By Maggie Courtright
A little more than two years ago, I had never heard of Riga, the capital of Latvia. In recently chiding myself for not remembering my European capitals from sixth-grade geography (I am 58, after all), I was reminded that Latvia probably wasn't considered an independent country with its own capital 40 years ago and that I had probably only learned that Moscow was the capital of the Soviet Union on my world map.
At any rate, when I began traveling to Lithuania in 2012, I was introduced to the Baltic states and made a point of traveling to the quaint, old city of Riga in the neighboring country of Latvia this summer.
Riga was established in the 12th century but came to prominence during the time of the Teutonic knights — an army of Germanic crusaders who were attempting to bring Christianity to the Baltic region, often in exchange for the region's prize product: amber.
As a result, among the many churches visible in Riga today, there also is the House of Blackheads. The Blackheads were a German merchant guild that controlled trade throughout the region.
(The original building was bombed during World War II and destroyed by the Russians during the occupation of Latvia, which lasted from 1940 to '89.)
The heart of Riga is its Old Town: narrow cobblestoned streets with outdoor cafes and flowered balconies. The Koventa Seta Hotel, where I stayed, was a very simple but comfortable hotel, built within the confines of a 15th-century convent. (Not to worry; no devotions were required.)
The only drawback for some might be the street noise from the city nightlife. In mid-June, with the 22 hours of daylight, there is live music late into the night. Still, the crowds were friendly and the atmosphere was as pleasant as the weather.
During the day, a tour bus left from Town Hall Square, just a five-minute walk away from the hotel.
The tour bus travels along a route covering various parks, wooden houses and one of the largest sections of art nouveau architecture in Europe.
Along the route, you also may see one of the oldest circus houses in Europe, a lovely open air market and the old train station, which still takes excursions to Tallinn and St. Petersburg.
Most bus tours also cross the Daugava River into the newer part of the city where a new modern library is being built on the banks of the river. Riga is truly an architect's paradise with its many varied styles.
As a tourist, I love visiting places before they become tourist traps. Riga, because of its history, its location and its size, is just such a place, and Old Town Riga has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. As a relatively newly opened tourist attraction, it has the look and feel of the old European town that it is.
Many major airlines, including United, now fly in and out of Riga several times a week. I would recommend it to anyone who is not afraid to travel a little more out of the way. I can't wait to get back to the Baltic and explore more of the area, perhaps traveling again through the pleasant gateway city of Riga.
Maggie Courtright is a teacher and teacher-trainer at the Intensive English Institute at the University of Illinois. A longtime resident of Champaign, she recently began teaching a graduate seminar in Klaipeda, Lithuania, a job that has taken her to the Baltic region for the last two summers. Courtright enjoys teaching, traveling, cooking and sharing a meal with good friends — wherever she finds herself.