I booked the bus between Tallinn and Riga by searching online and finding Lux Express. For the princely sum of 27 Euros I got myself a luxury seat which included free wi-fi, free hot drinks, a bottle of water and snack bar, a power socket, and a TV screen showing videos (the normal seats were 21 Euros, the main difference being that they were in pairs) for the journey which took about 4 hours. Boarding was exceptionally easy: show your ticket to the conductor, either on a phone or printed out, along with a passport or ID card and on you get.
The bus was about three quarters full, mainly with students. The seat was pretty comfortable but the first hour of the journey was marred by a group of three girls and a boy crowded around the seat in front looking at pictures on a laptop from a recent trip and screeching hysterically at every photo. And there were about 200 bloody photos. They were babbling away in a language I couldn’t catch, but I suspect they were Latvian. I wished they’d sit down and shut up, and eventually they did.
There wasn’t much to see driving south through Estonia from Tallinn, with the countryside being made up of flat snowfields and patches of forest. The only vague moment of excitement came when we crossed the border into Latvia (there was no stopping, we just whizzed past the signs), before the snowfields and forest patches resumed. I passed the time by snoozing and watching stuff on my iPad, and the journey was comfortable enough.
I noticed as we drove through the suburbs of Riga a lot of bicycle shops. I asked somebody about this later and was told that cycling is something Latvians have taken up with some enthusiasm only recently, but obviously few people try it in winter (although I did see a few riding through the snow). We were dropped off at Riga’s central bus station where I hoiked my bag on my back and trudged off in the direction of my hotel, which was situated a short distance away in the old town. Before I got to the old town I had to walk through a pretty dodgy looking area and through an underpass, which turned out to be the edge of the Russian, or Moscow, district so named because of the ethnic Russians who live and hang out there. It probably looked worse than it was, and in any case I wasn’t hassled, and soon found myself trudging through narrow streets covered in snow looking for my hotel, passing several backpacker hostels on the way. After consulting the iPhone’s GPS a few times I found it, and was checked in within minutes. But I did notice that my phone’s international roaming didn’t work in Latvia, whereas it worked everywhere else. I have no idea why.
The Hotel Centra was located smack in the middle of the old town, and this is why I chose it ahead of the Radisson Blu. They only had suites left when I booked, but at 75 Euro per night it was within my meagre, oil-funded budget. The hotel was a refurbished old building, and as such the rooms – or at least my rooms – had very high ceilings. The suite consisted of a corridor, small bathroom, a gigantic living room complete with chandelier, and a reasonably sized bedroom. I was really quite surprised by the size of the living room.
And yes, those are white fluffy bath robes you can see on the bed. Quite what I was supposed to do on my own in a living room that size I don’t know. You could have used it to hold a cattle auction. It had a four piece leather suite and large flat screen TV whose picture froze one evening and stayed like that until I checked out. Otherwise, I lounged on the chaise longue reading my book. The bedroom was nice but a bit cold due to the large windows, but they had provided a portable heater which I plugged in, turned up to full blast, and left that way. The wi-fi was free and fast, but didn’t work at all in the bedroom, worked fairly well in the living room, and was perfect in the bathroom. And whereas this was not a problem for me it being winter and street traffic very light, in summer you would get a lot of street noise coming through as the large windows offered almost no soundproofing. Given it is located directly opposite two bars, this is worth noting for anyone looking to stay here during summer. But otherwise, the hotel was great.
I didn’t know anyone in Riga, and nor did I have any Latvian friends putting me in touch with helpful family members, so it was down to me to explore on my own. The snow was coming down quite heavily when I arrived, which at least brought the temperature up a bit, but I wasn’t in much of a mood for wandering around outside for hours. I tramped around a few churches and what I took to be the town square, taking a few photos as I went, before walking past a small restaurant which advertised traditional Latvian dishes consisting of ham, potatoes, melted cheese, and other stuff all thrown together and baked or grilled or something. And that sounded just right for me.
