Trakai – The castle on the lake (followed by a visit to Uzupis republic

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Would you believe that this tiny, picturesque town used to be the center of Lithuanian politics for a brief period in the 15th century? At first thought it doesn’t make any sense why the Medieval rulers of the country would spend most of their time in a small village instead of nearby Vilnius, but when you get off the local bus and step on this wondrous place, their motives begin to get visible. It takes a stroll from the bus station to the castle for the history and beauty of the place to unfold before your eyes.

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The first thing to notice is the lake. It shapes the place and constitutes its nucleus. It gives the area a tone of relaxation, it actually shouts loudly that this is a place for recreation and that is actually emphasized on the town’s founding myth, according to which after a hunting excursion, Gediminas, the Grand Duke of Lithuania discovered a wonderful lake and decided to have a castle built on the spot. Since then, the area’s beauty attracted lots of people and Gediminas’ grandson spent a great amount of his time there, once he became the Grand Duke.

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The next thing you notice, is the town’s multicultural identity. We spotted a small Russian church, which although didn’t look much on the outside, was brilliantly and colorfully decorated in its interior. We also spotted a wooden synagogue and a restaurant that was run by Karaites, that specialized in a fish dish, while we also heard that many Poles live in the area. We wanted to have a taste of the Karaite cuisine, but it was too early to have lunch and we approached the town’s main attraction.

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The island castle of Trakai, connected to the mainland by a narrow wooden bridge, which was under renovation at the time. The pink-colored, stone structure bonds in harmony with the lake and seems as if something one would see in a dream. The interior doesn’t seem as impressive though, regrettably, it seemed to us as a sloppy tourist trap, since the courtyard was planted with replicas of medieval torture equipment. Still, that could not diminish our adoration of this place.

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Charmed of this wonderful corner of the country, we left Trakai to return to Vilnius and spent the rest of the day there until our nightly bus ride to Warsaw. We had already seen most of the places on our list over the past day, so this exploration was going to be a rather casual approach to this city. That laid-back approach started with a rather large pizza accompanied by a bottle of beer. We had visited this great place last evening and it so happened that we got hungry the minute we got past outside its door.

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Great choice once more and as we felt regenerated with that tasty break, we advanced for a walk to Bernadinai garden, which seemed pleasantly crowded at the time – we even spotted several people canoeing in the adjacent river. The trees provided a cool shadow from the – incredibly burning considering how north we were – sun rays and we even spotted a mini free library, a box where you could freely take a book and leave one for someone else to enjoy.

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Having rested on the park, we advanced once more into my favorite St Anne’s church, but this time we didn’t pay a visit to the site, we decided to have a coffee at a Café situated by the river next to the orthodox cathedral, at the edge of the Republic of Uzupis. The Café was situated on a great spot, as it allowed access to the river, where a swing was set, hanging from a small bridge over the river. It was a huge attraction with girls walking into the shallow water eager to swing and have a cheerful shot taken while sat on it. It made us feel buoyant ourselves. We enjoyed some laughs as the waiter – quite joyful herself happily – tried to serve us our coffee as per our instructions.

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I have to say, sometimes I think that we may appear weirdly eccentric to waiters who take our order on these demands of ours to prepare a coffee as per our instructions. It originally began as a need to enjoy this coffee after spending many days without its taste, but it has now become a favorite oddity, as we anxiously await for the way it will be presented to us, or the taste. This time they got close as we were offered espresso, ice cubes and warm milk. Had they shaken cold milk with ice cubes, everything would be great, but we never complain. Besides, we got to have a view at the Uzupis mermaid.

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The Uzupis republic is a self-proclaimed republic within Vilnius. This small but lovely neighborhood is the artistic heart of the city and currently celebrates its 20 years of independence.  The neighborhood has its own constitution, which was sooooo awesome! I mean come on! Article 13 proclaims that a cat is not obliged to love its owner, but must help in time of need! If you think about including cats in a constitution you must be a genius! The constitution is attached on a wall in various languages for everyone to read and although downtown Vilnius is great and laid back, this side of the river is an even more easy going place.

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We even spotted a small bookstore, where I bought an English book about Lithuanian pottery and a cute cat sleeping in a box of books outside the store. We walked around the neighborhood for a while and as we were about to leave, we stumbled upon an open kitchen, which featured tastes from all over the world, but sadly, we were too full of pizza to even have a bite. That cheered us even more, before returning back to the old town, where we made a brief stop to rest on the park by the cathedral.

