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Riga Central Market (Riga, Latvia)

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Riga, Latvia.

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      05.09.2007 00:16
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      One of Europe's largest, liveliest and most interesting public markets

      Looking at the picture at the top of this page, you could be forgiven for thinking it showed the interior of a typical market hall. In fact, this and the four other almost identical buildings that house the indoor section of the Riga Central Market weren’t built as market halls at all, but as hangars for First World War zeppelins. This is among the original features that enhance the character of one of Europe’s most interesting public markets. With another area of similar size for stalls outside, it is also one of Europe’s largest.


      * In praise of markets *

      Let me confess at the outset that I’m an absolute sucker for markets. Not those anonymous, impersonal financial markets through which zillions of dollars zoom daily, enriching some and impoverishing others in the process, but real life, human scale markets where sellers stand behind stalls and hawk their wares while buyers nose around comparing prices and value, haggling where appropriate and securing their daily goods accordingly. Economists will tell you that in theory there’s no essential difference between the two, but that’s economists for you: always better at theory than reality. The reality is that of the two the latter are infinitely (well, almost infinitely) more fun.

      It’s not just the prospect of finding bargains that make markets such fun, real though that is. It’s the human experience. Markets are vigorous, vibrant places. They are untidy, noisy and sometimes smelly too, but all of this adds to the experience and to my enthusiam. Fortunately, it is an enthusiasm shared with my wife. Everywhere we go we make a point of visiting the main market, and over the years have come to know their characteristics well. The best are busy and bustling with people, creating a background hubbub of patter, chatter, banter and doing deals; successful stall-holders tend to be among the world’s great extroverts. The best markets are colourful with the displays of merchandise, whether mouth-watering fresh fruit and vegetables, or gaudy garments and materials. They are full of energy and teeming with life.

      Riga Central Market is one of the best.


      * A good place for a market *

      The history books will tell you that Riga was founded in 1201AD by the Knights of the Sword, one of the Teutonic orders that crusaded and bullied their way up the Baltic coast in those benighted times, but it is clear that a settlement stood on the site long before then. With a safe harbour nearby, and a navigable river giving access to the interior, it was and is a natural trading post. In any case, where the sword and the cross led, trade quickly followed, and you can still see the rather bleak paved open space where Hanseatic merchants first gathered to do business back in the 13th Century, and to which locals brought their produce to exchange with them and with each other.

      The location of the Riga’s market has moved several times since then, and it only came to occupy its present site during Latvia’s earliest bout of independence after the First World War. For ease of transport and access it was situated between the main railway station and the Daugava River that connects Riga to the Baltic Sea.

      In 1922 someone on Riga City Council had the zany idea of buying and transporting a set of wartime zeppelin hangars that had been carelessly abandoned by the Imperial German forces in western Latvia. Inspired though the notion was, transplanting and reassembling the hangars required much ingenuity in practice and it was not until 1930 that they eventually opened for business, at which point the market was the largest and most modern in Europe.

      Having flourished briefly in the 1930s, Riga Central Market became almost moribund in the Soviet era. It stayed open, but government control of supply and prices rather negated the whole point of having a market. Locals had no more reason to shop there than at any of the other dreary, under-stocked official outlets. Only with Latvian independence and the reintroduction of private enterprise in the 1990s did it revive to become the thriving hive of activity one sees today.


      * Riga market today – indoors *

      The market is still situated next to Riga’s main railway station, which is just as well really; you wouldn’t want to shift those hangars around too often. A bus and tram terminus has been added right outside together with a car park, so it couldn’t be easier for Rigans living on the outskirts of the city to reach by public transport or by car. Just a short stroll from Riga’s centre, it’s easy too for tourists to include in a sight-seeing wander round the old town.

      The sheer scale of the hangars becomes apparent as you approach across the forecourt of the bus station. Between them, the five hangar pavilions enclose about four acres of shopping space, and that’s before you take account of the outdoor area behind. Four of the five face you on the right, their high frontages almost elegant for such functional buildings. The style of the windows with their supporting columns has a hint of Art Deco about it. On the left, the fifth and biggest hangar is set at right angles to the others, a bit like a splayed-out thumb to their fingers, seen from above.

      The fifth hangar was originally separate from its fellows in function too, being wholesale only. Now, it is essentially retail and very much open to the public. Its speciality is meat and meat products, especially hams and sausages, invitingly displayed behind glass fronts, or hung from hooks behind the stalls. Each of the pavilions traditionally has it own specific focus: meat, milk and dairy products, bread and bakery, fruit and vegetables, fish. These do retain predominance in their respective halls, but we found quite a bit of overlap and plenty of stalls dotted around that didn’t fit readily into any of these categories – general delicatessen, for example, or confectionary. The bakery hall, in particular, is now more or less all-round grocery.

