Tourists in their thousands visit the Baltic region on cruise ships every year, but how many have actually explored the region or stayed in one of the Baltic countries for a few days. Very few I would suggest, but I have done just that, 4 nights in Riga the ancient capital of Latvia.
Boarding an almost new Air Baltic Bombardier jet at Gatwick Airport is the first step on the two and a half hour flight to Riga arriving at its modern airport late in the afternoon. From here it’s a short ride to the Radisson Blu Hotel in the centre of the city which is to be my home. Situated close to the world renowned old town it makes for the ideal location. Unpacked, changed into warm clothes, it’s now time to step out and explore Riga.
Beginning life in 1201, Riga now has a population of nearly a million people, the largest city, not just in Latvia but also amongst the Baltic States. Situated on the Gulf of Riga it’s divided into two areas by the River Daugava making it an ideal port stop for the many cruise ships travelling the Baltic during the summer months, but now it is winter and Riga takes on a new set of clothes. Trees decorated with golden twinkling lights, colourful illuminated decorations hang from lamp posts, office and apartment windows have clusters of small lights, building exteriors and facades are decorated, yes, Christmas is nearly here.
From the hotel, the ‘Old Town’ is just a few minutes stroll away, through the park. Bustling with tourists from all over the world during the day, roaming the cobbled streets and walkways, photographing the ornate buildings, beautiful churches and squares that have stood the test of time whilst accompanied by guides relating the fascinating history of Riga. Dome Square, the main square in the old town, stalls with steam ascending to the sky in the cold air from hot food and mulled wine, others with craft items, cured meats, cakes, biscuits and Christmas decorations. Home to the Dome Cathedral, its foundation stone being laid back in 1211, now considered to be the largest medieval church in the Baltics, the pipe organ boasting 6,718 pipes being the second largest in Latvia and home to many concerts for the last 100 years.
At night, the ‘Old Town’ takes on yet another set of clothes. The area comes alive, buildings illuminated by concealed flood lights bathing them in a picture of haunting beauty their beautiful stone work standing out against the black night sky, cobbled streets shining from the footsteps of centuries, restaurants exude aromas of national and international dishes, bars and taverns, their music dwarfed by the chatter of happy revellers. It’s cold but the happy throng of people appear unaffected by it.
When it’s time to eat you are literally spoilt for choice, how many restaurants there are is a matter of conjecture but estimates place it in excess of 1,000, but before visiting one indulge in a champagne aperitif, stop by at Modernist Champagne Boutique and delight in a glass from their amazing selection. Talk with the owner, Martins, a young Latvian who certainly knows his champagnes. The premises are furnished with ‘Modernist’ works giving a wonderful ‘Arty Design’ feel to the premises. From here it’s a short walk to Restaurant Mute, sample their mouth-watering slow-cooked pork in a honey glaze served with smoked potato shallot salad, washed down by a large glass of local rose wine.
You may also wish to visit the Garage Restaurant, a wine bar with a difference, the difference being, the food is exceptionally good. Start with a selection of tapas, move onto a dish of veal entrecote in a peppercorn sauce, sample the crackers encrusted with pepper to accompany your ice cream desert and being a wine bar the choice is vast.
Niklavs Restaurant in the Old Town was a delight. Green salad with goat cheese, beetroot with raspberry sauce to start and chicken fillets in bacon complimented with a hot pepper-black current sauce had my taste buds tingling with delight.
For lunch, the Rocket Bean Roastery is a must, located on Miera Street in an old sock factory and opened in 2015, this is something different, restaurant at the front, coffee roasting at the rear. The food is excellent and to finish, the perfect cup of coffee made from beans that have been personally selected by the owner and roasted on the premises.
