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Two days in Riga – exploring the Latvian capital

March 27, 2018
Riga cathedral at twilight

Riga cathedral at twilight

Our wind-buffered taxi scuttles over the bridge across the gleaming Daugava river that divides Riga in two; the city stretches out enticingly along its bank. We press our noses to the rain-spattered windows catching glimpses of elegant buildings through the branches of trees which are still just clinging onto the last of their leaves.  Alighting in the heart of the city, I run across the square to take a picture of a golden, stone building, topped with a curlicue, then dash inside to be welcomed with a glass of Prosecco, slightly dazzled by brilliant chandelier. As one of the first guests of the Kempinski, there is a whiff of new plaster under the signature scent and we crane our necks to admire the historic reliefs of the old town high up near the ceiling, preserved after four years of renovation.

I long to sink into the huge bed with crisp white pillows but our tour bus is waiting, and as we huddle under smart hotel umbrellas, our delightful guide Gita gives us a rapid introduction to Riga and the Latvian people. There’s a general perception that Latvia is still part of Russian (it was behind the Iron Curtain but now a member of the EU for well over a decade), but although just a little pocket handkerchief of a country (of only 2 million inhabitants) it has its own distinct language, heritage and more in common with the Finns at a stretch.

Scurrying along cobbled streets juggling umbrella, gloves and hat…. plus my jaw on the pavement, I try to capture the organic lines carved into buildings, weathered wood and lowering skies while the muscular wind stretches my face and freezes my fingers. Despite the weather, this leafy Baltic city with a UNESCO world heritage historic centre, elegant Art Nouveau and centuries-old wooden architecture, has already wrapped me in its charm.

View over the city of Riga to the river

The view from St Peter’s church spire

 

Nativity of Christ Cathedral against a deep blue sky

Orthodox Cathedral

What to see and do in Riga

I leave my room to go down for breakfast but change my mind after taking a peak behind a curtain at the end of the corridor. Golden sunlight is catching the top of the curlicues and flooding the architectural details with light and shadow. In my excitement to get out on the streets I drop my glasses twice and almost leave my scarf behind. It’s needed as I emerge into the frosty morning, where rather cross looking women are sweeping leaves in the park. The small river through the park dances with fallen foliage drifting in the rays peeping round the corner of the Opera House.

Riga is a walker’s city, the old town a mass of intriguing alleyways that open out into squares lined with a jumble of historic architecture. Equipped with fake fur hat, warm coat and sturdy boots – blending seamlessly in with the locals – the short stroll beneath the underpass to Riga Central market is a doddle. The cobbles give way to parks in great swathes of the city and getting to the main art gallery and Art Nouveau area is around 25 minutes from our hotel, mainly via tree-lined paths (Bastion Hill or Bastejkalns and Kronvalda), taking in the gleaming gold domes of The Nativity of Christ Cathedral, the largest Russian orthodox church in the Baltics, en route.

Domed buildings of the central market in Riga

Domed pavilions of the central market in Riga (old zeppelin hangars)

Riga Central market

The domes of these former Zeppelin hangers can be glimpsed from any elevated position and this UNESCO world heritage site lures me, and my travelling companion T, there twice in as many days due to the edible treasures inside. Each hanger is dedicated to a theme and, after admiring piles of jewel-like cranberries on the stalls outside we dive into the meat area. Vegetarians or the slightly squeamish beware, the volume and variety of flesh is quite astounding. The cuts are arranged neatly in refrigerated cabinets on each sparklingly clean stall or in larger hunks from hooks. That Latvians are very keen on pork is evident, with nose to tail eating demonstrated by the produce available from conventional cuts to pig’s noses, livers and windpipes. The reaction to our cameras is very mixed with one man miming what he’ll do to us with a knife when we train our lenses on  a pile of chops. It’s disconcerting but made up for by the friendliness of some other stall holders.

The dairy section is predominantly chiller cabinets of plastic wrapped cheeses but with a bit of searching we discover a more artisanal stall. We’re after the famous Latvian fresh cheese with caraway which used to be made specially for Jāņi, the summer solstice celebrations, but is now available all year round. There’s little hard cheese, but an abundance of pillowy yellow curd cheese, kefir and sour cream.

We inhale lungfuls of dill when walking into the pickle hanger while our eyes adjust to jar upon jar of colours and shapes suspended in brine or vinegar. The most prevalent are green knobbly cucumbers in all sizes, garlic – slightly pink and ghostly, substantial funghi and piles of sauerkraut, but the ingenious Latvian will pickle anything it seems.

