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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Toompea and the Old Town, Tallinn, Estonia.

Taken together, Toompea and the Old Town, in Estonia’s remarkable capital city of Tallinn, comprise one of the most beautiful urban environments I have ever encountered. Yes, they comprise one of the most beautiful urban environments I have ever encountered. Inevitably, therefore, Toompea and the Old Town are NOT particularly unusual destinations because people from all over the world undertake visits. This said, I justify the post for two reasons. Firstly, the post establishes a context for future posts about destinations in Tallinn that ARE unusual. Secondly, most of the photos below derive from or near Lai, Aida, Kooli and Laboratooriumi, streets in the Old Town which tourists rarely visit.

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Bilbao and its immediate surroundings, the Basque Country, Spain.

You can tell that Bilbao and its immediate surroundings made quite an impression on me, but it is now time to say farewell with this, the fourth post devoted to the city and its riverside settlements leading to the sea in the north. Here you will find a few photos which try to engage with both the conventional as well as the idiosyncratic. Photos embrace murals, churches, the river, Alhondhiga Bilbao, Areeta, the area close to Museo Guggenheim, and the one-time fishing port of Algorta. It was difficult narrowing down the photos to about ten because there is so much to enjoy in this, one of Spain’s least Spanish urban and suburban areas. Not that there is anything “wrong” with things overtly, proudly and passionately Spanish (far from it, as earlier posts confirm, I hope); it is just that Bilbao is definitely something a little less ordinary. In fact, despite all the pressures which threaten to turn most large cities around the globe into clones of one another, Bilbao has character and personality which mark it out as different. You love New York? Kolkata? Istanbul? So do I. Therefore, visit Bilbao!

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Lamiako to Erandio, Bilbao, the Basque Country, Spain.

Any journey on the metro from the city centre to the riverside suburbs or small towns along the coast will reveal what remains of Bilbao’s once-enviable dependence on heavy industry, heavy industry which included shipbuilding, engineering and iron and steel manufacture. Much has been done in recent years to remove evidence of the abandoned rust-bucket industrial sites, but, between Lamiako in the north and Erandio in the south, enough survives to interest people with an affection for edgelands, sacrifice zones and similar rundown, marginal and shunned places (see an earlier post entitled “Edgelands and Sacrifice Zones: Turkey, United Kingdom, etc.” for a description of what an edgeland or sacrifice zone might be).

One overcast afternoon punctuated by heavy showers, I took the metro to Lamiako and walked south to Erandio, weaving back and forth to spend time beside the river, among old factories, crossing derelict plots of land or examining drab housing which once sheltered the families of the local industrial workers. There was much to admire, even where landscaping has left sterile patches of open ground, open ground which will be developed, I am confident, once Spain’s current economic malaise is overcome.

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San Francisco and La Vieja, Bilbao, the Basque Country, Spain.

Although Bilbao’s inner city districts of Casco Viejo, Indautxu, Abando and Iralabarri are overwhelmingly respectable in character, San Francisco and La Vieja, just to the south-east of the railway stations, are more edgy. San Francisco and La Vieja are more edgy because this is where some alcoholics, drug dealers, drug addicts, pimps, prostitutes and petty criminals hang around in shadowy bars, cafes and night clubs or on street corners. But San Francisco and La Vieja are also vibrantly multi-ethnic areas where people from South America, Central America, North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe live because housing is cheaper than in other parts of the city. Shops, small supermarkets, cafes and restaurants, some of the latter alcohol-free with halal food for Muslims, meet the needs of people from about fifty different countries. There are even barbers for men and hair salons for women so people can look just like they do “back home”. Some social and private sector housing is in a poor state, but the streets are full of vitality. Moreover, interesting buildings exist wherever you look. Calle San Francisco, the main thoroughfare through both districts, is a must-see, but streets to the north and the south also repay careful examination. Streets leading from Calle San Francisco to the river have some trendy shops, cafes, restaurants and businesses, the latter run by artists, musicians and photographers, as well as an excellent marisqueria (a bar-restaurant specialising in seafood) and one of Bilbao’s best wine shops. A few shops sell secondhand clothes and bric-a-brac, and it is not unusual to see men, usually African in origin, pushing old prams full of scrap metal and broken electrical items. Because San Francisco and La Vieja are two of Bilbao’s most interesting districts, I often returned to walk and take photos.

