LATVIA Roam­ing and ro­mance in Riga

The Jewish Chronicle - - Travel -

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

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