“It’s medicinal!” said the young gold-haired woman working the bar in an 800-year-old cavern. Pulling out a case with heavy goblets lying on blue velvet, she poured out shots of a thick, dark liqueur. The goblet was cool and heavy in the hand, and the liqueur tasted of berries, seeds and winter night. Welcome to Riga: fourth stop on the road from London to Finland.
Moving across the northern coast of Europe in winter, some evil old ghosts rise up from the frost-blasted landscape – but also new art, music, and the first sparks of the new year.
My ship from England lands in Rotterdam at the end of December. I roam around new architecture in the old working sea port. A sweep of new bridges tower over Hotel New York, where thousands of Dutch immigrants once set sail for New York. In World War Two, the Nazis razed Rotterdam. Today, spiky new buildings sprout up, preening over empty streets.
I’m typing this seated by a floor-to-ceiling porthole on the Stena Brittanica ship. Outside it’s dark, yellow and red lights scattered across a vast blackness. Inside, it’s all fake wood paneling, 60s-style swivel chairs, a pulsing TV screen, and a sea of cheerful, mostly white, Netherlands families playing board games, the click of dice. We’re sailing from Harwich, England to Hoek van Holland, the port near Rotterdam in the Netherlands. Check-in took just a few minutes, because tonight the UK still belongs to Europe.