Riga city centre, May 2017. The traffic lights here make odd clicking noises to tell you how long is left until they change, but exactly what the difference is between a green man and a red man is not entirely clear since either way you’ll still find traffic swerving into you from a direction you hadn’t even realised was a road until you walked into it.
If anything, a green man is a vague suggestion that, if you must be foolish enough to cross the road, now is as good a time as any to cross your fingers and have a go.
Riga Central Market occupies five cavernous World War I zeppelin hangars relocated from a village on the Lithuanian border in 1924, making it the largest bazaar in Europe. Curiously, many of the thousands of stalls have small blackboards hung above the counters with — presumably — the name of the stallholder written on them. This hangar, on the far end, is given over exclusively to fish and seafood, and it smells exactly as you’d think it would.
Beyond the market you find yourself in the Russian quarter, replete with relics of the city’s Soviet occupation like the monolithic Academy of Sciences, which is bitterly referred to by the locals as “Stalin’s birthday cake”. Here too is where you’ll find a concentration of wooden houses uncommon in European cities, and the subdued greys and browns are occasionally punctuated by the brightly painted, golden-domed Orthodox churches.
That’s where we got a bit lost, wandering through several blocks of Maskavas’ dilapidated tenement blocks until we found our way across the Salu tilts, a double-stacked bridge on the River Daugava carrying a busy highway over a pedestrian underpass. We were heading for Zaķusala (Rabbit Island), to check out the TV tower.
Brace yourself: this motherfucker is huge.
This Soviet-constructed monster (built 1979–89) is the tallest tower in the European Union and sits on the otherwise uninhabited Rabbit Island like one of the tripods from War of the Worlds waiting for its next meal. It’s fucking gigantic. The photo seriously doesn’t do it justice.
That, with the almost complete abandonment of the island, makes for a slightly disconcerting experience as you approach the tower — a 2.5 mile walk from the city centre. The pavement is cracked through by weeds and the only sign of life is the occasional learner driver, rolling past on the empty road. The tower compound is totally deserted when we arrive except for a small Latvian lady behind the reception desk — not another soul in sight. She takes us up in the original Soviet-era elevator, explaining in broken English how the lift climbs diagonally though the curved support pillar to reach the 96m observation deck in precisely 42 seconds.
On the ground, Latvia’s remarkable flatness and Riga’s relatively low-rise architecture frames the city’s landmarks in a blank canvas of sky. Viewed from the tower, it creates a ruler-straight horizon that separates the sky from the city in an unspoiled disc you could balance a spirit level on.
It’s ironic that in London, a much taller city, we hardly ever look up. You can’t help it in Riga. For a start, the pace is slow enough that you can lift your eyes from the street without fear of body-slamming a passer-by; and when you do, you discover that every side-street is an aperture for a different spire or landmark, and every landmark dominates the sky without having to fight its neighbours for attention.
And speaking of landmarks:
I’ve never in my life seen a building like the National Library of Latvia, and I’m pretty sure I’ll never see anything like it again. Like the TV tower, its sheer scale absolutely defies belief, and the shape — based on a Latvian folk story about a prince who climbs a glass mountain — is remarkable from every angle. The astonishing vast atrium rises up through more floors than I could count, with natural light pouring in from all sides like a cathedral. Plus, there’s an excellent visitors’ exhibition about the role of the written word through Latvian history.
The most important of Riga’s landmarks, however, is also its least ostentatious. The Freedom Monument, which divides the Old Town from the more cosmopolitan centre, is a powerful and dignified monument to a people who have endured centuries of occupation and oppression (chronicled in the nearby Museum of the Occupation). Topped by a copper figure of Liberty holding three golden stars, which represent the Latvian regions of Vidzeme, Latgale and Courland, during the day it is attended by a ceremonial guard of two soldiers and, in the the perfect mid-May weather that Riga treated us to, the stars gleam in the azure sky with a simple and stirring beauty.
Latvia had a great Eurovision entry this year that didn’t make it to the final but it was difficult to tell, watching in our apartment on LTV1, whether the Latvian commentary had any of the same Norton wit. In any case, Latvia has Eurovision form for me — this one from 2015 is great, and I vividly remember watching the competition in Riga in 2003, when the belly-dancing banger Every Way That I Can won for Turkey. I made my mum buy the CD.
Our apartment, while lovely, was five floors up. See the air duct, top right?
That was our front door: 88 steps — no lift. We counted them while pretty trashed though, so that’s something. Speaking of which…
There’s much to choose from in Riga’s nightlife — although, scarily, we discovered that security was so tight at one of the city’s very few gay bars (presumably for the safety of its patrons — after all, we’re not in Kansas anymore) that the solid metal door had no handle and you needed to show your face to a camera before being let in.
At Easy Beer, you’re given a €20 swipe card and you pour your own beer. The screen tells you how much you’ve poured and charges by the millilitre — which means you can try everything, pay for the card when you’re done, then get another one and start again. And beer in Latvia is strong. Like, 12.5% strong.
Fan of the concept, but not a beer drinker? No worries. Easy Wine is down the road.
Black Balsam is a herbal liqueur you find everywhere and in everything: it comes neat, in cocktails (above, with sparkling wine), in tea and coffee, hot with blackcurrant juice, even in cakes and chocolates.
In the vaulted cellar of a former apothecary, purportedly where the spirit was invented by pharmacist Abraham Kunze in the eighteenth century, an extremely disgruntled-looking barmaid in traditional Latvian dress tells of how the building is haunted by the ghost of Kunze. Then, with a barely-disguised roll of her eyes, she discreetly reaches for a button behind the bar that reveals a face in the mirror, while books on a shelf above dance on animatronics and something in the cupboard rattles while a strobe light flickers.
Finally, and scariest of all, she marches over with the bill and says: “We are closing soon, you pay now.”
This blog post is based on everything I managed to take a photo of, to the deliberate exclusion of everything else. For all that, you’ll just have to go and find out for yourself. I totally recommend it.