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 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.

Where do the Latvians live in Riga?

One thing of interest to me on the 58 districts project is the ethnic breakdown of each district. It helps to determine many things. Do I ask for pivo or alus in the bars? Should I wear my Vladimir Putin or Kārlis Ulmanis sweater on my day out? Despite being the Latvian capital, Latvians make up a bit less than 45% of the population, though the figure is rising. Latvians only overtook Russians as the largest ethnic group in 2006 and still, when Belarusians and Ukrainians are added to the mix, the proportion of people speaking Russian as a first language probably slightly outnumbers those speaking Latvian.

Getting anything other than vague anecdotal “lots of Russians live in that place” evidence has been very hard. The 58 districts seem to be quite new and the central stats agency hasn’t collected data on them yet. After thinking about this, I came up with another way of getting rough info: election results. Being an obsessive psephologist , I hunted around for electoral data for Riga city and happily it exists, broken down by polling station, though these don’t correspond to the 58 districts.

The basic idea is, the more votes for Saskaņas_centrs, the party favoured by ethnic Russians, the higher the number of Russians in the district. The lower their vote, the more Latvians live there.

Of course this methodology has problems, just to name some:

1) This is not Northern Ireland, not everyone votes along ethnic lines. Many Russians vote for other parties.

2) 22% of the population of Riga has non-citizen status and therefore has no right to vote. These are almost all Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians. This isn’t reflected in the voting figures.

3) Saskanas centrs have had the mayoralty of Riga since 2009. People have been broadly happy with Nil Ushakov as Mayor and SC won an absolute majority of seats in Riga earlier this year with 58% of the vote. Obviously a significant minority of Latvians vote for SC, at least in Riga.

4) Saskanas centrs have a broadly left wing platform, which makes them less attractive to people in more upmarket areas, regardless of nationality.

All that said I crunched the numbers from the elections site and the results do tie in with what people say. The 10 polling districts where SC did best were in Bolderaja and Daugavgrivas (over 80% of the vote) with 76-79% in Zolitude, Kengarags, Plavnieki and the Darzciems/Plavnieki border. Those are definitely districts which people usually highlight as being “Russian.”

Conversely, the 10 polling districts where SC did worst threw up a few surprises for me. Bierini’s two boxes made it, by my score “the most Latvian” district with under 25% support for SC. The other 8, with less than 33% SC support were in Kipsala, Vecaki, Bergi, Centrs (3) and Teika (2) respectively.

At least this gives me a rough idea of whether to cheer on Russia or Latvia in the ice hockey in whichever bar I happen to visit.