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.

 

Latvia’s Ogre plays football

Latvia’s Ogre isn’t the Baltic cousin of this guy

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it’s a commuter town 30/40 minutes south-west of Riga. There are some Latvian placenames which sound funny in English once translated. Who, for example, lives in Pigeons (Baloži?) Ogre, though, is one that, along with Madona, doesn’t need translation to elicit a snigger or two.

The irony wasn’t lost on more Western-minded Latvians during the Soviet era. A running gag was the Communist party badges which featured Lenin with the town name.

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So, on Sunday 26 October, with a German acquaintance visiting, we decided to go there for the joys of Latvian second division football and kill two birds with one stone by seeing the town as well.

At the train station, the town’s name still raises a smile.

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The day was fairly cold, only a few degrees above zero and me and Zanda headed in the direction of the main town, some parts of which still have a Soviet air about them.

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Kalna Prospekts (Hill Avenue) and Zinibas Iela (Knowledge Street) improved things a bit with their woody hill

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but Ogre so far hadn’t excited us. We walked down to the main street through the town centre, which was tiny. A number of signs promised us tourist information, but they pointed in contradictory directions and there was nothing even remotely resembling a tourist info place. Instead, we wandered around, watching kids play on the ice in front of signs that informed us that Ogre had no money.

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The main street through the tiny town centre was a bit dead, with not many people around,

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so there weren’t even locals we could approach to ask where the action was. Giving up, we decided to warm ourselves up, so took a seat in the Pures bakery. This was at least a decent place to sit for a while and, until my German friend arrived, options for excitement in Ogre seemed a bit limited.

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Afterwards, we went for another stroll, feeling a bit out of place as the locals had seemingly decided that 2 degrees was a bit too cold for them to be out in fresh air. Along the way we snapped any buildings which looked remotely interesting

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and walked along the river, which, like the rest of the town on this day, looked a bit grey and alone.

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My German friend had joined us at this point, so we headed for a little food and pre-football beer to the oddly named Police Academy bar/restaurant. This had a bit more character to it, but what a weird name. Okay, no doubt it was once an actual police academy, but that’s like calling a new restaurant “underwear shop” just because that business previously occupied the premises. The food and service was at least proficient and we exited in better spirits for the main course of football.

Now it does need to be said, Latvia isn’t footballing country in any sense. The sport lies a distant third at best behind ice hockey and basketball in the nation’s sporting affections. They have had their moments in the past. In 2004, the national side beat Turkey to reach the European Championship finals, where they managed a draw with Germany. At club level, Skonto Riga had some success in the late 1990s, giving Barcelona a good game at home, losing 2-1, while Ventspils, the current strongest side, reached the final qualifying round of the UEFA Champions league in 2010, losing to Zurich, who went on to play Real Madrid, AC Milan and Marseilles in the Champions league group stages.

Those successes seem a distant memory these days, as the national side and club sides have struggled for the last few years to make any impact. The UEFA seeding system at club level doesn’t help. While the Latvian champions in the past could realistically hope for a game against a top European side, these days, changes to UEFA competitions to favour the larger federations mean that the Latvian champions are shunted into the second of four qualifying rounds, against unsexy teams from the likes of Belarus, Wales, Northern Ireland and Norway. It’s all a vicious circle. The club games against similar no-hopers in European club competitions go ignored, as people understandably prefer the beach in July to watching the might of Metalurgs Skopje. That means clubs struggle along with poor attendances, which denies them the money to buy decent foreign talent. While gifted local sporting youngsters play ice hockey or basketball instead.

The Ogre stadium itself is hidden among residential buildings.

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The previous day, we’d seen an excellent game, with Ventspils winning 4-2 in Skonto stadium in Riga to clinch the Latvian championship in front of a meagre crowd, so we were hoping for a similarly decent game. The cost of entry was only 2 euro, down from the 3 lats (4.30 euros) that Skonto were charging a couple of years ago. At Ogre, it was free, but despite that, there were few people in attendance in the stadium’s solitary stand.

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At least with the football we weren’t disappointed with Rezekne winning 3-1 against the home side, who missed a penalty along the way.

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The football rescued what would otherwise have been a disappointing day out. I still think Ogre won’t be at the top when I come to do my best/worst list, but at least the football gives a reason for coming here. Four towns out of 29 done. Coming up next: Ogre’s neighbour Ikskile.

