To me, food is one of the things that can make or break a trip away. I bet hundreds of thousands of us travellers out there have many a horror story about food they encountered while on holiday. For myself, food in a foreign country has to be local. I want to be able to try traditional cuisines because I feel like it makes my visit more authentic. I feel guilty if I opt for the burger on the menu instead of something more adventurous. The foods I discovered in Latvia are either going to persuade you to my way of thinking or have you believing I’m some sort of a madman!
- Pig’s Ears.
Typically when me and my partner are on holiday, we use TripAdvisor to help us decide where to eat. We’ve tried it the other way, where we just walk around the city and pick a place we like the look of. However, this has always ended in arguments so I give in and use the app. MILDA – the restaurant we went to on our first night stuck out at us for being close to our hotel and having really good reviews. Finding the place turned out to be tricky because it is tucked into a little square, which must be a lot busier during peak trading months. When we arrived, there was only the waitress sat alone, she showed us to our table and took our drink orders. It was nice to have the whole restaurant to ourselves. When I opened the menu I was instantly hit with an array of Latvian and Lithuanian dishes. To start we had the sharing platter (top right photo) this had on it a large selection of meats and cheeses. European meats don’t seem to agree with me for some reason – I had the same problem in Budapest. I still gave it a try and ate most of them, they went really well with the cheese and bread and it was authentic so I was happy. That is until.. The pig ears! I knew it was on the menu, which just made me more intrigued to try them. They are those long thin red meats with a white line down the middle (see pic). I picked one up and bravely put it in my mouth. The crunches were almighty! I had to discreetly put it back on the plate and that was the end of that. I’m glad I tried it but never again. I’ll leave it up to you and see if you’re brave enough if you ever visit Latvia.
2. The Main Course
Thankfully our main course was delightful enough to make me forget about the ordeal of the pig ears. I believe it’s a typical Lithuanian dish (see pic under sharing platter) and I would describe it as dumplings stuffed with meat, with potatoes and sour cream to top it off. As well as being interesting to look at, to my surprise it was incredibly tasty and for its size it really filled me up! If you’re wanting to try something authentic then that’s the dish I would recommend because it’s not too overwhelming and you still feel like you have tried a dish from the local area.
3. Riga Balsam
I had never heard of Riga Balsam before I went to the city, but after a couple of days there I’m sure I’ll never forget it. I can only describe it as somewhere between Jägermeister and Covonia cough syrup. It’s tradition to get a shot of it after every meal. Our friendly waitress walked out with two glasses. In one restaurant there was even steam coming from the glasses. I’m not very good with alcohol but I downed it in one to look like I was. There was no need to worry about the November chill outside because it warmed me right up. My partner was making a whole range of facial expressions – I don’t think he liked it. I actually started to grow accustom to the Balsam the more of it I drank and I like how they made a show of it because it’s what they’re known for. If you become a hard-core fan of the stuff while you’re away it’s sold in bottles all across Riga!
That was only the start of our food adventure in Riga, like any other capital city the amount of restaurants and other eateries are endless. There is going to be something for everyone so if you’re a bit scared of the weird and wonderful foods of Latvia you’re not going to starve. However, I do urge you to try them – come on just one little pig’s ear?
When planning a weekend trip to Europe I’m sure most people would be looking for hotels in Paris, Milan or Berlin. However when I was looking to get away in November with my partner I stumbled across Riga, the capital of Latvia. With cheap flight and hotel prices it is perfect for a short break away. Price (although it’s a good point) shouldn’t be the main reason for visiting Riga. Its quaint old town, historic architecture and range of restaurants offering cultural cuisine are enough to persuade any traveller to visit this alternative destination.
You can see that the Latvian sun was out in full force. If you’re wanting tropical weather then northern Europe in November isn’t going to be the place for you. Still, we only had one full day in the city so we wanted to make the most of it. The weather we just had to brave. We were rewarded with a day in Riga’s old town, which for me is the highlight of the city. You feel like you have just walked into one of the Brothers Grimm’s fairy-tale villages. As you meander your way through the cobbled streets the historic buildings tower over you, oozing Latvian culture and history. Each building has its own character and charm, a little quirk is waiting for you as you turn each corner. This impresses me more as after years of occupation this wonderful city still holds onto its identity. This is even more prevalent as you walk further into the old town. I have never seen as many Latvian flags in my life. They are hanging off almost every building as well as being hung in windows and it’s really nice to see. It makes you want to experience more of their culture.
We didn’t know it but we were in Riga during Latvian Independence Day. The Freedom Monument that stands proud just outside of the old town was full of people laying flowers which shared the colours of the Latvian flag. Solders marched in formation in front of the monument and a big screen showed a parade happening in another part of the city. We stood and watched the celebrations alongside the locals, each had a look of pride on their face. After walking around the city for some more time we stumbled across the parade. The roads were full of people waving flags and cheering. Solders from Latvia and other countries (Lithuania, Estonia, Sweden and the USA to name a few) marched by shouting chants to each other. A brass band soon followed, which caused people to dance in the streets and join the parade themselves. I went into a nearby gift shop and bought a little flag to wave alongside everyone else. I was swept away in the atmosphere and wanted to join in the festivity even though it wasn’t my country that was celebrating independence. It was a special moment and it really brought something unique to my travel experience.
We decided to check out the Latvian Independence day events later that night. We walked to the Freedom Monument; where we had been earlier in the day. It looked like they had set up some exhibitions. There were light displays hanging from the trees surrounding the park, which added an aura of fantasy to the evening. On a small stream there were candles floating on the water and they had placed small paraffin lights on the grass. The little specs of light from the flames danced in the Baltic wind. My personal favourite was the fire coming out of the sculptures on top of one of the hills in the park. The bitter cold of a November evening was taken away by a burst of warmth, the fires of pride burning in front of me. It was beautiful to walk around. We were joined with crowds of people: couples, families, students and the elderly. Latvians from all walks of life taking part in the celebrations. Despite this we didn’t feel like outsiders, instead we were welcomed to take part with them. The park was full of games for the children and everyone was having a really good time. The atmosphere was electric! – It felt like the whole of Riga was out with us. The night was finished with a firework show, which I’m sure could be heard all over Riga. It definitely made the whole trip feel more meaningful being a part of something as special as that.
When is the best time to visit Riga? Well, the summer if you’re there for the weather – it even has a beach! I would recommend going around November because it is so much cheaper and you can experience the Independence Day celebrations as well. It’s best to go then if you want to see some Latvian culture first hand.