Europe's older port cities are among some of the continent's most unsung spots. hidden europe is not suggesting a weekend away in Europoort or Felixstowe, although doubtless even these modern container ports have their hidden charms. But there is an earlier generation of port cities which deserve more attention. How many ferry travellers across the Baltic alight at the Swedish port of Ystad and immediately head north, wholly unaware that behind the cranes and quayside paraphernalia lies one of the very best preserved mediaeval towns in all Scandinavia?
Old cities that still function as ports are some of hidden europe's favourite spots. Whether it be Cádiz on the Atlantic or Constanta on the Black Sea, there is in the old town areas of many ports, with their dark warehouses and foreign connections, a quite palpable sense of mystery that fires the imagination.
In this issue of hidden europe, itinerant Australian Amanda Kendle recounts her experiences in one of the Baltic's unsung port cities, Ventspils in Latvia.
There was a grey sky in Ventspils. Summer in the Baltic states, I had already learnt, is a fleeting thing, and not something that can be reliably linked to the calendar. That's why, as I stood in front of yet another unusual fountain on the riverfront, I was trying to find just the right setting on my digital camera that would compensate for Latvia's lack of light. A head and neck shaped bulge of a statue stood at the centre of the fountain, with dozens of spaghetti-like streams of water shooting out at various angles from its top. Behind me, I could hear two local men chatting. Out of the confusion of a stream of Latvian I distinctly heard a familiar piece of techno-babble, the phrase "digitala kamera", and I turned around in surprise. The younger man on the right looked sheepish, but his older companion seized the moment and said something that sounded very much like a question directed at me. "Ah, I'm sorry..." I began, not having grasped even the simplest Latvian phrase in my journey so far through this land of gentle meadows and soft Baltic shores.
The two men switched to English without missing a beat. "My friend doesn't understand what a digital camera is all about," the younger one explained. "Oh, they're fantastic," I enthused, and turned my camera around to show them the slightly dim photograph of the fountain I had just taken. The older man still looked confused, so I had a second idea. "Just a moment," I said, and moved back a step to snap a picture of the two of them. They eagerly peered at the screen, pointing to themselves and slipping back into Latvian in their excitement. Both grinned and turned back to me, and the older man translated their jabbering in a single succinct English word. "Splendid!", he said with a smile.