We leave the fish hanger until last, with slight trepidation about what it might smell like, but this is foundless and instead we marvel at acres of roe, herring and a lot of river fish as well as those from the nearby sea including alarmingly spiky black sturgeon.

In the outside corridors the fruit and veg stalls are a joy to behold with rich pickings for people who love admiring very, fresh produce (both hands up here).   Most of the goods are local or from the immediate region and cranberries, pomegranates and persimmons are all in abundance. There is so much that tempts me especially the foraged mushrooms and some interesting red berries that we later discover are hawthorn (or buckthorn). I have no room in my bag due to the 1 1/2 kilo loaf of rye bread I’m lugging with me, bought from a friendly stall holder in an apron who is immediately christened ‘bread man’.

There are warnings on the official website for the market to ‘beware of cut-purses’ and there have been darker days in the history of the place (including rats, which are very much long gone). The attitude to us as tourists is fairly disinterested. Many people are jovial, welcoming and offer us tastes of their produce. Others are astonishingly rude – which adds spice to our market going adventure.

Domed market with man in a red coat walking in front of it

Central market

Spikeri Art District, Riga Ghetto and Latvian Holocaust Museum, and Stalin’s birthday cake

We wander on from the market, lured by some attractive brick buildings. The old warehouses in the Spikeri district have been restored with the help of a generous EU grant to foster the artistic community. Unfortunately artisanal businesses are thin on the ground, we spot a cafe and a theatre (closed in the morning) among the other rather random commercial concerns (hairdresser furniture supplies).

The Riga Ghetto and Latvian Holocaust museum is sited at the far end. Free to enter (donations encouraged) it documents the part that Riga played in the journey to the concentration camps while the city was under occupation by Nazi Germany. Synagogues were burned, and Jews from Latvia were forced by the occupiers into the ghetto, to be joined by transported Jews from other lands.

The focus in the courtyard is a single black railway truck, some photographs of the inhabitants and a vast wall of names (plus indoor exhibits such as a reconstructed flat from that period of history). We leave, sombre, at the enormity of man’s cruelty to man.

Wooden building with peeling paint

A passer by was astonished that we found this beautiful enough to photograph

A short walk round the corner, past some aesthetically distressed old wooden buildings with carved shutters, is the Latvian Academy of Sciences. Built in the 1950’s under the infamous former dictator, adorned with hammers and sickles and intended to empower the farming community he claimed to champion, it is nicknamed Stalin’s birthday cake. You can take a lift to the top to an observation deck for an alternative panoramic view – but unfortunately we have run out of Euros and they don’t take cards.

Street scene at night looking tow

A view across the river to ‘The Castle of Light’ the national library

Large building with lights reflected in windows

Latvijas Radio – the national radio station of Latvia in Riga

St Peters Church

The spire of St Peters church is a constant as our navigation point when winding through the streets of old Riga. Ducking inside and dwarfed by the towering atrium, we pass one of the six roosters that have been used as weather vanes over the centuries since the first construction in the 1500s. All have been blown down by high winds (there’s a clue here).  Steps give way to a creaky old lift as the way to the top. The lift lady sits in her cosy cubby hole reading her book as we huddle around for our ascent. The cold wind, as we are disgorged onto the cage platform, is as breathtaking as the view over the river, sea and beyond. One of the meanings attributed to the name Riga is ‘river with curves and bends’. For most of its history Riga was on only one side of the river with the other bank used for summer homes and agriculture.  The more modern side of the city is established there now and the focal point is the central library, a really beautiful triangular-shaped contemporary building, the Castle of Light,  designed by Gunnar Birkerts.  The former press centre, a derelict, asbestos-riddled concrete tower block is a blot on the landscape towards the sea and port; due to be torn down, some rare seagull nests prevent its demolition.

The Latvian National Museum of Art

The Latvian National Museum of Art

Latvian National Museum of Art

This neo-classical building is elegant and imposing on the edge of the park and well worth a visit for the light filled atrium alone. There’s a group of school children, with their kindly looking teacher, filling in sheets of paper with enthusiasm as they explore the airy rooms, their feet soft on the floorboards. I take the lift to the top and make my way down.

The national collection was plundered and standardised during Soviet times, but the Latvians have reclaimed their own artistic integrity. Rather brilliantly curated, it tells the story of art under conflict and oppression, including some impressive post-Modernism, artists reinterpreting the brutal Soviet style after independence and experimental installations. My paths keep crossing with an old gentleman holding onto the hand of a very small girl dressed in red who I take to be his granddaughter.

