Tuesday 2nd September 2008, Riga, Latvia
We reached Riga, the capital of Latvia yesterday afternoon after a surprisingly straightforward journey right into the heart of the city. As we left the countryside behind the traffic increased dramatically and the roads deteriorated accordingly. The undulating tarmac of the St. Petersburg highway was replaced by broken cobbles and the wheel ruts of heavy lorries was accompanied by the criss-cross of the city tramlines, while overhead swung the network of electric cables of the trolley buses. Confident is not a word I tend to use when it comes to my driving or Ian's navigating through major towns, so it was with a sense of relief that we crossed the broad river Daugava that passes through the middle of the city and turned off to the campsite which is a couple of kilometres walk from the heart of the old town. It lies on the banks of the river, opposite the ferry terminal with crossings to Rostock. From the tales we are hearing about driving conditions in Poland, taking the ferry sounds a rather attractive option. Whatever we decide though, we'd best not linger here too long. Already we have discovered the nights to be extremely chilly and apparently the river freezes over quite regularly in the winter. Before the first fixed bridge was constructed they used to lay a pontoon bridge across during the summer and simply cross on the ice in wintertime.
The campsite is rather soulless but okay, though security, as at Tallinn, is a constant worry. It provides what we need, including a washing machine and drying rails. This has become an absolute essential. It's the first chance we've had to use a machine since we left England. Hand washing bulky items like jeans in cold water, even if we can get it, is unpleasant, to say nothing of drying clothes in Modestine when it never stops raining! So we've worshipped at the shrine of Miele and once again have a full suitcase and an empty laundry bag.
But you want to know about Riga. Well it's amazing! It can easily hold its own with other European capitals. It has the style and charm of Prague with fewer tourists and definitely less graffiti. It, like Tallinn, was one of the German Hanseatic trading ports. It reminds us strongly of the north German Hanseatic town of Lübeck with which we developed an instant love affair in 2006. Of course it has suffered during its years under Soviet rule but it is rising again, phoenix-like from the crumbling plaster, rotting woodwork and discoloured grey façades that have been the norm here during fifty years of occupation. Some of the mediaeval buildings, such as the Guild House of the Blackheads, were damaged by German bombing in 1941 and subsequently destroyed by the Soviets. They have been entirely rebuilt to the original design since 1995.
Yesterday we walked into town for a preliminary look around. Astonished, we walked from street to street, lost in a maze of beautiful building. Wide open squares, parks and gardens offered vistas of stunning facades and monuments. We couldn't wait to get back this morning and will definitely need another day tomorrow just to see the outside of the buildings, longer if we investigate the interiors.
Today we returned, first thing, and have spent the entire day discovering the delights of Riga. Roughly chronologically, these included the Lutheran cathedral in brickwork Romanesque and Gothic style which dates from 1211, with nearby St. Peter's church, the largest in Latvia, of similar date. Then there were the guild houses of Hanseatic merchants and craftsmen dating from the 14th century and the Three Brothers, a group of 15th century merchants' houses. The Swedish gate was cut through in 1698 and is the only surviving gate in the city walls. St. James' Barracks was also built by the Swedes in the 18th century.
In a square next to the Cathedral, appropriately named Herder Square, we came across a memorial to Johann Gottfried Herder, one of the leading lights of classical Weimar. We had forgotten that he had previously taught at the cathedral School in Riga and while there had undertaken pioneering work in collecting Latvian folksongs. He collected folksongs in several countries of Europe, which he published in the 18th century, introducing Goethe and other writers to ballads, and having an important influence on the development of the Romantic movement in literature.
Among more recent buildings, the Stock Exchange, built in neo-renaissance style dates from 1855 while the Parliament building dates from 1867 and the Opera house from 1887. Latvia's Freedom monument was erected in 1935 and somehow survived the periods of Soviet occupation unscathed. The monument to the Latvian riflemen, erected during the Communist period, reflects the Soviet Realism style.
In the streets just outside of the old town there are many wonderful examples of late 19th and early 20th century architecture in the Art Nouveau and Art Deco style. These are gradually being restored by overseas investors and some are used as embassies. Many were designed by the Riga architect Mikhael Eisenstein, the father of the famous Russian film director Sergei Eisenstein who was born in Riga in 1898.
Interspersed with all these architectural gems are buildings reflecting the brutalist architecture of the Stalinist era. They are hideously ugly, symbols of the might and tyranny of the USSR.
