Return to Bale island

Bale island isn’t Real Madrid footballer Gareth’s private residence in Riga, it’s the English approximation of Ķīpsala, one of the districts on the immediate left bank of the river Daugava. The origin of the name is disputed. Most sources say it was named after Pētera Ķīpja, one of a dozen fishermen who habitually resided there, however, others say that it was named after the bales of grass that the island was used to store.

Ķīpsala holds a special place in my heart. It was late September 2005, my first month in Riga, when, fresh faced, the right side of 30 and naive in the ways of the Baltics, I trotted down its back lanes to do my first ever individual lesson in the city. Arriving at the client’s office I enquired for “Olga.” The secretary contacted her and after a few minutes, a door opened, releasing a cloud of thick cigarette smoke and through that, like a rock star emerging through dry ice, a figure stumbled unsteadily into view, clearly less than sober. Errr…. “Olga” ? I enquired. “Yesssss!” she slurred, her glazed eyes regarding me briefly before she hugged me in an exaggerated way, her breath alone enough to make Milwaukee breweries famous.

After sitting down she offered me cigarettes and a drink. It was 1400 on a Friday, but I figured that “when in Rome…” and agreed, as it was my last lesson of the week. She then showed me her alcohol cabinet, where the selection was larger than the average small shop and finally, over an expensive cognac, I did my first individual lesson in Riga, then staggered back to the centre, wondering what kind of mad house I’d got myself into and if it was too late to reapply for my old job in Valencia.

First impressions though, can often be misleading. I later found out that “Olga” on this occasion was just celebrating the conclusion of a lucrative business deal, so future classes would turn out to be boringly normal. She continued to do classes with me for a full three years, until the relocation of her office out of Riga made it impractical.

Ķīpsala was originally much smaller than today, but damming and the drying up of sandbanks led to it expanding to include the nearby islands of Mazo Klīversalu and Burkānu salu (Carrot island.) Originally, connections with the surrounding area were by boat and ferry, but these gradually improved. Access was significantly improved when, on 21 July 1981, the Soviets opened the new Gorky bridge, which was later renamed to the blander Vanšu tilts (suspension bridge.)

For the first time since late October, I was reunited with my usual colloborator Eddie Mantle. The weather was a bit bizarre, clear blue skies, bright sunshine and -10 degrees. Winter had finally arrived a few days before. The day also saw the opening events of Riga’s appointment as European capital of culture for 2014. Among these events was the transfer of books to the new national library, which was done by way of a human chain, in deliberate echoes of the Baltic Way demonstration for independence in the late Soviet era. The book chain involved a line of people, a few kilometres long,

People pass books by hand from the historic National Library of Latvia to the new building during "Chain of Book Lovers" in Riga

braving the cold weather to pass the books from the main library to the new one, located on the left bank of the Daugava. The new library has had its critics for several reasons. Some people think the money could have been better spent on other projects, others think the priority should have been digitising the books. The design of the building itself made people unhappy.

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There were other criticisms of the library’s location, with people asking if it is such a good idea to build a library beside a bridge and river? Their argument being that bridges and nearby buildings are the first thing to be damaged in conflict situations and the river is prone to flooding, so do you really want your national treasures in that location? In reality though, the location was always going to be criticised. If they’d put it on the edge of the city, as critics suggest, then people would have asked why it was in such an inaccessible location. Locationwise, it was a no-win situation for the planners.

We took part in the book chain for 15 minutes, during which time we passed a grand total of two books! After that, we headed along the Daugava to Ķīpsala, enjoying the views across the partially frozen Daugava.

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The reason for heading to Ķīpsala yesterday was that we’d been told that there would be “fire sculptures” there. That sounded promising. In reality though, these were 3 or 4 metre high wooden sculptures which didn’t contain any fire, they were just burned at the end of the evening, which for me was all fine and well, but I’ve seen better. The problem here is that everything in life is relative. I lived in Valencia, the city with Las Fallas, the mother of all fire festivals, where elaborate sculptures over 30 metres high are created then burned.

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The Valencia festival comes accompanied with some amazing light displays

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and a huge sculpture of the Virgin Mary made out of flowers (which isn’t burnt)

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as well as the Mascletà (video here) , which is a riot of pyrotechnic noise. For the 2012 climax, we watched a huge head of Da Vinci go up in flames. (Video here.)

While I love Las Fallas, it’s a bit of a double edged sword. Having experienced it, all other fire related festivals leave me with a sense of disappointment.  A pork shashlik is absolutely fine unless you’ve recently enjoyed a fine juicy steak in the Ritz, after which you can’t help but feel let down.

Riga’s fire sculptures were located on Ķīpsala “beach”, a patch of sand near the Daugava.

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After having a look at them, we headed along the riverside. Like those on other cities’ riversides, houses here go for three quarters of a million and upwards and often contain the type of designs that only eccentric people with too much money to spend can dream up

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maybe an Australian millionaire lives in the house above? We then wandered through the back lanes, which are full of wooden houses in streets which show the history of the area, “Fisherman’s street” and the like.

There are a couple of decent restaurants there. Fabrikas has long been one of my favourites, though the prices there mean that my visits in recent years have been few and far between. It has a terrace floating on the river, making it a great place to eat at in summer. Further up and lesser known is Ostas Skati, which, as the name suggests, has views of the port (as in the photo below from last summer)

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and a cheaper menu than Fabrikas (though the food also isn’t as good.)

As we were only interested in a warm drink, we headed for Olympia shopping centre and warmed ourselves up

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after that it was back to see what was left of the sculptures, which by this time had mostly burned and they’d cordoned off the area near the bonfires, so it was impossible to get near.

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We crossed back to the centre. Even though Christmas has long gone, Riga, for unknown reasons, still has Christmassy style lights in the streets

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A cold, but enjoyable day out. 21 districts done, 37 to go.

6 thoughts on “Return to Bale island

    • It is, but since the crisis hit it’s become hugely controversial. Kids are sitting in schools wrapped in blankets because the heating hasn’t been paid, yet they are building the Fallas sculptures, the largest of which cost 400,000 euro (counting things like security) and all for something which they burn. The arguments against are that it pays for itself in terms of tourists and that private money covers a lot of it, but still…

  1. Nice to be back on the trail again. Full marks to everyone involved the ‘Tu and Tagad’ project. The kede (chain) was a great idea and I liked the big drum music on the beach. Would’ve liked to stay longer, but ’twas a tad parky and brass monkeys were looking worried !

  2. “Access was significantly improved when, on 21 July 1981, the Soviets opened the new Gorky bridge, which was later renamed to the blander Vanšu tilts (suspension bridge.)”

    Actually, while “suspension bridge” is not wrong, I would think that a more precise translation would be “Shroud bridge” in the meaning 4.a sense of M-W: “one of the ropes leading usually in pairs from a ship’s mastheads to give lateral support to the masts”. There, not so bland now? 🙂

    I do believe “vantis” is used almost only by sailors and poets speaking about sailing ships, although I might be wrong.

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