Central Riga has several distinct bits. There’s the “quiet centre”, generally regarded as the best area, located around Elizabetes, Hanzas, Alberta and Antonijas streets. The Old Town, containing the lion’s share of the night life. Then there’s the New Town, roughly speaking, the areas heading out from Elizabetes Iela. Even the latter bit divides into two. A “nice bit” between Barona and Valdemara as far as Stabu street and the rest, dismissed by everyone as the equivalent of West Beirut.
There are about three apkaimes which cover this. Maskavas Forštate, which I moved to from the quiet centre in 2008 and the other two, which turned out to be my next destinos: Avotu Iela and Grīziņkalns. Ask any Latvian about those three districts and you’re likely to get raised eyebrows and a response along the lines of “Don’t go there” or “I know a good funeral director you can buy your headstone from in advance…”
These Apkaimes are (supposedly) only populated by alcos, addicts, muggers, English teachers, hookers and similar people you really wouldn’t want to meet on a dark night. My route to work had once briefly taken me along Avotu between Lacplesa and Gertrudes. It didn’t look that bad, so I wondered what all the fuss was about until, one day, when doing a private class at Tallinas Iela, I decided to take a short cut home and on the early afternoon of a Thursday got accosted by a shady looking hooker on Lienes Iela.
However, it was still freezing in Riga, so I wanted to stay somewhere vaguely central and my bluddy, Linda of expateyeonlatvia had promised to show me the sights and sounds of her hood. (Her write-up of the day is here.)
The route there took me along Gertrudes street, one of the nicest streets in the new town, with a church and cobbled streets at its nice end. Even from the crap end near Avotu, you can see the church in the far distance
Linda arrived fashionably late and with me shivering between multiple layers of clothes, she almost walked past me, no doubt mistaking me for another of the neighbourhood’s “unfortunates.”
We decided to hit Grīziņkalns first, swerving to avoid a local who, judging from the way he was walking, looked like he’d already swallowed a bottle of cheap vodka. It was still only 230pm, this was going to be an interesting day….
Grīziņkalns starts at yet another nice church, which dominates Avotu Iela. Clearly, church planners, ever the businessmen, were thinking ahead about the number of sinners they could save round those parts, I mean there are plenty of them in Avotu Iela!
The Greasy Mountain that the district takes its name from was very picturesque on a sunny winter day
Like most Latvian mountains, it’s a tiny hill, so we didn’t get to see much from the top other than a few local factories, but people were enjoying the outdoor skating rink
The owner of the local burger joint also at least had no delusions of grandeur, calling his place ghetto burger. It’s one of the few places round these parts to make it into the Inyourpocket guide
By now well frozen, we settled for a place on Tallinas Iela, 89. krustojums, slightly taken aback by the waitress smiling pleasantly as we went in.
With me suffering the after effects of the day before, I had a coffee and cake. Linda decided to try and out-Irish me, by ordering a Bralis beer, which proved to be a bad move as she waited and waited while the barmaid scooped off layer and layer of foam, which I contentedly finished my cake in the corner and surveyed the gaudy interior and got around to the serious business of updating my map
Leaving there, we’d planned to hit Avotu Iela, but I felt a twinge of depression at missing an especially shady looking bar on the corner opposite Tallinas Iela. With Linda stopping to freeze her mobile off outside, I headed in and immediately the needle on my dodgyometer went off the radar as I saw just how drunk the clientele were at 4pm
Still, in we headed. The trio in the corner, a couple of guys around 50 and a woman so drunk she probably couldn’t even remember her name seemed to be playing a game of who could fall over first. My money was on the woman, but after the barmaid screamed at them to leave one of the guys fell on his ass outside while the others stood around looking dazed. That’s why I don’t gamble so much these days.
The solitary remaining customer decided to be our buddy. He shook my hand and immediately winced. I didn’t think my handshake was *that* strong, but he had an open cut on his hand which was something to do with a fat woman, three flights of stairs and paint colours. Okay.
Making a mental note to get a HIV test later due to the handshake, we finished up quickly, it was finally time to leave Grīziņkalns. Among the other joys of the area shown on the map, we didn’t get to the Daugava Stadium or the degvīna muzejs, a vodka museum! That explained something about the bar and the district….
Avotu Iela is the only Riga district to be named after a street as opposed to an area. It’s the area between Dzirnavu, Lienes and Tallinas Iela, Chaka Street and the railway line. Despite its iffy reputation, there’s a fair bit of life in this dodgy old dog and reasons to visit the district. Ziedoņdārzs, a park on its fringes, is a nice enough place to walk round when the weather’s cooperating. Sapņu Fabrika has hosted international artists like The White Stripes and after that, you can head to what seems to be the city’s only 24 hour Lido.
The buildings here would be nice if done up properly, but for now they’re looking like someone who’s had a bit too much to drink
which set the mood nicely, as Linda’s plan for the day involved getting down to serious drinking. First stop was Trīs vīri laivā, which is definitely in the running for “Best neighbourhood bar” I’ve visited on this trip.
Passable Guinness on tap, poured properly, footy rather than poncey ice hockey on the t.v., a dart board and a lively atmosphere. And who can argue with their poster?
It was then off to another Linda recommended local, which didn’t disappoint. I’d passed Chomsky before. It’s a bit of an alternative place, which suits me perfectly. We hadn’t ordered when I spotted Michael, a guy I did a teaching course with once upon a time. He’d smartly grabbed a prime piece of real estate beside the fire, so we joined him
and he asked me how my blog was going. “Well, you’re in it!” I told him. After he’d left, I noticed a guy at the next table glaring at us. Reasoning that conversation was the best form of defense, we started chatting to him and even tried to replicate the glaring picture, with mixed results
At this time, it was time to call it a night. So after successfully freeing myself from the toilets
it was time to head into the night air. Who would have thought that Avotu has one of the best mini pub crawls outside Riga centre?
24 districts done, 34 left.