Riga arriba

I had no idea what to expect from Riga, having never considered it before.  I know Tallinn to be a stag party centre, I know there are three Baltic states with names and capitals that people often confuse, I know that everyone likes herrings and I know that it gets pretty cold, but aside from that my slate was blank. The British, on the other hand, have a reputation amongst Latvians for being sex tourists.

Arriving with zero preconceptions was refreshing. It helps you to see a place with even clearer eyes. Turns out that it has two of my favourite things by the bucketload – graffiti and art nouveau architecture. Observations #1 and #2.

To start with, I established myself on Caka Street – pronounced Chaka and not Kaka, as I fatally discovered – and noticed a preponderance of haberdasheries, money exchanges and bakeries. Observation #3.

Then I went walkabout, deliriously tired from my train experience but pleased to be back in the familiar surrounds of Europe. I checked out some of the main sights of the Old Town on my improvised walking tour and went and got as much literature as I could carry from the uber-helpful tourist office. Decided to kill some time by having a look in the High Street shops too. Now, ladies, I don’t want to alarm anyone but <stage whisper> it’s all the same. Same shit, different shop. Fashion – yawn.

The town seems to attract a number of foreign workers, I suppose because we’re back in the EU, and I heard Kiwi, British and Russian voices fairly frequently. I thought, being near the polyglottic Scandis, that most people here would speak English. I was wrong. They primarily speak Latvian, a language spoken by approximately 1.5million people here and abroad, while many also have a working knowledge of Russian and English. There are a lot of non-native speakers too, which I found bizarre for such a specific population. I met two guys from New Zealand living in Riga whose Latvian was pretty good. I suppose it could function as an awesome code language anywhere else in world.

The Old Town is beautiful and well-preserved. You can merrily meander about its streets taking in the picturesque buildings and cobbled roads at random. For some reason, despite my Spidey senses usually serving me well, I just couldn’t get my sense of direction within the city walls. It was like being stuck in an avalanche. After much cursing, I managed to find the Three Brothers, famous for being the oldest buildings in the city and housing an underwhelming but free architecture museum, and the Liberty Monument, but only an absolute retard could miss Liberty, it being nearly 43m tall. It was built to commemorate the many, many lives lost in the Latvian struggle for freedom. More on that later…

The Old Town from on high

Liberty monument

The Three Brothers, surviving architecture from the 15th century. i.e. well old

I turned one corner outside the Art Museum and found a man blocking the road with a plastic cordon ribbon tied to a drainpipe and then to his bag.

“What are you doing, friend?”

“Ah, we’re filming. A movie. We will take 3, maybe 5 minutes.”

“What movie is it?”

“A Korean movie. ‘In Berlin’.”

“Thiiis is Riga?”

That didn’t stop Brad Pitt and co. pretending Glasgow was Philadelphia last year though so I suppose I’ll let them off.

Despite coming from Russia, a land crammed with artistic sophistication even at the farthest reaches, I was deeply impressed by the level of culture in Riga. As I arrived, a ballet festival was drawing to a close and an opera festival was just beginning. One item in the programme was a manga opera – how good does that sound?? I wish I could tell you but the schedule didn’t work for me.

Instead, the main creative pursuits that I was interested in were the street artists and the architects. The buildings in Riga are all beautiful and I have taken hundreds of bland snaps of very attractive buildings in all manner of styles. Ask me for a slideshow some day.

Those of the early 20th century, the era to which I believe I should rightfully have belonged, interested me most. Luckily, you don’t have to go far to see deco. More than a third of the buildings in the centre are built in that style so it’s something of a capital for Jugendstil, as the locals and the Germans call it. Elizabetes Street and Alberta Street are two of the best examples for an easy walk. Peksens was one of the most celebrated local architects in the style and so they’ve turned his old apartment into a shrine to the art form. It’s authentic in the interior as well as the exterior and how one of my homes will one day look.

Alberta Street

I’ll leave the graff to pictures:


Work in progress.

