Friday, August 02, 2019

Lucious Latvia and the Case of the Missing Grand Marnier

Friday August 2, 2019 – The Bus between Vilnius and Riga, Latvia.

We enjoy a relaxing morning in Vilnius sitting at an Old Town café and writing. We take a final stroll through the narrow back streets window shopping but most of the shops do not open until 11:00 A.M. and we have an 11:30 A.M. bus to catch to Riga, Latvia. 

Cafe time in Vilnius
Sunday morning and the shop is closed

Our second hotel is not far from the bus station and we walk ten minutes rolling our suitcases. We have reserved business class seats and each seat has its own entertainment T.V. screen.  The bus departs at 11:30 A.M. for the 4 ½ hour trip to Riga. Art watches movies and I write the entire trip.

We arrive at the bus terminal in Riga just past 4:00 P.M. Art discovers that Uber and Lyft do not exist in Latvia so we take a 10 Euro taxi to the Elizabeth Hotel. 

Art arriving at the Riga bus terminal and searching for an Uber ride
Art booked the hotel online last night and our “reception” is a bit odd, the hotel shabby and it’s farther from the old town than we expected. Art rings the bell to the hotel and after a minute listening to a crackling intercom, an older, pear shaped, gray haired woman opens the door. Her English is minimal and our Latvian non-existent. Before ushering us inside, she mimes a demonstration of how to open the door with a hard pull after first entering our room number on the outside key pad.  Art practices the hard pull several times until she is satisfied and allows us to enter.  She plumps herself behind a low desk in what feels more like a living room than a hotel lobby.  Art gives her our names and she shuffles reservation papers all the time wobbling her head which to me, indicates a problem.  She repeatedly mutters “two nights,” and runs her fingers across an old school reservation room log. She scrolls the log, shuffles papers and wobbles her head for over 5 minutes before coming to the decision that room #7 will be ours. I wonder if her wobbly head is a medical issue. There is no elevator and although we are only on the second floor the worn and narrow wooden spiral staircase looks challenging.  Art grabs both suitcases and makes the ascent. The room is clean and the bathroom small and modern but the décor is awful. The shades on the bedside lamps are patterned a bold orange and black and the wooden venetian blinds are saggy and broken. Art is less than happy for the $100 a night that we were charged but we shrug it off and within minutes are back downstairs and hoofing it across an expansive and beautiful park towards the Riga's Old Town.  A river winds through the park, flowers are in bloom and the afternoon is crisp and sunny. This is a lovely time of year to visit the Baltic’s.

Riga's central park
Basilica church in the Riga park

It is 5:30 when we arrive at the Old Town and we must find the tourist office minutes before it closes at 6:00 P.M.  Although not well marked, it’s on the main cobble stone street and we ask the board looking agent the usual touristy questions and pick up city maps and schedules for tomorrows free walking tours.
Riga is almost too picturesque and the cobblestone streets are swarming with tourists. With city map in hand we join the throngs, many with cameras pointed upward at the old cities rooftops, cathedral spires and churches.  I want to inhale the quaint city but the cobblestones are uneven and I am careful to devote equal time to watching where I step as ogling the surrounding sights.  The outdoor cafes and restaurants are spilling over with tourists enjoying a meal or a drink on this beautiful evening. 

Old Town, Riga Latvia
Tourist stalls beside the Church
Quaint Old Town buildings

A row of buildings - The Three Brothers
Art and I set off exploring, intent on finding an off the beaten track bistro where we can enjoy a drink and dinner.   After much wandering and looking at menus we find a quiet back street restaurant. 

Exploring less touristy plazas in Riga, Latvia
A back street bistro

The evening has become cool and we choose to sit inside where we enjoy a surprisingly lovely meal.  Art orders seafood pasta and I choose a beet salad with roasted chicken. Shortly after we order, a German couple is seated at an adjoining table and we overhear the man’s comment; “this restaurant was recommended to me by a friend.”  We are lucky in our choice tonight.  

Saturday, August 3, 2019  - Riga Old City Waling Tour and the Case of the Missing Grand Marnier

Yesterday, the wobbly headed receptionist at our quirky hotel informed us that breakfast was not included at the room price that we had paid and with a dismissive wave of her frail arm indicated that there were many café’s where we could get an early bite to eat. At least this is the translation that Art and I “heard” when we checked in.  At 7:30 A.M. we set out to find one of these cafes but the signs on the closed cafe doors indicate that they open at 9:00 A.M. We come to an upscale hotel a block away and I suggest we go in and that surly, we can buy breakfast there? 

