Wednesday, 11 April 2018

Riga, Riga, the place I want to be

Riga Tony

I don't get many opportunities to travel far. Little things like earning a living and raising family are rarely compatible with spending days away in exotic locations. So with so few opportunities, I have to choose my trips carefully.

My local  camera club (Melbourne Photographic) have couple of trips every year, one in the UK and one abroad. Normally I I manage to resist these, but this years trip was to the Latvian capital Riga and I just had to go

Truth is that i am a huge Scandophile. I have been lucky enough to travel to most of the Scandinavian countries and even spent sometime living in Stockholm. It is an area of the world I feel very comfortable in and I love the culture and the  people. The Baltic states however were an area that I never had the opportunity to visit, but had always wanted to since the end of the cold war.

So that's how I found myself on a Ryanair jet winging our way over the Baltic with 9 other club photographers determined to spend two days exploring the city, drinking some beer and taking some photos (Although not necessarily at the same time or in that order )

This is my blog of that trip

Doing the research

The first questions when you plan to go to an area to take some photographs in, is where to  go and what to take?

In the absence of local knowledge you have to resort to guide books and the internet and sites such as  500px and Flickr are useful here. Guidebooks can also provide some guidance, However both of these tend to veer to the touristy location, where a million shots have already been taken. Generally I like to forgo those sort of areas, but it makes it even more challenging to find interesting places. In fact I found Google street view as good as anything allowing me to virtually explore.

Most of the photographs were centered on the city center area and its surfeit of period architecture. Stunning as this was, more intriguing and attractive to me was the less developed area area to the South of the city centered on  the large market area.

Also just as promising  was the views over the Daugava river, with its plethora of bridges and the more modern developments on its eastern bank.

Fortunately our club organizer had done well and booked a hotel central to the city and easy access to the all these area. So research over, the next question was what camera equipment to take.

Packing Light

This would be the first time I had taken my new Fuji X-T2 on a trip. To be honest I am  still on a learning curve with this camera and it would be its first true test to see if I made the right choice as my new camera.

One of the reasons I had bought the X-T2 was that I wanted a camera with DSLR capabilities but without the weight and size. Because we were taking only hold luggage I was restricted to how much kit I could take. Still I managed to pack a 10-24, 18-55 and a 55-200 lens plus a 35 mm and a 8mm Samyang fisheye into my camera bag, which covered most situations and focal lengths.

I was also foregoing my usual camera rucksack by getting a Tenba DNA 15 messenger camera bag for the trip. I cannot praise this bag enough, being large enough to fit all my kit, and plenty of pockets to put various bits and pieces. It also proved comfortable when pounding the streets but easy to access when required.

One bone of contention was tripods. Our trip organizer had specifically asked Ryanair about whether tripods were allowed in the plane. They stated that tripods were not allowed as separate carry on items or in carry on luggage and would only be allowed as hold luggage. This left me in a quandary since I really wanted to take a tripod to take night shots, but I wasn't going to pay £25 each way for the privilege of putting it in the hold. Nor did I want to risk my tripod being confiscated at security. In the end I bought a Amazon special to put in my bag on the basis that if I lost it, it would be no loss. In the event, it sailed through security at both ends without a hitch. The tripod however proved fiddly and not easy to setup. Still what do you expect for a tenner.

Riga seeker

Travel to Riga is pretty simple. I was expecting Riga airport to be a small one terminal affair, but actually it is quite large and modern, and only about 20 minutes taxi ride from the city center.

From the UK, Riga is served by Ryanair (tagline - UK's most uncomfortable airline) and takes about 2 and half hours during which you are given of opportunity to buy the scratch cards the airline staff constantly try to hoist on to you (its all for charity you know).

So after a 4:30 a.m start, 2 and half hours in the air, I found myself and my compatriots in Riga itself. So what about the city itself

Giga Riga 

Riga  reminds me of another city I love, Prague. Like Prague it also suffers from that unique British export, stag parties. However going mid week in Spring meant we would miss the worst of these excesses, although I am not sure what it would be like in summer. There is some local colours you want to avoid.

Riga is a also a city going through renewal. Some of the excesses of cold war architecture is now being replace with modern buildings. However the city is still full of classic Baltic buildings, fantastic art nouveau buildings butt against decaying building on narrow cobbled streets.

