Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Africa-Europe 2015 Day 45. Around Riga 2

Yesterday I forgot to mention that, at the end of the day, we boarded a river boat and took a sunset cruise out toward the mouth of the river. The afternoon was truly lovely, with a fresh breeze, and the city just gleamed under the setting sun. Once we entered the zone of the peers we noticed stacks of lumber (birch trees mostly) and big piles of coal (clearly these had been brought by train from Russia, and we speculated they were waiting to be loaded and transported, maybe to the steel mills of Kiruna in Sweden). Gustav, who is very resourceful, had convinced the galley to part with some whisky on the rocks, and we happily toasted another great day.

In the morning we had a group going to see the KGB House, an ominous building with but one narrow entrance at the very corner (we saw it yesterday, and that is how I know what it looks like). Christine, Andrea, and Frank wanted to tour the detention cells and executions floor, but I found the idea too ghastly. In the meantime Gustav and I went to visit the Museum of Navigation, which had a lot more on the history of Riga than on the history of navigation in Latvia.

At noon I met with Frank, and the two of us went back to the bike rental place, to take the other tour. Being experienced on this kind of thing, I told Frank that he was going to have a unique experience, because as soon as he got on the bike he would effectively become invisible! Yes, be it a little old lady, a clueless mother pushing a baby carriage, or a leggy Latvian beauty glued to her cell phone (and Riga has many of the latter), all of them look through an incoming bicycle and blithely step on its way. Either they all have a death wish or they truly cannot see you coming.

The tour was good, but not as good as the one of the day before. Part of it was the guide, who gave us the sense that some of the population is not quite happy with the renovations that have been done in the old city center. To quote: “They have turned it into a Disneyland, and soon I will have to change my name to Donald Duck!” In any case, he ably took us to the other side of the Daugava River, to an island where at some point the Russian army was detained (the citizens of Riga had destroyed all the bridges to keep them at bay) for several months (once the river froze in the winter the army crossed and easily took the city), during which they established a wooden house town that has now become the place for the wealthy to live. We saw many an old wooden house, but also some that had been re-built in a most luxurious style.

From there we went to the docks, where we talked at length about the current Latvian economy. I had asked the same question to my other guide, and what I get from both conversations is that (1) Latvia exports wood to the Finland and Sweden, where it gets turned into IKEA furniture or toilet paper, much to the dismay of local environmentalists; (2) Latvia has become the host of many companies that like to do business with Russia, but would rather located in a more liberal country; and (3) tourism into Latvia keeps increasing. I have heard mixed numbers about the average monthly salary (is it 500 or 1,000 euros per month?), but at least in Riga one sees very few idle hands, new vehicles on the street, and ongoing renovation of buildings.

Our guide was also an architectural buff, who nicely blended historic architecture with history and sociology. For example, Latvia has hundreds of Art Nouveau buildings (1900 to 1910), interspersed between Art Deco and what they call National Romantic styles (1910 to 1930). The first is ornate and includes abundant nymphs, dragons, and flowers and leaves, whereas the last two emphasize straight, more utilitarian lines. Go back in your mind to 1900, when workers were being exploited under the crushing thumb of the Russian Empire, and you can well imagine that the Art Nouveau style was associated with the wealthy and leisurely ways of the aristocracy. In 1905, a public demonstration of workers demanding better salaries and work conditions was violently crushed by the Russian Cossacks, thus starting the socialist movement that eventually led to the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 (at least that is the Latvian perspective). That Latvia was a source of socialist unrest is well reflected by the fact that Lenin’s personal guard was formed by the Latvian Fusileers. Local architects responded to the socialist movement by turning toward the more utilitarian forms of Art Deco and National Romantic, spent less in the facades and more in the interior of the building, and created the multi-social apartment buildings where the upper crust (in the upper floors) and lower classes shared on the same building, as a reflection of the new, changing social order.

Frank and I hurried back to make sure we were at the hotel before 3 pm, because Andrea had retained the services of a German guide to give us a tour of the city. This was not to be your standard tour, but was going to touch on some important places in the history of a German poet/comedian, who was very popular in the 1950’s and 60’. This comedian, Heinz Erhardt, was loved because his funny performances included some very witty verses that highlighted the music and oddities of the German language (different style, but as funny and beloved as Cantinflas is to all Mexicans). Our guide was a veritable font of those verses, so we all had a great time listening to them as we walked through the town. 

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