      The indoor areas, incidentally, are kept clean and about as tidy as you can expect in a market. The stalls are mostly well-lit and seem well-equipped, especially those offering meat, fish or dairy products, with refrigerated cabinets and the like. Few are period pieces, but they are attractively presented and sometimes decorated with flowers. Generally, both the quality and variety of the produce looked good, and the stall-holders often seemed ready to offer samples of their wares to dispel any doubts. The stalls here, like the halls themselves, have an air of permanence.


      * Riga market today – outdoors *

      Outside, there is little sense of permanence, and the layout seems chaotic. Here, the stalls are relatively ramshackle, including barrows and trestle tables with makeshift canopies, awnings or umbrellas. Those selling foodstuffs are usually piled high with fresh fruit and vegetables.

      Being there in June, we were treated to delicious-looking displays of ripe black cherries, scarlet strawberries, peaches and apricots. Heaps of marrows, tomatoes and carrots weighed down the vegetable stalls. Those selling flowers, too, were doing a brisk business, with customers carrying away large bunches of blooms, and fresh herbs too. The latter may, though, have had something to do with the fact that we were there a few days before the Summer Solstice – the festival of Jani in Latvia. The day before Jani is known as Herb Day, and the so-called Jani-herbs are traditionally intertwined in wreaths and bouquets.

      Outside are also many more vendors of all kinds of non-food products, though compared to the generally high standard of the food, quality here might be a bit more variable, to put it mildly. In summer, most of the clothing on offer consisted of light, bright garments, but I’m told that in winter it is an excellent place to buy boots, fur hats, parkas or overcoats. There are stalls selling textiles, footwear and bags. There are book, newspaper and magazine stands. There are others selling electronics goods, DVDs, CDs and videos, some of them probably authentic. There are dodgy characters selling even dodgier versions out of suitcases, as you find in markets everywhere.

      What we found also less of than we’d been led by the guidebook to expect was the boot fair or flea market element of bric-a-brac and second-hand oddments. Perhaps, in such a huge and mazy area, amid so many offerings – there are over 3,000 stalls in all – we simply never picked our way to the relevant corner, despite all our wanderings. A pity, because it would have been fascinating to see what was on sale.


      * Refreshments *

      Anyone spending time in a major market will want to pause to catch their breath and review their purchases, and Riga Central Market has several cafés for this purpose – simple affairs, but good for a coffee, beer and a snack. There are also refrigerated barrows selling ice-cream, soft drinks or the East European speciality known as kvass, like a light beer made by fermenting rye bread in water. Having sampled it, I decided to stick with the real beer. I regret to say that I failed even to sample kombucha (fermented sweetened tea), though some say it’s very refreshing, and stalls selling it seemed to be doing a brisk business.


      * Prices *

      If my mental arithmetic is anything to go by, prices are generally very cheap by British standards. I didn’t have time to do a comparison, but to judge from the number of locals buying in large quantities, they are also cheap by Rigan standards. There is room for some haggling, particularly with sellers of the non-food items, which have fewer marked prices, and most stall-holders speak a little English or German.

      In any case, you can check out the general level of current prices (though not those on individual stalls) on the market’s website. Ah, I did say it was modern, didn’t I?


      * Souvenir shopping *

      For all its vigour and variety, we didn’t feel that the Central Market was the best place in Riga to buy souvenirs, apart from small items like confectionary or jars of honey. Looking for craft goods in ceramics, amber or linen that are characteristic of the Baltic region, we found the cluster of stalls in the Esplanade Park offered a better range and better quality, albeit at perhaps slightly higher prices. A further alternative to which we never found our way is Latgales Market, though that has a rather risky reputation: “If you’ve had anything stolen during your visit to Riga, this is the place to buy it back” as the ‘Riga in your Pocket’ guidebook puts it.


      * When open – and when to go *

      The Central Market is open daily from 7.00 a.m. until 18.00 (Tuesday-Saturday) or 17.00 (Sunday and Monday), except for the first Monday in the month when the indoor halls close for cleaning. If you are in Riga, I would definitely recommend a visit, but allow yourself time to see it properly and soak up the atmosphere – an hour or two at least. On a warm summer day it is pleasant to sit outside at one of the cafés and watch one’s fellow-shoppers, but in winter you’d want to spend more time indoors and benefit from the central heating. Whenever you go, though, you can be assured of a most interesting experience, and probably some bargains.


      © Also published under the name torr on Ciao UK 2007

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