The classical lines of the building are complimented by imaginative renovations – transparent floors, a bronze staircase and a polished concrete basement which treats the art storage area as an artwork in itself. I look up through the glass roof to see Grandfather and child peering down.

Curved Regency style windows and a balcony inside the second floor of the art gallery

Upstairs in the beautiful entrance hall of the gallery

Art Nouveau area

As our first introduction was rather tornado-like, in all senses, we set off once more for the Art Nouveau district around Elizabetes iela (street) for a more leisurely look at structures adorned with romanticised women, mythical creatures and carvings inspired by natural forms. The concentration of more than 800 buildings in this style is due to an economic boom which coincided with the popularity of this school of design. There’s a coherent look which adds the beauty as about half of the buildings were designed by Russian architect Mikhail Eisenstein. The Riga Art Nouveau Museum is housed in an imposing corner property, encrusted with reliefs, topped with a terracotta tower and designed by Konstantīns Pēkšēns, a Latvian architect who was also a driving force (and lived there for a time).

The elegance and ingenuity of the designs lead to a crick in the neck and full camera. It transpires that late Autumn is the best time to visit as the full splendour of the facades are revealed through tree branches bare of their leaves. I challenge even the most staunch defender of modern architecture not to be a little nostalgic wandering these streets.  If you only have time for one then Alberta iela is the most rewarding in a labyrinth of treasures.

blue and white art nouveau building in riga

On Elizabetes street. Designed by Eisenstein and then finished by Konstantīns Pēkšens

blue and white art nouveau building in riga latvia

building designed by Mikhail Eisenstein

Freedom monument

Although statues and sculptures abound in this small city (640,000 inhabitants), the one we pass most often is The Freedom monument at its heart. The sheer scale of this slender structure draws the eye (at 42 metres high), plus the way it catches the light and changes mood, but also for its poignancy. It depicts many aspects of Latvian history and is topped with a copper figure of Liberty, her arms stretched above her head holding three gilded stars. Unveiled in 1935 as a memorial to the soldiers killed during the Latvian war of Independence, the symbolism was re-appropriated under Soviet rule and somehow escaped planned demolition.   Reverence, such as the laying of flowers, was strictly forbidden during this time but it was a gathering point for national rallies which eventually led to national independence in 1990. Flowers are once more laid in the square.

We were unable to see Riga’s striking ‘House of the Black Heads‘ due to extensive renovations where scaffolding shrouded the exterior. Its history dates from 1344, it was completely demolished by the Soviets in the 1940s, and a replica built in the 1990s. Visitors have been admitted recently.

Eating and drinking in Riga

When we ask our guide about Latvian food she is a bit vague. Traditional carb and meat-heavy peasant food still gets the locals through the cold of the winter. Many of their dishes are common to the Baltics and a distinct food culture is hard to pin down. Added to this is the impressive way Latvians have embraced the new, and finding really excellent restaurants that would be at home in any European capital is a breeze.

Vegetarians might struggle in the traditional restaurants as the Latvians love their meat including bison, venison and, particularly, pork – served in satisfying stews and fashioned into meatballs. Don’t be put off by the name ‘grey peas‘. We pass up the opportunity to try this dish of slowly cooked pulses with bacon and herbs until our last night and enjoy every savoury, salty, comforting forkful.

Local beers are taken very seriously, and the colours of blond and dark ales gleam like jewels in a glass, brewed without commercial preservatives in nearby micro-breweries. Choose the ones on draft as natural brewing methods mean they won’t survive in a bottle for long.

Balsam (or Balzam) is a local, herbal spirit which has been endowed with miraculous restorative properties ever since Empress Catherine the Great of Russia was cured from illness after drinking it on a trip to Latvia. We step into a small shop dedicated to the stuff, but the recipe, which involves steeping scores of herbs, plants and natural ingredients in vodka housed in oak barrels, is a closely guarded secret. The popularity might be down to the warming effect produced after sipping it (I couldn’t take more than a small mouthful). Riga Black Balsam cherry is a new variety.

Deliciously dense rye bread with the flavour of caraway seeds is served at every meal we went to. It’s so delicious that my suitcase home contains a brick of a loaf from ‘bread man’ in the central market. At our hotel, Sklandrausis is offered at breakfast; a rye pastry tart filled with cooked carrot, honey and sour cream, it was given ‘Traditional Speciality Guaranteed’ status by the European Union.

