Riga, Latvia

I’ve been in Riga for about four days, staying at Friendly Fun Franks hostel, the destination for many a UK stag party. Given the target market, it should not then have come as too great a surprise to be met at the reception desk by a strikingly attractive Latvian woman, who greeted me with an offer that is – I am sure – rarely declined: would you like a free beer while I check you in? As I sipped my complementary Zelta, and chatted with Nick (a fellow I first met in Tallinn), Sanda left to check us in, returning a short time later with our keys and receipts.

Riga is bigger than Tallinn and has more things to see and do – including AK-47 shooting, arranged through the hostel. However, given Latvia’s meteoric economic growth during the past few years, beyond tourists, the city has also attracted no small amount of schemers, scammers and hustlers. Frank, the owner of the hostel, was quick to warn us against the more popular traps:

  • Taxis should generally be avoided, unless you arrange them through a hotel
  • If two women approach you in a bar, do not accompany them elsewhere

In spite of the seedy undercurrent (or perhaps because of it), I really enjoyed Riga. With a decent network of walking trails along the river and some pretty spans across it (including a striking cable-stayed bridge), it was also a good place to run. The old town was not as clearly demarcated as in Tallinn, but that sort of made it seem like an integral part of the city and less like an historic fort, inhabited mainly by tourists.

In Riga, I broke with my usual tradition of eschewing museums, and visited the Occupation Museum of Latvia, which chronicles the genocide and strife of Latvia and her people through various Soviet and German (and then Soviet) occupations. With so many Latvians exterminated during the second world war, I believe the country still has fewer people than it did in 1935. When I reach Poland next week, I plan to visit Auschwitz and think I’ll be even more profound affected by the horrible atrocities that humans have inflicted upon one another. While each of those museums seek to remind us of what happened in the past, I think dispiriting to recognize that history whatever lessons history holds have not been widely learned: we continue to behave badly toward each other.

Although there are many stunning young women, there are far fewer attractive older women. Some of the guys remarked that Eastern European women really dress it up to attract a rich husband, only to completely let themselves go after marriage. Apart from being misogynistic (or at least terribly chauvenistic), I think it oversimplifies the changes wrought by economic progress. Rich women – whether young or old – have the luxury of indulgence in vanity. Poor women, though they can certainly be beautiful, are generally more preoccupied with work and and caring for their families than picking out the latest concealer or following the “power abs” routine created by their personal trainer. So, I imagine that the older women in Riga are not tanned and toned, not because they couldn’t be, but because history didn’t afford them the opportunities of the rich earlier in their lives.