We were staying only two nights in Vilnius, mainly due to the guidebook implying that it was the smallest of the Baltic capitals, but it was so pleasant there that we could easily have stayed longer. We certainly could have afforded to stay longer, as I had significantly overbudgeted with £40 of Litas per day, and despite eating out twice on Sunday and sitting drinking in an outdoor cafe until twilight, we still had some of the day's allocation left for Monday. We weren't leaving on a bus to Riga until 14.15 and so I had cautiously budgeted an additional £40 of Litas for Monday morning, to make sure that we had enough money for a filling lunch before setting out on our travels. Oh dear! With more Litas left than we knew what to do with, the best solution we could think of was to blow some on an open-top bus tour of the city centre.
We picked up a leaflet for the bus tours from our hotel. There was one scheduled to depart from the cathedral square at 10am, so we had plenty of time for a leisurely breakfast and another stroll around the old town. The bus was one of those ones with audio guides that you listen to through a headset. The driver kindly set ours to English for us, but it proved to be a little difficult to understand. Firstly, because the Lithuanian accent of the narrator was quite strong and in places what was being said didn't appear to entirely make sense. Secondly, because the maximum volume that the headphones were able to operate at was hardly audible above the noise of the rest of the traffic on the road. Thirdly, because there was something wrong with the headphone socket at my seat so that I was only able to get the audio at all if I physically held the headphones in place with one hand, while desperately clinging on to the handle of my seat with the other as we bumped and bounced around the cobbled streets of Vilnius.
The first part of the tour wasn't very exciting as it mainly took in the churches and other monuments in the town centre which we had already seen. The second half became more interesting though as we drove further out of town and along by the river. The commentary gave some worthwhile insights into the history of the town, and it was particularly interesting when the old KGB building was pointed out.
After lunch we headed to the bus station to await our coach to Riga. I was somewhat nervous upon entering the bus station and observing vehicles reminiscent of the buses in Kiev (not a compliment!). Thankfully, when our bus arrived it was extremely modern and comfortable and the roads (on the Lithuanian side of the border at least) were so smooth that I was able to read on a bus for probably the first time in my life. The journey to Riga took four hours, crossing into Latvia with about an hour to go. Once we had left the outskirts of Vilnius behind, the countryside became extremely flat. We drove through mile upon mile of forest, passing very few towns or villages until we were virtually on the outskirts of Riga. The main excitements of the journey were when the bus driver became so frustrated with a slow Estonian van in front of us (which was refusing to let him overtake) that he whipped out his iPhone and took a photo of its registration plate. And when we had a document check after the Latvian border by a slightly scary policeman who stared at our passports for what felt like a very long time before deciding that they were okay!
We disembarked from the bus in Riga into a swirl of noise and people. It felt like a different universe from quiet and peaceful Vilnius and we were initially disorientated, struggling to work out exactly where we were on the map and which direction we needed to go in to locate our hotel. We found it eventually, on a quieter side street a few kilometres outside the town centre. Happily the staff spoke English and we were able to check in without any difficulties. There was even room service, which we were able to take advantage of to obtain a couple of drinks and a pizza without having to venture out into the metropolis.
Room service also provided Tim with the most awful sandwich that he'd ever faced; thick slabs of tomato gunked in mayo. On the back of the tomato he found slight traces of fish... he'd ordered a tuna sandwich and hates tomato. YUCK!
We were up early the next morning, eager to see what a Latvian breakfast buffet had in store. It was a distinct improvement on the Lithuanian breakfast buffet, which (once the gherkins, salad and anything pickled had been discounted) consisted mainly of toast. There were a few oddities here too, including something which looked suspiciously like cabbage, but there was also a big container of scrambled eggs and - even better - an enormous pile of pancakes.
By 9am we were suitably stuffed and out exploring Riga. First impressions were that it was big. The roads were big, the buildings were big and the river was big. The pavements weren't too busy but the streets were home to a confused mayhem of trams, trolley buses and random vehicles which looked like they should have been scrapped twenty years ago. Crossing the road was an interesting experience! Once we got away from the vicinity of the bus and train stations, however, things calmed down a bit and the centre of the old town was, happily, traffic-free.
The first significant sight which we came across was the Freedom Monument, Latvia's own mini-version of the Statue of Liberty. It was erected in 1935 as a celebration of Latvian independence and although the bottom part of it was unfortunately undergoing restoration, we were still able to crane our necks and appreciate its scale.
From there we wandered into a beautiful park, following the bank of a canal which used to form part of Riga's moat in olden days. Lots of trees, ducks and pretty flowers! We then moved inwards into the centre of the old town and encountered a whole host of beautiful buildings including this gigantic cathedral, apparently the biggest church in the Baltics.
Another particularly striking building was the so-called House of the Blackheads, constructed in the 14th century as a guild for unmarried German merchants in Riga. They must have had pretty high opinions of themselves as the facade is extremely ornate, covered in different sculptures and paintings. The original building was damaged by German bombing during the Second World War and the remains demolished by the Soviets afterwards, but post-independence the Latvians began to reconstruct it and it was completed in 2001. It's been done extremely well because we had no idea that it wasn't the original when we were looking at it, realising only after reading about it in the guidebook!
The photos below show some of the other lovely buildings that we saw