WALES AWAY: Latvia Calling, Part Two (09/09/23)

After a slightly messy first evening, we were up at the crack of noon, ready to explore Riga.

The day started slightly bizarrely.  Favourite son number three posted on the WhatsApp group that his shower was blocked and flooded. Megan said we should offer to help. We went down and knocked on the door.

First favourite son half opened the door, clearly not dressed.  “Would you like help in the shower?” I enquired.

“I’ll be fine thanks”, he responded with a quizical look. Then I realised he’s not in the WhatsApp group. He probably thought I was offering to scrub his back or pick up the soap.

To avoid any further confusion,  we just head out into the world in search of food.

We don’t have to go far. We are, after all,  staying next to a square full of restaurants.  We head to the other side of the square and spot an Italian restaurant with a menu in English,  which helps us know what we are ordering.  Linguine for breakfast.  Very civilised.

I post to the WhatsApp group. “We are in the restaurant under the big sign that says ‘McDonald’s 130m’ if you want to join us. Ten minutes later we spot number three walking past with a McDonald’s bag in his hand.

After brunch,  we walk in the direction we think the river is. Most old cities grew up around a river. Boats and ships were, after all, the best form of transport in the land before Eddie Stowbart. We walk over a cannally thing, take photos of a statuey thing and past a churchy thing. Then we hop on a ‘Hop On Hop Off’ bus thing.

It’s a mildly interesting trip. But as I said in previous blog, the Old Town is pedestrianised. As in, no busses allowed.  So basically,  we get to look at the leftovers.  The stuff that was built after all the really interesting stuff was built.

I’m doing the city a bit of a disservice here. There’s interesting shit that isn’t in the Old Town, shit that any other city would be proud to have, but it doesn’t really compare to the Old Town shizzle.

There is an interesting mix of medieval (old town), Art Deco, huge wooden buildings and brutalist Soviet era buildings.

One of the great things about following the Cymru football team away, is that it prompts you to visit countries that sound interesting, but you probably wouldn’t go to under your own steam. Latvia is one of those.

It is also a great way of brushing up on geography, a subject I was not that excited about when I was in school. Studying the map, I can see that Latvia is next to Estonia, another country I have visited following Wales Away. Although, thinking about it, that’s probably an exception to the rule. We were playing Finland and I decided that it would be cheaper and more interesting to stay in Tallin and get the ferry over on the day of the game. But I digress, now that I know it is next to Estonia, I have a bit of an idea where we are. It also borders Lithuania in the south, the Baltic Sea with the Gulf of Riga in the west, Russia in the east, and Belarus in the southeast. Hmmm. Bit of a dodgy neighborhood.

After the Second World War Latvia was absorbed into the old Soviet Union and remained part of it until its collapse in 1991.  Latvia is unique among its Ex-Soviet-siblings for the large proportion of Russians in its population (estimated around 30%). This is even more stark in Riga, with 41% of the population being Russian and 42% being Latvian. This state of affairs creates an undercurrent of tension in Latvia, which is not helped by a strong trend of emigration by Latvians. Or at least that’s what the interweb tells me. Maybe we will find out differently this week.

In the thirty years that have passed since the collapse of the iron curtain, undoubtedly capitalism has taken hold and the western way of life is deeply ingrained in the country. But I do love going to former Soviet countries and trying to observe the remnants of a different way of life.

The population of Latvia is less than two million, half that of Wales. Riga, the capital of Latvia, is home to a third of the entire population. The city has been around for eight hundred years, and the old town is a world heritage site. I had been looking forward to wandering around those ancient streets, camera in hand. Even driving in late at night we could see it is beautiful.

After driving around the bits that are less beautiful we hop off by the river, which turns out to be the opposite direction to the one we were walking.

Included in out bus ticket is a boat ride. We walk over to where the boat sails from to have a conversation with a young lad that looks like he knows what he is talking about. As we do, a large boat with a bar and restaurant comes in to dock.

“Can we use our ticket on this boat?” We enquire.

