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Word Travels - Modern Gonzo in Latvia by Robin Esrock
Modern Gonzo in Latvia
by Robin Esrock / Published February 12 2008
Budget flights might have turned Riga into the Pub of Europe, but the city still offers breathtaking art nouveau buildings, a UNESCO Heritage Old Town, and a circus to launch a thousand novels.

My Life is a Circus
Riga JumpI'm thinking about air travel on the four-hour bus from Vilnius (Lithuania) to Riga (Latvia). Remarkable. Truly, incredible stuff. A century ago, it would take four hours to get from one village to the next. On this bus, in Europe, I'll get off in a different country with a different language, currency, and religious philosophy. On a plane, four hours can deposit me on a different continent. It's the planes that have turned cities like Riga - rich with history and culture - into European nightclubs. Budget airlines offer rack seats for the price of a DVD. Countries like Latvia were initially keen to welcome an influx of tourists from the UK and Ireland, flush with their pounds and euros. They came from Glasgow, they came from Liverpool, they came from Dublin and Oslo and Cardiff. Only, instead of middle-aged potters with twee pipes and "Gosh Richard, isn't this just too quaint" sensibilities, the fledgling Latvian government got a little more, em, Britain than they bargained for. When Latvia's reputation for beautiful ladies, cheap beer and dynamic nightlife met the cheap tickets of the budget airline boom, the result brought it plane loads of excessive horny hooligans - stag parties and boy's weekends made up of Britain's finest, if by finest you mean the kind of guys who end up pissing on each other in an alley while sexually molesting an iron gate. Inebriated men with no respect for anything, much less each other, can quickly turn a charming medieval old town into a center of vice, where prostitutes, drug dealers, casinos and everything in between (card-betting drug dealing hookers?) gather to do business. I've seen it in Prague, once the jewel of Europe, now a playground for loud, sunburnt idiots. Vilnius, Krakow, Budapest, Zagreb, Eastern and Central Europe opened their doors to the West and the West dumped its trash in their living room. Thus, as the bus crossed the border and the gentle melody of The Weepies song Riga Girls harmonized my iPod, my impressions of Riga were of a beautiful city plagued with the kind of foreign influence I do my best to avoid.

Just a few steps into Old Town, carrying my backpack towards an excellent hostel named The Argonaut, I had barely adjusted to the cobblestone before seeing a peroxide blonde dancing on a pole in a bar with open windows. It's a cold, windy October night, a practice performance for the long, cold winter symphony to come. When it starts to rain, we quickly head up the stairs to the Argonaut, and I'm relieved that the off-season has left the summer-slammed hostel free of roving groups of obnoxiously tanked manboys.
"Actually," says the lovely Ance at the Argonaut, "we no longer accept stag parties. They're not worth it, breaking things, vomiting on things, we just don't need it." They stopped booking stags about 18 months ago, but owner Dean, mentions that Hen Nights (or stagettes if you will) are welcome.
When one of the city's best hostels bans what must once have been its core clientele, you know things have got out of hand. In the hallway, I notice a hole in the wall that perfectly matches the size of my fist. I've stayed in party hostels before: Picture screaming voices, loud music, breaking mirrors, beer bottles, heavy footsteps echoing in the passageways. Forget about sleep. Any sort of attempt to control the mayhem results in further inconsiderate rebellion. You can either join it, which can be fun so long as you don't mind acting like a complete arse, or leave the hostel and find somewhere quieter - usually full of lovely people who have escaped, just like you. Bags unloaded, a quick walk towards a nearby square in search of food was further proof in the perogie. I count a half dozen strip clubs, a half dozen dealers, two casinos, several ladies offering a massage, and an assortment of tough-looking heavies with whom I'd very much like to not encounter in one of Old Town's many dark alleys. As with dating, first impressions count when meeting a new country. Riga, tonight, looks like a beautiful girl who's been hanging around too long with the wrong crowd.

Art NouveauBy morning, all the less-desirables had scampered off to their mouse holes, and the city is bustling. 800,000 people live in Latvia's capital, and just about all of them dress like rock stars. You'd have to troll Melrose Avenue in L.A to find long leather boots and new-wave nouveau haircuts worn so naturally. Riga has style, and beautiful Riga Girls, as the song goes, make me wish, I was someone else. It's as if God poured a bucket of blonde paint over their heads, etched in sharp angles for cheek bones, and used only the tallest, narrowest and curviest canvas for this portrait of hip European razzle-dazzle. If the locals look good, the buildings do too. Riga is the capital of Art Nouveau, the 18th century art and architecture movement that aspired to break rules. Although much was damaged during World War II, today the city has the largest collection of Art Nouveau buildings anywhere. When I first heard this, I confess I was less excited than amused. After so much travel, it seems like every destination has the largest this and the largest that, and buildings don't hold my attention for too long. As it stands, I appreciate creative art in construction, and also mourn the lack of it in just about every new development sprouting like Viking facial hair in downtown Vancouver. So my expectations were not exactly stellar when I heard that legendary Russian Filmmaker Eisenstein's dad built one of the most ambitious Art Nouveau buildings ever. Until I saw it.

What possesses a man to adorn a building in fantastical sculpture, to place neuro-engineered science-fiction motifs in archways, and lace cement with outsized techno gidgets? What made him sculpt the large heads of a King and Queen, staring into opposite corners, sitting above the building as if it were merely a chess piece? And who, in their right mind, would pony up the cash for this grand creative vision? I've been awed by the modern audacity of Dubai's skyscrapers, but never before by the sheer ballsy building artsiness on display in Riga. On Albert Street, admiring the attention to detail caused my neck to ache - sphinxes or naked beauties or faces screaming in agony. With the right lighting, Albert St would be a perfect set for Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Metropolis and Batman - at the same time, without changing any of the facades. As it stands, many of these buildings are mere apartment blocks, with "For Rent" sales displayed outside. Some are crumbling with time, some are magnificently restored (including the Irish, French and Russian Embassies). Building watching provides a good morning out, only slightly eclipsed by that other passion of mine - beautiful women watching. Back in the square, in the shadow of the Freedom Monument, it's hard to believe this is the same place I explored last night - it looks perfectly cosmopolitan, as well attired as any major European city.

 Visit to read Robin's complete Latvia REPORT. 

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