Like many Southern European people (and many people in general) I used not to like winter. It would be a season of deprivations. I could not stand the cold. But in the last decade, I slowly got to appreciate it and now I am a fan, same as with all other seasons.
Winter can be pretty cool if you have proper clothing and heating at home. Otherwise, winters are a pain. That’s why I always thought winters are for the rich. Probably I am not the only one thinking so, as the taxi driver in Riga said the same when I asked what is like living in Latvia. “If you can afford proper clothing and good heating, you can live a good life here”. I had written exactly the same thing shortly before in a draft of this post.
So, in a new proposition of embracing all that winter has to offer, I jumped on this new adventure going to the Baltics now, in February. A solo trip with a -5 temperature was exactly what I needed!
In effect, writing now towards the end of this experience, I can say I have been pleasantly surprised by my tolerance to the cold. I was expecting not to be able to walk for a long time in this weather, but it was most of the time okay. I suppose after many years of going with a leather jacket in February, now I kinda dress properly for winter.
I stayed 5 days in Riga and 4 in Vilnius. I was working also, because someone had to pay for all those pickles I ate.
In Riga, I stayed in an apartment that smelled like someone had been killed there. If you added the aesthetics to the smell, you would be 100% sure someone was killed there.
The owner had left the keys for me under some plants and I had to engage in a lovely treasure hunt to get them, so at some point, I thought I would find the corpse hidden somewhere too.
Other than my apartment, Riga had gorgeous buildings and looked incredibly elegant and I looked incredibly underdressed. All the places I tried to eat at looked like some movie picturing the Belle Époque, and the waiters would patiently wait all the 18 minutes I needed to take off all the pieces of my outerwear to store them somewhere, possibly trying not to give me weird looks cause I was wearing two scarves at the same time.
In Riga, I tried also my new sunglasses that take pictures (cause I couldn’t wait any longer). So in that typical North European grey sky, I kept strolling around the city in sunglasses. At some point, I thought of getting a stick too to blend more into this “blind person” image people were getting of me. But most of the people couldn’t care less about me going around in sunglasses in the dark so I kept taking photos while occasionally tripping over cause it was dark.
Cool stuff in Riga
The best you can do in Riga is walk around the city center and the old town and admire all its colorful buildings. It is the city of the Art Noveau, which I shamelessly read about of only when I was there. It’s also the city of the statues of the animals, set in random places or on top of the buildings, like the famous Riga cat.
One amazing place you should check out is the Central Market. It is huge (they say the biggest of the Baltics) and has different hangars that sell all kinds of foods and goods in general.
I also visited the KGB museum, recommended if you are into this stuff, and a bunch of different parks. In the end, I got so used to the temperature that above 1 degree I was sweating.
Food & language
Pickles are the real shit in Latvia together with those pierogi style buns and that soup that comes in a bread loaf. I will never remember the names as they are in Latvian and for this, you all have to blame Duolingo that deliberately decided not to have Latvian in their catalog leaving this poor soul unable to learn the basics and therefore unable to pronounce all those ā ē ī.
I had to settle on Russian for this trip, but this wouldn’t help me pronounce any of my dishes.
The infamous transfer from Riga to Vilnius
I had to move from Riga to Vilnius on a weekday, a working day (where my work starts at 9) so I had to either take a really early flight or a night bus. There was a flight at 7 but I waited too long to book it and got expensive (70 euros) and I decided I would be better off on a night bus (4 euros) because I am an adventurous traveler and flights are for pussies after all.
I took my bus at 3 am and arrived at snowy Vilnius at 7 am. I was aware that my home exchange wouldn’t be available until the afternoon, so I was counting to work from a coworking space.
16 of February is the Lithuanian independence day, so it is a bank holiday, so coworking spaces are closed, no matter how much I begged them. The fact is, I was 1 hour away from a work presentation I had to deliver, roaming in the snow, entering every cafe and checking if I could work from there, but they all had the music so loud I couldn’t even place an order. Those who follow me on Instagram know the story, that I ended up doing my work presentation from the bus station waiting room. And that then I had my following meeting sitting in the street out of my accommodation while snowflakes were laying on my face. (The happy ending of this story is that I still delivered and I still have a job.)
The days before going I was checking the weather forecast and in Vilnius it was always raining. ‘Must be some drizzle’, the positive me thought. However, in the days I was here, it never stopped pouring, and I actually found out the name Lithuania comes from a word that means “rain” because indeed, it never stops raining. This slightly complicated my plans as the umbrella I brought got smashed in 3 seconds (that’s why locals do not have umbrellas I suppose), there was constantly this cold wind and the rain accompanying me and I found myself waiting under trees, or porches, or shops, for it to stop, for more time than I had planned. And while I was waiting these eternities for the rain to be at least a bit lighter, I kept seeing locals walking by normally with their children completely unimpressed by the weather. If I did that, I would be sick by tomorrow. Not sure what I did wrong in my life.
Vilnius is beautiful and being there during their national holiday was a great way to get a feeling of their life and traditions. The old town is cute and there is a big hill in the middle of the city where you can properly hike and see several monuments placed on the top.
Trakai is also a must-see. It is a small village 30 mins away from Vilnius, with a huge castle on a lake (frozen now) that is absolutely stunning. I went by bus and then took a taxi, and the taxi driver communicated entirely in Russian with me but somehow I understood it. He invited me the day after to an event in Trakai and I said yeah for sure I am coming spasibo, perfectly knowing tomorrow I have a flight back home.
Food in Vilnius
If Latvia is a country founded on pickles, Lithuania is a country founded on potatoes.
In the days I was there, I had:
- 1st day: potato dumplings
- 2nd day: grated stuffed potato (called zeppelin)
- 3rd day: potato pancakes
You can have also a lot of meat dishes (my potato dishes had meat too in them, I think if you are vegetarian here you die) and pig ears are quite common – even as a topping to other dishes.
Yes, it is quite a heavy cuisine, but as I am a fat pig (I hope my ears will be spared) I liked it.
The best recommendation about Lithuanian food, if you ever set foot in these rainy potatoey lands, is to go to this restaurant.
So which one is best, Riga or Vilnius?
I am basic, so I will say both. I was kind of expecting to find the same stuff, but even if they had some similarities, they had their own character, different architecture, and even different food. Vilnius is a bit smaller so probably needs less time. It is also cheaper. Both cities are pretty and enjoyable even in the worst month, so I kept wondering why they do not get more visitors. Being this size, they are perfect for a weekend trip. Ditch Paris guys, go to Riga instead.
Am I aware that the Baltics include also Estonia?
Of course, I am aware. That is planned already for a future trip.