“Yes, but it is not sailing till six o’clock”, he tells us. There is a smaller boat going at three o’clock”.

I look at my watch and note that it is now three o’clock. “Where is the three o’clock boat sailing from?”

“Here”, is his informative but surreal answer. We sit for a while, waiting to see if the three o’clock boat will ever arrive, but it’s not long before we decide to do what any self respecting Welsh person would do. We go in search of a pub.

Before we find a pub we pause to take photos of a castle, some warships and an interesting musical art installation. There’s a lot of that art stuff going on around town, which is fine be me.

We note a lot of young men with American accents and baseball hats and draw the conclusion that at least one of those battleships must be Uncle Sam keeping the world safe from ourselves.

In the pub we sit down with a cider and check out what’s going on in WhatsApp world. An interesting story is unfolding.

We have friends that have opted to travel with the official supporters club, Wonky Sheep, and are skipping the drive to Gatwick by flying on a charter flight from Cardiff. Or at least that was the plan.

Their plane had been circling Cardiff,  unable to land due to fog. Eventually it had to land back in Gatwick to get more petrol.  So by the time it arrived back in the ‘Diff, the driver was ‘on taco’. He had used up most of his flying hours and couldn’t fly as far as Riga.  So everyone hopped on, expecting to fly to Copenhagen to pick up a fresh driver.  But after two hours sitting on the tarmac, the driver’s hours would not even get them to Denmark, so the flight was cancelled.

It gets worse.

Because they were supposed to be departing rather than arriving, there were no staff available to bring them the mobile stairs to get off the plane then shuttle bus them back to the terminal.

Annoyingly for those involved,  there was another Wonky Sheep flight going out later and had no problem with fog, so they had to watch these other fans board and fly off without any problems.

It gets even worse.

The FAW staff were on this cancelled flight. So now all the tickets for Welsh fans are still in Cardiff,  meaning those already ‘in country’, as they used to say in The ‘Nam, would have to wait to pick up their tickets.

For background – following Wales Away has become so popular,  there are never enough tickets available.  So a loyalty system has been introduced,  with tickets allocated based on the number of recent Away games attended. Because some people were ‘harvesting’ tickets; buying tickets to get the loyalty points but not going to the game, or leaving Wales even, you now have to rock up in country with your passport to collect tickets the day before the game.

Most of our gang have enough points to secure tickets, but with only one thousand tickets allocated, some of the gang have had to get home end tickets.

Anyway.  Back to Riga. Eventually Posh and Becks emerge. We agree to meet in a pizza joint. The best pizza joint in the country, apparently.  In fact the forty-ninth best pizza joint in Europe.  I’m not sure if one person has been to them all. It doesn’t make sense if that isn’t the case. How can they be compared by different people? I make a note to keep an eye out for the job being advertised.

We then head back to the square next to our apartment.  There is a blues-rock band playing in the square and their selection of covers is mostly agreeable. You see a lot of this in former Soviet countries.  There is a combination of avant-garde underground music, whilst the mainstream is often forty years behind the west.

Last night a bloke had tried to sell me a sketch of something.  I just said no, and turned away. The others were convinced it was a sketch of me. I hadn’t paid enough attention and gave it no more thought. Tonight I spot him sat twenty yards away sketching something.  I wonder who his unsuspecting model is tonight.

Low and behold it’s me. Again. He comes up and tries to sell me a portrait of myself.  I admire his persistence and after bartering the price down, shell out. I can’t help wondering if it was last night’s sketch.

I then get grief from Posh for not commissioning one for my favourite fiancé.

Vince Alm of the Supporters Federation warns us about buying drinks for strangers. Apparently he bought a girl a drink and it cost him 37 Euros. She was drinking champagne. He claims he thought the girl was with mate, his mate thought she was with him. Turns out she was a lady of ill repute. He went back to the same pub the next night to warn people.  Yes Vince. We believe you.

The night flew by and soon they were turning the lights out on us again, so we head for the ranch early, so we could get in a full day of sightseeing on Saturday.