Ljubljana, Slovenia

Wanting to take in as much Christmasness as possible and avoid an extra-long bus ride between Zagreb and Munich, we opted for a two week stopover in Ljubljana, Slovenia. The city, especially the cozy old town tucked under the Castle’s hill, is very walkable and full of corners to explore. Science-themed Christmas lights hanging above the streets provided just the right amount of nerdiness. But Zagreb’s Christmas markets are among the best in Europe, and after that spectacle, Ljubljana’s fell a little flat.

Garlanded stalls ringed Prešeren Square and lined short stretches of the Ljubljanica River near the Triple Bridge. Food and gifts were pricier than in Croatia, and the selection seemed more limited (many stands only sold drinks rather than a variety of snacks and sandwiches). And, despite the Christmas-light galaxies and music notes strung up above, the mood felt less festive even though we had a difficult time pinning down exactly why.

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Prešeren Square before & after dark

After a couple years of avoiding winter, we saw our first snowfalls of this trip. We layered up our thinnish travel clothes and new coats as the weather worsened. The markets sold plenty of mulled and warmed wine, crepes, and thick soups to combat the chill. Fortunately our apartment was well-heated, as was the theatre where we caught the new Star Wars flick.

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Old Town from above & in the snow; even the city’s fountains get bundled up

Ljubljana loves its dragon mascot and shows it off at every chance. It graces the city flag, bridges, even images of the castle where it perches atop the stonework. The castle is smallish but has been utilized for all sorts of purposes through the ages – fortress, hospital, prison. Christmas decorations filled much of the courtyard and snow muted the sounds of traffic from below. Though the mountains are often in view from its walls (and many other points around town), for some reason we opted to tour it during a snow storm. This severely restricted the vistas, though the lit up streets below looked welcoming. The castle’s museums are a little lackluster, though there were some great art works mixed into the small collection (see the bear in a chicken-powered chariot below). A museum of puppets, creepy on even the best day, didn’t do anything to make them less macabre in my mind.

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Around Ljubljana Castle

A funicular ascends to the castle, but we opted to walk up a winding path through the treed hillside. Slipping during the dark return, we managed to make it without falling. For a longer hike Tivoli Park, just a kilometer away, provided miles of trails, pretty even in winter shades of gray and brown. Nestled in its open spaces are art galleries, ski jumps, and playgrounds. Plenty of other walkers could point us in the right direction if the twisting trails disoriented us.

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Tivoli Park, book exchange at the Castle, pretty paint, and walking after dark

Ljubljana seems to be a city on the verge of literary greatness. Book exchanges feature prominently around the castle grounds and buses have seats designated for readers. A Baroque Library in the Seminary can be visited only be request. A quick stop into the Tourist Information Center got us a personal tour. Still in almost completely original condition, it was spared long-term public use and too many candles. Vivid ceiling murals look as if they were painted yesterday. And unlike many libraries-come-tourist-attractions, it still smells like books.

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Seminary Library, murals at Metelkova Art Center

Fast food in Ljubljana is cheap, readily available, and sometimes unusual. Our apartment was just a block away from Nobel Burek, a 24-hour burek and doner window that doled out massive portions for just 2-3 euros each. Clearly a favorite with students and workers in a hurry, it was possibly the cheapest meal in town. For a few more euros, Hot Horse served up burgers true to its name. Horse meat is fairly common in the Balkans and just incredibly tasty. 10/10 would eat again. Of course, the ajvar and peanut puffs are delicious as well.

Local wine surprised us a bit. The rocky landscape combined with coastal influences mirrors lots of other regional wine regions, so it shouldn’t have been the shock it was. Part of the charm was the lack of Slovenian wine in other countries – it definitely felt exclusive seeing it available in large quantities. Even the 4-5 euro bottles were high quality and similar to the more popular Croatian vintages.

With the easily accessible mountains and forests, if we return to Slovenia it will be during a warmer season. The glimpses of nature we had at Lake Bled and Postojna Cave (featured in the next post) teased us even as snow was in the immediate forecast.

