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!

 

 

 

 

The Devil’s dozen

Bread was a staple food in Ye Olde England. (Arguably, thanks to McDonalds, it still is in a way.) So much so that very strict laws were passed regarding quality and the weights sold. As a result, lots of bakers gave 13 loaves instead of the standard twelve, to be doubly sure they couldn’t be accused of cheating punters, for which body parts got chopped off. Latvian bakers obviously didn’t face the threat of having their hands chopped off, so in Latvian 13 was known more as “Velna ducis” , the Devil’s dozen.

I’ve now almost reached the quarter way point, with 13 districts plus Rumbula done, I thought it was time for a little recap. So far it’s been excellent and a real eye-opener. The typical image of cities like Riga is of a historical centre, then nothing of interest other than grey Soviet era tower blocks. This is definitely not the case for Riga. Yes there are the typical commie era buildings but there’s a lot more. I’ve been shocked at how nice some of its suburbs are (and this comes from someone who has lived here for most of the period since Autumn 2005.)

I decided it’s time for a mini league table of districts. The criteria are of course my own subjective ones of how much I liked the place, if it had any interesting buildings, “life”, nice nature or geographical features and decent bars or cafes. I’m deliberately omitting Rumbula from the list as it has none of those, but is nonetheless a must see for anyone interested in the real Riga, so any comparison wouldn’t be fair. So here in order from best to worst are the thirteen

1. VECAKI: what’s not to like? Nice quiet neighbourhood, excellent local bar and a great beach with amazing sunsets. A train connection to the centre helps. Will be even better in the months from May through August.

2. BUKULTI: a real revelation. Nice green neighbourhood, with great views of Kisezers and the Jugla river, surviving an encounter with a suitably crazy old woman to liven up the afternoon and finishing off with a pee pee in Piepe bar after, accompanied by great beer and shashliks.

3. VECMILGRAVS: a great contrast showing the real Riga. Wonderously, miserably grey Soviet tower blocks and then a great riverside area, topped off with a terrifically colourful local bar.

4. BOLDERAJA: Boldie doesn’t deserve its bad reputation. The centre boasts a whopping three bars, making it the liveliest suburb I’ve been to. Add views of the river and Love Island and you can do worse than visit here.

5. DARZINI: should have been crap, with identikit houses promising nothing, but an unusual dyke formation leading to great sunsets over the Daugava made the day. A nice local bar topped off the afternoon.

6. AGENSKALNS: Riga’s immediate left bank has a good range of the old and the new in terms of architecture, a lively local market and a limited but good selection of bars and restaurants.

7. DAUGAVGRIVA: views of the Bulli river and Love Island and a bit of life. Where else can you find a local that looks unchanged from Soviet times complete with cranky old guys telling Irish girls off? Also has a fort and a beach, which will be covered when I revisit here on the way to Ritabulli, so this ranking is provisional.

8. JAUNCIEMS: should have been better. Decent location beside Lake Jugla but no real life in the place. A yacht club lakeside bar with views over the lake looked promising, but it’s closed out of season. May pick up in summer.

9. IMANTA: for such a large district, this one is a real let down. A bizarre mix of concrete jungle and countryside. It’s one saving feature was a 50s rock and roll themed bar.

10. VECDAUGAVA: decent views of the river and a woodside are redeeming features, but other than that you’ll find more life in a cemetery.

11. BERGI: should be better given its scenic setting beside the lake. The Latvian open air museum is also there, however rich Latvian people don’t seem to have lives.

12. ZASULAUKS: a boring concrete jungle near a suburban railway station. Move along people, nothing to see.

13. SUZI: Ah, poor Suzi. With the lakeside and forest setting, she could be Cinderella, instead she’s decided to go out with the other sister. If anything, the lakeside setting makes the scabby block houses look even worse. Add unfriendly locals to the mix and a total lack of any decent local amenity and this one isn’t worth it. The Everly Brothers probably didn’t have Riga on their mind, but they said just what I’m thinking.