Plenty of crumbling buildings to see, mixed in with the better preserved versions

Like Prague, Riga is a city where its recent, sometimes tragic, history still echoes in the streets and monuments. For me however the is what makes cities like Riga so intriguing.

The main tourist attraction is the town center and its plethora of narrow streets with old buildings . While the architecture is fantastic, you can get distracted taking images of these and miss some of the details at your feet. As beautiful as it was I think the center was, photographically at least, my least interesting part of the town because there are just so many carvings of half naked women you can take.

Instead more interesting were the parts of town which was not so pristine such as  the less developed south of the city or the Moscow district (Maskavas ForÅ¡tate) which was delineated bordered by the huge central market.

A toy Russian orthodox church taken from the Academy of science

Stalins Birthday Cake

The Moscow district is more gritty than the main town, but in that it makes it somewhat more interesting. Even the architectural monstrosity that is the Latvia academy of sciences tower (or "Stalin's birthday cake" as it is dismissively called by the locals) has a sort of beauty in its discordance (plus the 15th floor makes an excellent viewing platform).

However for me the standout area is the central market.

I love markets and have a tendency to gravitate to them since they tend to be a great place to see 'real' people close up. However even compared to other markets, Riga central market is pretty special.

Its sheer size, variety and ambiance makes it stand out. It is truly the hub of the city where all parts of the society meet. The buildings themselves are pretty impressive to. Built from old Zeppelin hangers, the great arches loom over the stalls. Each shed houses a different market, but it is the fish market that stands out, with virtually anything that swims being sold there, some still flapping.

The market extends from the arched sheds throughout the square

Travel round Riga is quite easy. Riga has an excellent public transport system consisting of buses and trams. To be honest though, Riga is not a big city and most of it can be easily traveled by foot.

A River View

For 2 days we were blessed with those fantastic arctic blue skies. Most Scandinavian cities seem to paint there buildings in a palette of yellows and oranges, and when you see how well they complement against the deep blues of clear Baltic day, you can understand why.

The lack of cloud and time of year meant that temperatures rarely budged above 0C during the day and dropped well below freezing at night. While this may sound cold, the lack of wind meant that it always felt comfortable throughout the day.

It also meant  that at night the river and surrounding water froze, resulting lovely soft reflections in the early morning to those of us willing to rise at 6 a.m. in the blue hour (generally only me).

Early mornings were probably the time I felt most at home, following the river and crisscrossing over the two major bridges road bridges that bisect Riga . It was here that I found my best views of the city, with the low sun coming up over the old town and bathing all the buildings and sky in a soft orange glow.


Nativity of Christ, orthodox church

One of things that stands out in Riga, is the churches. Whether it is the spire of St Peters Lutheran church, or the gilded domes of the the nativity of Christ Russian orthodox cathedral; they stencil the Riga skyline.

By the far most impressive is the  Russian orthodox cathedral with great golden domes making you feel you had mistakenly gone father east than you intended.  Inside is stunning too, however this is very much a  working church and you are forbidden from taking photos inside. Despite this it is worth popping in to see it.

the synagogue

It is also worth visiting the  small synagogue hidden down Peitavas iela. Pre-war surviving synagogues are rare in this part of the world, with most being destroyed during the German occupation. This one survival was due to its close proximity to other buildings, meaning a fire here would result in a large part of Riga being devastated . The synagogue is not big, but it is worth a few minutes of your time and the 3 euros entrance fee. Men have to wear some sort of headgear while in there, or get provided with a temporary headgear in the form of a Jewish kippot

It is hard not to contrasts this with the ruins of the synagogue in the Moscow quarter which was burnt down with the 400 men, women and children still inside. Today all that exists of that is the foundations and a memorial listing the 400 victims.

The memorial to those burnt in the synagogue fire

In search of Latvian knowledge

Many of the museums in Latvia were closed or under refurbishment, such as the Art Nouveau museum on Alberta Iela, which was a pity since apparently it has a great staircase (Photographers love circular staircases. Want to attract photographers? Put up a great staircase) .

We did spend a short while at the train museum which is situated next to the National libaray. Despite my ambivalence for most things railway related, it was a fun half an hour diversion, walking among its collection of Soviet and Russian rolling stock. I would of liked to have gone to the Aero park, situated by the airport, with its plethora of Cold War Russian aviation.  However it  is only open on weekend, so I had to satisfy myself with a brief glimpse of it from the airport concourse.

