I did it! Almost a year after I started my wanderings in Agenskalns, my Riga districts marathon came to an end last weekend with the 58th and final district. I was trying to think of a suitable soundtrack to finish off and the best to sum up my mood for this was The Doors – The End as that sums up how I feel: sad , excited…
As they were 2 separate outings on 14 and 16 August, I’d initially planned to do two separate write-ups on Centrs and Old Town/Vecpilsēta, but in the end decided that they’re similar enough to include in one. As they are, like all central areas, hubs of entertainment, museums and the like, it just isn’t possible to do them justice in this one post, so if I’ve missed anything, feel free to shout at me.
My plan always had been to finish in the Old Town, to capture it in all its summer glory. Open air bars with cool live music and people watching the sun go down after 11pm. Unfortunately, Riga’s weather had other ideas. After a month of solidly good weather, with sunshine and temperatures from 28 to 35 degrees, Riga returned to form. Heavy rain, clouds and temperatures struggling to break twenty degrees. The end of my street even ended up semi-flooded.
Centrs is a monster district. Stretching from Hanzas and Vesetas Iela in the north to Čaka Iela in the south and from Zigfrīda Annas Meirovica bulvāris in the west to Tallinas and Eveles Iela in the east, this is definitely a district you’d never get bored in. It’s close to my heart as I lived here in my first three years in Riga.
Centrs is basically two sub-districts. The first is the “quiet centre” between Valdemara and Hanzas Iela. It contains a lot of embassies and some of the best architecture in the city as well as bars and upmarket restaurants with prices that wouldn’t look out of place in central London. The second is the New Town, from Dzirnavu Iela heading out from the centre. As my aim has always been to show the real Riga, I decided to start at the latter and visit the further out bits.
With rain pouring down, Aleksandra Čaka iela was first. This is okay closer to the centre, but gets progressively worse as you head out of town. In the not too distant past it was an epicentre for prostitution and it still shows its wear and tear, though at least the buildings are a bit easier on the eye than some of the suburbs.
The bottom of Čaka street has a really nice place. Bergas Bazars is a little oasis in the middle of older buildings and has a few decent cafes and eateries. Garage “Democratic” wine bar is better for the winter evenings, though, like a lot of places in the Bazar, the prices are far from my idea of democracy. Andalus Suns is a long-running institution with a decent terrace, though it serves the worst Guinness in the city and Cidonija has decent pub grub.
Further up, the area around Tallinas and Artilerijas Iela gets a bit grubby, with run-down buildings and graffiti. It feels much more like its neighbour Avotu than some of the better parts of the centre.
Hitting the boundary of the district, I followed Tallinas along to Brivibas Iela, where a large church marks the border.
Brivibas Iela (Freedom Street) is almost a potted history of Riga in itself. It was renamed Lenin Street and Adolf Hitler Street by occupying powers, before returning to its former name. Vidzeme Market, on the corner of Brivibas and Matisa Street, is exactly the type of thing tourists here should visit instead of McDonalds and central bars. Slightly crazy, slightly shabby and with a smell of urine wafting into your nostrils as you enter, it’s the perfect place to see what the less well-off Rigans get up to at the weekends.
Matisa also has what I consider to be the city’s best Italian restaurant/pizzeria: Da Sergio, though, judging by their homepage, their English is not as good as their pizzas. Dailes theatre, one of the more popular Latvian theatres is around here
as is the former KGB building at Stabu street.
From there, I headed down Terbatas. A few years back, the corner around Stabu and Terbatas was developing into quite a nice little bar hub. For a while there was Pablo, a bold attempt at a neighbourhood tapas bar. Even if the tapas were less than authentic, it was nice to see someone trying something different. Sadly, it didn’t work. They dropped the tapas after a year or two and continued the bar concept, selling cheap Latvian beer under photos of matadors, flamenco dancers and other Spanish cliches, before going to meet the great barman in the sky last year. It’s deader round that corner now sadly, with the bars up this way scattered around.
