The proud Baltic city of Riga has fought many battles in their struggle for independence. First it was the invading red army of the Soviet Union. Next came the Nazi’s, followed again by the Russians. Many perished in these struggles and the damage caused is still evident, especially in the harsh stone faced looks of Communism that many still inherit. Sadly it seems another conflict is quickly engulfing this historic urban centre, taking it further into the gutter than ever before. This threat isn’t from old enemies. Instead a new crisis, just as potent, is looming its ugly head; English drunkards.
You could say these morons have already taken a few giant steps towards victory, most notably by stopping the cities Independence Day celebrations in 2006 when one intoxicated Englishman decided that the Freedom Monument, the centrepiece of celebrations and a symbol of the nations past tortures, was the perfect place to relieve himself in front of watching publicans and TV cameras alike.
Stag and hen parties now fill the streets of the city’s old town, a UNESCO World Heritage site, with many locals retreating to the quieter bars on the outskirts, away from scenes that I can only describe as an utter embarrassment to the country of my birth. The only natives left seem to be stunning prostitutes cashing in on intoxicated lusts of love, and skinhead members of the Latvian mafia who seem intent on eradicating unsociable and unacceptable foreign behaviour by all means violent. I can’t really blame them to be honest. If I was the Latvian cultural minister, a ‘slaughter of the stag’ initiative would be the first thing on my agenda.
After arriving at Riga International Airport, catching a bus into the city centre and checking into my hostel (Argonaut Backpackers, http://www.argonauthostel.com/) I picked the closest traditional restaurant for my evening meal. Upon entering I sheepishly edged my way to the bar and in my best Latvian asked the bartender if he spoke English. Upon finishing this innocent little question the whole bar erupted in the kind of laughter only savoured for idiots who state the obvious. When you watch other ‘holiday makers’ ask for food and drinks in thick northern English accents without any hint of trying to learn the host language, you realise what a dumb question I asked.
As I sat back and enjoyed the live snooker being shown on the large screen plasma TV, I was faced with the surreal notion that this could be a restaurant anywhere in England. Even my traditional Latvian fair of sausage and mashed potatoes seemed vaguely familiar. Conversation was free and fast -flowing amongst fellow guests, and I certainly felt like rejoicing when overhearing a boasting Bolton lad proclaiming in a loud brash accent of his randy exploits with a hooker the previous night. As he continued in a shrieking pitch, his friends, open mouthed and listening intently, nodded and clapped like excitable school children at every lurid detail that left his foul mouth.
With a long days travel already behind me I decided an early return to my hostel was needed. If I was expecting an early night I was gravely mistaken and certainly wasn’t ready for antics I never envisaged when booking into accommodation voted eighth best in the world by Hostel World.
Although the hostel clearly states no stag parties are allowed, birthday parties were deemed perfectly acceptable and I found myself opposite eight strapping young gentleman from the Dublin vicinity. I remember admiring their camaraderie spirit at managing to squeeze into a room supposedly sleeping four. I’m not normally one to moan but being kept awake until 7.30am by these birthday perpetrators obviously believing in the well known urban myth that sleeping is indeed cheating was not one of my expectations. After hours of endless spook knocks, naked corridor runs, and listening to the harassing of female guests with the highly original chat-up line of ”I’m in the IRA”, I really thought things couldn’t get much worse. It did, with the ingenious idea of a waste basket placed outside the bedroom door as a makeshift toilet. Walking an extra ten metres to a selection of real lavatories was certainly out of the question for their spaghetti legs and blurred vision.
Bloodshot eyes and a room smelling of vomit and cider was something I hoped would disappear quickly, as I left the hostel, watching the cleaners puzzled face to what the liquid substance sprayed against the wall and over the waste basket could possibly have been, and which was now dripping down her apron from a hole in the bag. Like Jekyll and Hyde, Riga is a stark contrast by day. With the majority of tourists left nursing hangovers, the early morning streets seem eerily silent with only a handful of hardened locals willing to brave the freezing temperatures.
Riga is a very stylish and affluent city, even if venturing outside the touristy old town area. European fashions of scantily clad hot-panted women walk hand in hand with the old Communist icons of head scarves and aged fur coats. It’s not hard to fit most of Riga’s beauty within a single days worth of walking, exploring the narrow cobbled streets of the old town. The central market housed in and around the Centraltirgus, four huge Zeppelin hangars and one Europe’s largest markets for me was the highlight, getting the chance to see the local variety of foods on offer. These included fresh live eels, salmon caviar and a wide array of wild cranberries, mushrooms and animal furs for sale.
It’s quite easy to get bored with the various churches, architecture, Noveau artwork, and religious buildings on offer, with St. Peters and the Dome Cathedral being the best. Scaling the heights of St. Peters Tower allows immense views over the old town of Riga and well beyond towards the shipyards and forests surrounding the city. After taking in other historical sights of interest such as Swedish Gate, where condemned men walked through on the way to execution, the House of the Blackheads, Three Brothers and of course the Freedom monument, it doesn’t leave that much more to be seen. If there is still time, a trip to the Latvian Museum of Occupation is certainly worthwhile and probably the best museum in the city.
After a full days worth of activities, another Latvian feast was needed to revive flagging energy levels from the lack of sleep of the previous night. After debating whether to order a whole pigs leg I decided on the cheaper dishes of grey peas, fried rye bread with garlic, sauerkraut soup and raw herring. This was all swallowed down by the horrendous tasting local Black Balsam liquor, a taste similar to that of soy sauce mixed with vodka. In hindsight, I think a single pig leg would have been a tad tastier.
With a free Saturday and not interested in paying for any sexual exploits I decided upon a trip to Latvia’s only English pub, the only place in the city where the Rugby World Cup Final could be enjoyed. I understand it’s hard to believe something can be called a World Cup when only a handful of countries actually play the sport, but when you consider the American world series of baseball, then I think it’s justified.
The game started with a tense atmosphere. This seemed to bring out the emotions in some of the watching public. A guy sitting next to me blabbed about his Riga experience of being head butted and punched by random Latvians in the 24 hours since arriving. After listening to his woes and as a sign of gratitude he bought the rest of my beer for the evening. English fans certainly don’t take losing very well (strange considering how often it happens), which could explain the barrage of abuse directed towards a Latvian TV crew who had come to film the vocal support of a peculiar sport. After failing to make a single clip they were forced out the door with an ear lashing of choice expletives.
As England lost to a far more powerful South African team, an obnoxious gloating South African asked my girlfriend if she would prefer to go with him or stay with a loser like me. I thought this was over stepping the mark in good natured banter but I was more than happy when my girlfriend answered, ‘I’d rather stay with the loser!’ Being called a loser has never felt so rewarding. Like the rest of the English in Riga that night, I walked back to my hostel to think what could have been. Unlike the rest of my fellow countrymen I was probably the only one that was tucked up in bed before midnight without paying for a pair of naked breasts to be thrust into my face. Sometimes it’s good to be different.