Wandering down cobbled streets of pastel houses, warm evening sun with music around every corner it was difficult to believe I was in the same Riga I first visited in 1988. Then, and I have just checked my old photos, streets were empty bar headscarf clad ladies, scurrying across vast open squares surrounded by austere architecture.
Now, Latvia is open for business. There is pride in this new democracy. Buildings have been restored to their former glory. Archways take you under the city wall, art appears in the oddest of places. Doorways and roof tops. Glance up and you will see detail designed to impress. Each merchant of the Baltic port trying to out do his rival with expressions of wealth. Or even their distaste of the authority with the black cat spires.
I spent less than a day in Riga this visit, but managed to refresh my memories of things I had seen in the past and be amazed by the progress. Riga is only a 3 hour flight away and still has its own currency, the LAT. Prices are much the same as the UK, or slightly cheaper, so for a long weekend of history and culture it is well worth a visit.
The Museum of Occupation brings to life the harrowing times between the wars when first Germany invaded, then Stalin tried to destroy the culture by bringing in Russians from the hinterland. Any resistance was met with deportation to Siberia and the Gulag.
The city squares now ring out with music of every kind. We lingered by Pete Anderson. Who, apparently is a Eastern Europe celeb. Rock and Roll is immensely popular in Soviet Countries. The group was so ‘Anglicised’ I did ask if they were English, but no, they are Latvian. Round another corner, into another square and Florence and the Machine was being honoured.
The churches managed to survive by becoming concert halls during the occupation. Now they have been reclaimed by their Faith and restoration has been aided by overseas. Some of the textiles on display are magnificent.
A little west of Riga is Jurmala. Seaside. Once it was just an escape for the Riga population, then, during the occupation, it was claimed by the Communist Party élite for their play ground. It is still very popular for Russians and the prices match those in St Tropez. So it is strange to see houses in a state of disrepair dotted among those which have been restored. I stayed in Jurmala on this trip, and it was wonderful. Quiet and peaceful in May. Lovely restaurants just opening for the summer season ahead. Everywhere is incredible clean and Latvian people and friendly and welcoming, and most of them speak English to some degree.
Jurmala has vast beaches of white sand backed by forest. Few buildings break the skyline. Latvia has seen how other coastlines have been marred by building and is trying not to let it happen here. On the landward side of the resort is the River Lielupe. At one point the land between them is only 300m. As there are so few hills a bike is a great way to get around but if that is too energetic then take a tour on the little electric cars, like overgrown golf buggies.
The Jurmala Spa, as suggested by the name, is one of several Spa hotels in the region. Something the Baltic loves. The Spa area takes over 2 entire floors of the hotel and you can bath in mud, be rubbed down with salt and baked in paper. To name but a few. The food here, as elsewhere was good value, though a little more expensive than outside the hotel.
The Scandinavians have already discovered Riga and Jurmala. Why not try something different and take the plunge?
Photos of Riga , Jurmala and surrounding area here
Remember – buy books here. (and music, DVD's)