If you have a spare day, and can draw yourself away from the delights of Riga, visit the town of Sigulda, 53 kilometres north of Riga on the Gauja river valley and within the Gauja National Park, Latvia’s largest. Both train and bus take just over the hour and the cost compared with the UK is minimal, €5 return on the bus. With hills, valleys, trees, castles and spectacular views across vast snow covered landscapes in winter the area is often referred to as ‘The Switzerland of Vidzeme’. Tour the Sigulda Medieval Castle built by the Livonian Brothers of the Sword in 1207. Although now in ruins it’s still possible to wander certain parts, walk the castle walls, climb narrow stone stairways to the top of the North Tower and Main Gate Tower and enjoy panoramic views across the countryside from these elevated positions. Ever used a cross bow, now is the opportunity to test your skills on the range. Under the watchful eye of an instructor try and hit the targets which, only yards away, always seem to prove illusive. During the summer months of June, July and August the large lawns become concert areas, entertaining thousands who travel from all over the region to be entertained by the famous, or, for the energetic, hiking, walking and cycling trails becomes a journey of discovery in the warm sunshine. Before moving on explore the small craft shops and boutiques in the castle complex, admire the exquisite handmade jewellery with rings of unique design, necklaces that would not look out of place on the most expensive attire or just enjoy a cup of coffee whilst surrounded by all this beauty.
For the more daring a trip to the Sigulda Bobsleigh Track is a must but it’s not for the faint-hearted. This will bring back memories for anyone who saw the film, ‘Cool Runnings’. Leave your camera, phone, rucksack behind, put on a crash helmet and climb aboard the 4 seater padded bobsleigh. Hold on tight, 3, 2, 1, and you’re off, hurtling down an ice corridor at speeds up to 50mph, entering ‘S’ bends at what appears to be stomach curdling speed as the ‘bob’ rises up the ice wall to angles you never dreamt possible. Travelling on, the wind whistling past your helmet as you enter more bends, turns, rises and falls before the ‘bob’ finally reaches an uphill incline and slows to a stop. For the €10 ticket it’s better than any fun fair ride, lasts just over a minute but will give memories that last for ever. Yes, I did it and would do it again. This attraction is open year round so even if visiting in the summer you can still test your nerve.
The snow is falling again, time for lunch at the Sigulda Hotel, and, being Sunday it has to be roast dinner presented and served, of course, by the chef. A warming Latvian beef broth with wild mushrooms and pearl barley followed by slow cooked pork leg that’s so tender it melts in the mouth, accompanied by butter-fried potatoes and blessed with a Valmiermuiza beer reduction sauce. Try the ginger biscuit and roast apple sorbet ball for dessert, you will wonder why you have never had it before.
The area even boasts its own wine maker, but a wine maker with a difference, the wines are made from fruit and flowers. Situated in the grounds of Krimulda Manor the Cremon Winery operated by Janis Mikans is famous across Latvia and is the recipient of awards on an almost annual basis since its inception. Starting life in 2007 with an output of 40 litres this has grown to 20,000 litres in 2016 featuring 14 different flavours, 7 flavours of liqueur, a Calvados that sets the taste buds afire and word has it, there is new one on the way. Dandelion & lilac, cherry, raspberry, blueberry, buckthorn and rowan are just some of the excellent flavours that make this winery so different.
No visit to Riga would be complete without going to the opera. The Latvian National Opera House, known locally as ‘Riga’s White House’ constructed in classicism style, completed in 1863 is a work of beauty. This imposing building, painted white with concealed lighting makes the exterior at night something to stand and admire.
The 3 balcony high auditorium, adorned with liberal use of gilt and gold leaf combined with rich red velvet seating and curtains adds that touch of richness to the occasion. People in Riga dress quite formally on these occasions adding to the ambience, an excellent production of ‘Nabucco’ a moving story based on the books of Jeremiah and Daniel from the Old Testament and first performed in 1842 makes for a night to remember. Prices are very reasonable with seats in the stalls at €20.
The question, is this somewhere to come for a long weekend, the answer has to be a resounding yes, summer or winter it makes for the perfect location. There is much to see and do and I haven’t even mentioned the Riga Motor Museum being the largest antique museum for vehicles in the Baltic, Chocolate Museum of Laima who have been making chocolate since 1870, Riga Central Market, Europe’s largest market and bazaar of 3,000 stalls held in what were German Zeppelin hangers and so much more.
For me the time went by too quickly, there was much more I wanted to see and explore but it was not to be, so a return trip is definitely on the cards. Thank you Riga.
Air Baltic www.airbaltic.com
Radisson Hotels www.radissonblu.com
Investment & Development Agency of Latvia www.latvia.travel
Sigulda Tourist Information Centre www.tourism.sigulda.lv
Mute Restaurant www.mutefood.lv
Niklavs Restaurant www.restoransniklavs.lv
Garage Restaurant www.vinabars.lv
Hotel Sigulda Restaurant hotel www.hotelsigulda.lv