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.

 

Banged up abroad? (Skanste and Brasa)

As usual, before this weekend’s excursion, I asked a couple of local friends about my planned districts.

Skanste….? “There’s nothing there. Just some car showrooms.”

Brasa….? “Ummm, there’s a prison there and a big graveyard, where teenagers go to get drunk.”

I think it’s safe to say that Rigans will never win any awards when it comes to promoting their city to foreigners.

To be fair, I’d suspected from driving through the place that their assessment of Skanste was likely to be true and a visit to the place confirmed it. There are a couple of notable buildings there. The first is the Olympic sports centre

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which had about 50 people smoking outside it when I passed. I guess they need to clean their lungs of all that exercise?

The second is Arena Riga, which for me, is probably the only reason anyone should ever be in Skanste. Built in time for Riga hosting the 2006 Ice Hockey championship, it regularly hosts international bands. By pure coincedence, yesterday, when I visited, was the 8th anniversary of its opening.

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The rest of Skanste is a mix of wasteland, flashy new buildings and car showrooms. If the group The Specials ever decide to remake the video of their biggest hit, this would be a perfect place.

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But as you can see in the photo above, there is a fair amount of building work going on and this is actually Riga’s fastest growing district in percentage terms. Latvian Wikipedia gives a population of 152 people for 2010 and the latest figures show 800 people there. Most of them seem to be living in these rather flashy tower blocks.

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There are also plans (detailed here in Latvian) to build 2,000 flats in the district in the coming years, which will probably put some life in the place. So who knows, maybe Skanste will be Riga’s hippest district five years from now? For now though, it’s a definite case of “Move along people, nothing to see.”

With that ticked off the list, it was time to meet Ed in Brasa. We met near the corner of Sencu street and Miera Iela and wandered through the graveyards

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which looked and felt like it was Autumn instead of mid February. This has been one of the mildest winters I ever remember in Riga and most of January and February have been above zero and there’s been a week of snow in early December and two weeks in late January. Cross country skiers are not amused, but I’m more than happy not to be trudging through snow to work.

The graveyard in Brasa is one of the largest in Riga and its centrepiece is this church, which appears to be Lutheran.

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The drunk teenagers that my friends had told me about were nowhere to be seen, so it was on to the next place they’d recommended: the prison. I’ve always been a fan of films and tv series about prisons, such as Shawshank redemption, Prison Break, Prisoner Cell Block H and the virtually unknown The Glass House. One of my favourite shows was always “Banged up abroad” which featured British people who had ended up imprisoned in foreign countries. So I was interested to see how prisons look in reality in Latvia.

The exact legality of filming prisons is a bit of a grey area. In most places, you can do it, but might be questioned. We decided to fire off a couple of photos of the place anyway from a distance. We’d hardly pressed the button when three security guys came out and dashed in our direction and started telling us in Latvian that it was a prison, photography was illegal and we had to delete the pictures. We’d reckoned this might happen, but thought it a small chance. This had the potential to get a bit sticky though and images of “Free the Brasa Two” and my own appearance on Banged up abroad started to flash through my mind. We decided to play the dumb tourist card and when we started speaking English to them, they relaxed a bit and waved us away before we had a chance to delete the pics. The prison is a pretty uninspiring building anyway (prisons aren’t known for their Gaudi-style architecture) so to be on the safe side, I won’t post them here. Sufficient to say, anyone curious can see a photo online here.

Close to the prison is the Brasa railway station, which has a really ugly factory as its backdrop.

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Brasa has a fair selection of Jugendstil (art noveau) style architecture, mostly around Miera street and Hospitalu street.

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though some of the buildings could definitely do with a coat of paint or two.

Hospitalu Iela itself is a real mix of older and newer building types.

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Around the area, there are also a few factories,

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wooden houses,

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and quirky buildings like this:

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By this point in time, we decided it was time to celebrate our continued freedom with a cup of coffee and stumbled across International SV. It looked a bit pricey but we checked the menu and it wasn’t too bad, so I decided to treat myself to a mocha and ostrich fillet combination.

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"Yes mum, I'm free!"

“Yes mum, I’m free!”

