VIEWPOINT: All aboard the best bus in the Baltics

What's the best ride in Latvia? Some might say it's careening down the Sigulda bobsled track on a sort of troika called 'Vuchko'. Others would suggest it is being hoisted into the air above Riga's Old Town and made to eat a three-course meal among non-sufferers from vertigo as part of a "dinner in the sky" experience.

 

Vuchko is fast and dinner in the smog is expensive. But the best ride in Latvia is neither of these things. It is slow and cheap and has the number '3' on its front end. It is the bus from Bolderaja to Plavnieki (or from Plavnieki to Bolderaja if you are that way inclined) and it departs about every twenty minutes from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m.

When foreign journalists come to Riga, they are entertained with a guided tour, sometimes referred to by the vaguely sinister sounding term "familiarization trip." This will consist of pointing at things around the Old Town, running in and out of a couple of banks, watching robots lethargically batter each other at an IT demo center and then dinner, where a great deal will be made of the fact that sheep are reared in Latvia and you can drink tree sap.

It's all very pleasant and friendly, but a trip on the Number 3 bus will tell the genuinely curious visitor far more about Latvia, far more quickly and far more cheaply. For a mere 2 euros you get to travel 25 kilometers on a trip that is scheduled to last 68 minutes. What it lacks in speed it more than makes up for in variety. It not only bisects Riga, it dissects it too.

In 2015 some 9,126,036 journeys were made on the Number 3 bus route (plus a few more who didn't pay). The population of Latvia is just under 2 million.

Surf city

One end of route number three is at Daugavgriva, close to the fortress that marks the spot where missionaries and crusaders from the west first landed to found Livonia. The Swedes later built huge fortifications here which were then augmented by the Tsars. The remains are still an impressive sight. From there the bus passes through the small, downbeat town of Bolderaja before heading off on safari through the wilds of Bekermuiza and Voleri. The splayed cranes and rusting hulks of Riga Port loom on the other side of the river, turning one horizon into an angular exhibition of industrial steel. The other horizon rolls away in a tangle of overgrown allotments, irrigation ditches and windswept clumps of trees. It's a type of landscape in which Latvia abounds, somehow feeling far wilder than the true wilderness of the forests.

Next you pass the Spilve airfield, now home to a few light aircraft for weekend fliers but once a major airport and before that the place where pioneering aeronauts climbed in test flights into the record books or a more immediate and permanent eternity. The Number 3 bus provides a safer ride, but one that also provides thrills whether in the form of ticket inspectors bursting in (backed up by knuckle-cracking security guards at the rougher stops) - or fellow-travellers whose entertainment value may be based on their conversational style, their visual appearance or, in rather too many cases for continuous enjoyment, their aroma.

As inquisitive travellers we cannot fail to note the various languages in use - Latvian, Russian, sometimes something more exotic - nor can we stop ourselves speculating on the reasons for each traveller's journey. We make little bets with ourselves about which stop a certain person will leave us. We don't for a moment consider they may be speculating about us, too. 

Riga proper rises into view with the apartment blocks of Ilguciems and the brick-built factories churning out paint, oil and kvass in worrying proximity to each other. Steam is rising from chimneys and smells sweet and acrid are vying for supremacy over the waters of the narrowing Daugava. The Number 3 is still in acquisitive mood with more people boarding than getting off and by the time we reach trendy Kalnciema quarter with its restored wooden buildings and cups of coffee that cost twice as much as they did back in Bolderaja (but taste better) the bus is crowded.

Beware of being forced into the ''bendy'' central section of the bus which contracts and expands like a set of bellows as it goes around corners which are becoming more frequent and increasingly tight.

The bendy section is a sort of trial of strength for the schoolkids who are now hanging like monkeys from every surface. They step nonchalantly into the little circular arena as the bellows contract and the floor rotates, surfing the corners while they compare things on their cellphones of which their parents are thankfully unaware.

