Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Vicarious Tourism: Latvuania

I made use of a 4-day Easter weekend (thanks Irish Catholics!) to go visit a friend in Riga, Latvia, and added a stop in Vilnius, Lithuania, because why not? It's right there. I had an amazing time. The weather was uncharacteristically perfect, for one thing - 70 degrees and triumphantly sunny - as if to try to convince me, a notorious winter-hater, that living in the Baltics for a few years would be a great idea. I was not fooled, but I was happy to take advantage of the opportunity to wander around without a coat on and hang out in sun-drenched beer gardens. Vilnius and Riga both turned out to be great wandering cities, more old-world charm and less depressing Soviet brutalism than I had expected. Riga also has a stunning art nouveau district just made for architectural appreciation strolls.

I also saw a former KGB prison, complete with torture cells where prisoners had to stand on a platform no bigger than a dinner plate or fall into icy water below. I went to an open-air ethnographic museum and learned to dye Easter eggs the traditional Latvian way. And I visited the Republic of Uzupis, an arty neighborhood in Vilnius with its own president and constitution. I was most struck by Article 10: everyone has the right to love and take care of the cat; and Article 13: a cat is not obligated to love its owner, but must help in time of need. Evidently you can get a passport stamp by presenting the appropriate visa (i.e. a smile!), but the ministry of tourism/immigration office/souvenir shop was closed for the weekend. Tragedy! I'm still kicking myself for missing out on that unique piece of passport bling.


And I ate! The Baltics seem to be big on pork and potatoes and garlic, and I love all those things. One night in Riga my friends took me to the aptly-named Garlic Pub; there was garlic beer, garlic bread, garlic spreads, garlic main dishes of all kinds, even garlic desserts! My garlic receptors may have been blown out by the time I got to the main course, so I barely tasted the garlic in my cheesecake. The garlic coffee seemed like a step too far. Aside from the garlic I was also introduced to black balsam, a potent herbal liqueur best mixed with something sweet; and sea buckthorn, a fruit that looks and tastes a lot like a kumquat but isn't one. And I got to add beaver to the list of strange animals I have eaten. (I should keep an actual list somewhere, as I'm starting to lose track.)

Anyway, Riga and Vilnius both exceeded expectations. Check them out sometime!

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