Latvia

Trip Start Mar 05, 2008
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Friday, June 20, 2008

Wednesday 28th May: Latvia

I'm starting to dread the bus journeys at this stage, for want of a expression to put it 'I'm shitting myself' every time I have to get on a coach. I don't know, maybe bus drivers are the same the world over but recently the ticket I've bought has me sitting right up the front with a birds eye view of everything that the driver and the bus does. Normally given the choice I would tend to sit towards the back and maybe by doing so you don't realize just how much your life is in danger. The overtaking manoeuvres of the driver on the route from Parnu to Riga were bordering on the suicidal; there's no theme park that has a ride more white-knuckle than this, it should come with a government health warning. I don't know maybe he had some reason to get to Riga in a hurry, he certainly drove like he did, a bat out of hell springs to mind. He had the bus tailgating behind the cars in front, if he got any closer he'd be kissing their bumper and in danger of getting arrested for unsolicited advances. I don't know what he was doing, was he looking for a tow or what?? I mean Lewis Hamilton wouldn't dare go that close when he's racing in the F1 never a mind in a coach with about 40 people on-board. I'm not a driver, to be honest I struggle to even get a car moving, but I don't think you need to have any driving experience to know when your life might be in danger and therefore what is considered good or bad driving. If the rocking due to the constant breaking and acceleration didn't have us holding onto our seats then the moments he picked to pass the car in front certainly did. Maybe I'm being a little unfair to him; he probably did have the power of x-ray vision to be able to see around all the blind corners!! I was having palpitations; I really thought I was going to die. Now I'm not afraid to die, but I really would like to finish this trip and actually make it to Australia, preferably in one piece, before my time on this earth is done. I wish it ended there and that that was as bad as the journey got; but no unbelievably it got much worse, wait till you hear this. The smoking ban on public buses doesn't seem to apply to the drives who often like to have a sneaky smoke out the window as they drive along. This driver was no different but as he was trying to control his wild overtaking manoeuvres with only one hand on the steering wheel he was having difficulty lighting his cigarette with the other. His solution was to keep both hands on the wheel, very safety conscious of him, then lower his head down till level with the steering wheel and click repeatedly away on his lighter with barely a view of the road. When the bus veered off its lane and into on-coming traffic only the constant beeps of car horns seemed to remind our driver that it was in fact him driving the bus and not some sort of advanced autopilot system. Now I'm not a religious man, in fact the idea of organised religion kind of scares me a bit. There's something about the unquestioning belief in a divine being by millions of people all over the world that gives me the willies. In fairness over the course of the history of the world, religion has been at the forefront of many wars and been responsible for the persecution of people. Don't get me wrong I can see the benefits faith can bring to peoples lives, especially to those who are in the depths of despair or trying to cope with the grief process. That said I was pretty close to saying a prayer to a god, any god, while on this bus. It's a pity because I was so distracted and uncomfortable with the wild driving that I don't have any lasting memory of the landscape we passed on the route. In the approach to the outskirts of Riga the traffic was starting to get heavier which thankfully forced the driver to take a more controlled approach in getting us to our destination. On the outskirts of the city are big grey apartment blocks that were probably remaining from Soviet times. Of all the Baltic States, Latvia is considered to be the most Russian, with a huge Russian population and with the Russian language widely spoken Riga has a very Russian feel when compared to say Tallinn for example. The bus station is only a 5minute walk from the centre of 'old town' so it was not long after we arrived that I found myself at the front door of the hostel. I was staying in 'fun friendly franks' for Ls8 per night, a hostel run by a combination of Australians, Irish and English and situated in an excellent location right on the edge of the old town facing out onto the Daugava river. On check-in you get a welcome chat and drink in the on-site bar which is a nice touch and something that I hadn't experienced thus far. With it being only 5pm and the bar already packed I could tell that Riga was going to live up to its reputation of being the new hot-spot for both the stag and hen party crowd. I got chatting to a guy from Canada for most of the night. He was traveling on his own and would be following a similar itinerary to mine over the coming days. I like pulling the piss out of Canadians, it's so easy to get a rise out of them and I just can't resist. The first thing you do is ask them where in America they are from and this really gets them going. To try and not be mistaken for Americans, Canadians stitch a patch of their national flag into nearly every piece of clothing they own, baseball caps, jackets, ruck-sac's, it really doesn't matter thus they cant understand when you get it wrong. Rather than say they are not American they will generally just point to one of the many flags on their attire and give you a look as if to say 'are you stupid?'. You then respond with 'oh sorry, you're from Canadia I didn't realize' and they lose the plot altogether generally shouting 'its Canada man, Canada'. I've never met a race of people more touchy about where they are from, it's hilarious. With almost as many Irish people living in Canada as there are in America the Canadians have a great affiliation with the Irish and the craic is usually quite good. There is actually a town in New Foundland on the east cost of Canada where everyone speaks with an Irish accent. What's strange about it is that they are all second and third generation Irish so it seems that the accent is being passed down through the generations. Harley was staying longer in Riga than I had planned but as he was following a similar route down through the rest of Europe I felt pretty sure that our paths would cross again.

