Baltic blast: Episode I: Riga & Tallinn

Sterio bar

I touched down in Riga airport about 8pm feeling slightly better than death. I’d come down with something bad about a day earlier and my plan for tonight was simple. Cab. Hostel. Painkillers. Sleep. Then pray for good health in morning. It was a terribly dull plan for my first night in Latvia, but desperate times called.

I still felt freaking awful. The night before I hadn’t slept at all and had even sat in the shower for two hours hoping for the slightest ailment.  In the morning I stumbled out of my little Milanese flat to the pharmacy, and the ‘cold’ air (it was only 10 degrees or so) felt like an electric drill in my ears. This wasn’t encouraging given Latvia was sitting around -3.  The thought of cancelling the trip had crossed my mind, but I didn’t want too, plus I’d heard that Latvia had one of the best health care systems in Europe. Thus, it was to my great bemusement that when I went to confirm this presumed knowledge some weeks later I found that in fact, Latvia has the worse health care system in Europe (something to do with an outdated cold war plan for dealing with mass military casualties). God knows what other trivia I’ve picked up is total rubbish, or rather I’ve read incorrectly. Luckily my simple plan for recovery kept its course.

My first impression of Riga was definitely a good one; this was owing to the airport being the nicest I’d seen in Europe by far. In fact it was so nice that I just had to slow down a notch. After what had been a hectically uncomfortable day I suddenly found myself relaxing at an empty cafe by the arrival gate with a hot tea in hand, by a comfy sofa, listening to the jazzy lounge music and watching it snow lightly on what was now a largely deserted runway. I was so relaxed that I almost nodded off right there and had to stir myself to get going again. It’d been a long time since I’d last been in a comfortable, modern cafe and my headache was actually dissipating a little. Despite the health care status, Latvia has made eons of progress since it achieved independence in 1991 from its miserable Soviet squalor. The public transport system is pretty good and everywhere in Riga (and also Tallinn) you can bear witness to an infrastructure investment which has spared no expense in rapid modernisation over the last two decades. Hell, if the rest of the world had as bigger passion for progress, we’d probably have those long promised moon colonies. I’m getting carried away here but then it’d been a while since I’d gotten out of Italy – a country which garishly celebrates its disinterest in self improvement.  The city is not without other serious issues though, in 2008 Forbes bestowed upon Riga the dubiously noble cognomen of Europe’s Crime Capital.

While I’d already learned there was a bus that connected from the airport to close by my hostel – it was snowing heavily and I just wanted to get to my bed fast so that I might enjoy my other 4 days in the Baltic’s. The cab cost 8 Lats (about 12 Euros) to get to the old town and after been dropped off – I spent ten minutes wandering blindly around the block in a blizzard with my bag trying to find the slightly obscure entrance to Franks Friendly Fun Hostel. I found that the Hostel was indeed friendly, with the beautiful receptionist, Liga – “I’m Liga from Riga” offering me a complimentary beer while two Australian girls pressed me to join them and catch up with the rest of a pub crawl that had just left. It took a lot of willpower to turn the beer down and go for a bottle of water instead – even more too resist the urge to simply say FUCK IT and go have a glorious night out.

This is why guys come to Riga

Latvian Girls: Attraction number #1

As far as partying goes, the Baltic’s haven’t made it to Ibiza status but they’re getting closer. The allure is simple: cheap alcohol, hot clubs, cool bars and essentially, ridiculously good looking women. With such a winning combination, people from all over head there looking for a good time, especially the British – in particular British stag parties – and no one hates British stag dos more than Latvians. While they enthusiastically fork out millions every year on accommodation, booze, strippers and hookers, their increasingly bad behaviour has pushed the local’s patience over the limit. Loudly staggering around town in drunken groups of no fewer than a dozen, all who pass by them are subjugated to either challenges of fighting or lurid sexual harassment. As well as committing random acts of assault, arson and vandalism, hotels and hostel rooms are routinely trashed. This is simply what I kept getting told mind you, I have no problems with the British personally. Liga also told me that while Frank’s hostel was originally designed with British Stag dos in mind, it now refuses to host them altogether after several rooms were all but destroyed and guests were intimidated.

