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Phespirit goes to Latvia
Riga     July 2006

Lithuania in August 1999, Estonia in February 2003, and now Phespirit has completed his collection of Baltic State capitals with Latvia in 2006. Saving the best until last, as it turns out. No small compliment. Each city has a profoundly independent character, each one is a pleasure to visit, and each has its own peculiar set of highlights.

As with his April visit to Stockholm, Phespirit meticulously worked out plans to make the best use of his time. Unlike during his visit to Stockholm, by noon on his first day in Riga he had carelessly allowed these plans to slip from his back pocket, never to be seen again. Most annoying. By that time, however, the details had been pretty much etched in his brain, so all was not lost. They could broadly be reduced to the following:

The first day-and-a-bit accounted for the usual cultural stuff like galleries, museums and churches. The majority of Latvians are officially Lutheran, with the Catholic, Russian Orthodox and Jewish faiths also well represented. Phespirit has observed that whilst the Catholics have the best art, it is the Orthodox churches that have a monopoly on atmosphere. The Russian Orthodox Cathedral is cavernous and immaculately clean with freshly painted frescoes and icons that glisten with new gold leaf. The nearby Alexander Nevsky Church - also Orthodox - is smaller, mustier and duller, but this merely enhances the religious ambience. Even so, it's noticeable that such churches in Riga are more or less exclusively the domain of old women in headscarves. In the twenty-first century the young people of this young capital worship in the city's temples of hedonism, and they do it most beautifully.

The top-billed galleries are mostly filled with Latvian and Russian art. The Arsenāl Museum of Art presents State-pleasing Soviet-era art mixed with overtly modern art dated after 1991. Quality is thin on the ground from both eras; 'Latvian Fishermen in the Atlantic' by Eduards Kalniņš is as fine as anything on show. At the other end of the scale the Latvian National Art Museum has some excellent pieces on display. These include landscapes by Julijs Feders, portraits by Karlis Huns, and Himilayan imagery by Nicholas Roerich, not to mention a special exhibition of works by Janis Pauluks (1906-1984) who used splashes, drips and whorls of warm colours on large canvases to pleasing effect.

With football being played throughout the summer in Latvia, Phespirit took the opportunity to watch Skonto Riga in a league match at home to Dinaburg on Saturday afternoon, kicking off at 3:00pm. Tickets cost a mere £1.50 on the day, yet the total attendance could not have been more than 300 people, all spread out in a single stand on one side of the stadium while the rest of the ground (two sides with stands, the other just a wall) remained entirely spectator-free. Despite the inevitable lack of cheering and singing, the match still provided good entertainment: Andrejs Stolcers (ex-Fulham and Yeovil) scrambled Skonto into the lead in the 34th minute, Dinaburg hit a post in the second half, then Skonto hit the bar, Dinaburg saved a penalty, and finally Skonto doubled their lead when Gatis Kalnins lifted one over the keeper in the last minute from 22m. Well worth £1.50 of anyone's money. The result consolidated Skonto's second place position out of eight (they play each other home and away twice).

2006. gada Latvijas cempionats - 22.07.2006:

1 FK Ventspils 15 12 3 0 28 8 +20 39
2 Skonto (Riga) 16 9 4 3 29 9 +20 31
3 Liepajas Metalurgs 14 7 5 2 32 10 +22 26
4 Ditton (Daugavpils) 15 7 5 3 19 13 +6 26
5 Dinaburg (Daugavpils) 14 5 3 6 15 17 -2 18
6 FK Jurmala 16 5 3 8 22 25 -3 18
7 FK Riga 15 2 2 11 5 33 -28 8
8 Dizvanagi (Rezekne) 15 0 1 14 5 40 -35 1

For relaxation on his final day, Phespirit boarded a train at Riga Central for a half-hour journey along the coast to Vecāķi. Here he spent the day soaking up the summer heatwave and swimming in the Baltic Sea. The water temperature reportedly reached a high of 24°C. It was a pleasure to be immersed in its warmth ..... much like Riga itself.

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