Baltic Breaks

Hugh Gatenby

Editor’s note: Hugh Gatenby, takes the slow route back to Moscow – with his sketchpad for company.

Moscow return, by way of Riga. Cheaper than flying direct, and, as it turned out, much more fun. I had spent a few balmy days there the previous summer, and now I wanted to see this Baltic capital in its winter plumage, and catch up with the friends that I’d made there, too. The architectural melange of Riga was much as I remembered it; ornate Russian Orthodox stand almost alongside gaunt Lutheran churches, and all are interspersed by Art Nouveau-adorned buildings. The Russian quarter of the city, known locally as ‘Little Moscow’, was close to where I was staying. My friend Kris assured me that these days, as opposed to “before”, I was much less likely to get mugged there. So reassuring – as that’s where the most tempting pubs were.

Boulevards of beautifully embellished buildings

For all the shark-grey skies, the few hours of daylight and near-constant drizzle, the city still exuded a certain warmth and its bars and cafes – a welcome glow. I met up again with Kris and his friends, a young English-speaking couple, in a minimalist hipster bar. Kris, a former IT professional, now makes his living by restoring Latvian vintage pre-World War II bicycles, and hand-building replicas and customised editions. He told me with glee, backed up by photos on his phone, of a bike which he’d been restoring, and had found the saddle-post packed with bullets. It had been used, he explained, during the occupation, to smuggle ammunition past checkpoints. He added that he was glad that he had decided against using a blowtorch to free up a stuck-fast saddle post.

Latvia, like many small, newly-independant nations, is fiercely nationalistic – which brings its own problems. Its eagerness to become part of NATO angered its large neighbour to the south. There is a very large Russian minority in the country, which has at times numbered close to half the population. Russian speech is everywhere in the streets, shops and bars of the capital. On my last visit a young Latvian had ruefully told me, “Even the dogs here speak Russian.” Which, ironically, he said in Russian. Recently there has been a move by the Latvian parliament, fiercely attacked in the Russian media, to phase out monolingual schools where all teaching is given in Russian. Kris tells me, and maybe this is a hopeful note, that attitudes to the country’s languages are more polarised in the older generations. The younger generation, he said, is much more at ease with a bilingual culture. Indeed almost trilingual; there is a strong Latvian tradition of migration and the returnees tend to speak good English. I was sure that I had detected Yorkshire vowels in conversation with Kris’s friends in the bar. It turned out they had lived for 5 years in Huddersfield, West Yorks.

Café society

The following evening found me in yet another bar, Irish this time, where a couple of local musicians gave beautiful renderings of Irish folk songs and melodies – which fell on deaf Russian ears. I made the applause as voluble as I could, and even joined them in couple of numbers. They seemed grateful. Kris was hors de combat that evening, struggling, he said, with a ‘killer hangover’. Fortunately I met up with Liga; another friend from the previous visit. We were joined by Dasha, one of my Russian friends who’d just driven up from Moscow. I say that she had just ‘driven up’ from Moscow as though it were a casual commute. Moscow to Riga is a respectable 1000km, just under,  a similar distance from Paris to Berlin, but with foul weather conditions and without the niceties of high-speed autoroutes and autobahns. It is an absolutely hellish journey, but Dasha, a card-carrying adventuress, simply relishes adversity. Having just deposited her Siberian passengers (at least they wouldn’t be strangers to the weather conditions)  somewhere, she was fresh, totally unphased by the journey, and delighted to make the acquaintance of Liga. And take advice on the local ales. The cliché of a ‘good evening was had by all’ doesn’t begin to describe it.

Latvia, fiercely proud of its own national identity, culture and language, enjoyed two decades of independence between the wars. It was finally subsumed into the Soviet Union – until the latter fell apart in 1990. Walking round, with Dasha, the next morning its National Gallery, with its displays of Latvian art over the centuries was a fitting farewell to the fine Baltic capital.

Cultural diversity. The Baltic-Celt sound system

My sleeper train compartment back to Moscow’s Riga station was a microcosm of modern Latvia – in the sense of bring a an ethnic and cultural mix. Not spacious, and shared with two Russian women and one Latvian woman; we all were of similar age. Russian was the lingua franca, and a more cramped or cheerful train ride I cannot recall. We even enjoyed the attentions of surly border guards and customs officials – both Latvian and Russian. A midnight border crossing; and then endless cups of tea and anecdotes, before, finally, hoisting ourselves up to our bunks. 

Sometimes It can be good to take the slow route back.

The Alopona Bar