Riga is a walking city, just the right size for a weekend break, and the old town, which has now been fully restored to its former colourful glory, contains many hidden gems that you’ll just stumble across when you explore all its little winding back streets.
So, when you step out into Old Riga you’re transported back to the middle ages where, trapped inside the city walls, the town had to grow organically into tightly knit cobbled streets going off in all directions. Exploring the old town, I found open squares lined with cafés, plenty of old Germanic merchants’ houses, and some magnificent churches with those great onion-domes that are so eastern European – one of which contains probably one of the largest pipe organs in the world! The centre piece of Old Riga is the town square and it’s fine guild halls, including the restored House of Blackheads with its magnificent Dutch Renaissance facade. So, you stroll, you stop, you might even have a drink or two and along the way you’ll make friends with real pieces of history.
Latvians have had a tough history, after all, having had as many conquerors as hot dinners including the Red Army twice, you wouldn’t expect much in the way of extrovertness but surprisingly there is no shortage of it. In fact, if you are to understand anything about Riga and its people you have to put a visit to The Museum of the Occupations at the top of your ‘to do’ list. Incredibly, the Nazis were seen as ‘liberators’ when they first marched into Riga in 1941 – freeing the city from the oppressive Red Army who had terrorised the country and sent many of the population to gulags.
Of course it then turned out the so called liberators were just as evil – one in ten Latvians were murdered. Others, were conscripted into the German army to fight against the Russians and 60,000 Jews were murdered in Rumbula Forest just on the outskirts of the city, where today the site is a very moving memorial. That was until 1944 when the Russians came storming back, kicked out the Germans and seemingly made up for lost time by sending hundreds of thousands of Latvian “Nazi collaborators” to Siberia. The museum captures all this and lays it out in an easy to understand way. And once you realise the struggle Latvians have had, you really appreciate today just what freedom and independence really means to them, and why they revel in rejoicing at any opportunity. Expect to see plenty of outdoor concerts, lots of communal hugging and a warm welcome from anyone you meet.
What to see?
The Central Market, once a hangar for five enormous WW1 Zeppelins now houses a huge indoor food market. Each of the five hangars has a different specialty – meat, fish, groceries and dairy products and the atmosphere hasn’t changed much since it opened. Fresh caviar cheaper than chips, just grab what you want and haggle like mad! So, still feeling good about your negotiating skills, you could take a lunch break and sample a must have food in Riga. Black rye bread. But this is not just any old black rye, It’s Rupjmaize. This hand made bread has a taste and texture which is unlike any other rye breads you’ve had before. Its strong taste, high nutritional value and almost miraculous ability to stay fresh is achieved by a long and painstaking process using natural malt. Brilliant.
You could take a short ride to the North West corner of Riga and visit another piece of history, the abandoned Spilve Airport that was in heavy use during Soviet times. The main terminal building still adorns the hammer and sickle on the front facade, another grim reminder that it was only seventeen years ago that the Soviets moved out.
After all this appetite building exercise, finding good places to eat in Riga is about as difficult as boiling a kettle. A good example is The Black Monk, one of Riga’s most popular restaurants. This outstanding restaurant is built from an ancient cloister near the old city walls, and from a former presidential chef, delivers the kind of quality you would have to book weeks ahead for in a comparable London restaurant. Beautiful dishes from an extensive menu with wine included at prices that are almost to low to believe.
The Daugava River splits the city, and although there are plenty of boat rides available, it’s not a trip laden with great architectural sights, so one to be avoided at all costs, unless you find a vista of shipyards stimulating! The modern section of Riga is all hustle and bustle and contains everything you would expect from a busy city slowly coming to terms with finally having an independent lifestyle. And like all quiet revolutions, it’s the young people who are making the difference with bars, clubs, music and fashion.
Riga will excite you, and certainly give you a taste for discovering more about the Baltics, just a stone’s throw from the Russian border.