We later discovered that, by complete chance, we’d been eating in the Riga restaurant that is rated number one on Trip Advisor! So how was it? Well, pricewise, I paid 9.90 for the ostrich, which wasn’t too bad (though the portion size was pretty small) and the service and atmosphere in the place was good.

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So, all in all, Brasa wasn’t too bad. At this point, stomachs satisfied, it was time to finish. 28 districts done, 3o left. Only one more district to the halfway point.

The “flava” of the salas

Surely not….?

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I was puzzling over the origin of the name Pētersala-Andrejsala, the only Riga district with a double-barrelled name, when a horrible thought struck me. If you take out the sala (or island) part, you’re left with Peter Andre, 90s teen idol. Maybe someone at Riga city council was having a bit of an in-joke when they combined the two parts?

The weather for this one was balmy. When you looked out the window, all you saw was bright blue skies and sunshine, but it was -15 °C. With daylight these days as rare as great service in Cili Pizza, I got there before Ed and wandered around taking photos to make the most of what little daylight there is, with the song Mysterious Girl annoyingly refusing to leave my head, even though the song video’s beach setting couldn’t have been further from the weather on this visit.

Like the name of the apkaime, the areas are two distinct parts. The Pētersala bit is one of Riga’s oldest neighbourhoods, dating back to the 13th century, when it was just pasture land called Gustavsala. It took its current name when Riga was part of the Russian Empire and Peter I decided to build a summer house there (Riga having a lack of 5 star hotels in those days.) The summer house went unused as the land wasn’t good enough and it was quickly demolished, but the name stuck. The result was a nice kind of symmetry, with a “Saint Petersburg” suburb immediately north of Riga centre and a “Moscow” suburb to the south. There’re a few cobbled streets in the district to show off its age

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The building types here are a bit of a mix, newer houses, looking decent enough among the trees

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and stinky, boarded-up old buildings like this, badly in need of renovation

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Pētersala contains Riga’s oldest park, Viesturdarzs, originally Ķeizardārzs or The Czar’s Gardens. It started as private imperial property, but control passed to Riga city in the 1940s, when the commies took over and nationalised everything. Since then it’s hosted sports events and smaller song festivals and is a nice enough place to stroll round when the weather isn’t making you wonder if your nose still exists

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With Ed arriving at this point, we crossed the main road, which has a backdrop of Riga free port, with its cranes and the wall covered in graffiti murals. It all reminded me a bit of Berlin’s East Side Gallery

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Having survived the road, the next bit to navigate is a mini commercial train line, with small goods trains dashing up and down at regular intervals, trainspotters would probably have the time of their life here

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Andrejsala is a bit of a weird one. It’s technically speaking, Riga city council’s newest district, having been transferred from Riga freeport as late as 2006.

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When I first visited the place in the summer of that year it was Riga’s newest hip place. Full of artists and cafes which looked like they’d be full of guys with long hair, wearing sandals, bandanas and strumming guitars as they smoked “Colorado tobacco”. It’s changed a lot in the 7 and a half years since then. The hippy style cafes have gone and have been replaced with two flashy restaurants.

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It’s easy to see why this area has spruced up its image, the views up, down and across the river Daugava are great

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Andrejsala still has some bits of its hippy past. A naive art museum and graffiti murals

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When I asked my students in advance what the best thing in Andrejsala was, their eyes instantly lit up and they said “there’s a great alcohol shop there!” Good to know that the Latvian Civil Service has so many culture vultures! In fairness, they’re not the only people that seem to think that. The districts were deserted, mostly due to the weather, but the booze shop seemed to be doing a lively old trade

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By now feeling like two snowmen, we decided it was time to find a cafe. I’d seen Estolija, on Eksporta Iela, when wandering round. It didn’t look too dodgy (the main consideration on this Apkaimes project being to not get my head kicked in and all that) so we went in. The place, like a lot of these neighbourhood cafes, had a real retro feel about it, complete with a stink of cigarette smoke so strong it could probably use an ashtray as its logo.  We decided to have a hot drink before hitting the booze, but when Ed asked, she looked at him like he was asking to buy kalishnikovs. “горячие напитки?” I asked, hoping that she’d take pity on my accent in Russian and throw us at least something to thaw us out. “No hot drinks, only vodka!” she told me, chest swelling with pride.

