Riga’s spectacular art nouveau Alberta Street is crammed with clumps of senior tourists, trailing behind leaders who hold aloft ping pong bats with numbers… 15, 9 and 27. Every morning monster cruise ships dock in the harbour, and each disgorges tour groups for a quick whip around Riga’s main attractions.
I’ve often regarded such tourists with patronizing pity – those poor old people (or foolish young ones) who are too lazy or ignorant to organize their own travel. But now I’m one of those poor old people myself, having joined a 20-day Odyssey Travel bus tour , ‘The Emergence of the Baltic States’. It’s been an eye-opener, with my fellow travellers and the trip’s organization challenging my preconceptions.
I always assumed that package tourists got only sanitized, superficial experiences. They gawked at architecture, but didn’t understand it. They met few local people, had no interest in local culture and they preferred McDonald’s and Starbucks because of the familiar food and clean toilets. In short, their travel didn’t teach them much about the world.
However I’ve had quite an education on this tour. The seventeen older Australians in our party are experienced, savvy travellers. ‘If life is an Aussie Rules footy match, we’re all in the final quarter,’ says 70-something Alan. And they seem to have spent the first three quarters getting travel goals on the scoreboard. As our unflappable bus driver Tiusku steers around tight corners of Latvian villages, my companions regale me with tales of their adventures in Africa, Antarctica and Afghanistan.
They’re still avid students. Susan and Enid met at University of the Third Age, studying Latin and Maths. Most are on their second, fourth or, in Roy and June’s case, their sixth tour with the Odyssey organization, a not-for-profit concern based at Wollongong University. They like it because although there’s no exam at the end, this tour is mentally challenging.
I need to keep clearing space on my brain’s hard drive, because information has kept pouring in. On our first night in Riga we took notes at a sobering lecture by local professor Anita Naciscione on Latvia’s suffering under Nazi oppression and the mass deportations of Soviet times. ’We joked that the highest spot in Riga was the KGB building. From there you could see Siberia.’
Despite current economic and political problems Latvians are delighted with their hard-won independence, but ‘our business people need to learn to smile at clients. Smiling at strangers is not a natural part of Latvian character.’
Next morning we take a solid city walking tour behind our Latvian guide Lora, platinum-blonde and impeccably dressed. Her excellent English is sprinkled with charming malapropisms. ‘The architect was Mikhail Eisenstein, father of filmmaker Sergei, and not everybody liked his newly-fanged ideas…’ She knows Riga and she knows how to smile.
Lora sets a cracking pace, leading us through churches and castles, pausing to dramatize the love life of Catherine the Great or to explain the cat sculpture above an elaborate façade: ‘The owner was not thought rich enough to join the Blackhead Guild, so he erect a lavish building with the cat’s rear end facing guild hall.’ She finds us local cafes with superb Latvian food – the cold beet soup and pickled herrings are standouts – and the toilets are clean too.
As we scuttle along behind our guide, tour leader and former high school principal Frank brings up the rear, counting heads and rounding up stragglers, ‘Sorry to hold you up, Lora; Richard’s back with us so we can move on.’ Next time I’m careful not to lag behind.
Frank’s skills as an educator, organizer and gentle disciplinarian are obvious. ’We want to beat other tour buses to the Russian border on Friday. Breakfast is at 6.30, so we can get away by 7.30 please.’ He’s brought a selection of travel books and his excellent read-aloud sessions help pass the time on the bus.
Riga is a very comfortable city to visit as an independent traveller. Transport, accommodation and food are easily arranged and English is widely spoken. But if I were on my own I would have missed Principal Frank, Professor Anita , my fellow students in this university of life…and Lora.
In the village of Jurmala, Lora points out the enormous beach houses of the Russian and Latvian business elite. There’s a hint that she considers these ill-gotten gains, in a country whose unemployment has soared towards 20% and wages, services and pensions are being cut.
We hear of Lora’s time studying in Cuba under the watchful eye of KGB supervisors, of the dispossession and internment of family members by the Stalinists, as well as her frustration with contemporary politics. But ‘I can now speak freely to foreigners, with no fear of being arrested. That I thought never would be possible.’ For our part, we’re grateful to her for sharing her thoughts so openly with us.
Inevitably on a group tour there are times when eyes glaze over as names and dates rattle past and churches and palaces blend into each other. There is little time to wander the streets alone, linger before a painting, take a punt on an interesting-sounding show, or to browse in a suburban supermarket.
On the flip side, we’ve learned a lot in a short time. ‘An excellent degustation menu, ’ as someone puts it. If we want more, we can come back another time.
From my fellow tourists I’ve learned about philately and photography. I’m now much better informed about knee replacement, world currency dealings and social life in Toowoomba. More importantly, I’ve learned that days are to be seized and you’re only old when you stop being curious.
And it’s great to have company when Lora announces, ‘First I show you the castle grounds, then we go inside to see the beautiful private parts of the Baron himself.’
These are magic moments best enjoyed with friends.
The writer was the guest of Odyssey Travel.
Odyssey Travel tours include return airfares from Australia, all transfers, accommodation, breakfasts, dinners, lectures and guiding are included. The Emergence of the Baltic States tour costs around $12,500.
Further information: See odysseytravel.com.au