My ears tingled for the forgotten hat; my feet cushioned the cold and the cobbles in my warm boots. It was winter in autumn colours.
We’d gone to Latvia’s capital, Riga, on a whim. No planning, no weeks of anticipation. Sometimes that’s the best way. We stayed in the old town, a compact area where it was easy to walk everywhere, chasing the narrow strips of sunlight between the tall buildings for a few warm rays. We sought out the ornate Blackheads House on the town square, wrought-iron tracery on its roof like Christmas trees, a legacy from the past. We wondered at its name – a reference, it seems, to an old symbol of a blackamoor’s head rather than a skin disease. Then the Three Brothers, wobbly, tall houses, centuries old. No shortage of places to point the camera.
Riga is a patchwork of designs and cultures, a city of churches and open spaces, designer shops and craft markets. In spite of its troubled past with occupation by Swedes, Russians and Germans, it has a comfortable feel. We heard Latvian and Russian in almost equal measure; maybe the enmity of the two nations is fading. And we were often welcomed in English. A friendly place where a beggar – there weren’t many – showed us the way into a church.
We ate well. Local food was hearty rather than haute cuisine. Riga’s famous Black Balzam drink tasted better than the guide book told us although a late afternoon glϋhwein in one of the quirky bars slipped down more easily. Early evening was picturesque, the gentle light glinting off the copper domes of the churches, cockerel weather vanes piercing the blue sky.
The city woke late. We wandered the early streets, discovering the squares and parks where golden cascades fell onto neat lawns to be raked industriously into mounds, a child’s delight. It felt safe; a minimal, kindly police presence, pairs of officers with truncheons but no firearms we could see. Soldiers guarded the freedom monument, against what we don’t know, and marched ceremoniously in front of it. By late morning, there was a bustle to the place which continued late into the night. As darkness arrived so did the music. Sounds of Elvis from a live band in a restaurant, street entertainers of all kinds: accordion players, saxophonists, a talented opera singer, an ancient woman playing a more ancient zither, her high-pitched tremolo vibrating the air. All earning our small change in this city of modern cars, smart trams and trolley buses.
Another day we left the old town behind to visit the Art Nouveau area. Here there are wide boulevards, magnificent well-restored buildings and an air of affluence. Our necks became stiff from gazing upwards. The Russian Orthodox cathedral was a gold assault on our senses, gaspingly ornate, in perfect condition. Too many museums to visit in our three-day stay. But we came away knowing more than when we arrived.
Going away on a whim is good.