As the temperatures are finally consistently running into the high twenties Celsius here, it’s funny to think that only about two months ago I was walking around in Riga in a snowstorm – granted, one that only lasted a day. We went out then, on Easter Sunday, thinking we might do some sightseeing, but ended up frantically hunting around for a coffee place to take shelter in. And as we sat sipping a cappuccino and nibbling on a poppy-seed doughnut at the foot of an imposing Russian orthodox church – the only proper ‘high rise’ in the centre of Riga, really – the sun came out and the snow stopped. Instantly the streets were filled with people, where only an hour before only a few arctic explorers like ourselves could be seen plodding along. Happily, the following days were filled with sunshine, and on the day we left, I carried my coat draped over my arm – it was that warm.
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It’s pitch black outside. Five minutes ago we were racing over concrete dappled with patches of ice and riddled with potholes, the darkness only penetrated by pinpricks of light coming from other cars on another road several miles away. The occasional pine branch slapped against the window. All of a sudden the driver pulled over to the side of the road. He and his colleague disappeared outside, talking animatedly. I look at my watch, slightly worried; we have to pass the Estonian border before midnight, otherwise my Russian visa will have expired, and I’m not exactly keen to find out how severe Russian border guards can be. The drivers come back and open a hatch in the floor, right next to my seat. Still talking busily, they peer inside with a flashlight. A loud hissing noise spurts out from the hatch; I look over and see them fiddling with two tubes, tied together with gaffer tape. I am now slightly alarmed: I have faith in their ability to navigate the icy roads of the Baltic mainland, but gaffer tape is really the last resort of an engineer, isn’t it? After a few more minutes of mumbling and fiddling, they declare the problem fixed, and we set off again. We have been on the road for scarcely ten minutes when the driver pulls over again, and the whole procedure is repeated. My stomach is in knots: what if we don’t make it to the border in time? I look out the window. The occasional car flashes by, and in our headlights the pine trees throw grotesque shadows on the road. We are travelling along the fraying edge of the Russian border: a wintry no man’s land.
We set off again, and this time we continue until we are stopped at the first checkpoint. A Russian policeman enters the bus and checks our visas, proceeding rapidly and routinely. There are no smiles, no conversation; I have rarely seen a people more serious than the Russians. We haven’t driven for another five minutes before we are stopped again. A Russian policewoman scans our visas – doesn’t even glance at our passports – and departs again. Our next stop is the actual border. I hurry out to be at the front of the queue, though we have more than half an hour to spare before my visa expires. The other passengers wander in, sleepily, with mussed hair and wearing pajama pants; one family points excitedly at a dog that has come up to them and is sniffing their bags. Their smiles disappear when a stern-looking blonde woman holding the leash comes over and asks them to open up their bags for inspection.
It’s my turn. The woman behind the desk scans my passport again, checks whether the stamp is real or not, and adds another. Do svedanya, Mother Russia. When all passengers have gone through security, we drive on to the Estonian border, where our passports are checked again. We strike up a perfunctory conversation with the Belgian and Estonian blokes sitting next to us, but soon I feel too tired, now that I can relax, and I spend the rest of the journey dozing. I wake up to a bright blue sky and sunlight touching the treetops with gold. It seems like we’ve driven through nothing but forest all the way, but now I can see the spires of a city in the distance, which must be Riga. Billboards begin to appear along the road, shouting at us in yet another strange language. We arrive at the bus station and make our way to the hostel, spending the two hours before check-in in the lobby eating the piroshkis (fried dough buns with a filling of potatoes, meat and vegetables) we bought in St. Petersburg for breakfast. There are two other people in the room, checking their phones. The lobby seems to me a surreal, liminal space, in which time does not exist and the disco lights and dance music never stop – not even at seven a.m. Around nine, we decide to leave our luggage behind at reception and go exploring in the city, to see if we can get a coffee somewhere. Outside, it has started snowing.
