Monday, August 26, 2013

Riga, Here We Come!


Art Nouveau building at 13 Alberta iela, Riga.

It seemed like ages ago that had arranged the flights for both my brother (aka Bro) and I. He would be leaving SF about an hour before me and would arrive into Frankfurt airport about an hour and half after I landed.


The plan was for me to meet him at his arrival gate. I was already in the departure gate at Dulles airport when I got the text message from Bro that he was boarding on time. I patiently waited for my boarding to begin. All was going smoothly until the Lufthansa agent approached me and told me that I had to check my suitcase in. Apparently, my little 22" suitcase which is fine to carry onboard every other plane was too large for Lufthansa. I was a bit taken aback, left wondering what size plane we were flying that couldn't accommodate for my suitcase in the overhead compartment! I handed over my suitcase and the agent checked it through to Riga. I started to keep my fingers crossed that it would arrive at the same time that I did!

The boarding process went as smoothly as I've ever seen - Lufthansa is incredibly well organized. And.....the overhead compartment was indeed small - my suitcase would not have fit.

The flight was, thankfully, very uneventful and I landed in Frankfurt on time. The immediate challenge was to figure out which gate Bro would arrive at.

I found an Information Desk and told the woman the information I needed. Her response was that his plane would be in the "parked position" after it landed which she explained to me meant that the plane would be parked on the tarmac and the passengers would be shuttled to the airport. Okay, so where do I meet him? She told me it was too early to know and to come back when it was closer to his landing time. Good news was that his plane would be arriving on time.

So, nothing I could do but let time pass. As I waited, I noticed masses of people periodically coming up an escalator but no one going down. Hmmm.... I wondered if that could be the up escalator for passengers arriving by shuttle. There was a security guard standing next to the escalator and so I asked him. He said I was in the right spot. I have to say that neither the woman behind the Information Desk nor the guard were exactly the friendliest of people but I guess they were at least helpful....or as helpful as they felt they had to be.

By now, I had at least 40 minutes to wait before the plane's scheduled arrival time. Having booked Bro's ticket, I know I put him near the back of the plane so I figured I had at least another hour to wait!

As the hour neared, another mass of travelers moved up the escalator. Sweatshirts with "Alcatraz" printed on them and folks carrying bags marked "Ghiradelli" were my signs that this was the flight from San Fran. A quick confirmation from one of the flight attendants and I was on the look out for Bro.

Eagle eyed me, I saw Bro and called out to him. I was so relieved to finally see him - at least the plan to meet up in Frankfurt turned out okay!

Our flight itinerary had us having to check in at the Air Baltic counter and so we made our way to the departure terminal to do just that. As we exited the terminal, we had to go through German immigration. I thought that odd but hey, every country does things differently and when in Germany, do as the Germans do. Finding the tiny Air Baltic counter was a bit of a challenge - the signs were a bit misleading, at least to us so it took some walking in the wrong direction and then turning around before we found the place. Luckily, we had plenty of time. We checked in at Air Baltic and got our boarding passes for the short two hour flight from Frankfurt to Riga. It was a small plane but comfortable and thankfully, another uneventful flight.

We disembarked via stairs on to the tarmac. It was a beautiful day - sunny and probably in the low 70's. Perfect weather! It was truly a short walk to the terminal - couldn't have been more than 30 feet. As we entered, the luggage carousel was immediately to our right. Odd that we didn't have to go through immigration first but hey, every country does things differently and when in Latvia, do as the Latvians do. We waited for our luggage to appear and thankfully, both pieces arrived!

As we were waiting for our luggage to come up, I pulled out the piece of paper with the instructions to get to the car rental place. Instructions seemed simple and straightforward - we had to "Go to the number 22 bus stop, outside the arrivals. Call on arrival to +371 28441166. Shuttle service escort to the rental
station (3km away)."  That was until we got outside. I couldn't find the *number 22 bus stop* if my life depended on it. I was just about to call the place when my phone rang.  It was the car rental agency.  Apparently, the driver was bringing the car to us and wanted to know where we were. I did my best to describe where we were standing and as I hung up the phone, I hoped he could find us. I should have told him to look for a short Asian woman but I suspected I would stick out like a sort thumb anyways.

