Riga & Jūrmala, Latvia
We regrettably bade farewell to action-packed Sigulda and headed for the Latvian capital, Riga. Again the roads weren't great but at least they were paved this time. Coming into Riga was like coming into a city in Asia: fairly run down, lost in time, odd smells wafting by, and full of street sellers. It was hard to believe this was a European capital city. We planned to explore the city centre tomorrow so we spent the afternoon seeing the sights on the outskirts.
Our first stop was the Academy of Science. I have no idea what actually goes on in the building, as we headed straight for the observation deck on the 17th floor for fantastic views over Riga. It looked a lot better from up high.
Next we walked over to the central market, which I'm sure was the biggest market I had ever visited. Four huge, never-ending sheds, plus a massive outdoor area, with every type of food, drink, clothing, shoe and accessory available. There were even two supermarkets within the market. Danny bought himself a new pair of sunglasses and we loaded up on groceries. The summer weather causes us to buy groceries almost daily, as the heat ruins the food so quickly.
We made our way to the local campsite for the night, unsure of what to expect but not having high hopes. This one was in an industrial area with designated camping spots on the grass, with no trees or shade in sight. It looked like a giant car park rather than a campsite. Another downside was that it was near the AK-47 range and gunshots could be heard quite clearly through the trees. Not the most idyllic vacation spot.
We took it easy the next morning, doing a load of washing and showering self-consciously in the semi-communal amenities block. It wasn't until after lunch that we walked the three kilometres into town, taking advantage of the cooler conditions today. The whole city was eerily quiet – I think the largest group of people we saw the entire day was the U18 Australian men's basketball team. The architecture of the centre square was beautiful, with lovely old buildings that contrasted sharply to much of the rest of the city. St Peter's church offered us a lift to the observation deck for views over old town (which were even better than yesterday's views), but otherwise there wasn't much to do but meander around. We passed several churches, a pathetic excuse for a castle, a couple of parks, a handful of cafes and souvenir shops and walked through the art nouveau neighbourhood. There was nothing that stood out in the city; everything seemed okay but it didn't have the charm or energy of Tallinn. Danny wanted to revisit the central market, so I headed back to the van while he went shopping. I thought he was going to buy more food. He came back with a t-shirt and thongs (the flip flop variety).
Back at the van we set up the table and chairs outside and kicked back with a few drinks and snacks, right before it started raining. It didn't stop raining for the rest of the night. After dinner, being stuck indoors, we made a huge bowl of popcorn and watched a movie to pass the time away.
We changed our plans slightly the following morning and set out for Jūrmala, a coastal town on the Baltic sea. We always ask Garmin to avoid toll roads, so today it took us on a 25 km detour to avoid one toll. I wonder how large the detour has to be before it gives up and makes us go through the toll?
Jūrmala only had one main street but it was quite long and pedestrianised the whole way. Most of the buildings were wooden, many of them just huts, which gave it a blissful, seaside feel. The street also contained a few carnival games (like trying to knock over all the blocks with one ball – games you can't win) that we firmly avoided.
The street ended at a nature park, full of tall trees and boardwalks winding their way through the forest. In amongst the woodlands was a lookout tower, which was free to climb and gave us unexciting views of the tops of the trees. The climb wasn't really worth it, with the highlight being that we could just make out the skyline of Riga in the distance. From the tower we ambled down to the beach, which had the finest sand we think we had ever walked on. It seemed to stretch out forever and was full of cafes, bars and entertainment areas, as well as having plenty of just "beach" area. Not the sort of thing I've seen in Australia. It was quiet during the day but I imagined the crowds picked up later at night.
Next we drove (along terrible roads) to Rundāle Palace, designed by the man who created the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. I was expecting something Russian-like but it was comparable to most other palaces we had visited on our travels. The entire exterior, plus the small part of the inside we managed to glimpse, were the same yellow that most palaces seem to be painted in Europe; the colour is far too ugly to be this popular. The gardens outside were stunning though and made the trip worthwhile.