RB#9&10: Civilisation: Riga and Jurmala

I’m going to slip into full British/Irish mode now and talk about the weather for a bit. The weather in Latvia often follows predictable patterns in Summer. To start, there’s a really nice period from the second or third week of May lasting until the first week of June. This has people raving about how they heard it on some blog/forum/programme that the coming summer will be the warmest ever. I never take such long term forecasts seriously, as June normally brings people down to earth with a bang. The first few weeks of June are usually rubbish, with rain and grey skies dominating until after the midsummer festival on 23-24 June. The weather usually goes through a good period until the third week of August, with sunshine and only a few days of rain. Late August until the first week of September gets yukky, before giving way to the “atvasara” the Indian summer, which can last a week or two before the full horrors of the true end of summer dawn.

This year, it was almost like June and August were reversed in the usual scheme of things. June was unusually good and August has been unusually horrible, with the first 3 weeks seeing constant rain, grey skies and temperatures in the 17-20 degrees range. As a result, my trips took a bit of a hiatus after the walk through Riga on Sunday 24 July, as thereafter, trudging through mushy beaches and forests didn’t appeal.

We’d picked up on the other side of the Daugava, at Daugavgriva.I’ve blogged before about this area, in the Russian, forgotten zone of Riga and how it has some kind of weird appeal to me. As well, as a fort, river views and Stalinist bars and commie tower blocks, Daugavgriva also boasts a beach, though its one that is far less popular than its rivals at Jurmala and Vecaki. The route to the beach goes through some typical Daugavgriva backstreets, with bins overflowing with vodka bottles.

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However, Daugie does retain its hidden charms and one of them is its beach, accessed through a nature park.

It’s quite weird to see this nature, with the backdrop of Soviet-era tower blocks

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nestling behind the trees. They’ve even constructed a well-paved walkway to access the beach, a significant improvement on some of the overgrown bumpy forest paths I;ve tracked along.

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Civilisation has its advantages!

Despite being a Riga native, Elina told me that this was the first time she’s ever been to Daugie beach and I suspect that that’s common with a lot of Rigans. The beach itself is a bit of a mixed affair. Daugavgriva’s location between two major rivers and consequent currents means that its strictly demarcated into swimming and “non-swimming” areas.

The latter are sparsely populated

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with only a few sunbathers against a backdrop of cargo ships entering and leaving the Daugava.

The swimming bits are packed, especially with locals who can access this easier than Vecaki and Jurmala.

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Locals in this part of the world usually means Russians, similar to Jurmala, but in contrast to Vecaki, which is a more Latvian affair.

Further along, the crowds thin out and give way to yet another nudist beach. Unlike the ones I’ve come across on my previous walks, this one is at least clearly delineated, with sign showing a bikini, so there wasn’t the usual slight shock of an old fat guy suddenly emerging from the bushes with his sausage dangling down.

I did sample its charms, but swimming with no swimming trunks on felt a bit odd, so I was happy enough to dry off and get clothed again.

It was so warm that I’d been padding along just in shorts

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At the end, the beaches give way to the Lielupe (Big river) which, again is uncrossable except by swimming. With so many yachts around,

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it’s undoubtedly dangerous and illegal to do that. We were now in the Bulli area which I’ve blogged about before and its riverview marked the end of this outing.

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For the tenth outing, we picked up where we’d left off across the river.

Jurmala is Riga’s sister town. The unimaginative name translates as “seaside” and the town itself is a playground for tourists, millionaires and playboys, mostly from Russia and neighbouring Russophone countries. To be honest I’ve never really got the place. If I had 2 million to spend on property in a seaside town, Jurmala would be one of the last places I’d choose. You can get the same property for nearly half the price in Spain , where you can use the beach for 6 months of the year. In Jurmala it’s 6-7 weeks. You’d also have access to better seafood and a wider range of nature than the forest, forest, forest which Latvia offers. Just why would you choose Jurmala? I even broached the subject to some former students and they shrugged and said that they could speak Russian there, but that seems a fairly poor reason to me, especially since they all aready spoke 3 or 4 languages. You can easily learn another language in those circumstances and it’s not like there are not Russians in southern European beach towns who you can practice with. Nostalgia is often another reason: they spent their childhood there, but I spent some childhood holidays in Blackpool and am thankful that I now have more choice. It just seems that some people buy property there as a status symbol rather than because it has its own merits. Oh well.

Jurmala starts at the often ignored Ragakapa (Horn Dune) which has a type of forest park not unlike those I’ve walked through on the wilder parts of the coast.

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The beaches around here are empty, as it’s hard to reach on public transport and all of the beaches suffer from the same problem as the other side of the coast: they’re too shallow and require a lot of walking to reach a  decent depth.

