Three wise men of Riga
Learning about Riga architecture and history
As we cycled into Riga a smartly dressed silver haired pensioner waved a union jack clipboard at us, stepped into our path and brought us to a standstill. At first I thought it may be another drunk but as he started to speak he seemed quite coherent.
We didn’t really want a guide
“Lubdiens. Hello. Would you like a walking tour of the city? In English. I will give you a lot of information about Riga. My name is Nikolajs. I am not expensive.”
“No thanks. We’re cycling,” I replied trying to fob him off and keep us within budget. “Hannah gets tired if she’s walking.”
But before I knew it the tour had started
“Ah, well this is a very good place to begin a cycle tour of Riga,” said Nikolajs, undeterred by our refusal and continuing his patter. “Here in front of us is the Blackheads house,” he pointed to an ornate red brick building. “It was destroyed in 1941 and rebuilt ten years ago as an exact replica. And so too was the town hall. The only building that outlasted the Russians was that building over there.” He pointed to the usual concrete monstrosity.
“That’s the Latvian Museum of Occupation. Very important to this city. There you will find out how we lost a third of our population under occupation by Russians or Germans; murdered, killed in battle, sentenced, deported, or scattered as refugees. The Soviets came to free us you know. To free us from German occupation. We say ‘Thanks for the liberation, but you stay 50 years!'” He stopped for a moment, to let the facts sink in. But only for a moment, in case we might walk off.
“That is a very nice bicycle,” he continued, “Did you have it made for you?”
“You want to try it out?” I asked.
“Sure. I will climb onto the back there.”
The first wise man of Riga was a guide
Hannah got off the bike and Nikolajs took her place from where he gave us a brief history of his life as a father, grandfather and quad-lingual city guide. He obviously enjoyed talking as much as he liked spending time in his garden, with his family and guiding. From Hannah’s low saddle on the stationary bicycle, he talked us around the main highlights of the city, including the Dome, Stalin’s birthday cake and the market.
It was clear he loved his homeland too. But he was less in love with the Russians who now make up almost half of the city’s population. “The Russians occupied Latvia and made it their own not once but twice. And not just Russians. Germans, Swedes; everyone wants to take over our beloved country. They say build churches. Then they say no churches. They say make churches Catholic. Then they say make Russian Orthodox. Then they ban religion. Then, why don’t we have churches again?”
Riga is an architectural breath of fresh air
After the soviet style apartment blocks and crumbling towns we passed through getting to Riga through Western Kurzeme, Riga and its guide came as a breath of fresh air. The old town is cobbled, spacious and European. They even have TGI Fridays. But Nikolajs recommended we eat at a cheap local place around the corner.
“Good Latvian food, soup and hot meals. Pancakes for the children.”
But where is everyone?
I looked around the city square, empty but for a handful of tourists, and it occurred to me how quiet it was for a capital. “Where is everyone?” I asked.
Nikolajs smiled. “This is busy. There are only two and a quarter million people living in the whole of Latvia. In the daytime the locals are all working, and just the tourists come. In the old days Latvian people were deported or shot. Now, since we joined Europe, they migrate to England or Ireland.”
No offence but we really don’t want a guide
As Nikolajs started to brief us about the city’s cathedral, I began to worry. Had we unofficially hired him as a guide? Were we now on some non cycling/non walking tour of Riga? How much would that cost us? What should I give him for his information and how would we get off the tour that we didn’t sign up to? Hannah helped me out by announcing that she was hungry. Nikolajs immediately gave us directions to the food hang-out he recommended and also threw in a recommendation about the best local beer.
This was my opportunity. I thrust a few coins into his hand, and asked him if he would treat himself to a beer on us, in exchange for the information? His face clouded over. I realised he must have wanted the full guiding fee, and reached back into my wallet. But instead, he pressed the money back into my hand. His information was free to such an unusual family of cyclists! Oh dear. I had offended this kind man. But he smiled again when we asked him to pose for a photograph with us, and then went off to hustle himself some paying tourist trade.
The second wise man of Riga was a cyclist
In the Museum of Occupation, the museum guide there was also quick to hijack us.
“Are those your bicycles? I am a cyclist. Bad roads in Latvia. I want to give you a map of cycle paths.”
As Stuart learnt about all the terrible things that had been done to Latvians via the information boards in the museum, I had a long conversation with the young guide about Latvia today; it turned out he didn’t want to talk about cycling after all. He wanted to tell me why the standard of living was so poor here compared to Estonia, about the voting system and taxation, the economy and the government. And about Soviet architecture and its legacy in Latvia.
Like the city guide, he was uneasy about living so closely with the nation that had oppressed them for so many years, “Sometimes I look around, and I hear the hardness of the Russian language all over this square, and I feel that I am Russian.”
He looked dejected and I felt for him, trying to imagine my country being filled with the people whose government had sanctioned the torture of my ancestors. But the guide perked up once more when he remembered that he had to give me the map of cycle paths out of the city.
“Bad roads in Latvia. It costs two times as much to make a road in Latvia as Estonia. Follow these tracks and you will be ok.”
I felt I learnt more about this country in ten minutes than I had in ten days of cycling it.
On the art deco trail around Riga
We ended our tour of Riga with a cycling version of the Lonely Planet’s recommended walk around the city’s art-deco treasures – our own pedal powered Riga architecture tour. Riga has more than 700 art deco buildings; more than any other European city. If you want to know the real Riga then the best way to do it is to look up, and search for the serpent heads, screaming masks, ugly goblins, griffins and lion gargoyles.
Stopped at traffic lights staring up at half naked muscular men holding up Corinthian columns, and bare breasted heroines adorning buildings, our path was blocked again by a lanky, mop haired cyclist who span around at the lights and rode back to collar us.
The third wise man of Riga was a geek
“I had to stop you. You don’t see bikes like that here. Where are you going? When are you leaving? Maybe I can show you some of my city? What have you seen already?”
Our latest self appointed guide spoke quickly and self assuredly without ever making eye contact. But while the two men of Latvia we met earlier were informed and engaging talkers, this one was a cycle dude and a bore.
He stroked his goatee beard as he pinned Stuart against the wall with the triplet, lecturing him about roads we had already cycled and routes we had already taken while the lights turned green and the traffic behind grew impatient.
No eye contact nor pause for response
He knew all the best places in Latvia, and didn’t want to hear that we had been to them already. He told him about the road surface conditions of the route to Valmeira in great detail. And questioned him in detail about the intricacies of cycling a triplet without ever giving pause for response.
Time to escape
I couldn’t listen. I mentioned the kids were tired and we ought to move on but he ignored me; he was too busy briefing Stuart about potholes in Lignate, the six lanes of traffic leaving Riga and techniques for riding on the hard shoulder. I tried to interject to explain the kids were ready for bed, but the dude moved onto plans for the conversion of disused railway tracks into cycle paths out of the city. So I cycled off; down the road to the Irish Embassy, where the elegant art deco figures watching over the attached bar saw me drink Guinness for the equivalent of a pound a pint. I preferred the company of a clutch of Irish Latvian gargoyles, leaving Stuart to enjoy the gift of the third wise man of Riga.