It turned out this was a Russian place, or at least the staff and other customers were Russian speakers. There was an older couple in one corner in the company of a rather good looking younger woman, and in the other corner was a half-Asian chap who looked like the type of gangster you see in Sakhalin billiard clubs with another, equally good looking younger woman. I spent a few minutes trying to decide which girl was the better looking before I caught myself, realised that nobody is as good looking as my wife, and gave up the whole exercise. I ordered some fish soup followed by the ham, cheese, and potato mess which they talked about outside, washed down with a local beer, and it was all very good. I would tell you how much it was, but I honestly don’t know. Latvians have their own currency – which is actually a “strong” one, with 1 Lat being worth 1.4 Euros – and so it was a bit like spending Monopoly money. I am confident it was pretty cheap, though.
This was a Sunday evening and hence the old town was dead, but just walking about you could see the potential. There were bars everywhere, punctuated with backpacker hostels every few streets, and clearly this is a destination on the backpacker circuit with the bars catering for a younger, travelling student crowd. I had left by the weekend, but I suspect it got quite lively and in the summer months very much so. This concentrated nightlife aimed at backpackers and foreign students was a feature of Riga which I did not see replicated in Tallinn or Vilnius. The old town was nice, but not as quaint or picturesque as Tallinn, and there were no attempts to play on a medieval theme, but it was obvious that visitors would find more going on here.
The next day I stood beneath one of the nearby churches in a freezing wind waiting for the walking tour of Riga, a similar affair to that which I did in Tallinn and enjoyed so much. This time there was only one other person in the group, a Canadian student who was doing a short tour of the Baltics before going to meet a friend in Stockholm. Our guide was a young Latvian girl, I suspect a student, who was pretty enthusiastic and helpful but lacked the charisma and wit of the Tallinn guide. Although to be fair, the Estonian was a very difficult act to follow. She led us out of the old town, explaining that this part can be explored in a short time without a guide, and into the Russian district from where I had walked the evening before. The first thing we encountered were a set of enormous hangars, originally built by ze Germans for building zeppelins some time around WWI, but were now used to house an enormous Russian market.
We were taken through the market, which was impressive in size, but to a veteran of Russia like me looked no different in form or style than the standard rinok which can be found in any Russian town: lots of small stalls selling exactly the same stuff at exactly the same price manned by fierce Russian women who could all be sisters, with babushkas running about in between wearing massive coats and barging you out of the way. It was nice for a bit of nostalgia, but I think the Canadian found it more intriguing.
We then walked through the Russian district, past stalls selling Chinese-made Christmas tat, and into a “black market” run by Russians which sold absolutely anything from the guts of TVs to antique wooden skis, and show shovels to army surplus clothing, almost all of which was likely stolen from somewhere. Taking photographs was discouraged. From there we went to the Jewish memorial, built on the site of an old synagogue into which the Nazis herded a load of Riga’s Jews before setting the building on fire. According to my guide, Riga still has a sizeable Jewish population.
Next on the route was one of Stalin’s gothic skyscrapers of the type you see in Moscow, which was originally built to accommodate, of all things, farmers’ conferences. However, once completed the authorities thought, probably with good reason, that farmers don’t need to talk about crop failures, unmeetable production targets, and grain confiscations in skyscrapers (an old warehouse would probably suffice) and so used the new building to house the Academy of Sciences, where it remains to this day. Our guide told us there was a public viewing platform up near the top, but when I went back the next day I was told it was closed in winter.
Riga is built on a river, but from what I saw doesn’t seem to make good use of it. One side is industrial, and on the other side a main road separates the buildings from the water, meaning the streets don’t hug the river in the way say Paris or St. Petersburg does. Perhaps there is something going on along the river in summer, but when I thought a walk down by the river would be nice in any case, I found that it wasn’t. As a tourist, you’d barely know the river was there. The walking tour took us around the area outside the old town, which consisted of streets much longer, wider, and straighter and buildings larger and grander than I saw in Tallinn. That’s not to say the city is particularly impressive, but it was clear that Riga was considerable larger and enjoyed more commercial and industrial prominence than Tallinn. I’d say it looked a bit like a small, old German city. Not that I have been to many of them, but I drove through a few in June, and you could see that the Germans had been in Riga (prior to the Nazis) and also the Russians (prior to the Soviets).
