July 22, 2012
If Lithuania gave me pause to reflect on life, the universe and everything, then arriving in brash and beautiful Riga, the capital of Latvia, jerked me back to earth.
My hotmail account was blocked “due to unusual activity”, the bankomat refused to spit out our cash, and the relaxing bath I was taking turned horror movie when the spa jets started spitting at me for no apparent reason.
Graham’s paranoia was increasing as we edged closer to Russia. He was waiting to be pulled up by police and forced to pay a bribe. It didn’t help that the bike started playing up again in traffic, another fouled plug.
And when our friendly airbnb host described Riga as “tricky” … ie you had to keep your wits about you … we both became a little jumpy. As it turned out Riga was one of the most enjoyable stays of our journey so far.
Dace’s apartment was luxurious (we eventually got the spa bath to work) and in an interesting part of central Riga.
The touristy Old Town was picturesque but Graham and I preferred our adventures into the burbs. Between our apartment and the local supermarket (in a huge and modern shopping centre) were disused factories, a rather spooky train station … where you walked across the tracks to go from one platform to another … and graffiti sprayed across almost every spare surface.
Oh, and lots of cats. Stray cats.
In the vacant block across the road we counted at least a dozen. Apparently the council has been funding a program to provide basic veterinary care and desexing but the cats are returned to their "environment". In some cases, people have made homes for the cats out of boxes and it looks like food is left for them. I wanted to take them all in, reminded me of Feral and Mothercat from Dubbo.
Riga is a city of contrasts: a restored heritage Old Town, shiny new bridges and office buildings and derelict Soviet-era apartment blocks.
Linking them all are mostly shoddy streets, usually potholed and patched, sometimes cobbled, one we found like a river bed, through which cars and motorbikes and trucks hurtle at breakneck speeds, dicing with buses and electric trolley cars and light rail. And pedestrians. No wonder Latvia has one of the highest road fatality rates in Europe.
The best road is the one linking the city with its famous Jurmala beach, another Russian beachside playground of old that has been transformed into Latvia's Noosa. You have to pay one lat (about $1.60) to travel the few kilometres across the river to the coastal strip.
The houses are spectacular: big renovated old mansions and new glass monoliths. There is some money somewhere in these emerging capitalist economies.
The beach itself is flat, greyish sand with even flatter, brownish water. Like a lake, not the ocean. But the crowds are revelling in it, walking out 50 or 60 metres until the water becomes thigh high and you can actually swim!
There are women of all ages, all in bikinis, men almost all in budgie smugglers, volleyball games, kids digging in the mud. No hats, no sunscreen. Lots of smoking.
We head a little way north through pine forests and a 1930s-vintage spa resort (complete with sulphur springs)* to a more secluded village where we find a small hotel, right on the beach, with a deck and a couple of cold beers.
On another of our day trips from Riga we discover another of our favourite "sites", again so poorly signposted that we almost give up. The WWII concentration camp at Salaspils was designed as a holding yard, where local Jews and others destined for extermination in places like Dachau or Auschwitz would be put to work before transportation. Life was desperately hard and many died here.
The former camp site has been transformed into a tranquil, even uplifting, memorial with giant granite sculptures and a black stone slab that resonates with what sounds like a heartbeat.
We felt a sense of calm wash over us as soon as we stepped on to the expanse of lawn that extends around where the camp huts once stood. There was even a guy on a ride-on mower, such an ordinary activity in an extraordinary place.
* and no blue cows, Lonely Planet you got this one wrong … Grr …