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Zagreb

Moving north from Sarajevo, we opted to spend a month in Zagreb. Our stay timed well with the opening of the Advent markets which can claim the honor of being the best in Europe. We watched excitedly as the little huts were arranged on the squares, lights hung, and an ice skating park assembled near our apartment. The markets didn’t open until December 2, however, so we spent the first three weeks distracting ourselves with other things to do.

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Zagreb Views

An earthquake in 1880 caused the destruction of parts of the city and it was rebuilt with grand buildings and park spaces. It makes the city a sight in its own right. We walked, rather than funiculared, up to the Upper Town to get a better view. Near St. Mark’s Square (which holds the eponymous church with the brightly tiled roof) is the Museum of Broken Relationships. Items left over from failed relationships – a book, a wedding dress, a trinket, a toaster – are donated along with stories tied to their meaning. Sometimes sad, sometimes hysterically funny, it made me grateful to have someone to share the experience with.

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Lots of murals and a little relationship regret

Also before the Advent season got into full swing, we had a couple events to attend. The first was InfoGamer, the largest video game expo in the Balkans. Compared to PAX, it was nearly empty of people. Of course, we went in the middle of the day in the middle of the week and InfoGamer spreads out over six days rather than just four. All the major devices and games were represented. We tried out the new Mario Odyssey and a game called Inked that boasted an art style straight out of a paper notebook, and then spent most of our time checking out the smaller games built by Croatian start-ups. One called I Hate Running Backwards was a particularly addicting multiplayer.

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Advent Celebrations

We also happened to be in town for the International Festival of Wine and Culinary Art. Though the focus centered mostly on Croatian wine, there were some other countries from around the region represented as well. For just a $30 entry per person, we were able to sample as much as we wanted (really just as much as we had time for) for the six hours were stayed. With about 150 wineries each serving three or more wines, there was far too much to have a chance to taste everything. But we tried. And thankfully, almost everything was delicious (at least from what we remember). A few breweries and distilleries also showcased their wares, especially those evoking holiday flavors. And then there were a few stands slicing up cured Dalmatian pršut, an aged ham tender enough to nearly melt in our mouths.

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Everyone claims Tesla; Dolac Market, lights

And then, finally, on the last weekend we were in Zagreb, the Advent celebrations kicked off. The lightings in different squares took place on Saturday evening, as did concerts and the rolling out of a tram decorated as Santa Claus. Mulled wine was a must for staying warm, but it was readily available and cheap. Sausages were also being served up on every square along with balls of fried dough and germknödel, a pastry stuffed with spiced plum jam for dessert. The ice skating park finally opened, full of lights and music. We avoided crowds and skated on a Tuesday morning. Chilly weather is not our strong suit – living out of two backpacks apiece doesn’t let us carry many winter clothes. But most markets have plenty of heaters and warm snacks, and a coffee or pastry shop is rarely more than a block away.

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Market mulled wine, spiciness! mulling spices, tastes of the States

Zagreb is a large enough city to embrace a fully worldwide culinary cross-section. In addition to Balkan specialties like cevapi and štrukle (a cheese-and-cream-filled pastry), we found exceptional locally-made hot sauces and spicy ajvars, and even shops selling imported goods from Asia and the US. It was fun to have ranch and Poptarts back on the menu at least for a few days.

And of course there was plenty of Croatian wine. As the temperature got cooler, we headed to the sprawling Dolac Market for spices and citrus fruits meant for mulling. The wine is usually good by itself, but adding a few spices never hurt.

Zagreb is at least as charming as the coast, and there are fewer tourists, especially as soon as you step away from the Christmas markets. The cost of living was lower too, which definitely appealed to us. I’d like to return someday, though maybe in warmer weather.

Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina

Since reading Zlata’s Diary in grade school, the idea of visiting Sarajevo had been tucked in the back corner of my mind. In October, we finally made our way there, bussing from Novi Sad, Serbia. Bosnia’s landscape stunned us right from the border. Crossing the Drina River put us squarely into the Dinaric Alps and our route followed a winding highway through the mountains that passed by small farms with herds of sheep grazing next to the road.

