A late night arrival meant a quick supper at one of the few open restaurants before our first exploration of Riga today, and with our hotel being right in the heart of the quaint Old Town we are quickly soaking up the sights. We follow a route around the cobbled streets, turning and doubling back, marvelling at the Art Nouveau architecture and the charming toy town facades, learning the troubled history of Latvia and the stories which enabled Riga to enjoy periods as one of Eastern Europe’s most wealthy cities.
They are clearly proud of Latvian beer, there are plenty of bars and only a small number carry the signs of global brands; and everywhere encourages the visitor to sample the “taste of Riga”, Black Balzams, a 42% strength shot originally marketed as medicinal.
Like the other Baltic States, Latvia carries a sad history of persecution and occupation, successive rulers seeking to quash the Latvian identity, right up until the 20th century when first the Nazis and then the Soviets took oppression to a disgraceful level. The Nazis, inevitably, extinguished the Jewish fraternity, a mass grave with 20,000 bodies was unearthed near Riga, and then, post WW2, the Russians moved in, banning the Latvian language and Latvian culture, and shipping in tens of thousands of Moscow residents to turn Riga into a Russian city. To create space for these enforced migrants, untold numbers of Latvian men were sent to their death in Siberian gulags, as Moscow targeted the wealthy Riga as a Soviet annexe. The resultant national character is one of fierce pride in Latvian heritage, yet, it seems, a lack of belief that independence will be permanent; there have, after all, been longer independent periods than the current one.
One of the legacies is the dual usage of the Latvian and Russian languages on menus and around Riga, though apparently not all the indigenous population is happy with this, and some tension simmers just beneath the surface. Plus, there remains that unmistakeable Baltic air of sadness for a lost identity.
The Old Town, full of cobbled streets and quaint buildings but no longer surrounded by the ancient city walls of which just one short section and one Gate survive, is circled by the monumentally ugly and huge rectangular blocks built to make the Muscovites feel at home, just one more Soviet legacy. However it’s easy enough to ignore these and enjoy the good that Riga has to offer, and there’s plenty of it, whether the Old Town in the centre or the bustling modern city that has developed around it post independence. We design a route to take in more than twenty of the Old Town’s most impressive buildings, churches, cathedrals, The House Of The Blackheads, The Three Brothers (one is the oldest private house in Riga), plus the two main squares and the Freedom Monument, winding up for lunch in a cellar bar beneath Jacob’s Barracks with the most authentic looking menu, to sample our first Latvian staple, grey peas. We heard Latvian food is heavy…, stodgy….. and so far it is, Grey peas, pork lardons and onion sauce, mushrooms, sounds heavy, it is but so warming and delicious!!!
We came here to see winter, it’s not here, just the occasional swept-up snow pile, a touch of frost and the odd iced puddle, but the day is above zero and sunny all day, although the sun barely rises above the trees, and certainly not above the buildings. We do rise above the city though, to the top of the lofty spire of St Peter’s, to take in great panoramic views of Riga and beyond.
And so it’s sunny and crisp all day; very pleasant but not the winter weather we’d hoped for. Our rather elegant hotel and our even more elegant and spacious room are both very welcoming on our return, though all the staff seem too shy to speak, or even look up, unless we speak first. The place isn’t without its quirks, a security guard manning the ornate metal gate at the entrance; the smell in reception which suggests there’s a blocked drain nearby; and the fact that our huge room has its own jacuzzi, and even its own sauna, yet no overhead shower.
And so it’s off into Old Town once more, to seek out local beers and food.
Last nights meal was, to say the least, a tad unusual, confused our taste buds but delicious too. Chocolate, strawberries, raspberries, orange and lingonberries served with duck liver pate. Lamb and pork belly each served with another selection of fruit, almost like having dessert mixed in with our starters and mains, a far cry from the heavy stodge we’d read about.
Days here at this time of year are short, sunrise is at 9am and it’s dark by 4pm. This morning we head to Central market and although we set off at 10am on a clear morning, looking out across the river resembles sunset, the sun is so low. The market is enormous 4 large hangars selling mainly food, each with its own speciality.
The fish market is incredible, surely enough fish here to feed the entire population of all 3 Baltic states. Great slabs of salmon, untold varieties of fish, sturgeon and carp piled up on ice, many of which are still writhing and gasping for air, slowly suffocating. Eels slithering across the counters and over the other fish in a last bid for freedom.
Cruel yes but just a way of life in Latvia, and certainly fresh! We make our way through the hangars, stall after stall of smoked fish in all shapes and forms, mounds of red caviar, Latvians obviously enjoy fish! Smoked meats are next, cheeses, sauerkraut, fruit, vegetables, so much colour, produce mouth-wateringly fresh and good. Finally we reach the fresh meat market, so much meat, so much pork!!! Pigs trotters, pigs heads, pigs intestines. Cows’ tongues, bulls’ testicles, you name it, it was there. This market is on such a grand scale, surely the people of Riga can’t eat this much!!!
