The delights of Riga, Latvia

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June 20th 2016
Published: June 20th 2016
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Bremen – Riga: Ryanair £27

I showed the old geezer in the driving seat the address of my hotel and he nodded. Off we set. As we left the airport perimeter, I tried to engage him in conversation.

“No English,” he barked.

I nodded, irritated by his casual rebuke. Maybe it was because he was sick of Englishmen visiting his city and causing trouble. I couldn’t blame him if that was the reason. Ever since low cost airlines had invaded Riga, young Brits had flocked to the Baltics. In 2008, things came to a head when the Latvian interior minister described British tourists as ‘dirty, hoggish people’. His comment followed the arrest of a drunken 34-year old British man caught urinating on Latvia’s most revered memorial – the Freedom Monument.

The taxi hit a traffic jam outside of Riga’s old town. That was when I noticed some business cards inside a small plastic holder on the dashboard. They were for an establishment called the Blow Lounge and featured scantily clad young women on the front. A few minutes later, the short ride from the airport ended and I was outside my hotel.

Vegetable Zeppelins

Shortly after dropping my things in my room, I crossed a busy road opposite my hotel. I was on my way to the former Zeppelin hangars (now the expansive Central Market). As I neared the massive curved buildings, I found the area in front of them awash with locals wearing sailors’ caps. But these were not bona fide naval headwear: they were shop-bought caps a child might wear at the seaside. One middle-aged man, sporting a porn star moustache, had a golden anchor and double braid sewn into his cap. It lay jauntily across his head while a cigarette dangled beneath the moustache. He looked ridiculous, like an extra from the Village People. I absently scratched my own freshly sprouted beard, the first I‘d ever grown. It was born out of pure laziness, and I intended to keep it for the duration of my trip. I wondered whether to purchase a cap to go with it.

As well as the sailor-capped folk, a number of tourists were watching an Inca gentleman playing panpipes. He had all the gear – stripy poncho, black hat and patterned headband – as he played his authentic sounding Peruvian ditty. I carried on past him, negotiating my way around an enormous array of strawberry and blackberry stalls. Then I arrived at the entrance of the massive market.

Cheese of every description was on offer inside the humungous market hall. Blocks of white, thick slices of yellow, gigantic slabs of orange, bewildering arrays of blue-veined cheese and lumps of it floating in liquid were available to buy. If a shopper tired of the cheese, then large drums of cooking oil, piled high on counters, were available to purchase. And people were doing so with enthusiasm. I passed a woman in a headscarf who had just bought an industrial-sized vat of oil. She was rolling it toward the exit.

Towering above my head was the vast skeletal frame of the hangar. It made me visualise just how huge the Zeppelin balloons must have been. To fill this massive market hall meant it had to be big. Some of the mighty balloons had stretched hundreds of feet long and towered one hundred feet high. Riga’s Zeppelins had been used as reconnaissance aircraft in the Baltic Sea region.

I left the cheese hangar and entered the next one. It was full of stalls selling honey (in actual honeycombs), jars of hemp butter, loaves of rye bread and plates of salted mushrooms. Further in were stalls peddling amber jewellery. Amber was popular in the Baltics, and the items for sale in the Central Market included beaded necklaces, translucent stones and silver wristbands engraved with the distinctive fossilised orange tree resin. Next up were the meat stalls. Every part of an animal was for sale: skin, innards, tongues and full pig snouts. I stopped by a glass display brimming with sausages. Fat ones, thin ones, curled-up ones and long straight ones were for sale. In charge of the stall was a stout woman wearing a blue apron. She stood watching me, as if daring me to buy something. I didn’t and continued with my walk, entering the final hangar.

Cod-eyed woman

The smell hit my nostrils even before I stepped through: the pungent aroma of fish. Once inside, I surveyed the wares while my nose adjusted to the smell. Women in headscarves were haggling over salmon fillets or bartering over pots of cheap caviar. Other women were buying trout, or pointing at aquariums, trying to get the best deal on large, silvery live fish. One woman was buying a large flat fish that was so ugly I couldn’t believe it edible. I stopped by the stall to look at it, but the battle-axe in charge glared with her lumpy eye. When I raised my camera to take a picture of some fried eels instead, she bared her teeth. I lowered my camera and fled.