Sarajevo sits at the base of Trebević Mountain, and is ringed by hills. From our bus, our first glimpses of the city were of dozens of white minarets rising from among the hillside houses. The city looked quiet and peaceful, nestled in its valley. Our hosts met us at the station and saved us a steep walk to our stay. The Airbnb was spacious, but our favorite part was the view over the bright LED screens populating the sides of the new malls and office towers.

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Miljacka at sunset, and the city at night

From April 1992 until February 1996, the longest siege in modern history demolished Sarajevo and took the lives of more than 11,000 citizens and defenders, including more than 1,500 children. It was impossible to walk through the city and not see evidence of the bombs. Houses in our neighborhood were still in ruins, even 20 years later. Facades on older buildings often still bear missing pieces of concrete from shrapnel sprays.

Sidewalk dents filled with red resin mark sites where bombs rained down death. They are disturbingly common. In Veliki Park, a memorial to the hundreds of children killed in the siege lists too many names to count. The War Childhood Museum attempts to tackle the individual stories using a single object from a child’s life along with a (often) heartbreaking memory. We tried and failed to imagine how difficult life must have been during those years.

 

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Reminders of the Bosnian War

The Old Jewish Cemetery near our apartment had been used as a Serbian artillery position during the siege. Many gravestones still bear bullet and shrapnel scars; the landmines were thankfully removed after the war. Even the History Museum’s facade has shrapnel wounds and it only features war-related items.

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The Old Jewish Cemetery and the Historical Museum of BiH

Above the city, relics from the 1984 Winter Olympics lay abandoned and damaged in the woods. The most famous of these is the bobsled and luge track. Though local groups are attempting to revive the track as a sporting venue, it is still mostly utilized as a massive graffiti wall.

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The abandoned bobsled track from the 1984 Olympics

A far cry from its Olympic glory, the concrete track is now overgrown by trees and mosses. The bright paint provides a stark contrast to the rest of the structure.

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Some especially appropriate graffiti 

We walked the entire length of the track. The buildings at the finish line have trees growing up between what were shower stalls. Nearby homes were similar concrete shells, missing roof and windows alike. To return to the city, we hiked downhill on a narrow rocky track that ended in the back of a steep-streeted neighborhood.

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We heard rumors of Sarajevo’s tasty cuisine in Novi Sad, and the compliments were completely deserved. The crowning meal is cevapi, skinless sausages stuffed into a pita bun and topped with onion. Locals eschew adding sauces to this mix, though I preferred them with pavlaka (a heavy cream). Peanut crips that were a favorite in Croatia last year were outshone by Snacky Flips, a Bosnian brand that looked like onion rings and tasted light and crunchy.

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Local wine and beer, peanut crisps, the famous cevapi

Like its neighboring counties, Bosnia produces quite a bit of local wine. Our two most-purchased varieties were plavac mali and vranac. Bargain brands often have liter bottles for the same price as .75 liters (if you don’t mind thinner glass), and turned out to be the best choice. As in other Balkan countries, good craft beer takes a little work to find, but The Brew Pub had some tasty beers. Our favorite was Furka, their Amber Ale.

Sarajevo has come a long way from the end of the war, as the photographs in the museums attest, but memories from the conflict still permeate daily life. The Dayton Peace Accords ended the fighting but made the country difficult to govern. Local politicians are divided along ethnic lines and often refuse to cooperate, making further recovery an impossible task. Everyone we met carries hopes for a better and less bitter future, and we harbor the same wish.

Novi Sad, Serbia

Of all the places we’ve been so far, it is a bit of a surprise that Novi Sad, Serbia quickly turned into one of my favorites. Added to our list after Timisoara because of its close proximity and low cost of living, we’d also heard good things about it from an acquaintance. Our apartment for the month was situated right in the center and some of the windows looked toward the steeple of The Name of Mary Church, the largest Catholic church in the city. Since the Old Town is largely made up of walking streets, we traded vehicular traffic for sidewalk restaurants and plenty of shopping in the dozens of pasažs and courtyards between the buildings.