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As we began to slowly drag our steps towards the bus station, we also came across a place where Adam Mickiewicz resided for a while, but as our appetite returned, we sat on a place we had spotted during the previous day’s walk and ordered some pancakes. Once more, food in Vilnius proved to be simply great and even though pancakes seem more of a breakfast thing rather than a dinner choice, it was just what we needed at the time. Eventually, we returned to our hostel, where we had left our luggage for the day – we can’t thank the people there enough for that service and reached the bus station.

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While on the premises, we chatted with a Lithuanian guy, who described the effects of the introduction of euro in the country’s economy. It was exactly like listening to a Greek describing what happened at the currency’s first steps when introduced. “Bread used to cost 2 (?) litas/ 100 drachmas and then it went to 1 euro (thrice up the price)”. Don’t get me wrong, I am strongly pro euro, but these small things contributed up to a point to the bad economy. While boarding the bus, we had some laughs as the driver faced our old-fashioned Greek I.D. cards with a justified puzzled look (It actually took Catherine a few minutes to board the bus, as our documents are an oddity). Once aboard, we made ourselves comfortable for the overnight trip back to Warsaw, watching movies, sleeping and having coffee. After all it was a ten hour ride…

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Gains and losses – An update on our summer plans

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It has been quite a while since we last posted anything regarding our forthcoming trip. Last time we did, we declared our intention to visit Zaragoza. Well, cross that off! Surely, it is an interesting city but we mostly wished to visit in order to rest on our way to Barcelona, since our time will be limited. However, we opted to spend a bit of our budget on train tickets and we will reach Barcelona after a three hour trip. So, as we have taken care of every transport needs necessary here’s the final form of our itinerary.

  • Day 1 We arrive in Lisbon late at night, therefore, a nap will be our sole experience of Portugal for the day
  • Day 2 sightseeing in Lisbon
  • Day 3 A visit to nearby Sintra and one of the nearby Praias for a swim
  • Day 4 We check out of our hotel and continue sightseeing in Lisbon, till we catch the night train to Madrid
  • Day 5 Spend the day in Madrid until we board an evening flight to Marrakech
  • Days 6 to 9 are spent in Morrocco
  • Day 10 Returning to Madrid after noon, where we catch the evening train to Barcelona
  • Day 11 Sightseeing in Barcelona
  • Day 12 some more sightseeing, before departing in the evening

To sum up, we are done with the main structure of our trip. So far the cost comes to 100 euro flight from Greece to Lisbon, a 23 train ticket to Madrid, a 50 € air fare to Morocco, the same amount for the return to Spain, a 40 € train ticket to Barcelona and a 35 € flight back home. Total amount of 298 euros each for our main transports (We haven’t included smaller fees, such as public transport or taxis in the cities and the train ticket to Sintra). As far as our accommodation is concerned, we’ve already booked our stay in Lisbon and a couple of days in Morocco, so, we need to reserve rooms for another couple of days in Marrakesh and a couple more in Barcelona.

We’ve also quite determined which places to visit during our stay in Lisbon, but we’ll present those once this list is conclusive.

Vilnius is one of the liveliest cities you ever did see

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The ride to Vilnius proved to be rather cozy and we enjoyed the spectacle of the sunny Baltic countryside. The bus station was also conveniently located near our hostel, which in turn was comfortably positioned next to the Gate of Dawn, the last remaining city gate of Vilnius. As it was almost noon, we dropped our luggage in our room and approached the illustrious gate to enter the old city of Vilnius.

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The Gate itself doesn’t look much from the outside, but its inner view is truly a memorable sight. According to the 16th century practice, a religious icon depicting the Virgin Mary is placed in a chapel inside the gate, acting as the city’s guardian against enemies. We could discern the influences of orthodox art on the finely crafted painting and it was pleasing to see such a familiar pattern in such a distant place.

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After this gratifying first taste of Vilnius, we realized that we should pursuit some Lithuanian flavors as we hadn’t eaten anything since morning and it was lunch time. Subsequently, we found a place by pure chance. And what a great chance that was! We don’t even recall how on earth did we spot the place as it didn’t seem to have an entrance on the main road. Kitchen is a restaurant nested on the first floor of a building that provides a great view of the town hall and the streets. The interior was elegantly modern, the food and the service were excellent and they were also photo-shooting a beer commercial when we got there. The time we spent there eradicated the last shreds of fatigue and enabled us to keep enjoying Vilnius and to further explore this fun city.

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The next building we encountered on our way down town was the St Nicholas orthodox church, which we entered to find out that a ceremony was taking place and Catherine half-mistakenly, as she wanted to light a candle, participated in this Russian styled rite, as she found herself among a group of women that were lining up for a priest to place some oil on their foreheads. Ah! The priests must have been the rock stars of the Middle ages.