One such building stands beside the guild house of the Blackheads and is used as the Latvian Museum of Occupation. As well as us, the visitors' book includes our own Queen, the Queen of the Netherlands and Laura Bush. They cannot possibly have had time on state visits to spend anything like the two or three hours it took us to work our way around the all too harrowing pictures and texts of Latvia's struggles and persecutions, a tiny scrap of land fought over by the mighty armies of both the Nazis and the Soviets. Its fate parallels that of Estonia and Lithuania though each of the Baltic States was, and still considers themselves to be, three distinctly different nations that shared the same fate. The history and fate of the peoples of these countries is so complex we find it very difficult to understand. It came as a shock to realise that Russia invaded Latvia on the very day my own parents were married in England. Those familiar happy photos contrasted starkly with those on the walls of the museum here.
At the time of the Soviet invasion in 1940, about 75% of the population were Latvian, the rest made up of Russians, Germans, Jews and others. After being "liberated" by the Nazis, leading inevitably to the annihilation of the Jewish Latvians, and "liberated" yet again by the Soviets who either killed or sent many thousands of Latvians to the Russian gulags, replacing them with rehabilitated Russians, the percentage of Latvians was reduced to 50%, the rest being mainly Russians. Today there is still a massive Russian speaking minority of around 40% in Latvia while in Riga, according to official statistics, Russians represent 42.1% of the population with Latvians representing 42.3%. If you add Belorussians and Ukrainians there is an additional 8.3% of Russian speakers.
Generally we are not very aware of who is Russian and who Latvian, though their accents sound rather different when they speak to us in English. Today we made an unfortunate mistake when talking to an older lady at an exhibition of modern Russian architecture. We both thought her accent, when speaking English, was very Russian and concluded wrongly that she was Russian. When we said goodbye, wishing to be friendly, Ian said goodbye in Russian. Immediately her expression changed and she ordered him not to use those words to her. "That's Russian, bhah!" she said with real anger and slid her finger across her throat in a horrid gesture. So feelings run very deep just below the surface. We've learnt our lesson and will stick to simply saying please and thank you in Latvian to everyone from now on.
Smiles are certainly in short supply among older Latvians, and many shop assistants have not been to the charm schools that seem so widespread in western Europe. Certainly it can be refreshing not to be ordered to "have a nice day" or to be told "you're welcome" after having thanked someone, but a softening of the face would be welcome. Streets are thronged with substantially built, older, grim-faced women, often in headscarves, who advance stolidly along their chosen path, and woe betide anyone who gets in their way. The concept of stepping aside or taking evading action seems foreign to them. Perhaps it is a result of a weary determination, caused by the many years of hard times they have gone through.
Young people however seem lively and smart, the girls picking their way across the cobbles with completely unsuitable stiletto heels, wearing clothes that we thought only existed in the pages of fashion magazines or in the exhuberant minds of French or Italian couturiers.
There is a more cavalier attitude to litter in Latvia than in Estonia, where the Scandinavian culture of recycling seems more inculcated. On several occasions we have seen young people simply tossing empty drinks bottles or cans aside.
Searching for the Art Nouveau buildings we strayed from the centre of the old town and chanced on the Russian Orthodox Cathedral. Yet another stunning building in this city of superlative architecture.
We'd been so engrossed in everything we'd forgotten about lunch and there were few eating places in the area we were exploring. So we went into a little café in a wooden building in one of the side streets. It looked very old fashioned and pre-independence with shared wooden benches and plain tables. There was a grocery shop attached and we are pretty certain most of the customers were Russian. The staff did not speak any English but when we asked for soljanka – a Russian vegetable soup – they told us it was off but we could have goulash and a beer each for about £7 all told. It was very filling but basic food that would not have been recognised as goulash by our Hungarian friends. It had certainly never seen a grain of paprika.
Eventually finding ourselves back near the bridge across the river we decided to return to Modestine and stay another day to finish seeing what Riga has to offer. We were far too weary to take in anything more. Crossing the bridge on our way back to the campsite we saw yet another example of the varied architectural styles of Riga in the form of the 21st century Hansa Bank building, its elliptical glass walls reflecting the blue-grey of the sky and the river.
Back on the campsite we encountered a retired English couple who have just driven across Poland and Lithuania to get here. They have told us it is possible to buy a transit visa at the Russian border to cross into Poland through Kaliningrad but that it costs 40 euros each. It does offer another possibility for returning home but compared to our green card to cross Bosnia last year it's very expensive.
