I go to Riga

Thursday 23 March 2006

I went to Riga for a long weekend (a) because I could, and (b) having spent a mild, dry winter in England I wanted to see some serious snow and ice at last. The latter was not a disappointment. Also, I had to get across the channel because I was desperate for a decent cup of coffee. Anywhere in Europe will do for that, and in Riga coffee is good, cheap, and plentiful; as is beer, vodka, cognac, and smallgoods.
The old town is picture-postcardy, the sort of European town you see in old movies about vampires. Steeples abound.

Further out is a large Art Nouveau precinct, which was how Riga started out the modern era until the 20th century intervened. Much of the historic part of the city is remarkably intact, given that Latvia was unfortunate enough to be caught between Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany, who took turns invading and occupying the country before the Soviet Union took over, apparently for good. It’s worth visiting the Occupation Museum to find out what has happened to this place since 1940. No wonder so many of the older couples around town were enjoying cream cakes and cognac whenever the opportunity arose.
The other must-visit place is the huge produce market behind the train station, a series of former zeppelin hangars overshadowed by a huge, somewhat crumbling, Stalinist edifice (think Moscow University), stuffed with every possible type of food. No cameras allowed – a hangover from black market days? – so sadly no picture of the bloody great fish that made a break for it when I walked past.
Despite all the culture, for me the high point of the trip was walking across the surface of the Daugava, the main river that leads out to the ports. It’s March, and it’s still frozen over.

As you can see, it’s pretty wide. This is the sort of thing you don’t get to do on the Thames. Or the Yarra, for that matter.


Signs that Latvia isn’t quite fully touristified yet

  • It only costs 20p to catch a bus to the airport from the centre of Riga. However, there is no obvious signage at the bus stop to point out which bus goes to the airport.
  • Riga International Airport is small. There were four flights out of town the night I left. Apart from some merry Germans, all the other travelers seemed to be on a first-name basis with the airport staff. Out on the tarmac, two baggage handlers were pulling donuts in the snow with their motorised baggage carts.
  • The tourist information office gives away a weekly english-language newpaper listing events, restaurants etc. The two main stories at the front of the paper: taxi drivers in Riga smell bad and try to rip you off, and building standards in the Latvian construction industry can be pretty dodgy.
  1. Riga – Ha! I recently visited Waco. Now that's a picture-postcardy place. And very untouristed, too. I was the only person walking across the historic Waco Suspension Bridge! It was magical.

  2. Sounds like a great town – really – I love places like that.

    What are food & accommodation expenses like?

  3. Zo: How did your job interview with the Branch Davidians go, by the way?

    Lucy: It's a wonderful town, and well cheap. 1 lat pretty much equals 1 pound. A meal's about 5 lats, cup of coffee 60 santims, etc.

    If you smoke, a pack of cigs will set you back 40 santims, so about a dollar. Makre sure you specify a non-smoking room at the hotel. My room smelt like being in an ashtray. I mean, a full ashtray. No, I mean like being inside a cigarette butt, which is then crushed into a full ashtray.

    But yeah, I want to go back. They're hosting the world hockey championships this year.