Wander around the capital city of Riga and you would be forgiven for thinking you were in Prague or Brussels. The old buildings have been dusted down of their communist grim and restored in panache of pastel. Small streets hide hidden cafes and gardens, placed carefully to make the most of the sunlight filtering down to the cobbles. Look upwards and you will find the idiosyncratic designs of the merchant classes of 200 years ago. Each trying to outdo the other. Black cats on spires were the result of a dispute with the city officials Round another corner and a donkey, a dog, a cat and a rooster balance precariously on top of each other. A memorial to music, and a link to the city of Bremen in Germany. What music these four creatures could make I dread to think.
The churches of Riga survived by becoming concert halls and have now been reclaimed by respective congregations. A tradition of fine needle work can be seen here with gold thread rather replacing the natural dyes of the more common textiles. Climb St Peter’s tower and you will see across the whole of Riga. The River Daugava dominates the city as it did once the economy. The link to the Baltic Sea was one of the driving forces of the Soviet invasion but the coast now has a more leisurely role to play.
Look west and you will see Jurmala. Literal translation. The Sea Side. Once only the rich, then the Party elite had their Dachas in Jurmala. Now it plays host to an international cast. Jurmala has 26 miles of uninterrupted white sand, perfect for volley ball, a national obsession.
From Riga to Jurmala take the train or a boat trip. If you have a couple of days to spare stay in one of the traditional Dachas converted to guest houses or one of the more modern spa hotels. The Latvians are as passionate about their ‘Spa Treatments’ as they are about flowers. You can be bathed in mud, be salted like a fish and steamed in paper. All, I was told, for your health. English is spoken everywhere as the Scandinavian languages are so disparate and it is still a popular place for Russians to holiday. So much so, that the price of property in Jurmala matches those on the Cote d’azure. Wander off Jomas street and see traditional houses restored and slowly falling into disrepair, nestle side by side in leafy streets.
Once out of Riga forest dominates and there are strict controls on its preservation. With a population of only two million there is still much unspoilt wilderness to see and enjoy. Red squirrels can be seen in the trees only a mile from the centre of Jurmala.
There are still reminders of the recent division of East from West. Square, Soviet blocks are difficult to disguise and many have just been left to decay when the Soviets moved out. One apt ‘block’, though this time Latvian built, is the Museum of Occupation in Riga. Visit to understand what happened in the cold war years.
Eating is now as international as in any city, though you can still find traditional Latvian food. Notably in Lido, a small chain of family restaurants. Latvia is not in the Euro and prices, in Lats are similar or slightly cheaper than the UK. I stayed in the Jurmala Spa Hotel and flew from Manchester with Finnair via Helsinki. Both highly recommended, but there direct flights available from other airlines.
Alvina Labsvirs says, “With my photographs and blog site Reasons to go North developed from my love of The Lakes, walking and travel, I hope to inspire visitor and residents to enjoy the Lakes, to get out and appreciate all that it has to offer.”