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After Helsinki and St. Petersburg, Riga was the final stop on our two-week tour of north-eastern Europe. The city itself is quite small, especially compared to Petersburg, and very charming, though we could see it was readying itself for the wave of tourists to arrive a few months later. The medieval city centre, with its sublime buildings and scattering of magnificent churches, seems straight out of a fairy tale, if you crop out the TGI Friday’s and Starbucks on the street corners: it has become a bit of a tourist trap, with plenty of gift shops, market stalls and American-style diners and steak houses prepared to greet hundreds of customers to fill their empty terraces. There are some true hidden gems to be found, though: most notably a restaurant chain called Lido, where they serve traditional Latvian food, play Latvian music over the speakers, and the personnel is dressed in traditional clothing; you’re sort of expecting a druid to walk in at any moment, but the food is amazing and very cheap as well. In Petersburg, we’d had dinner at similar ‘fast food’ restaurants, essentially buffets serving delicious local cuisine – not at all like the one-stop artery-clogging stations that we’re used to in the west. Riga’s best kept secret (well, not that secret) is undoubtedly its Black Magic bar, which allows you to feel like a weary medieval traveller stepping into a tavern for a breather and being surrounded by riches from the orient. The riches here are chocolates – any kind you could dream of – and the local Black Balsam liquor, of which the Black Magic Bar is a proud and official purveyor (you can get the liquor cheaper at the market halls, though). Descend the steps to a genuine alchemist’s laboratory in the basement, with liquids fizzing, sizzling and popping in tubes and bulbs in every corner, and you’ll find a cocktail menu that does things with chocolate and the famous liquor you’ve never seen before.
Dig a little deeper, though, and Riga reveals its scars. The city belonged to the Hanseatic league during the Middle Ages and attracted me initially with its quaint cobbled streets, while the beautiful art nouveau architecture radiating out from the old town is a reminder of its prosperity in the early twentieth century. Riga was actually founded by a merchant from Bremen, Germany, and the partnership between these cities is the reason why a statue of the Bremer town musicians, from a German folk tale, stands in one of the main thoroughfares: bronze animals with their noses rubbed to a dull gold. Riga’s official symbol is a black cat. The story goes that a rich tradesman was refused membership to the city guild, and therefore had a house built across from it with two bronze statues of angry black cats on the roof, their behinds aimed towards the guild hall. Those statues can still be seen today. Riga honours its rebels, and is actually filled with monuments and statues, most of them related to recent history.
Latvia became an independent country in 1920, after proclaiming its independence in 1918 following the power vacuum created by the 1917 Russian revolution and the German surrender after World War I. For two years Latvia fought a bloody war of independence against the Russian empire, to which it had belonged since the early 18th century. Wandering up the bastion hill, which is part of the green belt that encircles the old town, we admired the nearby Freedom Monument. This is dedicated to those who fell in the war of independence and is a beautiful expression of Latvian nationalism, with bas-reliefs showing scenes from Latvian history. At the top of the column a bronze personification of Liberty lifts three stars to the heavens, which stand for Latvia’s three provinces. It’s quite remarkable that the monument has remained intact, because after enjoying scarcely twenty years of independence, Latvia, along with Estonia, Finland, Romania, Poland, and Lithuania, became a tiny little footnote in the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, aka Hitler and Stalin’s secret handshake, in which they agreed not to attack one another and to divide these countries between them to their mutual fancy. First reoccupied by Soviet Russia, Latvia found the Germans on its doorstep in 1941 and was swept up in Operation Barbarossa. The Germans installed their cruel regime as they had in other occupied countries, creating a ghetto for Riga’s Jewish population and several concentration camps nearby. After the tide turned in 1944, Latvia found itself occupied by the Soviets again – an occupation which was to last until 1996 (!), when the Soviet Union collapsed – and saw a large part of its population murdered or deported to the gulags.
When you leave the old town and head across the river, past the ugly black shoebox of a building built by the Soviets and heading towards the gleaming, jagged roof of the National Library, it becomes clear that Latvia is still a country divided; our guide at the Occupation Museum pointed out that 40% of Riga’s current inhabitants is Russian, and that the general feeling in the country is that of being a piece of leftover Soviet Union. Near the bridge connecting the old town to this part of the city stands a massive red granite sculpture of the Latvian riflemen, the name given to the soldiers of the former Latvian national army after it was absorbed by the Red Army during World War II. Across the river and away from the centre, the buildings become more dreary-looking, and the number of cafes and shops decreases dramatically. Here, in the neighbourhoods Agenskalns and Tornakalns, home to some of the oldest settlements in Riga, you can find a more modern and authentic vision of the country. There are a few traditional wooden houses scattered about, more often than not in a state of decay, as well as factories and office buildings, schools, football clubs, parks, and so on. We passed through the bleak, wintry cityscape, walking in a straight line towards the Victory Memorial to the Soviet Army: an enormous stone column with a golden star on top, flanked by bronze sculptures of Lady Victory on the left and a group of Red Army soldiers on the right. This controversial monument was constructed by the Soviets to remind the Latvians that they freed them from German occupation during WWII – a paltry kind of freedom, of course, because for the Latvians one totalitarian regime was simply replaced by another. It still sees its share of Russian nationalist visitors and has not yet been pulled down by the Latvian authorities, simply because there is still a strong pro-Russian sentiment in the government. It forms a striking counterpoint to the Freedom Monument across the river, and together these persisting monuments give a clear picture of the struggle still going on in Latvia today. The Tornakalns railway station was the site of two mass exoduses: in 1941, 15,000 Latvians were deported to Siberian gulags, and another 42,000 were deported in 1949. A wooden railway car, similar if not identical to the cattle cars used by the Nazis, with the hammer and sickle still stencilled on the side, has been preserved as a monument and stands next to the station.
