Riga's Black Magic

Trip Start Aug 04, 2011
Trip End Aug 19, 2011

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What I did
I'm Local in Riga, tour

Flag of Latvia  ,
Thursday, August 18, 2011

Well, today was to be my last day in Riga and I had booked a very special tour that I stumbled across by accident called: "I'm local in Riga." The tour was meant to be a personalized tour of Riga from the point of view of a local and was to be tailored according to the interests of the visitor, in fact, I had filled out a questionnaire the previous day in which I described my interests.

I had found the tour quite by chance, but was completely excited to see the real city away from the crowds of tourists and cheap souvenirs. Due to booking issues, however, I wouldn't be able to take the tour until about 4:00 in the afternoon, which I thought would be perfect in order to have a leisurely morning.

So, as usual, I had difficulty sleeping through the night, but managed to stay in bed until about 8:00 at which time I got up and did my usual, slow morning routine of self- assembly. I had already decided to take my morning time to go down to the huge, main market and really absorb the energy of the enormous place, near the main train station, as well as find a pair of sunglasses and a fresh breakfast.  When I was at the market earlier in the week, I was struck with awe by the sheer enormity of it but I wanted to really dig in and see just how intense it was.

I began by entering the shopping mall, which is attached to the main train station on one side and actually weaving my way around the shops in the modern and seemingly endless commercial center, before emerging out the far side, into the most amazing open market in the world.  At this mid morning hour of about 10:00, the place was alive and buzzing with local Rigans, bargaining and haggling with the merchants, carrying their bags of fruit and holding fresh flowers under their arms as they pressed through the crowds.

At the point where I entered the market, were, row after row of fresh flowers of all type and color.  Looking across from here, my eyes were blinded by the splashes of bright colors dancing over the vast array of floral displays as far as the eye could see.  I felt very comfortable and calm as I slowly walked through the glorious area, taking in the scents of the food and flowers as they tickled my nose.

Beyond the seemingly infinite flower market, I found myself at the first of 4 old Zeppelin hangars, which are now being used to house this city-like market. Just before the entrance to the hangar are some gigantic "tent" pavilions, housing non-food items like underwear, jackets and miscellaneous accessories and household goods. I found one of the many merchants, which were selling sunglasses, which I desperately needed by now as my eyes were beginning to burn from exposure to the sun and dehydration from the tears of joy I have been shedding regularly.  It didn't take me long to find a suitable pair and the price was already so low, haggling would have been redundant.

Once fitted with my new shades, I entered the enormous warehouse and began to search for some kind of breakfast. I was actually looking for some fresh fruit or bread but in fact, this market is so intense and everything looked so wonderful that I found it impossible to decide on anything at all, until, finally, after about 2 hours, I discovered that at the corners of these giant markets were some small "kitchens" serving freshly made treats such as pastries, toast and eggs, sausages and other traditional breakfast foods.  At one of these corner areas I discovered the most amazing potato pancakes I have ever experienced in my life, I bought a small plate and sat at a table and watched the crowds go by as I took in this overwhelming sensual delight.

Now, after spending my entire morning in the main market, which is said to be the largest in Europe (and I believe it,) I began to make my way back to my room again but using a round-about path in order to peruse the many street merchants’ booths and jewelry stands, looking for some small gifts to bring back for my friends.

At about 12:00, my phone rang with a call from my tour guide, stating that her morning tour had cancelled and that we could begin my tour as soon as I was ready.  This was a full 4 hours earlier than my scheduled tour but I had no other plan for the day and I was extremely anxious to see Riga, from the point of view of the locals, so, I found my way to her office, across the small city center, to begin what was going to be a most amazing and possibly, life-changing day.

The tour began at right around 1:00 and ended up lasting well into the night, ending at a bar, near my hotel, at nearly 11:30 p.m. and was hosted by a lovely, young woman named Inese. Her and a few of her friends had decided that it would be fun to show tourists Riga from their own perspective and thus, created the aptly named "I’m local in Riga" tour.  Their business is new and still developing, making me among the first of their customers and affording both, her and me, the freedom to work out or path as we went along.  For the tour, bicycles, trams, walking and other popular forms of local transportation are utilized in order to give the customer a familiarity with the real Riga.

As I haven’t ridden a bicycle on stone streets, (or any streets), in a long time, I opted to use mostly trams and my own rebellious feet, to move along through the city's relatively small central area. All tram tickets and bike rentals are included in the tour price!!

The tour started off innocently enough at the “day job” of Eli, the first girl I had come in contact with regarding tour information, the day before.  She was also an interesting, young and funny woman, we had immediately established a rapport and I almost felt we had known each other forever.

The shop is called “Hobbywool” which I had found similar to Hollywood but when I asked her about the pun-like name, she seemed surprised about the similarity and chuckled as though she had never noticed it before.  I was amused because I thought for certain it was on purpose.

Meanwhile, Ilese and I began by walking to a few locations in the central heart of Riga, past a building which has two large cats perched on top looking down on the passersby below and is depicted in many postcards and magnets etc. I was curious about the building but her tour is about local life, not historic facts, so she told me of the legend but not the actual history.  Of course, I loved that perspective and ate it up like candy.  We had so much fun on this tour and developed such a bond, that I cannot go into every detail along the way but I can say that we made a total of some 35 stops during the day, of which I will highlight.

