Original posted on London to New York blog, March 31, 2010
AMONG the many questions asked before and since this trip started is: “What are you going to do when you get back?”
The answers have ranged from the non-committal (“Haven’t really thought about it”) to the definite (thought the guy at the American Embassy might appreciate “Get a job” rather more than “Dunno”) with some rambling musings about possible career changes filling large chunks of the middle ground.
One thing that has become clear is that sniper or hit man is unlikely to provide that career change.
This blow to my employment prospects follows our trip to a shooting range in Riga, our stop-off for two nights in Latvia.
We fulfilled the first part of our mission which was simply to find the place. Our guide Alex took us down a snowy path, across some wasteland and onto a rooftop, down a muddy path and finally into a very unpromising looking bunker.
Walking down the road 100 yards and down some steps would have had a similar outcome.
Once inside, any ambitions to become a hired gun were ended.
Our stern teacher showed us what we were supposed to be doing. Most of the group which had made the trek across the river looked back at him with a mixture of confusion, wide eyes and itchy trigger fingers.
First up was the pistol – five shots apiece at our own personal target. My performance was not the worst, but two out of five was far from the best. Worse was to follow…
In my defence, all three shots from the AK-47 assault rifle found the target. Only not mine. My target contained no more blemishes than before, but Freddie’s – two to the left – suddenly had six new holes. Not bad considering he only fired three shots at it.
The instructor found this highly amusing – a moral victory as he had shown no previous signs of a sense of humour.
But redemption was at hand. Pistols and assault rifles may not be my weapon, but put a Winchester pump-action shotgun in my hands and look out… two out of three into the heart of the target and some pride restored.
While the shooting range is hidden away underground, most of Riga’s treasures are very much on public view in a pleasant, if rundown, city centre.
And after an overcast couple of days in Vilnius, the overall impression has been greatly helped by a rapid improvement in the weather.
The big freeze which has hit the city and left much of the river and streams frozen, cleared up almost overnight to present us with blue skies and sunshine – the winter hats being replaced by sunglasses as we headed out on a walking tour with the slightly mellow Alex (once we’d reminded him what day it actually was).
We yomped around some of the sights off the beaten track, taking in the fish section of the Central Market (the largest covered market in Europe), Little Moscow, the Thieves’ Market (no photos allowed and pretty much anything – bar Phoebe’s much-sought after camera charger – for sale), a hot chocolate stop which served basically thick, melted chocolate in a cup and the 26th floor bar of a hotel which offers great views over the city.
Throw in the picturesque Old Town and it all adds up to a very enjoyable city.
And there is plenty more to enjoy after dark, as we discovered via a meal in the crypt of an old monastery served by staff in medieval costume. Nowhere near as naff as it sounds and far removed from the theme park experience it threatened to be.
The plan, not for the first time, was to have quite a quiet night, this time watching football in an Irish pub.
But somehow, again not for the first time, it ran away from us. A couple of quick beers were followed by a couple more, tempted into it as we were by the lovely smile of the girl behind the bar.
By the time we stumbled out of there, any remaining plans for an early night were shot to pieces as we bumped into Martins the driver and his good lady and they insisted we join them in a bar in a local side street.
What went on from there is a little cloudy and we are still piecing together exactly what happened – both there and in a splinter group who spent the night sipping cocktails on the 26th floor bar.
Suffice to say there were some drunken locals, a Scottish hen party, cocktails involving local firewater/poison balsum, cross dressing and the lovely Inge sat at the end of the bar…
All a far cry from Vilnius, our previous stop off in Lithuania.
Well, maybe not that far for the member of the trip who ended up in a late-night bar being fed cocktails by “an extremely ugly Icelandic bloke”.
His identity must remain protected, except to say Mike spent the next evening drinking water.
As well as being far less pleasant weather than Riga, Vilnius has far less to see once you have wandered around the old town, which does not take that long.
It also provided a few firsts: the first dodgy restaurant, a steakhouse with service so bad that one person was not served at all and two walked out fed up waiting to give their order, was followed by our first self-cooked meal – Freddie producing a much-appreciated meal on our first lazy day spent recovering from a few excesses of the days before.
A much-needed slow down before hitting the road to Riga…