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Along the Amber Route: Riga

The coastal A1 to Riga, the Via Baltica, was a smooth, modern EU-sponsored road. There was little traffic, and almost before I knew it I had crossed the Latvian border – since the Baltic republics joined the Schengen group, the checkpoints had been dismantled. Where the road hugged the shoreline, I could see breakers rolling in through a line of pines.

The approach to the city took me through gritty outskirts of dusty Soviet housing blocks, interspersed with older buildings in various stages of disrepair, amid a tangle of tramlines and trolleybus gantries. The great metropolis of the Baltics was a bustling, grimy place, the scars and glories of its turbulent history cheek by jowl on every street. Past the neo-Byzantine Russian Orthodox cathedral, the road followed the embank-ment of the river Dvina. I found a parking place near the Latvian riflemen statue, and booked in to a chic little hotel in a 16th-century merchant’s house on the edge of the Old Town.

Sitting by an open fire, I scanned the listings in the Baltic Times and saw that there was a concert that night at the Great Guild. Setting out, I noticed that Russian was more widely spoken than in Estonia, and that the language was more visible on advertisements and public notices. Beneath the shop windows aglow with amber necklaces, however, many Russians were begging on the streets. Russian-speakers made up almost 30 per cent of Latvia’s population and, with similar language laws to those in Estonia, half of them could not get citizenship. The head of the Latvian parliament’s foreign affairs committee, Aleksandrs Kirsteins, had described them as ‘civilian occupiers’, and called for them to be put on trains back to their ‘ethnic homeland’.

From Along the Amber Route by C.J. Schüler

Back to the map.

C.J. Schüler

C.J. Schüler