Posted: 11/3/2008


       I love this country! Latvia is neat, and I walked into the Riga Tourist office in the bus station after the airport bus dropped me there and ILZE was at the desk to charm me and help. Within a minute she had found me a room less than 200 metres away, a twin room just for myself, with a nice shower and bathroom for-wait for it-$8.00 US a night. From my back window there is a view of the Soviet built wedding cake design of the Academy of Science, three blocks away.

      She then called around and made appointments for me and marked places to eat and visit on the map. I hope the Minister of Tourism is reading this-ILZE Konovalova should be praised and promoted. LAIMA chocolates have been made here since Czarist Russian times, and I bought a couple of bars in the market, and some individual wrapped ones. The historic Laima clock is a popular meeting place, near the Freedom Monument, and there is a 21st Century Chocolate Building, designed in dark brown glass cubes to look as if it is made from chocolate.

      Anyway, so I get up each morning and walk outside straight into the Central Flower Market, with hundreds of stalls selling colourful and great smelling flowers of all descriptions. It's next to the Central Market , five former World War I Zeppelin hangars which were moved from Kurzeme in 1923. Across the short bridge over the canal I enter the bus station and there is a vending machine that makes fresh squeezed orange juice, right in front of your eyes. You watch the orange halves being squeezed then disposed of, and voila! -one fresh cup of juice. Nearby is my Internet cafe open 17 hours a day, and a stall with breakfast for $1.50.

      It seems that the top league VIRSLIGA match between FK Riga and champions FK Ventspils is off because the home team can't raise a team, so I jump on a train at the station-a magnificent structure recently remodelled, for the 35 minute trip along the coast and through pine and birch forests to Jurmala. Unfortunately, I get off at that town and find the match I have come to see is at a stadium 5km away, so I hail a shared taxi and pay 75 cents to be taken to the Sloka stadium. SK JurmalaFK Vindava, also a VIRSLIGA match.

      It's the last home game of the season and nobody seems to care. Despite free entry there are only 100 or so fans inside and 15 outside the fence. It has a beautiful main stand, and the VIP section is all glass and beautiful wood floors and ceiling. So nice in fact that you wouldn't even allow Michel Platini, President of UEFA inside unless he had a hair cut- a rare occurance.

      At half time I chat with club President Alexander Basharin who owns a huge real estate company, His company billboards are all over town. We drink small whiskies and eat slices of apple, a local tradition.  It's my second 0-0 match in 2 days, and despite enthusiastic players, no goals. His team have one Argentinian, Kristian Torres, on the field a Brazilian, Jair Fernando on the bench, but its not enough.

      Afterwards he offers me a ride back to the station in his Mercedes 500 chauffeured by his son-in-law Vitaly, and with his life long pal William, a 76 year old Damon Runyan type live-wire, with a LOUD check jacket. He suggests a small bite to eat so we go to a restaurant called JURA (sea)and start with a bottle of tequila. We choose the El Charro bottle over the Herudia one-its bigger, then a plate of auderves ,cows tongues and various veggies and then the gigantic plate of meats, potatoes and tomatoes - and then more toasts with the tequila,

      Evidently Alexander,who looks a bit like a younger,sober Boris Yeltsin, recently tried to buy the Italian club TORINO, and wants to be Mayor of Jurmala, which is the Santa Monica of Latvia, a coastal spa which hums in the summer with lots of Latvian, Russian, Scandinavian and other tourists, and maybe has ambitions later as a future President of Latvia.

       We drive past many of his apartments and his office and stop at a restaurant he owns, called AQUARIUS, for more whisky. The whole wall behind the bar is a huge fish tank with green, purple, blue, red, gold excotic fish. Its 50 metres from the Baltic Sea, but we are off to Riga and the next stop is yet another of Alexander's restaurants BROWN SUGAR,with that elegant grey wood tables and upholdered chairs to match that I love. More whisky toasts and also,thankfully, a fresh pressed apple juice.

    Across the street and next door we take the elevator 27 floors to the Skyline Bar of the best hotel in the country, Reval Hotel Latviya, where all the bright young power people are meeting and greeting. Finally I am driven back to the bus terminal and the Internet cafe for some work and then finally to bed and a drink induced sleep.