Ādaži – more than just a potato crisp?

Saturday 18 October saw me back on the road again in pastures new. Having covered familiar ground in Riga and Sigulda, it was time for somewhere I hadn’t been.

Grabbing Eddie at his office, we jumped on the bus to Ādaži, a popular commuter town north-east of Riga. Again, before going I started scratching my head to try and think of things I knew about the place. All that came to mind was that they do a mean potato crisp.

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Still, it’s one thing more than I know about a lot of the municipalities I’ll be visiting. A bit more reading showed the Gauja as a recommended place and a number of cafes came up in a search. The municipality stretches further than Ādaži town itself and includes some really upmarket housing around Baltezers. Time and daylight reasons meant that we were only able to focus on Ādaži itself.

We jumped out in the main street, which told us we were 22km from Riga. It didn’t look that bad, the standard Maxima supermarket and a fair bit of greenery.

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A bit further along there was a crummy looking street market, selling the sort of useless stuff that looks like it was salvaged from rubbish bins in the 1990s.

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We headed in the direction of the Daugava, but along the way, came across a huge street map, with the town helpfully laid out which showed us a few parks nearby. We decided to see if there was anything of interest in them.

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Nope. But they looked nice in Autumn.

A bit further along we passed a mini lake, around the vejupe, which seems to be the centrepiece of the town.

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It had a wakeboarding thingy in the middle and what looked like an attempt at a beach. I guess if your car breaks down and you can’t get to Jurmala, it’s better than nothing. We heard a lot of Russian spoken, but checking later, it was a bit of a surprise to find that the municipality was 74% Latvian and 18% Russian.

We decided to try and follow the Gauja, hoping for idyllic, picturesque views of Latvia’s famed nature. It started off well enough, a little windy road going through green fields, but no one here seemed to have considered the possibility that people might want to actually take a riverside walk. There was a kind of muddy mound, which we climbed up, but after a minute of walking through a mudbath, we gave up and climbed back down again. This was as close as we got.

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The road back to the town led us through a series of allotments, with the usual pack of dogs barking as though they’d never seen humans before

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The housing is another weird mix of private houses and decaying Soviet-era block houses.

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The temperature was about 5 degrees, so we decided we’d earned ourselves some hot drinks. One of the places we’d passed was The Mad Cafe. With a name like that, we just had to check it out. Inside, we asked in Latvian, only to get answers in English. They’re just trying to be helpful, but grrrrr…. We insisted on Latvian and happily, they obliged us and we settled down to some tasty cake and coffee.

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The waiter who brought them started chatting with us, something which doesn’t always happen and we explained about the trip here. Eddie was quite disappointed to find that he wasn’t the only Welsh customer. We’d been interested in seeing the crisp factory, but it was apparently a fair bit out of town and with no transport we decided to give it a miss.

All in all, great service, helpful staff, decent cakes and coffee. Mad Cafe was a decent little find and if you’re ever up that way, you’d be mad not to check it out.

We’d still time, so we decided to follow Gauja Iela around to the other part of the town. Along the way, we passed the bridge over the Gauja

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and the cultural centre, a funky looking building under reconstruction.

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Sadly, it was a bit too grey to get any decent photos of the Gauja river.

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The main part of the town seems to be totally devoid of anything other than houses. No shops or anything. Just open fields with expensive looking housing around them. Sure, these people have money, but don’t they want to use a cafe or a shop that’s just a little bit closer?

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We ended up doing a loop around the vejupe, ending up near the cultural centre. We’d promised ourselves a beer before heading home and had passed vigvam on the way. Despite its lakeside location, the place looked a bit shady, but as shady bars are our forte we decided to give it a go anyway.

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A mangy looking dog lounged beside the entrance fighting a losing battle against its fleas. I don’t like to see pets of any kind in a place that serves food and drink, so that was already a turn off. The lights were dim and it wasn’t clear if the place was open at all. A guy ambled up to the door and looked at us as if he’d never heard of the idea of people wanting to drink in a bar on a Saturday evening. We asked if they were open. He shrugged disinterestedly and said he’d check. We’d had enough, so decided to give it a miss and while he was slouching across to the bar, headed across the road.

