Full of character!

Capital of Culture: Riga


My next stop after Stockholm was actually to go straight to Bucharest, to meet up with an old colleague from Bendigo now working in the UK to go hiking in the Făgăraș Mountains.  When checking flights from Stockholm to Bucharest, I noticed that many of them required a changeover in Riga, Latvia.  I’ll admit that at this stage, apart from knowing of a country called Latvia, my only recollection of the country was from Jeremy Clarkson’s repeated use of the country as an adjective in one of his Clarkson-esque jokes, such as during his race to Monte Carlo against a train in an Aston Martin DB9…

Anyway, you can probably tell that Latvia wasn’t sitting very high on my ‘go to’ list.  However, whilst waiting for my flight to Kathmandu earlier in the year, I caught a travel segment on one of those Samsung LED promo TV’s covering ‘unique’ travel destinations.  One of them was a remote location in Latvia called Irbene, where an abandoned former-Soviet radio outpost now operates as a radio observatory funded by the European Union.

Doing a bit of research into Latvia, I later found out that it’s capital Riga has been nominated as the European Capital of Culture for 2014.  With a very little cost penalty to split my flight from Stockholm to Bucharest with a 2 night visit to Riga, I made my booking! Former Soviet-bloc here I come!

Expectations and first impressions

Being a helpless victim of Hollywood and their less than stellar portrayal of the Soviet Union and former states, my expectations of Latvia were simply that of a run down, abandoned, industrialised city filled with mould covered, prefabricated concrete housing units , derelict steel structures and factories with fading hammer and sickle embellishments along streets punctuated with morale boosting statues and memorials…  So maybe I’ve been watching too many movies like The Peacemaker, A Good Day to Die Hard or even Golden Eye, but the ride from the plane on the tarmac to the terminal and then the airport (Bus no.22 FYI) to the doorstep of the Old Town was quite fitting to my expectations!

What I actually saw was the Riga Airmuseum, which features a TU-22M strategic bomber, which has had it’s internals and electronics stripped out after US Intelligence services spotted it in the museum via satellite reconnaissance!  Also in their stocks are numerous MiG’s, including part of a MiG-29 and a Mil-Mi-24 Hind gunship and a Mil-Mi-6 Hook heavy lift helicopter.  Unfortunately for me, the museum is only open on weekends…

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By the airport, is the Riga Airmuseum, featuring a Tupolev TU-22M and much much more! Only open on weekends but… :(

Apart from a few other buildings and landmarks which I will cover later, this is where the similarities with my Soviet-bloc expectations ended and after taking the No.22 bus from the airport to the doorstep of the Old Town, I was met with a bustling town full of character.  However, as it was getting late in the hour (I landed at 10:10pm and it was now 11:20pm as I arrived in town), it was straight to my hostel to check in and get rested for an early start the next morning.

Hanging out with some Russians Tatars

After a night’s sleep, punctuated with a drunk Latvia storming into the room only to crash on the bunk beneath me, I woke the next morning and headed upstairs to get some breakfast which was included.  There, I met three people, Tagir, Alsu and Guzel.  It turns out that they were from Russia, though living in Germany and were visiting Riga for the uni summer holidays.  After sharing a few stories, Tagir comes out with the line… “Ben… I must confess… we are not really Russian…”  Great I thought, here I am, speaking my mind about all sorts of things to people who were supposedly Russian but aren’t….. ?

He continued with, “We are actually Tatars… Now if you follow the Volga River, you will find Tatarstan…

At this stage, a sigh of relief came over me… Could’ve been worse! I thought…  Tatars, including Volga Tatars of which these three belong are descendants of Turkic tribes which lived in what is now Russia and Kazakhstan.  After being conquered during the Mongol invasion of Europe, they were later again, conquered by Russia in 1552.

Anyway, that morning, they planned to take the local train to a placed called Jūrmala, a beach side town along the Baltic Sea frequently visited by high-ranking communist officials back in the day, including Nikita Khrushchev. In the words of Tagir, “If you are visiting Riga you must go to Jurmala! It’s the most famous beach!”  Since I hadn’t really planned what I wanted to do in Riga, apart from walking around the Old Town, I thought why not? and decided to join them.

