The Return to Riga

Leaving Tallinn in the rain, I settled in for what I had been warned might be a bit of a long slow bus ride through construction season in the Baltics. Though it only took about 6 hours, the ride felt endless as we crawled through construction site and sat in queues waiting to be released onto the open road again. Fortunately the bus had wifi and free coffee so survival was possible if not exactly inevitable. And so I made it to Riga, rather later than expected and only a tiny bit tired and grumpy. Blessedly my hostel was clean and neat and check in was quick. I was settled in, had dropped off laundry, and was back out the door to adventure in less than an hour.

Sadly, even that quick turn around was not quick enough to catch the Central Market in full swing. Most of the shops were closing by the time I got there but in my desperation for food (I had not had enough snacks for the bus ride) I managed to hunt down a little patisserie that was still open where I found a delicious almond covered flakey (rather than doughnutty eclair) and a delicate little square that seemed halfway between cheesecake and milk tart. Thus fuelled, I headed off to the local secondhand shops in search of new trousers. My current trusty pair of jeans has always been a bit too big but they are now reaching the stage where no amount of squats will make my derriere large enough to hold the pants up. Sadly, trousers were not forthcoming but I had a delightful little adventure trying on everything and knowing that if I found anything I liked it would only be two quid.

Having run out of nearby shops, I set off over the river to visit the flashy new Latvian National Library. It’s a big metallic behemoth which might be meant to resemble a ski slope? It’s really quite unclear. The inside is very open and airy and modern but I’ll have to admit that I spent most of my time there with very mixed feelings: 1) how wonderful that they would invest so much in a library! 2) can they possibly have the collection, patrons, and staff to require a space this big? I wonder how much is empty? As I arrived only 15 minutes before closing I did not attempt to get a visitor pass to visit the stacks but if I’m ever back in Riga, I will make time to explore just how sensible or senseless the library really is.

Drifting back towards my hostel, I wandered through old town pass “Miss Art Nouveau”, the building that won a “Prettiest Art Nouveau Building in Riga” contest, up under the imposing height of the freedom monument with her three golden stars, and onwards to a relaxed local burger joint with outdoor seating and great vibes. Despite the crazy man across the street screaming at everyone who passed, it was a lovely burger and break to relax and prepare for my next adventure: Salsa.

It was a fairly quiet night at salsa and I must say that I have not experienced such creative timing in a very long time. Nonetheless, I got in a good dance or two (one with the DJ who blessedly was on time) before the cacophony of poorly played percussion did me in entirely and sent me fleeing for the door.

Saturday morning, I was up and out as quickly as possible with only a brief stop in the kitchen to caffeinate and acquire a loaf of free rye bread left behind by some other travellers—hooray for free lunch! Heading towards the Moscow district, I made a brief cruise through the open air segments of the Central Market. There I found socks which cost the same as they would at Penneys but were actually designed for feet as large as mine. I am optimistic that they will resist the inevitable toe holes a tad longer than the prior pairs which have dropped like flies along my journey.

Leaving the market, I passed the garish monstrosity that is the Latvian Academy of Sciences. It is terribly grand but in a strangely finicky rococo way. And yet, despite it’s tastelessness, it catches the light really well and I kind of love it for the very shamelessness of it. The rest of the Moscow district stands in stark contrast with “Stalin’s Birthday Cake”. Battered little wooden houses, barely clad in peeling paint and large crumbling concrete apartment blocks form the bulk of the district with the occasional church or restored art nouveau housing some chic little attempt at gentrification. As I neared the edge of the area, I began to stumble across strident post modern architecture all in steel and glass but soon was entirely past architecture in a beautiful little treed park with nothing but peace and quiet.

Reading on a park bench, I watched the world go by until my bench became the landing place of several chatty others and I picked myself up again. Just in the south end of the park I found a church with forest green roofs but elected not to pick my way passed the handful of beggars to get in and so turned to the church at the north end of the park. It bore a shocking resemblance to Sankt Johannes Cathedral in Stockholm, both inside and out! It was also playing host to what I presume was a christening? There were children and parents but no baptismal font on display so I can only assume.
My wander continued past second hand shops and shoe stores where my godforsaken giant feet precluded any success in replacing my currently not so sneaky (read: squeaking) sneakers. Soon I found myself at Miera St. which I had been told was a rather hipster destination. It had a shocking lack of bicycle shops for hipster land, but it did have the requisite boutique coffee shop where I quite naturally bedded down for a filter and a cake.

The cake was avocado and mango mousse atop a rich dense crust which seemed composed primarily of dates and nuts, while the coffee (a Costa Rican selection) was quite divine. Still, nothing on the Geisha blend I had in Stockholm, but delicious nonetheless. After a while reading on the terrace, I got back to my feet and paced about through aging factories and wooden houses. And then my phone died. It had been threatening all day but it finally gave up the ghost around mid afternoon which sent me scuttling back to the hostel to get the charge back before I missed a contact from my wonderful Riga connection, Sulu.

