Thursday, June 5, 2008

Fintics #7: Riga

The entry to the Riga building where we were staying was quite nasty - dark, dank, dirty, almost scary - but our apartment, fortunately, was much nicer. My Latvian friend Lauma has since told me that this is a common problem: when apartments were privatized, you bought the apartment itself, but no one really owns the front door, inside hallway, or inside stairs, and just who is responsible for the roof is not clear either. Stairways in some buildings can be falling apart, hallways filled with garbage. Ours wasn't that bad, though it was, well, dicey. As for the apartment, it was small but well-renovated - and well-stocked. We had high-speed internet, a nice tiny kitchen... as well as a large selection of Christian tracts (cartoon booklets) from California, presumably provided by the UK owners of the flat, educating us about the moral perils of evolution and the like! We had been expecting a washing machine (as we had in Tallinn) but didn't have one; we hand-washed some laundry, which didn't really dry that well, as the apartment was damp and not well-ventitlated.

The next day we explored Riga. One of our first stops was the vast market for breakfast. The main buildings were four WWI zeppelin hangars which were converted to a market in the 20s or 30s, and apparently the market is Europe's largest. The covered markets house only part of the market; outside and behind there are many, many more stalls, including a large and beautiful flower market. (The Balts, and perhaps the Finns too, love giving flowers; there was a beautiful but smaller flower market in Tallinn, just inside the city walls.) The market was not a tourist-trap; it was, as far as we could tell, where ordinary Riga-folk would do their food-shopping. It wasn't as Englishified as most of our Estonia experiences were, and at least once I had occasion to take out my notebook to finish a transaction (writing down that I wanted 100g of this, asking for the price of that, etc.)

In both Estonia and Latvia, whether in grocery stores or in markets, most of the produce looks like you would expect in a western market - strawberries from Spain, citrus from Italy, etc. - and the prices, after conversion, are what you would pay in Canada, except that bananas are very expensive (EU banana policy?). I suppose the labour must be relatively inexpensive, as restaurant meals in Latvia and Estonia can be cheap, depending on where you go though (many places in prime locations have high prices for tourists, but off the beaten-track can be cheap).

The outdated infrastructure we had seen on the train ride (rusty benzene tank-rail-cars, manual signals, dilapidated stations) would be repeated in Riga itself, with aged Czechoslovakian trams (look up Tatra streetcars on Wikipedia if curious). They go very v-e-r-y slowly on corners, and when you look at the condition of the rails (and the cobblestones, yes, stones, that seem to keep the rails in place), perhaps you are grateful not to be going fast, because safe and slow is better than fast and derailed.

After the market, we got ready to visit Old Riga. First we stopped at the tourist info kiosk; unlike the previous night, it was now open, but the young employee was not very interested in being helpful. We waited for a tram from the market to Old Riga, and when it arrived, we witnessed something rather extraordinary - a woman in a wheelchair somehow crawled/dragged herself (and her wheelchair?!) up the steps into the tram. Actually, it was more like, turn around, and has she just done what I think she did? It struck me that in Riga we saw quite a fair number of more or less disabled individuals. I wondered how many of them might have been injured in far-away places like maybe Afghanistan while serving in the old USSR's army.

Old Riga doesn't have the same kinds of fortifications as Tallinn, and some parts are not as far along the reconstruction/renovation path as Tallinn, but it too is beautiful and astonishing. In the main town square is a stunning brick "gingerbread" building from the Hanseatic era. You would be forgiven for assuming it had always been there, but up in the gable there is a gold inscription to inform you, "Anno 1334 Renov. Anno 1999". Later I read that it had been razed by the Soviets as an example of bourgeois decadence (possibly after incurring war-time damage?) and rebuilt from nothing in the last few decades. Simply astonishing. We saw the outside of a synagogue being renovated (I think this was just about the only one in Riga that was not destroyed in the Nazi era, because setting fire to it as for the others would have risked setting all of Old Riga aflame), and the inside of several churches. The largest church had rather an interesting feature: to enter it, you had to descend a flight of stairs. We read that in the 800 years since it had been constructed, it has sunk 1/2 to 3/4 of a storey into the city's soft sandy soil. By this time we were beginning to suffer church-overload, so we didn't choose to pay to go into this church (though it was very grand).

We visited another information centre in Old Riga, and unlike at the bus station kiosk, the woman here was very friendly and helpful. We inquired about an excursion to Sigulda National Park, and asked about a package tour she had, but hesitated at the price; she agreed it was pricy and helped us figure out that we could go on the train on our own. That would be our next day's excursion. But we still had sites to see in Riga.

We visited the Occupation Museum. The building had been built in Soviet times as a museum dedicated to Soviet heroes, but it's really quite an ugly and dark building (situated just next door to the newly-reconstructed medieval hanseatic building of striking bourgeois decadence). I think it was larger than the Tallinn occupation museum (and certainly larger than the Tartu KGB museum), though similar in concept, illustrating when and how the Soviets came, how they took over, how and when they deported people (and how many), when the key dates were, and so on. Mom and M. remarked that what was missing in these museums was a sense of what life was like for an ordinary person in Soviet times, but visiting these museums certainly is worth while and helps put things in perspective.

Our walk through Old Riga took us past some interesting sights, including the Presidential Palace. Out front, there were two (honour?) guards, but they didn't stand stick-still like the British or Canadian or Finnish ones do; they would stand for a bit facing out, then turn so that they couldn't see each other, and march away. They did this in perfect synchrony, even though they couldn't see each other, so they must have an arrangement, like A will listen to B's boot-steps, and they will both take X steps away before turning around. Amusing to watch for a few minutes! There was also a third guard, but he didn't wear a fancy traditional uniform; he was in beige-toned fatigues, and his gun was much larger and more menacing, and his patrol looked more assertive and functional than ceremonial. A few minutes later we saw some people (VIPs and politicians?) leave the palace.

We also walked through the oldest, narrowest street of Riga, past some very charming buildings, including one whose first storey looked like it had been excavated out to make a gateway, and whose side-pillars looked like old cannons.

We had supper in a pub featuring traditional Latvian food. With the bread basket there came a small dish of not butter but probably lard with chunks of bacon and crackling - very tasty I have to admit. M. and Mom finally had a chance to order blood sausage, though I think they were a bit disappointed. I tried a little bit, and it was crumbly and not particularly tasty.

In the evening, we took a tram to the Art Nouveau district to admire the architecture. There was a wonderful variety of styles and features, from slightly more geometric (more Art Deco?) to (orientalist?) sculptures in the building walls of women and animals, to (Art Nouveau?) organic flourishes and swoops. Most of the buildings had been renovated to a fine state, though work was still progressing on some of them where you could see that they had suffered years of neglect. Some of these grand buildings were private residences, some were academic institutions, and many were embassies. While walking around the area, a retired couple came up to chat with us - the husband seemed proud to mention that he was a retired university professor - and they were very friendly. You see, I don't think that all Balts are rude or impolite!

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