We woke up bright and early ready for a full day of exploration! We headed down to the hotel breakfast and filled up on eggs, breads, fruits and cheeses to fuel us for our busy day. As we only had two full days to really explore Riga, I had planned, and crammed, a lot in!
Our first stop was the KGB house, which had a guided tour in English at 10:30am (they do various tours throughout the day in different languages so best to pre plan this!). The house is referred to as The Corner House and is located to the north of the old town. It was about a 20 minute walk from the hotel or a 5 minute taxi ride.
There is a small exhibition that you can peruse to get some background to the soviet occupation of Latvia whilst waiting for the tour to start. We were then gathered into a room and given an introduction by our tour guide. He gave us some background into the soviet occupation and outlined what we would be seeing as part of the tour. We were then led into the entrance vestibule of the building.
This was quite a stunning area of the building, which could be seen into from the double doors on the street. These doors were locked from the moment of KGB occupation of the building and have not been used since. The vestibule was left as it was built (originally for apartments and local businesses before the KGB occupation) so that anyone walking past on the street would not think anything untoward if they gazed in.
Through a small door, which would always have been closed, the real truth unfolds. We were led into the processing room, where people who had been ‘brought in for questioning’ would be processed. This would involve a series of questions checking you are who they believe you are, they would then require you to strip and conduct a cavity search. They would also remove all buttons, zips, laces etc fom your clothes before returning the same to you. This was to ensure you had nothing on you that could be used to harm yourself or others. They would also take all personal possessions, watches, jewellery, wallets etc and advise that these would be returned to you once you had fully cooperated. We were shown a series of drawers where these items were kept, and it was clear that these items were never returned.
We were then taken from the processing room to the interrogation room. Here our guide made it clear that the KGB agents did not use torture equipment or have elaborate torture rooms as some people may think. They instead took away your basic human needs and dignity and cracked you that way. In the interrogation room, you were asked to sign a ‘confession’, signing this paper was the main aim for these agents. They would advise that if you signed, your sentence would reduce from 15 plus years to 1 or 2 years. Unfortunately, if you signed, you were pretty much signing a death warrant. If you didn’t sign though, you would be beaten, starved, forced to live in unsanitary, cramped conditions and sleep deprived. If you were a woman, you were likely to be raped as well. The aim was to strip you of all dignity and to break you into signing the confession.
Walking amongst the cells was extremely harrowing, I could not imagine being kept in such a place, what made it even more real, was how recent this was going on. It happened within my lifetime. It wasn’t until 1991 that Latvia was finally free of this occupation.
As part of the tour, we were taken to the exercise yard and shown a key. The key was placed there when the Nazis invaded Latvia. They used it as symbol to show that they had overthrown the soviet regime and ‘freed’ the Latvians. The thing that really surprised me, was that in that moment, the Nazis were actually a symbol of hope to the Latvian people, as they were seen as a route to freedom from the soviets. Unfortunately, this was just Nazi propaganda and what followed was just as horrendous for Latvian people.
The tour ended in the execution chamber, which was incredibly emotional. I was overwhelmed with a sense of grief and felt my eyes well up with tears as it dawned on me where I was standing. I left the KGB building feeling incredibly emotional and lost for words.
I have to say, our tour guide was fantastic, and really delivered a sensitive and detailed tour of this horrendous place. He was really a testament to the people whos stories he was sharing and although the tour ended on such a horrendous note, he finished by asking us to go to a café and take some time to reflect on what we had experienced but also to then refocus our minds to enjoy the rest of our stay in Latvia, as he didn’t want us to leave his country feeling saddened, as they had so much more to offer.
Chris and I wandered the streets near the KGB house in a shell shocked state but eventually, we began to speak to process what we had just learnt. We took our guides advice and headed to a café. Our café of choice was named The Flying Frog and you can read my full review here.
After lunch, and feeling in better spirits, we went in search of Alberta Iela, a street famed for it’s art nouveau buildings. We walked along this street and took in the beautiful art work, carvings and sculptures that covered the facades of the buildings. We then ventured on in search of the Freedom Monument.
Along the way we stumbled across what was one of the best things ever, Bunny Kingdom. We were walking through a park and saw a group of dancing children following a couple of adults dressed as bunnies, intrigued, we wandered over to see what was going on. To our surprise, we stumbled across a group of bunnies, living in an area of the park that had been made into a miniature Christmas village. It was complete with a church, manger, Christmas lights and houses, all made to house the bunnies. It was pretty awesome, I have to say.
After our random bunny encounter, we then wandered down the street towards the Freedom Monument. The monument is a memorial to the soldiers that were killed during the Latvian War of Independence. It is an extremely important symbol of Latvian independence. At the base of the monument the words ‘For Fatherland and Freedom’ are inscribed in Latvian, and at the top of the obelisk is a female holding three stars above her head. These stars symbolise the unity of the three historic provinces of Latvia. During the soviet occupation, it was forbidden to gather at this monument and doing so would result in you being taken to the KGB House. Today there is an honour guard at the base of the monument and flowers are laid at its base daily.
After taking in the monument, we then headed into the old town to explore some of its most famous buildings. Riga’s old town is just stunning, I constantly had my camera out taking pictures of buildings and narrow cobbled streets, as every angle was just Instagram worthy. We located the Cat House, where the turrets are adorned with black cats, which it is said, were placed by there by the owner of the building at the time, so that their bottoms faced the House of the Great Guild, as he held a grudge against its members. We then located the Three Brothers, which are the oldest houses in Riga. They are nicknamed the fat one, the thin one and the receding one, and when you see them, you will see why!
After a while longer meandering along the narrow streets, we stumbled back upon our hotel and decided to venture back inside for a hot drink to warm us up as we were starting to feel rather frozen after spending a good few hours outside exploring the old town.
Once we had warmed up, we put our layers back on and ventured off to what would become our favourite spot in Riga, Folkklubs Ala Pagrabs. From the outside it really does not look like much, but once you descend into the basement, passed the oversized chairs and towards the buzz of activity, you know you have found something special. No matter what time of day, this place is packed with locals and tourists alike. Every table was full of beer drinking, loud talking groups with open fires and lots of nooks and crannies filled with yet more tables. I was in love.
We wandered over the bar and were overwhelmed by the local beer selection. There was so much choice! In the end Chris settled on local beer of some sort and I went for a Latvian Libre (Coke with the famous black balsam liquor). We found ourselves a table and settled in. We sipped our drinks, took in the electric atmosphere and as we found ourselves somewhat peckish, we ordered some Latvian garlic bread from their bar snacks menu. Wow. The garlic bread was incredible. It was possibly the best thing I have ever tasted. Ever. I am still dreaming of this garlic bread now. I will have a full review of Folkklubs shortly so I will go into more detail about our visits then (yes, we went more than once in our short trip!).
After a few hours enjoying some drinks in Folkklubs it was time to head for our dinner reservation. I had booked us into a restaurant called Province that I found offered a Latvian food tasting menu, which sounded like a good way to try some local cuisine. You can read my full review of Province here.
Stuffed from our meal at Province and exhausted from our full day exploring Riga, we ventured back to our hotel and once again, thanks to a combination of the crazy comfy bed and exhaustion, we were out for the count. Check out day 3 here.
Check out more of what I got up to by watching my Riga Vlog: