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Welcome to Latvia! Laipni ludzam! (now repeat if you can!)
Most people come to Latvia for the space it offers. For the nature and all the  activities that you can practice in it. For the ubiquitous art. Others come to see the place the Christmas tree was born, by a bunch of bored bachelor drunkards who after a highly spirited (in both senses) feast brought a pine tree in the Blackheads House (the unmarried German merchants clubhouse!), decorated it with flowers, and then burned it to the ground! Thank God the burning part did not catch on, but keep an eye on your kids next Christmas, you never know…
In other words, everyone has their own reasons to visit even the most remote places.

I went to Latvia for the blue cows. The real ones, not the Milka ones.

But I found out there is a multitude of things to keep you from getting bored while in Latvia. I actually wrote them down in a Note on my phone, and I will try now and decipher them (I was often under the influence of half liters of excellent Latvian beer at the time they were written, and they are very hard to decipher...).

So there, first thing to keep you alert is the language. And you may have enough imagination to grasp that Bulvaris means boulevard, or Kebabis kebab. But don´t get too comfortable with your survival skills: "Pasta" written on a door will not lead you to an Italian restaurant, and the only thing available to lick once inside is stamps: it means Post office. Similarly, Laukums means Square and not lukums (turkish delight) and Akis means hook (thought you might like to know…)

Riga is a small city with an even smaller but very well preserved old city centre. It features tens of important buildings hidden in tiny alleys, lost German tourists that have come to discover a distant brother gone astray, old trams driven almost exclusively by women (what a sexist society we live in!), a Garlic bar (be warned: everything served, even ice cream, is made with a bucket of garlic), a coiffeur called "The knockout barber", a pub called "I love you" (free hugs at the bar), a monument called Cat house with a bizarre story behind it, and a river boat called Darling once owned by the Abba clan. Last but not least, the city features thousands of gorgeous girls that actually belong to beauty magazines but have somehow not found the right man  for them. Riga also features a central market sheltered under five German-built Zeppelin hangars (!), and a chocolate factory and museum (Laima), in case you get one of those sudden hypoglycaemias.

The city has an obsession with cats, wool and amber. Art is everywhere, but frankly mostly boring. So you have cats in ceramics, cats made of glass, cats made of metal, cats dressed in wool, made of wool, wearing wool, and amber jewellery that looks like bonbons, especially if you have a sweet tooth. I couldn't figure out the cat obsession (there are really few around, compared to Greece, for example), but one can understand the obsession for wool: a wool dress is the minimum you can wear under the constantly changing weather, oscillating in no-time from execrable (rain and tears) to half bad, sort-of-summerish 15 degrees…

The best handicraft by far to buy in Riga is the Simpson-family babushka, probably worth your whole  trip, together with the blue cows of course. It is sold exclusively beneath the St Peters church by two Russian street vendors with deep shark-blue eyes. I bought three, one for myself, one is promised, and I accept bids for the third one!
However, babushkas or not babushkas, there always comes the moment where one asks himself, What am I doing here? Was this a good idea? When I could be swimming with dolphins (OK, I may be exaggerating a little, but you sea what I mean...), sipping freddos and dipping my bread into Greek salads swimming in olive oil?
Should you go to Latvia?
I think you should. Yes, you can! Visit Riga and walk in the old city, feel the rain soak you to the bone, moisture your skin, the wind sweep your hair in all directions Miss Piggy-wise, and pretend you don't mind that you forgot to bring your old army raincoat for this midsummer trip. Ignore all those locals on T-shirts and sandals, for they will all get pneumonia in a few hours, and at the same time be thankful it is 15 degrees Celsius outside and not -30, as it often gets down to in winter, and that you can walk on your shoes and not need skis. Admire the gorgeous local beauties that however make you think that Juliette Binoche is not so cold after all. And taste the national culinary obsession: mushrooms… Stroll around in the channel  on the Darling wooden boat as once Agneta from the Abba did ("I love youuuu, I do, I do, I doooo") and admire the chilling Russian neighbourhoods where the Abba never set their foot. Rent a bike and stroll around with James or get lost going alone to Kalnciema quarter and see how normal people really live in Riga. Visit the Central market selling Uzbek bread and pale tomatoes that look sad as cataract eyes. Take an old tram going anywhere and try to not get depressed, visit Little Moscow, and whatever you do, make sure you don't miss the stunning Art nouveau district in the Quiet Centre: you have never seen anything like that anywhere else in the world, and I kept returning every day. One reason for that was the Italian owned Casa Nostra Italian restaurant, with it's excellent, non-mushroom Italian food and Grazie's as you leave (the best coffee in Latvia I bet, one that will not give you stomach ulcer in an hour).

