It was around midnight when I finally found the correct street. Perhaps it was the combination of sleep deprivation and poor street lighting that explains what happened next. My hostel – appropriately enough for an area that forms a border, culturally as well as geographically, between Northern Europe and Russia – was positioned between a smart café-bar on one side and a shabby strip club on the other. The entrance was no more than a thin slab of flaking wood between these other two establishments. Unfortunately for me, I chose the wrong door.
I entered and scanned the room – walls dripping with sweat and dimly lit by a mauve lightbulb. It slowly dawned upon me that I wouldn’t be staying in a hostel staffed by miserable sex workers. A burly man with several tattoos tapped my suitcase and grinned. “You want next door?” I caught the eye of the stripper in the corner, standing underneath the neon Marquis de Sade sign that adorned the sticky walls. She had momentarily stopped thrusting her naked body to awful cod-reggae and was now cackling like a Bond villainess. I was almost pleased to have brought some comic relief to what was probably a miserable existence. In terms of utter, soul destroying humiliation, it was right up there with getting lost in the sanitary towel aisle of Boots, or calling your Junior School teacher Mum.
It was an incident that summed up all of those ingrained Eastern-European prejudices that still linger, seventeen years after the Soviet Union collapsed. Because, for all of its cosmopolitan charm – for all of the smart restaurants, apartment blocks, shiny new capitalism – Riga is first and foremost a city in a former Soviet State. If there is one thing the youth of the Western World loves, is its former Soviet States. The tanks that once rolled through the cities of Eastern Europe may have vanished, but soldiers and secret police have been replaced with a far more sinister presence – the Gap-Year Student. The young and middle-class – either on short piss-up breaks or longer, backpacking adventures – swarm through these countries with the same ruthless disregard once displayed by occupying forces.
Perhaps it’s the gritty vibe and faint sense of menace that bring them here, or the cheap and plentiful local ale, or the chance of getting laid by a striking blonde with a porn-star Eastern European name. Some students watch the horror film Hostel and think that anywhere East of the Berlin Wall is full of psychopathic Russian gangsters and saucy nymphs with oh-so-sexy voices. They talk of‘history and stunning architecture and spend the entire weekend getting smashed on spirits while desperately trying to persuade some local girl to spend the night at their hostel.
They want to get wasted but won’t holiday in Ibiza or Tenerife because of the shame of appearing on Holiday Reps Exposed. They would like to sample the dark underbelly of the Eastern-bloc from the comfort of an Irish Bar. In this respect, Riga doesn’t disappoint. The beer is strong and inexpensive; the public transport quaint (though still superior to Great Britain); the women blonde and faintly intimidating; the sex trade prevalent, corrupt and best avoided. On more than one occasion, I was approached by large Russians who attempted to lure me into their appalling brothels by displaying their knowledge of English football: “Ah, you from Sheffield! Sheffield Wednesday, yes? Chris Waddle!”
My hostel – once I had finally located the correct entrance – seemed to have been designed with the needs of cheap-and-cheerful, pleasure-seeking backpackers firmly in mind. The Hostel Argonaut is a pleasingly boozy and faintly anarchic budget residence in Riga’s Old Town where Australians make use of the giant beer fridge and nubile Swedish teenagers play twister until the early hours. It was run by a perpetually drunk Seattleite who, during my stay, took to wearing a comedy turban and greeted every woman who checked in with the same line: “You know they call Riga the Paris of the North?” They managed to completely screw up my booking, unsurprising since the front desk was staffed by young women from various corners of the globe who seemed to have been employed more for their cute accents than their knowledge of the tourist industry.
I ate at Alus Seta Beer Yard two nights, a large oaky tavern that served the superb Aldaris beers and huge servings of rare steak from a flaming grill, presided over by a slightly terrifying ex-army guy with a wonky right eye. The barmaids and waitresses wore brown skirts with cream tops and black corsets to make them look like authentic serving wenches. As Riga entered the early hours, I made my way between bars with soap-opera-naff names like Cuba Café, Orange Bar and Casablanca. One of the aforementioned female desk staff ploughed me with Riga Black Balsam, an infamous black herbal bitter that resembled crude oil, tasted like death and did odd things to my digestive system. Then we danced spasmodically to Euro-Disco with someone wearing very heavy make-up whose sex remained ambiguous.
