Riga

DSC_0070

I kind of have a split personality when it comes to travelling.

I travel on my own quite a lot. There are a lot of advantages to travelling solo. For one thing, I get to do pretty much everything I want to whenever I want. I also tend to meet more travellers when I’m on my own and make friendships, however fleeting, that I wouldn’t otherwise have experienced. As a vegan traveller, when I’m on my own I will try and get to every vegan-friendly food outlet listed on Happy Cow. I also tend to research destinations intensely, and by the time I get there I have a clear idea of what I’m going to see and do.

Other times, I travel as part of a group. This version of me is almost the complete opposite of the solo traveller me. If someone else is planning the trip, I barely know anything more than which flight I’m on. And sometimes I’m not even clear on that. When I’m in a group, I’m happy to follow everyone else and see what happens.

My recent trip to Riga was as part of a group. Other than it being the capital of Latvia, I knew very little about Riga before I went there. Our long weekend was kindly organised by friends I first met when I travelled in Alaska. They planned a fun-filled, varied weekend for 8 of us and they couldn’t have done a better job. I got to experience the culture of Latvia, learn about the history and also party the night away in some of the best night spots.

DSC_0052

One of the advantages of group travel is that I get to experience activities that I wouldn’t be able to on my own. Bowling, for example, isn’t much fun if you haven’t got anyone to compete with. Whilst in Latvia, we took party in an Escape Rooms challenge and also enjoyed a relaxing afternoon in a top spa. The two activities could not have been more different, and both would have been more than a little awkward had I been on my own. I think it was a good idea we did the Escape Rooms first, after one of the most adrenalin-fuelled, stressful but also immensely fun 60 minutes of my life, I definitely needed that spa experience. I don’t want to give anything away about the Escape Rooms, but our group did manage to escape with 5 minutes to spare :).

Over the past year, I have developed a new obsession whenever I travel anywhere. I have to find a free walking tour. For the price of a well-deserved tip, you get to experience your destination at an easy pace with an enthusiastic guide. The free walking tour of Riga did not disappoint. Our guide Toms was very entertaining and informative. He gave us a potted history of the city, and also Latvia in general, and showed us lots of points of interest in the old town that we would have otherwise walked past without even noticing. I think the most interesting part for me was learning about The Baltic Way. Although I was alive, albeit a child, during this event, I have no memory of seeing it on the news at all. To peacefully protest their right to independence, inhabitants of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia joined hands and formed a continuous line through their three capital cities. If you want to learn more about this incredible feat, which was planned and executed in just one month, click on the link and watch the video made by a 6th grader. She does a much better job of explaining the history and significance of the event than I ever could.

DSC_0067DSC_0065DSC_0069DSC_0071DSC_0072DSC_0073

Pisa Trip Day 2 – Lucca

The weather was not so good as the previous day when I woke on my second morning in Pisa, but other than a short debate with myself about whether to pack a hoody or a fleece I didn’t let it slow me down. Today I was catching a train to Lucca, a 30 minute journey from Pisa Central. The regional train networks in Italy are very easy to navigate. You don’t even have to attempt any Italian, all the stations have automated machines in four languages, including English. You simply type in where you want to go, put in the required euros and it prints you a ticket. Unlike the musical platforms of the British rail network, most trains at Italian stations leave from the same platform everyday, and because of that they are able to have a permanent departures board.

When I disembarked the train at Lucca, the first thing I did was head towards the tourist information at Piazza Verdi. There is a bus that will take you there, but I took my guidebook’s advice that it is quicker to walk.

Lucca is surrounded by 12 metre high walls that were built to protect the old city in the 16th and 17th centuries. On top of the walls is a 4km long, circular footpath which was used as a track to race cars for a number of years in the 20th century. Each of the four principal sides are lined with a different tree species.

As I entered the walls via the Porto San Pietro, one of the gates into the city, I could see why it’s quicker to walk than to take the bus. If I thought that the streets in Pisa were narrow and winding, here in Lucca they were positively claustrophobic. My camera was kept busy taking photos of all the picturesque buildings that I saw on my way to Piazza Verdi.

San Pietro Gate
The narrow streets of Lucca

Navigating the streets of Lucca is like trying to navigate a labyrinth, only with the added danger of pedestrians, cars, buses and bicycles flying at you from every angle. Although you’re supposed to stay on the right side of the road in Italy, here that rule seemed irrelevant, along with all the one-way signs and other signage that everyone seemed to be ignoring. I decided that my best plan of action was to act like I used to in Greece, go where I wanted to go and not worry about everyone else.

My previous day’s walking around Pisa had left me with incredibly sore feet, so I’d decided to rent a bike for my day in Lucca. This would result in me having a very sore bottom after a couple of hours, but at least my feet would get a bit of a rest. I rented my bike from the tourist information office, although there are multiple bike rental shops dotted all around Lucca. Bike rental generally costs €3 per hour, rising to €15 for the day. The tourist information offices also supply great, free maps of the city, essential if you don’t want to miss anything in a place that is so spread out and difficult to navigate.

My trusty steed for the day

From Piazza Verdi, I cycled straight up onto the promenade on top of the city walls, and I am so glad I did. It’s like a whole other world up there, a peaceful, relaxed oasis surrounding the busy, loud old city below. The footpath along the walls reminded me of the park opposite my house, a beautiful space that is well used by local residents and visitors alike. To refer to it just as a footpath is a huge understatement. Joggers, walkers and cyclists take advantage of the open space to exercise, tourists take advantage of the photo opportunities from the high vantage point, diners enjoy their lunch in restaurants and cafes housed in converted old buildings and there are playgrounds full of happy children at regular points along the 4km circuit.

The footpath on top of the city walls – an oasis above the hustle and bustle below

The walls are also a lot easier to navigate the city from as you are able to drop back down into the commotion whenever you need to. Although reluctant to leave the enjoyment and serenity of the walls, I made my way down one of the steep paths and to the cathedral. I’d been told previous to my visit that entry to the cathedral costs €2.50. I wasn’t asked to pay, but that may have been due to building works at the time. Lucca Cathedral, although not as grand as it’s more famous cousin in Pisa, is still a very impressive building. I particularly liked the frescoes on the ceiling with their deep blue backgrounds. Next door to the cathedral, the Museo della Cattedrale contains artefacts from the cathedral. Unfortunately, the thought and attention to detail that is common place in the museums as Pisa has not been put in to practice here as well. Unless you take an audio guide, there is not much explanation as to what everything is. After paying €4 entrance, I was a little disappointed. Even though I wasn’t always sure what I was looking at, though, the exhibits were still beautiful. It still amazes me how much goes into religious artefacts. A bishop’s robe is not just a piece of decorative clothing, a tapestry is not just something to hang on a wall. Every symbol and image used is carefully chosen and exquisitely painted, sculpted or stitched to tell a story. Even books have their own covers made for them with minute detailing etched on the cover.

Lucca cathedral

Here are some more photos of my day in Lucca.

The buildings in Piazza Anfiteatro retain the shape of the Roman ampitheatre they were built on top of

 

A little piece of London in a very un-English place

 

If you didn’t already know, there are reminders everywhere that Puccini is Lucca’s famous son

 

One of the pedestrian tunnels into the city