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Riga - a city of contrasts

By Ron Smith

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I WAS bowled over by Riga, the capital of Latvia, which is both very old, with many buildings dating from the 1200s, and yet very modern.

The city finally regained its independence from Russia in 1991, and since then skyscrapers, hotels, banks and major developments have been built.

Latvia has been trampled on by Sweden, Poland, Germany and Russia, to name just a few. It was taken over by Germany in the First World War, and then the people fought and won their independence in the war of 1918 to 1920 against the Russians, only to become German again in WW2. They are now proudly independent, proud to belong to the EU, and proud to have their own Euro coins, since January this year.

People are rather nervous of what is going on in the Ukraine, and are glad to belong to NATO. All this history has given the Latvians (2 million of them, 742,000 live in Riga) their feeling of national pride, positive outlook, cheerfulness, and also their awareness that they are only a small country with big neighbours.

Scotland has always had trading links with Latvia, from the days of the Hanseatic League to the thriving timber trade – and timber covers a great amount of the country. It is still a major industry today, and also gives rise to some strange drinks, like birch sap. It can only be harvested at this time of year, when the spring causes the sap to rise, but before the buds start to open. The sap is collected and bottled and widely sold, especially in the huge central market. It is also made into wine, and frozen to use throughout the year in some breads – Latvians have a great range of excellent bread. But I am getting ahead of the story.

Latvian airline Air Baltic started a new service four days a week from Aberdeen to Riga on March 30. Air Baltic is typically Latvian, top quality, smart service, not expensive, and efficient (see www.airbaltic.com)

The airline has Riga as its hub, with many connecting flights, so this route is a good alternative for us Scots – check out their destinations. The journey from Aberdeen takes 2 hours 40 minutes (Latvia is two hours ahead of us).

Riga airport is small and efficient, so you are soon on your way. As in so many places, local taxi drivers could be ambitious in what they charge tourists, so Air Baltic started their own fleet of taxis, painted in the same shade of green, and have a fixed price of 15 Euros from the airport to the city centre and your hotel. You can also buy a taxi voucher for them, so that having cash does not become a problem – all well thought out and practical. There are also buses, and possibly in the future a train, as the railway line passes close by the airport.

Riga sits astride the very wide Daugava River, with the old town on the east bank. It is said that Riga was started by ‘Big Christopher’, a tall, strong man who carried people across the river on his back. One day he was called to carry an infant who became so heavy that he struggled to cross, but eventually arrived and collapsed to sleep. When he awoke the child had gone, leaving a chest of gold. On Big Christopher’s death, the gold was used to establish the city of Riga. A statue of him from 1683 is now in the Museum of the History of Riga and Navigation, while a 1997 copy is on the embankment, looking out across the river with the child on his shoulders, just like St Christopher, beside the old town.

The delightful old town is separated from the new town by a winding canal and green area, and there are boat trips on the canal and along the river in the summer. Despite being invaded and fought over so many times, the old town has escaped the destruction of so many cities, and there are wonderful buildings everywhere. These include 19th century wooden houses and over 800 Art Deco buildings, believed to be more in one place than anywhere else.

The beauty of Riga is now recognised by it having UNESCO status, and also it is European Capital of Culture 2014 (see www.riga2014.org), which means that throughout 2014 there are a great many events – too many to list here (check their website, which is also in English).

The Latvian language is strange to our ears, but it is not a problem as Latvians have always had to learn another language. In the recent past, the second language has been German then Russian, but now it is English and it is spoken everywhere. I went to a wonderful concert in the large Cathedral, and the programme was Latvian on one side, English on the other.

This year sees the World Choir Games in Riga. Latvians are natural singers; they have more singing choirs, competitions and so on, than any other country in the world. The competition is strong, and only the shortlisted and best 20,000 singers will compete over 29 categories in July. The Latvians are proud of their singing; it was something that the Russians could not suppress, and became a symbol of their resistance.

As the world has become smaller, it can be difficult to find something unique or traditional when you visit places – but not so in Riga. Latvian food is excellent, hearty, tasty and good value. They are proud to sell Latvian products and specialities. A good example is the Green Studio Pienene (which means Dandelion), a shop near the main tourist area which sells 100% Latvian products and has a café where you can sample their wine. Vineyards do not grow here, so traditionally the wine has been made from rhubarb, apples, cherries and so on. There is also the Black Balsam, a black liqueur like high octane rocket fuel, drunk as a digestive or to cure colds or tummy upsets. As it is 45% alcohol, it probably numbs any beasties.

