Thursday, 28 July 2011

Riga July 2011


Despite our usual guide-book research: we had few preconceptions about Riga and none at all about its people. We were treating it as handy bread around the sandwich filling or our annual visit to Finland. Easy for us to get to; and from there it was quick for us to pop over to Finland and back to the city.

One surprise was that the unit of currency is larger than the Pound. We are not used to that and it imediately instills a little unease. The two year old guide book told me the Pound and the Lat had parity. I had difficulty getting hold of Lats prior to departure so at the airport I bought a few and found that the Pound had sunk to 60% of parity! I knew the airport exchange rate would be poor; but it turned out that the situation was less dire than I feared and in Latvia itself the Pound had sunk a mere 20% in two years. Nevertheless, we did not find the cost of living expensive in comparison with Euroland.

One striking element is how friendly and helpful people are: even the taxi drivers! One waitress in a bar we went to several times took pains to provide lots of notes and directions written on torn out pages of her order pad. She was pleasantly determined we should find the best places to eat, how to get to the beach, where to avoid, what to see: and we followed most of her reliable recommendations.

It is a very civilised and attractive city with little trace of the former communist shroud and not much of the Stalinist architecture that often disfigures Eastern Block cities. The centre is in two main parts divided by the canal with the park along that waterway and lots of mature trees and fountains amongst which sits its opera house.

To one side of the park is an elegant area of 19th and early 20th centaury buildings and here can be found the largest concentration of Art Nouveau architecture in Europe. Across the park is the livelier medieval city and the place where the nightlife is concentrated.  

It has a river bank which provides a pleasant stroll and views across the wide river to yet another part of the city; one that tourists don’t bother with despite there being patches of the old style dacha wooden houses. Some of these remain in beautiful condition and are sprinkled amongst the much more mundane modern blocks and business premises.

We encountered an outpouring of people from the Orthodox Cathedral and realised the Icons were being ceremonially paraded round the outside of the building followed by the congregation; then from the front steps displayed to the people. There were prayers and praises watched from high above by the bell ringer. The building was fully restored about four years ago, lavishly decorated and clearly much cared for.

The Art Nouveau area was a great surprise. Most of the embassies sit here. One of the main movers in the movement was the father of the film maker Eisenstein who helped to make the style popular and whole streets are populated with very grand and detailed examples by a handful of local architects. The style here is less sinuous than in the French manor, the exteriors are studded with grotesques. Many apartments were split up during communist times and even now such as remain unrenovated provide cramped and primitive accommodation for the renterrs who, so I read, queue each morning to use the shared bathrooms.

One show apartment was preserved as originally designed and open to visitors. It was all beautifully thought through; but for my tastes this kind of interior is much too feminised and delicate looking. The spindly furniture all looked like it was made for formal genteel living. Sit gently on that chair, you may squash it. Even the couches were lightweight pieces where the side cushions would tumble to the floor unless you sat carefully; and sat still. All very well to look round, but suggesting a kind of contained formality even when the family was private and not in its rooms of display. Elegance of surrounding and behaviour, inhibited by suffocating charm.

Eventually the brain goes into detail overload on these buildings and at home reviewing the photographs, I deleted many as my brain became double glazed. When young I was around at the time of the Art Nouveau revival where Athena sold Mucha posters by the hundred thousand, Aubrey Beardsley's decadent prints influenced clothes and interior design and I have long admired the Scottish Art Nouveau work which almost blended into the Arts and Crafts movement. But confronted by Nouveau Utopia Central, I concluded that my enthusiasm for and even my patience with the style was pretty completely exhausted. 

The cathedral was unremarkable inside, the cloisters were used as a dumping ground for everything from cannon balls to lengths of wood, old and new, the tarnished cockerel from the tip of the tower and a large number of objects that seemed to have no connection at all to the Cathedral, all jammed cheek by jowell and becoming encrusted in muck. Quite a contrast to the pristine maintaince of the Orthodox building and contents.

What is noticeable about these following few photographs is the absence of people. This was not a matter of me waiting about to obtain depopulated shots; but apart from Friday night and during the day on Saturday, the place often seemed to be deserted by locals and visitors alike. Each evening we strolled past rows of completely empty bars and restaurants. In part the answer may have been with the weather.

I spent several days flat on my back staring at the hotel room walls. My back decided upon its own kind of holiday. During my enforced immobility Jane went to the beach; half an hour on the train and she was across to where she felt the entire population was relaxing on a very long jammed packed beach. Here she could paddle miles along the edge of the beach and on this occasion not have to be pestered by me wanting shade and a sit down.

We did quite a bit of people watching; partly due to my sometimes being hardly able to get about, even when Jane returned from a shopping trip with a carved walking stick. Clearly Friday night is THE night out. We sat on the edge of the nightlife area which embraces three almost interlocking city squares in the medieval area. The girls go about in small groups clearly having decided on the 'look' for the night. They are dressed alike in either near identical dresses, or the same colour codes. They go to quite a bit of trouble and the look is varied between these groups but all carefully coordinated. By contrast the young men have almost a uniform. Calf length shorts and T-shirt. Sloppy and careless in contrast to the women; a striking difference in the way they present themselves. Giving flowers is obviously a tradition and going to nightclubs many young men carried a bunch of flowers, perhaps making up for their casual appearance.

Sitting outdoors at one point we could hear rock music being pumped out of one club where we could see dancers twirling on the bar-top, a live band in the square itself, advertised as the oldest Latin American group in Latvia; probably also the loudest, our bar was imposing Eurovision type pop and even through all of this we could hear someone playing Dvorak on a recorder close to us. We did not linger long at that spot and found somewhere to sit where only two sources of music were in competition.

Down by the river one night strolling along the wide pavement we came upon a young man playing jazz on a grand piano! I could see that on the street itself he has a 4X4 and trailer into which the piano would have to be dismantled to fit. I admired his energy in managing the logistics as much as his playing.

The food is not expensive; it seems varied to the eye, but is in the main bland. One night we ate in a Russian place. It could be that the vodka we threw back numbed the taste buds; but despite the advertised variety of  ingredients my Boris Godunov was bland and stodgy. In other restaurants the menus looked sophisticated, the presentation cheffie but the end result lacking in taste.

The shops were a different story, Jane was constantly weighing up in her head the loss of weight we would achieve when we gave over the gifts we had bought for our friends in Finland as against how much weight in new clothes could be bought without exceeding the airline weight restrictions. We agreed we would like to revisit the city. It has no must-see world standard tourist attractions; but it is a genuinely pleasant place to relax in for a few days.

As an adjunct to this post and a symbolic close for it, I give you, from the lake in Finland we visit, the view from the sauna around midnight. Here we go for the warmth of the friendship and restoration of our energy. This year's visit as rich in both as any.

Hyvää yötä, nuku hyvin

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