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Sunset over the Old Town and one of the walking streets

The most famous site in the city – just across the river – is Petrovaradin Fortress. Constructed to guard the narrowest point of the Danube, it now houses artists’ studios and restaurants. Towering over Novi Sad, it was a popular place to watch the sunset and for wedding photographs. The fortress building itself is massive, but the grounds expand out on three sides, encompassing the Old Town of Petrovaradin and green space mixed with battlements. In July each year, the Exit Festival takes advantage of sprawling space. Stages are set up among the earthen bulwarks and musicians play all weekend.

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Petrovaradin Fortress 

Like most European cities built near water, Novi Sad embraces the Danube. A lengthy river walk stretches out from the city center, and runs parallel to a bike path that allows riders to cycle clear from one side of the country to the other. Plenty of older men fish, families stroll with kids, and many end up at the man-made beach during summer months.

During our stay, we watched the slow-moving assembly of the new Road and Railroad Bridge. The first span had been placed shortly before we arrived, and the second span was waiting on the bank to be moved into place. In 1999 NATO bombed Novi Sad, destroying the city’s bridges, the oil refinery, chemical plants. This bridge is one of the final things to be rebuilt. For the 18 years since the bombs fell, a narrow, single lane bridge has served both directions of vehicular and rail traffic.

The city also suffered in previous conflicts. Other sculptures and plaques on the river memorialize victims of World War II. Much of the city was destroyed and rebuilt after bombing in 1849 that occurred during uprisings against the Austrian Empire. We were told by one local that “Novi Sad was a house that got built in the middle of a road. Every time someone wants to get by, we get run over.”

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Memorials of war – Bridge being rebuilt (in 2017) from 1999 NATO bombings, mural looking over the destroyed bridges, memorial to WWII victims

Local cuisine reflects a mixing of Balkan traditions. Many dishes center on meat, like ćevapčići, a sandwich of grilled sausages. Our apartment was in the perfect spot to grab a quick bite. Right downstairs was a corner sandwich shop serving up incredibly rich and filling meals – our favorite was beef topped with melted cheese, cream, and grilled onions. Almost next door was a burger place that served thin patties grilled up and coupled with delicious house sauces.

Burek, a pastry made with phyllo dough, looks like it should be a lighter meal, but is deceptive. It is often layered with meats and cheeses that make it just as hearty as a larger meal. But even without the filling, the dough alone was tasty.

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“Serbian” burger, burek

Just a few miles from Novi Sad is a region known for wine. The center of the industry is located in Sremski Karlovci. We missed the wine festival by a couple of weeks, but still headed out for a day of tasting. A unique local specialty is bermet, wine with 20 spices and herbs added to the mix. It tasted quite close to mulled wine, reminding us of Christmas. But even aside from that, the wines grown in the region are inexpensive and tasty. Most wineries have been at it for decades, as was the case at Mrdanin, where they have been vintners for five generations.

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Lots of bermet and family wineries in Sremski Karlovci

Fruska Gora, the lone mountainous ridge towering over the flat Serbian plains, provides a climate for the wine grapes as well as a perfect spot for hiking. A friend we met in Novi Sad showed us around his village, Bukovac, and the surrounding hills. Along the ridgetops were small fields and grazing meadows, and these blended into a heavily wooded national park. The wooded slopes were a welcome natural escape and provided plenty of shade to keep us cool. Harvest was well under way and corn cribs were filled for winter.

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Looking over Bukovac, trail markings in Fruska Gora, fall harvest

One of the things that made Novi Sad stand out so far above other places was the friendliness of the people. Even though our Serbian is abysmal, almost everyone we met was eager to talk to us. We met dozens of people at language exchanges, tech meet ups, in restaurants, at the market. We felt like we had been friends with people we just met for years. I definitely hope to return, if only to see if my initial impressions are correct and to catch up with friends, old and new.

Timisoara, Romania

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After three months exploring the Czech Republic and the Baltic countries, we needed to leave Schengen. A couple of cheap RyanAir flights got us to Romania, which we loved when we visited last year. This time we headed out of the capital to Timisoara, on the western side of the country.

