I ARRIVED in Riga with a metaphorical arm outstretched, but rather than shake my hand the Latvian capital head-butted me in the face. Or so it felt. I came here with the usual schoolboy excitement that accompanies me on trips to new countries, but after ten minutes it gave way to cynicism and contempt. Never before had I felt less welcome in a country, which is quite an achievement – when I arrived in Australia, the immigration officers incinerated half my luggage.
The nightmare began in a taxi from the bus station to my hotel. Somehow, by politely asking the driver to take me to my destination and by stuffing his tobacco stained hands with money, I had irked him. Sighing and shaking his head, he fired up his rusty Mercedes and muttered what I assumed to be Latvian obscenities all the way to the hotel, where let me out, rolled his sunken-eyes and screeched off down the road. He might have been drunk.
However, rather than the exception, his behaviour would be the rule. From waitresses and bar tenders to shopkeepers and museum curators, I was greeted with the kind of contempt usually reserved for criminals or Piers Morgan. I hate to generalise, I think it’s crude, lazy and often completely unrepresentative of a people, but Riga was shaping up to be a metropolis of misery guts.
But then it hasn’t had much to be happy about. Over the years poor old Latvia has had a wretched time of it. The small Baltic nation has been conquered, carved up and occupied by every country in the neighbourhood; Russia, Lithuania, Poland, Germany and even Sweden have all had a piece of Latvia. There was a brief reprieve when the Iron Curtain fell, but no sooner had Latvia reaffirmed itself as a sovereign nation, it was being invaded again, this time by stag and hen parties from Britain, who’d heard from cliché prone travel writers that Riga was “the new Prague.”
The inflated prices that followed soon deterred the piss heads, which means you don’t have to watch scaffolders from Macclesfield vomiting on the cobbled streets anymore. But at the same time, you can’t help but feel Riga has priced itself out of the city break market; people would forgive the surly service and disappointing food if they were grabbing a bargain, but with the likes of Spain, Czech Republic and Germany proving cheaper, tastier and friendlier alternatives, it’s hard to see why people would bother.
Mercifully, there are some redeeming features. Riga is beautiful; parks abound and the UNESCO approved Old Town is a medieval masterpiece. I love the faded charm of the Art Nouveau district too and, despite the churlish traders, the Central Market, which is housed in defunct zeppelin hangers, is brilliant. And if you stray away from the strip clubs and tacky boozers (a hangover from the stag days) you can have a great night out in Riga’s grungy rock bars and industrial clubs.
But is that enough? No. At best, Riga’s rudeness is wearisome, at worst it is challenging. And as I contemplated the psyche of this miserable city in a restaurant, a sour-faced waitress served me a plate soup. It was cold, bitter and absurdly expensive; delicious only as a metaphor.