If you look at a map of the vast continent that comprises Europe and Asia, you'll see a string of imperial powers, from the once-Great Britain in the west to today's rising China in the east. Russia, still the largest country on earth, dominates the eastern half. At the crossroads between Russia and Scandinavia, and the rest of Europe, lie the three Baltic states. The middle of the Baltic states is Latvia, and the bullseye of this entire global game is Rīga, its capital.
Knowing where Rīga is, you can see why it's been dominated by so many different peoples. Even today, only a minority of Rigans speak Latvian as their first language. Since its founding by Germans 800 years ago, the city has been German, Swedish (it was then the largest seaport in the Swedish Empire), Russian, German again in the Nazi era, Russian again in the Soviet era, and finally independent, since 1991. Its first female president, Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga, who guided her native country into the European Union, had spent most of her life in Canada.
Visitors (other than stag parties) are still a relatively new phenomenon in Latvia, and we were welcomed accordingly. At least in Rīga, the people helping us spoke excellent English, even though it was probably their third language. Compared with Paris or London (The Discreet Traveler loves both, by the way) it is very inexpensive, both to get to and stay in. All the restoration work since independence, though, means that Rīga is an extremely beautiful city to walk around in (it helped that we had nice weather). It has more Art Nouveau buildings, for example, than any other city in the world.
Twenty years ago things were very different. Everyone lived in grim, Soviet-style apartment blocks. There were no people of color or different cultural backgrounds. Today, Latvia, like other E. U. countries, is starting to accept immigrants from other parts of the world, but in those days the only foreign visitors would have been put up in the Hotel Latvija (what is now the Radisson Blu):
At that time the hotel had whole floors dedicated to spying on the guests, and room keys were cumbersome with clunky listening devices. But nowadays it's known for its Skyline Bar, from which we got a wonderful nighttime view of the city (register for the hotel's frequent user points program and you can get in for free).
In the foreground here, you'll see the Freedom Monument. At its base are Latvians striving for freedom; during the Soviet era, laying flowers here would get you sent to Siberia. Curiously, though, the Soviets left the monument in place, preferring to say that the female figure represented Russia holding up Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. (Freedom is actually shown holding the three regions of Latvia.)
Symbols, you see, are very important. Some of the toilets were what I like to call bisexual, a freeing touch, but others bore a curious triangle-circle version of the "male/female" signs. The male symbol is based on the idea that men are all broad shoulders and tapered waists (they wish), while the female symbol, like its Western counterpart, reduces women to a skirt. Be warned.
If you're expecting food in Rīga to be all borscht and potatoes (not that there's anything wrong with that), I fear you'll be disappointed. Everything we had was excellent, whether Russian, Latvian, sushi, or lattes--the last of these universally wonderful! I can't speak for the entire country, but my overall impression was of a very forward-looking place. Latvia has just joined the euro and is in a position to appreciate how much it has gained from the E. U. I realize many Europeans feel quite another way, and I wonder if they appreciate their privileged position.
Some of the most striking buildings in Rīga have been restored from blueprints after bombing destruction, notably the "Blackheads House" and the town hall. The spire of St. Peter's Church (13th century, like the city) has been rebuilt more than once. We got great views from it--you can only go 65 m up, but it has the great merit of having an elevator!
We took time out on a beautiful Friday to visit Jūrmala ("seaside"), at the end of the suburban train line. This was the spa destination for all of the U.S.S.R. It lies on the Baltic Sea, where the River Daugava empties into the Bay of Rīga. I heard it can be chock full in summer, but the beach was almost deserted, and we walked for miles without seeing a single Russian oligarch or trophy wife. (There were a couple of hardy elderly women charging into the sea or down the beach in their swimsuits, though.) The woods come right up to the sand so nothing is spoiled by development. The wooden houses are gorgeous, too, reminding us of Lakeside, Ohio, but I understand they cost millions!
This pristine sand aside, there were a few places I've been that Jūrmala reminded me of. With the unspoiled woods in between the seaside and the railroad tracks, at one point I thought of the late, great train station in South River, Ontario, from where I've set off to canoe adventures in Algonquin Park. Other times we felt like we were on the Toronto Islands. Don't miss the food at 36 Line, a top Russian restaurant on the beach that serves wonderful alus (beer) and pelmeņi (dumplings; think pierogi although I'm sure that must offend somebody). Mine were filled with lamb, in seasonal mushroom broth and with my favorite food in the world: sour cream. If you can't spring for that, try the hot dogs wrapped in crescent roll at the Rīga train station; their skin-snapping goodness took me back to the Cleveland Zoo of my childhood. Don't forget to practice English with the charming, though drunk, Latvian man on the train.
They were filming a period piece outside one of the Art Nouveau buildings on Albert Street. (There were a lot of streets like this with curious names: Albert, Elizabeth, Richard Wagner.) It's hard to walk through this city without constantly photographing. But the most moving picture from my trip was this one.
Thanks to our friend who is a native, we were able to see the opening night of her mom's play in the Art Deco Splendid Theatre. The play was in Russian, of which I know "yes" and "no," so it's safe to say I was relying on visual cues. But it was a great and flower-filled atmosphere, and afterwards I got to meet Sergey Ustinov, a Russian crime novelist. With help from his English-speaking daughter, he shared with me this joke from an American movie:
Non-writer: What do you do for a living?
Writer: I write bestsellers.
Non-writer: Oh? And how are they selling?
Writer: Not too well!
He also quoted to me Leo Tolstoy's advice "if you can not write, don't." Well, I said to Mr. Ustinov, it didn't work for Tolstoy...