The Thursday was going to be the only full day in Riga I was going to spend so I got going real early to make sure I did the place justice. The sun wasn't shining but it was still a warm, humid sort of a day. Situated on the Baltic Sea coast at the mouth of the Daugava River, Riga is the largest city in the Baltic States and serves as a major cultural, educational, political, financial, commercial and industrial centre in the Baltic's. On the eastern side of the river is the old town where the steeples of 3 cathedrals, St.Peters, Dome Cathedral, and St.Jacobs, dominate the skyline. The new town spreads out north and westward and is separated from the old town by a band of parks. The Gothic St.Peters is about 800yrs old and its 400foot spire was once one of the tallest wooden structures in Europe. Today the view from atop gives the best look-out over the city. Situated close to St.Peters is the Ratslaukums (town hall square) with the town hall itself and the unmissable 'Museum of the Occupation of Latvia'. The museum records the atrocities committed during Soviet occupation and also chronicles the Latvian resistance movement. The displays are shocking and chilling and document the many thousands of Latvians that were arrested and moved to Siberia to work in 'gulag' Soviet concentration camps. Many millions of people perished over the decades in the camps. The brutality of the guards, the inhumane conditions, the 10-12 hours of strenuous work, starvation, and the freezing temperatures, claimed the lives of ambassadors, former political leaders, cabinet ministries, and members of parliament, army officers, priests and school teachers, any intellectual member of Latvian society was considered to pose a threat to the communist ideals. The museum is free and one can easily lose 3hrs walking around the displays. North of Ratslaukums is Dome Cathedral and the medieval Riga castle which is now the house of the president. The city canal snakes its way through the Kronvalda parks which separate the new and old town. The most notable monument, the 'Freedom Monument' also divides the old and the new towns. During Soviet times it was off limits and placing flowers at its base was considered a crime but in 1987 a major protest of approximately 5000 people gathered to commemorate the Soviet deportations to Siberia and this was the first spark in what eventually became a pro-independence movement culminating in Latvia declaring its independence 1991. The new town is Riga's art nouveau district and nightlife area and gives legitimacy to Latvian claims that Riga is the 'Paris of the Baltic's'. With the onset of cheap low cost airlines like Ryanair, Riga has seen a huge influx of European tourists who flock to the city on weekend breaks. The downside to this has been the allure of the city to the stag and hen parties from England, and I'm pretty sure Ireland as well although it's the English that get all the bad press, who are attracted to the promise of cheap beer and a party atmosphere. It's got to the stage that the city has become awash and the locals are starting to fight back. Many bars in Riga now have signs on the windows saying 'no foreigners allowed', its discrimination yes but I can understand their frustrations when groups of 15-20 people come into their bars shouting and singing songs forcing them out of their own local. It's intimidating. Don't get me wrong, I'm not all bah-humbug when it comes to having a good auld party but I believe that when you are abroad you have to show a little respect for the local people. For years in Dublin we were complaining about the stag parties ruining temple bar, it's no different for the people of Riga. Cashing in on this crowd, you would not believe the amount of lap-dancing clubs that have sprung up in recent years and they are all owned by English people. One word of warning about these lap-dancing clubs, if you're walking the streets of Riga at night you can't avoid getting approached by guys offering you some free beer and free entry if you enter one of their clubs. They can be quite persuasive and I can imagine if you're well hammered the promise of free beer will seem extremely attractive but it's a total scam and you could end up getting yourself into big trouble. When you enter you will get your free beer and as you're sitting down enjoying yourself thinking that it's all great one of the girls will come over and sit with you. She won't lap dance but she will order a few drinks as she chats to you. Later in the night when you then go to leave the bouncer will stop you at the door saying that you owe money. You will tell him that there is some mistake as you had a voucher for free drinks and entry but he will insist that you owe money and will accompany you to the bar to sort it out. When you are at the bar you will be faced with a bill for hundreds of euro. Basically they are charging you for talking to the girl, for her time as she wasn't getting dancing business while she was talking to you. You will also be charged for the drinks that she has had and these prices are extortionate. If you refuse to pay you will be threatened with getting beaten up by these monsters of Russian bodybuilders that are posing as bouncers. If you say you have no money they will take you to the bank machine and wait while you take out the money they say you owe. It's a total racket and one that caught out a few guy's staying in the hostel, getting taken for Eur200 each time. That night I stayed well enough away from the lap-dancing venues and instead ventured in to an Irish bar to watch Ireland play Colombia in soccer, a Robbie Keane badly deflected goal the difference between the two sides. A much safer environment to be in but I did get to experience both a stag and hen party and see why the ban on foreigners applies to most bars. There must have been some competition to see who could rob the most unusual item from each pub because the staff had to spend most of the time removing signs, pictures, and glasses, even a clock was removed from one guys trousers. I got chatting to one member of the group who was pretty impressed with the trip I was on. As we talked he told me that he loves traveling and began listing all the places he had been; Prague, his football team's weekend bender; Tallinn, stag do; Dublin, stag do. Not everyone can do the kind of trip that I'm on, I know people that would love to do it but just don't have the chance due to work and family commitments. I count myself as being very lucky. It's not my intention to look down on the weekend traveler but I think it's a shame that these boozy weekends are experiences that some people call traveling and experiencing different cultures. When the singing of rugby songs started I bid my goodbye and made my exit.

