I have just come back from a week in my home city-in-law, Riga, which is currently showing all signs of high summer: three shades of lilac, high grass and mosquitoes-of-death. To my surprise, since my last visit Riga has become a burgeoning city of cyclists. Sweeping bicycle lanes have been built, and there is even a Baltic Bike share scheme (though it doesn’t appear to be very popular). On a self-devised tour of the Art Nouveau district, I came across this rather nice flyer for Riga Bicycle Tours, which promises “the most honest impression, not just the city the guidebook shows. The good the bad and the ugly!” Awesome. I was already missing cycling, especially seeing everyone sailing about on their two wheels, and I also wanted to learn more about Riga.
I caught a very pristine new tram into the old town in time for the 3pm tour on Saturday. The flyer says to join the tour from the Town Hall Square, and to look for the sign. I couldn’t find an office anywhere, so waited by the Tourist Office, who reassured me that I was in the right place. Shortly after 3pm a guide and a bike showed up, and waited next to the statue of Roland (“That’s the guy holding the sword!”, confirms the website) with the promised sign. The tour guide, hilariously, was an Australian called Marcus – originally from Geelong – who has been in Riga for four years. The tour consisted of myself, Marcus, and a gentleman from San Francisco. The tours are divided between Marcus and a local colleague, and each costs 10 LVL (about £13) for two hours. It is a very clever little operation run under an umbrella company called EAT Riga, which offers all sorts of interesting tours including “Retro Riga” and “Beer and Balsam”. The bikes are kept in a cafe a short walk away from the square; and whilst they’re not the cherry red cruisers shown in the website image, they’re sturdy Dutch-style bikes and easy to adjust.
Marcus took us out of the cobbled old town into the Moscow District, via the markets constructed in Art Deco style with the recycled roofs of zeppelin hangars. The Moscow District was constructed along the Moscow Road, and was the first suburb of Riga outside the Old Town, which was reserved for the elite German merchants. It’s still one of the poorer areas of the city, with a particularly tragic history in the form of the Jewish Ghetto. Today, this area is quiet and ramshackle, belying its violent past, and the cemetery has been converted to a shady green park.
From there, I’m not actually sure where we went, but we somehow circled back into the city proper, towards the Art Nouveau district. Even though I’d already been a few days previously, this time I learned that there are more Eisenstein buildings than I first thought (Sergei’s dad was an architect!); and that if the gates are open, these buildings are in fact publicly accessible – even though there’s not a great deal to see, I found this new fact quite charming. I also learned that if you take the time to press your forehead to the glass and look inside the foyers, you will be delighted to see the original Art Nouveau tiling adorning the stairwells.
In Riga, you are allowed to cycle on the pavement as long as you don’t disturb any pedestrians. Unlike in London this isn’t a problem because the pavements are so capacious. In the old town cycling is difficult due to cobbles, but you’re better off walking those streets anyway, just to take it all in. I really love this slight sense of lawlessness, mainly because it absolutely works, and to me pedestrians and cyclists are more alike than cyclists and cars. (I still find it absurd that cyclists are not supposed to use the pavement over Chelsea Bridge, because it’s perfectly wide enough, and the road has no proper shoulder anyway.) Moreover, no one bothers with helmets. I was amazed by how accommodating pedestrians were of cyclists sharing their space in Riga. As we were cycling across an intersection, our SF friend lost his bag, and a kindly man chased after him to return it. The only confrontation I observed in a whole week was a car beeping at a cyclist as she was (legally) crossing the road – on a pedestrian crossing at that! It seems that the attitude of drivers still needs some work.
The cycle tour was easily the highlight of my trip. It was such a pleasure to be introduced to a side of Riga I didn’t know about, and of course to see it by bicycle! Cycling on wide-enough pavements was a particular treat.