Wednesday 3rd September 2008, Riga, Latvia
This morning we woke to find the excellent, clean facilities provided by the campsite had been locked because they are shared with the conference centre behind which we are parked. There is a three day food fair taking place so they don't want campers in bath towels wandering around pinching free samples of caviar, beefsteak, meatballs and jam from the international delegates. We feel rather miffed about this as we have paid for facilities we are not getting. There are a couple of little portaloos in the corner of the campsite but they each have only one loo, two urinals and a cold tap. I've never been in a ladies loo with urinals before and along with the other lady campers would really have preferred an extra loo and washbasin. Anyway, it's decided us to move on tomorrow. Riga is such a nice city we'd have found it hard to leave otherwise.
We've been so lucky with the weather. It has been dry for two days now! Today we walked back into the city to search out the daily market. It is absolutely huge and vibrant. It operates seven days a week from five huge restored Zeppelin hangars left here from the days of German occupation. The market is a busy, colourful quarter, each hangar concentrating on different products. So there are cakes, confectionary, bread and cooked foodstuffs in one, meat and meat products in another with fish in the third and vegetables in the fourth while the fifth is just boring clothes typical of east European markets where the emphasis is on floral aprons and large comfortable knickers. We wandered around the stalls mesmerised by the variety of interesting produce for sale. We had no idea what many of the foodstuffs were but we longed to find out. Everything seemed so cheap. There were cafes all around the edge of the hangars but nowhere to sit. People eat standing at round tables and our legs were already weary from walking across the city. Eventually we found somewhere with a couple of chairs where we pointed at something interesting and asked for two with coffee. Coffee comes here with sugar added and no milk. Humm – the wrong way round for us. The "something interesting" turned out to be a sort of battered pancake filled with savoury mince and vegetables. Not what we expected with our morning coffee but very nice. We also discovered a clever machine making those round doughnuts with holes in the middle and bought a couple of sticky cakes to eat on a bench outside where we fought over them with a huge grey and black crow who seemed to think they were purchased for him.
Near the market stands a massive, starkly imposing Soviet building, the Latvian Scientific Academy. With cheerful disdain it is aptly known to the locals as Stalin's birthday cake. At seventeen stories high it can be seen throughout the city. For some reason today there were a dozen Chinese flags flying outside. Inside it is just as heavy and dark as we'd imagined with marble floors, dark wood doors and large, unadorned columns. On the fifteenth floor is the National Folklore Archive with almost 3,000,000 records. The entire building seemed almost empty apart from the receptionist on the desk who told us she spoke no English but directed us to the lift. The Folklore Archives were also entirely deserted. Were we the only people in the building? We browsed the small exhibition on the walls and knocked on a few doors but it was pointless. So we climbed the remaining flights of stairs to the roof where we had a spectacular all-round view across the city. Down on the ground floor we found the empty staff café for a rest and a drink while we wrote a message to the folklore archivist. We told him we'd recently catalogued the Sabine Baring Gould collection of Devon folksongs and had hoped for a guided visit around the Unesco World Heritage listed Latvian folklore archives. We left the message at reception in the hope it will reach someone in the department and make them feel guilty for skiving off when they should have been hard at work with their indexing equipment. It would have been interesting to see the collections and talk with the staff but working solidly from nine to five seems a strangely British phenomenon.
Nearby we found the ruins of the Jewish synagogue, destroyed by the Nazis along with hundreds of the Jewish community when they burnt it down on 4 July 1941. A monument nearby, erected only in 2007, carries the names of those brave people who risked their own lives to shelter Jewish people, saving at least 400 Latvian Jews from the holocaust.
Across the park and along yet another street of lovely Art Nouveau buildings we found the National Library of Latvia which occupies one of the turn of the century buildings. It is rather run down both inside and out and much of the material in the cataloguing hall is still held on card files. Neither Ian nor Alain are represented in their collections (so that just shows how difficult life must have been for people under the Soviets doesn't it?)
After that we just wandered, in a sort of weary daze, seeking out the picturesque corners until we stopped for a cold beer and just never got going again. Two beers later we wobbled our way back to the bridge across the river to Modestine. On the way we called off at a shopping centre we discovered to buy her presents for her fridge. We also used one of the cafes for supper which was nice, cheap and saved us cooking when we got back.
This evening they are clearing out the debris from today's food fair into skips left on the campsite and some thirty tent loads of young cyclists have surrounded us. They are on some kind of sponsored tour of the Baltic Sea. It should be fun tomorrow with the toilets all locked against us!
Hey ho, as I write the rain has started up in sudden earnest. We might have known it was too good to last!