Return To The Island Of Lost Souls

Monet with TV tower

A few months ago I wrote about my exploration of the mysterious island of Lucavsala, a forgotten fragment of Riga floating in the River Daugava and apparently peopled by mutants.

Yesterday I went back, and as well as encountering a few more curios, I also saw a side of the island that hadn’t been apparent last time.

On a dry, hot day, the tracks around Lucavsala were much more easily traversed than the muddy quagmire I encountered on my last visit. Even more welcome was the absence of slavering packs of wild dogs which had given the whole thing a touch of the Baskervilles.

I was able to go the full length of the island, occasionally branching off down one of numerous overgrown side-tracks, all of which eventually lead to the waters of the Daugava.

What I had not apprecitaed before was how large the island is and what a large proportion of it is given over to allotments in various stages of abandonment. A few were maintained but hundreds lay fallow; vestigial vegetables, fruit bushes and flowers battling gamely against the invading and remorseless weeds.

Occasionally I could see figures stooping through the wreckage of collapsed sheds and wracked wire, gathering forgotten tulips that blazed scarlet amongst the overpowering green.

Green and pleasant land

I found myself making mental notes of where blackberries and raspberries would be ready for the taking in a few months. There was still the same vast amount of trash I had encountered last time, but the robust swarth did a good job of brushing it under its green carpet, making it seem less obtrusive than winter’s depressing dump.

Every now and again other vaguely human shapes would flit past like jungle primates. Fishermen wavered on the river banks and hidden inlets. Another cyclist criss-crossed the island at the same time as me with the same exploratory intent, giving a curious sensation of being pursued by a doppelganger – or maybe I was pursuing him?

A middle aged couple canoodled like teens next to their parked car. An extraordinary specimen wobbled past on an old bike. He had the head of a toothless old man but the body of a skinny child, stripped to the waist. He immediately reminded me of the Island Of Doctor Moreau analogy I had made on my last visit.

There were also scenes and moments of real beauty. A little bridge crossed a stream beside a pocket meadow where an old lady stooped to collect wild cabbage. I stopped on the bridge to take a picture and as she came past she asked me in Russian if I was fishing. She seeemd pleased that I was not, and generously pointed out where the best cabbage could be had before disappearing into the shadows with her bagful of greens.

Lucavsala - where sheds go to die

Lucavsala – indeed any of the neglected islands in the Riga Daugava – would make a wonderful city nature reserve. Access points could be easily controlled and it would not require much effort or cash to turn the various overgrown trails into easily navigable paths and cycle routes with proper picnic spots and nature reserves.

That’s not to recommend the total pacification of the place – it is wild to an extraordinary degree and that is part of its great appeal: nothing is as sterile as an artificial wilderness created to replace an original.

It would make sense to link the islands properly to the city for pedestrians and cyclists. Riga has been crying out for a circular riverside walk for years, but nothing ever seems to bring this very basic piece of infrastructure any closer, despite the huge benefits it would bring.

Despite being so close to the city centre, the routes to the islands are haphazard at best and frankly dangerous in several places. Broken glass and needles are strewn across the ground near the muggers’ paradise at the foot of Salu bridge. Along the former wharves by the central market knots of teenagers drink from communal bottles and narcos lie comatose a few yards inland from the fishermen’s backs as if they’ve just been landed in nets.

But with a little effort Riga could really benefit from this wonderful natural resource it possesses – most capital cities can only look on enviously at the prospect of several large and green islands a couple of kilometres from the city centre with terrific views in all directions.

Predictably the only plan I have heard of for Lucavsala is to fill it with casinos and turn it into a gambling island. Better the dereliction of abandonment than that neon-lit destiny.

Get your cabbage while you can.

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