It’s a terrifically busy and colourful place, though.
Next up is an excursion out of town, as we take the train out of Riga, across the Daugava River and out to the coast, to a group of towns which collectively form the resort of Jurmala. The train takes us to Majori, the heart of the area; we walk through the town to Dzitari, have a quick lunch and a beer, and walk back along the beach to Majori. Somehow you don’t imagine beaches like this, up here on the Baltic coast, yet the beautiful golden sands stretch for miles and miles, backed by pine forests right down to the sand; it’s easy to see why Jurmala is a popular holiday spot for Eastern Europeans. The whole place has that one-eye-open characteristic of a resort out of season, half asleep until it’s time to entertain once more. It’s easy to picture this place alive with activity on what are surely just the handful of hot sunny days they must get here in the short Northern summer.
This morning we witnessed an army of officials waving down and then boarding trams to check the ticket of every passenger. Now, on the train, there is, believe it or not, one ticket inspector in each carriage, rigorously checking all tickets, only stamping her approval stamp when completely satisfied that all is in order.
The look you get is the withering, piercing stare of power; surely nobody would dare to ever travel illegally in this country, God knows what the reaction would be if you had no ticket. You can’t help but wonder if this is another Russian influence; such officialdom. You can’t help wondering why we don’t do it in England, as well.
Continuing our search for authentic local cuisine, we head tonight back to the former barracks over by the park. First stop is a cool cellar bar, just down from where we’ve spied a “taverna” sign pointing down some steep steps to another basement. We head to this taverna and oh wow it ticks all our boxes. Rustic setting, local cuisine cooked in a tiny kitchen, Latvian beer, decent wine, and something out of the ordinary. Yep, all boxes ticked. There are just two staff, one toiling in the kitchen, and Olga (we invented her name), to serve us. Olga is brilliant. We try to order a starter; “you will not need a starter, our food is big”, and she sounds like a Russian army commander giving orders. The conversations with her are brilliant. (Try to do the stern army commander voice to go with the name Olga):
“I have been to England, I like it”.
“Where did you visit?”
“Glasgow, Edinburgh, Belfast,Dublin”.
“They’re not in England, they’re Scotland and Ireland “.
“Same thing “.
On delivering the food, “See, you do not need starter”.
On arriving to collect our plates, “So, what has happened? You eat it all”.
And on asking for a nightcap, “Are you a man? Show me your muscles first”.
And so we drink our first Balzams (also called Black Balsam), and a caraway seed liqueur she calls Latvian Sambuca.
It’s all great fun, and another of those great travel experiences.
This global warming thing has a lot to answer for, you know. A few weeks ago we took a tour of the Chapel Down winery in England, where we discovered that one of its effects is that the climate is creeping North by several kilometres a year, meaning that Kent now enjoys precisely the climate the Champagne region had in the 1960s, one reason that English sparkling wine has such a good reputation. Well, that’s not so bad, but the creeping climate is depriving Northern states of their winter, and today, what surely should be a heavy snowfall at this time of year, brings rain, rain and more rain, all day until the streets are awash. Krakow last year, and Zagreb the year before, were the same. Never mind killing the planet, it’s giving us wet days on holiday!!
And so our walking tour today allows for some refuge stops out of the rain, including souvenir shops, museums, and, of course, lunch. By coincidence of timing we arrive at just the right time to witness the public unveiling of the Laima Clock tower after a lengthy repair, an event big enough to bring the TV cameras but amusing in its low key pizazz. On from there across the Riga Canal which was once the castle moat, and through the rain to our next dry refuge, the Latvian Museum Of Occupations.
We have previously visited a similarly themed museum in Estonia, and once again the stories are shocking and scarcely believable, particularly given how recent these horrors are. This museum concentrates entirely on the period from the 1930s through to independence in 1991, from the brutalities of Russian occupation, through the Nazi invasion which took place with Soviet approval, to the final blanket occupation by the Soviets of the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. We read of the brutally enforced Russification of the region, the oppression of its peoples, the enforced migration and slaughter, the widespread theft of land and property, of families broken apart, of the tens of thousands murdered purely through their origin, of the inpouring of Muscovites by the bus load. The stories are brutal and the statistics are mind blowing. Suffice to say that, initially, for a short time, Latvians welcomed the Nazis as a less threatening invader than the Soviets. The museum story ends with the joyful liberation and independence alongside perestroika, freedom finally coming to the Baltics in June 1991, and even then not without further bloodshed.
In amazing show of solidarity during the plea for freedom, the people of the Baltic States formed a human chain, the so called “Baltic Way”, over 2 million people holding hands to form a continuous line stretching over 600 kilometres and linking the three capital cities of Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius. Such passion.
There’s a footnote though. If Putin ever wants this region back, there are still plenty of Russians here; one legacy of Russification is that only 52% of the population is indigenous Latvian, even now.
