Review by Fiona Duncan, published 28th December 2004.
I never thought it would be so much fun. I went to Latvia’s capital for a weekend of sober culture under northern skies. I returned having had a frivolous and indulgent escapade.
By far the largest of the three Baltic capitals, Riga is a cosmopolitan city that has been compared to Paris for its elegance. But I also anticipated a gritty, hard-working place with a distinctly Russian flavour and – according to the guide book – a numbing number of museums, from Pharmacy to Fire-fighting. We went mainly for the varied architecture, especially the much-vaunted art nouveau. What we’d reckoned without was the music, the flowers, the huge range of restaurants, the cakes and the cocktails and the beauty salons, all at such low prices that it seemed a crime not to take advantage of them.
Driving from the sleek silver and glass airport just ten minutes out of town, Riga looked much as I had imagined: handsome but a touch forbidding. Large-scale buildings bordered a daunting river (the Daugava) and passers-by were bundled up and bent to the wind now that the long light days of summer had drawn to a close. It was, after all, only a little over a decade ago that Latvia and its Balkan brethren Estonia and Lithuania threw off their Soviet shackles and won independence, finally joining the E.U. in May 2004. Even now, over half the population of Riga are of Russian descent, and Russian is widely spoken.
The first surprise was our hotel, the Grand Palace, perfectly situated in the cobbled Old Town (Vecriga) and much more gracious and luxurious than we had expected for the price.The next was the flowers. Wrapped up and ready to tackle the streets, we poked our heads in to the hotel’s dining room to see what all the noise was about. It was a family gathering, whose rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’, far from the tinny, out-of-tune effort we’re used to, was a rich chorus, with descant. Then came the flowers, armfuls of them, bouquet after bouquet. “It’s normal; we’re crazy about flowers in Riga”, we were told.
And so they are. We bought bunches of sweet peas from a pavement stall, noticed girls holding bouquets as they walked arm-in-arm with their boyfriends, and strolled in the flower market that borders the park. There’s even a flower stall open 24 hours a day in Riga. Music is a necessity for Latvians, potently expressed in the National Song Festival, held every five years since 1873, at the culmination of which 30,000 people sing in unison. The sound of it is everywhere in Riga. Buskers – violinists, saxophonists, guitarists, cellists, singers – stand on street corners. I met a waiter who was an opera buff, a taxi driver who sang in a choir, a beautician who had toured England with her wind ensemble. We went to a piano recital in the gorgeously opulent Wagner Hall for just a pound each and discovered that £14 would buy the very best seats at the Latvian National Opera.
As for food, it’s easy to be greedy here. Trudging purposefully to the grim but fascinating Museum of Occupation, housed appropriately in a Soviet slab of a building, we paused to read the menu outside a cosy cellar café, Vecmeita Ar Kaki, which, we remembered, had been recommended to us. It informed us that we could have a plate of beef stroganoff for £1.50 and so we dived in, though it wasn’t quite lunchtime.Continuing along the same street, Maza Pils, we came across the Three Brothers, a row of charming houses that neatly represent Riga’s architectural development from medieval to baroque. Almost opposite was a tiny Viennese-style café, Kafijas veikals, where it seemed silly not to have a huge frothy cappuccino and a pastry for less than a pound, despite having just had lunch.
And so it continued. We did see the wonderful, jaw-dropping concentration of art nouveau buildings around Elizabetes Street, every bit as extravagant as we’d heard. And we explored the Old Town where we found open squares dotted with cafés, narrow, roughly cobbled streets lined by old Germanic merchants’ houses, all sorts of churches from wooden to onion-domed, and fine guild halls, including the restored House of Blackheads with its magnificent Dutch Renaissance façade. But instead of taking the lift to the top of St Peter’s Church for its famous cityscape, we took the exterior glass one to the Skyline Bar on the 29th floor of the Revel Hotel, and saw the same view from there, cocktails in hand. And, while my husband went to Mentzendorff Nams, an old merchant house turned museum, I discovered the beauty salons.
Riga is stiff with beauty salons. Latvian women love to look good: there are, it is said, more hair stylists per capita in Riga than anywhere else in Europe. I slipped into one for a manicure, which cost a mere £8 (as opposed to £22 in my local salon) so I stayed for an hour-long massage for £14 (£46), and a facial for £15 (£46). I debated having a ‘hot chocolate procedure’ but decided that enough was enough. I was ready for a night at the opera.
As well as being notable for its young directors and daring productions, Riga’s must be one of the loveliest opera houses in Europe, at once intimate and grand, a frothy, almost edible confection of gold leaf against pistachio ice-cream walls. Which brings me back to food, never far from my mind in Riga. Standards are high and prices very low and you can eat anything from Argentinian to Ukranian, Turkish to Tex-Mex. We seemed to eat all weekend, in a variety of places from sleek and modern to cosy and traditional, filling any remaining gaps with delicious pastries and cups of rich, velvety hot chocolate. The best fun was the huge, animated, pseudo -rustic Lido a ten-minute cab ride from the centre. Pseudo it may be, but it’s a Latvian experience (plus ice rink) with an array of national dishes, beer brewed on the premises, waitresses in traditional garb and, of course, music, all at prices that put several more beauty treatments within my grasp. Clothes, for some reason, are expensive in Riga. Which was quite a relief really.
Cox & Kings (020 7873 5000; www.coxandkings.co.uk) offers a three-night break at the Grand Palace Hotel for £485 per person, including flights, hotel accommodation with breakfast, and private transfers. Cox & Kings’ new Treasures of Eastern Europe brochure features short breaks and tours to Latvia and throughout Eastern Europe. Eating outAs well as Lido Atputas Centrs, Krasta 76, Melnie Muki (Black Monk) has an enormous global menu which the chef somehow pulls off, and a warm atmosphere. Its sister restaurant, Fabrikas restorans, Balasta dambis 70, makes a chic contrast in a converted harbour warehouse. Vecmeita Ar Kaki. Maza Pils I, is a popular café for lunch, and Kafijas veikals, Maza Pils 6, a tiny, velvet- upholstered coffee shop.What it costs for twoFlights and three nights’ accommodation £970Three-course dinners at Melnie Muki, Fabrikas restorans and Lido £58 Beauty treatments £37 Museum entrances £4. Total £1069