From correspondents in Riga
October 19, 2006 12:00
SCHOOLGIRLS squealed with delight, posters declaring “God save the Queen” were held aloft, and mobile phone cameras snapped pictures as Latvians gave a rousing welcome to Queen Elizabeth II, the first British monarch to visit the Baltic state.
“The Queen, like our president, might be just a figurehead leader, but it’s still a lot of fun to see her,” said 19-year-old Robert, one of a huge crowd that had gathered near the towering Freedom Monument in central Riga to try to catch a glimpse of Elizabeth II.
“I think she draws a much bigger crowd than any president,” he said.
Some people waited at the 42-metre high Freedom Monument for hours to catch a glimpse of the Queen, who, accompanied by Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga, laid a wreath at the base of the iconic structure, topped with an oxidised-copper female figure holding three gold stars above her head.
“This is the first time she’s here. I want to see her,” said 12-year-old Ainars, a small Union Jack in his right hand.
“She has been to many places and has helped countries that don’t have money. She is very humanitarian,” the young boy said.
Ties between Britain and Latvia go back centuries, Mr Vike-Freiberga said in a speech that none of the people gathered in the crisp autumn air at the Freedom monument were likely to have heard.
“These ties stretch back 900 years – silver coins that were minted in England in the 11th century have been unearthed here in Latvia,” Mr Vike-Freiberga said in the ornate Black Head’s House, before an official lunch with the queen.
The president also recalled that at the end of World War I, Britain was “the first country in the world to recognise Latvia’s independence”, doing so a week before the Latvians formally declared their own independence on November 18, 1918.
The atmosphere in central Riga crescendoed suddenly, and the Union Jacks in people’s hands fluttered into welcome as the queen finally came into sight and approached the monument.
The anthems of Britain and Latvia were played. A poster with the Union Jack and Latvia’s maroon and white striped flag was brandished aloft, proclaiming “God Save the Queen”.
“Oh, there she is! She’s passing by so quickly, like the wind,” one person in the crowd said.
“Mind you, it must be boring for her just to lay down flowers like that. At least the princes know how to have fun,” they said.
>From the Freedom Monument, the Queen and president followed the canal that runs through the heart of Riga to the Opera House, a few dozen metres beyond the statue.
“This first royal visit may also be my last chance to see the Queen,” said 22-year-old Andrejs.
So like hundreds of others in the crowd, he pushed a button on his phone to record the moment.