With Eddie joining me at this point, we were thirsty, so headed to Sveiks, Švejk , which is one of only two Czech themed bars in the city along with Starogorod. It’s a cheerful affair and worth the trip. Decent Czech beers for 2 euro and a menu of hearty sausage dishes, which looked good, though we didn’t try them.
On 19th August, I made a follow-up visit to Centrs to see the Quiet centre part. This is a far cry from the grubbiness of Tallinas and Čaka. Vermanis park at Elizabetes Street always seems to have something going on, be it choir events or small festivals.
Brivibas and Elizabetes corner is where the largest hotel in Riga is. From the bar on the top floor of that you have a panorama of the whole of Riga.
From this corner you can also see the Freedom monument itself and the largest Russian Orthodox cathedral in the centre.
The Soviets mischievously transformed that into an observatory. Who said they didn’t have a sense of humour?
Antonijas Iela is the main hub of the trendy bar bit of the Quiet centre. The flying frog (Lidojosa Varde) is a decent little pub here.
The guidebooks all recommend visiting Alberta Iela for the Jugendstil architecture. I’ve never been blown away by it, but there are definitely worse streets in Riga for architecture!
With Centrs done, it was time for the grand finale in the Old Town. It felt like a bit of an anti-climax. I even left home without my camera to start with, as it was hard to think of a night out in the Old Town as anything other than a usual Saturday night out.
Riga’s 800 year old historic centre is a maze of winding streets.
Most of the original city walls are gone, with a small remainder in a cobbled street on the edge
For the end, I got my three main colloborators, Eddie, Linda and Zanda altogether for a last hurrah. With the weather crap, we settled for Moloney’s Irish pub. Why there? Well it’s been a regular haunt of mine for years. In Sergei, they easily have the best barman in Riga and he’s ably assisted by Gatis and a great team.
I’d expected it to be a joyous moment, but I felt a little down, the end of what was actually quite a fun project to do. I choked back a tear as I struggled to smile for the historic final photo.
Several beers later, we said goodbye and that, as they say, was that. I’ve kept the Old Town one short, as it’s so extensively covered everywhere else that there’s little surprising I can add about its attractions.
Am I the first person to visit all 58 apkaimes of Riga? Possibly. I must surely be the first Irishman? Do I get a medal? The keys of the suburb of Bolderaja?
When I started out, I was a little worried about it all, with the prospect of a lot of dodgeholes ahead. Ultimately, I’m super glad I did it. There’s no other way I’d have trotted round decaying Soviet-era estates, got shouted at for trying to take a photo of Stalin, plowed through rubbish covered woodland and enjoyed some of the finest scowls that Riga’s barmaids could muster. I found a lot of decent places outside the centre which I will definitely revisit and it’s broadened my Riga knowledge, for good and bad. I think more people need to get out and explore the city they live in.
So what’s next? Well, after surviving Riga’s suburbs, I’m off to trek through the jungles of South America for a month and after that, I think I’ll start the visit all towns in Riga region idea. In the meantime, I’m hoping to add a language related post or two on my other blog, the latest one (about Iran of all places) is now up. At some point I hope to do an overview of this, with the districts ranked in order. (*Update* That post is now up.)
All that’s left is the bit where I thank my mother, agent and dog for my success. I want to think my trip companions, Eddie Mantle (one of the two best guys teaching English in Riga,) Linda (enjoy Berlin,) Zanda (enjoy a month of freedom,) Ieva for Mezaparks, Didzis and Ieva for Tornakalns, Vineta and family for Milgravis and Ina and Ineta for Purvciems. Also all those who commented for feedback and advice, especially Ritvars for great suggestions on where to go. Lastly, of course, everyone who read my ramblings. I hope the journey through the best and worst of Riga either inspired you or reminded you how your district is not that bad after all.