Town square in old Riga, with St Peter’s church and the ‘House of Blackheads’, once belonging to the ‘Guild of Unmarried Merchants’.
Last week, as I watched sailing dinghies on Windermere from the windows of the Freshwater Biological Association’s laboratory, I was reminded of the novels of Arthur Ransome, which I had read avidly when I was young. This week, by curious serendipity, I find myself in another city with strong associations with Arthur Ransome. In preparation for this trip, I pulled my old copy of Racundra’s First Cruise from my bookshelf and started reading. The first paragraph is one of the most evocative in all travel literature:
“Houses are but badly built boats so firmly grounded that you cannot think of moving them. They are definitely inferior things, belonging to the vegetable not the animal world, rooted and stationary, incapable of gay transition. I admit, doubtfully, as exceptions, snail-shells and caravans. The desire to build a house is the tired wish of a man content thenceforward with a single anchorage. The desire to build a boat is the desire of youth, unwilling yet to accept the idea of a final resting-place.”
That was written in 1923, as Ransome sailed in his small cruiser, Racundra, travelling from Riga to Tallinn (then known by it’s German name, Reval), and then across the Baltic to Helsinki (which Ransome refers to by it’s Swedish name, Helsingfors), and finally back to Riga. Ransome, at the time, was the Guardian correspondent in Russia, and had covered the Russian revolution and the subsequent wars of independence in the Baltic states. The person referred to coyly as ‘The Cook’ was actually his lover (he was already married at this time), Eveginia Petrovna Shelepina, formerly Trotsky’s secretary.
And so here I am in Riga, en route to a scientific meeting and, alas, amongst the ‘badly built boats’ of the terrestrial world rather than afloat. Ransome’s phrasing is harsh on Riga, whose old town centre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with architecture betraying its historical links with Germany, as part of the Hanseatic League. Walking through the old town’s narrow cobbled streets, lined with attractive gabled buildings was a delight, though the journey in from the airport contained plenty of reminders of Riga’s recent past as part of the Soviet empire.
I’m enjoying the food here, too: hearty meat-rich dishes washed down with local beers. The words ‘sausage’ and ‘dumpling’ crop up frequently on menus, separately and, on occasions, together. This is not a great place to be a vegetarian, I fear. My culinary highlight? Sliced bull’s testicles. Recommended, so long as you are not the one who has to explain to the bull what is about to happen.