Traces of Nazi and Soviet cruelty are not found exclusively on this side of the river, though. In between shop windows in the centre you will often find plaques attached to the wall, reminding the average consumer of freedom fighters who were shot or taken away at that very spot. And when we’d visited the market halls and had a delicious lunch in the building they call ‘Stalin’s birthday cake’ (it has a tiered roof, allegedly making it less conspicuous to bombers), we strolled along the riverside, looking for a hip art café promised to us by our guidebook. Instead, we came across the Holocaust museum. Largely open air, it consisted of a temporary exhibition on the Armenian genocide (indoors), and a series of panels talking about what the Jews suffered under the German occupation of the Baltic. They had also built a replica of a typical house in the Riga ghetto – a jacket with the yellow star hanging off the doorknob – and had made a duplicate of the road leading to the ghetto: cobbled, and lined with barbed wire. In addition, the main office of the KGB was located in Riga’s centre, in an enormous corner house with only one door and a deceptively normal neoclassical façade. It was opened to the public for the first time in 2015, and has been a popular tourist destination ever since, particularly for Latvians, who previously knew it only as a place you would enter but not leave – not intact, at least. I went on one of the guided tours, and was shown around the holding cells, interrogation rooms, kitchen, and lastly, the execution chambers. The mundane exterior hides an underground cell block that must have been hell on earth for those who passed through there – prone to flooding, harsh TL-lights, soft carpets to muffle the guards’ footsteps, no ventilation, and a strict system for stripping away every ounce of a prisoner’s dignity. It was this visit that really brought the horrors of the Soviet occupation home for me. For decades, citizens here lived in terror of that building, not knowing what went on inside; anyone might be picked up on the least suspicion of revolt against the government, and if they were lucky they were released again. But then, they might have turned spy for the Soviets, and their family would never know; they might have suffered excruciating torture, and be instructed to keep silent about it; they might have betrayed others in their fear and their will to live, and have to live with that burden for the rest of their lives. This apparatus of suspicion and fear held countless lives in its grip, and the guide told us that this fear has never completely gone away, not while former KGB agents still hold high government positions today. After Latvia became independent, most of them simply hung up their KGB coats behind the door, washed the blood off their hands and resumed a normal life. There were no authorities to persecute them, because they were the authorities. Current government, so our guide said, will likely not release their files for years; not until the main culprits are dead, or until most of the corrupt officials have been flushed out in a couple years’ time.
In 1987, Latvia and its neighbours Lithuania and Estonia staged an incredible revolt called ‘the Singing Revolution’. Citizens from all three countries joined hands and sung songs, forming a musical link throughout the Baltic states. All three countries have an enormous repertoire of folk songs, built up over hundreds of years, and it is in these songs that their national pride and identity lies. This peaceful revolution was a cry from the heart, a signal to the west that they were still not free. A documentary was made about the revolution, and the trailer gives you some idea of how lost these countries must have felt: forgotten by the world, but still daring to hope for deliverance from their Soviet oppressors, showing what national pride they had by singing songs passed down to them from generation to generation. There are some fascinating videos about this on youtube.
Naturally, trying its best to move on from its bloody past, Riga also offers plenty to lift one’s spirits. Further highlights included dinner at an overstaffed rock ‘n’ roll restaurant where you could eat burgers in the front seat of a real hot rod, while the same singer mumbled his way through some Elvis covers every night. We also visited the Dom and the St. Petrikirche, whose tower dominates the skyline and from where we had a magnificent view over the city. The church also housed an art exhibition celebrating the Latvian landscape, which ranged from very traditional and realist art to expressionist pieces. Given that we didn’t have time to visit any art museums, it was brilliant to see some local art (beyond postcards in souvenir shops with the ubiquitous black cat on them). We also visited the market halls, where we saw people queuing for a window where a baker handed them bread to take away, sculptures made from beeswax and pyramids of honey in a hundred shades of yellow, and displays of the cheapest bottles of vodka I have ever seen.
After the exhilarating journey from St. Petersburg, it was a joy to immerse ourselves in this charming city, to relax and read books in coffee shops, stuff ourselves with heavenly baked potatoes and honey-flavoured beer, and to learn about a corner of Europe that is hardly given any consideration in the west.