We left and headed round the corner. There are a few cafes here, so finding another isn’t difficult. Katrina, the cafe on the corner of Maza Aluksnes Iela, sounded more like a massage parlour than a cafe, but by this stage we were too cold to care much.

Despite it being 25 January, the bar still had a Christmas tree up (or maybe they’d put it up 11 months early?)

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As we were sitting there chatting, a guy came over to us. We looked at him warily, the only people that approach strangers in bars in places like this are usually nutters and alcos. He was friendly at first, but then asked where I was from and when I said Ireland, he gave me a scowl of hatred and staggered away. Nice!

Laughing over that, we left district 23, headed back into the cold and towards the centre, as Beer O’Clock had finally arrived.

Return to Bale island

Bale island isn’t Real Madrid footballer Gareth’s private residence in Riga, it’s the English approximation of Ķīpsala, one of the districts on the immediate left bank of the river Daugava. The origin of the name is disputed. Most sources say it was named after Pētera Ķīpja, one of a dozen fishermen who habitually resided there, however, others say that it was named after the bales of grass that the island was used to store.

Ķīpsala holds a special place in my heart. It was late September 2005, my first month in Riga, when, fresh faced, the right side of 30 and naive in the ways of the Baltics, I trotted down its back lanes to do my first ever individual lesson in the city. Arriving at the client’s office I enquired for “Olga.” The secretary contacted her and after a few minutes, a door opened, releasing a cloud of thick cigarette smoke and through that, like a rock star emerging through dry ice, a figure stumbled unsteadily into view, clearly less than sober. Errr…. “Olga” ? I enquired. “Yesssss!” she slurred, her glazed eyes regarding me briefly before she hugged me in an exaggerated way, her breath alone enough to make Milwaukee breweries famous.

After sitting down she offered me cigarettes and a drink. It was 1400 on a Friday, but I figured that “when in Rome…” and agreed, as it was my last lesson of the week. She then showed me her alcohol cabinet, where the selection was larger than the average small shop and finally, over an expensive cognac, I did my first individual lesson in Riga, then staggered back to the centre, wondering what kind of mad house I’d got myself into and if it was too late to reapply for my old job in Valencia.

First impressions though, can often be misleading. I later found out that “Olga” on this occasion was just celebrating the conclusion of a lucrative business deal, so future classes would turn out to be boringly normal. She continued to do classes with me for a full three years, until the relocation of her office out of Riga made it impractical.

Ķīpsala was originally much smaller than today, but damming and the drying up of sandbanks led to it expanding to include the nearby islands of Mazo Klīversalu and Burkānu salu (Carrot island.) Originally, connections with the surrounding area were by boat and ferry, but these gradually improved. Access was significantly improved when, on 21 July 1981, the Soviets opened the new Gorky bridge, which was later renamed to the blander Vanšu tilts (suspension bridge.)

For the first time since late October, I was reunited with my usual colloborator Eddie Mantle. The weather was a bit bizarre, clear blue skies, bright sunshine and -10 degrees. Winter had finally arrived a few days before. The day also saw the opening events of Riga’s appointment as European capital of culture for 2014. Among these events was the transfer of books to the new national library, which was done by way of a human chain, in deliberate echoes of the Baltic Way demonstration for independence in the late Soviet era. The book chain involved a line of people, a few kilometres long,

People pass books by hand from the historic National Library of Latvia to the new building during "Chain of Book Lovers" in Riga

braving the cold weather to pass the books from the main library to the new one, located on the left bank of the Daugava. The new library has had its critics for several reasons. Some people think the money could have been better spent on other projects, others think the priority should have been digitising the books. The design of the building itself made people unhappy.

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There were other criticisms of the library’s location, with people asking if it is such a good idea to build a library beside a bridge and river? Their argument being that bridges and nearby buildings are the first thing to be damaged in conflict situations and the river is prone to flooding, so do you really want your national treasures in that location? In reality though, the location was always going to be criticised. If they’d put it on the edge of the city, as critics suggest, then people would have asked why it was in such an inaccessible location. Locationwise, it was a no-win situation for the planners.

We took part in the book chain for 15 minutes, during which time we passed a grand total of two books! After that, we headed along the Daugava to Ķīpsala, enjoying the views across the partially frozen Daugava.