Like Tallinn, the town did not look particularly wealthy, but nor was it run down, although some old buildings looked derelict and unkempt. One of these was the former KGB headquarters which for obvious reasons touches a nerve with many Latvians. Riga’s police took the building over following independence, but understandably abandoned it later on when they realised that working from a building notorious for being one in which many Latvians were tortured, deported, or killed was probably not good for public relations. There are plans mooted to turn it into a museum, but the city’s large ethnic Russian group are opposing it (I think on grounds of cost and utility, rather than ideological). From what I could gather, Latvia’s Russian population is larger and more integrated than in Estonia and there doesn’t seem to be the same animosity between the two groups.
Like Tallinn, there is a lot of investment from Denmark, Sweden, and Finland in Riga, but more so, and you could see plenty of businesses and logos to reflect that. Swedish banks seem to have moved into Latvia in a big way, for example, and the shopping centres were Finnish or Swedish. Wealthy Russians have also invested heavily in property, no doubt as a vehicle to getting their money out of Russia. Latvia is also a recipient of EU development funds which, coupled with the inward investment from their wealthier neighbours, was probably the reason why it had an air of quiet confidence about it. A tourist visiting Riga would find it a clean, organised, and competently run city.
That evening I headed out into a blizzard in search of something to eat and some entertainment. Finding nothing that looked better than where I ate the evening before, I went back to the traditional Latvian place and ordered the same ham, cheese, and potato concoction I’d previously eaten. I have no idea whether it is traditionally Latvian or whether the chef is a student chucking leftovers together, but it was tasty and stodgy enough to ward off the effects of wandering around in a blizzard.
Afterwards I roamed the streets looking for a decent bar and stumbled into one called Leningrad, located down a narrow back street. I plonked myself at the bar, cursing Latvians as I had done Estonians and Finns previously for their inability to provide somewhere to at least hang a damned coat, and ordered a Latvian beer. The bar was some retro, student type place which looked as though it needed a clean, and was staffed by a bearded chap in a hat and glasses who I am pretty sure was Jewish (a theory supported by the Jewish knick-knacks on the shelves behind him). He shoved a beer under my nose and went back to his conversation with his mate. The bar wasn’t busy, just three or four groups, some speaking Russian and some Latvian. Latvian was another language that was completely new to me. It is nothing like Estonian, and similar only to Lithuanian, and therefore I was as completely lost as I was in the other countries. But, like those places, the locals all speak English well enough that no tourist would have any difficulties. I found that in all the Baltic states, English is by far the first foreign language of choice for the younger generation, with Russian following some way behind. In general, if somebody is under 50, they only speak Russian if they have a Russian parent, otherwise they know only a smattering of words.
So I was sat at the end of the bar, not exactly minding my own business and open to a conversation or two, when a young guy who had been sitting at the other end in the drunken company of a very young looking hippy-ish girl passed by to go to the toilet. When he came out, he stopped and spoke to me, asking where I was from, and the conversation started. Early on, he asked if I spoke Russian, and I said I did, so the conversation switched briefly to Russian. Immediately he said my accent was complete shit, which it probably is, and said that he had lived in England for a few years which is why he could speak English so well. Which he could I suppose, but his vocabulary and accent was no better than that of any random Russian who you meet in an office in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk. He then blurted out a series of seemingly random statements and questions, which led me to tell him that I was married. This had an effect on him, as he immediately bawled that I was a “loser” before embarking on a story, the central theme of which was that he was somewhat of a playboy and could do what he liked but, for one reason or another, he is currently shagging his step-sister. I rarely ask people for advice on women these days, but if ever the need arises I’ll not seek it in Latvian bars.
During the conversation, a tough looking Russian had come in wearing a big coat, bald head, and beard who was drinking tumblers of neat whisky quickly. Somebody else had ordered the Latvian drink black balsam, a herbal liqueur which involves blackcurrant which everybody drinks but I didn’t try (I don’t know why, I just didn’t). The Russian turned to me and started a conversation which went as follows:
Him: I don’t like them (nodding at the drinks).
Me: The drink?
Him: Yes. Blacks.
Me: Why not?
