It’s been a while, hasn’t it?
I feel like April this year was one of those months that snuck right up and right past me. Did I see shows? Yeah, several actually. But I’ve also come to the realization that I may have mentally finalized my ‘performance corpus’, to the point that I am just attending things for my own amusement now (still at the same theatres though). It’s not that I have completely closed myself off to the possibility of a late addition, but needless to say, I haven’t felt as much urgency to blog about the shows I’ve seen than I used to.
Besides, now that I have finally received confirmation that I will have completion funding next year, I am feeling a greater urgency to write on the things I already have on deck than adding even more…stuff. Part of the dissertation is, after all, knowing when to stop, recognizing the fact that it is simply not possible to include every single thing (otherwise I’d be doing this for another ten years which…I’m not particularly keen on).
What I have been doing recently, however, is traveling.
One of the bonuses about teaching in this country are the numerous 2-week breaks interspersed throughout the school year (basically it’s 6 weeks of instruction, 2 weeks break…it’s lovely). I’m currently in the middle of the second of my two weeks of spring holidays, and unlike with the February holidays, this time I took full advantage of the break to travel a bit.
The first trip was relatively local, as well as to a city I had been to before, though not in the springtime. Several weeks ago, a friend and I decided to plan a short weekend trip, as I was about to start my break, and she had a 4-day weekend. Of course, this being the week of the 20th(aka, Easter), our last-minute train bookings somewhat limited our options (the original idea of spending the weekend in Bruges was verrrrry quickly abandoned). Thankfully, tickets to Strasbourg were still very affordable (especially on the slow line), and as she had never been there, the final decision was almost made for us.
Honestly, though, I think we ended up really lucking out with this trip, if only for how absolutely gorgeous the weather was. Right up to the day we left, the weather apps were predicting at least a bit of rain on the Sunday of our trip (a day we planned to spend walking around the nearby small city of Colmar), but in the end, all we had was sun and maybe a little bit of wind. And though we had to get up very early to catch our 8h20 train, the 4-hour ride was worth it the minute we stepped off the train and out into the bright sunshine. The air smelled cleaner there. The abundance of wisteria in bloom helped with this.
After we checked into our lovely AirBnb in Petite France, we spent the majority of the afternoon walking around and exploring. Lunch that day was at a little Easter fair in front of the Protestant cathedral, where we had the first of the tartes flambées (basically like an Alsatian flatbread) and beers that would be consumed that weekend.
Our hunger sated, we commenced a more thorough walking adventure of the historical part of the city, stopping off at the Modern Art Museum to kill some time before heading back to the AirBnb to freshen up before grabbing dinner.
As my only other experiences in Strasbourg were primarily centered around eating my way through Christmas markets, I didn’t have too much in my arsenal in terms of restaurants to visit. Luckily, another friend of mine who used to live in the city was more than happy to provide several recommendations, one of them being Fink’Stuebel.
One thing to note about food in Alsace is that many of the traditional dishes—choucroute, spaetzel, baeckeoffe—are much more well-adapted to the cold winters the region is known for than to the warmer days of spring and summer. However, we still wanted to make sure we took advantage of the opportunity to eat some regional dishes that are not as easily available in Paris, so even though the weather was rather warm, we pretty much said ‘Screw it’ and feasted anyway (it was vacation after all).
I opted for a pork knuckle with a side of German potato salad, while my friend chose to try the (incredibly generous/this can’t possibly just be for one person) choucroute garnie—a pile of sauerkraut topped with various pork products. The cozy interior of the restaurant—think dark wood walls, wooden chairs, mismatched water glasses—certainly helped set the atmosphere for the meal, with the carafe of Riesling we chose as an accompaniment only further adding to the enjoyment of the evening. We were lucky enough to book a table on the last day they were open before closing up for the Easter holiday, and clearly the place was very popular because several parties had to be turned away for lack of a reservation. In terms of more traditional Alsatian restaurants, I would highly recommend this one, especially for its location at the edge of Petite France, as well as the quality (and quantity!) of the food that is a far cry from stereotypical ‘tourist traps’.