Riga Black Balsam

Back in the old town, I saw another advertisement for Latvia’s national drink, Riga Black Balsam. From my previous visit, I knew that balsam was a hideous concoction of vodka and herbs that every tourist shop in Riga sold in opaque brown bottles. I decided to buy a couple of bottles as gifts for people back home.

Two teenagers, one male, one female, stood behind the long counter in one shop. He had short dark hair; she had the full, long blond Scandinavian look. Behind them were rows of Black Balsam, large and small. As I walked to the counter, both burst out laughing. It was like the ice cream shop in Nowy Dwor Mazowiecki all over again, especially when the young man had to take leave. The blond girl tried her best to stifle her amusement, but when I said I wanted two small bottles of Riga Black Balsam, a small giggle escaped her mouth. Even so, she busied herself with my order, while I surreptitiously checked my trousers for gaping flies, my chin for tomato ketchup and my hair for random flotsam. All were in order; so what could be so funny? Maybe it was my beard. Maybe it made me look like some sort of Baltic inbred. Whatever the reason, I paid the money, grabbed my bottles and went in search of Riga’s sights.

Freedom Monument

I turned right, walking past the Laima Clock. It was a kitschy timepiece, located on the corner of Brivibas Bulvaris. First installed in the 1920s, the clock’s large brown letters spelled out the name of Latvia’s largest confectionery company, Laima. The time on the clock at the top matched the time on my watch: five minutes before the hourly changing of the guard at the Freedom Monument.

The monument was just along from the clock, the place where a stupid British man had once urinated. Heading toward it was a gaggle of tourists following a guide holding up a rolled-up newspaper. As they scurried over the cobbles to keep up, it seemed the Pied Piper was in town. I made my way towards the monument myself, looking upward at Mother Latvia standing atop her huge stone plinth. She was thrusting her green coppery arms vertically upwards as she held three golden stars. She represented freedom fighters who had lost their lives in the Latvian War of Independence of 1918. At her base, two young guards were standing to attention. As far as I could tell, their only movement was from their eyes, which flicked this way and that. How they could keep their bodies still for so long was beyond me. I would be useless at the job: I couldn’t keep still for five minutes.

Guard of Honour

The Latvian Guard of Honour first began their sentry duties in 1935, just after the completion of the monument. Their role ended five years later with Soviet occupation. But in 1992, following the country’s newfound independence, the guards of honour were reinstated, resuming their hourly vigil beneath Mother Latvia. The only time soldiers did not attend to this duty was when temperatures were below minus ten degrees Celsius.

With a few minutes to go before the changing of the guard ceremony began, I took up station on a wall overlooking a small park. I tried to stifle a small yawn. After five days of non-stop travel, I was beginning to feel a little weary. I wondered how I would be feeling by the end of Day Ten. A thin river ran through the park, home to a few ducks. Suddenly, the crowd behind me stirred. From the side of the monument, some new guards appeared. They loitered for a minute and then, with a perfectly timed slow-motion march, they trooped to the front of the statue and began a protracted about-turn manoeuvre involving perfectly choreographed arm swinging and leg kicks. When they reached the stationary guards, they all swapped position. The old guards marched off in perfectly matched timing until they were almost hidden from view. There, they started walking normally back to their base. The crowd dispersed and so did I.

I found myself wandering, often the best thing to do in a new city, until I stumbled upon another tour group assembled next to something called the Powder Tower. The tower was a medieval round tower with a spiky conical roof.

“It originally functioned as part of Riga’s defensive line in the thirteenth century,” the female guide told them, “but, actually, this construction is much younger, dating from around 1650.” I tuned out the voice and walked towards a young woman sitting in the shade of the tower. Kitted out in medieval costume, she was plucking some type of medieval instrument. Whatever it was, it sounded great, a mixture of a glockenspiel and a harpsichord. With the sun shining and a tune wafting over the cobbles, I smiled to myself. Ryanair had delivered me into one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. After dropping a few coins onto the girl’s cloth, I headed deeper into the old town.

If you've enjoyed this little segment about Riga, then maybe you'll like the book it came from.

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