With the number of Riga districts I’ve still to do down to single figures, I’ve been trying to make the rest last, like a kid with a chocolate bar who knows he won’t get any more till Christmas. I’ve only done two since the first week of May. One week after that, with Eddie, we decided to hit the “Russian zone.” Russians have been an endangered species in Riga in recent decades. In 1989, when Latvia became independent, the city was 47.3% Russian (with 10% of mostly Russian-speaking Ukrainians and Belarusians to add to that) and 36.3% Latvian. Latvians overtook Russians in 2006 and today it’s almost the opposite of the 1989 situation, 46% Latvian, 38% Russian.
There are only 8 districts now with Russian majorities and the top 4 are all clustered together across the river in the north-west part of the city: Spilve, Voleri, Bolderaja and Daugavgriva. The last two I’d already done with Linda back in October, but nostalgia for the past is a truly post-Soviet thing and in that spirit, I decided to revisit them.
After heavy rain the previous few days, it cleared up on the day and it was one of those times when Saturday is the new Monday in Latvia. In Spain, when public holidays fall on a Tuesday or Thursday, people will often get the Monday or Friday off as well (called a puente, meaning bridge) to give them a four day weekend. Latvian companies are stingier than that. People do get the four day weekend, but they have to compensate for it by working a Saturday on a previous weekend. For me, a Saturday will always be a Saturday, involving beer and ill-advised jaunts to unknown bits of Riga.
Our first destination was Spilve. With the population a miserly 83 people, this is Riga’s smallest district, just beating the Salas’ 84 people (have more babies Spilvans, you know your country needs it.) A long series of empty fields, there’s only one real reason to come here: the former Riga Central airport. The few residents around aren’t going to be bothered by Ryanair’s annoying “safely landed” jingles any time soon though (lucky them) as it closed for commercial flights in the late 80s.
There’s a nice tree lined avenue leading to the main building.
The building itself is a decaying example of Stalinist architecture
and is one of the few places in Riga where you’ll still see the symbols of the Communist past.
There is a museum at the airport, but it was shut on this day. We hadn’t expected to find a cafe, but surprisingly there was one opposite the airport.
When we got there it was empty, though. The sign said “Working days 0900-1600” ummm…. isn’t this a working day? Cheats!
We headed north and the place was deserted, with the airfield to our left the only sign of life.
Eventually, we got to our next district, Voleri. If Spilve is small, at least it’s known because of the airport. Voleri is as obscure as it gets. Amazingly though, it has a song dedicated to it. My friend sent me Manta’s “Viva voleros” to get me warmed up for the trip. Errr, thanks.
Sounding like a demo for a Depeche Mode b-side, with lyrics like “when the snow melts, those long lying there will be found”, it’s safe to say that the Voleri Tourist Board won’t be adopting that as their anthem any time soon.
Given that the song makes it sound like Beirut circa 1982 or Riga’s version of the South Bronx, the reality of Voleri is disappointingly average. It’s easy to see why no one knows it, as it’s a a ghost town. It resembles a fishing village in the middle of nowhere more than anything else. A couple of guys who look like they’ve been guinea pigs for the most questionable new brand of vodka going aimlessly fished beside the river.
I guess it has a “beach”, but Biarritz it ain’t.
We didn’t linger long here and there wasn’t even a cafe to entertain us with an insight into Voleri’s characters.
With the weather turning nasty, it was finally back to one of my favourites: Bolderaja (aka Boldie) where we found a decent bakery/cafe. Ciemakukulis, part of a bigger local chain, was just the thing for travellers weary of Voleri. Decent coffee and cakes, an attractive young waitress who actually smiles and doesn’t switch to English when you try and speak the local lingo with her, we waited out the rain there.
The next stop was one of the places I’d visited with Linda before: the ever classy Bar Diva. The place really is as crap as the name, but I simply had to introduce Eddie to the true naffness of pub life in Boldie. There was a wedding or birthday do going on when we got there. (God help the bride if that’s her husband’s idea of a good place for a reception.) We waited as the two guys in the queue ahead of us ordered a bottle of vodka to wash down their chicken, then watched bemused as the barmaid emptied it all into a decanter. I guess slugging a complete bottle of vodka from a decanter counts as style up here?
Having lived the high life of Boldie, it was time to revisit Daugavgriva and see what I’d missed first time round. That time had ended with Linda getting shouted at for interrupting a guy’s viewing of his favourite soap opera in “the summer cafe.” Among other things, I was interested to see if it was a Linda thing (sorry Linda) or if shouting at foreigners was a Daugavrgriva thing.
To start with, we had a crack at getting into Cafe Paradize (local regulations only allow to cafes to open if they give themselves wildly inappropriate names that mask the hellishness therein.) However, as on the Linda trip, a wedding reception was going on there so entry was verboten to us.
It was time for something new. So we took a detour through the former military barracks just past Paradize, deserted since the Soviet withdrawal in the early 90s.
It was totally abandoned and the grafitti covered buildings felt a little eerie, but it was good to see some kind of history of Daugavgriva. At the end of all this, we’d planned to visit Daugavgriva fort, but as with so much else on this day, luck wasn’t with us and it was closed.
I guess that gives me an excuse for a Daugavgriva part III.
We decided to visit the “Summer cafe” next to see if we’d get shouted at again.
It was empty. The tv was at full blast (to drown out any passing foreigners?) The sole staff member was in the kitchen. We tried shouting to get her attention, but without success, so we gave up and decided to see if there were any further delightful bars up here.
Further along the road, on the same side just off the main road, we made a real find. Another dodgy-looking boozer to add to the collection.
Like a lot of bars, it is shy about its name. In the tradition of these neighbourhoods, it probably boasts some Orwellian name like “Cafe Blissful Heaven” or something like that, so let’s go with “BH”. Inside BH is like a living relic of the past. We seemed to be the only customers under 60. Moreover, despite its crap exterior, inside, BH is really something to be seen. The bar was decked out like a museum, with a tonne of Soviet-era memorabilia.
There were pictures of Lenin and Stalin. The only problem was an old fart who was blocking our view of them. He looked like he could well have served in Stalin’s army. I asked Eddie to sneakily get a pic of the Stalin one without the old fart noticing, but he managed an epic fail on that one. Not only did he manage a rather cool ghostly effect,
the old fart noticed and, with surprising energy, bounded over straight away to shout at us. I did my best to explain to him in Russian that it was Stalin and not him that we were interested in taking a pic of. (Now there’s a conversation you could only have in Daugavgriva.) But he growled that no one took pics of him without his permission.
To go with all this historic feel, the bar had historic prices. We paid 75 Euro cents for our pints. Definitely a bargain and we’d managed to get shouted at again, so it was a Daugavgriva thing.
Heading home, I felt a touch of sadness that there were only 8 districts to go.