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Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Latvias Secret (Parnu to Riga)

The heavy snow reminds me of what the 1970's must have been like. I did all the proper things, arranged to get the 5.40 bus from Parnu to Riga (the heavy snow would make my sports car almost impossible to drive) I turned up early to buy the ticket but the lady told me to buy it on the bus. After standing in the snow waiting for it (it was 20mins late) the pead head Latvian driver opened the door, looked at me with that surly look of someone who was a fully paid up union member and didnt give a shit about customers, and said firmly NO. i wasnt sure what it meant but asked around and it seemed there were no seats. No one had thought to tell me that when i asked earlier in the day.

A taxi to riga was about the same cost as a British rail journey, so that was out of the question, so the only option was to ask my partner to ask his freind to give me a jumpstart in the old Jag (a summer sports car), since the battery was dud after 2 months holiday and minus 20.

The snow was heavy but by the time i got home Birgitas bobbing head under the snow told me she was already shovelling to clear the path, (im sure she was submerged under the drifts a few times) The guy who'd come to help (thanks mate, i still dont know who you actually are) jump started me and i was ready to go. I just about had enough petrol to get to Riga, and so i reversed out. Halfway out the drive of course the car stuck. im not sure why but i then switched the engine off. Which meant i was stuck again. Luckily the neighbours van was across the road and he helped again, only for me to get stuck again. Eventually with enough rolling and wieght, me and Helen pushed and Birgita drove, and we got it out and away.

The snow was awful and i was pretty close to death a few times (my tyres dont work so well in snow) but its a solid car and i wound my way eventually across the Latvian border to Riga way...

One of the great things in Latvia, is its good old Soviet style humour. I think the favourite 'joke' ive seen is the 'Latvian Airport Secret' where the place is hidden so well and signposted so non existantly (except maybe signs leading away from the airport to trick people) that any normal person will certainly never find it in time to catch their flight. The first sign of it you'll see driving in from the Tallinn side is a great sign saying 'Riga 14km' and leading to the turnoff right. Just as you are on the turnoff with no safe way of turning back, a tiny sign (which is designed so snow covers it in winter) tells you 'Riga Airport straight on 71km. Yes Riga is a Ryanair airport, so im sure many wont be surprised, but heres the trick - Riga airport is NOT 71km away. Its about 15-20km away just on the outskirts of Riga. (As im sure Rigans will laughingly tell you as they let you in on their local joke which is purely intended to get foreign travellers to drive halfway to Vilnius instead of the airport - funny guys, real funny)

As i confused myself like this, reversed backwards up the turnoff in the driving snow in an XK8 (which with is a low slung sports car with rear wheel drive - NOT a winter car), i thought it said 7km due to the snow cover, but after 5 of 6 km down the road, sure enough another sign told me 71km again. After numerous potential turnoffs for the airport road, and absolutely no sign, i began to wonder if this was a big joke. After 5km more i began to see it was, so turned off randomly into a turnoff which from the dulll light in the sky, i guessed was a road going towards Riga. After 2km a tantalising, mirage like, sign told me Riga Airport 19.5km, so i took that, hoping for it at least to be somewhere in between 19.5 and 71km away (since my flight left in 40mins at this time and i was pretty much destined to miss it anyway) From here, finding the airport becomes more like a poker game, you MUST win a number of total 50/50 coin tosses to push through to the final table. Every few minutes, there was a 50/50 left or right, with no sign or clue about which to take.

I kind of know the airport is towards the sea side of the city, and i have a good sense of direction, so i bore along this way, and finally, by totally ignoring any further signs, after 20mins more, i found it.

So i can now let you into the well kept secret of Riga - The answer to the riddle is 'ignore all signs' ! Genius! - the signs are intricately and cleverly (and locals would say, beautifully) positioned so that no matter how you follow them, it will add 3 hours extra onto your journey so you miss your flights and can stay and be ripped off for one more night in this delightful city. This is reason that people from Riga smile wrily when they meet a foreigner in the city - they are actually thinking 'wait til you try and find the airport you fucker' (actually if hes a waiter most likely hes considering double charging your creditcard, or if you happen to be in a strip bar, charging it for $4,000 and not letting you leave until you have given them your Rolex.)

But, like all good entertaintment, there is an encore -

When you actually find Riga airport, those crafty Latvians have another trick up their sleeve, in case youve solved the first riddle and miraculously find yourself on time for your flight.

I tried in vain to find the long stay car park, but of course, i quickly realised - it was a mini version of the same riddle - im sure a few of the older locals know the route, i guess its via some long back roads and dark paths, around the city, across rivers and doubling back a few times, but the signs led to nowhere but snow and a car park that you needed a code to enter (for money laundering russian 'bizinizmen i expect) So i eventually dumped the car in the empty car park of an office i found. Of couse, since my flight was leaving in ten minutes, straight on cue a potatoe headed monkey came out shouting somthing in Latvian to me, which i assumed meant 'you cant park here' I tried the old chestnut 'ok then ill move it but just let me check in first' (Actually ive tried this a few times and it never works by the way - especially not for Costa Rican airport taxi drivers when you have actually got no money to pay and the police are there but thats another story) So he played his ace card and told me he would call the police as i sauntered warily to the airport. Since the plane was due to leave and i was hopelessly late, i figured that unless its delayed by about an hour at least, i 100% have missed it. So, considering how cold it was, i decided a night in a Latvian police cell wasnt for me and i tried my own bluff of a plan B - I explained to him that i couldnt move it as the battery was dead, and showed him by trying in vain to start it. The fucker only went and got his car to jump start me again, so with my car running again i had no choice but try to find another car park, then a hotel and another flight for tomorrow. I put the car in the super expensive short stay car park (for lack of other options), and ran into the airport - i should have known - im in Latvia after all, the plane sign said 'delayed' (of course!) so i managed to run on and get it.

By the way, Latvia, apart from Police and a system so comically currupt and eastern european its a cliche, is actually quite a nice place. It produces many attractive women who could be models but end up as strippers, and has 73 different types of Beetroot. I would however play by 'russian rules' - its not recommend doing business with leatherjacket clad gentlemen, or falling in love with any ladies half your age who you met on the internet or in the bar last night)

ps quite funny after weaving through drunk Latvians for hours in 6 feet of snowdrift to watch the London news when they are all panicking from minus 2 and 40cm of snow, Christ sakes, get a life its like being scared of lolipops. You English are pathetic!!


  1. It's interesting to me how one who owns a tire business doesnt have tires on his car

  2. I recommend you get some Contintenal Viking 2 studded tires. The most important investment you'll make on your life when you drive. I checked out all the reviews those are one of the best tires money can buy. I have them, they are excellent. Also, like I recommeneded before, drop in like 50kg sand bag in the trunk. you need that. You need weight on the rear wheel drive cars.

  3. Well they dont make those tyres for XK8 but for the weight i already fixed that, i have a dead Latvian in the trunk. This is necessary for driving luxury cars in the Baltics as you correctly say - i mean people would be suspicious if you got your money and car through 'hard work' not mafia business, this kind of 'hard work' and 'legitimate business' stuff is frowned upon in the Baltics