This down-and-dirty side of Riga – the cheap beer, nightclubs and blondes – is undoubtedly enjoyable, and goes some way to explaining why Riga has become such a popular short-break destination. I stayed during mid-week when it was relatively peaceful, but I was warned that weekends were frequently boisterous in an area that is beginning to rival Dublin and Amsterdam in the Stag Party stakes. It would be a shame if it gained a hedonistic reputation to match those two cities, because to dismiss Riga as merely a larger Tallinn, or Prague-lite – an historic and attractive city where the vomit of the young and rowdy splatters the cobbled streets – is to miss out on much of what the city has to offer.
The medieval Old Town is where most of the organised pub crawls and stag nights congregate. It’s unlikely many venture north past the impressive Doms Cathedral (The Baltic’s tallest medieval structure) and through the warren of relaxed and civilised streets, where rows of pretty, brightly coloured stone houses lead down to the attractive riverfront. This is an area that brings to mind the effortlessly up-market feel of Gothenburg, unsurprising since Latvia is a short ferry ride from Sweden, one of the many countries to have invaded the Baltic country. For further information on Latvia’s rather unfortunate history, head to the superb Occupation Museum, which chronicles in great detail the Nazi and Soviet occupations of the twentieth century.
On the second day of my stay, I made the most of the freak heat wave that had hit the Baltics, headed north out of Riga to Jurmala (rough translation, seashore); thirty-two kilometers of beach that lines the Bay of Riga. This is another area the weekend-break, bar-crawlers often miss. It’s ironic given that the brash, sun-bleached promenades and bronzed bodies are more reminiscent of the Balearic Islands or Mediterranean resorts, certainly not in keeping with grim Eastern-European clichés. This beautiful stretch of coastline has been slightly spoiled by the ugly Soviet-era highrise erected behind the sand dunes, and the banging trance music being pumped out on to the beach that somebody somewhere had thought would add to the atmosphere. The place put me in mind of Great Yarmouth, only with less violent chavs and more topless women.
I rode to Jurmala on a stuffy bus, in the company of a New Zealander with a prematurely receding hairline and a beautiful local girl from the hostel. She became particularly useful when we were continually accosted on the bus by a leather-faced, gap-toothed old Gypsy woman who appeared to be trying to sell me her granddaughter, wouldn’t take no for an answer. While the resort of Jurmala may not conform to any Eastern-bloc stereotypes, this gruesome caricature most certainly did. As she wagged her crooked finger at me and babbled in Latvian, it felt as if I were starring in some nightmarish, naïve-Brit-abroad horror film.
Our local girl came in handy again on the seafront, as a group of young, aggressive Latvian lads schemed to overcharge the Kiwi and I for thirty minutes on one of their pedlos. Thankfully, she used her considerable feminine charms to hire one for less than full price, and we stood behind her, grinning smugly at the angry youths who had just missed out on a killing. For the next half hour, we sat floating on the Baltic Sea in the searing afternoon heat, an Englishman and a New Zealander on an unsafe plastic boat, a scenario that surely required some ancient colonial law to determine who would actually peddle.
I travelled back to the city on one of the rusting, cramped trains that meander through the Latvian countryside at a leisurely pace, suiting my lazy mood. It was late afternoon, everyone was tired and content. Opposite me sat a Slavic-looking gentleman whose mouth was curled into a constant snarl. On more than one occasion, due to the cramped conditions, our legs gently brushed. Even though he was wearing dark glasses, I knew he was watching me. For once I was glad to be surrounded by so many people, so many potential witnesses to what – in my mind – this man was capable of.
That night, refreshed from my seaside excursion, I sat in a bar and watched Germany labour to an unconvincing victory against Poland in the World Cup. The live feed our bar was receiving was from a Russian channel, ten seconds behind the German feed, which was being shown on a giant screen in a square across the street. This led to the bizarre sight of fifty Germans across the road cheering a goal that I, twenty yards away, had not yet witnessed. The incident seemed entirely appropriate.
The beauty of Riga is that I had the choice to stay with the delayed Russian feed, or join the progressive Germans in their square, ten seconds ahead. Hey, I’m a Westerner, if I want live feeds, I can get them back home. I stayed exactly where I was.
Riga is a city in a country that sometimes seems to be the epitome of Soviet backwardness, but it is increasingly looking forward towards the union of European countries it has recently joined.