So I got to my empty 6 bunk room, downed some Panadol and was out like a light by 9:30. I barely noticed the other occupants returning from town some hours later.

I woke up the next morning around nine feeling like a million dollars. My simple plan to get well had actually worked. So I happily packed up my belongings up and left the Hostel. Riga was only a stopover – my main destination was Tallinn. Ryan air flies from Milan to Riga, but not Tallinn (*It does now). To fly from Milan to Tallinn with another airline would’ve cost many dozens of times the cost. There are however buses that cover all the obvious Baltic routes, the best of which I was told were Eurolines, who are also amazingly cheap – booking the tickets for the 5 hour trip was equivalent to 22 Euros one way. With my bus set to leave at 12:30, I did a quick power tour round the old city centre and grabbed a decent cappuccino, chicken club sandwich and fries at a Double Coffee cafe – a place whose logo is unabashedly similar to Starbucks. The biggest difference was that the food and drink were infinitely cheaper.  Finishing up, I took the most scenic route through the old town over to the central bus station. Riga is really quite the beautiful city, with the old town adorned with structures typical of the Medieval, East European Gothic style. But right now I could only manage a brief glance – I’d have a whole day to see it properly on the return leg.

I got to my bus. My first thought was it was the wrong one as it was simply too nice. There were plush comfortable chairs, ample leg room, hot drink dispensers, flat screen televisions and a bathroom which I later discovered was actually good enough to use. The rest of the worlds’ coach companies should pay some attention right here. I almost giddily got to my seat and was extra pleased by the fact that the bus was only a quarter or so full. I spend most of the trip just nonchalantly watching out the window, occasionally glancing over to watch a music video on the nearest TV or grabbing another free hot chocolate. It took about 40 minutes to get outside the city and then it was just snow swept landscapes of fields and coniferous trees for the next few hours. By 4pm it was already getting dark and starting to snow. I found the trip exceptionally peaceful and relaxing, so much so that by the time we arrived at the Tallinn bus station around 6pm I was disinclined to leave my seat, especially given the rush of freezing air that accompanied the opening of the doors.  I got off, jumped into the nearest taxi, extracted some basic tourist Estonian from my driver, and got to my hostel – Tallinn Backpackers. The place seemed decent. I Locked up my stuff and went to call Maris.

Maris had been my first contact with Estonia and also the one who’d planted the idea in my head that I should visit sometime. I’d met her in Switzerland earlier that year through my brother who I was visiting. She was kind of odd. She looked like what I’d learn most Estonian girls looked like: Delicate features, platinum blonde hair and a default facial facade of looking totally pissed off. Brad, my brother’s friend called her Ice Queen but as it turned out she was cool – in a good way.  We started talking but most of the conversation was simply her extolling the virtues of her proud little nation, while heaping piles of hate upon everything else – especially the Russians and Latvians who the later she insisted were all born with six toes. Estonians, I found out are not in any way ethnically related to their land side neighbours, but are in fact an Urdo-Finnic people, with their language closely mirroring Finnish. She also insisted that I visit Estonia sometime, promising to show me a fun time there should I go. But the idea only seriously come about some months later when I saw Ryan air offering dirt cheap fares to Riga. It seemed like a fun idea.

So 5 months after we’d first met, a large black SUV pulled up in front of the hostel. Turns out we were going to her Russian ex boyfriend’s birthday party. ‘…K’ was my cautious response. Maris herself sounded a little nervous, adding that if things got too crazy we could leave. I wasn’t sure if this was a good thing or a bad thing. There were 3 other guys in the vehicle with me. Like Maris they were natives of Tallinn and seemed nice, but unlike her they were ultra low energy. I forgot their names with the exception of the driver Oliver, who would leave a memorable impression on me by the end of the night.  Oliver looked like the serious fucking boxer type, mostly because he was. While he seemed ultra chill, Maris later told me that one time at a crowded music festival he’d crushed a guy’s nose for bumping into him, speedily adding that in spite of this – he was a real nice guy.

