Riga: Baltic River Town

At 10am on the 10th of July I pull out of Tallinn bound for the next Baltic capital Riga. In the row before me is an American family and opposite a Lithuanian tour guide. Like Helsinki and Tallinn it will be my first time there and again there are wrangles with Hotels who want firm bookings, which is ok if you’re in town for a conference but not if you’re a journeyman. Perhaps this is the future of hotels, business class for those who have specific dates and dreamer suites for those of us who travel! These days the coaches come with wifi, multi channel in seat entertainment and a coffee machine! How times have changed, it’s better than my flight out of China! The good news is I manage to secure a room from my seat thus avoiding any Estonian debacle.

As I scratch around my pockets for Euro-coins beneath a plain white sky my expectations of a modern tram to my destination are dashed and I’m faced with a relic from the bygone communist era (it looks more like a trolly bus on rails – see picture above) which means I have to lug my bags up a few steep stairs before it sets off. One aspect of travelling in a new place is things feel further away than they actually are, nonetheless it does feel grey and suburban especially at the post office to purchase the whimsical tram ticket or at the nearby supermarket to buy some Latvian chocolate. As I’m en-route to the hotel wheeling my bags behind me an old man stands outside a pub, smiles and shrugs holding out his arms  as if to say ‘why?’ With both hands full I can only return a wry smile.

From my room the grey industrial riverside is alive only with slow freight trains dragging themselves along the track, stationary cranes and what looks like a makeshift two story accommodation block for construction workers. I imagine it’s not too dissimilar to what Glasgow’s Clyde looked like in the 70s (and possibly the 80s). The room is modern yet the last thing I want to see considering the view is crane artwork on the walls! Also unique is it has a bath which in order to escape said visual is fully utilised!

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It’s a nice enough evening for a quick stroll around town. On entering the golden domed Orthodox Cathedral as angelic music swirls around its interior (no photos or film are allowed in the church) there before me stand the American family from earlier. The father (who looks about my age) nods to me in recognition and I to him. In the beauty of evensong no words are spoken and I leave soon after to peruse the streets at my own leisure. This would be a good example of how people come into and out of view weaving their own journeys as mentioned in my Helsinki piece. Outside the theatre and university embellish a pleasant once over of Riga’s stately streets.

The morning presents a very different canvas, a grey curtain drapes across the Riga sky making the docks opposite all the more dreary. Things don’t improve much in town as I stumble on the Holocaust museum and its horrific history housed in an old train carriage used to transport Jews to their journeys end. A tree of hope with leaves made of metal blades – each etched with victims names – stands symbolic in the courtyard. Paradoxically the staff positively beam with delight as they help me to locate the Spikeri cultural centre I was actually looking for. Save for some quirky exteriors like the birdhouse wall, the centre is little more than a hotchpotch of stores and offices in refurbished factory buildings concluded by a cafe for workers of the media companies based within them. A slew of Oriental faces brush past in the wind, traces of the life I’ve left behind though these ones seem less friendly, more concerned with their itineraries.

Beyond that Riga is a strange one to categorise. Part plush, part industrial wasteland. The central park boasts boats that cruise between the leaf and shade of its canal, in turn rekindling memories of English university towns, notably Cambridge, Oxford and Canterbury. It’s this area and around the business district of Elizabetes Iela that make Riga for me. The Old Town too has some great rewards in the elegant ‘Our Lady of Sorrows’ church and a bar devoted to Depeche Mode as well as eateries to tempt even the hardiest of travellers; my reference is in praise of Bubble Waffle – how could I resist!

My thanks to the staff at IBIS Styles Hotel.

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