I often get asked the question “Kāpēc?” …..“Why did you choose Latvia?” The easy answer is that it was fate. The answer that’s probably closer to the reality is that Al Qaeda have a lot to do with it.
No, I’m not outing myself as a member of an Islamic terrorist cell, but it was the events of 9/11 which started the ball rolling towards Latvia (and Kazakhstan for that matter.)
Following the 9/11 attacks, flights to the USA became insanely cheap. People became afraid to fly, even though flying became safer after the attacks, due to security measures being stepped up. I booked flights to Chicago and had a great trip. Being Irish entitles you to free nights out in some bars, as the barmen, joyful at meeting a real life Irishman, assault your ears with fiddle-dee-dee music that they assume all Irish listen to 24/7 and tell you how they’re half Irish, half German, half Norwegian and half Sioux Indian. Needless to say, I took full advantage of their generosity.
I met my good Berliner buddy for the first time as we were staying in the same hostel and met lots of other travellers who had stories of the amazing times they were having on the road. At the time I was working as an accounts assistant in an unsatisfying job, which involved me stamping and coding lots of invoices all day. So when I got back to Ireland, I quit my job and headed off on an open ended trip around Europe. Going from Belfast to London, I then went to Bilbao and did a circuit of Spain and Portugal. From Lagos in the south of Portugal, I set myself a target of finishing in Latvia. Nearly 3 months, 30 cities and 14 countries later I’d reached Vilnius, where, for whatever bizarre reason, I decided to visit Kaliningrad instead of Latvia, which meant that Riga was now on my agenda as a must visit place. One of my hostel dorm acquaintances in Vilnius had also travelled for 3 weeks across Kazakhstan, so that put that on the agenda as well.
3 years later, Easyjet started direct flights from Valencia to Berlin. I decided to go and visit my friend (the same one from the Chicago hostel.) I’d already been in Berlin 3 times at this point, so decided I had to go somewhere new to justify the trip. I’d wanted to go to Tallinn, but the flights arrived there at 2200, while the flights to Riga arrived at 1000. So, on 29 March, one day before the third anniversary of the Chicago trip, I flew over a still frozen Baltic sea for the first time. To be honest, my initial reactions on the first visit to Riga were “Bah!” It was fine, but didn’t greatly excite me on first visit. Probably the fact that it was then -8 at night in Riga and had been +22 in Valencia didn’t help.
I remember walking along Gertrudes Iela thinking, highly ironically, “It’s okay, but I wouldn’t want to live here.” On the final night (a Friday) , I was walking through Riga Old Town, planning to head back to the youth hostel as I had an earlyish flight the next day and also had plans for serious drinking in Prenzlauer Berg the next night with my friend. For some reason, I decided, as I thought it would be possibly my last ever night in Riga, to have a final drink for the road. I ended up in TimMcShanes Irish bar, met my ex there and nine years and one break up later, here I am.
On 29 March 2005, I never dreamed that exactly 9 years later, I’d be jumping on the bus to head to Šķirotava, but that’s the way the dice rolled. I’d been due to go there the previous week and this time made sure I got the right bus. The feedback on the place hadn’t been good. A boring railway junction with lots of factories was the consensus. Getting there, I found they hadn’t been lying.
The way to the main populated bit of Skiro led us through a forest part, which was quite nice until we found a Mūkupurvsy bit
Pretty please keep your forests clean!
The centre of Skiro is nice enough, but quite small and lacking in action, resembling a village more than anything else
Probably the only thing remotely of tourist attraction here is Šķirotava station
which has a memorial to Latvians deported during the early Soviet period
however the station also did feature in the Rumbula massacre, as some of the killers and Jews murdered used it as a transit point. This isn’t mentioned though.
Near the station we found a cafe, where a smiling waitress welcomed us joyfully, engaged us in lively conversation and attentively poured our favourite beverages. Okay, I lie. She scowled and poured two beers, even though we’d only asked for one
we took a seat, surveyed the scene, mostly pensioners watching Russian TV, then decided we were done with this district.
Next on the agenda was Dārzciems, a mostly residential zone at the lower end of Augusta Deglava Iela. The name means Garden Village, though Greyunexcitingtowerblockciems would probably cut it better as a name. Not the most exciting zone of Riga, we’d gone halfway up Dārzciema Iela when we spotted a place offering Šašliks for reasonable prices
and for me that’s like waving a bone at a dog.
The waiting staff eyed us like strange animals, nuttering “иностранный” and later “из Англии” until I corrected “из Ирландии.” Though that did nothing to break the ice. We concentrated on tucking into that rarity in Riga, lamb shashliks. Sadly, they cost 4 times what they did in Almaty and were of a lesser quality, too chewy and with bones.
Still, they hit the spot and at least that was a fairly unexciting section of Riga ticked off the box. I blame Osama Bin Laden.