Rīga, You’re Lovely, but Please Let Me Sleep!

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A breeze blew off the Daugova River and tempered the munificent sun. Trams howled and clanked along the boulevards which frame Old Rīga. Cobbled lanes converged in squares with verdigrised spires, turrets and towers, gargoyles, grotesques and columns.

The sun brought out the Beautiful People. They strolled in the squares, ducked into shops and draped themselves over chairs at tables under awnings, accessorising with cigarettes and espressos; they sprawled and frolicked in Batejkalna Park across the boulevard at the edge of the old town.

It is a pleasant park on a sunny day with its sloping lawns and meandering paths and cast iron standard lamps. The Pilsētas Kanāls divides the park into two and hands out half each to the Old Rīga and Centrs neighbourhoods. A pretty wooden launch from 1907 chugs tourists along the canal. It chugs under bridges, past a fountain, through a tunnel, alongside the Central Market, then chugs out onto the river under the railway bridge and the road bridge and back through the marina, past moored yachts, and round again to the canal.

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The market was the biggest in Europe, once. Its buildings were made from old Zeppelin hangers. The stalls spill out into the surrounding streets and occupy several blocks. You can buy a whole salmon, a big sack of cat litter and a Soviet air force uniform, if they all happen to be on your shopping list.

Centrs is quieter than Old Rīga but just as beguiling. It has more Art Nouveau facades than you will see in one place anywhere else in the world, and they are as exuberant as anything but Gaudí’s Modernista buildings. Mikhail Eisenstein, father of Sergei, the Battleship Potemkin director, designed some of the more arresting, with eagles, sphinxes, lion’s heads, keyhole-shaped windows, and human faces with gaping mouths and expressions which suggest they have just seen the architect’s bill.

I had a room in the top of a townhouse right in the middle of Old Rīga. It was just a mattress on the floor of a room little bigger, but I was happy enough with that. Or at least I was until I tried to sleep and found out how good the sound system was on the late bar round the corner. Earplugs just muted the higher frequencies and seemed to trap the bass in my skull.

I got up and got dressed and went out in the end. It was a warm night and I walked round Old Rīga, then sat a table at a bar in the square and saw off a couple of beers. The music had stopped by the time I got back and I slept then, finally, for a few hours until the other guests began to get up. Whenever the heavy front door slammed shut, as it always did, it shook the whole fabric of the building; two people walking down the corridor was like a surprise attack by a battalion.

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The next night was the same, except that people moved into the room next door a couple of hours after the music stopped and the walls were so thin that their conversation was as clear as if they had been sitting on the edge of the bed.

I logged, fuzzy-headed, onto a booking site and paid a lot more than I normally would for a nice hotel overlooking Batejkalna Park. It was a lovely room and, on a normal Saturday, it would doubtless have been as peaceful as I had hoped; but that Saturday was the Rīga Festival and right across the street there was a 24-hour basketball marathon with booming commentary and amped-up EDM.

Fine, then, I thought, perhaps I will sleep when I get to Estonia.

© Richard Senior 2015

The Breakaway Republic of Užupis

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Užupis was the bohemian quarter of Vilnius, until 1997 when it declared itself an independent republic.

It was a peaceful secession, unlike Lithuania’s from the Soviet Union. No tanks rolled over the bridges across the Vilnia River. Lithuanian troops never engaged the 12-man Užupian army. The authorities did not tear down the Užupian flag (a hand with a hole in it against a background whose colour changes with the seasons). They stood by as the self-declared president appointed a council of ministers, and the new government erected signs either side of what it claimed as the international border.

But neither Lithuania nor anyone else recognised the breakaway state.

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Užupis still has the broken-brick, rotten-wood, flaking-paint post-Soviet shabbiness which has mostly been gentrified out of the Baltic states, now; but there is a cheerful, arty atmosphere amid the dilapidation. The hipsters who drink at the fashionable bars coexist happily with the marginal types who squat in the crumbling apartments. Artist and Drunkard are popular occupations.

There are no multinationals here; not even Subway, KFC, Costa and Tesco, which all must have outlets on the moon. The businesses there are, a convenience store, a dentist, a café, and several bars, restaurants and galleries, are local concerns. Most have Užupis, or some derivation, in their company name; many fly the national flag.

On one wall on a side road just off the main street, there are stainless steel boards engraved with the constitution in 23 languages. It is unlike any other constitution.

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The world would surely be a nicer place if all governments acknowledged that “Everyone has the right to love,” “Everyone has the right to be happy” and “Everyone has the right not to be afraid”. The idea would, of course, enrage the icy-hearted misanthropes who write for the tabloids. That is reason alone to promote it.

All constitutions should recognise that “Everyone has the right to love and take care of a cat” and, correspondingly, that “A cat is not obliged to love its master, but it must help him in difficult times”. Likewise that “Everyone has the right to look after a dog till one or the other dies” and that “A dog has the right to be a dog”.

Yet it is not all so enlightened. “Everyone shall remember his name” could lead to grave injustice, particularly on a Saturday night.

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For 364 days of the year, the borders with Lithuania are as open as any in Europe, outside countries like Bosnia, Belarus and Britain. But once a year, the authorities post guards on the bridges to check and stamp passports.

It is done symbolically to mark Independence Day, which falls on the 1st of April: a clear indication – if any were needed – that the founding fathers were not so much fired by patriotic zeal as kind of taking the piss.

© Richard Senior 2015