Sometime later, back at the hostel, I found I did have a message from Sulu so I quickly juiced my phone and set off to meet up at the Aussie bar downstairs. I met Sulu through one of my dance friends last time I was in Riga, and I must say, he is absolutely the most wonderful host! We wandered down to the Freedom Monument to meet one of his friends, a large Latvian doctor name Valer who got his medical degree in Soviet Leningrad, before taking a quick detour into the park to recycle some stale bread as duck food.

Having fed the ducks we took off in the direction of the Art Nouveau district via the Radisson and the Orthodox church. I’ve seen a number of orthodox churches on this trip but I think that Riga’s is the largest and, as there was prayer in session when we arrived, also the most atmospheric. Over near one of the shrines, a cluster of scarf wrapped women stood piously singing responses to the richly garbed priest that lead them. They appeared to be just ordinary, everyday women but my god their voices were ethereal! After watching them for a while and being scolded for having hands in pockets—Russian Orthodox are very strict—we left the church to catch the views from the top of the Radisson hotel. From above, Riga is very pretty but very mixed. Architectural styles are sprinkled all across the city in rather haphazard arrangement from the spires of old town churches to the art nouveau blocks, wooden houses, and larger but still old styled buildings for government, and then with a few modern and post modern buildings mixed in too. It’s quite the melange.

After finishing our drinks at the Radisson we set out again to find Sulu’s favourite local bar, The Left Door, home of Lativa’s best bartender and all manner of tasty food and cocktails. I had a passionfruit martini and a bowl of pasta while we people watched out the window and chatted away until it was time for me and Valer to head out to the Jazz Festival. Sulu had been given comped tickets by an Australian journalist friend but unfortunately was a tiny bit swamped with work preparing for his own upcoming festival so Valer and I were handed tickets and sent off to enjoy.

In true festival style, the concert was an hour late in starting. After a few rounds of advertisements from sponsors, including the lovely Engrish of XO “The very best of finest”, the first act hit the stage. Take Six, an American a cappella group filled the arena with pop and gospel covers and adaptations. I will admit that hearing Uptown Funk revamped as praise music was a bit unnerving for me, but they made up for it with a stellar tribute to Michael Jackson which included snippets of all his most famous music and a few of his best dance moves. After about an hour, it was time for the interval and we wandered around the arena until it was time to return for the hard jazz act of the night: Stanley Clarke. There was one song with a vocalist singing romantic Italian, but the rest was just one long beautiful run of hot hard jazz with wicked solos rolling one after another across the stage and the musicians playing and improvising freely off each other’s ideas. It helps that I love bass and piano, but it was seriously sublime and the Georgian pianist was exactly as quirky as you’d expect a genius to be while Stanley filled the stage with his cool, seasoned jazz master vibes. Ah, it was heaven! Though after an hour of rapt attention, I will admit that my brain was a bit tired and probably could not have followed another line even if it wanted to.

Once the concert wrapped up we walked back to Sulu’s flat where we met another of his friends (an American named Fay) and lounged around having a few drinks before the inevitable decision to go out. We started at the clubs in the port nearby but we hadn’t even gotten to the queue when a helpful doorman waltzed up to Sulu and I, looked pointedly at good old backpacker me, and said “you know this is a night club, right?” Apparently women are not allowed to wear “sport shoes”. Men in sport shoes, fine, no problem, in you go. But women are for looking at and for being pretty so: no heels, no entry. So we gave up on the local scene and headed to the old town. Soon we were in a quirky little bar playing a mixture of everything from rock n roll to nineties pop. It was absolutely a party place with giant drinks, drunk dutchmen dancing with no pants and blow up doll on the bar, and more crazy dancing than I’ve participated in in a good long while. It was great fun. Which is how I came to be stumbling home fantastically drunk at 3am.

My last day in Riga began with a hangover which I slowly nursed with tea, tea, and more tea and then a bit of coffee and a few cakes. The tea was had bleary eyed in the hostel, the coffee and cakes on a wonderful swinging bench at a nearby bakery-cafe. Between the peach danish and the pistachio eclair I tell myself that I got a bit of fruit and protein but mostly I got tastiness and that was what this hung over girl needed.

Before heading to the bus to Vilnius, I wandered back to the market to pick up snacks and ended up with a fried meat bun which reminded me strongly of Shanghai’s 肉包 but fried after steaming, and half a kilo of cherries. And then by some delightful freak, by the time I was done waiting for the late bus out in the rain on a drizzly Riga day, my hang over was gone and all that was left was exhaustion—perfect for another multi hour bus journey.

Having entirely too much fun,
The Canadian


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