Kalnciema, Riga, Latvia.

We caught a tram across the river, passed the Latvian National Library (the library is a very unusual glass and steel structure which at first I did not like, but its organic silhouette grows on you as you encounter it more often), beside what appears to be a railway museum, across a large park and into the area of Kalnciema. We had expected to find an area similar to Kalamaja in Tallinn, but, if Kalnciema is destined to be Riga’s Kalamaja, it has some way to go to compete with its rival in the Estonian capital. This said, Kalnciema is full of interest. Some middle class and hip young things live in the area, but not in the number you encounter in Kalamaja. This means that there are only a few facilities to meet the needs of upwardly mobile people and most housing is drab in appearance, no doubt just as housing had been in Kalamaja about five or ten years ago. While Kalamaja has about a dozen good places in which to eat and drink, to date Kalnciema has, as far as we could tell, only two, Maja, which can be very expensive by local standards unless you opt for the excellent lunchtime menu, or Vinoga (more later). However, every Saturday Kalnciema has a very good farmers’ market where people sell excellent food a little different to that available at Central Market, and craft items such as glazed pottery, knitted clothing, bells, wrought-iron candlesticks and carved wooden items for the home. But, as ever, it was the food that interested us the most. We tried some home-made fruit wine before buying sausage filled with ostrich meat, a local interpretation of camembert cheese and, for the following day’s journey home, three different types of cake baked in someone’s home. Other people sold bread, smoked fish, smoked meat, pork sausage, freshly cooked pancakes, apples of at least eight different varieties and many other tempting edible products.

Before making our purchases at the farmer’s market, we walked south-west along Kalnciema Iela until it turns into Lielirbes Iela and crosses the railway line just south of Zasulauka station. We walked around the streets north-east of the flyover where apartment blocks dating from the Soviet era have left few properties of greater age. This said, I had seen enough to know I would have to return later in the day, when Hilary was resting in the hotel.

We bought what we wanted from the market and walked south-west along the main road until arriving at Margrietas Iela, from where the number 2 tram took us to Central Market along a route even more interesting than the route earlier that morning.

After buying two tickets for the trams, I set off for Kalnciema, the district we had visited that morning. I got off the tram where Maza Nometnu Iela merges with three other roads. A large brick-built market overlooks the busy intersection. I walked around the market hall, a smaller version of Central Market in the city centre, and the stalls and shops in an outdoor section at the back. I also walked around the surrounding streets, which soon became residential with lots of wooden buildings. Among the wooden buildings is an enormous brick, stone and stucco structure with restrained art nouveau flourishes which looks as if it fulfils childcare and/or educational purposes.

I walked west along Maza Nomentu Iela, but turned to the south and the north as interesting views opened up. I then went north along Margrietas Iela and under the flyover that marks the point at which Kalnciema Iela becomes Lielirbes Iela. I followed the tram lines to Zasulauka station where yet more interesting views exist, on this occasion dominated by the railway and distant industrial installations. Taken as a whole, the area through which I walked is an endearing mixture of old wooden houses, some of which are built on a substantial scale, small parks, muddy open spaces, huts, sheds, garages, yards full of scrap metal, and apartment blocks dating from the Soviet era. Shops, bars and cafes are few in number, other than around the market on Maza Nomentu Iela, of course, and I saw only one restaurant, Vinoga on Maza Nomentu Iela itself. However, I examined the restaurant and its menu and liked the look of both. I decided to recommend Vinoga to Hilary as the destination for our last big meal of the trip. The meal would not be quite as foodie as some of our Tallinn experiences, but at least we would eat and drink in a restaurant frequented by local people.

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The Maskavas Iela area, Riga, Latvia.

I went for a walk south-east of the Hanza Hotel into the area which had once been home to a large Jewish community. Maskavas Iela is the road along which I walked the most, but the area is so interesting that I took many detours to the south and the north. Few obvious reminders of a Jewish presence exist other than the ruins of Choral Synagogue and the Holocaust Memorial, but the old wooden houses and the muddy courtyards behind the areas’ surviving buildings (there are many empty plots where buildings once stood) conjure up impressions of what daily life must have been like when the Jewish population was much larger than is currently the case.

