We got off the bus among the large-scale but ugly glass and steel boxes which now enclose the main railway station to detrimental effect, then skirted the edge of the massive Central Market and the warehouses of up and coming Spikeri before arriving at the Hanza Hotel close to the Latvian Academy of Science (the academy is housed in a Stalinist wedding cake structure similar to other buildings imposed on East European nation states absorbed into the Soviet Union or the Soviet bloc following world war two).
The Hanza appears to occupy what was once an apartment block pre-dating the second world war and, if so, the conversion has been highly successful. We were given a room overlooking a monumental Lutheran church. The area immediately enclosing the hotel is rundown in parts (there are some empty plots where buildings once stood and fenced off muddy courtyards full of debris awaiting disposal), but, in its own way, attractive and definitely on the way up. Some old brick and wood buildings look as if they may soon be demolished, but, if demolished, I for one will regret their loss. The five magnificent halls of Central Market are less than ten minutes’ walk away, as is the main railway station, the long distance bus station and tram stops with routes radiating across the city. Sources of food and drink are nearby, as is a very attractive Russian Orthodox church constructed overwhelmingly with wood. The next day or so, and our return to Riga at the end of the trip, confirmed that the Hanza stands at the edge of an area more Russian than Latvian, although, in the era running up to the second world war and the holocaust, it had been home to a large Jewish community.
For my first walk I looked more closely at the brick warehouses of Spikeri where bars, cafes, restaurants, art galleries, a small holocaust museum and some up-market shops, one of which sells very good wine, confirm that this is an area which should appeal to local people as well as to tourists, especially once all the premises are occupied. I went next to the largely unrestored warehouses of similar design to the south-east of Central Market, then walked through two of the five large halls which constitute the covered part of the market itself. Around the halls are many outdoor stalls selling fruit, vegetables, flowers, clothes, shoes and small household items. On display were some of the largest pomegranates I have ever seen. Not all the outdoor stalls were occupied, no doubt because, in late February, there are fewer customers than in summer and fewer local food products to sell, but, because prices in the market are so competitive, lots of people were shopping, probably because it was Thursday evening and the weekend lay ahead. Riga’s Central Market is one of the most remarkable markets I have ever seen, partly for its size and partly for the vast range of goods that it sells. There are hundreds of places to buy interesting ready-to-consume food and drink (fish, meat, pancakes, cheese, bread, cakes, pastries, coffee, tea, beer, spirits, etc.) at prices ridiculously low by UK standards, so much so that, if I return to Riga, I will spend the whole day at the market grazing as I do so.
I walked to Turgeneva and Pushkina ielas, the beautiful wooden Russian Orthodox church on the corner of Turgeneva and Gogola ielas (inside the church dozens of people venerated the icons, lit candles or bought religious items from the shop immediately inside the east door) and the wooden buildings which litter the area closest to the river. I crossed Krasta Iela to walk beside the river, which was frozen all the way to Zacusala, the long, slim island which lies a little closer to the west than to the east bank of the river. Seagulls stood in large numbers on the ice. It was not long before darkness would fall and a very cold wind blew off the river. To the north, the curved steel sections of a bridge carry the railway across the river in a westerly direction. In its length and shape, the bridge resembles those wonderful girder bridges you encounter where the railroads cross wide rivers in the United States. At night, Riga’s bridge is picked out in blue lights.