Tails of a Travelling Cat
The Finland-Baltic Edition
Greetings, humans! So, today we left Tallinn in search of another new city and another mode of transport – the coach. Now of course, Charlie and I have both been on a coach before, such as the Flybus which took us into Reykjavík in the Iceland Edition and Charlie has vague memories of coach-based school trips to France and Belgium where the vehicle was old, noisy, smelly and always either too hot or too cold. Not so with the Lux Express. These coaches lived up to their name and as we boarded the 9:00 number 14 from Tallinn Central Bus Station which actually isn’t very central at all (and in fact was just across the road from the AirBnb), we knew we were in store for a pleasant and mostly comfortable journey and that was only because my fidgety Charlie was incapable of sitting still for 10 minutes, let alone the four and a half hours this coach journey would last. So, after taking a good look out the window and assessing that Estonia is just one large forest (if a farmed monoculture), I settled down for a nap.
Charlie watched the trees and made use of the free Wifi – we hadn’t had any Wifi since yesterday’s scary ferry and the human had the internet to catch up on, such as checking us in for our flight home from Vilnius tomorrow. What a lot we’re packing into this trip – we’ve not even arrived in Riga yet (or Latvia for that matter) and we’re thinking about leaving Vilnius!
Around half way through our journey I woke up long enough to watch us cross the border. Not that there was much of a border crossing, the coach slowed down slightly and to our left were some long-disused customs points, which looked like a toll booth but with the roof of a petrol station and then we were into Latvia, into the land of LV number plates, although a few EST plates had followed us and then promptly overtook us. I said the coach was comfy, I never said it was fast.
Estonia might have been the land of endless forest with the odd thoroughly disconnected houses appearing suddenly out of the trees and towns so rare they had to be announced with a sign showing a city skyline, Latvia seemed to be all farmland. There were even hay bales in the fields, which seems entirely the wrong time of year to me. Maybe they were left there since last harvest?
Whatever the hay bales’ origins, the farmland was quickly swallowed back up by forest. I’m assuming Estonia and Latvia produce a lot of timber? And amber, it’s in all the gift shops but I don’t really know why.
As much as I like trees, when all I can do is look at them, they quickly lose my interest and so I returned to napping, Charlie eventually joined me and then we were driving through Riga, unbeknownst to us at the time passing several of the landmarks we wouldn’t visit later. The coach pulled into the bus station right on time and with trains rattling over the bridge above our heads (the train station was right next door) we headed off to the AirBnb to check in.
Just outside the Old Town, located in a rather unlikely place – set so far back from the road it was behind a rather rundown apartment block – we found our AirBnb, a surprisingly large apartment with a comfy purple sofa. I was happy.
In the kitchen-lounge we found a large collection of maps and guides. We only needed the City Map but on it we found a wonderful route, marked in orange and yellow, giving us an excellent walking tour of Old Riga’s landmarks.
For those of you who are logically minded, it might hurt your heads and hearts to hear that, although the points on the routes were numbered, we started at number 29 (which wasn’t actually included in the official route), picked up the tour at number 9 then walked the route in reverse. Now let me explain why we did it this way and I’m sure you’ll agree it was not just the only logical way to do it, but also the right way. Points 8 and 9 didn’t actually fit into the vague circle the route made, jutting out of the Old Town, meaning we would have had to double back on ourselves if we’d started at any other point. Secondly, we were starting from our AirBnb, and points 29 and 9 were the closest starting point - economy of steps with limited time! – and we did it in reverse because point 12, which I’m very excited to tell you about, would have been almost at the end if we had gone in ascending order and we wanted to be sure we saw it before the day got dark.
And so, I’m sure you’re as excited as I am to begin the tour. Our first stop, point 29, was the Nativity of Christ Orthodox Cathedral, which did look very Russian, but also a bit Middle Eastern, with hints of the Taj Mahal in its domes. Here there was also a monument to a military sort of prince who had Scottish ancestry but was Latvian or possibly Lithuanian – there was some debate. Our next stop was the Freedom Monument, dedicated to the soldiers killed during the Latvian War of Independence (1918-20), spring boarded by the February Revolution in Russia, which due to the old Russian date convention (seventeen days behind much of the rest of the world) actually took place in March. Anyway, onto the Laima Clock. Besides being great advertising for the Laima Confectionary Company (named after the Latvian goddess of fate), it has a bit of history behind it. During the time of the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic or SSR from 1940-91, excluding 1942-3 while it was occupied by the Nazis (independence didn’t last long) when Latvia was a USSR puppet state, the clock was used to distribute propaganda. Since independence it’s been reconstructed twice, its current renovation being completed in 2017.
Next up was a square full of beautiful, colourful buildings, including my favourite point 12, the Cat House! Yes, that’s really its name! There are two versions of why the Cat House came to be and who am I to tell you which is fact and which a fiction? Anyway, there are two cats on turrets on the roof of this giant yellow house, facing the Great Guild on the other side of the street, tails up and backs arched. Version one of how they came to be here is that the wealthy trader who commissioned this fine building, for unspecified reasons, was refused Riga Tradesmen’s Guild membership. In revenge, the trader wanted the cats built with their tails to the Great Guild, but later they were ordered to be turned around so today they face the Guild instead. Version two is that the trader instead pointed the cats’ butts towards the Town Hall after a dispute with the City Council, the Town Hall at the time (1909) being near the Great Guild. Whichever is true, Rigan souvenir shops are now full of cat paraphernalia, something I highly approve of. For a local tale (or do I mean tail?) born just over a century ago, the cats have taken over the city’s tourist shops in force – as we rightly should.