I walked as far as the Dodo Hotel where a bar and a few shops meet the immediate needs of the local people. To the north of the hotel is an enormous brick-built church with two steeples over the west entrance (a second large church exists in another part of the area), but, in many respects, it is the houses, the apartment blocks, the cramped courtyards, the derelict patches of land, the rows of wooden huts and brick outhouses, the muddy areas behind the apartment blocks where residents park their cars, and the trees with black trunks and branches but no leaves which appeal most to the eye. A few modern or renovated houses belong to wealthy people, but most inhabitants of the area are not the beneficiaries of capitalist economics. I also suspect that most people who live and work in the area are ethnic Russians. Cobbles seal many of the roads, but puddles have to be avoided once you leave the pavements. Most people walk alone, there are very few cars, and small groups of men loiter in quiet side streets where they consume cheap spirits mixed with cola in plastic bottles. Dogs bark as you approach, but they are behind wire or wooden fences. Trams provide a quick and inexpensive means of accessing or escaping from the area.

A young Russian woman asked me for 3 euros when I walked near the Dodo, but when I encountered her a little later she reduced her request for financial assistance to 1 euro. Everyone I passed looked at me to register the presence of a stranger, but no one muttered even “Good morning.” However, I knew this was an area I would have to visit again because it reveals its treasure only very slowly. At first you see only the shabby Soviet-era buildings, the neglected pre-Soviet houses and commercial premises, the poorly stocked shops, the drab bars and cafes, and the muddy open spaces. Then you notice that almost every surviving building has at least one admirable quality (the buildings need nothing but some tender loving care) and that the majority of people live with fastidious dignity in difficult conditions and circumstances. These less fashionable areas of Eastern Europe’s largest cities have much to commend them. The only risk you run? That you may photograph someone doing something they do not want recorded. But, with a little care, anyone can have an enlightening experience in these destinations a little less ordinary.

I undertook a walk of two hours through the area south-east of the hotel (along and around Maskavas and Jersikas ielas, which had once been home to a large Jewish community). Rundown though a lot of the area is, I liked it even more than during my earlier visit, not least because I found yet more landmark buildings and interesting backstreet views. East of the Dodo Hotel is a small square with a playground surrounded by some attractive buildings. In a more prosperous part of Riga the square would have a restaurant and one or two bars or cafes, but, this being a relatively deprived area, there are no facilities to encourage you to linger. When I visited, even the playground was deserted.

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Art Nouveau in Riga, Latvia.

We ascended the small hill called Bastejkalns immediately to the east of the Old Town. The hill is just high enough to provide good views of the Old Town and, in the other direction, over an attractive park through which a canal, almost completely frozen in February (ducks and swans spend most of the time on the canal banks), meanders toward the railway station. We then walked to the area around Strelnieku and Alberta ielas to examine the many art nouveau buildings, most of which are large apartment blocks. We visited the Art Nouveau Museum itself, which we enjoyed so much I shall quote at length from its website:

“Riga Art Nouveau Museum was opened on 23rd April 2009. It is located in the apartment where the outstanding Latvian architect Konstantīns Pēkšēns (1859-1928) lived until 1907.

“The building was constructed in 1903 as Pēkšēns’ private house. It is the work of Pēkšēns himself and Eižens Laube, then a student of architecture. The building is notable for its extremely powerful dimensions and expressive silhouette. The ornamental reliefs, craftily incorporated in the architectonic shape, feature stylized motifs from the local flora and fauna: fir needles, cones and squirrels. The building has a spiral staircase with ornamental ceiling paintings, quite possibly sketched by the prominent Latvian artist Janis Rozentāls. This art nouveau staircase is among the most impressive not only in Riga but also the whole of Europe.

“The authentic interior of 1903 has been renovated within the museum. Investigation of the premises started in 2007 when the original interior decoration was revealed and registered. Renovation work was carried out from 2008 to 2009 under the guidance of master renovator Gunita Čakare.

“The current display of the museum shows the characteristic furnishings of an apartment of a Riga inhabitant at the beginning of the 20th century. The author of the interior project is the architect Liesma Markova.”

We returned to the hotel by walking along Elizabetes and Dzirnavu ielas almost as far as the Holocaust Memorial beside the ruins of Choral Synagogue on Gogola Iela. Along the way we encountered more art nouveau buildings, but few are as eye-catching as the ones around the Art Nouveau Museum itself.

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Around the Academy of Science, Riga, Latvia.

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.

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