Jane Stuart – Writer

Writer on beer, football culture and Blackpool FC.

To Riga With Love (Part 2 of 2)

As detailed in Part 1, a group of intrepid Seasiders opted to make the annual trip to Riga overland in summer 2008. Having travelled through the Channel Tunnel and across Belgium, Germany and Poland over the first four days, we arrived in the Baltics for a long weekend enjoying local culture and having adventures along the way…

Friday, 11 July 2008

‘And I’m feeling (dum dum) Glad all over / yes I’m (dum dum) Glad all over / baby I’m (dum dum) Glad all over / ‘cause you’re miiiiiiiiiiiiiiiine!’

Another stupid o’clock start today. We were taking an early train from Warsaw to Šeštokai, where we had a quick change to take a train to our home for the night – Vilnius. Now, there were a couple of issues here…

Firstly, the train was to separate before reaching Šeštokai, so we had to ensure that we were in the correct section of the train – or else goodness knows where we might end up. An obvious problem here was our lack of understanding of the Polish language (never mind Lithuanian), so we took a gamble and took our seat in a random carriage. When the Polish ticket collector arrived, she pointed at our tickets and said something in Polish. As explained in Part 1, our Polish did not extend beyond ‘white cinema’, which wasn’t particularly helpful in this instance. We tried to emphasise our lack of understanding and she responded in a very English way – by repeating what she had said previously in a louder voice. The exercise was repeated, her voice became louder and louder and finally we were rescued by an English speaking German, who confirmed that we were indeed in the correct carriage. Although we still weren’t entirely convinced.

Our research had revealed that this nine-hour journey did not include any buffet facilities, so we had frantically rushed around the station buying all the food and drink we could carry. Now we were on the train, we realised why there were no buffet facilities. Although there were toilets on board, there was no water – either in the sink or in the toilet. So we ate and drank as little as possible – just enough to sustain us for the journey.

We changed at Šeštokai – we had indeed been in the correct section of the train (phew!) – and changed onto another train… also without facilities.

The views from the window of the train were spectacular. Lithuania certainly is a quite beautiful country and I fell in love with it the moment I laid eyes on it. It was a beautiful day weather wise, too, which always helps make a town/city/country look beautiful, of course (n.b. the sun never shines in Preston or Chesterfield).

I had noticed by this point that, although I had in excess of 300 tracks on my MP3 player on setting off, I was now down to around half this number and wondered what on earth had happened to the remainder. Now, we had been reading the ‘Lonely Planet Guide to Eastern Europe’, which had mentioned (we were delighted to be informed) that these European train carriages left unsuspecting travellers vulnerable to gas attacks – where robbers would fill the carriage with gas and steal valuables whilst the passengers were out cold. Perhaps this had happened to us and they had made off with some of my music? Nonetheless I was accused by Angel of ‘leaving tracks all over Europe’.

After a marathon trek overland, we arrived in Vilnius around teatime and headed off to our hotel. The rooms were lovely – and with Internet access (just as well, as none of our mobiles were now working for some reason) – whilst the hotel itself appeared to be part of a large leisure centre complex, which was most strange.

We went off for an evening stroll. The evening was beautiful and our party was torn between gazing at the beautiful ladies and the beautiful clothes they were wearing – and those in the shop windows. Whilst not dreaming to compete with the locals with regard to their physical beauty, we could at least buy some beautiful clothes whilst we were out here.

And on the subject of beautiful ladies… Tonight we were dining at a Belgian restaurant that I had seen featured in the Baltic Times, where the waitresses serve your meals dressed in a bowler hat, apron and suspenders. I thought this would go down well. And what an absolute treat this turned out to be. Our waitress for the evening was Taute and she was a charming and delightful hostess.  

As Taute took our food order, she also asked for our names, and shortly afterwards we were each presented with an envelope bearing our name, containing our cutlery and a note from the chef, Rene, saying that she hoped we would enjoy our meal.  She even did a little envelope for our little bear mascot, Dany (which is how he got the quirky spelling of his name).

Whilst not authentically Belgian, the food was quite delicious – and washed down with a Belgian Kwak beer, which was served in a test-tube, which was interesting! On the menu was Duck in Kwak Sauce, which made us chuckle.

The evening continued with cocktails in the garden of an Italian restaurant followed by a nightcap in the bowling alley opposite our hotel – which was full of sweaty, smelly men. We ordered draft perry and took this outside to drink where we would be able to breathe more freely. Now the draft perry in the Baltics is absolutely delicious – the brands we tried were Kiss and Fizz and these are freely available in many bars. I am not a fan of cider, but this pear equivalent is most refreshing on a summer evening. Besides, we were getting quite sick of beer by this point, having been drinking it with lunch, mid-afternoon and with dinner for the last five successive days.

