Over the past two weeks we’ve been fortunate enough to spend time in two of the three Baltic States: Latvia and Estonia. Fortunate as I never imagined we’d manage to get this far north by midsummer.
In the Baltic region during the months of April and May the weather can be cold, wet or even snowy, so we’ve certainly had the fine-weather Gods on our side since leaving the UK. This post covers Latvia, following is another on our short time in Estonia.
I hope you enjoy my take on Latvia and Estonia.
Our first landfall in the Republic of Latvia was the large port of Ventspils. The landscape is flat and the approaching sea is quite shallow and arriving on a Sunday, there was little activity on the waterfront. Within the harbour, in a corner away from the fishing vessels, about fifteen stern moorings are available for yachts. Unlike other places we’d visited recently, there were no available moorings (a sure sign summer is on its way), so we had to double up onto another boat’s mooring then secure our bow lines to the dock. Doubling up isn’t something we’d normally do, but the harbour master said it would be fine, especially with calm conditions overnight. One thing that I would have to follow up – I’d noticed a very big painted sculpture of a cow on the starboard side of the port as we entered, and once inside the harbour, another painted cow stood stiffly ‘mooing’ in silence near the harbour master’s office. What’s with the cows?
Facilities at the harbour are basic, but they were clean and adequate for our needs. We had access to electricity on the dock and water too. The harbour master helped us tie up then suggested we head to the make-shift bar for a cold beer, since we’d been sailing since 3am. Well, alrighty then! After our 90nm trip from Faro at the top of Gotland we were fairly tired, and hungry too, so we also ordered a kebab and fries to compliment the dark beer. While we drank our beer and waited eagerly for our kebabs, a Customs official waved Wayne over – he wanted to see our boat papers and passports. Australian flagged vessels are unusual around this region so our vessel certainly stands out. However, our paperwork is all in order – our EU passports still valid and the boat is still within its 18 month permitted entry period. Back to our beer!
The main town centre of Ventspils is about 2kms from the marina but not much was happening the day we visited. But along the walk into town we noticed another hand-painted fibreglass cow, then another, and another. Apparently in 2012 Ventspils hosted CowParade; the largest and most successful public art event in the world where artists display hand-painted cows and unique works of art. There are many cows adorning the city’s foreshore and parks in Ventspils. While I’m on the subject, did you know that Latvia also has the rarest cows on the planet – the Blue Cow. Apparently there are only around 100 of them in Latvia so I’m unlikely to see one.
Unlike more developed European countries, the standard of living is much lower in Latvia and the Euro was only introduced in 2014. A small market in the centre of town sold sweet berries, fresh vegetables, bright flowers and smoked meats, plus some stalls had cheap polyester frocks and polyethylene shoes, but little else. I bought a few legs of smoked chicken and squishy chocolate cake to have for lunch. Ventspils is a little off the beaten-track for most tourists and perhaps the locals prefer it that way too.
With an excellent wind forecast, from Ventspils we sailed around the north into the Gulf of Riga and stopped for the night at the small Estonian island of Ruhnu, swapping my home-made courtesy flags along the way. The small marina at Ruhnu has tiny finger berths and a high wharf for longer boats wanting to berth alongside. The facilities are good and once again the harbour master was friendly and helpful. Next day after a good sleep we sailed the 60nm south to the capital of Latvia – Riga is the largest city of the three Baltic states – Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia.
Situated close to the city of Riga, the Andrejosta Yacht Club has a guest dock with short rickety pontoons to tie-up to. It certainly isn’t fancy and for 33 Euros per night, it’s slightly more expensive than most, but given the location, which is recognised as one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, I certainly can’t complain. Nearby the huge cruise ships unload and load passengers each morning and night.
The old harbour office that overlooks the marina was converted to a posh restaurant and during our stay a couple of wedding parties were held there. Behind the restaurant are a couple of toilets, two showers plus a washer/dryer to use gratis, but with many passing boats and slow operating domestic machines, I had to wait ten hours before I could get my load on.
From the marina we cycle through warm air filled with the scent of jasmine. It’s a short bike ride across a busy dual-lane road and not far to the heart of Old Riga. Not knowing much about Latvia I made sure to read as much as I could about its most recent history. This year marks the 100th year that Latvia gained independence from Soviet Russia. The granite Brīvības Piemineklis (Freedom Monument) unveiled in 1935 symbolises freedom, sovereignty and independence of the Republic of Latvia. However the Soviets weren’t finished with Latvia and in 1940 the Soviet’s military invaded. However, between 1941-1944 Latvia was occupied by Germany, but soon after occupied once more by Soviet Russia. After the dissolution of the USSR, Latvia’s sovereignty was fully restored in 1991. Fortunately Riga was lucky enough to escape much of the bombing, unlike some other European towns.
At the centre of Old Riga is Dome Square and nearby the Riga Cathedral. Groups of people on walking tours amble about with their heads raised up to view the magnificent sculptures and architecture above them. Around the city are many statues dedicated to the struggle for independence or to recognise a poet, writer or another who contributed to the small republic.
Forming the oldest complex of buildings in Riga is the ‘Three Brothers’, the oldest of which was constructed in the 1500s. Another of the most superb buildings, and probably the most famous facade in Riga, is the ‘House of the Blackheads‘. No, it’s not a beauty salon, but a building erected during the early 14th century for the Brotherhood of Blackheads, a guild for unmarried merchants, shipowners, and foreigners in Riga.
Riga has the highest concentration of Art Nouveau architecture anywhere in the world. Over a third of the buildings were built in the early 1900s at a time of rapid economic growth. This is truly an outstanding town, but don’t forget to look up as there are some interesting things perched on top of the spires!
Popular Alberta Iela has expertly restored apartment buildings – each uniquely decorated with ornate balconies, tall columns and silent sculptured faces. In the central section of old Riga are plenty of eateries and bars catering to those who may prefer to view the World Cup after a day of looking at buildings.
A short distance out of the old town is a popular place for locals and tourists: Riga’s Central Market. Built between 1924 and 1930, it is apparently Europe’s largest market and bazaar so we went along to check it out. Old Riga and the Central Market were included in the UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998. The five huge pavilions of the market used to be hangars for German Zeppelins but now they house meats, cheeses, artworks and other items.
This time of year is the season for berries. Throughout the market the sweet smell of blueberries, cherries and strawberries fill the air. For general provisioning, however, a more convenient place is the large Rimi Hypermarket about 1km north of the marina. It has everything you need for stocking up the boat and is much less chaotic than the busy market. Walking distance from the marina is a large Spirits and Wine outlet which many of the cruise-ship tourists visit to stock up and take supplies back to Finland or Sweden. There is a wide selection of spirits and wines and it’s worth purchasing a bottle or two.
Of course a visit to an old Hanseatic town isn’t complete without the need to fix something aboard! We had a leak in the boat. Fortunately the leak was from the galley tap/mixer! With a crack at the base and unable to be repaired, Wayne cycled 4kms south of the marina to the huge Depo store. This place sells everything from taps, fish, 10″ water filters, liquors, fabric, rugs and a huge selection of hardware and tools. I’m surprised he came back, but he did – with a new tap and a bottle of Jameson’s Whisky! I was so impressed by his adventure, I went there the next day and bought a few things (for the boat of course!).
So our next voyage takes us from Riga to Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. The distance is 196nm and with a low pressure system due in a few days we wanted to be tucked in somewhere for the blow so decided to travel directly. So we left Riga at 6pm, motoring 8nm down river until we reached the Gulf of Riga where we could settle into the trip. Light winds on the nose kept our pace slow, but we weren’t in a hurry.
Usually, we are never in a hurry!