One place I specifically wanted to see was the Latvian museum of photography on Marstalu iela.

Latvia has quite a long history of photography, with a number of prominent photographers coming from Latvia such as Phillipe Halsman. It was also where the Minox set of miniature cameras, so beloved of 1960's spy movies, were developed. The museum was fun, despite the best attempts of the staff who seemed continually surprised that anyone actually wanted to visit. Our group may not of helped ourselves here by making extensive use re-created Victorian era photo studio to take impromptu photos of each other in period clothing.

A photographic club in action

At last a chance to play with Fuji's Sepia mode

Another place I really wanted to visit was the national Latvian Library. This building stands out on the west bank of the river like a giant upturned silver boat. Inside is a wonderful  monument to the values that Latvians places on their language and the importance placed on books in general. Coming from a country where libraries are increasingly seen as a unsupportable luxury, I can only applaud the Latvians values and priorities.

It is as equally impressive inside. Photography is not restricted and as long as you hand in coats and camera bags at the luggage kiosk and lockers, you can roam the floors taking photos to your hearts content. We spent a good hour and a half playing around with our cameras taking shots of the (you guessed it) staircases among other things (according to one of our number, the toilets are equally impressive, a pleasure I managed to miss)

Inside the library looking up

Yes you guessed it, a staircase

People of Riga

When going to a city you will always want to have a go at street photography. However peoples attitude to being photographed varies from nationality to nationality. Some like being photographed, while other nationalities range from camera shy, to actively hostile.

It may be due to the recent past when cameras were seen as an instrument of state repression, but we found that generally Latvians do not like being photographed. Some, if they see you, they will put their hand in front of their face. So you have to be a bit more sneaky if you want to get some candid shots. I must admit it is not a skill I'm very good at, and I need to work on my ability to define a narrative when taking these sort of shots

The Russia House

When visiting a country as a tourist, it is easy to miss some of the undercurrents going on at the time. I was aware of the issue of the Russian Latvian population who after independence found themselves as non-citizens. Two places brought this to stark reality. Firstly was the orthodox church. This always had a different atmosphere to the rest of Riga, and to be honest it sometimes felt disparate and hostile to the rest of the city.

The 2nd place was the Russian embassy. The embassy is placed on probably the most expensive part of Riga dubbed embassy row. While we were in Riga, a fire had ripped through a Russian shopping mall, killing 64 people, 41 of which were children. When we passed the embassy, there was a steady stream of people laying flowers and other memorials. Of course this could of been just a population sympathizing with a neighboring country on their loss. However with Putin's increasing attempts to subvert nations by playing on Russian nationhood, I couldn't help feeling that this was more to do with a estranged population re-iterating its separation from Latvia generally

Riga Mortis

So how do I feel about Riga and the trip. First lets say, that I really enjoyed the city and I can thoroughly recommend it as a photographic short break. The people were generally very welcoming and friendly. The city itself is easy to get around, with plenty of interesting nooks and crannies, plus the river provides great views of the city. The standard of accommodation is good and food is not to outrageously priced (I recommend trying the Black Balsam drink at least once which is Vodka and herbs. Think alcoholic cough medicine )

My biggest disappointment however was me.I thought I had prepared well for the trip, but when I got there I quickly ran out of ideas and started taking regressing to the touristy shots that I generally hate. Basically I rushed around taking anything rather than trying to work out the story I wanted to tell, and finding shots to fit that narrative.

If I had the chance to go again, I would limit my time in the main town and spend more time in places like the Moscow district, or head over the bridge to Āgenskalns, where the older wooden buildings can be found. Another place I missed, which I now wish I had taken time to explore was Miera iela, Riga's bohemian center with its wooded graveyards.

Still maybe I am being a little hard on myself.  It just goes to show how difficult it is to capture a new city in photographs in 2 days.

On the plus side, it does give me an incentive to go back

P.S. Despite my extensive research, one website I wish I had seen before I had gone out is this one ( It provides a great insight into the baltic states, plus some good photographic ideas 

3 spires
The Old and New

The war memorial

Ice fishing

Standing guard

The statues in Riga were not shy

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