Having loved what we had seen (and tasted) of this fine young country so far, we were very much looking forward to a full day here tomorrow and seeing much more of what Lithuania’s capital had to offer.

Saturday, 12 July 2008

We met in the restaurant and raided the breakfast buffet (which had everything breakfasty you could imagine) before heading off for a stroll into town. It was a beautiful day (28°C) and the heat was by no means overbearing – it was quite perfect.

Our first call was the KGB Museum, which was housed in the former headquarters of the KGB. This offered a fascinating, terrifying and moving insight into life under the Soviet regime. We read horrifying accounts of genocide in Ukraine; walked through actual prison cells and an execution chamber; and read with interest the story of the Baltic nations independence finally coming to pass in 1991 following an amazing show of unity amongst the nation’s people in 1989 with the formation of the Baltic Way, when approximately 200 million people joined hands to form a human chain over 600KM long across the three Baltic states to draw the world’s attention to their plight.  

Having been moved to tears and stunned into silence, we took time to reflect over ice cream and beer before continuing with our tour of Vilnius. 

We had already noticed that there seem to be a disproportionately high number of wedding parties and this continued throughout the day – we must have happened across at least fifteen weddings today. Love was certainly in the air! We even saw some tangerine bridesmaids!

We sought out the signs of Lithuanian quirkiness – which was an abundance in this adorable city –  including the only known statue of Frank Zappa; and the Republic of Užupis, an independent state of artists in the centre of Vilnius, with its own flag, currency, president, army (consisting of approximately 12 men) and constitution:

’Everyone has the right to love and take care of the cat.’ 

‘Everyone has the right to be in doubt, but this is not an obligation.’

‘Everyone has the right to look after the dog until one of them dies.’

Fastened to the bridge over the river that bordered Užupis were dozens of locks, each bearing the name of the couple that had been married in the city together with the date of their union. Indeed on inspection we found one dated for that very day – perhaps we had seen the happy couple themselves on our travels that morning – there really was a wedding around every corner.

We stopped for lunch at an Italian restaurant where we discovered just how laid-back the locals were. I thought the man at the next table was going to fall off his chair backwards, he was so chilled out, reading his newspaper, totally relaxed. The waitress came to take our order only when she felt like getting round to it and we were in there for quite some time in the end. But I found the general atmosphere to be catching and, instead of getting stressed out about my meal taking its time to arrive, I began to think, well, it will come when it comes. I was wholly relaxed and felt so comfortable and happy in this wonderful city. Couldn’t I stay?

Our afternoon stroll around the city was equally relaxed and enjoyable. We were totally relaxed in one another’s company, the weather was delightful, the scenery was beautiful and the locals were civilised and respectful. This was a perfect day.

We had hardly stopped laughing since we had encountered what Shorty had previously described to as the ‘paedophile road sign’ a couple of nights ago – and tonight was to be no exception.

We dined at a Lithuanian mediaeval restaurant which, as you would expect, had a variety of meat on the menu. This included beaver, which none of us were quite brave enough to order, although we regretted not having done so later. I opted for the roe deer. Over dinner we went round the table asking each other questions along the lines of our favourite films, books, holiday destinations, etc. in order to get to know each other little better. When we got onto the subject of ‘favourite animal, excluding pets’, Random Girl responded: ‘Well that pig I’ve just eaten was rather nice’.  The table exploded with laughter – not least at the stunned expression on the face of the vegetarian in the party…

Sunday, 13 July 2008

Today we were finally to reach our destination: Riga. Oh lovely Riga.

We breakfasted and congregated in the hotel reception as we waited for our taxi to take us to the bus station. This had not arrived a minute before it was due and so Herts chased this up with the receptionist. Her response: ‘Oh it will be here.’ Of course we were stressing over nothing and the taxi indeed arrived on time. Had we not learned the stress-free mañana attitude from the locals yet? Things will happen when they happen.

We boarded the bus to Riga – a journey that was to take just a couple of hours, which was practically a short hop compared to some of the treks we had undertaken the previous week. We were all dressed in our specially commissioned tour T-shirts and shorts. Even little Dany was wearing shorts, which had been tailored from a Polish napkin by Shorty on the long train journey from Warsaw.

On arrival in Riga we each made our way to our individual hotels and arranged to meet up at the Pub of Choice shortly afterwards.  Now I use the term ‘hotel’ in the loosest possible sense. I had booked ours on the Internet, as my first choice ‘usual’ hotel (Radi un Draugi) was fully booked, and this one I knew was at least in the area of the city that I wanted to be based in. But I must not have read the website properly, as I was sure I was booking a ‘hotel’, whereas this was clearly a ‘hovel’. But it had been paid for in advance, so we were stuck with it.