A long day of traveling, coupled with a very copious dinner, meant we didn’t really stay out too late that night, which ended up being not so much of a terrible thing, considering all the walking we did on Easter Sunday. That morning was another early wakeup for us, as well as a short 30-minute train ride to Colmar. Unlike with Strasbourg, this was both of our first times in this small city, and I personally was very giddy about it. I mean, just a quick Google image search will show pictures of what looks like the most adorable fairytale town, and, after my visit, I can confirm that those photos are all incredibly accurate. Colmar is a gem. We spent pretty much all our time making several circles around the old town, and I honestly could have made a couple more, had we not had a train to catch back to Strasbourg.
There were a couple of spring markets on around the city—possibly to drum up tourism in times that are…not Christmas—and along with the usual food and crafts, there were also some opportunities to meet some farm animals! Because what says spring more than a bunch of baby goats munching on hay (or some particularly—terrifyingly—gigantic pigeons):
It probably also won’t surprise anyone if I said that this town is rumored to have been the inspiration behind Belle’s hometown in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast(I mean, really all that’s missing from that opening scene are a couple of kougelhopfs and maybe some pretzels and it’s pretty much set). I think I would like to come back again later in the year to see the city at Christmas, because I can only imagine how quaint all those little houses would look under the glow of some fairy lights (though the very real possibility of the immense crowds that would have to be dealt with is…less than ideal).
At least we got this little Easter sheep for a (momentary) souvenir (honestly though, this looks a lot better than it tasted…there’s a reason these are meant to be eaten with tea or coffee):
Lunch in Colmar was relatively light (tarte flambée and beer again hehe), so we were more than ready for another big meal once we got back to Strasbourg. Not having made any reservations, we simply scoured Trip Advisor/Yelp looking for places that a) would be open and b) served the dish my friend was really keen on trying: baeckeoffe.
In brief, baeckeoffe is a sort of casserole, traditionally composed of potatoes, onions, mutton, beef, pork, carrots, leeks and Alsatian white wine baked together in a ceramic dish. Much like with the dishes we had tried the night before, this one is definitely more ideally suited for colder weather, but thankfully the evening was cool enough that eating it could still be enjoyable.
We ended up choosing the appropriately-named Le Baeckeoffe d’Alsace for our dinner—a restaurant geared more towards tourists than locals, but which nevertheless provided solid versions of what we were looking for for our evening meal. As with the night before, portions sizes were more than generous, as evidenced by my portion of spaetzel (think mac and cheese, but the cheese is slices of muenster melted directly over the top of the pasta…mmmmm) that could easily have fed three if not four people.
All of this was, of course, washed down with more Riesling.
After a quick nightcap on the terrace of a nearby bar, it was time to rest our feet again before a final day of walking that Monday.
And we really took advantage of the half day we had left in the city to stop off at all the sites we hadn’t visited properly during our first day. We strolled around the cathedral and saw the astronomical clock:
Then checked out the museum of fine arts just across the cathedral plaza.
As the weather was still very nice, we followed our visit to the museum with a quick lunch al fresco (where I had a salad because vegetables are necessary), then headed out of Petite France and to the university to check out the botanical garden, where we encountered some very loud frogs (mating season and whatnot).
A final beer by the river marked the end of the trip, and before we knew it, we were saying goodbye to the wisteria (whose smell I wish I could just bottle up and take with me everywhere), the cleaner air, and the lack of dog poop and those damn Lime scooters in the middle of every sidewalk (seriously, it’s not that difficult to park the damn scooter on the side of the damn sidewalk so people can actually, I don’t know, walk…). The train ride seemed to go by faster this time—as return trips often do—and before I knew it, I was back home again, though not for long.
To get this out of the way early: yes, this was kind of another impulse-buy trip. As with my birthday trip to Budapest, this one came about partially from an itch to see something new, and partially from the general overall ‘blegh’ feeling one gets after being stuck in a place for a while (and also from the mental toll that teaching + the stress of dissertation-related nonsense + personal stuck in a rut/feeling like everything’s coming out only half-baked can have on one’s personal outlook). In short, I was in need of a shake-up.
Around the time I was thinking of booking something, I was also spending my library lunch breaks scrolling through the NY Times Travel section, in particular the 52 Places to Travel to feature. One of the cities listed was Tallinn, which is where I got the idea to center my search on the Baltics in the first place. After getting some tips from friends who had visited the region (special shout-out to Caitlin for her excellent recommendations), as well as a quick search on Kayak, I settled on Riga as my destination, mostly because, at the time of my search, flights to there from Paris were cheaper than flights to Tallinn (otherwise, everything else came out pretty equal).
I think I’m also noticing a slight pattern in the destinations I’m being drawn to for my short solo-travel excursions in the sense that I’ve been drawn to cities where there exists a dichotomy (and I would say, at least based on my impressions of Riga, a spatial/aesthetical tension) between the country’s pre-USSR and USSR histories—especially with regards to how the latter is still very present, like a shadow, even as the country itself tries to move forward from it. Traces of Riga’s troubled history—and I’ll take a minute here to stress the fact that not just Riga but the Baltics in general went through quite a bit during both WWII and the Soviet occupation—can be seen almost everywhere, most evidently once one leaves the very charming—though quite touristy—Old Town. Honestly, sometimes it was an observation as simple as noticing the state of a sidewalk or the landscape planning of a park that conjured up a feeling that there was something weighty in the air, if that makes sense. If nothing else, what I did end up leaving the city with was a very strong desire to visit the other two Baltic capitals in future travel excursions, even if I feel like I’ve closed the book on Riga…for now.
Don’t mistake that last sentence though. I actually had a very lovely time there. That statement comes more from a feeling of…completeness…I had upon leaving, one that spoke more to a desire to explore outwards, in other parts of the region, than back into that particular city itself.
Would I recommend visiting Riga? 100% (and not just because it was crazy affordable).
See, the food there is also pretty excellent (and may be another reason why I felt more compelled to try and plan trips to Tallinn or Vilnius afterwards than return right away…because if I ate so well in Riga…surely there would be other equally as delightful gastronomical adventures awaiting me in other parts of the region). Of course, it helped that I did some research (of course) before going—as well as booked a tasting tour of the central market—but just based on the number of restaurants on my list that I didn’t manage to try (because one can’t make it to everything in a weekend), I would be rather confident in saying that it is rather easy to have an affordable, seasonal, quality, meal in Riga.
That being said, let’s get down to the details.
Friday (Day 1).
I arrived in Riga late on Thursday night, around 22h. Prior to leaving Paris, I had arranged with the hostel I was staying at to have a cab meet me at the airport, as I wasn’t sure I would be able to make the last bus into the city center, and I wasn’t too keen on the idea of navigating a new city at night after having travelled all day (left Paris in the early afternoon, then had a layover in Stockholm). I wasn’t necessarily worried about anything happening to me, per say—and Riga is a pretty safe city, at least from my personal impressions—but I did want to at least make sure I knew exactly where my hostel was so I wouldn’t waste time navigating. The trip from the airport took about 30minutes and cost 15 euros (pro tip: have cash on you…I did not know this, but thankfully there was an ATM right around the corner from the hostel). Before I knew it, I was flopped down on my bed in my private dorm in Central Hostel, ready for a good night’s sleep (yeah, no, I’m done with hostel dorms).
The next day, I was up bright and early to do a bit of visiting before joining in one of the two free walking tours I would end up doing on my trip (in addition to the aforementioned food tour). I started my morning off with a black coffee and vegan (yes, vegan) waffles with berries at MiiT Coffee, and trust that I am not exaggerating when I say that the coffee scene in Riga is quite good.
The coffee that I chose was roasted locally, as well as brewed to order, something that you don’t find very often, especially for the price they charged (around 3 euros). That plus the waffles came out to about 8euros total. Not bad at all.
After filling up on breakfast, I made my way to the Latvian National Museum of Art just in time for its opening, and just in time to see the entire permanent collection before having to speed over to the Old Town to catch the tour. Entry to the main collection is only 3euros, with the option of adding a visit to the temporary exhibition halls as well for an additional 3euros. Honestly, I was fine with just sticking to the main exhibition spaces, especially as they spanned about three floors and covered works by Latvian artists from the 18thcentury to the present. I’ve posted some of my favorite works below (Madonna with a machine gunis especially eye-catching):
My visit finished, I quickly power walked across the small park in front of the museum and headed into Old Town, just in time to catch the 2.5hr Alternative Riga Walking Tour. This is one of two free tours run year-round by local guides (they offer bike tours for a fee as well, but only from May – September), the second—and shorter—one meeting at 10h and focusing solely on the Old Town. As this one’s name implies, we would be getting a different view of Riga than the usual tourist hot-spots, one that focused more on the sociopolitical history of the country, rather than on the historical architecture of some of the buildings.
While we did spend some time in the Old Town (around 10 – 15min), we left the area pretty quickly to check out other nearby areas of the city, some of which see less tourist traffic, but nonetheless merit a visit. I think my favorite site was the very imposing Academy of Sciences, also known as Stalin’s birthday cake. See, the idea was to build the thing and present it as a gift to Stalin during one of his visits to the city. Construction started in 1951. Stalin died in 1953. Oops.
The building houses mostly offices now, but there’s also a viewing platform at the top that is open to visitors for a small fee (I didn’t end up going up though).
It was during this tour that I also—thanks to my eavesdropping—became acquainted with three other solo female travelers: one from Germany, another from Japan, and the third from Taiwan. This was a very pleasant surprise in my visit, not going to lie, especially as one of the things I still struggle with sometimes is actually getting up the nerve to talk to people. Taking the plunge and introducing myself paid off, however, as we all ended up having a late (and very filling) lunch after the tour was over, as well as meeting up again a couple times throughout the weekend.
Speaking of lunch, this was had at Folkklubs Ala Pagrabs, a sort of tavern (in a basement), serving Latvian foods and beers at incredibly affordable prices. For my meal, I had beef shank in dark beer with a cauliflower purée and salad (yay!), along with a half pint of local, unfiltered beer (tasted very similar to some German-style beers I’ve tried):
And because we weren’t full enough already, we also stopped off at Gelato Italia for some ice cream and espresso:
We all went our separate ways for a bit after that, agreeing to meet later that evening for cocktails, and I used my time to stroll around the Old Town a bit and take some photos before the rain that had decided to make a quick stopover while we were indoors having lunch returned again (otherwise the weather was absolutely fantastic).
It was when I went back to my hostel room to rest my feet and freshen up a bit that I ended up getting one of the best emails I have gotten in a long time…
My funding for next year is confirmed.
Considering how much stress this whole “will I/won’t I” have funding (as well as, in the case of the latter, how the hell am I supposed to scrounge up $25,000 to hand over to Harvard…oh yeah, you all read that correctly) had been weighing on me these past few months, seeing that message almost made me want to bounce off the walls. I was that happy. Needless to say, cocktails that evening at the Skyline Bar atop the Radisson Blu hotel took on, at least for me, a rather celebratory tone. I normally don’t go for cocktail bars like this—or for particularly sweet or flowery cocktails—but I figured, why the hell not.
Plus, the view from the 26th floor was pretty fantastic.
Saturday (Day 2).
It was another day of walking (and eating…so much eating) on Saturday, this time with a quick breakfast of barley porridge with jam and a latté at Rocket Bean Roastery, another local coffee roaster. The hearty porridge proved to be a good choice for the morning as well, and not just because I had two tours to look forward to that day.
I started with the 10h00 Old Town walking tour, one I had not originally planned on doing, but was ultimately convinced based on what the other girls I had met had said about it. And honestly, I had no idea what I would have done otherwise, so I ultimately made a good choice. This time, our guide was someone who had a background in history and urban planning, which proved especially advantageous when discussing some of the…controversies…around some well-known sites in the area (his complaint about how the inscription on the House of the Blackheads should read ‘replica’ instead of ‘restoration’, considering the whole building was pretty much destroyed in WWII and later by the Soviets was both amusing and also…real).