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Orthodox Metropolitan Cathedral

The city itself has beautiful architecture that mixes Romanian, Austo-Hungarian, and German styles. Several large plazas dot the old town, and the Bega river runs nearby. In 2021 Timisoara will be a European Capital of Culture, which seems like a justified choice. There is plenty of art around the city, starting with statues dotting the city center. During the few weeks we were in town, there were two free movie festivals and a free opera and play festival. We went to multiple performances in Parcul Rozelor and watched The Fiddler on the Roof and Grafin Mariza with several thousand other fans. And even though these performances were done in an outdoor theatre, it was the full production, with large casts and and all the set pieces.

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Lots of statues in the streets

Timisoara also takes great pride in its parks. The Bega is lined with green spaces, which are dotted with restaurants, bars, and paddle-boat rentals. A favorite is definitely the Children’s Park, which is dotted with play equipment and scooter rentals, not to mention ice cream vendors. A shady river walk runs for several kilometers through the downtown and made for a less-trafficked way home.

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Piata Unirii, building in the Children’s Park, mural

The most famous (and possibly best) museum in town is the Banat Village Museum. Just a quick tram ride outside of the center, the museum recreates the feel of a small farm or village from the turn of the last century. Dozens of homes and village buildings have been relocated and then decorated with antique and period furnishings. There are even live animals like chickens wandering the premises and grape vines shading the porches. It was a peaceful way to spend an afternoon, and just around the corner is a small zoo. The zoo is largely farm animals, though there are a few monkeys and European brown bears as the centerpieces.

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Banat Village Museum

About two and a half hours away by car, Hunedoara is home to a spectacularly photogenic castle. Corvin Castle has been restored, along with the famous bridge that leads to it. We were lucky enough to find a BlaBlaCar headed in the right direction, which save us several extra hours of bus travel. The interior of the castle is partly restored, though the rooms are largely bare. It was a fun place to wander around for an hour or so. The best views are definitely facing the castle from the main approach.

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Corvin Castle in Hunedoara

Timisoara was a relaxed place to stay for a month. Of all the cities we’ve visited so far, I think the people here were the friendliest. Even our few, terribly-pronounced words of Romanian brought out smiles. At our local market, Piata Iosefin, we got by with our Romanian and even a few words of German.

Also, their graffiti artists seem to be in a really good mood. I’ve never seen so many smily faces and positive notes scrawled on the walls. Any place this welcoming deserves as much attention as it can get! I’d love to head back someday, perhaps to check out the city when it is Capital of Culture in just a few more years.

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Positive and nicely-placed graffiti and stickers

Jurmala & Sigulda, Latvia

In a surprise twist, just thirty minutes outside Riga are the wide, sandy beaches of Jūrmala. I never thought to associate Latvia with sun and sand. But the locals certainly do. On a hot summer Friday, it seemed half of the country was along the Jūrmala coast. The Baltic water wasn’t warm enough to tempt me to swim (though others were indulging happily), but it was the perfect spot for relaxing. There are small restaurants and ice cream stands along the shore and areas of “active” and “passive” recreation. Zones for sunbathing and being lazy! This beach has it figured out.

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Around Jūrmala

A little further inland is the heart of the tourist area, with pedestrian streets full of small shops and restaurants. We spotted an Orthodox church under construction and Latvia’s largest bronze globe (oddly specific, but it’s something). In one of the main parks was a viewing tower that was free to climb. The catch was that the floors were all grated metal, so looking down was a bit vertigo-inducing. From the top level we saw Riga, tiny in the distance, and the Baltic Sea on the nearer horizon. Since most local buildings are low, the surrounding forest appears nearly uninterrupted.

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Viewing tower in Dzintaru mežaparks

In the opposite direction from Riga is Sigulda, a small town at the start of Gaujas National Park. It is where they happen to keep the castles. In Sigulda itself are the remains of the Castle of the Livonian Order. The oldest castle dates from the early 1200s, though it underwent many iterations through the centuries. Parts of the towers and wooden battlements have been reconstructed and were open for exploration.

