HOW I FELL IN LOVE WITH LATVIA (TRUE STORY)

This past June I visited Riga, the capital of Latvia, once known as the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic, as part of a series of articles about what’s happening in the Baltic/Nordic region for The Christian Science Monitor, where I am a correspondent (see my dispatches from Latvia and Sweden below). Something else happened while I was there: I fell in love with Latvia.

Here’s how it happened as I told Majas Viesis, a Latvian travel magazine, in this squib I worked up after I returned from my too brief, and enchanting revisit:

“I had a very pleasant memory of Riga from my first two visits to the city a decade ago, so when I had the opportunity to return to the city to renew my acquaintance with the “Paris of the North”—and perhaps see some more of Latvia in June while I was at it—I jumped at it.

And, of course, since it was summer—or nearly so—I had to return to Jurmala, the fragrant beachside annex of Riga as well.

The Grand Palace

The Grand Palace

I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised when I made my long-awaited return to Riga last month. I had half-expected it to be overrun with tourists and to have lost some of its character in the process, the same sad fate which has fallen Riga’s sister capital of Tallinn. However although there were considerably more tourists this time, I was relieved to find the capital’s elegantly casual character gloriously intact.

First and foremost of the highlights of this trip, I have to say, was my hotel, the splendiferous Grand Palace, the five-star hostelry which had been my base of operations during my original stay and where I decided to stay again. At the time the Grand Palace, Riga’s first five star hotel and a member of the Schlossle hotel chain, had no competition. It still doesn’t (in my humble opinion). Of all the great and grand hotels in the Baltic region where I have bivouacked, the Grand Palace is truly unique—an elegant hostelry which at once offers all the features which one expects from a hotel of its class, including an in house gourmet restaurant and turn-down service et al, while having the coziness and personal feeling of a boutique establishment.

The barman at the Palace

The barman at the Palace

One of the reasons, if not the principal reason, for this delightful state of affairs is Bernhard Loew, the Grand Palace’s manager par excellence. Bernhard, an Austrian native who came to Riga in 2000, had been my host during my first two stays a decade before, so I was naturally pleased to find him at his post once again, standing in the lobby, helping one guest with his luggage while simultaneously offering tips about the best places to eat to another, while keeping his cool, as if he neither he nor I had never left.

Misha, at your service

Misha, at your service

I was also tickled to reunite with the hotel’s avian mascot, Misha, an ebullient cockatiel who had previously been posted at the bar of the Grand Palace’s sister hotel in Tallinn, the St. Petersbourg: evidently the powers that be felt that Misha would be happier in the larger main dining room of the Grand Palace and had transferred him (presumably with his permission), to the Riga branch. So, there Misha was, perched in the same cage where I had last seen him three years ago in Tallinn, contentedly looking over my shoulder when I sat down for breakfast on my first morning in Riga. Of course, Misha recognized me. However Misha has a bit of an attitude problem—perhaps it comes with being a five star mascot—and after a brief nod of recognition, he returned to contemplating the avian verities. But that was ok.

With these two old friends looking out for me, I couldn’t go wrong during my week long stay in Riga, and I didn’t.

This was a working vacation for me so I didn’t have quite as much time for sight-seeing as I would have liked. For me bicycling around this ever-enchanting city, through the winding streets of the Old Town was a treat onto itself. I also discovered something else about Riga: it’s a great city to bike around in, especially on a crystal clear June day. (It’s also the best way of getting to appointments, I found, if you don’t mind biking over extreme cobblestone, which can take some getting used to).

Riga is also full of surprises, of both the jarring and beatific kind.

The Old Town

The Old Town

I remember in particular how happy I was one morning when I biked across the Daugava, past the stunning new National Library, with no particular destination in mind, and wound up arriving at the monumental, and still fearsome Soviet Victory Memorial, which I had heard about but never experienced myself. For one reason or another, the Memorial, which I take it is not as beloved as some of Riga’s other monuments (at least by Latvian speakers), the elephantine cenotaph and surrounding park, was completely deserted, except for a single skateboarder. Whatever one thinks of the dread “Soviet time” that came after, one still has to respect the sacrifice of the Russian soldiers who fought to liberate then Nazi-occupied Latvia from Berlin’s grip.

I would have to say that it was much more pleasant chatting with the swans in the deserted park across the way (I believe they were Latvian speakers, but I could be wrong about that).

Cycling back to the Old Town, I decided it would be nice to have a cup of coffee and write a little and I wound up in a delightful little café called Café Kazu, which makes a mean cappuccino and quickly became one of my favorite hangouts (Kazu also offers a mean buffet for a place that seats ten). That’s another thing about Riga, as well as how the city has improved: it’s a café-lover’s paradise, with a wonderful variety of cafes, old and new, to fit all tastes. Another more elegant and exotic coffee house which I adored was the atmospheric, book-filled Café Sienna in the Art Nouveau district.