This guy kept giving me vodka

This guy kept giving me vodka

Jaan – Maris’ ex, had an exceptionally nice house – his parents as it turned out, who were away indefinitely. He seemed cool when Maris introduced us, putting a beer in my hand straight away, and there were already 10 or so people there. Realising I was starving, I started talking to some of the guys at the table while I simultaneously helped myself to snacks without looking too carefully at what they were. Halfway through nodding along to an intense rave about gulags from the guy next to me, I nervously looked down to see I was munching on a caviar sandwich.  It actually wasn’t that bad. After about an hour lots more people arrived and the Vodka came out. Lots of it. Every 5-10 minutes, a new shot glass was thrust into my hand and refilled. I had no say in this matter. After a rousing ‘Terviseks!’ (To health and sex) and downing it, one was then expected to chase by eating a gherkin, something that was actually more off-putting in theory than practise. In between all this there was more food and lots of discussions about why I was in Estonia and what I liked about it so far. Some people seemed mind-fucked  by the notion that I’d come all the way from New Zealand just to be in Estonia, and I had to keep telling them that I was actually living in Italy.

Hollywood with Maris & Laura

Looking deceptively sober at Club Hollywood with Maris & Laura

Maris explained that in Estonia (and I’m sure in a good part of Eastern Europe) the Western scale of sober, tipsy, kind of drunk, drunk, hammered, fukin’ gone, etc , doesn’t exist. Simply put:  One is either sober, or superstar. Shit was this true. I’d noticed no gradual change in the guys I came with in the car; one second they were introverted shadows, the next they’d all become permutations of Borat, the Kool-aid guy  and Duff man. It was the same for everyone else, and having downed no fewer than 30 shots – I was getting that way as well. Maris had earlier introduced me to her stunning friend Laura and suggested that we and another guy (whose name escapes me) take a break from the party to go check out club Hollywood nearby. It seemed like a plan though I was a bit disappointed to find out through Maris that Laura was already hitched.  Not that I was in a position to be smooth. While my brother seems to gain magical women pulling powers when he’s off his face, I become a retarded, slurring, leering dumbass who stumbles around making ridiculously absurd and offensive statements.  This was one of those times – so intimate female attention was pretty much off the table for me tonight. At Hollywood we ordered yet more drinks, danced to shitty top 10 music, and I either entertained or harassed several people. I did recall meeting with Maris and Laura in the smoking section and then giving an impassioned speech to some bewildered girl about how I, as a doctor (I’m not a doctor) must implore her to quit smoking as her tiny nation of 1.3 million people simply cannot afford the unnecessary loss of any of its fine looking women to tobacco related illnesses. At some point I was interrupted by an angry bouncer looking guy who could have been her boyfriend, brother or orbiter, and told me to “fuck off you English fuck”.  “Ima nota English dude, I’ma froma New Zealand, get it right aye” was my witty retort. This caused him to react with one of the perplexed squints I’d seen earlier at the party, as though he were looking at a Penguin in the Sahara. At some point around 3:30am Maris got a text and said that she had to go back to the house party. I was starting to sober up now so this was fine by me.

When we returned it was clear that some serious shit had gone down. Not only had the guys remaining continued to hit back Vodka and traverse whole new levels of superstardom, but apparently they’d gone outside and gotten into a fight with either a group of equally intoxicated Finns, a police patrol unit, or both simultaneously. Jaan himself was a cop so this didn’t really make sense, but in his epic drunkenness his ability to communicate the situation had been severely compromised, least of all in English. What was clear was that several of them looked very roughed up and that Oliver was lying in the tub in the bathroom, groaning in pain – he’d been pepper sprayed. While Maris went to comfort him, Jaan enthusiastically showed me several police moves with his truncheon, which most miraculously did not result in my bludgeoning. It was around this time that I called a cab, which showed up conveniently just as all the guys were getting naked for some guy time in the Jacuzzi. None of them were gay, but they were all fucking crazy. Maris laconically described the night as standard. I got back to my hostel around 6am and went out like a light.

