Júrmala

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Thanks to the unique way that Ryanair flights are scheduled (ie when no-one else wants to fly), on my recent trip to Riga I arrived 3 hours before the rest of my group and left 7 hours after them. This equated to a whole day on my own in Latvia. The first 3 hours I spent finding a health food shop in Riga, and generally getting lost in various parts of the city. The 7 hours I had spare on the last day I used to explore outside of the city.

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During our walking tour of the old town with our excellent guide Tom, he’d told us about Júrmala. About 25 kilometres (16 miles) west of Riga, Júrmala is a resort town that stretches 32 kilometres (20 miles) between the Gulf of Riga and the Lielupe river. The sea side of Júrmala has beautiful sandy beaches stretching along it’s whole length.

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Only about a 30 minute train journey from Riga city centre depending on where you get off in Júrmala (I’d recommend Majori), the resort is very easy to access. And if you’ve been wondering why Riga is fairly quiet for a city on the weekends, it’s because this is where all the inhabitants are hanging out. On the Sunday I visited I think it was particularly busy in Júrmala as we were experiencing a heatwave. The beach was the place to be. As with a lot of things in Latvia, it’s also very cheap. I’m not sure whether I bought a single or return ticket (I asked for a return but the lady at the ticket desk wasn’t the most communicative person I’ve ever met), but I paid less than 4 euros. Back home in Cardiff, 4 euros would barely get me to the train station on the bus.

Júrmala is also known for it’s buildings. All the guidebooks describe the architecture as romantic and classical, to me they just looked like something out of an American movie. Immaculate, pristine hotels that have been preserved in their original style stand next to abandoned houses that would be a renovator’s dream. Both are beautiful and intriguing, and I could have spent a whole day taking photos of the buildings alone.

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Away from the beach, the main shopping street is buzzing with tourists and Latvians. As I walked along eating my sorbet (I could have hugged the guy when he said he sold dairy-free), I could have been back in Skagway, Alaska mixing with the cruise ship passengers.

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As much as Júrmala felt comfortingly familiar, there is also a definite uniqueness about the place. I might not have known much about Latvia before I went there, but I definitely wasn’t expecting to find a beach resort with such character only a short train journey from the capital city. Purely by chance, I happened to walk past a derelict plot that was boarded up at 4pm. There was a group of people stood by the temporary wall, singing beautifully. A sign on the wall explained that a church once stood on the site, and even though it’s no longer there the congregation still gather at 4pm every Sunday to worship.

If you find yourself in Riga and you have a spare afternoon, I would definitely recommend an excursion out to Júrmala. And if it’s a hot day, the dairy-free sorbet is a must too.

Riga

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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.

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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.

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