As mentioned above, Kimenu siers, a soft cheese with caraway seeds is traditional at summer solstice and dairy produce a big part of the diet due to the abundant lush countryside.  Keffir-making (kvass or fermented milk) is very much part of the culture. The Latvians are pickling mad and I brought back some fiery horseradish from a frankly mind-boggling range. Herring was part of our breakfast buffet every day. Fresh and cured fish from its coastline on the Baltic is a common staple as is fresh water fish from the 1200 rivers and 6000 lakes in Latvia. Local honey is prized, as are strawberries in season.

Village tea is a collection of herbs which varies according to the location. Often with chamomile or raspberry leaves, it’s calming and refreshing. I’m rationing the single packet I brought back wishing I had more.

Where to eat in Riga

Rocket Bean Coffee House – Seriously good coffee and a laid back (dare I say hipster) vibe with local, organic roots (there was veg for sale by the counter). Our lunch would not have been out of place in a much smarter place but served casually in a relaxed environment. Between us we had carrot, ginger and coconut soup with toasted black rice and mushroom purée with IBP beef ribs celery and carrot (there was parsnip too). This was my introduction to Latvian village tea – mix of herbs from rural villages – some of the most complex and refreshing herbal tea I’ve tasted, which I loved.

Amber Way Wild Game and Fish restaurant -Taverna pie Sena Dzintara Cela – this is a quirky little place down in a basement where a fish theme is taken to extremes. The waiting staff are dressed as sailors, there is a live goldfish in a bowl on each table and the bill is presented in the jaws of large fish head skeleton. It all sounds a bit Disney but it’s haphazard and rustic enough to feel comfortable not cartoon-like. The service was excellent, the food down to earth and tasty.

Black Magic – Chilly temperatures and a facade that looked straight out of Harry Potter led us into this wood panelled cafe for a drink prior to lunch. The hot chocolate is legendary so that’s what we ordered. Hot milk in a glass accompanied by real chocolate on a stick for stirring into it. Worth a visit for the interiors alone (and to buy Balsam).

Muusu – Proof that Riga has a sophisticated and contemporary dining scene.  Diffused light glowed from the conservatory style windows into the modern, chic interior. I could have stuck a pin in the menu as everything was appealing but eventually ordered salad, duck breast, and a perfect pear tart for a long, relaxing lunch. The service was excellent; good wine served by the glass too.  I’d return to eat at this light, airy restaurant at the drop of a hat.

Folkkluba ala pagrabs – Our last evening before heading home so we wandered along a few streets to one of the places famed for Latvian ale. Descending to the basement, the scene greeting us was a bit overwhelming with every table full and a crowd around the bar. “Just find a space” said the waiter, so spotting a bench at a table opposite a couple, all three of us sat side by side across from strangers. We all fancied the meatballs and at the last minute I ordered the traditional but unappealingly named “grey peas”. A type of pulse cooked with bacon, they were the star of the show. Reluctantly we tore ourselves away from the convivial atmosphere to go to the airport.

Bergs – We probably didn’t do the many courses of fine dining justice on our first night in Riga as we were all rather tired by then due to the time difference. If you like a more formal setting and beautifully plated food with fine wines this is for you. Impeccable service and a chef enthusiastically dedicated to his art. For my tastes, some of the flavour combinations were a little experimental. The restaurant is inside a boutique hotel based in an historic building which was home to Bergs Bazaar.

Staying in Riga

We stayed at The Kempinski which is ideally placed for forays around the old town. It’s the only 5 star hotel right in the centre and is adjacent to the splendid opera house. There’s an old world glamour, despite many reincarnations and its recent facelift.  Think marble bathrooms, white fluffy bath robes, old-fashioned writing desks (with discreet power points), the most attentive, friendly staff and you get the picture. After a day pounding the cobbled streets we punch the brass fittings in the lift and descend to the basement to be restored by the spa.  I alternate between a sauna (there are three), rain forest shower (I choose summer mist but the four seasons version is dramatic, complete with thunder and lightning) and the pool. There are heated beds, hammam and steam room, and a cascade of ice to dip your hands into for brisk refreshment.

Front of hotel with green car outside

Kempinski Riga Latvia

Double bed with brown cushions and music notes on walls

My bedroom – Kempinski Riga Latvia

Hotel lobby with chandeliers

The Kempinski Riga Latvia

Travelling to Riga

When I was invited to a ribbon cutting ceremony for the inaugural Air Baltic flight to Riga from Abu Dhabi my head was filled with the vision of a gleaming new plane wrapped in a huge ribbon. It would be severed by gigantic scissors with smiling air crew in serried rows (a bit of La la Land choreography creeps in here), so we could sashay into the cabin.

