Sunday, 3 November 2013

A Day in Riga - Buildings, Berries & Black Balsam

I've decide to take a month off my World Food Challenge on the blog, and instead take an opportunity to share with you some of the photos and experiences I had on my trip to Scandinavia and Northern Europe. I have so many photos and we had so many fun experiences and delicious food while we travelled for almost 6 weeks. One of my favourite days of the trip was the day we spent exploring Riga, the capital of Latvia. 

Latvia wasn't originally on the travel plan, but when I went to book a flight between Oslo, Norway and Turku, Finland, I found that most of the flights connected in Riga. So, instead of picking the flight with the shortest layover time, I picked the flight with the longest so that we could go out and explore Riga. Our flight arrived into Riga at 7am and our connecting flight departed at about 10pm - it was perfect. We got a whole day in Riga but didn't have to think about accommodation. Fortunately, when we arrived at Riga airport we found it very well run, got out of there quickly. The public transport to and from the airport was also excellent: frequent, easy to find, easy to use and cheap. So we hopped off our plane and found ourselves in the heart of Riga in no time. 

Riga is famous for it's outstanding streets full of Art Nouveau buildings, so we took a walking tour (just using the Lonely Planet guidebook) around the streets to admire the buildings. It's not a very big city, so it was quite easy to find our way around and we got around all day just walking (although if you're feeling lazy you can hire a local to pedal you around on a bicycle rickshaw). The buildings didn't disappoint - they were extravagantly decorated with quite unusual and sometimes quite bizarre motifs. They ranged from beautiful classic styles (elegantly draped nude ladies surrounded by peacocks) to darker themes (faces screaming in terror) mixed with highly futuristic ideas including robot-like designs. 

Strolling the streets looking at houses, we also stumbled across stalls just set up along the side of the road piled high with fresh berries for sale. Travelling in northern Europe during summer was particularly good for berries - we had already found wild blueberries growing on a Stockholm archipelago. The punnets of blueberries, raspberries and strawberries were huge and so cheap - we bought a couple to munch on while we walked (more on those berries in a later post!).

We also happened upon an amazing looking bakery with glass counters piled high with the most amazing looking cakes, sweets, lollies, chocolates, biscuits and all manner of sweet and incredibly bad for you things - just looking back at the pictures makes my mouth water!

Having already been travelling in Sweden, Denmark and Norway prior to arriving in Riga, I had been eating a LOT of amazing sweets and I was staring to notice a little extra weight on me, so I showed a lot of self restraint and didn't buy any of them!

So - what did we eat? Well, I can tell you that the food in Riga was amazing. Not particularly vegetarian friendly - but absolutely delicious. Riga has a strong Russian influence to it's cuisine, so I came across quite a lot of food similar to some of my favourite Russian dishes - such as beetroot soups, and a delicious soup made of pickles and barley. We also visited the pancake shop (sadly, not vegan friendly) - a small and cheap place which thrives on it's popularity with tourists, in fact - every other person I've met who has been to Riga said "did you go to the pancake place?".

You can see when you go in why it's so popular, the inside has that quaint and quirky feel which is bound to appear to tourists. The pancakes come in many varieties and my goodness they are cheap! I only managed to snap a few pictures though before I was told firmly "No Photos" (a recurring theme wherever I went in Riga- the locals never smiled, were very grumpy and didn't like me taking photos of anything!).

They had both sweet and savoury varieties plus big vats of different types of jams to put on them. I ordered one filled with sweet cottage cheese, one with banana and one with caramel. My partner went for the savouries - one filled with mushrooms and one filled with smoked meat - and then went back for some sweet ones - 2 apple pancakes with berry jams. We both also had a cup of tea and all up it cost us about $4. The sweet cottage cheese one was particularly delicious!

If you're in Riga for dinner then I can highly recommend Province for hearty, good priced Latvian food. The interior is lovely and the their sweet baked ricotta dessert filled with sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds and served with berry jam is absolutely to die for.

We also indulged in some local beverages with our dinner. Kvass is a popular soft drink in Latvia, it's essentially the colour and appearance of coke but it's made from fermented rye bread. I must admit that it did not sound appealing to me, but I talked my partner into ordering it for the experience (and so that I could try a sip of his). It turned out to be really delicious! It does smell exactly like rye bread, but the taste is mild and sweet and very easy to drink!

The other traditional beverage of Latvia is Black Balsam - a potent brew made with about 24 different ingredients. Here is the explanation on the menu at Province, saves me typing it up :)

It's interesting that amongst all those lovely sounding flavours such as ginger, bilberry, raspberry and nutmeg they list valerian root! Ever had valerian root? YUK! In fact valerian root is infamous for tasting terrible.

When we left the airport at Riga we were met with a huge advertising bilboard which stated "If you haven't tasted Black Balsam then you haven't been to Riga" - an incredibly effective marketing slogan, if you ask me! It really did make you feel as though you had to have some in order to have the full experience in Riga. In any case, we ordered some. Province had 2 varieties - traditional (plain) Black Balsam and Blackcurrant Black Balsam. We ordered a shot of each to share. The best word I can find to describe the taste of the original Black Balsam is medicinal. It was very strong flavoured and very herbal medicine in taste. Drinkable - but not particularly nice. The blackcurrant variety was much nicer, as the blackcurrant smoothed over the more bitter flavours. We found the original Black Balsam went very nicely when mixed with the kvass though!

Black Balsam is available all over Riga, in most bars and restaurants. Some offer different varieties and some bars have cocktail menus using it. It's certainly an experience, but I didn't buy a bottle to bring home with me.

I absolutely loved Riga, and I was so glad to have extended our stopover to spend the day there. I could easily spend more time there and would definitely recommend it to anyone travelling to the Baltic. I'd love to know what anyone else thought of Black Balsam, or what you got up to in Riga when you visited!


  1. Your post caught my eye in my feed Keely. My late Dad was born in Latvia and I've always wanted to go back to visit. I'll be keeping all your ideas in mind should I ever get there. Looks lovely.

    Anne xx

    1. I hope you get the chance to go there Anne, it's a lovely place! :)

  2. I am latvian from Riga and it's nice to hear that you enjoyed your time here.

    Came to comment on black balsam - I know that it tastes funny for those that try it first time, and foreigners often find it surprising that someone might actually drink this being in his right mind. But I love that stuff! Me and my friends often drink it and often prefer balsam over whiskey or rum, for example. Just have to be careful, because getting drunk gets very, very easy.

    Oh, and also - it is pretty good medicine too. If you start to feel sore throat - just take 1 shot of it. Not sure if that is black balsam doing its magic or just alcohol induced placebo, but it work :)

    1. I bet it would work on a sore throat! It wasn't too bad, but I think perhaps a love of it has to be acquired over time :) Thanks for your comment!

  3. You wouldn't happen to remember whereabouts that bakery was, or the name would you? I am going to Riga in a couple weeks, and unfortunately can't roam around a whole lot since I'll be on crutches - it looks delicious!

    1. Hi, thanks for visiting :) I can tell you roughly where it was, but I don't have an exact address. When you're coming towards Riga city across the bridge from the airport, to the right of the Old Town there are markets which are held in 4 big Zeppelin hangers. To get there you walk out of the Old Town, cross the railway lines and then take a tunnel that goes under the road to get to the hangers. The bakery is inside that tunnel which goes under the road. Hopefully that is good enough directions, it shouldn't be too hard to find. I want to hear what you ate there, it all looked so good!!

  4. Oh wow - what a beautiful city! It's gorgeous - can't wait to see some pics from Scandinavia!