A few short minutes later and a guy pulled up in a black Hyundai. Our car! I got into the driver's seat and checked out the controls. In the meantime, Bro walked around the car with the guy to do a pre-check i.e., make sure that if there are any dings/dents, that we note this on the contract before we sign it. After I got the thumbs up from Bro, I signed the contract. We then had to get some quick driving directions from the guy so we could get to our hotel. We had a map but it was still good to double check with him. When we were certain we were ready to hit the road, I got the seat and mirrors adjusted and followed the guy as he walked towards the exit gate. He had to scan his card so the arm would come up and we could pass on by.

We followed his instructions and as he said, a few kilometers later and we would see the sign to the city center. Our first challenge was to get used to how the traffic signals work here. Lights turn from green to yellow to red as they do in the US. But, the reverse is different. A red light stays red for a certain amount of time before it's joined by a yellow light - both colors display at the same time. Then, seconds later, both lights are replaced by the single green light. As you would expect, drivers already start moving when the lights are the red/yellow combo. Oddly enough, no one honked at me when I waited until I saw green. It took us a few traffic signals to figure this out!

We kept going as instructed and soon, I found myself driving across the bridge that spans the Daugava River. From the many spires, I could tell Old Town was on the river bank, just to the right side of the bridge.

Our second challenge came with trying to read the street signs. As in so many cities, the signs are printed on the sides of the buildings. When you're whizzing by in a car, they are difficult to read. Not surprising that we missed the left hand turn on to our street. No worries. We'll just find a place to turn around. That turned out to be easier said than done. We were obviously on some sort of a main thoroughfare and one street after another, it was no left turn. Eventually, I turned right and then double backed. Could we find our street this time around? If not, we would be headed back over the bridge.

Our home sweet home for our stay in Riga.   Small hotel, good location, friendly staff and wonderful (free) breakfast.

As best I could, I read out the street names as we passed them and this time, we made the correct turn. From there, it was an easy drive to our hotel - the Elizabete Hotel. There were plenty of parking spaces out front so I simply pulled in to one. I let out a sigh of relief as I got out of the car. We had finally arrived! We entered the hotel and checked in. We asked about the car and the very friendly receptionist told us we had to pay from 8am to 6pm and she kindly offered to help us do that. The ticket kiosk was just few feet away from the car. You would think it would be easy to pay but not so. Even though the machine displayed in English, the process to get a ticket didn't seem like a very intuitive one. I don't know that I would have managed to get a ticket without the help of the receptionist. Luckily, I had also come on the trip with a new Visa card - more specifically, a card equipped with the chip and pin technology that is commonplace in Europe but is a rarity in the US. The machine would only take a chip and pin card and it did not accept cash. I took the paper ticket and placed it on the dashboard as instructed by the receptionist. That part seemed obvious to me!

I had arranged our trip through Baltic Country Holidays. It took several months of planning and all the while I was working with a really nice agent named Ieva. In my last email correspondence with Ieva, she indicated that she would be leaving an envelope for us, at the Elizabete, with our full travel itinerary, all the vouchers we needed and maps. Sure enough, the receptionist handed me a large, yellow envelope and inside was everything that Ieva had said there would be! Ieva has been very thorough - despite all the last minute changes I had made. Thanks to her attention to detail and organization, we're off to a good start!

Our room was on the first floor and so we hauled our suitcases up the winding and at times, slightly narrow, stairs. As Bro pushed open the door, we were greeted by a large room that faced a side courtyard. It was quite a lovely room by my travel standards :-)

By now, it was late afternoon and there was still time to take in a bit of the city before calling it a day. Jet lag or not, we weren't about to waste time inside our room - not with the beautiful Riga weather calling us. For Bro, it's just like home - sunny day, comfortable temp, and just the right amount of humidity. For me, it's such a joy to escape the hot, humid weather of August in DC!