We take in a couple more sites until the rain really takes a hold and we find refuge in a candle lit cellar bar/restaurant. This cosy atmospheric place serves the most delicious food so far, truly amazing, if ever you find yourself in Latvia, give it a go, don’t be put off by its name “The flying frog cafe”, it’s fabulous. Yet again we’ve struck seriously lucky; yet again we find authentic and rustic. The food is truly stunning, with new flavour combinations such as pork marinated in orange.
It is hard to tear ourselves away from this little gem, warm and comfortable versus wet and cold, oh well more to see so we set off in search of the Art Nouveau area. This area is a celebration of this kind of architecture, a number of grand buildings individually designed some ordained with bizarre sculptures, some highly decorative and others just simply crazy, its like architects gone mad!
We follow the trail as if on a treasure hunt spotting the Art Nouveau designs amongst the regular grand buildings. To be frank, we weren’t entirely sure what constitutes “Art Nouveau”, but now, having seen so much, all we can say is that it’s architects on opium! Darkness is creeping in earlier today, the rain finally wins and we head back to the luxury of our hotel to give the sauna a go.
By evening the rain has intensified still more, so long walks are off the agenda. Instead we head to the St Peter’s Bar, by the church, for beers brewed on the premises, some surprisingly good food, and some great live music. The Riga guidebooks are right; they all tell you there’s indistinct boundaries between bars and restaurants, so eating in bars can be a great experience. On this evidence, that’s good advice.
When we emerge to head home for bed, it is – at last! – snowing, though dropping only into the puddles from the day’s rain.
Tomorrow beckons, and it’s up into the mountains for that bobsleigh ride.
The main event today is the Olympic Bobsleigh run, for us it’s the highlight of the trip, very excited by this. We eagerly await the arrival of our guide Yianis and off we go. Just an hour outside Riga, our destination is Sigulda, an important destination for winter Olympians from Eastern Europe and beyond with Latvian, Russian and Chinese world class athletes., to name a few, coming here to train for their events. We are so excited that it’s hard to think of anything else.
But listen. Nothing – and we mean NOTHING – can prepare you for your first bobsleigh ride. We don’t even know how to describe the experience. Apart from.
You see nothing, you know nothing. Never mind comfort zone, your brain doesn’t cope. They tell you these things: keep your back straight, keep your head upright; do not let go of the handholds, strengthen your neck, hold tight. And then you’re off. You see nothing, you know nothing, you race down. Seriously, no exaggeration, your brain doesn’t cope, you just don’t have time to process what’s happening. Nothing prepares you for the speed, the G force, the crazy movement, the VIOLENCE… of the whole experience. It’s…… just………incredible. You just simply hang on for dear life, until you hit the end and emerge, knees shaking, head reeling, adrenaline boiling. And then you spend at least the next 8 hours unable to get it out of your mind. We unwind with a couple of afternoon beers, over which both those and our last Latvian meal, we talk of little else, going back over it, recalling the feeling. Truly an unforgettable experience.
Yianis talked of climate change today, and on our travels it seems that these Northern areas are where the effect is most noticeable, and is having the greatest impact. He tells us that throughout his lifetime, life in Latvia in the winter months has been difficult, regularly snowbound and everything frozen for up to three months. Now, we are in the second successive largely snow free winter, and this year temperatures have only rarely hit zero, let alone the customary minus ten or thereabouts. He marvels at car washes being open in December, eulogises about the ease of open roads, yet, on the top of bobsleigh station, he looked wistfully across the hills and said quietly, this should all be white. Apparently this year’s winter solstice temperature was just 3 degrees lower than its summer counterpart, quite a shocking stat for anywhere, let alone somewhere this far North.
Let’s bring food matters to a conclusion. All the guidebooks tell you it’s all pork, cabbage and potatoes in varying degrees of stodge, but the reality is that there is a lot more variety. Yes sure the staple stodgy dishes are all here, but it’s easy enough to avoid them and, when you do, you are rewarded with some inspired blends of flavours, with constant surprises, mostly through their penchant for using fruit in place of herbs and spices. Apart from caraway and dill, everything has one or both of those, and garlic, you will find precious few herbs, and virtually no spices, their historic method of preservation being smoking rather than spicing, but the delights and surprises of the flavour combinations more than compensate.
Riga is a clean and tidy city, no sight of litter on the streets, fallen leaves barely reach the ground before they are cleared away by what seem like an army of gardeners milling around the parks and their surrounds. This is perhaps an indication of the pride and efficiency which seems to be a trait of these Baltic people. As a general rule, in our brief visit here, it appears that they are a little unwelcoming, rarely an open smile greets us, many even go out of their way to avoid eye contact. It’s as if they are from an era where as children they were told to not speak until spoken to, yet if you take the initiative and break the ice with them they are polite and go about their task with a kind of solemn, calm efficiency. Of course there are exceptions to the rule, with some who are very open and friendly, but we guess the overriding national characteristic is a reticence which would be best described as “unassuming”.
The trip closes as it should, with one last Latvian beer with a Black Balsam chaser, and our final trip of the year is over.