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Riga — a little piece of Latvian heaven

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Originally published: December, 2007

As we walked away from the train station in Riga with map in hand and no reservations, we decided it might be best to stay in the Old Town. But where was it? Crossing the street, we spied a girl walking in the opposite direction and asked her for directions. She graciously agreed to lead us there, saying it was only minutes away. Her English was good for a 17-year-old and she agreed to help us find a hotel.

Alina had just finished purchasing dog food at the outdoor city market and was on her way home to feed her pooch, but she wanted to help us and practice her English. After a few minutes of searching, we checked into the 3-star Forums Hotel, located at one end of the Old Town. It’s a classy, friendly little place with sophisticated rooms complete with cable TV.

Alina, who is Polish, waited for us in the lobby while we washed up. Then the three of us were off to explore the Old Town and have lunch. There is no shortage of eclectic, trippy restos in this city of wonders. We wanted to try John Lemon, listed in our guidebook, a funky ‘60s styled soup and sandwich place with sofas, orange walls, and inexpensive choices including jacket potatoes and homemade soups. It’s on Peldu in the heart of the Old Town. My favorites: cold borscht with cucumber, yogurt, dill, garlic and, of course, beets; and a baked potato rubbed in garlic and stuffed with cottage cheese and chives.

Alina went home after lunch, saying she would meet us the next morning and take us to Jurmula, a beach resort 40 minutes away, by mini-bus. We would spend the day with her strolling on the beach and, as she explained, touring this enchanting place where her family rented a summer home.

You may be wondering why Alina wanted to spend an entire day with us! Perhaps it was an occasion to practice her English. Whatever her reason, the three of us bonded and we looked forward to the next day’s excursion.

After lunch we headed to the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia, an imposing building in the centre of the Old Town. The museum, established in 1993, “shows what happened to Latvians under two occupying totalitarian regimes from 1940 to 1991, remembering the victims of the occupations, those who perished, were persecuted, forcefully deported, or fled the terror of the occupation regimes.” In the dark exhibit hall on two floors, tall, red boards and free standing structures display thousands of artifacts, photos, and historical documents. At one end of the room, you can sit and watch a video on a  small TV screen presenting the history of the Soviet occupation. There is also an audio-visual archive that contains testimonies of those whose lives were influenced by either the Soviet or the Nazi occupation. During the occupations, more than 550,000 Latvians perished, over one third the population.

We decided to see the Museum and Documentation Centre “Jews in Latvia” next. Created in the late ‘80s by a group of survivors of ghettos and concentration camps, the Museum is housed in Riga’s Jewish community building. The historian Margers Veste­rmanis, a former prisoner of the Riga Ghetto and the Kaiserwald concentration camp, headed the group. The collection holds documents, photographs, videotapes and objects testifying to the history of Latvian Jews. There are personal archives of outstan­ding Latvians along the hallways of what was once a school, including Abraham Isaac Kook, the chief Ashkenazi Rabbi in Palestine from 1921; Yeshayahu Leibovitch (1903-1994), Jewish religious thinker; Shimon Dubnov, Jewish historian who perished in the Riga Ghetto; Dr. Noah Maise; Isaiah Berlin, philosopher (1909-1997); and Aron Nimzowitsch (1836-1935), innovative chess player.

The period between 1918-1940, the time of the first Latvian Republic, was the peak of freedom and creativity in the Jewish community. This passage is from the guide to the museum: “What should a Jewish museum be like in a region where everything that was Jewish perished in the Holocaust and where only miraculously preserved tombstones remind us of the past of the Jewish people? Should the Jewish museum in this historical reality be only a collector and trustee of things saved from destruction — relics? Or should it be a memorial of the world that perished forever — in torments and suffering? We choose the last.”

Only 25 km from Riga, Jurmala is best reached by mini-bus, which departs every 15 minutes from the train station and costs about $1. Covered by white sand, the beach stretches over 32 km. There are sections of Jurmala, each with their own beach, but you can walk along the sand from one end to the other if you has have the energy and time.

We stayed around Majori, first touring the main street with its charming shops and outdoor cafés, and then walked to the beach, marveling along the way at the incredible wood mansions, some dating back more than 100 years. What beautiful colors and designs! Some have been converted to hotels, while others are in a dismal state, in need of new owners and investment. Halfway along our beach walk, we stopped at the Baltic Beach Hotel, a Western-like impressive but uninteresting structure, not warranting its high summer rates.

We discovered a sand sculpture exhibit jutting out of the fence surrounding it, between the beach and the boardwalk. We ate in one of the many outdoor cafés. We ordered shrimp, egg and avocado stuffed into the shell of the avocado, and smoked salmon sandwiches. Sitting among locals and tourists from abroad, we felt like we had found a little piece of heaven. We took the train back to Riga for a different kind of adventure, which included viewing the inside of the ancient Jurmala train station.

Back in Riga Once back in Riga, Irwin went off to the internet café while Alina and I took off for the huge shopping mall and my introduction to Latvian fashion, which is European and sophisticated. I bought Alina a little orange purse in a shop across from our hotel and thanked her for the trip to Jurmula and our orientation in Riga. We tearfully said our goodbyes, promising to email.

That evening Irwin and I walked through the Old Town and into the huge Cathedral Square where we searched out ‘Kiploka krogs,’ written up in our guidebook. This cozy den is otherwise known as The Garlic Restaurant, offering up garlic soup, garlic roast chicken, garlic salad, and (although we didn’t try it but wish we had now), garlic ice cream! There is fresh ground garlic to spread on whatever you deem does not have enough! As you leave you will be offered a sprig or two of parsley should you wish to be around anyone else in the next couple of days.

Our favorite restaurant (also a nightclub) that we visited twice is Casablanca. We sat outdoors under the heat lamps. We ordered from the gourmet menu. My favorite was the avocado, shrimp and cucumber soup with a yogurt (leben) base at $7 — exquisite, although the Cold Berry Soup with cream cheese at $5 was equally good. On the first night, we shared it for dessert but, on the second, we each had our own. Irwin enjoyed the lamb and olive tangine, and I found the peas in a bed of mozarella, tomatoes and shitake mushrooms delicious — everything a vegetarian could wish for. On the second night, we both tried the grilled Latvian trout with grilled vegetables ($17 US). Large, spicy and succulent, our fish went well with the outdoor musicians who serenaded us with folksy jazz, long into the night.

We took the city tour of Riga by bus the next day, getting off at two or three spots just to see what the city looked like outside the Old Town. The bus crosses the Daugava River and stops at some interesting neighbourhoods, full of small colorful wooden buildings. But we were happy to get back to our centre, the Old Town and its cobblestone walks with new discoveries at every corner.

With its splendid and lavish turn-of-the-century architecture greeting you at every turn, its universal and delectable cuisine, and its inexpensive accommodations, Riga is the new little Paris. I had expected a provincial little place climbing out from under Soviet occupation. What we saw and experienced was the opposite — a vibrant, exciting and charming city that we will certainly revisit.

To reserve at the Forums Hotel:

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