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Further along, though, at Bulduri, things pick up and the beaches here are crammed and at least 80% of the people are speaking Russian. The people count peaks around the main beach at Mayori

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which has the backdrop of the Baltic beach hotel, one of the more imaginative bits of architecture here, jutting out in a cruise ship shape. The main street at Mayori, Jomas Iela, is the main hangout, filled with cafes, bars and restaurants. There are worse ways to spend a weekend here, though I prefer the Dzintari park, the stop before Mayori station when coming from Riga. Here is a viewing tower which offers a view above the trees on to the beaches. When my brother visited in late June, I just had to drag him there

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Past Mayori people start to thin and for many people, this is the dark side of the moon as far as Jurmala is concerned. I think I’d been in Latvia over 8 years when I first ventured there and I found that I hadn’t really missed anything. As in Riga, most of Jurmala’s action is concentrated in a central area. Around Dubulti and further out, it’s mostly sleepy (and boring) residential districts punctuated with the odd small guesthouse.

We finished up at Asari station, safe in the knowledge that we were now over halfway to our goal.

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Kolka here I come!

 

 

 

 

RB #6,7,8- Reaching Riga

I’m still alive! My excuses? Enjoying the sun in July and then, in recent weeks, I’ve had some kind of repetitive strain injury, possibly carpal tunnel syndrome, which has meant that the last 2 fingers on my right hand have been numb. I’ve been intermittently walking and have now reached the other side of Riga.

On Thursday 30 June, I continued on from Lilaste, dragging my long term sidekick Eddie Mantle along for the ride. We headed down the roads beside Lilaste train station, discussing the previous week’s Brexit result as we went. It was a fine day, but again, when we hit the beach at Lilaste we found it curiously deserted for as far as the eye could see.

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No one here….

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….or here.

If you want unspoilt beaches, I guess now you know where to visit!

What makes it all the more odd is that Latvian schools have a crazily long Summer holiday, finishing at the end of May and only restarting on 1 September. (It’s a wonder the little mites learn anything.) So where are all the kids? Can’t they persuade granny to take them to the beach? We did pass a school group or summer camp group, but that was the peak of civilisation.

We cut inland, the forest around here has a series of lakes. “Garezeri” (the long lakes)

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also looking totally abandoned, even in the bright sunshine. It’s an eerie feeling to see nature, just begging for tourists but sitting untouched like this!

We were soon coming to a major landmark, The Gauja. The longest river wholly in Latvia, though some would argue that the Daugava is longer. A quick glance showed that trying to jump across or wade across simply wasn’t going to happen.

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Ahead of us on the riverbank were a group of young Russians doing what young Russians who sit beside rivers seem to enjoy doing in Latvia: drinking, smoking, swearing and doing reckless somersaulting dives into the river.

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We were glad to leave them behind, but we had a fair walk to get round the river, as a recent storm had caused trees to fall on some of the paths.

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and the bridge was a fair bit inland. Again, despite sandy parts that looked like they’d be nice for a picnic or relaxing beside the river, we were on our own

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We’d started to hit a small residential area, with farm animals in the fields around us and a road which we followed, only to reach a dead end.

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We doubled back and wandered through the empty streets until we hit the railway line. Google maps had suggested that we’d need to go further and stay on the road, a bit weird since there’s a perfectly usable pedestrian bridge which makes that unnecessary.

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We’d now hit the satellite towns of Riga. We had hoped to get to Kalngale, but time was running out and I had students later, so we called it a day at Carnikava, one of the biggest towns so far.

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It took me just 2 days to pick up. Heading with Elina on the train to Carnikava, we had the same issue as with Ed: a long walk to the beach, which ended up with us getting lost in Piejura, the national park by the sea.

On the way to Piejura, there are a few landmarks which are definitely worth a look. Carnikavas parks is a pleasant enough walk

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and there’s an unusual looking mini-castle by the train lines.

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The Old Gauja, “Vecgauja” is there, but unlike a lot of rivers and streams I’ve encountered on my travels, this one is in civilisation so there’s a bridge across. Easy!

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I wish the Piejura was a bit better marked. Wandering off the beaten track isn’t a good idea, we were soon lost and without the sound of the road, sea or train lines, we’d no way of finding the route. In the end we solved it by the ancient method of putting a stick in the ground to create a makeshift sundial and then heading north from there. To our relief, out we came on the beach. While it was sparsely populated at first we soon hit what I’d been lacking for a long time: people. Lots of them!

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so this is where they’ve been hiding.

Again, there are weird stretches of nudist beaches jsut past Carnikava. I don’t mind this but it often seems a bit disorganised, random and haphazard and often these beaches aren’t even marked.

I even had a dip myself. Here, as on the other side at Jurmala, there are the same 2 problems. Firstly, even at the height of summer, the water temperature is still a few degrees short of being really comfortable to enjoy. Secondly, the water is really shallow for a considerable distance offshore and is punctuated by sandbars. This means you have to walk a fair distance out to get enough depth for swimming and often, by the time you’ve walked that distance, you’re too tired to swim much.

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3 miles out

 

We’d had ideas of maybe making it down to Riga this day, but it was really warm for walking, nearly 30 degrees and when we found our path blocked by the creek at Garciems,

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we decided to call it a day and got the train back. They’ve been at work renovating some of the stations on the west side of Riga, giving them fancy signage and better platforms, but Garciems station still retains its old-skool look and feel

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with wooden signs and benches.

We were just short of the biggest target so far. I could almost smell Riga and so on 10 July, it finally happened. We caught the train to Garciems, had another wander through unmarked forests, which at least had paths this time, even if we knew not where they led.