I rolled over and saw it was 9am. Holy shit my head. And stomach. They actually felt totally fine. While I’d been taking care to down plenty of water between all the vodka, this was still the equivalent of being shot point blank and having the bullet pass harmlessly through a sleeve. I’d drunken more vodka than ever last night and here I was fine and dandy. At this point I remembered someone from last night explaining that all those gherkins for chasing would help neutralize a hangover the next day. How wonderful that it actually worked. After sleeping another couple of hours it was time to explore the Old Town of Tallinn by day. While the sky was grey, the town still had a charm to it: the snow, the tall triangular facades of the old buildings and the quietness was all quite mellowing after such a crazy night. I hadn’t had breakfast though, so covered it by having an enormous lunch at a bar recommended by a staff member from the Hostel. For 120 kroons (8 Euros) I got a fantastic standard meal of bread, roast meat and vegetables in a rich sauce. It reminded me of a classic Sunday roast at home, albeit double the size and intensity. This is lunch?! It was certainly fulfilling but none-the-less left me pondering how the hell a population could eat like this and have such low obesity ratings.

Tallinn Town Hall

Tallinn Town Hall

Totally stuffed, it was time to get back to seeing the sights. There are a few note-worthy landmarks to see in the old town, most notably the Medieval Town Hall which sits in the centre square right on a busy, hilly intersection. It’s a large, imposing structure which in spite of its pain stakingly simple design, also manages to be extremely striking and worthy of a snapshot or two. The other big landmark is the same landmark you get in every European capital: a great big fuck-you-Satan Cathedral. The Orthodox Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Tallinn is indeed massive, but is much more Russian than Estonian. It was built under Tsarist rule in the 19th Century and served as state headquarters for the KGB during the Soviet occupation.  Nowadays it operates as a place of worship with the bell tower doubling as a fantastic observation platform to view the whole of Tallinn, or so I’m told – It was closed in November.

It was now around 4 and thus starting to get dark again. Not sure what to do, I headed back to the Hostel to check out the social scene. It was pretty quiet but one of the staff there – an Australian guy, Matt suggested we go down to an ex-pat pub grab a few beers and watch the English/Australian rugby match that was on. The game itself was really dull so we spent most of the time just chatting away with the topic naturally leading to his decision to live In Estonia. Matt couldn’t praise the country enough, especially emphasizing the fact that the hot chicks here were actually interested in him, as they’d never been back in Australia. I had to agree that many of the chicks here were sublimely beautiful, certainly more so than the trumped-up-but-fuck-all- to-show-for Italian women.

I met Maris and Laura at a Russian restaurant in the Town hall square for dinner. Having never experienced traditional Russian cuisine before, I went along with Maris’ suggestion that I order the 7 meat soup as it appealed to my pathological disdain of vegetarianism. Disappointingly I couldn’t make out the 7 different meats, but it did taste ok. The restaurant was practically a time capsule circa Soviet Union 1953 with its dim lighting, rustic decor, old crylic signs, and to my slight chagrin – a Russian folk band playing Cossack accordion music in the corner. The girls explained that they came here all the time and in between each bite of her dumplings, Maris whimsically stopped to sing out, “mm, love it so much, I’d eat it everyday”. This puzzled me as for someone who seemingly hated Russia, Maris sure chose to make it a large part of her life. But then the line between hate and love is always thin and the situation is a complicated one. Estonians are practically obliged to hate Russians. Following their forced incorporation into the Soviet Union in WWII, over a quarter of their citizens were exported to Russian gulags while those left behind existed in a state of oppressed wretchedness until their independence in 1991. But on the other hand they also had vodka.