More than 200 local producers supply this shop with cosmetics (also some made with birch sap), knitwear and textiles made from wool, linen and amber fibre, which is unique.

There is so much to see. One thing not to miss is the Freedom Monument, a striking monument symbolising so much for the Latvians. It is topped by a female figure known as Milda, holding aloft the three gold stars, representing the three times that Latvians have fought to win their independence. From here a straight street 20km long has had several names, depending on the ruling country at that time, but today it is once again Freedom Street.

It is hard for us to comprehend the struggles that Latvians have had. This statue was erected over 50 years ago and has always been held in high respect by Latvians. When you get married, it is customary to take some of the flowers and leave them at Milda, as you do when there is a funeral or a special anniversary, and local folk leave flowers there as well.

It was very shaming that I was told that Riga had been the place where UK stag and hen parties went. The locals couldn’t understand why our young people would deliberately get themselves so drunk and act so disgracefully. However, the stags and hens seem to have moved on and the Rigans do not hold it against us.

Looking across the river from the old town there is an enormous 68 metre high pyramid shaped building that was designed by a famous Latvian architect, Gunnar Birkerts. It was opened in 2013 and is the national library. Just beyond it is the national railway museum, which is a great place to take children (and dads too).

Latvia is predominantly Lutheran, with the Cathedral being a “must see” place. It has an organ recital for 20 minutes every noon in the summer (the organ has over 6,700 pipes and loosens the fillings in your teeth). There are also many other historic churches to explore and many ancient buildings. The central market is very special. In WW1 the Germans built a huge Zeppelin base here. At the end of the war Latvia was granted its independence, but actually the Russians took no notice of this, so the Latvians fought from 1918 to 1920 to remove the Russians. Then they dismantled the vast Zeppelin hangars and, reducing the height by one-third, rebuilt them in Riga as the market. There are five of these massive buildings, necessary as in those days there was not the refrigeration available, so one will be fish, then meat, then dairy, then bakery, etc. These buildings are next to the main railway station (with a railway siding for delivering goods directly into the market, although trucks do this today), a canal, the central bus station and the main tram centre. What a brilliant piece of integrated transport and urban planning.

As many as 70,000 people a day use this market and I can personally recommend it for good value, excellent products, local products (including black butter, made from hemp seeds – the hemp was used for ships ropes and the seeds turned into this butter) and it is also a good place to eat. There are many cafes in the hangars, small, workmanlike, cheap and good local food. You can also get good black tea everywhere with cold milk, and no end of varieties of great bread. The market is open seven days a week.

I am sure that you will not run out of things to see and do in Riga, but if you should there is Jurmala beach to visit, just 25 minutes by bus or train up on the coast. A national park is on the doorstep, with many activities such as horse riding or trekking, bungee jumping and bicycle trails. Latvia is flat, the highest point being just less than 400 metres above sea level, which this makes for ideal cycling and walking holidays.

Business tourism is important, with many venues for conferences and activity events, themed dinners, product launches and so on. A full range of excellent hotels covers hostels to 5 stars. I stayed at the Wellton Centrum Hotel & Spa (www.wellton.com), right in the city centre. It opened in November so everything is bang up to date, and has the biggest breakfast buffet I have ever seen, including 10 different hot dishes every day, and champagne free.

Riga is certainly on my list of places to go to again. The country is vibrant and dynamic, and enterprising. The tourist board are very proactive (including organising the “Restaurant Week” when all the many participating restaurants offer a three-course meal for just 15 Euros) and can provide the Riga Card, which gives free use of public transport (including to and from the airport), free or discounted entrances to museums and galleries, free tour by sightseeing bus and free guided walking tour by an authorised guide, in your language. The card is available from the airport, tourist information centres, or from www.rigacard.lv What a bargain.

Shopping is also a growing business in Riga, especially with the Scandinavians who come over regularly on shopping trips. Prices for us are low, generally around 20% lower than in the UK, but variable on where and what you buy. There is something for everyone here, and for more details have a look at www.liveriga.com the web site of their dynamic tourist office.

Everywhere you go notices and brochures are in Latvian and English, so it is easy for us and with the new Air Baltic service direct from Aberdeen I am certain that Riga will become more popular. There may even be a time in the future when it becomes too popular and over-run by tourists – so go now. Explore Riga this year when there is so much going on – you will not be disappointed.

One last example of the Latvian attitude and enterprise is a group of three ancient buildings known as the ‘Three Bothers’, architecturally very interesting. In front were two elderly gentlemen playing music. When we passed, they were having a rest, but hearing our voices, picked up their instruments and played softly and accurately ‘Flower of Scotland’.

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