Time for a little break from real-life and a sweet, relaxing vacay in Latvia! Wait a minute, haven’t we been on a break from real-life for a while now? Oh well, we went ahead and booked an apartment near the beach anyway. Woohoo!
We had a slightly terrifying introduction to our vacay home. Our squat, little two-story building sat in the middle of a run-down apartment complex. Fences falling down, graffiti, stray dogs laying around, garbage… You get the picture. Walking down the hallway of the building made us even more nervous. The floor boards were uneven and coming up, the door across from ours looked like someone had stuffed a couch in the doorway, and the overall feel was a bit like a drug den. We anxiously watched our host open the door to our apartment to see what we had gotten ourselves into… And it was so cute! It was small, but had been completely renovated and looked great. What a relief!
Through Airbnb we managed to get a pretty sweet deal on this little apartment in Sloka, about an hour train ride outside of Riga and fairly close to the beautiful, white-sand beaches the area around Jūrmala is famous for. Jūrmala was essentially a spa-town and summer holiday destination for Communist Party officials back when Latvia was part of USSR. While you can tell it has lost some of the shine it had in its’ glory days, it still has great restaurants, shops, and romantic, wooden villas. We spent an afternoon wandering up and down Jomas and Jūras Streets admiring the architecture, walking along the beach, and checking out the Sea Pavilion by the shore. Apparently even the King of Sweden Gustav V visited in the spring of 1929.
Getting to Sloka took a little bit more effort than we had anticipated, though not for reasons we would have expected. The trains were comfortable, fairly frequent, and timely; it was the staff at the ticket office that gave us some difficulty… Because they were trying to be too helpful! They were convinced that we must be confused about where we were going and that they needed to redirect us.
“Two tickets to Sloka, please.”
“Sloka? You mean Jūrmala?”
“Sloka, just outside of Jūrmala.”
“… You need two tickets to Jūrmala?”
“… No, two tickets to Sloka.”
“…… You mean Jūrmala?”
Maybe a touch of an exaggeration, but it did get a bit frustrating when this conversation seemed to repeat itself each time we wanted to go home at the end of a day in Riga. Their seemingly genuine concern for us reaching the correct destination was sweet though, and technically Sloka is part of a string of communities lumped into Jūrmala.
Day trips into Riga were easy because the trains were close, cheap, and comfortable, so we made sure to squeeze in at least a few. The Riga Opera Festival was in full swing, so we figured, why not? We opted to see Lucia Di Lammermoor and managed to get pretty good seats for just 12 euros! We enjoyed the night, but decided in the end that opera probably isn’t for us. Continuing our musical trend, we opted to check out a pipe organ concert at St. John’s Church, the oldest house of worship in Riga. There was a pretty good turn-out and the music was lovely, but it felt a bit strange facing forward while the concert is behind you. Not that there’s much to watch I guess.
Riga has some pretty great medieval architecture, my favourite building probably being the Blackheads House and the Dome Cathedral. The Blackheads House was built in 1334 for the, mainly German, merchant association the Blackheads Company. Unfortunately, the original building was demolished during the Second World War, but the re-erected building is one of the most beautiful in Riga. Fun fact, just outside the Blackheads House is a plaque on the spot where, supposedly, the first New Year’s tree stood in Riga in 1510! There is a bit of an ongoing rivalry between Estonia and Latvia as to who actually had the first Christmas tree; while records show that Tallinn, Estonia had public Christmas trees as far back as 1441, Riga claims to have begun the tradition of decorating the Christmas tree. Regardless of where exactly it originated, the tradition persisted and spread, evolving into a beloved Christmas tradition throughout.
The Dome Cathedral boasts what is considered to be one of the world’s most valuable historic organs, containing nearly 7000 pipes! The lucky people that we are, Nathanael and I were fortunate enough to visit while the organ was covered in scaffolding and under restoration works. Sigh. As a nice consolation, a flute player was being recorded in the courtyard, so we wandered through the artefacts lining the corridor (including a gigantic rooster) listening to the music drifting through the columns.
Shortly before moving on from Latvia into Estonia, we decided to take one last mini trip out to the “abandoned” resort town of Ķemeri. There are about 30 sulphurous hot springs at Ķemeri and they have been well-known for their medicinal properties even before the first public bath houses were being built in the early 1800’s. The waters and mud were thought to treat nerve, bone, muscle, and joint problems. As the resort developed around the hot springs, medicinal peat, and sapropelic mud it became very popular with the Russian Empire. So popular in fact, that in 1912 a direct railway link connecting Ķemeri to Moscow was made! In conjunction with the resort, a beautiful landscape park was created in the mid-1800’s. Unfortunately during World War I battles between the German and Russian forces occurred just a few miles outside of Ķemeri, and eventually the resort and train station were destroyed.
The Ķemeri we visited was a bit of a ghost town. The park has been somewhat maintained, but the pavilions have deteriorated, leaving behind a ruin that looked a bit sad and almost romantic. Skeletons of decaying apartment buildings dot the area, unfinished and/or abandoned, making it even more eerie. But life still goes on, and it seems as though the town is trying to rebuild itself. Just outside of town you can find Ķemeri National Park, a beautiful area that’s rich in biodiversity and nature trails. We were scared away by the mosquitoes, but what little we saw of the park was well-worth the visit. We met an older woman washing her face and drinking from the “Lizard” spring nearby. In enthusiastic, albeit broken, English she urged us to do the same as it was good for your heath and would clear your skin; it was really nice to see that the old practises hadn’t died with the resort.
We bid farewell to our little Latvian hideaway and boarded a train bound for Riga for the last time. Outside the window we took our final look at the white-sand beaches of Jūrmala and waved goodbye to some confused looking Russian tourists. It was time to get moving on.