As we descended from the fifth deck of the MV Explorer I had no expectations. I did not know much about Latvia. All I really knew was that it had relatively recently found independence after being occupied by both Nazi Germany as well as the former Soviet Union.
I suppose I expected a place still obviously recovering from such a harsh and painful history. Instead, Latvia blew my mind and stole my heart.
It was a surprisingly quiet sun-filled Saturday morning in June when we finally found the massive Central Market in Riga, the capital of Latvia. The popular marketplace is housed inside of five old German Zeppelin airplane hangers from WWI.
Before entering I stopped at a wagon with a bright blue awning reading KVASS. I smiled at the female vendor that looked about my age; she smiled back lowering her eyes as if apologizing for not knowing any English. I hadn’t had time to brush up on my Latvian either (not serious) so I bit my lip and lightly laughed while holding out Latvian change and she picked up the appropriate coins from my palm. We smiled at each other again. In that moment I wished I could have offered her more than an english “thank you” as she handed me my cold, chestnut brown drink. We waved goodbye.
I had heard about this strange but supposedly delicious drink from friends and could not resist trying it. Kvass, a common eastern European non-alcoholic drink, is made from fermented rye bread. It’s actually quite good — or at least I think so, as you can see here.
I bought another cup as we exited and was given even more kvass by my friends who did not admire it as much as I did. It kind of tastes like the little brother to beer. Slightly sweet and earthy, a bit tangy and tart… I’m beginning to realize how difficult it is to describe. But I do recommend trying it if you get the opportunity!
A couple booths away we stopped to buy a giant basket of deep crimson cherries. We used a water bottle to wash them, letting the water fall into the street at our feet.
We walked through all of the hangers — I don’t have many pictures inside due to my double-fisting of the kvass. However, we encountered entire buildings filled with honey, nuts, meat products, seafood, fruits, vegetables, handmade knit goods.
Outside the hangers were numerous booths selling inexpensive clothes, shoes, and souvenirs. All of us bought miniature bottles of local honey, a Latvian speciality. I kept mine in my luggage for over a month, planning to bring it home for my parents to try. Sadly, the cranky man at Heathrow Airport took mine away (after he searched my entire carry-on which nearly made me late for my flight). Thanks, dude.
Alright rant over, back to the loveliness of Latvia. It really was. Lovely is the perfect word to describe it.
Lovely. Like the local, wrinkled old women buying and selling items around the market as they peered at us curiously from behind the tied scarves around their faces. I wish I’d had the nerve to ask them for a photo. That’s something I need to get better at — learning how to take pictures of people, especially ones I don’t know. I haven’t mastered that science. It’s difficult to break the ice especially with a language barrier.
Us girls decided to venture on and discover another part of Riga. Without an idea of where we were going or what we would find around the next corner we crossed the street using the underground pedestrian walkway.
Down the road a little and to the left on Raina bulvaris we stumbled across an odd shaped building perched along a river that calmly coursed through a deep green park, shaded by soaring trees. Apsara Tea Room, a Latvian chain of tea houses, was circular and small, but with large windows allowing for plenty of natural light brightening the vibrant wooden interior.
On the inside, a rustic blue and white staircase twirled upward to a second level where striped multi-colored plush pillows lined the floor in a circular shape. A giant black metal chandelier hung in the center of the second floor, eye level with those sitting facing the windows.
The view, which oversaw lush green lawns and the Pilsetas Canals lined with waddling ducks, created a feeling of serenity and peacefulness. As we entered we were greeted by a bubbly blonde woman behind the counter. Her voice was high-pitched, but in an endearing way, like a Disney cartoon character I would have loved to sing along with as a child.
The counter held glass jars full of sweet treats like Sokolades Cepums (heart-shaped chocolate chip cookies), Mandeli Cepums (square almond shortbread cookies), and Riekstu Cepums (horse-shoe shaped sugar slazed cookies) for only $.25 Lats each.
The walls contained endless assortments of exotic teas, and various tall slices of cake with layered fillings showcased in a glass refrigerator to the left of the cookie jars.
Two large black chalkboards were hung overhead and displayed the teas and their prices ($1.20 – 3.50 Lats) in handwritten white chalk. Iced teas came in two varieties, red and green, both were amply sweetened as well as absolutely delicious.
A version of “Someone Like You”, sung by a male voice, played in the background. The six of us girls sat down on the striped cushions upstairs and faced the windows. We barely spoke for ten minutes. I relished in how good it felt here. The Tea House. Riga. Latvia. Europe.
It felt homey, in both a comfortable and brand new way. I was with good friends in a very beautiful place. A place that felt exclusive, secret and undiscovered. It’s easy to run around and hit all the typical, tourist hot spots.
But this. This was special. This was the feeling I chase. The reason I fly, sail, and ride around the world. Latvia, I can’t wait to return to you.
There’s a quote by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. It’s meant to describe people but it now reminds me of Latvia.
“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.”
Look for the Part II posting of my time in Latvia coming soon!