I had booked our hotel on Elizabete because it's in the heart of the Art Nouveau neighborhood that Riga is world renown for. I was excited that I would finally get to see the stunning building facades that up until now only existed as Google images on my PC.

Note:  A very informative, interactive map of the central Art Nouveau district can be found on the Art Nouveau Museum website.



We had no specific walking route in mind but as luck would have it, we walked in the right direction. I saw the sign for Alberta iela or Alberta Street which is THE Art Nouveau street in Riga. One stunning building facade after another! I knew that many were the architectural brain childs of Mikhail Eisenstein though I couldn't remember exactly which ones. I did remember that his most famous buildings were on Elizabete - address numbers 10a and 10b. We would have to find those.



Alberta iela is just one block long but the architecture is just stunning. Several of the buildings were under renovation but I could still make out the magnificent details under the mesh draped to protect the facade.


We walked up and down Alberta and then back to the corner building with one of the most fantastical facades in a neighborhood full of fantastical facades. The sign indicated it was the Belgian Embassy. Those Belgians know how to appreciate beauty!


Right next door to the Belgian Embassy is this blue brick and white plaster stunner.




As we walked along Alberta iela, we also started to pay attention to the street signs. Something we've not done on other trips but then again, we weren't driving. Whatever the street sign, we just need to be able to figure out where we can/cannot park the car and during what hours. Would be horrible if we got ticketed or even worse, towed!

Hmmm.....what's it telling us?

From Alberta iela, we continued our walk - away from Elizabete iela where our hotel was located. We were following our map to head towards a park.

Quiet neighborhood filled with wooden buildings that are typical in Latvia.

Along the way, we happened upon a teeny, weeny restaurant serving up Turkish style kebabs. Seeing the place all of a sudden reminded me that I hadn't eaten in quite some time and this would be a good place as any to get a bite - even though I would have preferred having something "Latvian". Ah....we would plenty of opportunity in the coming days to eat local cuisine so I twisted Bro's arm into getting a "snack" here. We ordered some sandwiches and headed outdoors to eat - the restaurant had a small patio. Unfortunately, the bees drove us back indoors :-(


The sandwich was big enough to cure my stomach growlies but Bro needed a second. I think he was being cautious with ordering anything that simply read "meat" so he stuck with chicken. I told him that meat most likely meant beef, pork or combo thereof but I think he was imagining the flesh of other four legged creatures being added to the mix. Anyway, he seemed satisfied after his second sandwich so we went on our way.

Bro figuring out Latvian currency after getting change back.

Continuing our walk, we did eventually arrive at a park - somehow it was not as big as we had imagined it to be based on what we were seeing on the map. I'm getting the feeling that Riga is a lot smaller city than I had imagined!



No complaints as it was a lovely city park with a small lake and a set of clay tennis courts that really got bro's attention. He's an avid tennis player.


We eventually made our way back to Elizabete iela, about a block away from our hotel. More stunning Art Nouveau facades. Seriously, I don't think there is any other city with this many magnificent looking buildings! If this is any indication of what the rest of the city is like, I'm very excited!






At the end of the block, we arrived at another small park. We found a bench next to the playground. Perfect spot to just sit and take in our surroundings. It's finally sinking in that I'm actually in Riga and so far, I'm liking what I see. I had expected a dull, dreary Soviet style city and it's anything but. We'll have to see if this holds true for the rest of the trip through this one small Baltic nation.


By now, it was early evening and both of us were getting tired. We were ready to head back to our room and call it a day. The rest of the night was spent taking our showers, surfing the web (two iPads and free wifi - woohoo!) looking at the itinerary and maps (Ieva had marked out our travel route) to see how our drive would be unfolding over the coming three weeks, planning the activities for the next day and watching a bit of TV....though there was no English programming :-(

We've been in Riga for less than 12 hours but we're already enjoying ourselves!

Goodnight from Riga!