Beer cocktails

Beer cocktails

Afterwards we bounced to a lounge bar for desert, but finding it pretty boring – left quickly to go to another lounge bar, Sterio. Sterio is awesome, it’s fashioned with a white interior that looks supremely sci-fi and everything is bathed in an electric blue light. But what really makes it cool are the giant signature beer cocktails, something that the girls knew about but had never tried. They looked awesome on the menu and since all 15 were totally different, we decided to order them all over the next 2 hours. Now it sounds like a terrible idea to layer beer with things such as hard spirits, liquor, cream, fruit juice, a buffet of garnishes, or the lot – but many turned out to be uniquely satisfying. We consumed them in order from what looked most appealing, accurately leaving the ones which appeared least palatable for last. Indeed the last one, Dark Tallinn was an audaciously Frankenstein concoction of otherwise fine A le Coq beer, vodka, and Tallin Vana – an immensely strong local liquor/drain cleaner. It tasted as good as I expected. By the time we’d gotten through all these I was slightly tipsy and in a great mood, fully ready to check out the club next door, Prive. After checking coats and cameras (they’re forbidden inside for who knows what reason) we headed upstairs to the main bar and dance area. It was a really cool club but unfortunately Maris and Laura suddenly seemed exhausted, possibly a result of all the beer cocktails. I did get my hot Estonian girl though. While Maris had given me her drink to hold while she went to the bathroom, I spotted a total hottie in front of me: tall, lean and pretty with all the unique, delicate, facial features that make Estonian girls look so mesmerizing. She also had dark hair, practically an endangered species in Estonia. I turned her round to face me, spouted some random shit and within minutes we were making out.  After some quiet action in the shadows of the club, I found out her name was also Maris and thought it would be hilarious to introduce her to other Maris – given they looked like total opposites. Only I got a laugh out of pointing this out to them though, at which point Maris’ #2 friends showed up and told her they were leaving. So I took her number and bye. At this point I went on a hook-up rampage with a whole bunch of talent around the club. I can’t remember what time I got home, but as Ice cube once said, ‘today was a good day.’

I’d cheated a hangover again so after getting up I went for another circuit of the old town, stopping into a small cafe for an ok brunch of pizza and cheesecake. Here I was served by yet again, ridiculously good looking girls. Hell if I ever come back here, I’m getting my own place and staying for at least a week (*I would do this). I continued on, and ventured slightly outside the old town to stroll through the new mall before returning to check out the largely deserted National Museum.  The Museum is fairly small and low on actual exhibits or displays, but it does provide a quite a compelling narrative of Estonia’s long and explicitly brutal history.

Since 1227 the country has been under almost constant occupation by various states including the Danes, Germans, Swedish and Russians. While it did gain independence in 1921, this was lost during WWII and even today, people can’t decide whether they hated the Nazis or Soviets more since terrible numbers of Estonians died under both. But even before then the people suffered considerably. With the exception of a so called ‘Golden period’ under Swedish rule, most of the Museum details out a never ending series of wars, rebellions, plagues, famines and a general hardship which would try the existence of any people. At the risk of sounding like a Nazi hereditary scientist – my theory on why the girls here are so hot suddenly crystallized: the majority of ‘bad’ genes must have been weeded out of existence by extreme natural selection! Indeed this can be said for many places in Eastern Europe and it’s no wonder that Estonia is so proud and thankful to have its independence today.

Maris and a much more back to reality looking Oliver came by the Hostel to take me to another nice lounge bar for dinner. The place was most distinctive for its kitchen on display through glass walls, but what really took me back was the bible sized menu which had sections for local, Italian, Mexican, Thai, Indian and Japanese cuisine.  I wasn’t sure whether to be impressed or worried but decided to order the Butter chicken, something that I’d been starved for in Milan. Thus it was to my great delight that it turned out to be as good a meal as in any respectable Indian restaurant. We spent most of dinner discussing how the hell Oliver had ended up getting pepper sprayed the previous night. He still didn’t seem to know.  Sadly, this was my last night in Tallinn and after we got back to the Hostel I said my goodbyes and thanked Maris for fulfilling her promise of showing me a fun time.