Basically, it was set up to cater for stag parties (of animals, clearly), with five beds per room (despite there only being the two of us here). Two of the beds immediately collapsed when sat upon, with the wooden slats underneath having been previously broken and reattached incorrectly. But the real treat was the bathroom. Oh. My. God. It was the pokiest little room and I didn’t want to even consider what those stains at the foot of the shower curtain were. There was a radiator actually in the shower and I joked with Angel that this was probably an indication that the water from the shower was cold. Ha ha… There were no blinds on some of the windows (including the non-frosted bathroom window) so we covered the windows with towels (we had five towels for just two of us, which was just as well, as there were only two clean ones – the others covered with stains that we again did not want to take time to identify).

We dumped our bags (taking all our valuables with us, as we didn’t like the feel of this place for some reason) and headed off to the Pub of Choice – The Dickens – which, it transpired, was not there any more, so we headed over the road to the new Stella Pub, which we could see was already brimming with Seasiders. It was rumoured that this chain of pubs was owned by Blackpool President Valeri Belokon’s brother. Certainly it was brimming with Seasiders memorabilia – including the shirts of Kaspars Gorkšs and Pavel Steinbors.

By a remarkable ‘coincidence’, Mr Belokon himself soon came strolling past the bar, on his way to visit his bank, which was further down the street. He was happy to stop for a chat and the obligatory photographs, which was lovely.

Having resolved to spend as little time in the hovel as possible, we remained in the bar for the entire afternoon, having enjoyed a pleasant lunch and a variety of different proper beers. We nipped to back to the hovel very briefly for a quick change before dinner. For tonight we were dining at the posh Russian restaurant we had liked the look of the previous year, but were not appropriately attired to feel we could go in. This year I had brought a smart outfit especially so we could dine here and I could practice my Russian throughout the evening.

The restaurant was quite fine and the food delicious – we were certainly eating well this week. And this was becoming evident in our waistlines! Oh well – we were on holiday, so it was allowed. It was also in this restaurant that we discovered vodka. That is, Proper Vodka. Oh my. After our meal (where I recall being force-fed caviar at one point – I told you we were eating well!), we decided to select something random from the vodka menu (which they brought round after dinner). We were presented with a glass of Finlandia Cranberry Vodka and this was quite magnificent (we had to have two for quality control purposes and this was confirmed). And an excellent method of ensuring you have a good night sleep (as well as the nasal strips for any snorers in the room, of course). As we were by now quite sick of beer, vodka made a most pleasant new favourite tipple. And it provided the courage necessary to face the night in that hovel.  This trip was indeed proving to be quite a voyage of discovery.  To this day I still take vodka instead of a dessert in restaurants.

Monday, 14 July 2008

Well, I survived the night, which was something. And there was hot water from the shower. What a result. So things weren’t so bad here, after all. Still, I left the premises as soon as possible then decided it would be sensible to skip breakfast if I was to try and survive another day.

Finally today we were going to see some football, which was the ostentatious reason for our trip. Whilst we could spend a week making our way over land to Plymouth, it just wouldn’t be the same, would it? Although I have never been to Cornwall (yes, I know Plymouth is in Devon), so that might be an option in the future.

We were playing FK Jurmala today and had been eagerly looking forward to our day at the beach for many months. Having enjoyed the beach at Ventspils so very much last year, we couldn’t wait to get to the main seaside resort in Latvia. We congregated at the railway station and boarded the train to Majori, where we were set to enjoy a kickabout on the beach and a few beachside cocktails before carrying on to Sloka, where the match was to take place.

Unfortunately it was raining when we arrived, so we stopped for a drink at the first bar along the main promenade and seated ourselves outside on the covered balcony while we waited for the rain to stop. And we waited. More and more Seasiders joined us as they alighted at Majori and before long there was a good couple of dozen of us camped out outside the bar/restaurant. By now we had eaten lunch here and we were on the vodka chasers as these were a good means of keeping us warm. We were dressed for a day at the beach and it was quite cold when we went for a brief stroll out in the rain. We remained outside the bar so long that it was soon time for another meal, so we took that here, too. The rain was showing little sign of ceasing. Indeed, it was quite heavy now. We sent scouting parties out in search of shops selling umbrellas and cagouls. I eventually managed to secure a nice jumper and a fantastic magic umbrella that opens and closes at the touch of a button.