Now it’s time to leave the cats and continue on our tour. Next up was the Powder Tower, which housed the Latvian War Museum. As interested as we were to learn about the country’s history, the museum would take the best part of two hours to complete and with few precious hours of daylight remaining, we decided to keep touring.
We passed Jacob’s Barracks which was under renovation but had the crests of many things on the end wall (counties or military units who knows). Once used by the army (unsurprisingly), it’s now home to bars, salons, craft shops and other markings of 21st century commercialism. It was once the longest building in the city, so after a quick detour to survey Riga from the squat little Bastion Hill and another detour down a quaint side street to find the Swedish Gate (which is now more accurately described as an arch), we wandered along the building’s length. Hidden in the old city wall, we found a ghost, but I maintain it looks more like a Dementor. Wait, can I see Dementors? Holy guacamole, I’m a wizard, Harry!
Anyway, the Swedish Gate was built in 1698, allowing access to the Jacob’s Barracks which were outside the city wall. After this, we visited the Parliament Building, St James’ Cathedral and the Trīs Brāli (Three Brothers), three nicely coloured houses.
We then crossed the horrifyingly wide Daugava River in plans to visit the old wooden houses of the Kipsala Island but half way across the bridge we decided against it because it was raining (oh horrors!) and we could see the houses well enough from where we stood. With the time restraints we decided to return to the Old Town but not before taking some stunning pictures of the Castle which we visited next. I was rather disappointed to see it was one of these new-fangled castles and not a proper medieval one, but I know I can’t always get what I want. It’s a hard truth, I should be able to. Unfortunately, most things are quite resistant to becoming pink, which we all know is my deepest desire.
Anyway, moving on, we investigated the outside of the castle and the blue church, unidentified on the map, to visit Lielaps Kristaps (Big Christopher) on the 11th November Embankment. Big Christopher was a ‘tall strong man’ (but apparently not a giant) who carried people across the big scary river before Riga even existed. One night he carried a super-heavy child across the river, who in the morning had turned into a chest of gold (or just left behind a chest of gold). When the Big K died, the money was used to build Riga, the first building was built where Kristaps’ shack used to be.
Next up was the Riga Dome Cathedral in Doms Square. Dom comes from the Latvian for dome (doma) and isn’t named after someone called Dom. In the shadow of the Cathedral was a large compass with four wonderful statues surrounding it. There was a unicorn, an owl, a dragon and my absolute favourite the armadillo!
Onwards to the City Hall (the one these cats may or may not have been meant to snub), and a café called the Fat Cat, the Blackheads House and the Statue of Roland. Those last two may need some explaining. We’ll start with Roland as some of you may remember, I have a buddy by that name. Anyway, this Roland was one of the twelve paladins of Charlemagne’s court. He was also a confidant of the Holy Roman Emperor (not sure which one), but died in 778 at the Battle of Roncevaux pass. The Blackhead’s House has nothing to do with acne (officially) and relates to another Guild, this one of merchants, ship owners and foreigners, who were unmarried. Very specific.
We then continued our quest onto St Peter’s Church and St John’s Church between which was a sculpture of a chicken, standing on a cat, dog and pig (the Musicians of Bremen). We then passed through John’s Yard and investigated the Konventa Sita Hotel, made up of lots of old buildings around a very thin courtyard. We then finished up our tour along Gleznotāju iela (Painter’s Street) and R. Vagnera iela (Wagner’s Street). What was so special about these two places I’m not entirely sure, but the buildings were nice.
Whistle stop tour completed just as the light was beginning to fade, we headed to Bio Bio with the intention of a coffee to warm the human up – it had stopped raining (finally) – praise whatever ancient Latvian god controls the weather, but it was now getting chilly. However, we never did get a coffee, Charlie got distracted by the carob and tahini milkshake. We ordered one of these, making a passable translation of the Latvian – apples, dates, carrots, vanilla syrup, tahini and what would have been banana, but due to Charlie’s banana issues, this was swapped for avocado. Surprisingly, this didn’t taste of avocado and was thick and tasted great.
We then headed to the wonderfully named Fat Pumpkin for dinner. For Charlie, this was a Hawaiian burger with a falafel patty, grilled pineapple (no surprise there), gherkins, salad and cheese with excellent chips and mayo.
Charlie was very happy with this and we headed to Māzā Terapija for some cake. Charlie chose exceptionally well here – a huge slab (and the last slice) of ‘honey’ cake with a crumble top (we never did find out what the ‘honey’ in the middle was made of – could have been maple butter – but it tasted vanilla-y) and a slice of chocolate glazed brownie. Charlie ate these while writing up the blog which made for a very happy human.
Well, we certainly crammed a lot into those few hours we had here in Riga. It’s definitely a lovely city, small enough that anything of any interest to anybody is easy walking distance and full of beautiful buildings.
So, it’s on to Vilnius tomorrow, our final stop on this jam packed tour.
Until then folks,