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We hit another fairly deserted nudist beach (what is it with Latvia and these?) and plodded on. I’d been hoping for a big fat “WELCOME TO RIGA!” sign, but I had to make do with some kid’s sand drawing.

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U R IN RIGA

The sign for Vecaki beach was the closest I got to official confirmation that I’d reached the halfway mark, so I just had to stop for a celebratory photo.

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I’ve blogged before about Vecaki and how it’s one of my favourite Riga districts so I’m not going to linger on this one. Vecaki is one of Riga’s better districts, with a decent beach that is hampered by the usual Riga problems (too cold, too shallow, dead out of season.) In summer, it’s at its height and we had a celebratory kvass in one of the beach bars before continuing along to Mangalsala, which offers different vistas to those seen before. A cruise ship was exiting the Daugava river

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beside Mangalsala pier and the shipwreck which I blogged about in the distant past, which seems to date from World War 2.

Here’s a close up:

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Overhead, numerous planes made their way to warmer climes

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air baltic

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The weather was great, giving little hint of the sheer awfulness of the August weather to come. Clear blue skies, water shimmering in the sunshine as yachts made their way in and out of the Daugava.

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We strolled along the pier, enjoying the views and the weather and eventually posing for a photo at Mangalsala. When I’d last posed for this pic, it had been in winter and I’d been so muffled up with multiple layers that only my bleary eyes were poking out. This time, in shorts and t-shirt, seemed so radically different.

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Happy to have hit the halfway point, it was time to head home to a celebratory dinner.

 

The best (and worst) of Riga

As I’m going to start visiting the towns in Riga region soon, it was time for a retrospective of Riga’s districts. A list from best to worst. Nice scenery, things to do, local attractions, good bars or places to eat were the informal criteria for this. This is not a list of where is best to live in Riga, some of my favourite districts are too far out, but these are the ones I preferred visiting. As I’m one of the only people to have visited all 58 Riga districts, I think I’m qualified to comment. It wasn’t the easiest of lists to make. Picking a favourite 12 and a least favourite 12 was easy enough, but for the ones in the middle, some were a bit samey. I’m sure if I did the list in a week’s time, the order would be different.

1) VECPILSETA. (Blog.) A boring choice for top place, I know. But Riga’s Old Town is jam packed with history, museums, restaurants, bars and nice views along the river.

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Shame about the tourists, but you can’t have everything.

2) VECAKI. (Blog.) Riga’s “other beach.” Less popular than the main beaches at Jurmala, but still a pleasant place in summer and in winter, peaceful, great sunsets

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and in Waves, a decent bar to have one for the road.

3) SALAS. (Blog.) Islands of tranquility in the heart of Riga. In summer, Lucavsala and its park are great places to sunbathe and have a cooling dip.

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The rest of the year it’s a relaxing place for a walk or to cycle.

4) AGENSKALNS. (Blog 1 and blog 2.) Lively district just across the river from Riga’s Old Town with a decent selection of cafes, bars, restaurants and attractions like Kalnciema street market and the Botanic garden.

5) CENTRS. Like the Old Town, but with marginally less tourists. The Quiet centre, Bergas Bazars and the new town around Gertrudes Iela church have enough to keep anyone happy.

6) BUKULTI. (Blog.) A hidden gem on the edge of Riga, with nice walks beside the Kisezers and Baltezers local lakes, as well as the Jugla canal and to finish, beer and shashliks at PiePe.

7) VECMILGRAVIS (Blog 1 linked in Vecaki above and Blog 2 here.) I was surprised at how much I liked this one, but its riverside, local cafes and Ziemelblazma complex all make for a decent day outside Riga centre.

8) MEZAPARKS. (Blog.) Probably the most popular area outside Riga centre and rightly so.

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The zoo, old world architecture, relaxing forest walks and some of Riga’s best shashliks…. who could argue with that?

9) BULLI. (Blog.) One of Riga’s smallest and more out of the way districts felt like something out of Robinson Crusoe with its narrow beach

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and woodland, but a great place for a walk.

10) BRASA. (Blog.) Despite the fact that we nearly ended up as residents in its eponymous prison, this was an enjoyable day out. In International SV, they have what is justifiably Riga’s number one restaurant on trip advisor, as well as a number of hipper cafes around Miera Iela.

11) TEIKA. (Blog.) A combo of newer and older bits of Riga, with a forest and decent local cafes the main attractions.

12) BOLDERAJA. (Blog.) Unfairly criticised by locals, most of whom haven’t been there. Boldie is more like an independent town but has a surprisingly decent selection of local bars and bakeries.

13) JUGLA. (Blog.) Oddly likeable district on the edge of eastern Riga with good lakeviews.

14) PURVCIEMS. (Blog.) Almost an independent city, it may be a concrete jungle in places, but has a lot of local amenities and enough to keep anyone busy on a day out.

15) DAUGAVGRIVA. (Blog 1 and blog 2.) I surprised myself by putting this one so high, but it has a shore front, river views,

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history in the Daugavgriva barracks and fort and some of the weirdest, but most character filled local bars I’ve come across.