However, there are certain things that one should be beware when visiting Riga.
- Prices are (very) low, but check your change.
- Don't get disappointed over people appearing cold, hardly saying thank you even when you buy their services or products: speaking too much, or looking at you while doing so, is not trendy here (Facebook is!). Silence is gold, but you would be surprised what a spiritual, emotional, cultural wealth is hidden beneath all these layers of Nordic millennial culture of non-communicating;  they just prefer to speak about their inner world on the couch of a shrink, that's all. 
- Drivers will always stop for you to pass, even if there is no pedestrian passage. This will not happen after midnight. Fair deal, I would say. On the contrary, in Greece they will run you over happily at any time of the day or night, 24/7 (drive or walk in Greece, and you can then walk or drive without fear anywhere, except maybe India and Palermo).
- Don't count staying anywhere in the old city and sleeping a sound night's sleep. Noise is terrible, either coming from senile tourists who think they are alone in this world, or totally, totally drunk guys completely out of control.
- Police is everywhere, and they are known to be sometimes exaggeratedly vicious. Driving and (even thinking of) drinking before driving is totally out of the question. The same goes for bikers! Cops that see you leaving a bar on your bike after a beer or 20 will fine you after videoing you (another kind of selfie).
- You buy tickets before boarding trams and buses and trains, in shops called NAVESEN. They are almost everywhere. Taxis are not expensive, although quite often they will not put the meter on, so beware. The taxi ride from the airport to the city should cost around 13-14€ (2016). Biking is tolerated on the pavements, unless there are separate bike lanes. Train tickets have a date on them. You need to Go the day you bought them, and Return the latest the day after.

You do not need to bring mosquito repellent, the last mosquito died this summer 2016.

You need two days max to visit, if you do not have friends locally. The city is small and the places you are about to visit are mostly at walking distance. Attention: people who stayed more than they needed to have been reported to develop a strange taste for mushrooms, black strong Latvian alcohol, cats and Pokemon hunting… Should you stay more, as my lost soul did, there is always Jurmala to visit: the Latvian Riviera, sort of. Where the Brezhnev nomenclature spent their holidays and went to sun their white bodies, sipping Russian champagne or whatever it was called, as long as it had enough alcohol.

Jurmala still is the summer place par excellence in Latvia. You can catch the sad train going there in just 30 minutes -or ride your bike in beautiful nature for 20 km- and there you are: in a huge white sand beach, well preserved (most buildings are two blocks away) and on which you can even ride your bike because the sand may be white but is also hard as stone. The beach bears the EU blue flag, an oxymoron of course since the water, as clean as it may be, is as brown as it gets. Make an extra insurance if you actually plan to swim: it is gla-gla frozen.
Jurmala  continues to be a famous apparatchik summer destination, with all their glitz and Porsches and fantastic, restored wooden houses. Actually, it is the grandchildren of the same Brezhnev-era Russians that came here to holiday and treat their tuberculosis and national mal-être on the area's famous sanatorium and spas. Still, if you have come here to admire the bikini clad Russian beauties, as many websites suggest, you should be beware that 1) most of them belong (please pay attention to the verb) to dark apparatchik, 2) most of them are Russian-speaking Latvians (40% of the population), although this should be no problem, 3) they will not wear their bikinis until it gets 35 Celsius, a thing as rare as real summer in this latitude.

Visit Jurmala on a windy, rather cold day (as I did) and all you are about to see is old couples, the live babushka and her proportionally meagre husband, with this eternal Kaurismäki half-smile that actually means nothing, enjoying the sun in a come-what-may manner, we-have-paid-our-train-ticket-and-we-are going-to-have-so-much-fun.

So there, I am a bit tired of pretending it is summer and I think it is time I head to a place where I can get my daily portion of sun, coffee and watermelon.
May God bring a perma-anticyclone above you for the rest of this grayscale summer!
Enjoy the pics*, and a great holiday to everyone!

* The picture of this trip is one I did not make: Desperately lost one evening, somewhere in across-the-river Tornakalns, an old one-wagon tram stops in front of me, in a large boulevard with old, falling-apart wooden houses on every side, and almost nothing else. The driver is a pretty blond young lady, looking very bored and chewing a lollipop (the lollipop is the central item of this non taken pic...). I don't get in, it looks as if the tram is going the wrong direction (a paradox it would seem, since I am lost). We do not exchange one word, she then smiles, shuts the door, and the tram disappears in the dusk…


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