Getting to the bus station I had just missed a bus to Vilnius meaning that I would have a few hours to wait till the next one. As I was sitting in the waiting room reading a book my attention kept being drawn to one of those arcade machines where you have to direct a claw to try and win a teddy. Bloke after bloke was lining up to try and win and each one was putting in a small fortune. I was thinking to myself that the company that owned the machines must make loads of cash. I was so engrossed by it that I almost missed my bus. The whole time I was watching I only saw one guy win, with no kids or girlfriend around him I was left wondering who he was trying to win it for. You would probably buy a teddy for cheaper. Getting on the bus and reflecting on my time in Riga I wasn't sad to be leaving but I wasn't looking forward to Lithuania either. I think that I'm getting a little worn out and a bit bored with all the days spent doing the same things. The cities aren't that different, I'm in need of new experiences. I guess too that I haven't exactly spent much time in some of these cities; the traveling is probably becoming a little chore at the moment. It would be nice to settle somewhere for a little while I think. Its great meeting people but you don't build up many lasting relationships when you are constantly on the move. The same conversations can get a bit tiring sometimes. What's keeping me going at the moment is the promise of something new around the corner. Before I leave Riga I must disclose one of my useless facts, I know how you love my pearls of wisdom.....I'm a great man to have on a table quiz team, I've got loads of them. In the 16th century Latvians were pagan and one of their rituals was worshiping the Winter Solstice (known as yule) where they used to burn a log in honor of the sun. Can you see where this is going?? This practice later developed into a ceremony in which an evergreen tree was placed outside the town hall, decorated and then burned. One year Martin Luther happened to be passing by while he took a Winter walk in woods near the city. He observed the ritual, thought it was pretty cool and introduced the tradition into the rest of Europe...thus giving birth to the Christmas tree!! I know what your thinking...WOW, how does he know all these things? What can I say, it's a gift ;0)!!
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