4 krasti (four shores) was a pizza place/cafe situated in the cultural centre. From the outside it had looked a bit more upmarket and we’d decided to search for cheaper

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but inside we found that the prices were pretty cheap and there was the added bonus that we got to have a giggle over their dodgy translations.

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Again the service was pretty good and, while the food wasn’t top quality, it was perfectly fine for the price. The only negative was that they’d obviously left it to the younger staff to decide on what the music would be. So, rather than the welcoming loungey music you’d expect, our pizzas were eaten to the background of gangsta rap and somehow, the pizzas didn’t really gel with the rapper’s desire to “shoot niggas” and “slap bitchez.” That’s one problem I have found in some places in Riga, clubby music and rap music get played in really inappropriate places.

Still, we were well fed and watered by this point so it was time to head home. All in all, Ādaži was a pleasant enough day out with enough green spaces and cafes to keep people busy for a few hours. Definitely more than just a crisp. Coming up next…. Ogre.

 

Sigulda (here we go again)

It’s hard to believe that it was 2 months ago that I sat in Riga’s Old Town, staring sadly into my beer as I thought about the end of my visit all 58 Riga districts project. I quickly decided that I needed something similar for this year, so I decided to cast the net wider and visit all towns in Riga planning region, which stretches as far as places like Salacgriva, Aloja, Ogre and Tukums. With one of them (Riga) done, it was time for the other 28.

Ask Latvians where to visit outside Riga on 11 October and you’ll only get one answer: Sigulda. Some of the places I’ll visit during these outings will be unknown, not so Sigulda, which features in all the guidebooks along with places like Jurmala and Kuldīga as a place to go outside Riga. I’d already been four or five times before, but this was supposed to be *the* time to visit.

Why Sigulda at that time? Simply enough, with all its woodland, the autumn colours are fantastic.

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We drove down, it’s about 40 minutes by car from Riga. Hungry, we tried to get some food in the Fazenda which has replaced the Raibis Suns restaurant, but it’s so popular apparently that you need reservations, so we were stuck in Cili Pica in the Sokolade shopping centre. After that, we hit the track into the forest. It was crowded. The weather was much better than usual, 16, with the sun occasionally making an appearance. As a result there were loads of people there taking advantage and parking was hard to find.

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The first stop was at the Gutmanis cave, the highest and widest cave in the Baltics.

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There are, allegedly, inscriptions from the 17th century in the cave, to which modern teens and others have added. I’m surprised they let this continue, aren’t they worried about erosion and damage to the site?

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After that, we headed up the hill to follow the trail round to Turaida castle. After 70 kilometre treks in Peru, this was easy peasy for me for a change, while other people puffed and panted up the stairs.

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Turaida castle just celebrated its 800th birthday this year, even though most of the modern castle consists of reconstructions done in the last 40 years.

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The tower, like the rest of Sigulda was crammed. With only a narrow staircase going up, we got stuck at one point as we had to wait for people squeezing their way down past us. Some of the ladies hadn’t really thought this day through, as their heely boots really slowed things down on the staircase. From the top, there are views of all the woodland around

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and the Gauja, Latvia’s longest river, in the distance.

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The river was the next stop. There’s a big bridge, which doesn’t seem to have a name, crossing it and we fought our way through another group of people to try and get photos.

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If you want better views, there’s a cable car which crosses above it

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which organises bungee jumps. I once saw the Foo Fighters in concert and their frontman, Dave Grohl, the ex-Nirvana drummer, described this as “Stupid people jumping with knicker elastic tied round them.” I agree with Dave!

The sunset was coming at this point and we snapped off photo after photo.

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With darkness setting in, we deserved some refreshments so headed back towards the town. As towns in Latvia go, Sigulda seems to have all the essentials. I especially liked the idea of…

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As I’d stuffed my face in Cili Pica earlier I sadly couldn’t check out their claim. We headed instead to Biskvits, which seems to be part of a small chain. It was busy enough, and there were still people sitting outside, something you don’t usually see in Latvia in the second week of October.

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With town two done it was time to head back to Riga. Sadly, I haven’t yet found a decent sized printable map of the towns in Riga planning region, so all I have is this tiny one.

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Maybe someone knows where I could download one?