La Vieja more or less peters out once you arrive in the area immediately south of Puerta de San Anton, but the interesting architecture continues for quite a while along the river’s west bank. Moreover, excellent views exist into the district of Atxuri on the far side of the river. I walked south for over a kilometre until a large concrete bridge carries a wide road over what is now a deep valley, and entered another suburb of predominantly working class housing, in this case housing in modern apartment blocks notable only for their size and location beside the river itself. But what San Francisco, La Vieja and this more distant district confirm is that Bilbao off the beaten track is endlessly fascinating. Moreover, it is in these more marginal areas of the city where you encounter some very dramatic murals.

Are areas of Bilbao such as San Francisco, La Vieja and the rundown riverside suburbs safe in which to walk? The biggest problem I had was with a heavy dog, pit bull in appearance, which charged up to me near the river, but it merely wanted to say hello. If careful about where you point your camera (concentrate on the buildings, not some of the people), you will be fine, I assure you.

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Bradford, West Yorkshire, United Kingdom.

Bradford, one of my favourite UK cities, is best known because of its very large “Asian” population (in fact, the “Asian” population of Bradford is overwhelmingly Pakistani in origin, even though the city is now home to over a hundred different ethnic groups). In this post I allude fleetingly to the “Asian” dimension of the city, but also reveal that, in common with all great cities, Bradford is multi-faceted (which is why I enjoy every visit I make).

We drove to the Great Victoria Hotel in Bradford’s city centre, a large mid-Victorian pile (the hotel was built in 1867, above all to meet the needs of railway passengers) opposite the crown court and next to the offices and the printing presses of the Telegraph and Argus newspaper. We were directed to a very good corner room with en suite facilities and an adjoining sitting room, which meant we had what was really a small suite (but the cost was only £45 a night without breakfast). The afternoon was spent in the National Media Museum (so recently threatened with closure), Bradford Cathedral and Little Germany, the latter an area of narrow streets just to the side of the cathedral with remarkable commercial and industrial buildings that somehow survived demolition in the 1960s and 1970s (the centre of Bradford is marred by wide through roads and large ugly office and commercial blocks dating from the 1960s to the 1980s). For our evening meal we drove to the Three Singhs about 2 miles south of the city centre for a very good Punjabi meal in pleasant modern surroundings (the mango lassi was the best mango lassi we have ever had in a restaurant). After dropping the car back at the hotel we walked about ten minutes to The Sparrow, a “bier cafe” that was the Campaign for Real Ale’s Bradford pub of the year in 2012. As you would expect, The Sparrow has a selection of very good beers and patrons of diverse age and ethnicity, but the facilities are not conducive to a prolonged drinking session.

The following morning we had coffee in our room and shared a banana and what remained of an excellent Yorkshire curd tart bought the day before in Saltaire. We then went to a shop called Living Islam so Hilary could buy some scarves and me some gifts for a Kurdish family in south-east Turkey that had looked after me one day in August. Next, we popped into a bakery run by a young Iraqi Kurd who had been in the UK for eight years. We bought eight plain nans (for £2) and a few other edible goodies, one being a jar of quince jam from Iran. We then spent about three hours with J. and N., a couple we have known for a number of years (J. is Afghan in origin and N. is Pakistani in origin). N. had, as usual, prepared a wonderful Pakistani meal, a meal which ended with warmed gulab jamun and pistachio ice cream. Our final ports of call were Bombay Stores (for Hilary’s seventh scarf of the day) and a nearby enormous halal supermarket. The supermarket was extremely busy, but we came away with over £60 of edible goodies (I can taste the kulfi, the pomegranates, the Turkish white cheese and the Saudi Arabian tahini as I write).

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Murals, Texas and Louisiana, USA.

Murals are found in American settlements of every size, from the very smallest to the very largest. They exist in economically deprived and economically privileged settlements, and derive from just about every ethnic group that possesses American citizenship. Murals may recall the history, the achievements, the torments or the aspirations of a people or a place. They may recall a single remarkable individual or a characteristic, perhaps even stereotypical, dimension of a community’s day-to-day existence. They may highlight injustice, hope, forgiveness, pride or remarkable human endeavour. They may be conceived to bring together once-fragmented communities that seek to put real or imagined grievances firmly behind them, or they may be a work of art with no obvious message, a work of art conceived by an individual or a group.

The following photos show murals in the Texas settlements of Del Rio, El Paso, Houston, Independence, Lufkin and Pilot Point. The seventh photo is of Shreveport in Louisiana.

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