After passing some of the buildings, which have local lore and can probably be seen on an ordinary tour, we came to an amateur, improvisational theater, where local people enjoy simple shows and nights of open mic and performances.  Like children, we snuck into the closed theater so I could look in as I explained to my new friend about my own interest in performing and the type of theaters I have worked in and how they are similar. 

We next stopped into a local café known as “The Black Magic Café,” I liked the name without even knowing about the local custom of drinking a traditional brew of herbs, spices and spirits, believed to be, not only medicinal but also, greatly recreational with an alcohol content of about 40%. After hearing the legends associated with this product, I began to notice it in pubs and cafes all over Riga, during the remainder of my trip, (I even bought a final bottle at the train station before leaving town.)

Then we stopped into the "Museum of Pharmacy", only because I was curious about the markings on a nearby building and have a family background in medicine.  It wasn't to be on the tour, but I became obsessed by the markings and had to know the origin of the building. The museum was closed to the public for the day but, again we sort of snuck in stealthfully, took some photos and, noticing a commemorative stamp in the display case, we convinced one of the pharmacists, who was actually there to do some paperwork, to PLEASE let me buy some for my collection, and she did!!  She did tell us to make a hurry out of it though, as we were really not supposed to be in the building at all.

We passed the Italian embassy to the “Magic Café.” My guide explained that she had worked in this former “head shop” and that it had been busted over and over again for selling questionable herbs. She said that the owners got tired of the paperwork after the third closure and just gave up.  We then got into a personal conversation about our own opinions regarding such things as counter culture politics and our bonds grew deeper on this very personal tour.

The next stops were: The new Synagogue, "Coffee-ing" (a delightful coffee shop offering a special brew of coffee for guests of Eli and Inese,) and then, the most amazing flea market you could imagine.  Most of the merchants spoke only Russian and the place was piled high with the most random stuff I have ever seen!! I actually came across a stamp collection dating back to the 1960’s, which contained Russian, German and other unusual and rare stamps…I was shocked to find it for sale for only 2 lat or about $3. USA.  It was an unimaginable treasure for me and we quickly bought it and moved on, not reacting to the good deal until we were away from the vendor. By pure accident, while walking back toward the tram, we discovered the old Synagogue and nearby memorial to the 400 Jews, burned alive, in this very structure,  by the Nazis. It was something even Inese had never noticed or paid attention to and though we stopped to take a moment, it was too painful to spend much time there.

Continuing this, most interesting tour, we hopped on a tram and went to a delightful residential neighborhood and to a street named “Miera” (peace.)  This street is full of Avant-Garde art shops, coffee hangouts and used clothing shops. It is amazingly cute and local but I fear that it will soon gentrify due to its adorableness and proximity to the center.

On this street, we stopped in at the following places: "Taka" (a local hangout for artists), "Bottle shop" (recycled glass objects), "Eco shop," "Dad café," "Ze Store" (recycled furniture and treasures), A tea shop and a chocolate factory. Also, we stopped in a cute shop in which all the clothes racks are on pulleys and they are pulled up at night, making the space into an underground dance club!! Not only is that really cool, but they also feature a Latvian clothing brand, which is handmade by unwed and needy mothers in their available time, allowing them to remain self-sufficient. I really liked it there.

Then continuing, in the now rainy day, across the street to a “plant exchange” where you can leave your plants when you go on a vacation or simply leave them to be cared for if they are sick!! You can exchange a sick plant, for example, with a healthy one, then trade back later etc. Then we moved on once again to the "20th Century Store" where I made a wonderful friend. She collects items from all over the world, representing the 20th century and will tell you the history of every item in her collection (which is for sale) including clothing, furniture and other delights.  She was wonderful and was also happy to see Ilese hosting a tour!! We engaged in an amazing conversation, then I showed her my newly purchased stamp collection. There was another short discussion and then, she turned over her purse, dumped out some things on the table reached across and gave me a coin purse from the 1960’s, made in a local factory (now closed, but once very active) and insisted I take it with me!!  She was wonderfully kind and I love her.  Next-door is an amazingly quirky hairdresser’s with only one chair who is said to be the best male hairstylist in Riga. The little, quirky man was charming and animated and seemed to want us to stay all afternoon and chat, inviting us to relax in the comfortably furnished waiting room, have a cup of tea and hang out a while, which of course, was impossible.  I am sure If I spent any more time with him, we would be very good friends.

Another stop which Inese insisted on showing me was an area made up of former factories, (I think some kind of car but don't remember,) which has now been taken over by a group of artists who use the space to create and exhibit their work along with throwing parties and underground events.

Inese and I hit it off so well that she seemed to want to show me her entire life and I was truly feeling local in Riga, as the tour is appropriately named.

There where so many stops along the way that I can hardly describe the lifestyle that was shown to me here. It was very enticing and seemed like I could stay for a long time and be quite happy.

We finally ended this most amazing and eye opening experience by enjoying the wonderful “Black Magic” brew, at a local bar where one of her friends works. I drank the "Black Magic" brew in a drink with black currant juice, emulating the custom of the Riganites, before calling it a night.

This was a truly personal and intimate look at the real Latvian life and I was most honored to have been welcomed into it.
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