people did not look prosperous. Casinos were mostly slot machines with no video poker, and the few table games had terrible rules. Customers were scarce even on a weekend. A tour of the city in a huge bus with canned recording was not very good, and I was the only customer. I later discovered a Website, InYourPocket.com, which provided a list of many interesting places in Riga that were never mentioned on the tour. Unfortunately, I had already left the town.
Riga has the largest indoor European market housed in five huge former airplane hangars. These markets tended to be very similar no matter what country I visited. The fruits and vegetables looked tasty, but the clothes and knick-knacks seemed to be of poor quality.
In the old days, Riga was said to be a very prosperous town because it was at the crossroads for major shipping. It was a cultural center with an opera house, theater complex and a beautiful park. It was said that, at one time, Latvian perfumes were the envy of France, and the chocolates and pastries were better than Vienna’s. I did not see fashionably dressed women, but did notice many young and old men who were drunk. Latvia is being denied entry into the European Union because of its poor financial condition.
I could not find a couch surfer in Riga to host me. If I had a chance to meet with a local, I might have had a completely different view of this country.
My next stop was Estonia, where I stayed with a couch-surfer host from Northern Ireland. He is a technology consultant and said he could work anywhere in the world. He chose Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, because apartment rentals were a bargain and there were information technology opportunities. The former prime minister was only 32 when elected to office, and he and his advisors recognized the future of computer knowledge. Estonia’s favorable attitude to this field has led to advances in telecommunications and applications in many areas. The basic code for Skype, the video- and voice-calling software, was born in this country. And Estonia was the first country to allow voting via the Internet. One can even pay for street parking with their mobile phone account.
The well-preserved Old Town area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the old city walls, towers and gate can still be seen in a few places. It’s fun strolling the streets, and there were many people dressed in medieval costumes for the benefit of tourists. Some of the interesting places were St. Olav’s Church, reputed to be the tallest structure in the world in the late 1500s. They did not know about lightning rods in those days, and it was repeatedly hit by lightning and burned down three times. The Great Guild Hall housed the movers and shakers of the town. It was from this powerful group of married and home-owning merchants that the mayor and city fathers were chosen. Younger, single merchants formed the House of the Brotherhood of Black Heads while they awaited entry into the Great Guild. This group was named for its patron saint, the black Christian martyr St. Mauritius, and the colorful entry door leads to one of the only preserved Renaissance buildings in the capital.
Do you remember the “Baltic Chain” formed on Aug. 23, 1989? More than a million people formed a human chain from Tallinn, Estonia through Riga, Latvia and ending in Vilnius, Lithuania to demonstrate for freedom from Soviet rule. Another peaceful demonstration preceding the “chain” was the “Singing Revolution,” which took place in Tallinn in 1998.
As is my custom, I visited Tallinn’s casinos. There were very few patrons, and a passport was required for entry. My passport copy was not satisfactory, and I had to return with the actual passport. As usual, the house advantage was very high, so no wagers were made.
My next destination was Lithuania, via a reasonably priced and very comfortable bus from Tallinn. Snacks and drinks were offered in the deluxe rear of the bus where desktop computers were provided for free Wi-Fi Internet access. Unfortunately, the Internet connection was spotty, so they have a way to go. But at least they’re trying. There were even power outlets so one did not have to worry about battery power.
Las Vegas Tidbit
Raku, 5030 W. Spring Mountain Road #2, is an authentic Japanese restaurant that also serves innovative dishes created by chef/owner Mitsuo Endo, assisted by Hiro Tsumoto. The tiny restaurant has become so popular they are now in the process of expanding. How popular is it? Top Vegas chefs congregate here after they leave their own kitchens. Gochiso Gourmet and any foodie visitor should add this to his or her list of must-eat spots. Waitress Yoko from Iwate-ken made the evening even more memorable. Prices are reasonable. Reservations are essential. Contact: (702) 367-3511.