Sunday, 27 April 2008
...on a Friday night, is enough to make one feel ashamed of being British!
I hadn’t before been aware of its reputation as a booze-fuelled mecca for stag-night parties from the UK…..but that is definitely what it has become. The combination of cheap flights and cheap alcohol means that the streets of Old Riga at weekends are given over to groups of blobby-looking Brits – youths for the most part, although some hen parties are in evidence as well – who are clearly out to get as wasted as they can manage in as short a time as possible. Already by eight in the evening, some of them can be seen weaving unsteadily around the cobbled streets, clearly the worse for wear.
And equally depressing is the idea that presumably one from amongst each of these groups of nerdish-looking lumps is the object of somebody’s affection, and is about to walk – or weave? – their way up the aisle as somebody’s lifetime commitment. Yes, I know beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and that inside each of these deeply unattractive individuals is probably a truly beautiful person – but then, if they are truly beautiful people, what are they doing behaving in quite such an unattractive way?
The power of the stag-night pound has shaped business development in the Old Town such that by late evening, as night is eventually falling, as one walks through the winding little streets, past medieval architectural gems, the incongruous scent in the air is that of the serious party-goer’s friend: kebabs.
What makes it worse is that it’s easy to see what Riga has been and might be again. The town is deeply charming – if a little self-consciously so at times – and the centre of the town is an amalgam of the prettiest elements of Stockholm and Amsterdam, with the occasional example of Russian Neo-classicism thrown in for good measure. The northern sky is striking – going on for ever and ever - and the view of the town alongside the expanse of the river revives dim memories of the Hanseatic League and Riga’s historic importance in centuries past as a major trading port. The low skyline, frequently pierced by domes and spires, is straight from the stories of the brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen – slightly marred by only one Stalinist profile, soaring skywards, as an inescapable reminder of Latvia’s more recent unfortunate history. The people here refer often to ‘The Occupation’, and memories of that period and all that it meant are clearly never far from the surface. More than one person I’ve spoken to has expressed concern about Russia’s current intentions and whether the Latvians might once again be on the receiving end of Russian aggression – they see it as a real and worrying threat. People are nervous of Russia flexing its military muscle – and you can understand why they might be…
I tried, and signally failed, to find anywhere to eat in the Old Town that was serving properly traditional Latvian food. Presumably, all the old businesses disappeared during the long period of Russian occupation – and when the Russians left, the newly liberated taste was resolutely for things Western……with all the worst that that means in the shape of McDonalds and TGI Fridays. In the end I made do with a steak house on the Royal Square, where I sat and drank German Beer, and quietly revelled in the fact that it was the first time this year I’d dined al fresco, and in the fact that although it was well past nine o’clock in the evening, daylight was only now just starting to fade from the cloudless sky. I would have stayed longer, except that a group of blobbies materialised at the table behind me and started calling raucously for multiple bottles of Veuve Cliquot. Time to go…
Spaghetti alla Carbonara
Scaloppini with Cream and Orange Sauce; Braised Fennel