Things of Latvia: Trolleybus No. 15

Take note – story published 6 years ago

The Riga trolleybus route Number 15 is the most famous public transport route in Latvia. It is an abundant source of urban lore and its route reveals the tragic side of Latvian history - to really get to know Riga and Latvia, you have to know the No. 15 trolley. 

When people talk about the 15th trolley, they inevitably mention three things: it's always full, it smells bad, and it's a place for bizarre encounters. This reputation has been cemented by a pop song and an unofficial Twitter account

Many students ride the trolley as it passes several universities and a dormitory. Thus in Riga it's a staple of student talk to swap stories about trolley No. 15, and some just might have some literary value. Consider this one: 

"On trolley No. 15 an old man offered me a fir tree to buy. He said he had cut it himself, for Christmas. I declined the offer. He then proposed I buy the axe." 

Another story the same Twitter user shares is that of a male admirer with an ulterior motive.

"This evening an old man on trolley No.15 tells me, in Russian: "Missus, your eyes have the glow of pearls! And your hair is like a flame! Please, spare me fifty cents!""

I can also share a small anecdote, having used the 15th trolley to commute for the past four years.

One time on Number 15, I saw something on the seats opposite to me. Someone had left in a hurry, leaving behind their bucket of salted herring (opened but quite full) and a loaf of white bread (half-eaten). 

After a while this big, round woman gets on and makes a few drawn-out steps to reach the seats, leaving, as big people and mighty beasts sometimes do, the impression that it's a display of grandeur on her part.

She proceeds to sit down and contemplates the food next to her for a while. She picks it up and starts eating, then tilts the bucket and drinks the brine to wash it all down.

I hurry towards the exit.

Gateway to Riga's rich and tragic history

Whatever its faults, which have certainly become fewer now that there are no old-build trolleys left working the route, trolley No. 15 has an enormous history in its favor -- a ride on it can very well serve as a cheap tour for history buffs. 

Making rounds from Višķu street to the University of Latvia and back, the trolley No. 15 passes through locations that are key in the memory, living or otherwise, of Riga and Latvia.

Its path, sort of mirroring that of the River Daugava, starts at the very heart of central Riga and passes the Central Market with the arched, German-built Zeppelin hangars within viewing distance.

It's here that pensioners hop on and off to buy or carry home their bargained-for goods. It's also the stop for various shady-looking people, maybe after they have gone somewhere more central to buy or sell drugs. 

With the Zeppelin hangars receding behind you, the trolley, as if simultaneously making headway in both time and space, enters the Maskavas forštate neighborhood where Jews were forced to live in a ghetto during the Nazi occupation.

Image credit: Ļevs Lapkis

Several memorials, visible from inside the trolley, are standing to keep the atrocities from being forgotten in the area also colloquially known as Maskačka. It is seen as low-income and has a lingering but largely unwarranted reputation for being unsafe.

However, as old wooden houses start popping up on the way you start to see that it might in fact be very rewarding to hop off, for example, on Katoļu street and set off to really take a look around -- perhaps by going to nearby Maskavas street where traffic is light and slow, warded off by the cobblestoned surface. 

The trolley then makes its way to the area that bears witness to years of Soviet occupation, passing the Transport and Telecommunication Institute en route with its expressive sculpture of a man -- presumably a Soviet hero -- holding an airplane. 

And in no time at all there's Ķengarags, a district with mass-produced housing built under the Soviet occupation, just after the former Kuzņecovs' Factory of Porcelain and Faience that was recently demolished to be replaced by the Akropole shopping center, a temple of late-stage capitalism. 

Just like everything you've seen on the ride, the crazy and the hopeless of trolley No. 15 are also a product of history -- personal, local and global.

They may have simply landed on the wrong side of it. But we pride ourselves on never smelling offensive or acting nasty on the 15th trolley.

Even when we're hangover and sweaty, we are still perfectly agreeable to our fellow passengers. Even when we're going home Friday night, alone, without a soul to see, slightly drunk and mumbling away in our private language, maybe reaching for a bar of sad chocolate, we're always something else entirely, something better... not at all like the sort of people you see on the Number 15.

(As a companion piece, read our chief editor's feature about the Number 3 bus from Bolderaja to Plavnieki.)

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