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After Catherine was blessed by the priest, we continued our walk towards the principal attraction on our Lithuanian bucketlist. St’ Anne’s Church, the greatest church building we have viewed so far, a gothic styled monument of 15th century flamboyance, an architecture I couldn’t stop taking shots of and I wished to spend there as much time as it would be possible. I had heard that Napoleon had marveled at the buildings beauty and that he actually expressed a wish to carry it back to Paris with him and I could sense why.

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The inside seemed rather empty, but still all that space actually made the church look enormous and yet there were many interesting corners, where you could discover elements of the country’s past. I was mostly impressed by a sizable head made of stone that bore a cross right on its top, with its sides coming out of the statue’s ears. I am probably mistaken, but it seemed as if the head once belonged to an ancient Lithuanian god and the overcoming new faith modified it to enlist it in its own religious service.

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Having crossed that exquisite place of our list, we made one more stop to loosen up over a cup of coffee. We had done so much sightseeing over the past days and we wouldn’t mind if we just quit it and laze out for the rest of the remaining time on that trip over coffee, beer and snacks. Yet, this voice inside our heads kept pushing us to get up and experience more of Vilnius and we concluded that we should come to some sort of agreement between this sightseeing pixie inside our souls and our lethargic bodies. Therefore, we spotted an ice cream and desserts shop near the small cafe we were nested and vowed to every dessert there that we would return.

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Driven by that dessert pledge, we marched to the Vilnius Cathedral, another massive religious building, that is built where a temple to the Lithuanian god Perkunas used to stand. The place is in close proximity to the palace of the grand dukes and next to a pretty park and allows a great view of the imposing Gediminas tower that tirelessly guards over the city. At the time of our visit some events regarding the Olympic games were taking place on the Cathedral’s square and many children were having fun participating in this affair. I was a bit envious of some youngsters that were playing basketball and I even considered asking them to join in, but at the thought alone I swear I could hear my knee snap.

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Besides that, the sky was filled with colored hot air balloons that lifted everyone’s spirits as they rose up in the sky. We took some shots and walked a little further away from the Cathedral, right in front of the national museum where we fell upon some polynesian looking statues, that might have been some more images of the country’s old gods.

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We felt we had exceeded the limit set for sightseeing and true to our word, we returned to the pastry shop we had spotted earlier, to get a sweet taste of Lithuania. It was truly a great choice and we savored it happily, before moving on to explore more of the city. I also added a copy of Kristijonas Donelaitis’ Metai on our library and we also visited a rather small bookstore, that was also a cafe, where I looked around for some more books while Catherine was enjoying a refreshment.

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During our walk around town we spotted many kids playing music – which puzzled us a bit, but they didn’t seem to be begging, let alone many of them played admirably, while we also spotted an event where many people were dancing to Latin music in an open space. The city was constantly crowded with all sorts of people, parents enjoying a walk with their kids, young couples, tourists and lots and lots of young people. We made another stop a cocktail near the Cathedral and as we felt it was too early to call it a night, we also hanged out for some pizza and a couple of beers. Thankfully, so far our choices on food and drink proved to be excellent and even though we were feeling a bit tired, the city was so vibrant and vigorous that kept tempting us into more fun. Finally, as the streets begun to drain of crowds, we returned to our hostel to rest. According to our itinerary, on the following day we would make a brief visit to Trakai and spend the entire day on the roads of Vilnius, before catching a night bus back to Warsaw, to complete our trip.

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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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In need of a break

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It has been a rather busy week so far, but thankfully all this hassle comes to an end today and we’ll have the chance to catch some z’s while planning ahead for our trip this summer. At least summer time already dominates our mood and since I have to work outside I get to use some great scenery as an office. I’m mostly visiting the nearby coastal towns and although they are a familiar sight for my eyes, I can never get too accustomed to the scenery’s beauty. Parga and the nearby Acheron river provide some lovely landscape that will please anyone’s eyes.

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So, after a much needed break this weekend we’ll continue posting the newest updates on our forthcoming trip, while recommencing our narrative of our Baltic adventures. I’ve been also planning a visit to the nearby Nicopolis museum and archaeological site, but so far I’ve only encountered closed doors due to a lack of funds (If you don’t allow visitors to enter how on earth do you expect to get funds anyway?). I can’t do much about the museum (hopefully I’ll visit when it’s international museum day) but I might break into the site of the ancient ruins to get some shots (Just kidding, ha, ha…wink, wink!).

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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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