The reality was a ceremony inside the airport where the H.E. Astra Kurme, Latvian Ambassador to the UAE, and the UAE Ambassador to the Republic of Latvia, H.E. Hanan al Aleeli cut a somewhat smaller symbolic ribbon. It was no less exciting, and an honour, to be boarding the first direct Air Baltic flight to Riga and we were soon settled into our seats and airborne for the 6 hour 15 minute flight.

Air Baltic is a low-cost airline and even business class doesn’t have screens or sockets for charging phones etc. The staff are charming and the flight time just at the limit of what I’d consider for a short break. We stay for two nights and given the contrast with the still steamy temperatures in the UAE, it’s really restorative.

Useful links: Enjoy Latvia, Live Riga (ask for excellent guide Gita Vigule), Kempinski Riga, Air Baltic, Bergs restaurant, Black Magic, Rocket Bean Coffee House, Amber Way Wild Game and Fish restaurant, Muusu, Folkkluba ala pagrabs, Latvian National Museum of Art, Latvian National Costumes, guide to Latvian beer.

Reasons to visit Riga

In a nutshell Riga is a delightful city with lots of history and tradition, beautiful green spaces, clean streets and a wealth of excellent restaurants from hearty traditional to contemporary. It has embraced its place in Europe and, once the initial influx of stag party tourists moved on, transitioned to a welcoming place for visitors who like culture and comfort.  It’s worth going for the Art Nouveau architecture alone. Visiting at the beginning of winter was a refreshing change from the temperatures of the UAE – it was fun to wrap up warm and see the buildings bathed in gentle, golden sunlight. The turbulent past seems to weigh less heavily than some other former Soviet Union states (like Bucharest) and, apart from the odd very grumpy market traders, the Latvians we met were very genial.  It’s a walker’s city, compact enough to explore most places on foot and stroll pleasantly through the many parks. In addition, there are many beautiful places in the countryside that you can drive to on a longer visit.  I’d love to return when the weather is balmy and taste their famous summer strawberries.

Blue and red houses in Riga, Latvia

I travelled to Riga at the end of October 2017 as a guest of Air Baltic in partnership with Riga and the Kempinski.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. March 27, 2018 9:15 pm

    Beautiful post! Hovering in my favourite blogspaces after a long time. Regretting the fact that I didn’t take up the invite… may you keep travelling and keep sharing your travel experiences!

    • March 27, 2018 10:30 pm

      Hopefully I’ll be back to wandering soon. I miss it SO much. Latvia was a wonderful capital. Hope you get to go sometime. Thanks for this absolutely lovely comment. Glad you liked the post. Put my heart and soul into this one as I loved the destination so much.

  2. March 27, 2018 9:26 pm

    What a great trip and wonderful photos for us to enjoy.

    • March 27, 2018 10:31 pm

      Thank you so much. It was hard to choose which images as I had so many from the two days. Riga is such a photogenic city – so many happy memories even in such a short time.

  3. March 28, 2018 7:09 pm

    Such gorgeous pics and love the tone of your writing. This is my first glimpse of this city and I am now very curious to go one day. Love visiting markets too and see daily life.

  4. March 28, 2018 10:11 pm

    fantastic!

  5. March 28, 2018 11:45 pm

    thank you for such a fantastic post and photos ! must visit!

  6. March 29, 2018 11:58 am

    Beautiful photos and very interesting text, I love Riga and you made me want to go there asap :-).

  7. March 31, 2018 2:48 am

    Wow! This place is so beautiful! One of my best friend is from Latvia, but she never told me how beautiful her home land is. It is like from a movie set. There is so much romance going on!

  8. Ren Behan permalink
    April 2, 2018 3:41 pm

    Such a great post, Sally. I just met mu mum’s friend today who is from Riga so we both read your post! Hope to visit soon.

    • April 4, 2018 6:07 pm

      I’ve got a fabulous mental picture now. I hope your Mum’s friend felt I’d represented her city well. Really enamored with the place.

  9. Pat walton permalink
    April 9, 2018 8:18 pm

    So enthralling to read your review. Never thought, rather ignorantly, that Latvia could be anything than a former Russian enclave and therefore dull and drab. Apologies. This review presents an entirely magical account and we hope to explore some of the delights soon.

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