Day 7: Wednesday 19th August
Come the cool grey morning we feel no desire to search any longer for the ‘fabulous’ beaches that are supposed to be on this coast – we must get on to Riga and do some proper tourism. On getting to the city centre we pass over a modern bridge and find ourselves immediately in the old town. That’s handy, parking spaces right by all the sights … except that they charge 5 lats for the first hour (£7) and 8 lats per hour thereafter! Clearly a premium spot for all the government officials that visit these parts. A local advises us to drive out of the centre by about ten blocks and get a bus back in. This we do, ending up parking on the main bus route back into town. A bus arrives at the stop just as we do and charges just 0.8 lats for the trip (about £1). We get off as we near the centre of the old town and stop at a cafe for a coffee and to plan our day. Although the sky still has much cloud the rain holds off for the rest of the day and we are able to do our sightseeing in relative comfort.
The city is much like many of the older cities across Europe but with the eastern twist of the onion spires on churches. It’s cosmopolitan and welcoming without being pushy. We follow the only pocket guidebook we have and do bits of a walking tour around the old city. Riga Castle has a lovely setting on the river. The Dome Cathedral is worth paying to go into to see the fine interior, especially the organ and pulpit; and the cloisters, full of interesting and historic artefacts (don’t miss the pagan idol head). The Mentzendorff House Museum is a beautifully restored merchant’s house built at the end of the seventeenth century and furnished in period style. Jacob’s Barracks, built in the eighteenth century, runs the whole length of one of the main streets. We decide we don’t have the motivation to visit the ‘Museum of the Russian Occupation’.
As with all tourist traps there are a handful of buskers and vendors hanging around but they are no trouble and only add to the relaxed charm of the place. (After we return to the UK we discover that it was only a couple of weeks previously that two Englishmen on a stag trip were arrested for murder in one of these local bars. They remained in jail during the time of our visit.)
Late afternoon and we feel ready to get back on the road – we have to get out of the city and find a stopover before dark. A No. 3 bus again arrives at the bus stop just as we do. Our anxiety about the bus deviating from the route is thankfully unfounded – we have no map of the city with us – and soon we are back at the van’s location. By chance a small motor factor is close by and we are able to pick up a few spare 15amp fuses for the van. When language fails a quick sketch of what we want is enough to secure them!
We are soon out of the city and after a couple of hours’ driving through dense pine, birch and cedar woods we are close to the Baltic coast, of which we catch attractive glimpses, before we stop at a picnic spot just off the road. We are tempted to make it do but fortune favours the brave and instead we set off along a narrow track to seek out the campsite shown on the huge map at the picnic stop. After travelling back down the coast for a couple of kilometres we still haven’t found anything more than derelict lodges and an occasional house, but then the woods open up to reveal a stop that was among the best of the whole trip – an old lady’s front garden lawn next to her timber-clad house and right on the back of the beach. Superb! A mixture of Russian, German and English makes me(HP) understood and the stopover is negotiated. I hand over our last few lats and another pack of M&S fruit tea as a token of our appreciation. Her dog yelps at us for a little while but his bark is worse than his bite and we are soon settled in to watch the sun setting in a clear sky over the Gulf of Riga. Fabulous.
After our usual evening’s entertainment we turn in for a good night’s sleep, lulled by the gentle lapping of the waves on the shore a few metres away … magic.