Once one of Europe’s most sophisticated cities, the Latvian capital has now regained its allure as the Pearl of the Baltic. Gordon F Sander strolls among the world’s largest concentration of Art Nouveau architecture.
Seventy years ago, while most of Europe was mired in economic and political strife, Riga was one of the continent’s most exciting and sophisticated cities. Having gained independence in 1921 from Russia, Latvia’s freedom was short-lived. The Russians reinvaded less than two decades later. Next the Germans came, before the Russians returned again after 1945, after which the bright lights of this old Hanseatic city, at the crossroads between East and West, went out for half a century.
Riga’s thunderous 800th birthday celebration last year was marked with a prodigious cleaning and restoration programme, and Latvia’s re-emergence into freedom after the fall of the Soviet Union is now well under way. The Pearl of the Baltic, as it was once known, is back — and as bright and bewitching as ever.
Since most of the best of Riga is concentrated in and around its quasi-medieval Old Town, called Vecriga, you’ll probably wish to headquarter there. Conveniently, Riga’s finest hotel, the Grand Palace, is located there too. According to owner Paul Oberscheider, the working image he had in mind when he set out to create the Grand Palace was that of “noblemen traveling around turn-of-the-century Europe, picking up art and antiques.”
Luxuriate in one of the 56 individually decorated rooms, equipped with vast canopy beds and gleaming Art Deco bathrooms, or recline in the resplendent Pils Bar with its orchestra of plush leather sofas and antler candlesticks. Other features include two superb restaurants, the Orangerie, which has its own canary to serenade you at breakfast, and the sumptuous Seasons. There is also an art-adorned exercise room complete with sauna. Overseeing the circus of the senses is veteran hotelier Bernhard Loew, a friendly but firm Austrian who could double for the hotel manager in Grand Hotel.
Close behind the Grand Palace, but completely different in look and feel, is the ultra-modern Park Hotel, whose aptly named Piramida restaurant is housed in a stunning glass pyramid. The building which the Park replaced was the setting for one of the battles between pro- and anti-Soviet forces which raged across Riga during the last days of the Latvian SSR. Staff will be pleased to show you the bullet holes. There’s history everywhere you look in Riga.
Outstanding, too, are the Hotel de Rome, a converted former Soviet hotel which offers excellent views and a marvelous collection of local art, and the dependable Radisson-SAS Daugava, which is a shuttle ride out of town.
Begin your Riga ramble at historic Dome Square and the great Dome Cathedral. Founded in 1211 by Bishop Albert of Bremen, this living museum of architecture contains elements of many second millennium styles, as well as the world’s fourth largest pipe organ. Of he is in the mood, the pastor may even let you play a few chords on the 6,768 pipes.
From there, you can saunter over to St Peter’s church. Destroyed many times over, most recently by the Nazis when they drove the Soviets out in 1941, its wooden tower, now replaced by a steel replica, was once the highest in Europe. Rebuilt in 1973, it is still one of the Baltic region’s finest examples of Gothic architecture. Take the elevator up to the 123m peak and marvel at the 360 degree view of the recrudescent metropolis of 800,000, which seems to be reawakening from its half-century sleep beneath you.
Then let your eye follow the wide Daugava River as it flows into the Baltic over the horizon. Startle the aged elevator man out of his sleep as you descent with a casual paldies or “thanks.” Back on earth visit the sprawling Riga Museum of History, which has half a million items on display, including the sword belonging to the city’s original executioner, and the severed hand of a 16th century forger.
Equally blood-curdling stuff is on view at the Occupation Museum, a harrowing place dedicated to preserving the history of Latvia under both Soviet and Nazi occupation. Ironically, this massive black box of a museum, which includes a replica of part of a Siberian gulag of the sort where many exiled Latvians spent their last days, originally commemorated the Latvia Red Riflemen, who provided crucial assistance to Lenin during the Russian Revolution. Weirdly, although perhaps not that weirdly for Riga where historical vertigo is par for the course, a Soviet-era statue dedicated to Riflemen stands nearby.
Leave the Old Town via Riga’s most beautiful and hallowed avenue, Brivibas iela, and pay your respects to the Freedom Monument, or Milda, as Latvia’s most famous monument is named after the benign bronze figurine atop the 19m obelisk. Built in 1935 by local architect Karlis Zale, it was left standing by the Soviets, who apparently feared a revolt if they destroyed it. However the KGB would arrest anyone who came near, and the act of leaving flowers at its base was good for a one-way ticket to Siberia. Hence its potency as a symbol for today’s Latvians, who continue to leave bouquets while an honour guard of stone-faced Latvian soldiers watch on.
