‘Paris of the Baltics’

Far off the Israeli tourist radar, the capital of Latvia is a surprisingly appealing and charming holiday destination.

Latvia xmas tree (photo credit: Ben Hartman)
Latvia xmas tree
(photo credit: Ben Hartman)
RIGA – Some cities don’t need an introduction.
Israelis know Paris and its overpriced cafes, London and its gray skies; even Kathmandu conjures up some anecdote from a cousin or a sibling’s post-army trip abroad. Riga, on the other hand, draws a blank stare, even when the word ‘Latvia’ is added.
At best, you’ll get a question about the Holocaust or a misdirected question about Lithuania. It’s truly a shame though, because the “Paris of the Baltics” is a charming, affordable, and beautiful city that can compete with any in Europe as a weekend travel destination.
Riga has the appearance of an emerging Baltic city jockeying for position as a first-rate tourist destination.
To put itself on the map, the city has launched the “Live Riga” (as in to live in the city) campaign, which has enlisted the town’s hotels, restaurants, artists and bartenders in an all-out quest to establish the town as the “capital of the north” and a household name for holiday seekers in Europe and beyond.
As part of “Live Riga,” this year the city has launched the 500 nights of Christmas, which is still counting out the last of its days this Christmas. The celebration is to mark 500 years since the first Christmas trees, which Riga, self-styled “birthplace of the Christmas tree,” has claimed as a local symbol.
The Christmas tree’s Latvian roots go back to 1510, when a guild in Riga called the Brotherhood of the Blackheads went into a nearby forest searching for the largest fir tree in order to burn it as part of a winter solstice ceremony. They brought the tree into central Riga, where it posed a fire hazard and was left for the time being. Before they knew it, local children began decorating the tree and before long, it became a work of beauty, and later, a yearly tradition.
Outside of the House of the Blackheads in downtown Riga, one of the city’s most famous and photographed landmarks, a plaque commemorates the tree’s debut.
Across the town, the city has set up displays of Christmas trees created by local artists and designers to mark the anniversary. To cut to the chase, if you’re an Anglo- Israeli who finds himself missing a bit of the yuletide spirit during the dry, go-to-the-beach-in-December Israeli winters, Riga can help you get your Christmas tree and snowman fix.
No matter if “Live Riga” focuses on Christmas trees or nightlife, the city is well-poised to benefit from the rebranding campaign, mainly because it does legitimately have a lot to offer. The cobblestone streets of the old town have been undergoing a massive restoration process, and boast the world’s largest collection of German Art Noveau architecture. Many of the Art Nouveau buildings and their intricate designs are the work of architect Mikhail Ospivoich Eisenstein (1867-1921), who is famous for the extraordinary structures that grace Riga and for being the father of Soviet filmmaker, Sergei Eisenstein.
Eisenstein, whose father was Jewish, was arguably the most prominent figure in the architectural boom Riga experienced at the turn of the 20th century. His colorful creations, built to accommodate a budding bourgeois class, evoke all sorts of fantastic images and elaborate details.
“They borrowed from everyone and created very elaborate artistic creations,” Juris Berze, a local tour guide, explained. “But it didn’t last long, only 20 years.”
Below the buildings, Riga’s streets are mostly free of the trash, graffiti and dodgy characters one can expect from most Eastern European capitals. In fact, Riga is a surprise across the board for anyone expecting another monotone Eastern European city. The old city’s architecture is one of a kind and different on every block, the restaurants are affordable and delicious, the cafes and bars are bustling and friendly, and English is widely spoken. These things may be taken for granted in western Europe, but in the countries of the former Soviet Union, they can be a welcome relief for the experienced traveler.
Riga is already well established in certain circles, where it is known as one of Europe’s nightlife capitals, popular with students and young people from across the Baltics as well as British weekenders celebrating their stag nights in the old town’s affordable, friendly bars and nightclubs.
When walking in the old town at night, the hawkers advertising strip shows and topless bars can be a bit tiresome depending on the purpose of your visit to Riga, but they do show that the city has long been popular with tourists more interested in jagermeister and stiletto heels than classic architecture and cozy cafes and restaurants.
Regardless of your thrill, a pub crawl or just a lazy night in Riga shouldn’t be complete without a tall, warm glass of Balzam. A Latvian herbal liqueur that resembles absinthe and can pack a serious punch, it’s the perfect warm elixir for a cold winter night in the Baltics, or really even just a Riga afternoon in July where you feel like getting the party started early.