A nearby upscale hotel where we eat breakfast
Art Nouveau facade near our hotel

Brick facade near our hotel

Indeed we can buy breakfast and for only 10 Euros each which is about $22 U.S. It’s not much by our standards but about twice what we might pay at a local café. The dining room opens at 8:00 A.M. and we descend to the lower dining area with a dozen more fortunate hotel guests. The buffet is wonderful and except for feeling like imposters, we enjoy the all inclusive array. Lox, pickled herring, cold cuts and cheeses of every type imaginable along with a variety of breads, croissants and pastries are on one long table.  Across the longest wall is a lovely fresh fruit and salad bar and a variety covered warming dishes containing cheese blintzes, crepes, bacon, sausage, potato pancakes and fried potatoes.  Stations in an alcove have self serve cappuccino and coffee machines, drinks and fresh juices. As we leave, Art inquires about the rates for the hotel should we wish to stay and extra night in Riga?  We expect the rates to be high but the receptionist checks his computer and informs us that a double room including breakfast would be 70 Euros including breakfast. Art grimaces and we return to our shabby hotel.

Our quirky, badly decorated and overpriced hotel that doesn't include breakfast
We walk quickly across the park into the old town arriving at the meeting point in front of the Saint Peter’s Church just in time for the 10:00 A.M. Old Town walking tour. Three guides split up 150 tourists and we follow a young, handsome and articulate “Leonardo DiCaprio,” down the cobble stone streets of Riga. His two hour crash course in Latvian history and architecture is both informative and amusing. 

Check out our Leonardo DiCaprio guide for our free walking tour!
Art Nouveau facade in Old Town, Riga
Remarkable Art Nouveau facade

Tourist trolley in Riga Latvia
The Old City, Riga, Latvia
Cat topping a Riga roof

Architectural sculpture
Elegant doorway facade

We need to leave Riga tomorrow morning by bus and go to Tallinn Estonia.  We walk the short distance to the station and buy two senior tickets for 16 Euros each; so reasonable for a 4 ½ hour trip. Business class is sold out so we choose seats at the back of the bus, second level. The bus station is beside the central market, recommended in our guide book and we wander the stalls of vegetables and fresh flowers and cheaply made clothing. Three huge bunker shaped warehouses have permanent refrigerated shops offering every possible cut of meat, fish, cheese product and baked good. Inside one of these are a variety of restaurants, bars and shared tables. It’s basically a giant gourmet food court.  Art and I separate to choose our meals, find each other and eat enjoying the people watching as much as the food. 

Riga farmers market
Chanterelles at the farmer's market

Fish market, Riga

Fish market, Riga

Caviar for sale

Art wants a haircut so we return to the old town where he gets a trim from a stylish tattooed barber. Art is less than pleased with the results, wanting more taken off, but I assure him that he looks more handsome than ever. 

A hair cut in Riga, Latvia
We spend the afternoon poking into the Decorative Arts Museum and a temporary exhibit of Art Nouveau. Neither is inspiring and with tired feet, we navigate our way back to the street where we had dinner last night; choosing a different café for late afternoon drinks. 

Riga's decorative arts museum
Decorative art museum

Aperol Spritz in Old Town

Art seems to genuinely enjoy figuring out public transportation and I have learned to accept this. Often unexpected adventures unfold because of this. Art leads the way to a trolley stop, showing me where we are and where this line will take us. The trolley is on time and our tap cards work beautifully. The tracks take us around the other side of the park and along the water. Although our hotel is just two blocks away, there is a row of waterside restaurants in the opposite direction. We choose to cross over to the waterside and investigate our dining options. The first and second restaurants are possibilities and we intend to walk the entire strip of eateries before making our choice, but the 50 plus motorcycles in the parking lot just beyond along with the boisterous partying of many young men, if not intimidating, are a deterrent and we return to the Napoli Restaurant for drinks and dinner. Dinner is excellent and the parade of young women wearing stiletto heels is especially entertaining for Art. 

Waterfront restaurant in Riga, Latvia
Grand Marnier is on the menu and I order one as an after dinner aperitif. The waiter looks at me blankly and Art points to the listing on the menu. Our waiter checks at the bar and returns to tell us that they don’t have Grand Marnier but they do have Cointreau. I tell him that Cointreau will be fine and two glasses arrive, one with the liquor and one with ice and tongs. On a stroll earlier, we noticed that a large liquor warehouse adjoins the parking area of these waterfront restaurants. Art and I watch with amusement when minutes later a young busboy jogs through the front door carrying a bottle of Grand Marnier. The next American who orders Grand Marnier will not be disappointed. 

No comments: