Sub-zero travels in Riga and Vilnius
Ryanair had just started flying to Riga. I'd never been to the Baltic so I head north for a few days, for a slice of real winter weather.
I got to Riga late at night, and after I'd found a place to stay I headed out to explore. The city centre is ringed by parkland, and it was quiet and thickly covered with snow. Although the temperature was about -10°C it didn't feel too cold.
I spent a day in Riga, visiting the Museum of the Occupation, which charted the horrors of life under the Nazis and then the USSR. Then I got a bus to Vilnius, which was a six hour journey through snowy countryside.
Vilnius was incredibly picturesque but also incredibly cold. It reached -17°C while I was there, cold enough that when breathing in, I could feel the inside of my nose freezing up. The hostel I stayed in had a roaring fire which made it difficult to leave, but I managed to get out and explore.
I headed up Gediminas Hill which overlooked the old town and was crowned by a tower built almost 700 years ago. On my first evening here, the sunset was spectacular, and I am sure I took some good photos, but sadly I sent them to Boots to develop, and they were never seen again.
I also went in search of the famous Frank Zappa statue. I had heard it was four metres high, so I thought it would be fairly obvious, but I managed to walk past it a couple of times before finding it. It was in a residential suburb, and consisted just of Franks's head on top of a four-metre high pole. He overlooked a block of flats, like some kind of Central Scrutinizer. I thought it was a very cool statue.
I wanted to go up the TV Tower in Vilnius. It looked like the views from it would be awesome, so I followed the instructions in my guidebook and got trolleybus number 7 from by the station. The windows of the aging machine were scratched and opaque, so it was a bit difficult to keep an eye on where we were as we rumbled out into the suburbs, but I kept on seeing the TV tower getting closer. After a while we seemed to be almost there, and then the tower disappeared behind a hill. I thought the next stop must be where I needed to get off, but we drove on for what seemed like ages, and when I caught sight of the tower again and it was miles away.
I got off, finding myself in Justiniškės. It was getting dark, and I was in a forest of Soviet-era tower blocks. There was no direct line from here to the tower, so all I could do was cross the road and get the number 7 trolleybus back into town. Later I found that my guidebook was wrong, and I needed bus number 7 as opposed to trolleybus number 7.
Having missed out on the tower, I decided to head back to Gediminas Hill. After a beautiful day, the skies were clear and the temperature was plummeting. Orion shone overhead, and the Old Town looked impressive as it lit up. I took a few photos, then headed back to the hostel, to sit by a warm fire all evening.
On my journey to Vilnius, the skies had been grey, and when we stopped at a small roadside cafe just inside Lithuania, snow was falling. On the way back, the skies were blue, and the endless expanse of snow shone brightly under the wintry sun. We stopped at the same cafe, and this time I had Lithuanian currency and so I could eat, which was nice. As I walked back to the bus I slipped on some ice and skated along for a metre or two, arms flailing, but luckily I held it together and survived without falling and only feeling slightly ridiculous.
Not far from Riga is the site of the Salaspils concentration camp. Here, 100,000 people were killed during the Second World War. I can scarcely take in the fact that such a huge number of people died in one place, and it's unbearable to think that was only a tiny part of what went on.
I got the train to Dārziņi, the nearest station to the site. It cost me just a few pence for the short journey, and I almost got more value for money when I nearly missed Dārziņi station. The stations on the line out of Riga were just halts in the forest, and I didn't realise we were even at a station when the train announcer said "Dārziņi". I jumped up but didn't make it to the door in time. At the next stop I got off, and was relieved to find that they had been announcing the stop we were going to and not the one we were at. I headed off into the silent forest, and found the path to Salaspils.
At the site, there was a small museum overlooking the fields which are all that remain, with a few huge memorial statues where the concentration camp once stood. In the pale wintry evening light it was very sombre. I was the only person there.
I walked back through the forest as the sun set, and caught the train back to Riga. I accidentally got off the train one stop too early, fooled again by the announcement of the next stop. I heard them say "Riga" and thought I was about to get whisked off to some part of Latvia I didn't want to go just yet. But I was at a stop a few miles from the centre of the city, and I had a long cold walk home.
On my last day in Latvia I got an early morning train to Sigulda, and walked to the Gauja River valley. I'd heard good things about this place, and I was not disappointed. I got a cable car across the valley over the frozen river, and arrived at the ruins of Krimuldas castle on the other side. On a bluff upstream stood Turaidas castle.
I walked around the ruins and into the forest. I was the only person there, and whenever I stopped, the silence was total. I felt much more intrepid than I actually was being as I hiked through the knee-deep snow.
After a long walk in the forest it was time to head back to Riga for my flight home. I got the cable car back across the valley.
The train back to Riga took almost two hours but only cost 70p. Latvian trains were cheap, but also ancient, and an icy gale howled in through windows that wouldn't close. Back in Riga, I began to feel just a tiny bit bored of feeling seriously cold all the time, and spent some time in warm cafes and record shops.
I headed back to the milder climes of London. My flight was supposed to arrive at Stansted just in time for me to get the last train home, but it was diverted to Luton because of fog. Luton was chaos, and it took almost an hour for them to find steps to get us off the plane. I ended up getting home at 5am, shattered, but at least pleased that it was 25C warmer in London than it had been in the Baltics.