16) BIERINI. (Blog.) Bierinkrogs was one of the best bars I discovered on my travels. The district is quiet enough and has a sculpture park

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and some nice bits beside the local river, the Marupite.

17) MASKAVAS FORSTATE. (Blog.) Ask a group of locals where *not* to go in Riga and this will probably be mentioned. While some of the bits further in are a bit shady at night, it’s hard to think of any district that has more history. The central market, the riverside, the big Lido at Krasta and great local bars like Banuzis are all plus points.

18) AVOTU IELA. (Blog.) Another one you probably wouldn’t want to be walking round on a dark night with a lot of valuables. But in Chomsky and Tris Viri Laiva, it has a couple of great local bars.

19) KIPSALA. (Blog.) Its “beach” is not exactly Benidorm, but there are great views of the Old Town and if you win the lottery, you can always enjoy them from Fabrikas restaurant, where the excellent food will quickly solve the problem of your wallet being too heavy.

20) MEZCIEMS. Weirdly, the blog on Mezciems was one of the most popular. The district is average, but does have a decent shashlik place, cheap beer in the local market bar and, when they finally get around to reopening it, Riga’s motor museum. There’s also some grimmer history in the form of a holocaust memorial in Bikernieki forest, but the site itself is disrespectfully treated.

21) DARZINI. (Blog.) The furthest district from Riga centre was better than expected, with good views of the river at the top of a ditch/channel and a couple of good local bars.

22) MANGALSALA. (Blog.) The pier is worth a walk along for views of Riga Bay and local shipwrecks,

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but it lacks decent cafes.

23) KLEISTI. (Blog.) Doesn’t pretend to be more than it is. A large woodland bit, good for Sunday walks, but lacking in amenities.

24) PETERSALA-ANDREJSALA. (Blog.) This is definitely one district that has declined a bit in the last decade, with the former hipster district around Andrejosta being priced out of business. Still has some nice parks, but the cafes are average at best.

25) GRIZINKALNS. The eponymous hill is good, but the local bars are well dodgy.

26) DZIRCIEMS. (Blog.) Has Riga’s highest hill, some ex-military housing along Pulka Iela and good local kvass, but the latter is the only drink with having round here as the bars are dull.

27) CIEKURKALNS. The lakeside part pushed this higher than it otherwise would have been, though the streets around Ciekurkalns 1. Linija do have an olde worlde feel.

28) IMANTA. A weird mix of open fields and Soviet housing estates. A 50s themed rock n roll bar puts this in the middle.

29) JAUNCIEMS. (Blog.) I’d expected this one to be lower, but when revisiting in summer, I found the lake there to be a decent place to swim in. The lake is the saving grace, because this out of the way district is one to skip outside the summer months.

30) ILGUCIEMS. (Blog.) Nordeka park and a character filled local bar saved this dreary estate from a lower placing.

31) TRISCIEMS. (Blog.) One of Riga’s most obscure districts, private housing around an open field hidden in the middle of a forest. There are also lake views from the edge of the district, but the local bar looks like the type of place serial killers would drink in, before dumping bodies in the lake.

32) BERGI. I’d expected this one to be higher. Sure, it’s probably a decent place to live and has Riga’s Open Air museum, but it’s a hugely boring place with little other than the museum to catch people’s attention.

33) KENGARAGS. A concrete jungle on Riga’s south side, the Russian Lido is really the only thing to come here for.

34) DREILINI. I regretted putting this one so low, as its local bar is one of the best I visited, but the district, sitting on the edge of Riga is otherwise empty.

35) PLESKODALE. Has Sampeteris woods to walk around and Spice, one of Riga’s largest shopping centres. As shopping ain’t my thing, this is one I’m usually quite happy to pass on the way to the airport and not stop in.

36) BEBERBEKI. Strip of woodland on Riga’s western edge. Verdini, an alright roadside cafe rescues this one from the bottom 10.

37) SARKANDAUGAVA. (Blog.) After a long hunt we managed to find a couple of decent bars here, but the district has a shady, run down feel about it.

38) VECDAUGAVA. (Blog.) Fairly empty strip of woodland between the much better Vecaki and Vecmilgravis. Good for a quiet walk and little else.

39) ZASULAUKS. The Georgian restaurant/bar here is okay, but like the district itself, nothing more.

40) ZOLITUDE. (Blog.) Could definitely do with more bars, cafes and restaurants given that it’s one of the larger districts in Riga.

41) MILGRAVIS. (Blog.) In one way it’s unique: Ezera Iela is probably the shadiest street I’ve walked along in Riga. The Aplokciems part with its closeness to Mezaparks rescues it a little, but only a little.

42) TORNAKALNS. The local church and station are the main attractions. Enough said.

43) PLAVNIEKI. A real let down from one of Riga’s largest districts, which really needs to work on its customer service.

44) SPILVE. (Blog.) I’ve been twice to try and visit the museum in Riga’s former airport and both times it’s been closed. The empty airfields nearby really don’t compensate.

45) DARZCIEMS. (Blog.) Whoever named the “garden village” district was having a bad joke. People actually live here? God help them.