Liberty monument getting minced

In most civilised cities there tend to be scuzzy areas that are colonised by students, musicians and artists. In Riga, this used to be the Andrejsala district next to the working docks until they closed it down with grand ideas of redeveloping it into a Tate Modern style art complex. At the moment that’s still nothing but hot air, but it’s still a popular place to pedal to of an evening with a basket-full of beers to enjoy the scenery and artwork. Very good it is too. The area of Spikeri behind the central market and on the edge of the ghetto has sort of displaced it but it’s a cheap imitation compared to before.

Arts area

One sunny Sunday morning I went to the enormous Central Market for a poke around the wares. There are several large buildings that look like hangers, dedicated to vegetables, meat, fish and local produce but outside spreads a sea of extra stalls, selling everything from chapkas to hanging baskets. The scent of strawberries wafts over since it’s the season and many old ladies stand in the pathways clutching fistfuls of beige tights to hawk at passersby. I particularly liked the woollen blankets, fluffy mittens, ceramics and felt Viking hats. I was replacing one of these hats on a stall after admiring it and thanking the vendor when he broke into an explosive rant of Russian and rushed off cursing me, snatching a bog roll as he went. I’m pretty sure that he was angry with me and not the urge to toilet.

Central market

Inside central market

Come and get your socks!

Speaking of Russians, Latvia had a bit of a bum deal when it came to being occupied in the early part of the 21st century – the Russians had two goes and Hitler muscled in for a while too. There’s a good historical run-down here. In the city centre there’s a sombre but very good museum dedicated to the Occupations – if you ignore the stupid man on the door getting offended when tourists greeted him in Russian.

In summary:

  • The Soviets claimed it in 1918 after WW1.
  • Liberation War ensues. Latvia is finally victorious and an independent republic is declared in 1920/21-ish.
  • Hitler’s Foreign Minister Ribbentrop and Stalin’s Foreign Minister Molotov sign a Non-Aggression Treaty, also known as the Hitler–Stalin Pact, which allows Hitler to attack Poland and later – Western Europe. The pact includes secret protocols which designate Finland, Estonia, Latvia and parts of Rumania as Soviet sphere of influence.
  • Soviet troops reoccupy the country in 1940 under spurious terms.
  • In 1941 more then 15,000 Latvian citizens are deported on Moscow’s orders to gulag camps as counterrevolutionaries. Only 1/5 of the more than 5000 survive. The families as accessories are sent to forced settlement areas in Siberia. Death rates are high, especially among the children and elderly. An estimated 25,000 (1.25%) Latvian citizens become victims of the one-year Communist rule.
  • A month later the Nazis attack the USSR, seize Latvia and bring in Holocaust policies.
  • When WW2 draws to a bloody close, the Soviets claim Latvia again and keep hold until 1991, sending lots of dissenters to camps in the meantime.
I think I read that during the three occupations one-third of the Latvian population was killed. Many understandably fled overseas as well.

First and foremost, they manage where Russia failed, to present the gulags as a bad thing. People being pulled from their homes in the middle of the night, separated from their families, put on trains to the middle of Siberia; desperate notes to loved ones dropped through the wagons onto the track in hope; shacks as shelters with only bare bunks and temperatures so low that your hair stuck to the wood in the night; forced labour for endless hours on pitifully small, rotten rations etc.

Very harrowing, but they also presented a positive tale of survival, endurance and resourcefulness under horrific conditions. For example, one man had made a violin from a couple of old boxes and some homemade glue. Women sewed birthday gifts from coloured thread pulled from their clothes. Fishbones were turned into needles; tin cans were melted into spoons. Much of it was ingenious.

On a lighter note, after I’d spent one night catching up on some sleep in a hostel, I couchsurfed with the lovely Annija and her buddies for a couple of days. She is a student working part-time in translation for a Latvian company. Impressively, she speaks Latvian, Russian, German, English, Norwegian and a sprinkling of other languages. We had great chats about Russian tattoos, good new music, transvestites, strawberries and fjords as we sampled her delicious cooking or listened to live jazz in one of the hip cafes down on Miera Street. I like her muchly.

One comment she made with regards to our generation being literally spoilt for choice, to the extent that it paralyses us, stuck with me.

“We have so much choice now and we expect to have it all. It means we view the options we don’t take as losses instead of simply a decision, almost mourning them. I think it’s part of the reason that people are so bad at committing these days.”

General ponder. Then we cracked open another beer.

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