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.
I stopped by a wayside eatery and they had something called bukstiņputra on the menu, described as Latvian porridge with bacon. I was curious. I challenged the waitress’ English by asking her the ingredients.
Of course, I didn’t expect to be told it was just like my breakfast porridge, served with dried fruit and nuts, and some yoghurt. No, this porridge is a mixture of potato and pearl barley, and mixed with the bacon, which makes a delicious and filling meal. It definitely pumped a few miles back into the legs.
When I arrived at the outskirts of Riga, I expected to be embroiled with chaotic city traffic, but only until I got to the historic centre, where most of the ancient cobbled streets have been pedestrianised. I quickly got the feel of the place and liked it. Quieter than Tallinn, and much more spacious. Vibrant, but without being in your face. So I found myself a backpacker’s hostel right in the heart of the historic centre, to give me a convenient base for ‘pigging out’ on a few museums tomorrow.