46) ZIEPNIEKKALNS. (Blog.) If paying more than you’d pay in the Old Town for iffy local beer is your thing, “Soap Maker’s Mountain” is just for you.

47) SAMPETERIS. Even Sampeteris wood manages not to be in Sampeteris district. That tells you all you need to know about the attractiveness of this for visitors.

48) BREKSI. We were happy to get out of this one alive. The former local cafe is now a Hell’s Angels bar and the locals look suicidal. I can’t say I blame them.

49) ATGAZENE. Iffy pizzas and empty cafes await anyone unfortunate enough to venture here.

50) RUMBULA. The holocaust memorial is a depressing legacy of Riga’s past. Once you’ve seen it, it’s time to move quickly on.

51) VOLERI. (Blog.) Has a song dedicated to its awfulness. The song got it right.

52) SKANSTE. (Blog.) Is forecast to be the next up and coming district in Riga. For the residents’ sake, let’s hope so, because for now, unless you’re visiting Arena Riga, it’s definitely one to skip.

53) SKIROTAVA. (Blog.) Factories and grubby woodland do not a nice place make.

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There’s the beginnings of a village ambience at one point here, though, which just saves it from the bottom 5.

54) KATLAKALNS. (Blog.) The district’s only landmark, the south bridge, was finished nearly a decade ago and it’s understandable. This is definitely an area you’d want to make a quick exit from.

55) BISUMUIZA. (Blog.) We tried to find something positive here and tried some more. But in the end, gave up.

56) SUZI. (Blog.) With its lakeside location, this one is a massive underachiever. But the local flats look like they should have been torn down in the 70s and its hick locals take unfriendliness to new levels. I’d thought for a long time that this had to be the worst district in Riga, but no….

57) KUNDZINSALA. (Blog.) The silver medal winner for the worst district. This one has to be Riga’s most pointless district. Its only positive is that it’s relatively clean, which means that bottom place goes to…

58) MUKUPURVS. (Blog.) A district which translates as “Monk’s Bog” is always going to have an image problem. It lives up to its name with all the excitement of a monastery and locals who clearly don’t know the concept of disposing of waste.

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The resultant rubbish tip is just awful.

Though, in a way, all that was really only the first municipality of the 29 I plan to visit in Riga planning region. Watch this space!

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The sweet and bitter end (Centrs and Old Town)

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Hitting the boundary of the district, I followed Tallinas along to Brivibas Iela, where a large church marks the border.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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From this corner you can also see the Freedom monument itself and the largest Russian Orthodox cathedral in the centre.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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Most of the original city walls are gone, with a small remainder in a cobbled street on the edge

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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.

all 58 districts done!

all 58 districts done!

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.

See you in Vangaži!

See you in Vangaži!

Summer Sunday in Swamp Town

I saved the biggest to last. Well, almost. Last Sunday, 10th August, my third last district was Purvciems, which translates as Marsh/Swamp Village/Town. It’s Riga’s and Latvia’s biggest district. With a bit over 60,000 people, it easily beats its closest Riga competitor, Ķengarags. To put this in relative terms, one in 33 people in Latvia live there and if it was an independent city, it would be the fourth biggest in the country, narrowly beating Jelgava. Purvciems was a Russian majority district in its early days, though with younger Latvian families having moved in, it’s tilted a bit in the last decade. The latest figures were 44% Russian, 41% Latvian, 4% Belarusian and 4% Ukrainian.

Luckily, I had an expert guide for my tour round the not-so-swampy concrete jungles of the district, Ina, the highest scorer in my EU English groups, volunteered to give me the run down on all things Purvy.

At the eponymous bus stop, you’re immediately assaulted by scores of high rise buildings. As most of the buildings went up in the 1970s and 1980s, they’re not quite as bad as the earlier examples of Soviet architecture around.

Welcome to swamp town

Welcome to swamp town

On the way up on the bus I spotted Kafenica Varde (The frog cafe,) which looked okay, but Ina later told me was dodgy. These days, my standards for what makes an okay bar are so low after my travels around the shadier bits of Riga that I just have to take people’s word for things like that. To be fair, the bar that she’d proposed meeting at, the unimaginatively titled Alus Darzs (“Beer garden”,) on Varžu iela (“Frog Street”,) looked much better. Unfortunately, it was only 1230 and it didn’t open till 4pm (on a Sunday? What?!)

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Heading up Nicgales Iela, we reached a couple of local landmarks. The first was the Minska shopping complex on Dzelcavas Iela, which seems to offer the usual chains found anywhere else in Riga.

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More impressive is Riga’s own version of The Great Wall of China. A long stretch of adjoining tower blocks along Dzelcavas Iela.

good luck finding the way through

good luck finding the way through

Moving up Vaidavu Iela, we found some better looking private housing in “the bird streets.” (The Purvy street namers liked their wildlife.) For example at Paipalu Iela (“Quail Street”)

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there are some nice little lanes, which wouldn’t look amiss in a country village.

Stirnu Iela (“Roe Street”) has a dodgy-looking bar/club Clubnika, but not being with a dodgeville afficionado, I had to give it a miss. Luckily, the Shadyriga blogger has been there and has written this review in Latvian, accompanied by suitably grim pictures.

