Riga at Christmas time is right out of a story book. There are no plastic trees or coloured lights, no signs of plastic reindeer or inflatable Santa Clauses. Picture long, soft green fir garland, delicate red ribbon, and a rustic wooden sleigh. Everything is so natural and simply ornamented, fitting with expectations of Victorian England.
The tradition of decorating the Christmas tree is claimed to have started in Riga. The origination is commemorated in the Town Hall Square with a plaque dated 1510. As the story goes, the Christmas tree celebration included decorating the tree with paper flowers, ribbons, dry flowers, straw dolls and fruit and after the ceremony the tree was burnt.
On our first night in Riga, strolling through the old town square, we came across a re-enactment of this ceremony. There were bonfires surrounding the men and women who danced, drummed and sang in a ritualistic and mesmerizing way. We watched on, enthralled. It felt paganistic and we liked it. I love that travel opens our eyes to interesting cultural differences. There is another way to celebrate Christmas?! What a great lesson for us and our children. We walked to dinner afterwards rapt in conversation about what we had just witnessed.
We decided on curry so we popped in to Indian Raja. What a fabulous meal! The vegetables and herbs were vibrantly coloured and flavourful. The paneer was homemade and the naan was so close to that which we enjoyed in India. The staff was incredibly friendly and accommodating with our children. I would definitely recommend it if you find yourself in Riga.
On our second day in town we geared up for sightseeing. Luckily, Riga has a small and easily walkable historical center which made getting around with little people very easy. We decided to first make the climb to the top of St Peter’s church, a UNESCO world heritage site, to enjoy the view and decide which direction to head next. The panorama from the top was lovely even though the weather was drizzly and grey. There is a lift that takes you to the observation deck and children under 7 are free to enter.
We spent most of the day on a self-guided walking tour. We enjoyed shopping at the Christmas markets and touring the outside of important monuments and buildings such as Blackheads House, The Museum of the Occupation, Jacobs Barracks, the Swedish Gate, and St Roland’s Statue. The kids loved having some down time playing at Bastion Hill park. It is a long and narrow green space, with the city canal meandering through it. Running up and down the hills helped the kids let off some steam from our earlier walk.
When it was time for a break we found a warm and cosy coffee house to relax in called Miit Coffee. What a find! Great coffee and fabulous homemade vegetarian cuisine, we were in heaven! We spent some time here playing Top Trumps* with the kids and enjoying one another’s company. We believe it’s important while traveling to take time to change our perspective from looking at all things new and turn towards our family to check in, to be present with one another. Having this balance has proven effective for our family in maintaining happiness while away from home.
*Top Trumps is a very easy card game for the kids and includes themes from their favourite television shows. We take these with us everywhere to lighten the mood or relieve boredom.
We are big Star Wars fans and were very anxious to see the new movie that had come out the previous week so we decided to get tickets for the evening performance at a large cinema downtown called Forum Cinemas. We were denied immediately, the lady at the till citing that our children are not old enough to see it. Wow! At home this would never happen as it should be the parent’s decision to make. We were all disappointed but so it goes. We marched outside and made a new plan to visit the nearby Central Market. It immediately reminded Stephen and I of the market hall in Budapest. Gorgeous produce from local farms, honey, amber and people selling their wares can all be founds here.
In order to make Christmas away from home more fun I asked the kids to draw a name out of a hat, then we would shop for a Secret Santa gift to give to that person on Christmas morning. This challenge was well received and so we used our time at the market to look for pressies. Stephen says that the locally made, stripy woolen socks he was gifted are the best pair of socks he’s ever had and Fiona purchased a very pretty amber necklace for me which I adore.
On leaving Riga we decided to visit Rundale Palace just an hour’s drive south of the city. It is a gorgeous building with beautiful gardens to be explored, on a sunnier day perhaps. The kids particularly enjoyed the story of the girl that haunts it. Her father, a doctor, unable to accept her death at 18, never buries her but performs an autopsy looking for answers. Tormented she roams the castle screaming. The palace has a long and varied history, it has been home to Russian royalty, used as a hospital for the military, and as a school in the 1930’s. I believe if you have the time that it’s worth a look to gain an insight into the history of Latvia.
Overall impression of Riga: it’s a strikingly beautiful city, the food is inexpensive and very high quality, the people speak very good English and are welcoming to children, there is good public transportation by way of buses, and the city is easily walkable with kids.