Speaking of which, I also was entranced with the city’s singular and exquisite Art Nouveau District, with its block after block of perfectly preserved Jugenstil era buildings, which I had not properly explored on my original visit, which took place while Latvia was still emerging from the dark ages of the “Soviet time,” and was not entirely safe, or at least safe enough to absent-mindedly—I am very absent-minded—walk around with an expensive camera. That’s another thing which has changed about Riga. It is very safe.

Unfortunately, however, I am still absent-minded. I almost fell off my bike several times admiring the elaborate, well-preserved faces and other ornamentation of the turn-of-the-century edifices of the Quiet District, as this mammoth architectonic gem, which has no equivalent in the world, is also, deservedly, called. Oh yes, did I mention that Riga is quiet? (And clean and well-maintained too, another improvement on the “old” Riga.)

Of course I also paid a return visit to the fabulous Skybar on the 26th floor of the Radisson Blu Hotel, certainly the best view in town, if not the best view in the Balts. There is nothing quite like watching the sun set, insofar as it does set in June (barely), from the Skybar.

The girls of Jormala

The girls of Jurmala

On a serious note, I also paid a memorable visit to the Jews in Latvia Museum, where I was reminded of the great—and tragic—history of Riga’s once great Jewish community, which stretches back to the 13th century, and which was all but annihilated during the German occupation of Latvia from 1941-44, before recovering (to a degree: there are now 15,000 Jews in Latvia, most of them emigrants from Russia).

Of course, because it was summer, or nearly so, and the weather was with me, I had to go back to the beach at Jurmala, which I was pleased to find as lovely as I remembered it, and where I whiled away a pleasant day toasting in the sun, and “walking into the sea” as one can do at that gently sloping resort.

However as much as I loved both Riga and Jurmala, I also wanted to see some more of Latvia as much as I could within the limited amount of time that remained, so, with the aid of a driver graciously supplied by Bernhard, the next day I drove out to the bucolic collegetown of Valmiera, 75 miles northeast of Riga. I really had no idea of what to expect of Valmiera, except that I knew that there was a college there. I just wanted to see what a small Latvian city was like. On the way my driver, Dennis, stopped at a camera shop to get some film for me (I am a film person). The shop was closed—very closed. “Suns dusmigs” said a sign on the gate. What did that mean I asked Dennis. “Angry dogs.” OK. Noted. Now I know the expression for angry dogs.

Kristine in the shadow of the Latvian Monument of Freedom

Kristine in the shadow of the Latvian Monument of Freedom

As far as Valmiera was concerned, I am ashamed to say that I was half-expecting a bare bones, run down sort of town. Instead I wound up encountering a very charming, attractive and modern town complete with a cutting edge mall, and an excellent restaurant (Parks), where I interviewed and befriended a lovely and intelligent waitress by the name of Alice who insisted that I return to her town someday so she could give me a proper tour. I definitely will! (Alice and I have since become correspondents.) Which reminds me of another thing that I like about Latvia and Latvians. In general they are warm and friendly, perhaps a little more so than their “colder” cousins across the border in Estonia (as much as I also love Estonia). And of course it always helps if you speak a few words of the language.

On the way back to Riga, Bernhard also had my driver take me to Sigulda Castle, and I’m very glad he did. It was quite a moment to look from the top of that forbidding crenelated structure—after climbing up the castle’s very long, winding and slightly scary staircase, and look out over the surrounding hills and vales of the Gauja Valley. For a moment I swore that the year was 1615 and there was a posse of Livonian knights from the 14th century in full armor heading my way.

In the event, there weren’t: too much Riga Black Balsam! But Sigulda is definitely a good place to get in touch with your medieval self. Or just flop on the grass and lie in the sun for a while, as I did, after I made my way back down the tower.

That’s another thing I discovered, or rediscovered, about Latvia on this trip: Latvia is green. It doesn’t take long, once you have departed the city limits, before you are enveloped by an endless spool of rows of trees, and lakes, and lakes and trees, and so forth.

By the time I returned to Riga I was already planning my next trip back. In fact, I was so entranced by Latvia that I am even thinking of moving there for a while. We shall see about that. One thing I can tell you though: I have a serious crush on Latvia now. And a new friend in Valmiera named Alice.

In any event, if you happen to make the trek to Riga, not the easiest city to get to from New York, be sure to look up Bernhard and Misha, and tell them that I sent you.

And beware of suns dusmigs!

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