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Market tour: Central Market Fever

By Editor. 07.10.2009

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There is a particular vitality to Riga’s central market that can’t be found anywhere else.

It hangs in the air, is swallowed up by fresh produce, is caught up in the noise of people, is passed from earth-stained hand to hand, is turned into music, turned back into smell, into life.

The market’s energy could kill the grimmest day and lift the spirits of any lonely tourist. Even the past decade’s epidemic development of supermarkets has not yet managed to slow the market’s pulse. It still attracts a swarm of people, seven days a week, 12 months a year. Rain or shine, snow or storm, the market is always alive.
“Ludzu,” the ruddy-faced merchant says to me with a toothless grin, waving her hand across a purple sea of eggplant.
I choose the plumpest one in the stack. The woman weighs the vegetable, bags it for me, and points to the scale’s gray digital number. It waivers between 81 and 82 sentimi before settling on 81. I drop a lat into her grubby hand and wait as she digs through a change-purse of grubbier change. Nineteen copper coins fall back into my hand. Transaction complete.
There’s something refreshing about this trite process, something humane. The woman’s soil-stained apron, the wooden abacus she uses despite the calculator’s invention, and the way she shuffles through a handful of change carries a strange sort of charm. You won’t find any of this in a supermarket, that’s for sure.
Janis Basevics, PR representative for Riga Central Market, wholeheartedly agrees.
“Of course, some pressure from the [recent development of] large supermarkets can be felt, but not one has been able to ensure the same atmosphere that can be felt shopping in the central market, which is much more personal,” he said.

Riga’s central market was one of the first in Europe, dating back to 1201. Centuries later, in the early 1920s, the market was reconstructed in its present location behind Riga’s central train station. With grandiose plans to be the largest building in pre-war Riga, the city commissioned the newly completed market on Nov. 2, 1930.
Today the sprawling market is supposedly one of the biggest in Europe, boasting five giant aircraft hangers each designated to its own food group; dairy, meat, fish, grain/groceries, and produce. And what a gastronomical labyrinth it is! The two-level warehouses are strewn with freezers interconnected by a maze of underground tunnels – James Bond would have an action-scene heyday down there.
As for numbers, the central market’s overall area is 5.7 hectares, including 1.6 hectares covered by buildings. The main sewage system spans 2, 350 meters, the main water supply – 1,000 meters. Construction of the market ate up 6 million bricks, 60,000 barrels of cement, 2,460 tons of iron, and cost 5 million lats.
According to Basevics, tourists and businesspeople love the place. In fact, so much so that the market’s administration is planning to open a tourist information center later this year.
“Management of the Riga Central Market administration, has already organized many market excursions and tastings,” Basevics said. “Over the past year, more than 200 excursions have been arranged for international companies, government representatives and others with similar interests. The average group size is somewhere between 15 and 35 people.”

Walking into the lofty fish pavilion, the child within me can’t help but sympathize with Pinocchio when he was swallowed by that whale. The place reeks of fish, the air is tepid with sea salt and the hanger’s arching beams have a striking resemblance to the inside ribs of a whale. That is, if you think like me.
I admit, I am no seafood lover. But, while discretely pulling my turtleneck over my nose to muffle the smell, I understand that if I were, I would have found my fishy nirvana.
The place is an aquarium/moratorium of salmon, eel, perch, squid, shrimp, octopus, crab, lobster and who-knows-what-else once lurked in the ocean’s murky depths. Fresh fish await their dinner-table doom in bubbling glass tanks. Octopuses as big as your toddler lie sprawled out on beds of ice. And tin cans filled with smoked fish popsicles – eyes, teeth, fins, tail and all – line the countertops. God only knows how these crispy fish-cicles ever got to be a Baltic delicacy.
“People go to Riga’s central market not only to shop, but also to look around,” I remember Basevics saying as I stare, mouth ajar and face to face with a disgruntle catfish.
Wandering from one food pavilion to the next, I work my way through the entire health pyramid: fresh meat (Warning; explicit display of dangling pig heads, bloody beef carcasses and fresh cow liver. Vegetarians beware!), dairy products, bread, cereals, pastries and treats, fruits, vegetables and more. And the samples – my god! – apple slices, peeled mandarins, cottage cheese, sauerkraut, chopped pumpkin. . . the list goes on.
One could spend all day in this circus. And with the number of shoebox-sized cafes, “Alus Bars,” and slot machine rooms, one could argue a lifetime.
“The central market is an indispensable symbol of Riga, and a postcard icon as well,” said Basevics, summing up the place nicely.
Anyone who’s been there would agree.


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