So, despite spending over a month here, I've let these posts slide. I'll try and recap in future entries, but here I'll do a quick piece on places around Latvia outside Riga that I've visited.
Rundāle Palace is really neat - a bargain-basement Versailles an hour or so outside the city. The exterior courtyard is a particularly striking tableau. When we arrived, the courtyard was entirely empty, the clock was chiming 5:00, and swarms of small songbirds were flitting about between perches on the baroque moulding and windowsills. An interesting juxtaposition of opulence and desolation that you wouldn't get at a more tourist-y palace - enhanced by the fact that past the French gardens are nothing but rundown farmhouses and Soviet-era, decaying brick buildings.
The interior was characterized by a few nice arcades and stairwells, rococo decorations on almost every available surface, and a few truly atrocious paintings. Well, they might have been very good paintings of a large number of women sporting five o'clock shadow.
Much of the palace was undergoing restoration, but the rooms that are open more than adequately get the point across. A few hints around the edges also speak to an interesting recent history for the palace as well. Restoration began in the Eighties and halted in 1992 or so - following the newfound independence of Latvia. It picked up again in recent years, thanks to the generous donations of Boris something, whose name is all over the informational placards. I don't know anything about this man (like his last name), but it seems like it would be an interesting subject to pursue.
Recommendations: If you make it to Latvia, Rundāle is well worth a look. The museum charges for the short tour, the long tour and a walk of the garden, as well as extra for photos or video cameras. I'd recommend only the short tour - the extra rooms are basically more of the same - silk wallpaper, bad paintings, naked babies carved out of stucco. All the really impressive rooms are in the short tour. The gardens are nice, but we got there too late in the day to really explore them.