Jurmala – an evening by the beach

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A couple of months back we were trying to decide on the place that would accommodate us during our stay in Riga and – as most places were turned down for various reasons, the idea to stay in Jurmala popped up and we were instantly delighted at the prospect of staying in a Latvian resort town. Jurmala used to be popular with Soviet party officials and it was one of the most prominent beach resorts in the eastern bloc, but its fame as a popular retreat goes back to the 19th century and for good reason.

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The scenery is magnificent as the sea breeze, the pine scent originating from the nearby forest and the wide sandy beach with its bright white powdered shore quickly assisted the town to gain a reputation as a health spa. The lovely wooden houses also contribute to the town’s charm and we got to stay in one of them, which although not a luxurious hotel, was a clean and neat place that gave an essence of 19th century style.

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Our first impressions of the place were limited to a brief attempt to settle in and take a shower before returning to Riga. However, on the following day, after a long tour of the busy streets of the Latvian capital, we returned to Jurmala determined to spent the afternoon on the beach. Being more daring than Catherine, I also wanted to swim in the Baltic and we made a short stopover to put a swimming suit on and grab a towel.

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After that was settled, we walked to the nearby beach, which was one of the main points of interest along the 30 km stretch of beach. The air was refreshingly cool and many people were enjoying the sun and the amenities the place offered. We sat on a large wooden table and got some refreshments from the nearby store, as I was getting ready to check the water. Well, it turned out that the dry part of the beach was the best one, as the waters were disappointingly shallow (well from my perspective, shallow seas are a waste of time – it can be great for kids though) and after walking for a while, clinging onto the vain hope that the water would get deeper, I opted to return to the shore, before reaching crossing the sea to Sweden on foot.

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The beach was impressive though and compensated for the depthless sea. We enjoyed some snacks, bought from a kiosk near the beach and the gentle sea breeze while letting our eyes to follow all the people that would catch our gaze. A small party of French tourists were eager to enjoy a night out in Riga, some children savoring the last summer days as they played all along the white sands, building castles and enjoying the same water that let me down, young couples enjoying a walk under the slowly fading sunbeams and even old people sitting on benches and staring at the horizon.

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As the sun was descending to his nightly realm, we hanged around for some last shots and a little while before darkness fell we returned to our hostel for a brief break before exploring Jurmala’s nightlife in fresh clothes. The main street was rather crowded and we noticed many bars and restaurants on both of its sides. It was a very enjoyable walk and we even got the chance to acquire some souvenirs, although we got a bit worried that it was getting late and most places might get ready for closing and would stop serving food. So, we spotted a place that seemed very pleasing to the eye and in the hope that it would also be pleasing to the stomach, we took a seat and we were not dissatisfied.

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The place offered us the chance to taste some yummy pizza and some traditional Latvian dessert (possibly buberts), that was the perfect way to bid farewell to Latvia. On the following morning, we caught the train back to Riga, after meeting a couple of charming Italian ladies – it was nice to meet other southerners like us – and we were keen to check out the last stops in our itinerary, Vilnius and the nearby Trakai in magnificent  Lithuania.

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A detail of some piece of furniture in our room that gave the place a fun but rather eerie feel

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A little architect’s design

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Exploring Riga for a day

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Waking up in cheerful mood, we hopped on the train for the short ride to Riga. The sun was awarding our mood and the Latvian Capital with a bright and clear sky and all traces of yesterday evening’s rainfall had vanished. We followed the now familiar route through Bastejkalns park to St. Peter’s church, only making a brief pause to visit a mall, in search of a Latvian book, which proved to be a waste of time, as we couldn’t find a bookshop.

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We continued our walk to the Cathedral and also viewed the Blackheads’ house in the bright sunlight that showered down all over the city, until we found the cat’s house, a beautiful building, whose main feature are the two cat statuettes, that angrily face the owner’s enemies (whether these adversaries were the merchants’ guild or the city council, both versions are heard in the city).

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We saw lots of pretty buildings on our way, among them the foreign art museum, the powder tower and the neo-gothic styled small guild, before advancing to the freedom monument and to the nearby Bastejkalns park once more. We enjoyed some views of the ducks that swam in the nearby canal and caught ourselves some sun, before finding a souvenir store that, among other things, provided us with some black balsam, a traditional Latvian liqueur made of a combination of vodka and herbs. We also met a Greek girl on vacation there and, although we were happy to chat with her, I sadly realized that our trip was nearing its end.