Him: A nigger cut my hand (drawing a line with his finger across his palm).
Me: Huh? Where, here?
Him: No, in London.
And then he went back to his whisky. I rarely ask people for advice on race relations these days, but if ever the need arises I’ll not seek it in Latvian bars.
By this time the seat next to me had been occupied by a red-headed girl who, it turned out, spoke pretty much only Latvian and a bit of English but told me there was a decent bar around the corner where she sometimes worked. And with that, she tootled off. I finished my beer, uninterrupted by further instances of incestuous or racist locals, and wandered off in search of this other bar. It was located off a small square at the back end of the old town, and didn’t look very welcoming, but I went in anyway. The place was almost empty, save for five or six people sat at the bar, which was manned by a chap with a beard and woolly hat who looked like he belonged on a Barents Sea trawler. It didn’t surprise me that he had Lynyrd Skynyrd playing in the background, but that suited me fine.
I took a seat at the end of the bar beside a chap who looked like a bear and needed a bath, and ordered a vodka and coke. Everyone knew one another, and were clearly regulars. I stood out like a sore thumb, and eventually The Bear spoke to me. He was a nice enough chap and gave me the lowdown on the bar, Riga, and Latvia in pretty good English. He told me that the barman was Russian, and the three of us switched to Russian at which point, I have no idea why, I talked about the difficulties of running a business in Russia. The barman agreed with me, anyway. There were two fellows in their late 20s stood behind me, one of whom was hopelessly drunk and was doing his level best to stand up. And there was a couple at the other end of the bar, and in between The Bear telling me about the beautiful sand dunes along Latvia’s coast I managed to ascertain that the man had worked in Africa in telecoms, and the girl knew almost no English and even less Russian. Before I could get to talking to the bloke about where exactly in Africa he worked, I got cornered by another chap who was actually quite nice, but was quite pissed and gave me a twenty minute sales pitch on Latvia of the sort you’d read in a brochure pumped out by the Ministry of Tourism. All the while The Bear was giving his own competing guide to Latvia. I lasted about two or three (or was it four?) more vodkas before escaping while everyone was outside having a cigarette (indoor smoking is banned across the Baltics), but not before I had noticed that the drunk bloke behind me had collapsed across a sofa and his mate was attempting to carry him out.
I was intending to go home at this point, thinking that a Monday night in Riga is not likely to offer much else by way of entertainment, and it was about 1o or 11pm anyway. But as I came up to my hotel I noticed the bar opposite was pretty lively and so poked my head in, decided I’d have one in here, and plonked myself at the bar (jacket in a heap on the stool beside me). Having found Russian works in the other bars I’d been in I ordered another vodka (or was it whisky?) in Russian, but when I asked the barmaid how much, she replied “dvadsat shestdesyat”, which means twenty-sixty. This made no sense whatsoever, but I shovelled across a 20 note and realised that she mean 2.60. She was young. Looking around, the entire bar was young. I was the oldest person in there by at least 10 years, and probably nobody in there spoke Russian at all (I later found out this was indeed the case). After that, I pretty much gave up trying to speak Russian in Riga.
The bar was busy, the reason being that there was a karaoke night on and it was packed with students (some of whom I met in the bus station in Tallinn, where I found out they were from various parts of Europe studying in the Erasmus programme in Oslo), off-duty barmaids, and other young folk. The singing was bloody awful, and for the large part sounded as though somebody was ironing a sack full of cats. I grabbed the song list, had a careful look through (there were songs in Latvian, Russian, and English) but decided there was nothing in there that I’d attempt and resumed my position at the bar. Before too long, everyone was completely pissed. I wasn’t too bad, I can generally drink whisky (or was it vodka?) by the litre if I mix it up with coke and have a stomach full of ham, cheese, and potato something or other. It was quite a nice atmosphere, I had a quick chat with a couple of blonde girls sat next to me who turned out to be barmaids in the same place only enjoying a night off, and chatted briefly with the barmaids who were actually on the clock. There were no barmen, I think the owner – an Australian, I later found out – employs young pretty girls to get the male backpacker crowd in. I was more interested in the availability of cheap Stolichnaya and the proximity to my hotel.