Luckily, they had sussed out all the details (well, supposedly Tagir had researched the entire trip and was the navigator), including the train, where to get off etc.  They could also speak Russian (surprise surprise…) which was a real help in this part of the world, as people either knew little English, or were too shy to speak it (typically the older population; the young people were fine).  I must say that these were the first ‘friendly’ Russians travellers I have ever met… I mean, not to stereotype but having met a few so far in my travels, they were usually quite reserved, ‘cold’, gave short answers all the time; attempting to make conversation was like trying to draw blood from a stone.  Meeting these three was a breath of fresh air (either that, or Hollywood would make me believe they are actually secret agents trying to draw out anti-government sentiments from unknowing travellers.. :P).

As the beach was around 32km long, we had a choice to alight from either Majori or Jurmala stations.  In the end, we decided to disembark at Majori and take the walk up Jomas Eila (St), a section of which has been turned into a sprawling pedestrian mall market, running parallel to the beach.

Heading north, we finally hit the much hyped Jurmala Beach and I was pretty impressed!  I mean, it had white sand and it was huge!  Although there were absolutely no waves (some people like that) and the water was still pretty damn cold (again, some people may like that…).  I can see definitely see why it’s so popular, especially amongst Russians (they were everywhere!).

Whilst relaxing on the beach, Tagir comes out with another I must confess line… “Ben… I must confess… we are not really here just because of the holidays…”  Again, I was thinking.. Great… I’m going to be arrested or something…   It turns out that they were in town specifically for a gathering of a whole heap of Tatars from across Europe that weekend, coordinated via Facebook…   At that point… I had to simply ask them, Is there anything else you need to confess to?! 😛

After a sushi lunch back in the mall and walking the beach, past the many beach villas, bars, clubs and resorts, we decided to head back to Riga in the late afternoon when the clouds started to head in.

Back in Riga, the Russian Tatars tourists who were here for their Tatar gathering kindly made a delicious pelmeni dinner (dumplings) which they described as Russian ravioli back at the hostel.  After that, we met up with two other Tatars who were also in Riga for an interesting night out!

Riga Central Markets

The next morning, I decided to head out by myself to explore the rest of Riga before my flight departed that evening at around 11pm.  My first stop was to actually head to the Riga Central Markets, which I briefly saw the day before on the way to the train station.  So far, this market has to be one of the biggest, cleanest and well organised markets which I have ever been to, hands down.

The main body of the market is spread out amongst five mail pavilions, which were constructed using old German Zeppelin hangars from World War I.  I say the main body because the market has spread beyond these 5 massive pavilions into the surrounding streets.  It’s no surprise that these markets are the largest in Europe.

During my visit, the smell of strawberries was unmistakable as they were everywhere, along with cherries and other stone fruit.  The five pavilions divide the market into sections for meat, dairy, fish, fruit and vegetables and ‘gastronomical’ – selling cured meats, cheeses, breads (deli and bakery?).  The outside areas contain and traders market, more fruit and vegetables, manufactured goods and flowers. If you ever visit Riga, this place is a must visit, if not just to admire the architecture of the pavilions.

The Old Town

What European city would be complete without an ‘Old Town’?? (Maybe Rotterdam… which due to World War 2 German town planning is relatively new… from the ground up…. ) Riga certainly would be missing a massive chunk out of the centre if the Old Town did not exist.

Throughout the Old Town are churches and their dominating steeples, small shops, cafes, restaurants with alfresco dining, busy hostels, narrow laneways… the works.

Escaping the Old Town

Buoyed by the positive experiences of Free Tour Stockholm, I joined the midday Riga Free Tour starting from the front of St Peter’s Church, which promised to:

Escape the Old Town and discover the real Riga! Join us on a 2 1/2 hour walking tour into some of the less explored sides of Riga. Hear stories from the past and present, delivered by one of our well informed guides. Entertaining, informative and fun.

