Isle Of Dogs

The Lucavsala Lime - probably looks better in summer

It’s the time of year I call the “intermission”. Just as you always pass through the forgotten, nondescript interzone suburbs on your way to a city and your way out again, so the Baltic year has two very definite destinations – warm summer and cold winter – that are surrounded by less satisfying periods of grey skies, drizzle and dull uniformity.

That’s the time we’re currently experiencing, or rather, enduring. For this is also the time of the “blues”, the cheekily-acronymed Seasonally Affected Disorder which unless you are very careful robs everything apart from bed and bottle of much attraction.

Feeling the blues upon myself, I made an effort to shake them off with a bit of brisk exploration. I pulled on my hiking boots and walked a couple of miles to Lucavsala, an island in the River Daugava not noted for much apart from the pillars of the Salu Bridge which stamp across it on its northern end.

It’s an interesting place, but mainly because of what’s not there. My nominal goal was a large lime tree I’d read about in an excellent Latvian guide to ‘Dizkoki’. There’s not really a direct translation of the term in English. The closest I can suggest is “mighty trees” or “great trees” but examples are often designated as such as much for their historical, folkloric or religious significance as for their size or age, and their individual “character” is a factor, too.

This tree is officially importantThe existence of Dizkoki is one of the things I like most about Latvia and whenever I’m at a loss for something to do I visit one.

In theory the Lucavsala Lime should have been easy to find, but in practice it was more difficult than it should have been. As well as the usual potentially deadly game of trying to cross busy roads with no crossing points before getting to the island itself, it had been raining the night before and Lucavsala’s unpaved roads and paths had turned to a gelatinous mud occasionally stirred by a 4×4 doing circles of the island because it could.

Strewn across the abandoned allotments and overgrown wasteland was a staggering amount of rubbish. Tonnes of empty wrappers, the fractured bones of furniture, cracked TV screens showing a permanent picture of grey clouds and the sinister tripod of the TV tower – the amount of trash was appalling and seemed doubly pathetic given that I was supposedly seeking out a wonder of unspoiled nature.

Soon enough I saw the twisted shape of the lime’s winter branches above the scrub and collapsing sheds, but getting close proved a challenge. As well as the mud there was a pack of feral dogs trotting back and forth across the path ahead. Only then did I remember that someone had told me about these wild dogs months ago when I had suggested taking a walk around the islands and suggested I was crazy to even think of an expedition on foot.

I decided to try skirting around another way rather than risk being savaged and soon came face to face with a pack of what looked like feral humans.

I’ve been re-reading some HG Wells recently and I half suspected I had been stranded on the Island of Doctor Moreau. Three men and a woman staggered past. The men were freakishly tall even by Latvian standards and the whole group had the florid, swollen faces of dipsomaniacs. But there was something else – their features were all out of kilter, oversized and underformed as if they’d just walked out of a painting on which Otto Dix and Francis Bacon had collaborated.

Luckily they didn’t take any notice of me and headed off towards the far end of the island, called the Kazas Seklis (Goat’s Sandbank) with slurred laughter and conversation that sounded like a 45rpm record played at 33rpm.

I eventually found the tree. The pleasant surprise was that there were actually three large trees together, two of them identified as official Dizkoki by the little signs tacked to them. That was as good as it got.

Beside them was an ugly and pointless seeming Orthodox memorial – a lump of earth with a bell-shaped stone atop – and a small children’s playground that had not quite been vandalized out of utility. Plastic bottles crunched underfoot, the ripped net of a goalpost flapped in the wind and the sound of the 4×4 doing another pointless, muddy lap completed the scene.

It felt like the end of the earth, but it is about a mile as the crow flies (a crow would be the bird) from the centre of Riga. The same distance downstream brings you to another island, Kipsala. It’s become an exclusive neighbourhood full of restored belle epoque villas, the fanciful flights of modern architects and restaurants that have one-word, lower-case names. Maybe that’s not the greatest possible fate but standing on Lucavsala, it seemed eminently preferable to this desolate abandonment.

Maybe it’s time for a sequel to Wells’ parable of creation run amok. Yuppies On The Island Of Doctor Moreau would be an easy pitch in Hollywood – but maybe a harder sell in Riga.

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