Saturday, 15 September 2012


Crossing into Latvia on a sunny Sunday morning we take the main road south through an endless forest.  It's possible that all of Latvia is forest, but maybe it just happens to be the roads we pick.  The roads are flat and straight so after a while you stop noticing the way the light plays between the trees, the mix of deciduous and pine trees, the parked cars on the side of the road miles from anywhere.  Mushroom-pickers.  It's the season and they are out in force, driving out of the towns to roam the woods with their baskets and buckets.

the addiction of facebook knows no bounds....
We are making a bee-line for Riga (why a 'bee-line' when I mean the most direct route???) but the route takes us through a couple of pretty little towns and a national park or two.  We meet our first cycle tourists since the Norway/Sweden border - a young English couple, "artists", on second-hand bikes bought in Tallinn.  They've been following the bicycle routes which take you on the quiet back roads - sounds okay until you realise that many are not paved, so quite slow-going.  They say they're doing research.  Into what? we ask.  Uh, the Baltic countries.  How? Er, by talking to people.  We have met outside a small shop in a small town in a small country.  We are both heading to Riga, but we head off in different directions and we never meet again.

Ivetta hosts us in her tiny Riga appartment.  We wedge our bikes in behind the fold-down sofa and, as she lives on the fifth floor, decide to use public transport for our stay.  We wrote to Ivetta because she had written about a book that we happened to be carrying with us - a book about a Pakistani community in northern England: 'Maps For Lost Lovers'.  The prose is dense and poetical, the narrative rather depressing and the author, born in Pakistan, seems to be trying to offend Muslims at any opportunity.  It's not a dull book - and it's translated into Latvian apparently.  Ivetta seems slightly harrassed when we first meet but the impression soon passes.  One evening she appears with a drill and fixings to put a huge mirror up in her hallway.  I'd like to think that several years of d.i.y. at home has given me the knowledge and wherewithal to accomplish such a task with ease and skill.  But the truth is I probably botched it like always.

We meet her husband, Rachid, who is from Morocco, and is studying Latvian for part of his citizenship test.  His Latvian class is full of fifty year-olds born in Riga.  They are Russians.  In Soviet times the Russians were brought to Riga to work but they never needed to learn the language.  It's a sore point and the boot is on the other foot now.

Our visit coincides with rain and this is fine as we're not on the bikes.  But maybe we don't get the best from the city.  It feels large and spread out, and the old town in the centre is large and grand.  There's a great central market and a collection of art-deco buildings that are have all been tarted up quite nicely.  We lose some time in a travel bookshop full of maps and guidebooks - it's easily done.

We keep going over our proposed route through Lithuania, and decide to keep going on the most direct road to Vilnius.  It means we don't spend so long in Latvia - a matter of days - but we're keen to keep heading south.   There's definitely an autumnal air now.
another perfect pitch

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