After a 4 1/2 hour bus trip across the barren, nondescript countryside of Lithuania and Latvia, a tall tower started to loom above us through the gloom of the early morning. Riga’s TV and Radio tower is currently the tallest structure in the European Union, weighing in at an impressive 368 metres. It’s origins are, of course, Soviet. It was all about being seen as the biggest and the best back in the day, and here at the gateway to the old Soviet Union, it formed an impressive welcome.
The Soviet theme continues as you head towards the bus station, next to the old market and the Pilsetas canal. Dozens of people milling around aimlessly. Walk towards the main station and the architecture shifts from 1970 Soviet Block (rather than Bloc) to 2010 Capitalist joy with shiny shopping centres featuring all of the latest brands as well as the people. Gone are the headscarves, replaced by the high leather boots and the confident stride. Welcome to Latvia.
The city is deceptive. A beautifully restored old town, listed of course by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, surrounded by some drab, grey buildings with decades old trolley buses running in criss-cross patterns around the edge. You don’t have to journey far to find the heart of the city and enjoy the architecture, the hospitality and the people.
Whilst membership of the European Union has brought a stable currency, and the financial backing of a host of nations, Latvia still retains its independent charm. Around every corner in the old town is another stunning building such as the The Swedish Gate, The Three Brothers, The House of the Blackheads (once a resting place for “tired merchants”) and of course the impressive Dom (Cathedral). At each turn is a cafe or bar with an enticing place to sit and watch the world go by. One of the modern must see attractions is the Museum of Occupation, sitting alongside some of the oldest buildings in the city that reminds you of the pain and suffering the city and its people endured at the hands of both the Germans and the Russians from 1939.
Eating and drinking is still a cheap pleasure, with local dishes and local beer – a recommended tavern is Alus Seta with its huge menu of steak, chips and spicy pickled cabbage all washed down with pints of Tumsais where you will still get change from €10.
Daytime Riga is a very different place to night time Riga. The groups of drunken stags and hens are on vampire hours here, sleeping all day after the excesses of the night before. Just like the other weekend destinations served so faithfully by budget airlines, Riga offers all of the seven deadly sins if you know where to look. On the main pedestrian street, Kalku iela, the pavement cafes are replaced by scantily clad reps trying to entice people into Burlesque and Foxy Lounge.
Come to Riga if you want to see a new face on the European scene trying to forge an identity. Stroll the cobbled streets such as Torna iela where time has stood still, enjoy a cheap meal around the Cathedral and rest your head in one of the many spa hotels such as Opera without breaking the bank. But when night falls, you could quite easily be in Krakow, Bratislava, Prague or Tallinn where the competition is all about being the most outrageous, the most decadent and the most controversial.