At some point, some chap in his 20s who was completely pissed came and stood beside me. He asked me where I was from, and I told him, and then he proudly announced that he had spent a year working in the UK. Oh, I said. London? No, Northampton. Oh, I said. He then told me he was working there in a Marks & Spencer factory making sandwiches. Oh, I said. He then asked if I had ever eaten a Marks & Spencer sandwich. Yes, I said. He then asked when it was, because perhaps he was the bloke who’d made it. A long time ago, I said. He then asked what type it was. All sorts, I said. He then started to list all the Marks & Spencer sandwiches he had made in his factory in Northampton. Fucking hell, I said. I rarely ask people for advice on making Marks & Spencer sandwiches these days, but if ever the need arises I’ll seek it in Latvian bars.
I liked Riga, but the bar conversation was proving to be hard going.
And it didn’t get any better. Shortly after the sandwich guy had reached cheese and rocket salad on his list, a plumpish girl, who might have been Latvian but looked more Italian or Greek, stumbled into me completely hammered and asked where I was from. Wales, I said. She replied thusly:
“Oh wow!!! My future husband is from Wales!!!”
Imagine. Anyway, I asked where abouts he was from (he wasn’t in the bar). Newport, apparently. Possibly the biggest shithole in south Wales (and boy, there are some worthy contenders for the title), but there you go. She then shouted stuff at me, which was her way of making conversation, doing well just to keep herself vertical, and spent the next quarter of an hour running between various groups and me telling everyone I was from Wales, stopping only to squawk out some song on the karaoke machine with a sound like a circular saw catching a nail left in a piece of timber. But I noticed as the night wore on, her future husband got relegated to mere boyfriend and finished up as “a bloke I know”.
Meanwhile, Sandwich Man had jumped back into the conversation and after a bit of yelling at one another, he and she got into an argument about who knew the UK best, which manifested itself into them shouting random place names at each other, with me sat between them on my barstool getting sympathetic looks from the barmaid. I quickly reversed out of my position and took up another in the far corner and tried my best to look like a potted plant or something. I don’t know what time it was by the time the karaoke wound up, the pissheads fell into the road, and I found myself one of the last to leave (still fairly sober), but it was late. Fortunately, my hotel was only a few yards away. Unfortunately, some dickhead had spilled a glass of something sticky over my jacket.
I didn’t do much the next day. In fact, I can’t remember what I did, but I’m guessing I slept in late, read my book, and wandered around the old town some more. It was still cold and snowing. I decided that two nights of ham, cheese, and potato thrown together in an iron skillet was enough traditional Latvian food for one trip, so found myself a pizza parlour and was served by a student who I think had had a tree fall on his head. Afterwards I intended to go home as I had a four hour snooze on the bus the next day to prepare for, but I shoved my head in at the bar I’d been in the night before and stopped for a quick one. There was no karaoke that night, nobody telling me about his sandwich preparation career, and nobody bellowing “Cardiff” in my ear. In fact, I was pretty much on my own in there, but it was too early to go home.
Before I’d finished my first drink, a girl sat down a few seats along who I recognised as being one of the barmaids from the night before. We got talking, and it turns out she is a jazz singer (confession: I didn’t know jazz featured singing) who also works part time in the bar, and had just finished a performance. Her English was excellent by virtue of her having lived in London for a period (I didn’t ask if she made sandwiches), and despite her being 20 years old she was capable of more interesting and intelligent conversation than any of her compatriots I had met thus far. In fact, she didn’t seem 20, she came across as few years older, and I got one hell of a shock when she told me her mother was 37. That’s two years older than me. I hoped I didn’t look as old as I felt. Nevertheless, Elita – for that was her name – stuck around and it was well past midnight by the time I paid the bill and crossed the road to my hotel. She was good company, and I was glad of it.
So, in summary. Riga was nice, but like Tallinn it would be better visiting it in summer when I am sure it would be very lively. But it would likely be full of backpackers and students, which might not be the scene you’d be looking for. Latvia does have a long and supposedly interesting coastline which I think would be well worth checking out, so once again, head for the countryside after a few days in the capital.