Back in the common room of the Hostel, the staff and a couple of the other guests were getting their drink on. It was still quite early though so I thought fuck it and after picking up a few beers next door decided to join in. Here I was also provided with the opportunity to try some blood sausage – one of the Europe’s more terrible ideas. Blood sausage is exactly what it says it is, cold sausage made from congealed cow blood and arteries. I had one bite and didn’t request a second. However it quickly became apparent that the drinking here tonight was serious, as indeed it was most nights. I’d spent hardly any time round the Hostel up until this point but apparently the staff got wasted here every night. The core group consisted of Matt – the Australian, Jonnie – another New Zealander, and a fast talking local girl called – guess what – Maris. There were only 5 or so of us drinking but when the declaration to go out to the nearest pub came out, the exertion from the previous two nights hit me and I declined. Plus a bunch of people had started watching V for Vendetta on the movie projector and I love this movie.

As it turned out I didn’t miss out on much.  Jonnie, Matt, Maris and an American guy, Bill who’d gone with them returned to the Hostel only an hour and a half later. They’d only gone across the road to a pub and had simply been shotting tequila the whole time, an activity Matt hadn’t excelled at as was evidenced by Jonnie and Bill carrying him comatose, shoulder to shoulder through the front door upon their return. The movie finished and I went to bed where tonight I had the benefit of having the 6 bed bunk room to myself.

Most of the following morning passed uneventfully. I cut it pretty close for catching my bus to Riga but fortunately found enough time to pick up a bunch of bakery strudel-like things before I left to cover my Breakfast/lunch. Then it was time for the long, cushy ride back with the bus that was even more empty than on the way there. More hot chocolate, more non-descript snowy fields, more  relaxation. I was a little sad though, Tallinn had been a real treat and I wasn’t sure that Riga could compare, especially now that it was a Monday and I only had one night there. This slight uneasiness about Riga not been so fun didn’t go away when I got back to Fun Franks Hostel again, as the place was almost totally deserted and I didn’t have anybody there to do anything with. It wasn’t that I didn’t think Riga was a cool city, more it was a case of bad timing. Famished, I requested a decent, cheap dinner venue from a staff member who marked it down on my map before heading off again. Franks is, among many good things, in a fantastic location right on the Daugava River and just on the edge of the Old Town.  A minute after leaving you come out into a enormous square which is dominated by an Orwellian looking statue of 2 soviet soldiers, who ironically stand right next to the Latvian Museum of Occupation, which perhaps needless to say is a rather recent addition. Immediately adjacent to this is the faithfully and beautifully reconstructed House of the Blackheads which was originally built in 14th century before been bombed to ruins by the Germans, and then tore down completely by the Soviets in 1948. The Blackheads themselves were a guild, made up specifically of unmarried German merchants, who despite their seemingly obscure status, obviously once had considerable influence as to be entitled to such a fantastic building. A few minutes from here I found the Latvian Restaurant which had been recommended. It was indeed cheap but as I browsed over the buffet I saw absolutely nothing which looked appetizing. Grudgingly, I left to find somewhere else, now in the mood simply to stop at the next place I came by. On this night it happened to be TGI Fridays.

The place was pretty much empty, which was great since it meant I was served immediately by a lovely dark haired Latvian girl who happily took my order of fajitas, then after relaying it, came skipping back to chat with me. Not being the stupidest guy on Earth and sensing an opportunity to have a slightly more interesting Monday night, I suggested to Ance that we meet up for a drink after she finished her shift. She agreed and took my number. Karma says this was because I’d just paid 15 lats (€25) for fajitas that sucked. A couple of hours later we met up and went to a bar where Ance insisted that I try the Latvian speciality – Black Balsam liquor and Blackberry juice. It tasted like cough syrup but I pretended to be ok with it. Over the next two hours I hardly said a work, this girl just kept fucking talking and talking. I found listening to her accent entertaining enough though, so I just spent most of the time nodding, smiling and responding with appropriate gestures and facial expressions. Around midnight most places were closing so I walked her back towards her bus, said goodbye via an extended make out session and  headed back to Franks. Although I had all of the next day in Riga here, this would be the last time I would see Ance since she had some training thing on for work all of the next day. Oh well.

