The Russification of Latvia….now I’m beginning to understand it. Some 40% of Riga is made up of ethnic Russians, mostly from the Soviet days, and I have been brought face to face with it.
Last night’s backpacker’s was a nice place, but I had a deep, undefined feeling of unease about it. Some of the residents were obviously semi-permanent, and the young men had a Soviet gulag look about them: severe, sinister facial features, shaven heads and tattoos….and when one of them began talking to himself persistently through the night, I knew I’d be moving on in the morning.
So I checked into another hostel that was clearly used by genuine backpackers, who were chatty and had stories to tell. And they served free waffles and coffee for breakfast….decision made!
In fact, facial features are particularly prominent here in Latvia, principally for their severe, unsmiling qualities. Take a wrong turn in a museum, and a pint-sized lady steward, with just one look, can condem you to 10 years deportation to Siberia. I’m sure these people are ‘a bundle of fun’ underneath, but their faces betray something quite different.
I once listened in to the commentary of a Riga street guide talking about the local economy, saying that Latvia has lost its premier status amongst Baltic countries, because its average income has fallen. The average Latvian has an mrdian take-home salary (net of tax) of only €600…..then I look around me at the number of people relaxing on restaurant verandas and café terraces, and I try to square the two.
When I come to a capital city, it is my policy to look up the main, or national library, because library conceptual architecture can be amongst the most fascinating and articulate. Like Helsinki Central Library, Riga National Library is conceptually a centre for all the arts over 12 floors, a repository of the banned literature of the Soviet occupation, a viewing gallery of the city on the top floor served by a high-speed lift, and a bookshelf that is 5 storeys high of books donated, and inscribed, by the people of Riga.
Of the 5 museums and historic buildings I visited in Riga, the Library is easily the most extraordinary, and free to enter! Unlike most places of touristic interest, the Library is a vibrant hub of local life, filled with Latvians (not tourists) and their families who are simply enjoying the environment. I loved it.
As with all member countries of the Schengen Agreement, border crossings are now non-events, barely marked by a sign telling you of your transition….but in the case of Estonia and Latvia, that hasn’t always been the case.
In 1917, they started the process of creating a definitive border, and brought in the services of a neutral referee, in the name of Steven Tallents, a former colonel in the British army. The major problem was satisfying all the different ethnic groups, and Tallents himself was accused by both sides of corruption and taking bribes….even of having a Latvian wife and property in Riga. Anyway, the border was finally signed off in 1927, the border (or non-border) we have today.
Ethnic mix is a big problem here in Latvia, especially with the number of Russians still here from Soviet days. There’s an uneasy tolerance between communities, but things could easily flair up given the right conditions.
I found myself catching up with two
Eurovelo routes which happened to coincide. The EV10, the Baltic Sea route, and the EV13, the Iron Curtain trail. Both are just shy of 8000km in length, and both gain most of their distance from weaving in and out of either coastlines or country borders. I have to confess I would find both of them very frustrating to follow, sometimes weaving 100km to get to a point only 50km away. Unlike a river, my basic nature is not to meander…
And I have to tell you I found yet another extraordinary pitch for my tent, just 40km out of Riga. For €5, a young guy has let me use a corner of his constructed paintball battleground, and I’ve found a covered niche amongst the BBQs and picnic tables….because presumably, in these paintball battles, they stop for lunch or refreshments now and again…. Btw, in Latvian it’s called ‘peintbola’….
Distance covered: 90km