So much for our day at the beach. It was a complete washout. We didn’t even see the beach. How disappointing. However we did make some new friends here – a couple of random Norwich fans, who were here on holiday ahead of their tour of Scandinavia, and who were convinced to come along and watch us. We had also got chatting to a local woman on the train, who asked where we were from. When we responded ‘Blackpool,’ she replied gleefully ‘Ah! Sea People!’, which was lovely.  Sea-sea-sea-people!

On arrival at the ground (which we found despite there being no signs at the train stations on this line) the rain had thankfully ceased. But the game was a bit of a damp squib. We had a couple of Eastern European triallists on display, one of whom I dubbed ‘Evil Andy Morrell’ owing to his passing resemblance to our former striker and the fact that he was the dirtiest b*****d I can remember seeing in Blackpool shirt. I really hoped that we didn’t sign him. There are some great dirty players, don’t get me wrong, but I got the distinct impression of innate evilness from this character and didn’t want him anywhere near Blackpool, thank you very much.

But he scored, so that was nice. Little did we realise at the time how precious goals would be so rare in the weeks ahead.

We remained behind after the match for a while before rushing off to catch a train back to Riga. We were cutting it a bit fine then began to run when we saw two trains on the platforms (you could literally walk across the tracks here). Clearly we had not learned to be quite as laid-back like the Lithuanians (we’ll get there, it’ll be fine, no need to panic) and were punished for this, as Yorkie managed to cut his foot quite deeply by treading on a large shard of glass and needed medical assistance.  Hence he was dubbed Hopalong for the remainder of the trip (and to this day, actually).

Back in Riga, we returned to our regular Latvian restaurant that we visit each year. Here, during our around the table ‘onion peeling’ questioning, we learned that Ian’s favourite film was Van Helsing, as he was a firm believer in vampires. You live and learn.

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Angel’s alarm was far sweeter than Random Girl’s had been. I was woken by the gentle whistles of Bobby McFerrin’s introduction to ‘Don’t Worry Be Happy’. It is nice to be woken so gently.

Aaaaaaaaaaagh!!! No hot water today! Cold showers are horrible and this hovel was getting worse by the day. We were also starting to itch, having in all likelihood been bitten in our beds by goodness knows what was festering in there.

We chose to take breakfast in a coffee shop around the corner, where I picked up a Russian newspaper featuring Blackpool on the front page, with a review of our game.

Today was our shopping day and we scoured the markets, local shops and department stores and stocked up on gifts and books to take home, before meeting up with other Seasiders at the Hotel Reval bar, where we basked in the sunshine for a couple of hours before heading over towards Skonto’s ground. For we had another game to go to today.

After taking lunch in the Barcelona Bar, we headed to the ground. And thus began our goal drought! We were soundly beaten and Stephen McPhee was sent off by a very harsh referee. Thank goodness The Evil One didn’t start! Dominic Merrella impressed very much, as he had done yesterday – he was the highlight of the trip for me (on the footballing side). To be honest, I was really struggling to get into the football this pre-season, as I had seen little to get excited about. But of course this season was to be a slow burner…

After the match we headed for a restaurant I had spotted during my pre-match reading. Given that Ian had such a fear of vampires, we thought it apt to take him along to a garlic restaurant. Here all the dishes contained garlic – including the desserts. And after the meal – and after our traditional annual Riga’s Black Balsam – we were asked if we would like to try a garlic vodka. Well of course we had to! This was served with a piece of garlic immersed within it and was quite disgusting! However, we were provided with a dish of coffee beans, which removed the garlic taste surprisingly successfully.

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Time to go home! As much as I had enjoyed my week away – having had some great laughs and experienced so many new things – I simply could not wait to check out of this hovel (although I did take one final cold shower before hitting the road). I felt a strong sense of relief as I handed over the key to the receptionist. I wonder if they ever get anyone going back there for a second time? I doubt it.

On the flight back to Liverpool (now parted from all my travelling companions, who all lived in other parts of the UK) I closed my eyes and imagined myself back on a train. It had been special holiday and I was now so relaxed.

As I travelled home by bus and train, bopping away to the remaining tracks on my MP3 player (not many now), I resolved to maintain my laid-back attitude during my everyday life back in the UK. But oh my this is so hard with the hustle and bustle of city life! You can feel the stress and urgency and impatience and pushing and shoving of people around you that it is so difficult to stay serene in these circumstances.

Quite why the Eastern Europeans are moving over here, I don’t understand. I am becoming increasingly tempted to head in the other direction.

I arrived home to cats and hot water and a determination to lose weight, having arrived home with an expanding waistline. But the diet, as always, starts next week – maybe the mañana attitude has taken hold after all…