20th April, 14:02 (BST+2)
Pierre’s Chocolaterie, Tallinn
So I would have written my diary entry about Riga on my last night there, but a turn of events involving some rowdy Kiwi football fans, a bar showing the Chelsea and Arsenal games that served PROPER cider, and some shots of Black Balsam (Riga’s favoured spirit – tastes like petrol-infused liquorice-flavoured Jagermeister) with a bald old bruiser called ‘Crazy Mike’ left me in an unfit state to do anything except waddle back to the hostel with a full bladder and a demented need to harass my friends on Facebook chat. As such, I’m writing it now instead.
Riga is smaller than Vilnius, but makes up for it with enough pubs to intoxicate an army and flat out brilliant architecture. Many of the buildings are freshly painted in bright colours, bolder than those in Vilnius. The whole Old Town area and some of the surrounding area – particularly to the north around the Freedom monument, where there’s a lovely park and a stunning Orthodox church with golden domes – is very pretty indeed. The other side of the river and the section of town near the bus station, known as ‘Little Moscow’, are much shabbier, and I was warned off visiting that area at night.
The Skyline bar, a bar on the 26th floor of the Radisson hotel, which in turn is nestled behind the Orthodox church, was top of my list of places to visit once I’d surveyed the Old Town. As I went to enter the hotel, I was however besieged by an old woman, who started pointing at the pink flowers next to the revolving glass door and jabbering at me in rapid Latvian.
“Err… I don’t understand. English.”
“English?” she repeated slowly. “London?”
“Yes, London,” I nodded, because even though I am definitely not from London, I’ve learned there is no point trying to explain my proud Kentish heritage to foreigners.
She jabbered again, pointing at the flowers and making absolutely fuck all sense to someone whose only knowledge of Latvian was “Prieke!”, meaning cheers, which I’d been taught when presented with a shot of Black Balsam upon check-in at the brilliantly named Naughty Squirrel hostel. Latvian as a language bears resemblance only to Lithuanian, the only other surviving Baltic language, and the only other language they’re even vaguely related to is Sanskrit. (Estonian is part of a disparate language tree that includes Finnish and Hungarian.) I shrugged and did my awkward face.
“English,” she said again, shaking her head, “(something something Latvian) Deutsche,” pointing at herself. I assumed she was saying she knew no English (kind of apparent) but knew German. I do not know German, apart from various names for stations (few things are as enjoyable as saying “Hauptbahnhof” in a comedy German accent). So I shook my head.
Expecting this to be the end of our dialogue, imagine my surprise when she spoke more Latvian, this time in a resigned tone, before jabbering at other passers by about the flowers, and – when they shrugged her off – returning to me, saying, “London… New York… Antwerp?”. Unsure what she was asking, I shrugged and said London again. Eventually she harangued a bellboy as he left the hotel, still yammering in her native tongue. He gave me a funny look.
“What do you want?” he asked.
I looked at him helplessly and said I had no idea what was going on. He spoke to her in their common language and then told me she’d been asking where I was from.
“Seriously? I told her that several times,” I huffed, before saying London yet again. He relayed the information and she bid me farewell. I needed a drink.
There’s meant to be a €3 charge on visiting the bar, but no one asked me for it and I felt I’d earned free entrance after my awkward encounter with the old woman, so I ended up paying just the expected €6.50 on a ‘Chanel No5’ cocktail, which tasted of peaches and vanilla. It was a damn good cocktail and the view was pretty good too.
Alcohol levels satiated, I went in search of food and found Lido, a popular and devastatingly cheap buffet that’s popular with locals. My meal of unidentified fruit juice and a cabbage roll with lashings of sauce cost just €2.50. The roll didn’t sound too appetising but the ingredients sounded fine individually, so as part of my mission to try local food in every country I took the plunge. Good thing too, because it was actually delicious -meat carefully wrapped in soft cabbage leaves, covered in a creamy, well-seasoned tomato sauce. *salivates* Nothing of note happened for the rest of the evening apart from another weird encounter with a local that I’ll post about at a later date (cliffhanger!).
The first full day in a Baltic city means one thing – a free walking tour! I have to be honest and say that, while it was OK, I found it less interesting and entertaining overall than the walking tours in Vilnius and Tallinn. Our guide was nice enough, but he was swamped by a huge group which meant the tour was derailed somewhat by constant instructions on crossing roads and meeting places in case anyone got lost.