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Our next stop was the magnificent Nativity Cathedral, a 19th century Russian orthodox church, before we eventually visited another orthodox church, a smaller one, but more exquisite from my point of view, the Alexander Nevsky church. Outside views don’t reveal much of the buildings elegance, as you will probably deem it to be just another boring church building. Once inside though, you realize that it is a rotunda that is somehow hidden by the classicist styled building that engulfs it.  The dome has a lovely pale azure color that gives prominence to the church’s decoration.

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Afterwards we returned to the park for another brief stop and as we got hungry, tried to find a place to eat near the old town. We met a drunk lady near a TGI Friday’s, who urged us to visit a pizzeria, but we politely ignored her. As Catherine was buying some gifts though, I noticed that she was becoming a bit aggressive towards passers by and I felt certain that something silly was about to happen. It almost did. She got angry at a vendor who tried to get her to move away from his doorstep and she threw away an empty bottle towards the crowd of people that were walking up and down the busy street. Thankfully the shards did not hit anyone and the police appeared discretely after a while taking care of the matter.

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That ill-favored event had no effect on our appetite though and we continued our way until we reached Ezitis migla, which roughly translates like hedgehog in the mist, one of the places that prior to us reaching Latvia had found to be a fair choice of budget and taste. The reviewers proved to be fair on their comments as the food was excellent and the prices were more than great. We enjoyed a pea soup, pasta, roasted vegetables and fried chicken that went down smoothly aided by some fine cocktails and dessert. The sunny day enabled us to enjoy our meal outside the shop, on a narrow alley in the company of other travelers and local students.

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After this fine meal, we visited Vermanes Garden, another Riga park that we didn’t spent much time on, opting to visit Bastejkalns park once more. We spent some more time relaxing on the grass there and we wandered around for a while looking for the chance to get some shots. Eventually, we searched for a bookstore again and after a rather frustrating quest, we found a big bookstore that offered us the chance to acquire a book in Latvian. That’s how I acquired a copy of Katram Sava by Talis Vaidars, some sort of the author’s autobiography, written in his own handwriting and left on his desk before he visited the hospital, where he passed away. I’ll definitely read it, provided I find a translation, but for the time being we are happy with the awesome comb shaped bookmark the book contained.

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As we had been roaming the streets of Riga for hours and had already enjoyed food, beer and cocktails in the city during our sightseeing, we decided it was time to say goodbye to the Latvian capital and turn our attention towards Jurmala. A train was about to leave and that would allow us to visit the beach, swim in the Baltic and have a small taste of the nightlife.

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Our stay in Latvia – a first taste of Riga

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The bus ride to Riga offered us an enjoyable view of the Estonian and Latvian countryside. As we reached our destination, we fell upon an open air market and reveled in the opportunity to have a look at the colorful fruits and vegetables on display, as well as the busy crowd and vendors. We also enjoyed our first taste of Riga in the form of a sandwich, before immediately leaving the city for a while in order to settle in our hotel.

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You see, we opted to settle in nearby Jurmala rather than stay in Riga, as we thought it was a great idea that would allow us to experience a different aspect of the country. Therefore, we made a 30 minute long trip to our hotel, took a shower and returned to Riga greedily awaiting to taste another city. During our short absence, the sun had hidden himself behind some heavy clouds and we had to wait inside the train station for the storm to pass. After the sun idly resumed his dominance over the Latvian sky, we had lunch and rushed to satisfy our hunger for sightseeing, passing through Bastejkalns park, adoring views of the rainbow that appeared.

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We dragged our steps on the cobbled streets and experienced a surprisingly lively city. Various kinds of music could be heard out of every corner and we instantly regretted that we would eventually have to leave on the last train to Jurmala, yet our residence would compensate us on the following day.

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The Latvian academy of sciences reminded us of Warsaw’s palace of culture.

Our steps led us to the huge St Peters church, but we restrained our admiration on outside views, silently promising that we would return next morning to enter the church. What managed to catch our intention though was not the church itself, but rather the strange statue of four animals sitting one atop the other, which we later found out that it is a reference to the brother Grimms’ tale of the Bremen musicians (check here for a narrative of this amusing folk tale).

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Later, we found ourselves in front of the house of the Blackheads, a merchant guild of the middle ages and after a while, we decided to pause our sightseeing tour for some dessert. So, we marched straight into black magic cafe, an extremely fine looking establishment, that left us in awe of its beautiful decoration that traveled us back in time. We enjoyed dessert, coffee, beer and the beautiful atmosphere the place emanated before continuing to one of Riga’s Freedom monument, a very high pillar on top of which stands a statue depicting a Latvian lady, a symbol of the country’s unity as she is raising three stars up to the sky, each one standing for the three historical Latvian areas.  We wished to view more of Riga, but as we had to catch the last train back to Jurmala, we decided to postpone our plans for the morning, although the music that could be heard out of every street tempted us to stay.

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