Monday July 23, 2018

11 hours in Riga

EVERYTHING they say about girls and maps is true. Girls can’t read them.

My sisters and I have proven this time and again on trips to cities we attempted to navigate on our own using maps, only to end up arguing at day’s end about the better progress we could have made, had we not been too cheap to hire a tour guide.

So in Riga, capital city of Latvia, we took a guided 2-1/2-hour walking tour conducted by a man we found online.

Caspars said he would not take us to the Old Town “because nothing there is authentic. It has been reconstructed.” Instead, he would show us “the real Latvia,” beginning with the Riga Central Market, Europe’s second largest market.

Built in 1930 from old German hangars, the very clean 72,300-square-meter market with more than 3,000 stands would make our local market administrators green—with envy.

Another behemoth was the 23-storey, 766-room Latvian Academy of Sciences, Latvia’s first high-rise building built in the 1950s when Latvia was under Soviet occupation and Cebu’s tallest building was the four-storey Gotiaoco Building.

Behind the academy, outlasting the atheist Soviet Union’s rule, was the more modest 19th century Church of Jesus, Latvia’s tallest wooden church.


If there’s a country that loves singing more than the Philippines, it’s Latvia.

“Other countries might have sports teams. But in Latvia, schools have choruses,” Caspars said.

Singing enabled Latvia to gain its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Really! While the Philippines had the “Edsa Revolution,” Latvia had the “Singing Revolution.”

Latvians love singing so much that they put up a monument to Krisjanis Barons, who had zigzagged Latvia to gather all the Latvian folk songs.

Our tour ended at the Monument of Freedom, where Caspars set us free after receiving his tip.

On our own

City map in hand, we, three girls, immediately set out to find the sights Caspars had not taken us to. (Old habits die hard.)

But despite the tourist attractions being numbered and clearly marked on the map with colored illustrations, we still went around in circles trying to find them.

Exhausted, we stopped to take photos of a beautiful structure that turned out to be the House of the Blackheads we had been looking for.

Built in 1334 for meetings and banquets by public organizations, it had been destroyed during World War 2 and rebuilt in 1999. Caspars had held this up as an example of how fake the Old Town was, saying other tour guides took liberties by saying it had been “renovated” when in fact only the foundation had remained. It is now a museum and concert hall.

It was just shouting distance from the medieval St. Peter’s Church, the meeting point for our tour with Caspars earlier in the day.

Behind the church was the Bremen Town Musicians, a statue of the animals from the tale of the Brothers Grimm about four animals in a farmhouse that ran away and occupied a building using music. It was a present from Bremen City. Riga had been founded by Germans from Lubeck and Bremen.

Unlike other tourists, we didn’t rub the animals’ noses for luck, which is probably why we found the 14th century Riga Castle, residence of Latvia’s president, only through a very circuitous route, and after stumbling on the Dome Cathedral.

At the Three Brothers, three adjacent houses from the medieval age, I said, “According to the map, it’s on the next street.” But my sister Melanie said, “No! This is it already,” pointing to the likeness of the buildings in front of us to their illustration on the map.

Among us, sisters, Melanie has the best spatial intelligence and eyesight. While I was still turning the map around and looking for landmarks, she had already spotted the Cat House, a 1910 building with two cats on the roof; and Jacob’s Barracks, until recently Riga’s longest building.

The upside of getting lost is that while our sightseeing, including quick shopping at the Galerija Centrs mall, took 11 hours, we walked 21,000 steps that day—a feat we, office types, would never have willingly achieved back home.