Riga – the pearl of Europe

As the aircraft makes its descent, I spot miles of white, sandy beach. I wonder if the pilot’s made a wrong turn, but then hear, “Welcome to Riga.” Yes, Riga.

Amy Guttman

As the aircraft makes its descent, I spot miles of white, sandy beach.  I wonder if the pilot’s made a wrong turn, but then hear, “Welcome to Riga.”  Yes, Riga.  For many, the Latvian capital conjures up images of weather cold enough to make an Eskimo shiver, short days, and heavy food.  Visit between May and September, and you’ll find just the opposite.

500 kilometres of beach stretch along Latvia’s coast, all within half an hour of Riga, by road or rail.  And even early in May, too early for the white nights, it doesn’t get dark until 10 o’clock.  I’ll get to the food a bit later, but let’s just say the food has been a highlight.  Riga is a great base for the Baltics.  It’s a few hours’ drive to Tallinn or Vilnius, and an overnight ferry to Stockholm.  As a unique, uncovered destination, it ticks the boxes, and could easily fill part of a long weekend of city-hopping.  In fact, tourist numbers from Poland and Italy are up for that very reason.

But I know what you’re thinking.  Riga – great British stag do destination.  Well, yes, but that was a few years ago.  Things have changed.  Unhappy about the stigma, Riga’s tourism board has tried hard to establish the city as a proper place to visit, and local businesses have discouraged loutish lads.  Now, Riga is finding those same bachelors are returning, this time with their wives and girlfriends.

This is no place to visit in winter.  Even the locals want to flee, but the extreme cold weather is also what contributes to a lively spring and summer.  After months of bundling up in sub-freezing temperatures, Latvians embrace the milder weather and longer days.  And who can blame them?  Springtime brings a continuous schedule of celebrations, from jazz festivals to ballet, and opera events.  On any given night there are at least a handful of cultural options.

I only have half a day to look around, and dispense with the medieval churches, the Occupation museum, and other sites to hone in on the waterfront market, and the art nouveau architecture of Riga.  It’s considered one of the leading places in Europe for art nouveau and I soon find out why.

It’s not in the “official” art nouveau district, but Riga’s only surviving synagogue is a masterpiece of the ear.  Tall pillars brightly painted with leaf patterns in blues, oranges and golds hold the structure in place and its condition is immaculate.

The caretaker tells me it only survived because the priest at a nearby church warned the Germans during WWII that if they attacked the synagogue it would bring down every other building in the area with it.  Whether the priest was motivated by saving his own house of worship or the synagogue isn’t known, but it doesn’t seem to matter.   What remains is a wonderful window into art nouveau architecture, and a beloved building, with a vibrant community.

We head across town to the diplomatic and business area of Riga, where I’m led on a short tour of buildings, most of which are designed by Michael Eisenstein, a civil engineer and architect.  He didn’t achieve fame outside of the region, but his buildings are a brilliant example of ornate art nouveau.  Too decorated for some, just right for me.

Riga’s market is an authentic experience where fellow shoppers are elderly Russians buying fresh local cheese, wonderfully dark bread with a hint of sugar, and other local produce.   I’m not sure I’ve ever been to a more authentic market.

Birch sap... a specialty at Vincent's Restaurant

You’ll find some touristy goods on the outer edges, but within the warehouses, it’s purely local fare, and interestingly, there are even a couple of small supermarkets within the market, making it one-stop shopping.

I didn’t buy anything, mainly because I’m  too lazy to change currency, and am Tallinn-bound, but if I’d just been heading back to London, there are lots of goodies I’d have indulged in.

Speaking of indulgence, I was prepared to be on a starvation diet here.  After all, I’m not really a meat and potatoes person, nor am I a big cabbage lover.   But, I’ve underestimated Riga’s culinary prowess.

Working with the tourism board, more than 35 chefs at restaurants in Riga have come together to create seasonal menus using local ingredients each month.

Yes, I know plenty of chefs in major cities already do this and it’s not a new concept, but it’s nice to see the unified effort to keep things local.  Further, it encourages each chef to create a fresh take on traditional ingredients.

I only have time to eat at Bibliotek, a large, modern restaurant set within Vermanes Park.  It’s a beautiful, relaxing setting, made all the more comfortable by a grand wooden deck, over-sized garden furniture and a roof-top bar.  Inside, a bar fills the centre of the room; warm cushions create a chilled environment.

I’m delighted to see there’s more than pickled herring on the menu and order langoustine ceviche.    And there are local restaurants serving only raw food, as well as another which specialises in sous vide, and of course, Martins Ritins famous Vincent’s restaurant, where the man who cooks for international politicians, royalty and celebs, also serves up his specialty – birch sap.

I never thought Riga would be a city with more interesting restaurants than I’d have time for, but it is, and it’s shattered every stereotype.


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