LATVIA Roaming and romance in Riga
sian, Swedish and German rule for centuries. Both Napoleon and Hitler saw it and its Baltic neighbours, Estonia and Lithuania, as the gateway to Russia. But all that changed in April 1942 when the Allies handed the Baltic nations to Russia as a sweetener to help them
Nazi Germany. In fact, if you are to understand anything about Riga, a visit to the city’s Museum of the Occupations has to be at the top of your “to do” list. The museum captures the painful history of Riga, from 1941 when the Nazis marched in, to 1944 when the Russians came storming back, between which events 60,000 Jews were slaughtered in death camps.
The country’s struggle for independence helps to explain how much they appreciate their freedom — expect to see plenty of outdoor concerts, lots of communal hugging and a warm welcome from everyone you meet.
I began my Riga visit checking in to the Ainavas, a stylish boutique hotel in a converted 15th-century building in the heart of the old town. Ainavas in Latvian means “landscape”, and every one of the 21 rooms is uniquely designed to draw something from the Latvian landscape. It is a charming place, with luxuriously appointed rooms, heated bathroom floors, terry robes and down duvets. Its cellar restaurant delivers superb buffet breakfasts, but a fine, gourmet menu offers limited choices for kosher-observant diners.
Riga is a walking city and just the right size for a weekend break. The his- toric Old Town, that winds down to the river, has been fully restored to its former pastel-washed glory and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
It contains many hidden gems, including Europe’s fourth largest stock of Art Nouveau buildings that you’ll spot as you explore its maze of little winding streets flanked by Germanic merchants’ houses and magnificent onion-dome churches and dotted with big open squares lined with cafés.
The centre-piece of old Riga is the town square with its fine guild halls, including the restored House of Blackheads with its magnificent Dutch Renaissance façade.
The Central Market — once a hangar for five enormous World War One Zeppelins — now houses a huge indoor food market, each hangar offering a different speciality, from fruit and veg to dairy produce and fish.
Built at the mouth of the Daugava River which splits the city, Riga has no shortage of boat rides, though a river cruise is not a trip laden with great architectural sights.
The modern part of Riga, across Bastekalns Park, is all hustle and bustle and contains everything you would expect from a busy city slowly coming to terms with finally having an independent lifestyle, including bars, clubs, music and fashion and a wealth of good quality hotels.
Finding good places to eat in Riga is about as difficult as boiling a kettle. A good example is the Black Monk. One of Riga’s most popular restaurants, it is built inside an ancient cloister near the old city walls. A former presiden- tial chef delivers the kind of quality you would have to book weeks ahead for in a comparable London restaurant. It offers beautifully cooked dishes — though not many for the kosher-observant — from an extensive menu at prices that are almost too low to believe — and with wine included.
For lunch, you have to sample Riga’s culinary must-have — its black rye bread. This is not just any old rye; it is Rupjmaize. This hand-made bread has a taste and texture unlike any other rye breads you’ve had before. Its strong taste, high nutritional value and almost miraculous ability to stay fresh, is achieved by a long and painstaking process using natural malt.
You could take a short bus or cab ride to the North West corner of Riga and visit another piece of history, the abandoned Spilve Airport. In heavy use during Soviet times, the facade of the main terminal building is still adorned with a hammer and sickle.
A visit to the city’s Jewish museum is important to understand the true horrors that befell the Jews in Riga. Housed in what, before the war, was the home of Riga’s Yiddish Theatre — parts of which can still be viewed — the exhibits graphically reveal the hardships and horrors faced by the Jews of the region. Visitors learn about the ghettos set up in Riga to ensure that all the Jews were held in a single area, and then wiped out in one of the worst single atrocities of the Nazi era, the massacre at Rumbula Forest.
It was there on November 30 and December 8, 1941 that some 27,000 Jews were executed and dumped in mass graves in the forest on the outskirts of Riga.
Now close to a busy four-lane highway that leads to Moscow, and no more than a 10-minute cab ride from the city centre, the Rumbula Forest Memorial is a sombre reminder of man’s inhuamnity to man.
Intriguingly, the people at the site, learning about the happenings there, are as likely to be Latvians hearing about their country’s past, as foreign visitors.
Under Soviet rule, Latvians were given only scant information about their history in the 20th century, and there was neither the will nor the opportunity to examine the Nazi era until Latvia regained independence.
As Margers Vestermanis director of the Jewish Museum said: “Western Europe has had 65 years to discuss the Holocaust openly and honestly. Latvia has had barely a decade.” The memo-
Riga’s Town Square, part of the Old Town, now a UNESCO World Heritage site
A standard guest room in Riga’s Ainavas Boutique Hotel