Sights on our route included the massive and pretty impressive Central Market, with hundreds of stalls selling fruit, vegetables and fish; a big wooden Lutheran church out in the suburbs; the Boulevards – several pretty streets tucked away behind the façade of shabby city centre brickwork that are so peaceful that you hear not the hustle and bustle of the city, but birdsong; and the huge Freedom Monument, built in 1935 and saved from Soviet and Nazi destruction because of ambiguous wording on the side, which praises “the fatherland” rather than Latvia specifically. The best story was of the razing of the suburbs in 1812 after a huge cloud of dust in the distance was taken – entirely reasonably – as proof that Napoleon’s army was nigh, and that they would use the buildings in the suburbs to prevent the soldiers having somewhere to hide and house them. Unfortunately for those left homeless by the razing, Napoleon’s march to St Petersburg bypassed Riga completely. So what caused the cloud of dust? …a herd of rampaging sheep. The summer had been so dry that the ground was dusty, so… Yeah. Unbelievable, but true. Amazing.
After the tour I visited a branch of the Coffee Inn, having eaten nothing since my cabbage roll the night before, and sampled a Latvian chai latte (fine, if small) and a marzipan muffin (sadly not the peak of human civilisation I suspected it would be), and chilled with Love In The Time Of Cholera. By evening time, craving more authentic Latvian cuisine I headed to Ala, a much-feted restaurant, but forgot that going to a popular restaurant on a Friday night is prrrrobably a bad idea and it’ll be absolutely rammed. I opted for a steak & cheese Subway sub instead. Tasted great, so who’s judging?
For my second/last full day I’d signed up to go shooting in an old Soviet bunker. There were 4 different packages; I splashed out €50 to do the second most comprehensive and expensive one, the Lone Wolf. This included 6 shots each with an AK101, a Glock hand gun, and a Pump Action (wahey!). 7 of us – 4 boys, 3 girls – travelled across the river to the underground bunker, whose front room was military porn with Soviet hats on shelves, hundreds of gold bullets proudly displayed in glass bowls on the windowsill, and mildly inappropriate pictures of scantily clad women clutching guns on the walls. The noise of the guns from the rooms was horrendous, and the other girls freaked out. Inwardly I fretted, realising I’d probably never seen a gun outside of a museum or the TV before.
Eons passed before it was our time to go in. Our instructor was the kind of solid mustachioed old man you could imagine kicking arse in a war of independence. As he demonstrated the Glock I knew I wasn’t going first, but the Australian girl, who was wearing more foundation on her face than the most blemished Essex girl, took the initiative. Her hungover friend from Suffolk was next, and I came afterwards (wahey!).
Call of Duty really doesn’t prepare you for the kickback or the cartridges pinging back in your face. My six shots yielded just one hit on the target – an Archer-esque figure of a man in a suit clutching a Martini – but if he’d been real I’d have had him in tears, because I hit him RIGHT in the cock. #literalballbreaker
The AK was bigger, better and more difficult to hold; you had to more or less wedge it into your armpit. I got 3 hits on the chest this time, which was pretty satisfying, but best of all was the shotgun, which had the most kickback and the biggest cartridges. One of my six shots completely broke the target’s face, which had the boys – 2 Kiwis and 2 Americans (one of whom was Texan, hence lots of stereotyping from the rest of us) – lauding my brutality. It became less frightening and more empowering over time, and I left the bunker feeling like a major badass.
Our efforts earned us all a free beer/cider back in the Old Town, even the Kiwi whose 9 shots all missed the target. I chatted to him about football – he turned out to be a Fulham fan – and ended up meeting him and his mate at the aptly-named Kiwi Bar a few hours later to watch the Chelsea and Arsenal games. The Kiwi Bar served REAL CIDER (Westons), so I loaded up while talking to my fellow football fans, who did the patronising “WOAH! This girl REALLY knows about football!” thing just because I knew who Tim Sherwood was.
It was around this time that the Kiwi with terrible aim asked, “Have you met Crazy Mike? HE’S FACKING CRAZY!!!”. Crazy Mike seemed fairly sane to me, especially given that the Kiwis were raising all hell around him while he sat stoically enduring Arsenal’s latest limp outing, occasionally muttering swear words. He lived in what he referred to as ‘the Cronx’ (imagine my joy when I found out he was referring to Croydon) was originally from Durban in South Africa, and visited Riga 3-4 times a year because he loved it so much.
We did chat more, but thanks to 3 8.3% proof ciders, a Jagerbomb and the ubiquitous Black Balsam, I don’t really remember the specifics.
My memory is better for extra time in the Arsenal match, where I got to meet Paul, an Irish maths teacher, and his London-born Arsenal-loving mate Kieran, an economics teacher, both of whom had relocated to Riga to teach in an international school and were good company. I’m not entirely sure that I paid for the last pint, but the barmaids said nothing when I did a walk of shame back the next day with my rucksack* to retrieve the huge hair clip I’d left on the bar. Oops. (*Typoed this as ‘fucksack’, which is hilariously ironic seeing as it’s the least alluring accessory known to man, short of a Josef Fritzl fan club t-shirt or a pair of Crocs.)
Hair clip successfully repatriated, it was back onto an Ecolines bus, this time in the direction of Tallinn. Entry coming soon (wahey!). Til then…