Reward yourself with a power lunch and rub elbows with today’s movers and shakers at Piramida. Try Ridzenes’ famous fish soup, followed by carpaccio roulette filled with herb cheese.
After dining, take a walk around the city and admire Jugendstil, the German form of Art Nouveau architecture for which Riga is famous. Here you’ll find the largest concentration of Art Nouveau buildings in the world, dating from the late 19th and early 20th centuries when the city was Imperial Russia’s most prosperous port. Check out the buildings at Elizabetes 10a and 10b, and Alberta 2, 2a, 8, and 13, all designed by Art Nouveau master Mikhail Eisenstein, father of the great Soviet film director Sergei Eisenstein.
Thus refreshed, re-enter the Old Town at Smilsu Street, one of the oldest surviving streets of the old city, and behold the Powder Tower. Built in the 14th century as part of this former Baltic fortress town’s original fortifications, the tower’s walls were built 2.5m thick to withstand artillery attack — just in time, too, to judge from the cannonballs still lodged in it. The fascinating Latvia Museum of War extends from it.
Walk through the passageway called the Swedish gate, built in 1698 to commemorate Swedish rule. Finally, rendezvous with the Three Brothers, a trio of merry-looking buildings dating from the 15th, 17th, and 18th centuries respectively. The middle brother, a mosaic-faced chap built in Dutch Mannerist style, is especially striking. But don’t tell his brothers.
Celebrate your conquest of Riga in style at the Seasons restaurant. Try boiled sturgeon á la royale, or grilled ostrich with spinach croquettes and red wine sauce. For a nightcap, it is worth paying a visit to Casablanca, a popular bar with its own TV channel that is just around the corner. It is also worth having breakfast one morning at Osiris. This is the flagship restaurant of Andrejs Zagars, a dynamic Latvian who doubles as general manager of the city’s opera house. Try the omelette Osiris with a Mimosa.
Before you wander around, make sure you pick up a free copy of Riga in your Pocket from your hotel. Riga Castle in the Old Town was once the home of the master of the Livonian Order of Knights, now the official residence of the popular president Vaire Vike-Freiberga. If you’re lucky, you can catch a glimpse of her bright red hair. Slink by the Cat House, a 17th century manor house with two black cat sculptures atop it, erected in anger after the own was ejected by the Great Guild across the street.
Lunch at Eastern Border, a totalitarian-themed restaurant-cum-theatre, is a wild experience. Lined with display cases containing busts of Stalin and other Soviet memorabilia, this quirky hotspot also serves excellent food. The beautiful, dead-pan waitresses will help you make your selection form the 150 choices on offer. Enjoy dishes like Mexican-style pork while you watch, transfixed, a montage of Soviet propaganda films. Afterwards, have a coffee at Mozums, or Liveliness in Latvian, a hip café on Skunu Street which is popular among poets and politicians and decorated with the work of local artists and photographers.
One of the first decisions Latvia took following its new independence was to restore the great 19th century opera house. Between September to June, you can see the Latvian National Opera or Ballet here. Set amidst the gold leaf of this jewellery box of a theatre, the bravura performance staged by Zagars, a real showman-cum-entrepeneur, are astonishing. The one I caught of Nutcracker Suite certainly was.
The place to dine afterwards is Vincents; this posh eatery is the creation of British-Latvian Martin Ritins and has been a local institution since it opened in 1993. Try the goat’s cheese and thyme soufflé, avocado and shrimp salad, followed by roasted lamb in herb crust. Or sidle over to Symposium, one of Zagars’ other outstanding spots, which boasts one of the best wine lists in town. The fried veal fillet glazed in red wine is a sure bet.
Try out your Latvian chat-up lines at the trendy Deco Bar, a cozy bar-cum-disco around the corner that is part of the elegant Berga Bazars arcade. Or zoom up to the skyline Bar, a fashionable watering hole on the 26th floor of the Hotel Latvia, whence you can peer into the pulsating Riga night.
It’s worth reserving your last morning for shopping. The Grand Palace provides a free limo service, so have your driver drop you off at the teeming Central Market, housed in a group of old Zeppelin hangars, where you can buy anything form hand-knits to smoked fish. The Dzintara galerija is a good place for amber, the national gem. Volmars has a good selection of Russian icons and bric-a-brac. If it’s Soviet-era souvenirs you’re after, march on down to Galerija; I found an authentic model of Soviet MiG fighter there.
Finally, a trip to Riga is not complete without a visit to the magnificent State Museum of Fine Arts and its vault of 14,000 paintings, including works by many early 20th century masters. If you don’t manage it the first time, then all the more reason to make a return visit.