With the temperatures at 26 degrees, we’d built up a thirst, so it was time for refreshments. On the same street was Ķirsons Māja,

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which seems to be a branch of the Lido chain. The only difference with a lot of the other Lidos is that it’s got a bit more of a shop part attached and looks a bit more modern than the Olde Worlde look that the other Lidos are going for.

another new drinking buddy

another new drinking buddy

One thing I noticed on our wanderings round here is that Purvciems is stuffed with furniture shops. (A relic of Soviet times?) The large Mebelu Nams does date back to the Soviet period and seems to be the biggest one.

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After that, we visited another landmark, the catholic church on Augusta Deglava Iela. To be honest, I’d always assumed it was part of some protestant reformist sect, as it looks unlike how I usually expect catholic churches to look.

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Its main claim to fame is that it houses what is apparently Latvia’s largest painting (appropriate in Latvia’s biggest district.)

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Beside that, I spotted posters in Polish. Ina told me that they have services here in different languages and Swamp Town is 2% Polish, so why not?

Ina’s boss, Ineta, one of my singing students had joined us at this point, so we took a tour through the “night creature streets”, Pūces Iela (“Owl Street”) and surrounds, which have some more modern buildings near them.

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Further down, around Marsa Iela (“Mars Street”) things get a bit more tatty. A sure sign of dodginess is the presence of a legal drugs shop. These started to spring up in Riga about 5 years ago, selling chemically synthesised “legal highs,” usually heavily fortified kiosks identified only by the Jamaica tricolour. The first was at the central market, with more opening subsequently. Politicians and the cops were slow to react, as the legality of the substances was unclear. The void was filled by vigilante groups, who took actions such as this one. Most of the reactions, though, were less legal and simply involved fire bombing the places out of business, so that now there are lots of Jamaica flags round empty Riga premises.

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We’d now reached the end of Purvciems, with an open grassy space at Lielvardes Iela showing how this whole district probably looked 35 years ago.

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This probably won’t last long, as there are plans to join up the currently detached parts of Lielvardes Iela.

With our journey near the end, it was time for beer in Kafenica Alexandrs. The sole customer, a moustachioed drunk, was sleeping on a nearby table when we went in. We woke him up and after a bit of mumbled broken English, he left. The ladies begged me not to take their photos “but we’ve no make-up!” Sorry ladies, it’s part of the blog!

 

My pardners in blogtown

My pardners in blogtown

I cast a sad look at my now well worn out map and posed for the obligatory photo.

 

Two to go. :(

Two to go. 😦

So, as always, a big thanks to my companions for the day. Given Purvciems size, there was a lot more of it I could have done. I’ve always heard that the shashliks at Erebuni on Deglava Iela are recommended, for example. It is a complete concrete jungle, but in some ways feels more like a self-contained town than a Riga district. There are enough shops, supermarkets, bars and eateries to satisfy everyone’s tastes, so in general Purvciems gets a thumbs-up from me.

Coming up: a report on tonight’s visit to the penultimate district, Centrs.

 

 

No sleep till Sarkandaugava

I’d two friends from Germany visiting on Friday. We headed to the Skonto Riga game with 147 other diehards. They pointed out that, in Germany, even a Berlin Regionalliga game, which is level 6, would probably get four to five times that. Afterwards, we headed to the Old Town and with torrential rain replacing the sunny 30 plus degrees that Riga has had for the last month, ended up staying and drinking a little more than planned.

Saturday, lacking sleep, feeling less than my usual best and realising that I only had a week to complete six districts, I met regular collaborator Linda, a true sucker for the more questionable bits of Riga. As she is leaving soon for Germany, much to the dismay of people who live off her reports on the shadier corners of Riga, I decided that a final triple header in the most run-down districts in the north of Riga would be the perfect send-off.

Linda arrived on time and practically dragged me off the wall that was supporting my sleep-deprived and hungover body. We caught the bus to Sarkandaugava (“Red Daugava.”) After we’d bounced off the bus, we realised that we were in Sliežu iela, which sounded uncomfortably close to Sleazy Street.

Windin' your way down Sleazy Street

Windin’ your way down Sleazy Street

Judging by the surrounds, they got that spot on. A trampy woman with feet that looked like they haven’t seen water since the collapse of the USSR dragged her manky dog along as she fumbled with her bottle of booze.

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At least in the distance was an oasis of sorts. Beer and shashliks! I dragged Linda quickly in that direction. The bar was the usual fare, TV blaring out a Russian drama, watched by a couple of miserable looking alcos. Horror struck me as I thought that I’d lost Linda, but then noticed that she was behind one of the two metre high chairs.

the tallest chairs in Riga

the tallest chairs in Riga

It was a pleasant day and the lack of windows produced a welcome breath of fresh air. My shashlik arrived and I started to tuck in. I was almost starting to like Sarkandaugava. Unfortunately, a dozen wasps also decided to enjoy my food as well and we were forced to retreat to the inside part. The toothless alco pensioner at the next table giggled to himself at our plight. It beats the tv offerings there, I guess.

