LOSING "URBAN VIRGINITY". Entering Midsummer celebration in Riga Pt.1.

Can Latvians lose it and stay in the city during the legendary summer solstice celebration for a change? Is it worth it and what would be the conditions for Latvians to look into such option - ditching leaves and lakes for a good piece of urban environment?
If there's something I haven't eventually gone and done - it's celebrating the Midsummer within Riga's borders. In Latvia the madly known and important summer solstice has always been tied to its seminal pagan purpose and execution. It generally means that Latvians must get close to the nature with cities having no place in the party. Being no exception to this rat race of well kept and also well exaggerated rituals I've been practising the casual "way of the Balt" knowingly for most part of my conscious life - getting off the grid from cities and towns and indulging into building massive bonfires or seeking for the delicious "fern flower" metaphor at the countryside.

I have been quite a heretic already - no beer, no shashlik BBQ's, also no caraway cheese for me for most of this time (the traditional foods on Midsummer) due to my own personal choices. Also - no interest in flower power or oak crowns (although I'm glad if someone makes one for me pro bono). Yet, for years, when doing city tours twice a day for seven days a week in Riga pretty often - the time around summer solstice became the perfect legal solace for me to finally take a few days off the Art Nouveau jungle. Getting back to the woods I was born in and never trying any other way. Even leaving Latvia for the weekend hasn't been an option.

A crown is a crown everywhere.

I haven't done much of guiding in recent years though. My interest into countryside today revolves around being a weekend traveller or it's related to my present job at the tourism policy implementer - the national destination marketing organisation of Latvia. The urge to take a break and have a little vacation around summer solstice - hasn't been that urgent any more. Such conditions have got me thinking - what would be the Jāņi "John" Midsummer celebration if I stayed in the city for a change?

I know that many travellers and even short-term city breakers visit Riga especially for the Midsummer. Having heard the rumours of Latvians as well as Estonians and Lithuanians being mad about their pagan tradition, it really makes one considering a visit being scheduled for the exact dates around 21 - 24 June. Worshipping fire, venerating fertility and idolizing nature, mixing it all with light booze, loads (I mean - always shitload) of food, and the intriguing, romantic legends of couples disappearing somewhere in the dark to find a mystical flower that never blooms - it really is an obscure combo most of the West can't put together to be true today. But that's what happens in the Baltics and that's what makes it so appealing.

The challenge comes when such intrigued tourists come to the city to find it... dead and empty. The only things working are the public transport, grocery stores, few tourism information centres and a couple of public toilets (maybe). Museums are closed, design stores closed, almost all cafeterias closed, even the locals are of the city centre leaving Riga for tourists to take photos of locked buildings and other foreign passers-by. If you are not acquainted by any Latvian that can take you along - the holidays might turn out quite miserable.

Some good storytelling would demand keeping tension till the last moment, when my experiences are revealed, but I will do it now.
No, sadly I did not lose my urban Midsummer virginity this year neither.
But I did ask my friends to talk about their experience that turned out very distinctive and thoroughly rich. Tied in myths that celebrating "Līgo" days (another synonym for the solstice) when in city is a drag and "unnatural", the answers gave some good reasoning to refute that. So, here are few inferences from my social media inquiry forming a road map to those being ready for their first urban Midsummer any next following year:
  • when many leave urban areas for some "peace and quiet", it turns out Riga might be the most peaceful and tranquil place of all. If you ignore the river bank with its strange annual celebration and Old Town that's basically full with lost or drunk, or anxious tourists, Riga becomes a perfect playground for peace-seeking cyclists, riders, skaters, or urban flâneurs. Because, well, everybody is out and busy trying to make one's happy celebration elsewhere. I personally have such experience with the Christmas eve, when Riga is still full with people, yet everybody is off the streets. The city and its sleepy scenography finally belongs to you and your bike - truly amazing;
  • just like we have pointed out earlier in other articles - the life in suburbs has become more significant than ever forming the contemporary image of Riga and its inhabitants. Many still enjoy celebrating any nationally related event within the premises of the city, because there are still enormous areas surrounded by nature, private gardens or little manor-like parks with alternative people looking for different ways other than the majority. Many answers from my friends spending several Līgo events particularly in Riga had the same pattern. It was willingness to be close or at home next to some green residential area and not giving a flying toss about countryside simply because there are still enough rural feels in the capital;
  • although if you'd like to visit an event that mixes both the city and the traditional matters, Dzegužkalns open air stage or the highest natural peak of Riga (28m high "hill") would keep you in town. There's a folk inspired event going on every year that satisfies both cheese and beer consumers, heavy dancers, singers, Schlager haters and city dwellers with short temper for getting bored. Or drunk. Because it will take you 10 - 20 minutes by taxi at most to get wherever you reside in Riga;
  • more and more Latvians tend to celebrate summer solstice according to the astronomical calendar that marks the Midsummer night around 21 June (the pure pagan way rather than the official 23th - 24th). Therefore there are people that have done their compatriot part before the national holiday begins and have returned to the city. For them it might seem less relevant where the extra few holidays are spent, and why is it any bad if they're spent at home;
  • eventually, large part would agree on celebrating the way you want and where you want it in Riga, except going to the river promenade between Old Town and Daugava. The "official" celebraton site of "Jāņi" in the capital. Of course, one can infiltrate into the loud and busy crowd at any time, yet most of the crowd might be motivated by nothing spiritual, harmonic, mindful or familiar with what the Midsummer represents. According to the "witnesses" most are driven by booze, sexual urge or bodily fluids.
Good food is good food everywhere, too.

I named this article with "Pt.1" at the end. Hoping that soon I might lose my urban virginity on Midsummer eventually, and "Pt.2" would follow. For now it will take at least one whole year for me to change my rural habits to urban environment. But, as long as one celebrates outside, peacefully and in good company, it really does not matter if it's in Riga, the suburbs, the deep countryside or outside the borders. What matters is - when you don't like the surroundings, it's super easy to switch your party location and be somewhere else in Riga in minutes time. This is usually a problem when being in remote rural areas - if something goes wrong (at many times it does) there's not much where one can run away to. But what could go wrong in Riga? Let's find out about it in "Pt.2" one day.

Mārtiņš Eņģelis
editor-in-chief

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