Well, my surprise stag party was revealed when I got to London Luton at about 4am. Riga, Latvia was to host part one of my stag do. Just me and my two best men.
I had a sneaking suspicion in advance that it might be there or Vilnius playing host to our merry prancing and I was very pleased indeed to be going there. Previously I’d only scratched the surface in Tallinn, Estonia, so it was nice to return to the region. Granted I was fully aware that it would often be seen through a drunken haze.
Instead of being picked up by the boys on Friday morning I was collected on Thursday evening, having gotten up at 6am and gone to work that day. By the time we reached Luton I was quite drunk and extremely tired. Unfortunately airlines, especially of the budget variety, do not provide me with a good place to sleep. My 6’2″ frame being too high for almost any seats. It doesn’t help that those on Wizz Air don’t recline at all.
So, we arrived in Riga quite dead but very excited. I had been issued with a leopard skin print bag containing my ‘clothes’ for the weekend but I wasn’t allowed to look until we were in our hostel. Thoughts swirled around my head as to what was in there, and I half expected to have the clothes I’d brought with me stolen from me in the night. But, I bought into the experience and went with the flow. It was the least I could do considering these two amazing chaps had paid for everything themselves and were doing their utmost to give me an amazing send off (yeah, I’m supremely grateful to you Martyn and Zak)!
The cab driver from the airport massively ripped us off with a 30 Lat fare, bad start. Still, at least he duped us where we asked. People, don’t get a cab – get the 0.70 Lat #22 bus all the way to the old town.
We checked in to Fun Friendly Franks Hostel to a parade of smiling faces and people eager to tell us about what Riga had to offer. A not-so-hard sell later we had arranged to go bungee jumping an hour outside the city. It would cost us a poultry 40 Lats for the pleasure, with our guide to take us there and sort out all the transport. That, I think was a reasonable price really as the jump would have cost 25 Lats had we made our own way there.
Since I did a tandem skydive in July 2009 I’ve been raring to do a bungee jump so now would be the perfect time.
But first I had to discover what I would be wearing. Up in our spacious private room I carefully unzipped my dainty new bag and pulled out atrocity after atrocity. A chicken onesie became my first choice, the dress and bright pink pissed bra seemed unsuitable for dangling upside down. I cut the feet off of the onesie so that I could wear shoes and, with yellow socks covered in depictions of a fried breakfast, I looked clucking fantastic!
We walked to the bus station with our guide from the hostel. The looks directed at me from Latvians ranged from amusement to hatred, via bewilderment and suspicion. Hardly surprising really as this country appears to be really quite conservative in character. They love a good drink, as the scores of bars in Riga prove, but they don’t seem to approve too highly of the peculiar ‘humour’ that goes with a British stag party. I can’t blame them too much for that because very few countries seem to ritually humiliate their men in this way.
Still, I took it all in my stride and waiting in the station for our bus to Sigulda. When it arrived I boarded with a slight smirk, trying to avoid eye contact with the passengers already in place. The route took us through the city past some pretty stone buildings clad with art nouveau embellishments like carved flowering window frames and several naked female torsos. Pastel shades brought these facades to life and brought something special to the streets. Because otherwise the buildings were pretty crap. On the outskirts of Riga you find a lot of earth-tones on wood-paneled houses. They look a bit uncared for sometimes but they look full of character and pretty homely as well. Once outside Riga the Baltic pine forests flank both sides of the road taking us northeast.
It was stiflingly hot on this bus, all the worse for our choice of sitting at the back, over a roasting engine. Oops. My onesie wasn’t designed for this kind of heat and very soon I was very uncomfortable from sweat. But I couldn’t unzip myself – that would reveal my hairy chest and would probably have sent several Latvians into fits of rage. Or lust. I can’t tell which. Either way, I didn’t want such a visceral experience after so little sleep. The world felt twisted already, it didn’t need that as well.
We alighted into the wonderful cool air of Sigulda; a very, very, very sleepy town on the edge of the Gauja National Park – named after the Gauja River which flows through its scenic wooded valley.
I can’t say much about Sigulda really, we walked through pretty much deserted streets to the cable car station. It was here that we learned that we would be jumping from a cable car strung over the valley, and the river. I was getting excited now. Martyn and Zak were more than a little bit dubious about the whole endeavour but they were great sports and stuck to their commitment. Neither had done anything like this before so a level of nervousness could be excused. Zak moreso because he used to weigh about 18stone (114kg) and worried that he might still be too heavy, even though he weighs little more than I do now, a far safer weight.
We had to go for a walk around the area to kill time before our jump so we explored the ruined castle nearby, avoiding some freaky orange-red and black insects convulsed into some kind of thousand-strong orgy. The castle was good for one thing, the view up the valley to another castle. The ruins were uninteresting overall.
When it was time to jump we returned to the station and were strapped into our harnesses. I could feel my face twisted into a grin all the time now – I couldn’t wait! The instructor asked a group of Latvians who were on our cable car if one of them wanted to jump first, they declined. When he asked us in English I ‘jumped’ at the chance.
In my chicken costume I shuffled to the edge and looked out. The bridge below arcing over the river even further below, and a tiny lady on the shore to undo my harness when I got to the bottom. The brown water rushed underneath me as I thought ‘Uh-huh, right, so now I jump. Ok. Right. Good. Shit. Right. Do it’. And with that I bent my knees slightly, felt the thump of my heart, and pushed myself out the doorway head and arms first. Gravity seized me and just for a split second I could imagine plummeting at terminal velocity through the water, smashing a hole in the crust and shooting down into the centre of the earth. I felt my organs tipping up from their usual resting places and sending messages to my brain along the lines of ‘Hmm, boss, something’s gone wrong’. I produced what I hoped was a primal scream/roar of adrenalin as I dropped and swore quite a bit once the elastic took and I rebounded back towards the cable car. Something that was far more gentle than expected. My body was heaving with elation but my muscles almost refused to do any work when I had to pull myself vertical.
When I landed I danced a little chicken jig in the woods, and the smile on my face could have bridged the river it was so wide. Honestly, do this. It might possibly be an even bigger rush than skydiving!
I loudly applauded every jumper as they came out the cable car after me, delighted to see Zak and Martyn’s stop-start bodies in the doorway giving away how frightening the experience was. But both absolutely loved it. We were all tired before but the buzz now had us on a special high.
We climbed endless steep steps back to our guide at the cable car station and tried to find somewhere to have a drink in Sigulda. Not easy. It’s a ghost town. We ended up having enormous pizzas and clinking together glasses of Valmiermuižas beer.
Eventually, finally, it was time for our train back to Riga. The physical buzz had worn off by now and I was ailing badly. Zak probably worse than me. Our guide proposed that we head out drinking but neither me or Zak were digging that idea by now. Poor old Martyn had to settle for a few (several) nightcaps with us at the hostel bar before we called it a bleary night. I slept like Sleeping Beauty, which is perhaps why I was so utterly gorgeous the next morning…