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The reason for heading to Ķīpsala yesterday was that we’d been told that there would be “fire sculptures” there. That sounded promising. In reality though, these were 3 or 4 metre high wooden sculptures which didn’t contain any fire, they were just burned at the end of the evening, which for me was all fine and well, but I’ve seen better. The problem here is that everything in life is relative. I lived in Valencia, the city with Las Fallas, the mother of all fire festivals, where elaborate sculptures over 30 metres high are created then burned.

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The Valencia festival comes accompanied with some amazing light displays

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and a huge sculpture of the Virgin Mary made out of flowers (which isn’t burnt)

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as well as the Mascletà (video here) , which is a riot of pyrotechnic noise. For the 2012 climax, we watched a huge head of Da Vinci go up in flames. (Video here.)

While I love Las Fallas, it’s a bit of a double edged sword. Having experienced it, all other fire related festivals leave me with a sense of disappointment.  A pork shashlik is absolutely fine unless you’ve recently enjoyed a fine juicy steak in the Ritz, after which you can’t help but feel let down.

Riga’s fire sculptures were located on Ķīpsala “beach”, a patch of sand near the Daugava.

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After having a look at them, we headed along the riverside. Like those on other cities’ riversides, houses here go for three quarters of a million and upwards and often contain the type of designs that only eccentric people with too much money to spend can dream up

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maybe an Australian millionaire lives in the house above? We then wandered through the back lanes, which are full of wooden houses in streets which show the history of the area, “Fisherman’s street” and the like.

There are a couple of decent restaurants there. Fabrikas has long been one of my favourites, though the prices there mean that my visits in recent years have been few and far between. It has a terrace floating on the river, making it a great place to eat at in summer. Further up and lesser known is Ostas Skati, which, as the name suggests, has views of the port (as in the photo below from last summer)

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and a cheaper menu than Fabrikas (though the food also isn’t as good.)

As we were only interested in a warm drink, we headed for Olympia shopping centre and warmed ourselves up

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after that it was back to see what was left of the sculptures, which by this time had mostly burned and they’d cordoned off the area near the bonfires, so it was impossible to get near.

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We crossed back to the centre. Even though Christmas has long gone, Riga, for unknown reasons, still has Christmassy style lights in the streets

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A cold, but enjoyable day out. 21 districts done, 37 to go.

Sushi: big in Latvia…. and Shanghai

You wake up from a coma in a strange city and ask yourself the “when the sleeper wakes” question: where in the name of God am I? If it’s Europe, you might want to narrow it down to “Western Europe” or “former Soviet country.” There are several ways you could do it: public transport running late? Congratulations, the dog shit you’ve just stepped in is probably British (or Irish.) There’s one sure fire way though to know. Walk around, count the number of Chinese restaurants, then count the number of Japanese restaurants. If there are more Chinese restaurants, you’re in Western Europe. If there are more Japanese restaurants/sushi bars, you should start singing the opening song of the Beatles’ White album to yourself.

When I first arrived in Riga, bleary eyed from the early morning Easyjet flight, there were only a couple of sushi places like Kabuki. Over the years, their number has spread faster than the speed of light. Soho, Samurajs, GanBei…you name it, as I type this there are a few poorly paid Latvian guys rolling sushi. It’s now normally sold in Supermarkets like Stockmann and Rimi. Hell, even chains like Double Coffee and Cili Pizza have now added sushi sections to their menu, can you imagine Costa Coffee in the UK doing that? I mean, who goes to a pizza place to eat sushi?!

Against that background, I recently came across this eyesore

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Old Shanghai, a restaurant supposedly representing China, a country with a really rich culinary history. Yet what do they promote?Obviously it has to be that most Chinese of dishes…. sushi! Yeah, there are arguments that sushi started originally in south east Asia, before spreading to China and eventually Japan, but these days it’s generally seen as a Japanese food, so this is the equivalent of a French restaurant trying to attract customers by pushing their spaghetti menu, it just feels *so* wrong. It just shows a lack of imagination on the part of the owners and a lack of adventure on the part of the customers. I mean aren’t there more than enough other places which sell sushi? The message I get is that the owners don’t have confidence in the quality of their own country’s food and therefore have to pack food from other countries on to the menu just to draw customers in.