"there's a wasp on the back of the chair 2 metres above your head"

“there’s a wasp on the back of the chair 2 metres above your head”

The shashlik was decent enough, but the bread was rock hard, having been overcooked. I wondered if this was deliberate and if I was just supposed to use it as a wasp swatter?

I started to colour in my little map. Being a stickler for accuracy, I always try to leave the lakes and rivers intact. Sadly, my map is as tatty as Sarkandaugava, so in some cases it’s hard to tell if it’s a lake or a beer stain. Apologies to all Sarkandaugavians if I’ve eliminated your nature spots.

only 5 to go :(

only 5 to go 😦

It was time for a break from Sarkandaugava. So we headed in the direction of Kundziņsala. Along the way we stopped to marvel at the crappy old wooden buildings, which, like a lot of the locals, clearly looked the worse for wear.

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The park on the corner of Celinieku Iela and Sarkandaugava Iela offsets the gloom a little,

Praise the Lord for the park.

Praise the Lord for the park.

but the housing and people here couldn’t be much different from its flashy neighbour, Mežaparks.

Finally, we reached the bridge to what could be one of Riga’s most pointless districts, Kundziņsala. “His Master’s Island” or “Nobleman’s Island” only seems to exist because of the port. Why people live there is a huge mystery.

The sole pedestrian bridge there is dominated with views of industrial landscapes spoiling what could otherwise be a nice riverview.

We're on the bridge to nowhere.

We’re on the bridge to nowhere.

It’s a crying shame that they have to put up with views like this.

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The island itself is a maze of lanes (I wouldn’t even call them streets) full of barking dogs and mistrustful locals eyeing you cautiously. There is absolutely nothing to do. This may well be the first Riga apkaime I’ve visited without even a shop, let alone a cafe.

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At the end, the way was blocked by a wall fencing off the port.

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Probably a good thing, as it meant we were able to get out of dodge. But not before the obligatory thumbs down photo.

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I never thought I would be glad to be back in Sarkandaugava, but that’s what places like Kundzin do to you.

We headed towards the north and stumbled upon a reasonable enough Sarkandaugava bar, Tveice (“Heat”) on the corner of Ziemelu Iela.

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Located near Hotel Jurnieks, we found to our surprise that we weren’t the only foreigners there, as a young German couple at the next table picked their way through food that looked reasonable eatable. Worse, the Russian speaking grandfather at the next table (who we’d probably been slagging off before that) asked us in polite and perfect English if we could move for a second so that he could get a photo with his family.

Along Limbazu Iela, the housing picks up a bit.

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This could even be the upmarket bit of Sarkandaugava. Heading on, we spotted the Aldaris factory. Aldaris, which I believe is now owned by Carling, is, like most Latvian beers, drinkable, but not world beating.

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Our plan was to catch a tram to the final district of the day, but when we got to the tram stop, we spotted another cafe without a name. Craphole would probably be appropriate. Dark and dingy inside, with a middle-aged server who looks like her face would crack if she smiled, it’s exactly the type of rubbish place you expect here. We got half litres of Bralis for €1.05 and Linda headed for the smoking room, which was just an archway leading to a different side of the bar.

Kafenica "Kraphol"

Kafenica “Kraphol”

The Bralis was barely drinkable and, by this stage we felt that we’d done enough of Sarkie for one day.

Catching the tram to Milgravis, we arrived at the terminus, a true nowheresville

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surrounded by an industrial area. There was a cafe near the terminus, but it was closed for the kind of renovations that this district sorely needs.

We headed down Ezera Iela, the heart of Jaunmilgravis (“New Milgravis”,) one of the area’s two sub-districts. It was truly dire. Drunks sat aimlessly on steps and one at a shop-cum-bar invited us to join him. We declined and dashed quickly on. I don’t see what’s new about this Milgravis, the start of Ezera Iela, is tolerable enough

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but it steadily goes downhill from there.

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The only landmark of any sort was the Cido factory, a major producer of substandard, overpriced juices.

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We were so desperate at this point to get out of here that we climbed a hill and dashed across train lines

Run lola run

Run lola run

to reach the second sub-district, Aplokciems. My ex-student, Vineta had kindly agreed to give us the guided tour, though there wasn’t a great deal to see. Aplokciems is on the fringes of Mežaparks, which I visited way back in December. The closeness of that is a bonus, for Aplok is its less distinguished relation. Viestura Prospekts, however rescues what would, on the strength of Jaunmilgravis and Ezera Iela, have been one of the worst districts. There are a few cafes and shops along here. We stopped in the beer shop to fill up

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before heading to her flat, where we had a decent chat about Albania and China, two countries with surprisingly close relations in the past. We never asked Vineta’s husband what he did for a living, but if he isn’t working for the Chinese tourist board in some lucrative position, he should be. The man is a genius when it comes to all things China. So much so that when I do “The Real Shanghai” blog in the future, I know who it will be dedicated to, as I’d definitely like to go there now.

Sadly, at this point I was flagging due to the late night the previous night, so after a questionable photo to sum up a day in questionable districts

Ode to Aplokciems

Ode to Aplokciems

it was back to the centre to check my eyelids for holes. Only 3 districts remaining, with this Saturday the grand finale.