How can you say no to that? Like our guide said, exploring the Old Town is very easy to do- you don’t need a tour guide for that, but getting to know what else is on offer outside the usual tourist sports is something that the tour offers.

Our Free Riga Tour guide!
Our Free Riga Tour guide!

Some noteworthy stops in the tour were the Spīķeri Contemporary Art Centre located along the riverside in rejuvenated former brick warehouses.  Though no events were happening on the day of the tour, the area is known for it’s various markets and festivals and also being the ‘creative’ centre of Riga.

On the other end of the spectrum was the Latvian Academy of Sciences building, a monument to Stalinist architecture and certainly an imposing building.  This building was the first skyscraper in Latvia, built between 1953 and 1956 and was the tallest in Latvia up til 1992.  It’s design took on elements from the Empire State Building, although it is just over a quarter of the height of the Empire State, standing at 108m.

Visiting the KGB

After the tour, I wandered up Brīvības iela to the corner of Brīvības iela and Stabu iela to visit the former KGB building also known locally as Stūra māja. 

It was inside here, that during the Soviet Occupation in World War 2, countless people were tortured on the sixth floor and then executed in the basement.  Later in the Cold War, along with committing genocide against the Latvian peoplenumerous people were invited for a friendly conversation to cooperate… These activities continued up until 1991.

In fact, the building was closed right up until 2014, where as part of the Riga 2014 programme, it was open up as a project for us to think more about history, to talk openly about our hurts, our fears, the nightmares that continue to haunt us, about the stories we cannot relinquish.

On the day of my visit, no tours were being run of the basement, so I instead took the self guided tours of the various exhibitions on the upper floors as part of the Riga 2014 programme. Walking through the building itself was a very eerie experience, especially when you consider what has happened within the walls of the various rooms and chambers.  Though no photography was allowed inside the builder (other than the courtyard), Riga 2014 has commissioned Martins Otto to put together a series of photographs of the building.  These are shown in the gallery below.

On a slightly more positive note…

After the visiting the KGB Building, I decided to head back towards town to explore the various parks one last time before grabbing dinner and my bus to the airport.

Once again, I was amazed at the cleanliness of the place – the parks were in impeccable condition and combined with the eastern European folk music being played in the background, reminded me of the sequence after the opening credits of the MacGyver episode, “The Thief of Budapest”…

In my final walk around town, I noticed a few quirky things, one of them was a caravan in a carpark with a whole heap of security cameras on top.  It turns out that this was the ticket office for the ‘secure parking’ area, and inside the caravan was a whole wall of TV’s viewing the camera footage…  Also in Riga was a massive crane with a dining pod attached to it… Cool idea I guess, but from street level, you could see people’s hair and napkins blowing about as it wasn’t the stillest of evenings…

In what I would call the central square of the town, neighboured by the market, train station and the Old Town was a stage set up for the Riga 2014 programme, featuring local bands and performances.  Though I had no idea what was being sung, it certainly sounded very patriotic and the crowd was loving it!

Goodbyes and farewells

Alas, it was time to head to the airport for my 11pm flight to Bucharest.  Arriving back at the hostel to collect my bags, I was able to catch my three new Russian friends to say goodbye and ‘until next time’.

Though I was only in Riga and Latvia for barely two days, I’ve certainly learned a lot about the people and the history of not only Latvia but of the Baltic states as well.  Arriving with lots of pre-conceptions of what a former Soviet state would be like, it was refreshing to see that the people and the government are open to acknowledging the past, whilst at the same time planning a positive future for their country.  It’s probably these efforts that earned Riga the title of European Capital of Culture for 2014.

Whilst any western visitor could easily maintain their Hollywood view of these former-Soviet states (and don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of former-Soviet, post-Cold War attractions to keep your head dug in the sand.. from shooting AK-47’s, to visiting various Soviet memorials), I’ll state the obvious by saying keeping an open mind is key to getting the most out of your visit.

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