Sadly, this is a problem across Riga’s restaurant scene. It seems to be the done thing these days for many restaurants to have sprawling menus with lots of dishes representing different cuisines, trying to be all things to all men. In reality, the best restaurants usually have limited menus, focusing on quality not quantity and mass produced stodge.

The cynic in me thinks that the reason sushi has become so popular here is because it’s not a million miles away from traditional Latvian food. Raw fish has always been part of the Latvian diet and therefore raw fish wrapped in rice isn’t that much of an innovation. In truth, the sushi sold in Latvia, just like in most of Europe, isn’t really all that Japanese. Many sushi purists insist that it shouldn’t have raw fish, as that often wouldn’t happen in Japan. In the same way, if you order a paella in Valencia, the home of the dish, you’ll get a dish with chicken and rabbit and without seafood. Latvian restaurants skip those nuances.

Overall, while Riga’s restaurant scene has a competent enough selection, the variety trends towards the conservative element. There are lots of Italian restaurants, but only one Spanish and, as far as I know, no Greek, North African or Turkish restaurants, except a few dodgy kebab places, which have also grown like weeds in the last six years. There are very few exotic options, a couple of Indian ones, which actually do pretty good food and the standout for me, Soraksans, a Korean restaurant selling kimchi so spicy you’d be best avoiding naked flames for a couple of hours afterwards.

Among all that lot is the local cuisine itself, tending towards the same pork and potatoes stodge you’ll find across Ireland, the UK and the rest of Northern Europe. The Lido at Krasta Iela is so touristy these days that I almost expect to see t-shirt sellers outside it flogging “My boyfriend went to Lido Krasta and all I got was this crappy t-shirt!” Maybe that should be my new business plan?

A trip to Soap Makers’ Mountain

A mountain in Latvia? Yeah, the name is a vaguely ironic anglicisation on the original: Ziepniekkalns. Kalns in Latvian means both hill and mountain, logical enough in a country flatter than a steam rollered pancake. The Ziepniekkalns district is a pretty typical one that you’ll find on the fringes of many ex-communist bloc cities, representing all the finest late 1980s Soviet architecture (yeah, that bad!) Knowing this in advance and with my bluddy Linda of the expateyeonlatvia blog tagging along, I headed on to google street view pre trip to scout out possible watering holes. Amazingly, there was one shown on the border of Bišumuiža and Katlakalns districts, and right beside a bus stop too!

When we got there though, the bar looked like it had been closed since Guntis Ulmanis was still on the throne.

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Bišumuiža and Katlakalns are a bit like 80s New Romantic pop stars holding a comeback concert. They were probably fine in their day, but those days were long ago and now they’re old, drab and grey, with buildings like this

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and streets like this

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it was no wonder that Linda labelled it the most depressing place in the world. There were a couple of funky looking houses we came across near the river,

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but they just highlighted how bland the rest of the district really was and how much better it would be if people actually invested in it. With no bar anywhere in Katlakalns, it was the obligatory drink in the street

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Heading back up the road, we found ourselves feeling in the sticks. There were views of the river Daugava, which would probably be nice in better weather, and a bubbling stream going through the forest. All in all, this place had potential to be nice on a good day, which this wasn’t.

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Ziepniekkalns is one of the newer Riga districts. Built in the mid to late 80s, at the fag end of communism, it’s typical late Soviet era identikit block houses, which Riga has less of than you’d think. We’d planned to wander a little more around Soapy Mountain but a huge downpour of rain came. With our spirits dampened, it was time to find a bar.

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Habibty has pretensions of being some stylish hookah bar. In Latvia and more so in Russia, there are a lot more “caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland” wannabies than in the west. In Almaty on a Friday night, it was unusual to go into a bar and not see a table of people with a kaljan or waterpipe. Despite this being a Saturday afternoon though the place was empty and was even cheekily charging 2 lats for the type of bog standard local beer that places in the centre often sell for 1.50.

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With Linda deciding that I was auditioning her for the role of an extra in Drag me to Hell part 2 and the weather refusing to cooperate, it was time to head back to the centre for a relaxing Guinness. 19 districts visited out of a possible 58.