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To the tower!

By Howard Jarvis. 16.01.2015

Riga TV Tower
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A walk to experience Riga’s imposing TV tower is one of the city’s most intriguing excursions.

At 368 meters, Riga Radio and TV Tower is the tallest television tower in Europe (if you politely ignore those in Moscow and Kiev). Though you can only get part of the way up – to the observation deck at 97 meters – the experience of walking towards this Soviet-era monster and then riding in a lift that travels sideways up one of the legs is one of the city’s most memorable encounters.

Reaching this gigantic needle on a tripod on foot is not one of Riga’s prettiest strolls, but it’s a lot easier thanks to a newly paved riverside walkway and cycle path stretching southwards beside the languid Daugava. If the weather’s not too bad, the 3.5-kilometer trek from the Old Town can take around 45 minutes, a tour of the tower itself no longer than an hour.

Leave the city center via Spīķeri, an atmospheric area just beyond Riga Central Market, with its recently restored brick warehouses now home to art galleries, restaurants, a concert hall, and the Riga Ghetto and Latvian Holocaust Museum. There’s a new underpass from Spīķeri to the waterside beneath Krasta, one of the city’s busiest roads.

Salu Bridge is equally clamorous, but after walking underneath the road, crossing the river is surprisingly quiet as the path for pedestrians runs below the traffic. This gives you time to take in the extraordinary sight of the tower across the calm waters. Situated at the far end of Zaķusala, or Rabbit Island, it’s one of only three such massive three-legged structures in the world, the others being in Prague and Belgrade. It took 10 years to build, completed in 1989, using granite from Karelia, dolomite from Saaremaa, and ironwork fashioned in Chelyabinsk.

Zaķusala once held a small fishing community at a time when no bridges passed by. But the old wooden homes were bulldozed to make way for the secretive tower and its necessary communications. Now the only other structure on the island is the Latvian TV office building on the other side of Salu Bridge, itself an intriguing relic of late Soviet design.

The cracked lane to the TV Tower is eerily subdued, empty apart from occasional learner drivers and the odd jogger, and lined with the kind of rusting lampposts typical of Soviet-era infrastructure. Close to the looming tower enter the car park and pass by an insanely ridiculous “sculpture” sitting in a stagnant pond – some red bars sticking out of a mossy boulder, called Satellite (1997). Edge towards the entrance scaling gentle steps through a featureless landscaped garden. Looking directly up at this bizarre colossus is almost scary. A sudden noise like pressurized air being released comes from somewhere in the beast’s underbelly, enough to make hairs stand on end.

In the lobby a friendly portly lady sells me an entrance ticket (€3.70) and escorts me towards the lift. The area echoes with our shuffling steps, as absent of life as the spaceship in Tarkovsky’s Solaris. There are not many visitors, clearly. As the doors to the dark little lift close and we ascend, the lady informs me that it reaches a speed of 2.5 meters a second – the full 97 meters in about 40 seconds. If the lift is out, one of the legs contains a stairwell that would take about 20 minutes to scale. Abruptly the doors open, and the landscape is below us.

It’s hard to believe a restaurant used to exist in the observation section’s limited space. Now it’s completely empty apart from a couple of musty armchairs and a TV screen that shows a couple of short films about the tower in English, like recordings from a lost world. One or two of the tall vertical windows have glass clear enough to take pictures through. The clouds can be spectacular, the lady says, and if there’s a rainbow… She shudders with delight.

Given the tower’s shape there are three views – westwards across Latvian countryside, eastwards over gloomy high-rise suburbs built in the seventies and eighties, and, most photogenically, north towards the familiar spires of the Old Town.

Intrigued by the fact that I’m taking notes, the lady offers to take me to the next level, at a height of 134 meters – a place only technical staff are allowed to go. I jump at the chance and we enter a tiny lift that climbs, oddly, from “floors” one to nine. We emerge in an area similar to the first but much smaller and decidedly cooler. The views are not much different, but it’s fun to reach a spot that’s the realm only of technicians working on the gigantic masts. Another lift goes much higher from here. A lift expert is always on hand in case of emergencies, the lady assures me.

Tour over, on the walk back across Zaķusala I pass a family of three who ask in Russian if the TV Tower’s still open. Four tourists in one afternoon could be a record for Riga’s lonely three-legged monster.

INFO

Riga Radio and TV Tower – Zaķusalas kr. 1, Tel. 67108643, 29409027, Open Oct-Apr Mon-Sat 10.00-17.00 (Sun: excursions can be prearranged); May-Sept daily 10.00-20.00 

Bus no. 40 from Latvijas Universitāte (Raina bulv., map-ref H-2)) stops on Zaķusala. Taxi from Old Town to tower costs about €5. Tickets: €3.70 (pensioners €2, schoolchildren €1)




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