Riga guard change

Riga Guard Change

Getting up rather early, I went down to the Front desk of Franks to sign up for an activity which had caught my eye the day earlier – AK47 shooting in an old Soviet Bunker. I’d never fired anything more advanced than a paintball gun in my life but figured if an 8 year old Ugandan child could operate one, there was no reason I couldn’t also.  But this activity didn’t kick off until 5 and my plane back home didn’t leave until 9, so I finally had some time to stroll round Riga properly. After another satisfying brunch at Double Coffee/Latvian Starbucks I decided to check out the Freedom Monument just outside the old town. Built in 1935 as a memorial to the lives lost in gaining independence bloodily from Russia in 1920, it would only see 4 years of freedom before yet more occupation. None-the-less it remained a symbol of hope for Latvians in dark times and is now under military guard with the soldiers changed hourly in – as is every countries changing of the guard – an over-the-top spectacle with funny walks. I arrived just in time to see it.

Inspired by the engravings of soldiers firing heavy machine guns on the side of the monument I went off to the Latvian Military Museum only to find that it was closed really early on Mondays and that I’d just missed out on last entry. After listlessly wandering about the old town again I went to check out the Museum of Occupation (specifically the most recent Nazi/Soviet occupations as opposed to the eons of occupation before then.) It turned out to be pretty interesting. The Museum is certainly detailed and much larger than it appears on the outside, with reconstructions of gulags and various interactive touch screens. It also manages to make the years 1939 – 1991 seem like an absolute eternity – perhaps intended – as indeed they must have been under such brutal regimes. There was so much information that I had to skip a lot but the last thing I was presented with upon leaving was a large plaque that sums up Latvia’s former misery: That 550,000 people were killed under German and Soviet occupation – over a third of the country’s population.

AK-47 time

AK-47 time

With that thought in mind it was time to go shoot something. As it turned out – I was the only person who’d signed up for shooting this day, as it was very quiet at the hostel. The location itself was a little far from the hostel and I was escorted there by one of the staff, it was also a scary location. The tiny Terranean entrance was literally an old bomb shelter which lead down a dimy lit stairway to a heavy vaulted door. A torture chamber on the other side alla the movie Hostel wouldn’t have been surprising. As it turned out the entire underground area had been heavily renovated and we were cheerfully greeted by a tall, middle aged Latvian guy with ammo belts draped from his shoulder. He didn’t speak any English (a first in the Baltics) and my guide informed me that I could choose 3 different weapons from different classes to try out with a full round of ammo for each. I leafed through a booklet and picked the Glock, the M3 shotgun and – of course – an AK47.  He then gathered up the weapons and led us to a room which opened up into a long, bullet ridden warehouse. After miming how to use each weapon to me, I donned earmuffs and was allowed to go full metal jacket on targets at the far end of the room. This was an enlightening experience. Having never fired real weapons but seen their use ad nauseum on screens I was really caught off guard. The noise and power of each firearm was far greater than I thought it’d be, and I kept thinking that I would absolutely HATE to see what effect any of these things would have on an actual person. It was pretty fucking badass though.

Unfortunately my time in the Baltics was up. No sooner did I get back to the Hostel did I realise I had to get to the airport. I took the bus this time, spotted yet another TGI Fridays at the airport and reminiscing about the previous night – decided to eat there again. While there was no hot waitress to have fun with, I did correctly order the much tastier ribs. It almost felt like a last meal – I was genuinely sad to be leaving. But then at the same time oh so glad that the risk of serious illness hadn’t stopped me from coming in the first place. I would be back though.



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