Though Riga touts itself as a nightlife hub, some words of caution are advised. The nightlife really only comes to life on the weekends, which can be a real let down for tourists used to going out any day of the week in Tel Aviv. In addition, while Riga is definitely a safe town, there are a significant number of dodgy strip clubs, casinos and discos with a high “guys with nonecks” quotient in the old town. A good rule of thumb is that if it looks like a clip joint, it probably is one.
Riga’s restaurants can be a surprise as well, and are as diverse as they are delicious and affordable. Throughout the old town, older buildings have been reborn as boutique hotels complete with upscale restaurants whose prices would please any diner used to the shock of Tel Aviv’s pricier dining establishments. The finer restaurants in Latvia run the gamut from the ubiquitous sushi bars to American-style expat bars to upscale steakhouses that specialize in fine cuts of grilled venison.
Latvian cuisine itself is worth a try as well, especially rupjmaize, a dark rye bread that is a national obsession.
If you’re in town during Hanukka, you’ll be pleased to know that Latvian cuisine seems to have a special spot for potato pancakes, meaning you should have no trouble finding a latke. Another popular and far more treif staple is zirn¸i ar spek¸i, a steaming bowl of boiled grey peas with onions and fried bacon, usually served with a tall glass of ru¯gusˇpiens, curdled milk. Reviews are still mixed on this one. Kosher travelers will find themselves limited, with really only a Kosher restaurant next to the Jewish museum and Riga’s sprawling central shuk, which has an amazing array of fresh fruits, vegetables, and cheeses. Housed in several former zeppelin hangars, the shuk includes a sprawling fish market, full of whole sturgeons and a dizzying array of dried fish, including dried and salted flounder, which stand like crispy manhole covers in the market stalls.
WALKING AROUND Riga, it’s hard to pin down a specific culture or regional look. The historic buildings have a varied and eclectic style in the old city, where the narrow cobblestone streets seem the perfect nighttime setting for a Sherlock Holmes movie or a vampire film set in Victorian London. At other times, the old city betrays a sort of winter wonderland feeling, almost like a hard-to-pinpoint far-north country of endless pine forests, long snowy winters and herds of reindeer basking in the latenight summer sun that hardly sets before sunrise.
Outside of the old city, much of the suburbs are heavy on the grey, bulky apartment blocks of the former Soviet Union, while most newly built residential areas and offices have a very Scandinavian look straight out of IKEA. Unlike the rest of Latvia, Riga is in many ways a Russian enclave, with around 50 percent of the population of Russian origin. On the cobblestone streets of the old town, you’re as likely to hear Russian as Latvian and most everyone speaks both languages. Outside of Riga though, the Latvian language and culture reign supreme, from the Baltic sea coast in Liepaja to Daugavpils near the border with Belarus in the East.
Another cultural surprise is the old Yiddish theater, without a doubt one of the highlights of Jewish Riga.
This palatial four-story building has lost little of its charm since it was built in the early 1920s despite its somewhat dilapidated state. Ballrooms with lavish chandeliers, a small Jewish history museum and a twotier theatre which seats up to 400 people are hidden within the building’s unassuming exterior. One can easily imagine what it was like to be a theatre-goer back when it was used to stage productions of plays by the likes of the Yiddish playwright S. Ansky.
“Most people who come here are amazed at how fancy a Jewish Community Center we have,” an official with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which operates out of the building, said during a tour of the building.
“We don’t own it – we are trusted with it by the government – but we’re happy to be here in such a historical place.”
Next to the entrance the not-so-glorious present casts a shadow over the illustrious past. Part of the entrance hall has been converted into a soup kitchen catering to the old and destitute members of the community. Signs of renewal, however, can be seen on the second flour where a Jewish preschool is about to open.
A visit to the theatre is a deeply ambivalent experience.
On the one hand, it graces visitors with a sense of how rich Jewish cultural life in this city used to be, before more than 90% of the country’s 70,000 Jews were wiped out in the Holocaust, mainly by their fellow Latvians.
Nonetheless, it is comforting that the building is still in the service of the community, though it is depressing to think how much was lost forever in the war and that one will never see a play in Yiddish acted in its theater.
Though it hasn’t opened yet, the Riga Ghetto Museum is set to be another attraction of Jewish Riga. When the museum is complete, it will include a courtyard paved with cobblestones taken from Ludzas Street, the one-time central thoroughfare of the Riga Ghetto.
The museum is meant to be an educational center as well as a museum and will include space for a library, seminars, concerts and other cultural activities.
Riga may be destined to remain off the Israeli tourist’s radar for a while, but for those willing to try a new destination not yet overrun by tourists, there are surprises up north.
The writers were guests of the Riga Jewish Community and Air Baltic Airlines.