Now we are near the center of Riga, the zone of landmarks: first the National Library building for which they even re-named the bus stop, then the Stone Bridge to make the symbolic crossing of the Daugava which feels like it should mark the real gateway between the sea lands of Kurzeme and the tree lands of Vidzeme.

The spires of the Old Town fill the long, wide windows of the Number 3 with the postcard panorama of Riga for a few seconds as it turns sharp right and traces the defensive line that repulsed an invader's onslaught in 1919.

The disfigured stumps of a bridge stand shattered in the water, as raw as the day they were dynamited. A Soviet monument to the almost-revolution of 1905 waves its granite flag as the bus passes a hundred times a day. Its revolutionaries once leaned dynamically into the future but now give the impression they are trying to jump from their massive pedestal into the quiet waters lapping the embankment.

Time for a sharp left which sends the older passengers scuttling from one side of the bus to the other. They regain their balance just in time to say goodbye, pull shopping bags from beneath their coats and hop stiffly down to the sidewalk where they are carried away in the flood of other pensioners pouring from trolleybuses and trams and rolling in one great penny-pinching wave towards the arched Zeppelin pavilions of the Central Market or, for the wealthy few, the cosmetics and hosiery of the Stockmann department store.

Free ride

But there's still far to go for the Number 3, along the wide boulevards then sharp right again just north of the Freedom Monument, that exquisite green shard, elegant, light, the way freedom really feels.

Wave to the Prime Minister and his friends as the Number 3 speeds you past the cabinet building. Just a few meters away, they are deciding our future, things that we will not be told about for months. There goes the former KGB headquarters on the other side of the road, an affront to history, though we'ŗe pleased it's been repainted. You don't paint things you're scared of and there's a quiet pride that we've made it look smarter than they ever did. 

The shop fronts and offices parade along Brivibas, seeming as if their windows, their special offers, their illuminated signs are never going to stop. Everyone apart from ourselves has disembarked, replaced to some extent by new arrivals but at last there is room to sit down with confidence that you will not immediately have to vacate the seat again when a pensioner pulls himself aboard and looks meaningfully in your direction. You have to wait for the meaningful look though - some of them get very offended if you offer your seat too readily, as if you've handed over an estimate of how long they have left.

Another turn to the east just as the VEF factories beckon you north and the Number 3 is on its final stretch. Funny little streets with confusing names branch off in all directions, filled with houses and apartment blocks small enough allow the residents to know all their neighbors by name.

We're still close to the center but it feels like suburbia, mismatched fences claiming every possible inch of garden grass, evidence that parking is a problem with cars crammed at all angles around playgrounds, vacant lots waiting to be turned into another small house completely unlike any of its neighbors.

The buildings should get smaller, but instead they start to grow again. The houses stretch up and out, sprout rickety balconies, turn gray, keep on growing, loom over the Number 3 bus, making it look like a toy among building blocks. These vertical villages of Plavnieki line the way towards the terminus, huge slabs of concrete, identical to anyone but the locals, that alternately block out and allow in the sun, making we passengers feel we are not really moving at all but remain stationary while an enormous Zoetrope revolves around us showing tower block, people walking, tower block, people walking.

It strikes us as comical that even now, two or three stops from the end of the line, people are still getting on: young mothers taking children to and from the local school, pensioners who decided tomorrow is the day for the Central Market - they always have better prices tomorrow - so today they will just get something to warm up from the local shop.

We feel sorry for these new, final arrivals. What a ride they have missed! What sights! All those other passengers we can still remember in vivid detail!

At least, we remember them until we reach the end of the line at Katlakalnu street. The driver turns off the engine, locks his rattling cash box and looks at us in the mirror, his dark brows narrowed. Reluctantly we climb down and walk a few paces, looking as if we really did come here for a reason, perhaps to visit a relative. Best to wait twenty minutes for the next Number 3. If we climbed straight back on board, it would be difficult to explain to him why we had spent 70 minutes on a bus travelling at an average speed not much better than that of a bicycle, only to immediately turn around and go back in the other direction.

It is unlikely he would understand.

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