Fulfilling a Drunkard’s Mission in Riga, Latvia

by Thom Brown

Thom Brown continues his exploration ‘On the Edges of Europe’ in Riga, Latvia’s capital, where he finds that alcohol and firearms keep surprisingly close company, and the picturesque and monstrous are often separated by the shortest of journeys.

Bullets and shells lined the glass panels of the bar, packed together like pebbles on a beach. The glass was framed with light brown, barely polished wood, giving a rustic and minimalist aesthetic and painting images in my mind of makeshift army barracks. On the far left of the bar was an impressively large machine gun, facing the window as if to protect the beer taps from outside invaders. The red padded stools stood out against an otherwise neutral scene, inviting me to pull up and order a drink.

Before I could open my mouth, a voice – slurring but identifiably French – exclaimed, “Give me some more of that Balsam!”

The young American bartender glared before begrudgingly obliging. He walked to the back of the bar and pulled a stumpy black bottle from the bottom shelf. As the liquid glugged into a shot glass, it had the color, consistency, and smell of well-used motor oil. Without hesitation, the drunkard threw it down his throat and wiped the gray bristles of his mustache with the back of his hand.

Riga Black Balsam is Latvia’s national drink. It’s an alcoholic beverage that local people take great pride in; the kind tourists drink for a cultural experience despite their taste buds ferociously rejecting the flavor. Invented by a Riga-based apothecary, it is rumored to have cured Catherine the Great after she fell ill on her travels back to Russia. The highly secretive recipe was lost in 1939, but by 1950, a monumental effort to piece together its ingredients brought Black Balsam back into public consumption, where it has remained a central part of the Latvian lifestyle.

The drunkard seemed to suddenly notice my presence, his crossed eyes picking out my blurry figure between the hazy mix of beer glasses and weaponry.

“Oi you!” he bellowed, unnecessarily since I was sitting right next to him. “Welcome! Where are you from, young sir?”

“England,” I replied.

“England?! Why the hell you’d wanna leave England?”

“I’m just here exploring.”

This was true. I knew little about Latvia and had made no plans. Instead, I intended to get to know the country through mere osmosis – people-watching and aimless wandering.

“I’ll just get a beer, please. Something local, a craft ale or something,” I told the bartender.

“Beer! You want beer? Well, you’ve come to the right place,”  the drunkard said gesturing vaguely and laughing loudly. He eyed up the machine gun in the corner.

“You know, if you can get that gun out the door with no one noticing, you drink for free,” he continued, leaning in close and ending with a clumsy wink.

Eager to change the conversation, I explained I had the rest of the day to explore and wondered what to do.

“Follow the river,” the drunkard said quietly this time, with an eerily calm confidence.

“The river?” I responded, as the barman handed over a tall glass of IPA.

“Yes! Follow the river and keep going until you hit the sea. Then swim to Saaremaa!”

An Estonian island, Saarema was certainly out of the question, but I could probably make it to the seaside. Riga’s Old Town, with its 13th and 14th-century buildings like Saint Peter’s Church and the House of the Blackheads, is undoubtedly beautiful. Its medieval architecture is both grand and charming – a must-visit for anyone who makes it as far as the Baltics. However, the Old Town is pretty small and by this point, I felt I’d seen it all.

Halfway through my beer, the drunkard left without warning. Whether he exited the building or passed out in the bathroom is something we’ll never find out, but his fleeting appearance in my timeline had a profound effect on my Latvian adventure.

“Is he a regular?” I asked the weary bartender.

“He’s been in a few times,” he replied, “I don’t know much about him, but it’s always nice and quiet when he leaves.”

The bar was more or less empty now, but to be fair, it was the early afternoon. Rather than ordering more booze and becoming this tavern’s next resident drunk, I left a small tip and headed for the door.

The Armoury Bar in Riga opened out onto a quiet street close to the center of the Old Town. It was perfect for a tourist like me – someone seeking fellow travelers and English-speaking staff, but also a quiet retreat where I could mingle with locals and wouldn’t get ripped off.

Riga – particularly this bar – had long been a place of retreat for me. It offered plenty of cheap flights and buses from neighboring countries while being far enough off the beaten path to feel quiet and private. The city center was generally calm but contained pockets of live music and seedy joints full of interesting characters. A day and night out in Riga was never dull.

On a map, the Gulf of Riga didn’t look too far. However, the way the river cut through the land in a network of tributaries and lakes caused constant diversions, meaning the fastest it could be tackled on foot was around five hours. This wasn’t feasible, but a taxi didn’t appeal either. That seemed a surefire way to miss the quirky details that comprise this city. That left one option, which had become the go-to method for exploring European cities: the e-scooter.

On the edge of the Old Town, where the cobbled streets turned to asphalt smooth enough for wheeled transport, I spotted the perfect vehicle. It was bright Ferarri red. With a low-down seat and high handlebars, it had the form of a Harley Davidson, just significantly smaller. There was a basket at the front for my backpack, along with lights, indicators, and a proper horn; no messing around with bells. I opened the app, scanned the QR code to unlock the ride, and was on my way.

At six foot two, it did feel a little awkward sitting on this undersized moped, a condition made worse by the fact that I was absolutely the only person riding one. Unsure whether to take the sidewalk or the road, I weaved between the two, using my horn to give fair warning to pedestrians. The harsh honking sound made a few people jump and look around in anger as if I was being aggressive when my intention was politeness. Perhaps a bell is a better solution after all.

The outskirts of Riga’s city center faded from medieval beauty to Soviet monstrosity. This is a fact much observed across the length of the former USSR. From Berlin to Ulaanbaatar, the square concrete apartment blocks are ubiquitous. Some say these were temporary homes that acted as waiting rooms for the arrival of utopia. Others argue this functionalist approach was simply a way to achieve maximum output for minimum input. Either way, they offered a depressing landscape. Flying down the sidewalk at full speed on my scooter, it was impossible not to glance over at a middle-aged man with a five o’clock shadow as he rested his head upon an apartment wall and urinated onto the weeds growing through the cracks in the concrete floor.

Between the apartment blocks, though, Riga gave the impression of a safe and pleasant place to live. Large and sparsely populated parks were a constant source of distraction. One was paved with ribbons of freshly laid asphalt that snaked and looped through the gardens, up a hill, and back down again. In the child-like space that is my mind, this was the Nürburgring: my very own racetrack.

As my scooter crested the hill and began its descent, it would pick up speeds hitherto unimagined, soaring towards the bottom where I’d nudge the brake and skid around the corner. A few laps later, the orange rays of the rapidly descending sun burst through the trees. And I was nowhere near the coast.

I pressed on and soon arrived at a lake called Ķīšezers. Making it to the sea would have involved a huge detour around this massive body of water. But in the end, this felt like enough. I propped the scooter onto its stand and sat on the grass, gazing into the gently rocking waters. While I hadn’t fulfilled the mission given to me by the mysterious drunk in the Armoury Bar, I’d fulfilled my lust for adventure. I’d seen parts of Riga that most tourists don’t and glimpsed into the real life of Latvian people, beyond the Disneyland aesthetic of the Old Town. It’s a city to which I’ll always return, uncovering its secrets slowly, delicately, and one piece at a time.

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