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Coming up next: a trip to Riga’s (and Latvia’s largest district.)

Missing the tranquility of Zolitūde?

And so it was time for the last district in Pardaugava, the west bank of Riga, Zolitūde. Many of the Riga districts I’ve visited during these outings have been obscure or unknown. Zolitude doesn’t fit into that category. Its train station is halfway between Riga centre and Riga’s beach town Jurmala, a constant reminder to commuters that, hey, it could be worse. The district also hit the headlines in November last year when a supermarket roof collapsed, killing 54 people. Investigations into that are ongoing as I write.

The Jam song “That’s entertainment” seemed a fitting soundtrack to this outing. An ironic commentary on working class life, it contains lyrics like:

A police car and a screamin’ siren
Pneumatic drill and ripped-up concrete
A baby wailing, a stray dog howling

A smash of glass and the rumble of boots
An electric train and a ripped-up phone booth

Two lovers missing the tranquility of solitude

which more or less summed up how I expected Zolitūde to be, since the district takes its name from the English/French word solitude. It’s one of the few remaining Russian majority districts in the city.

The intro to the district is its train station

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which comes with an especially dubious looking bar attached.

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I’m still unsure if the furniture/junk shop look is intentional or not.

Behind that, there are rows of archetypal Soviet-era block houses

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I’d love to say it gets better than that, but I’d be lying.

I met my friend Polina on this day, unfortunately though, baby-sitting arrangements meant that she wasn’t able to give me the guided tour, so we settled on a pre-district drink in Spice shopping centre before she advised me that there were only two decent places to have a drink in the neighbourhood, and that I should, at all costs, avoid the bar beside the train station, as it’s full of crazy alcos. I said bye and headed off to do the district, appropriately enough, in solitude. (Only the second time I’ve had to do that.)

She dropped me off beside one of the more recommended places in Zolitūde: Baltā māja. Among the tower blocks, the place really stands out as a welcoming building.

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They’ve a pine tree and a bubbling fountain in the yard. I can’t help but feel that it’s wasted though, as the backdrop really doesn’t inspire.

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Ironic to see a pine tree here though, when the Pine Cone Mountain district doesn’t have them.

Like its home page, Baltā māja prefers Russian language and doesn’t do English. The service is as good as you’re going to get out here and the place has a reasonable rating on trip advisor.

I ordered stroganoff, but sadly, the food wasn’t up to scratch.

looks can be deceiving

looks can be deceiving

Bland and tasteless, with stringy bits of meat, whatever Baltā māja are doing right, it ain’t the food.

I finished up here and headed for a wander through the estate. There was very little variety in the housing types, which are almost all 1980s Soviet tower blocks,

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some with shops attached at the bottom.

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After wandering for a while, I spotted another bar: Rusas 13. As Rusas is the Spanish word for Russians, I thought for a minute that the owner was going for an ironic touch of international class, then I realised that we were on Rusas Street and that he’d therefore just given his bar the same name as the address. I guess that’s one place that won’t be featuring in the most imaginative bar name contest any time soon.

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With no windows, and a door opening on to a staircase leading downwards into hell, this bar had already scored at least 9 on the dodginess scale. Taking a deep breath, I headed down. There was one other customer underground with me. At least the beer was cheap: €1.3o a pint.

In terms of interior, there are gaudy yellow colours, the bar has a wide floor space, possibly so that fighting drunks won’t annoy other drunks at other tables. Mirrors helpfully allow customers to check how intoxicated they are and a tv blasts away, for who, after all comes to a bar to chat?

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In an incredibly misguided attempt to go for a bit of southern European glamour, the owner has decided to decorate the place with open wine boxes. It’s very hard to imagine the clientele in this dingy dungeon sipping cabernet sauvignon, which didn’t seem to be on sale anyway, so it’s hard to see the point.

The other customer left and with the owner casting suspicious glances in my direction after my photography, I decided it was time to get back to the real world.

I ended up near Prusas Iela, where, in the bottom corner of one of the better looking tower blocks, I spotted Cafe Anastasiya.

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When I got there, though, I found that Anastasiya had lost its “s” and also, apparently, its will to live, as it was closed at 6pm on a Thursday, despite threatening to be open until midnight.

Rounding the corner I came to the scene of the Maxima supermarket collapse. To my surprise, 9 months after the collapse, the structure is still there.

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Why? Didn’t they collect the evidence they needed months ago? (***Update 16 August: according to this report, at least part of the building will be demolished by the end of August.)

Beside the former Maxima is a smaller shopping centre, which contains a cafe which my friend recommended as the other good place to go in Zolitūde. In truth, it looks nice, but a cafe beside a collapsed building makes me a bit uneasy and, having survived Rusas 13, I wasn’t going to risk my life a second time.

I headed to the bus stop, which is beside some nicer and newer looking apartment buildings.

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So, it was goodbye to Zoli, leaving only six districts.

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I now have the finish date in sight: Saturday 16 August in Riga’s Old Town will bring this to an end.

Coming up: a report on my trip to Sarkandaugava/Kundzinsala/Milgravis with Linda yesterday.