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Livonian Castle in Sigulda, path to Turaida

From Sigulda, it was only a little bit of a hike across the river and through the woods to get to the next castle, Turaida. Along the way was the largest cave in the Baltic States, Gūtman’s Cave. The cave was really more of a giant niche with a small spring inside, but the walls are covered in graffiti, some dating back centuries. Clearly, it was a big deal to have your name on the wall, and some people even carved scrolls or family crests to make their marks more visible.

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Gūtman’s Cave – the largest (by volume) in the Baltics

Hiking a little further, up and down the local hills (they kept being referred to as mountains on local signs), we arrived at Turaida. This castle is inside a museum/reserve with preserved buildings and a sculpture park. But the main attraction is the castle. Again, it was built in the early 1200s and has been reconstructed. A tower and some recreated battlements loomed over lower ruins.

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Turaida Castle without and within

Perhaps the best part of the museum was a giant swing. Sized so that two adults could stand on it, maybe it’s a forerunner of kiiking?

Overall we hiked about 12 kilometers around the towns, though we didn’t make it to the third castle, Krimulda, because we needed to catch our train back to Riga. The area around Sigulda was beautiful and there are plenty of other trails to explore if we ever make it back.

Riga, Latvia

Riga, Latvia was a natural next stop after Vilnius, and we were thrilled to spend a month there given how much we seemed to enjoy Baltic culture. Riga was similarly relaxed, though noticeably more touristed than Lithuania’s capital. We stayed outside the Old Town center in a quiet area that was connected to the core through parks. Wandering around was our main activity, especially since the weather was often perfect for walking. The Old Town seems to have a church steeple down every street and a pretty building on every corner.

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House of Blackheads, European Choir Games

Hundreds of years of varied architecture are represented. From Germanic/Hanseatic influences to Art Nouveau and Soviet-era blocks, Riga has it all. Each street and square feels unique. We were near the Art Nouveau neighborhood, with its sculptured facades and wide streets.

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Memorial to the Berlin Wall and Riga’s Barricades, Three Brothers houses, narrow streets

My favorite structure is the National Library. Supposedly it is shaped like a mountain in reference to a Latvian folktale. It might be one featuring a knight climbing a mountain to a sleeping princess or another where a mountain rises out of the earth once Latvia regains it independence. The exterior is striking and unique, and the inside is full of books. Hard to go wrong.

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Latvian National Library, inside and out

Over all the city is a fabulous mix of old and new. There are recently built (or renovated) upscale malls next to centuries-old churches. Remnants of the city wall are just a few minutes walk from parks with modern statues.

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Wall of city crests, your typical chimpanzee astronaut statue

Riga’s massive Central Market was the place to find all sorts of local eats. Located in massive buildings that were originally Zeppelin hangars, it is the largest farmer’s market in Europe. The hangars are airy and bright, perfect for admiring the selections of local meats, fish, and produce.

The summer season meant berries and veggies were in fresh, including some kinds we’d never seen before. Service berries, similar to a blueberry with more noticeable seeds, and cloudberries, which turn bright orange when fully ripe, were delicious. Fresh black currants looked shiny and tasty but were too bitter to eat raw.

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Service berries, cloud berries, rye bread & cranberry ice cream, Latvian deep fried garlic bread

Latvia drinking culture also tends toward beer, and that means bar snacks. The most famous is Latvian garlic bread, a deep fried, oil-and-butter-rich snack that seems ideal for staving off hangovers. Another is ‘grey peas.’ Actually made with brown peas, it is a Latvian specialty, featuring copious amounts of bacon and onions. Let the mix simmer for hours to blend the flavors, and serve in as large a portion as possible.

Local grape wine isn’t common (or that delicious) but local fruit wines are worth seeking out. We attended a wine festival in Sabile, and had the chance to sample wines made from rhubarb, sea buckthorn, currants, raspberry, apple, oak leaves (who knew?), and quince. Many were made by small producers who were excited to show off their family recipes.

I am going to miss Riga – the moderate summer temperatures, the parks, the main market. Sadly our time in Europe’s Schengen area was up, so we had to move on. I felt more comfortable in Riga than just about any other city I’ve lived in, and I definitely hope to return.