The Ethnic Hat Museum of Riga, Latvia

Our museum started on a hot January night in 2002, when an intricate woman headdress was acquired at the Night market in the northern Thai city of Chiangmai. This woven hat, decorated by cowries, silver plates and Burmese coins, unexpectedly became the start of the huge collection of traditional headware which now encompasses over 400 items.

It was impossible to resist an intro like that. I’m a fan of small, single themed, well-curated museums having been regularly overwhelmed wandering through the bucket list museums of the world. I was in Riga, Latvia doing research for upcoming travel articles and its World of Ethnic Hats Museum sounded like a perfect addition to one of the articles.

Founded twelve years ago by Russian linguist, businessman and traveler, Kirill Babaev, he began by buying traditional ethnic clothing in his global travels and quickly realized the collection would be difficult to house. It made more sense to purchase only the headgear. When his collection outgrew his homes in Moscow and Jurmala, Latvia, Babaev moved it to four rooms of a second floor building in central Riga and opened a museum. I’d hoped to meet the founder when I visited, but he was in India searching for more hats. “We don’t know where we’ll put them,” laughed the museum curator.

The collection is organized by continent allowing visitors to study hats and headgear as an ethnographer might organize artifacts. Each hat has an informative multi-lingual explanation about its origin, use, age and composition. Many of them are accompanied by photos showing the original owner wearing traditional clothing and the hat.

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Most of the hats and headgear are only used for special occasions – festivals, weddings, and funerals. They’re intricate works of art usually, but not always, designed and handmade by women. In countries of colder climates, making hats and headgear was a winter activity for the summer festival and wedding season.

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The variety of size, shape and materials was astounding. Boiled wool, silk, grasses, plated metals and many were embellished with buttons, embroidery, bead work and feathers.

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When I posted this one among others on my Facebook page, it drew far more likes than any museum hat photos. That’s when I realized its similarity in shape to the pink pussy hat that I and millions of women wore during the January Women’s March.

The museum can be found at 7 Vilandes in Central Riga outside its medieval Old Town. A small sign at the entrance points you into a courtyard where you buzz the intercom to be let in and climb the stairs to the museum.

 

 

 

 

Travel Planning During the Low Season: March in Estonia & Latvia

As a freelance travel writer I subscribe to a variety of websites promoting cheap airfares. My favorite being this one. In early December they promoted a $420 round trip ticket from Seattle to Tallin, Estonia on Delta Airlines. There was a reasonable layover in Amsterdam (one of my favorite layover airports) and the departure and arrival times were civilized. I left in the afternoon (instead of the wee hours of the morning necessitating shelling out money for a Seattle airport hotel the night before) and arrived early afternoon (which meant I could drop my bags at my hostel and not spend an entire day wandering the streets of Tallin trying to stay awake until bedtime).

The only catch was the round trip had to be completed by March 31, 2017. I booked the ticket for the last two weeks in March and then researched the weather in Estonia and Latvia for that time of year. My first clue was Rick Steves, that intrepid entrepreneur of all things travel (incidentally, his free and extensive travel book library in Edmonds, Washington is one of my favorite haunts). His Snapshot series book about Tallin assumes you’ll only be there in the summer strolling in the parks and outdoor markets, drinking coffee at an outdoor cafe. I checked Lonely Planet. “In March locals pull aside the curtains to check the weather outside….and yup, its still winter out there,” the writers pronounced in their saucy description of month by month climate. LP also assumes you’ll be visiting during the long, warm days of summer and gives little clue about travel in the low season. I deduced the northern latitude means daylight is still at a premium, many of the summer resorts are closed and museums and tourist attractions have limited hours.

Still….that air fare was so cheap and as I began to book accommodations, I discovered more advantages to off season travel. Without asking, the Tallin hostel upgraded me to a private larger room at no extra cost. A complementary tour of breweries in Riga, Latvia – free transportation and tasting included. Significantly discounted prices at Estonian and Latvian spas. Restaurant discounts. Tallin Music Week. In return all I had to do was pack more clothing layers and plan outdoor activities around shortened daylight hours. Packing and itinerary planning will be similar to my recent December Iceland trip which I posted about here and here.

I am, as I said, a freelance travel writer so this will be a working trip. There’ll be additional perks brokered by Estonia and Latvia’s helpful tourism agencies so I can write the articles already promised to editors: press passes to Tallin Music Week, interviews about Latvia’s Blue Cows, free entrance to the House of the Brotherhood of the Blackheads in Tallin and Riga and sites that have become part of both countries Soviet era tourism promotion – old bunkers, KGB headquarters, Occupation Museums.

Part of my typical trip research is to watch documentaries and movies made in or about the country so I pay a bit more for my Amazon/Netflix/Showtime experience in order to watch obscure cinema. Over the past week I watched The Singing Revolution, a documentary about the culture of song in both countries and how it became part of both country’s resistance leading to independence. Its such a compelling story, I plan on turning it into an article or blog post when I return. And I found a travel show about each country filmed largely in the sunny summer months, which is becoming a re-occurring research theme for this trip.

Stay tuned. If you’re lucky enough to follow my personal Facebook page, that’s where I post while I travel.