They say you should be very careful whenever you have a chance to achieve one of your ambitions. That has never been truer than today when I fulfilled one of my own long-held ambitions and walked across the frozen River Daugava in central Riga between Akmens Bridge and Vansu Bridge.
I’d been eyeing the river up for weeks, scouring the blanched horizon for signs of ice fishermen beating paths between the banks, but there has been little evidence of walking on water. Yet in the last few days and nights temperatures have been in double digits below zero, causing me to momentarily confuse them with Latvia’s GDP figures.
I reasoned that if the notoriously daredevil ice fishermen didn’t judge it safe to attempt a crossing, then I certainly wouldn’t – but how many more winters would have to pass until an even colder cold snap came along?
The dawn this morning was sensational with the sun soaring into view like a prize-winning pumpkin fired at Riga from one of the cannons in Daugavpils fortress. Temperatures of around -15C rendered the air diamond crisp until the late afternoon by which time the combination of high pressure and Latvia’s majestic forests disappearing up its capital’s majestic chimneys caused a sweet-smelling fug to hang just above the church spires, ready to turn the sunset into another sensational orange stain.
From the embankment on the Old Town side of the river I surveyed the ice, noting a few dubious creases and dark shadings to avoid. It was a good job I did because once down onto the ice – or rather its slushy approximation at the edge, for which presumably the Eskimos have a precise word – the river became an intimidating expanse of white.
Wisely, as it turned out, I did not take the direct route parallel to the stone bridge. Instead I described a long dog-legged arc from right to left. As I crossed, the blood was pumping. The only footprints I could see had been made by birds and amounted to little more than brief scribbles in the snow. I admit that I did not stop mid-stream to look at the new panorama of the Old Town available to me. Like Lot I only cast a quick glimpse backwards but unlike that unfortunate individual I did not suffer dire consequences as a result. A pillar of salt is the last thing you need while standing on a frozen river.
But I did see one thing that made the risk seem worthwhile. Beneath the central span of Akmens Bridge is the most enormous, incredible and awe-inspiring icicle I have ever seen, like a bolt of lightning designed by Rodchenko and installed by Thor.
The really worrying bit came at the end. The final three or four metres to the bank roughly in line with the Radisson Hotel were again yellowish slush that yielded unnervingly for an inch or so under the pressure of my boots. I made it to the bank then realised it was too high to climb up, and with the ice cracking underneath me it seemed I might end my days pathetically pawing at the snowy bank like a bluebottle drowning in gin and tonic. Then I noticed a steel handle set into the crumbling stone a few yards to my right. A quick grab and a scramble saw me up and safe.
Admittedly, the Old Town looked beautiful in the crepuscular light, but the whole episode really only served to renforce my love of the Pardaugava side of the river.