Going on this tour also proved useful in another way, mostly in how it determined how I would end up spending my time between this (which ended at 11h30) and my Central Market tour at 14h00. The guide was taking questions as the tour wrapped up, during which time someone asked about shopping. I had been looking for places to find some souvenirs (especially locally-made jewelry, since I’ve decided that’s my thing now), but had had no real luck so far. It being Saturday, our guide suggested anyone interested should cross the river and head to the small, but vibrant, Kalnciema Street Market (held only on Saturdays). The walk was about 45 minutes long, but hey, I had time to kill, and figured it would be good to see a different, more local (and yeah, more hipster….ha) part of the city while I had time.
As mentioned, the market was rather small, but there were plenty of vendors packed into the space—a sort of courtyard surrounded by small wooden houses/buildings—, most of whom were selling food. If I didn’t have more eating in my near future, I probably would have bought my lunch right then (or hell, maybe even an ice cream cone…it was pretty warm out), given how tempting all the smoked meats, cheeses, cold salads/dips and pastries looked.
Luckily, there were a number of crafts vendors around who caught my eye as well, and I ended up walking away with two new pairs of earrings.
By this point, as you can probably imagine, I was feeling very hungry. Thankfully, after another 45minute walk back to the other side of the river, I didn’t have long to wait until my food tour started.
As with my food tour in Budapest, this time I was the only person in the group who was traveling solo. Unlike that time, however, this time the group consisted not of me and an older British couple but of me and a group of 8 Swiss-German men out on their yearly guys’ trip. Don’t get me wrong, they were all very nice…I just found the situation hilarious. 8 tall dudes and one tiny me.
I’m going to apologize in advance here for the quality of the photos, since the lighting in the market halls wasn’t exactly the greatest, but here’s a basic rundown of everything we tried:
The one thing I do wish was that there were some opportunities to taste some local beers or other beverages along with this tour, but as with the bike tours mentioned earlier, those tours don’t really kick off until the start of the tourist season in May. I did, however, end up having enough room to have a quick half-pint of IPA (of course) at Alkimikis brewery, which also happened to be on my way back to the hostel.
Dinner that night was with two of the three girls I had met the day before at a restaurant recommended by our tour guide from the Alternative Riga Tour. Milda was slightly more upscale than the other restaurants/eateries I had visited thus far, but still incredibly affordable for the quality of food served. The specialty here is Baltic cuisine, albeit with a slightly more refined/modernized aesthetic. We were served a complimentary starter of chicken liver mousse before our main courses arrived.
For my main course, I opted for the whole trout with a whipped sour cream served over slices of baked potatoes and beets. I don’t eat fish incredibly often, since when cooking at home, I like to make dishes that will last me for several days, and ordering fish at a restaurant can be rather expensive, but this locally-caught trout only cost 14euros (and no way was I going to pass that up).
The fish was delicious. Fresh, light, perfectly cooked, the garlic in the sauce drizzled inside it perfectly complementing the tangy sour cream. For dessert, I chose to try the Latvian rye bread pudding with dried fruits, honey, whipped cream and fresh strawberries. Our tour guide from the day before had mentioned this dessert, although his description (mix rye bread with a bunch of water and sugar until you make a paste and then eat it) left something to be desired. This version though was quite nice, especially in how the honey, spices and dried fruits mixed with the slightly more peppery rye.
Of course, all this was washed down with more beer.
After a quick nightcap of blackcurrant-flavored black balsam (the local liqueur, basically vodka and a bunch of herbs mixed together that are meant to have “health benefits”. The original is quite…special. This one is slightly better) at a nearby bar, it was time to say goodbye to the Old Town and the new travel friends I made and head back to the hostel to catch a tiny bit of sleep before my very early flight the next day. Overall, I feel incredibly fortunate that I was able to take two weekend trips during the spring school holidays (even if that cut into my dissertation work time a tad). It’s nice to be able to treat oneself once in a while.
As to upcoming theatre-related things, I’ve got a number of shows on deck that hopefully will inspire an urge to write some commentary (if not include them in my final dissertation). Other than that, there is yet another trip also coming up mid-month, though this time it’s to a place I have been before (albeit about 6 years ago) to visit some pretty legit people.
Until then, here’s to blackcurrant black balsam (and last-minute frantic lesson planning):