Riga and Jurmala
A showcase of art nouveau, Riga’s old town is quite beautiful especially at closer inspection and it is not short of interesting monuments or museums.
Also unlike London or Budapest the river running through the city is definitely blue (London’s tourist board needs to stop photoshopping!).
Riga is a city of contrasts though and although mentioned the architecture is nice, but some of the cities blemishes or problems are not hidden away. There are many beggars and countless times I saw drunks on the street (although they were largely harmless. I did see a fight, and one enraged at being denied boarding of a bus).
Problems aside, the Old Town is worth wondering around. Valeria and I went up the tower by lift (an expensive 5 Lats) of St Peter’s church, a Lutheran church in Riga where you can get a really great view over the city. The view is great so don’t let the cost put you off trying. The church itself was burnt down in World War II and since restored.
To try Latvian food the easiest option may be the chain Lido. Lido is a self service eatery that can be found in Moldova, Ukraine and other eastern Countries. However we were fortunate to be there during the cultural festival and there were food stalls with really nice Latvian food although much of it could be found in other cuisine such as the sausages (German) Sauerkraut (German, Russian), the rye bread etc. Most of the food you see in the Old Town though won’t be Latvian; Italian food has a big presence as well as other cuisines from Europe and Asia.
If you are interested in museums there is a wide choice. The design museum is popular. The art nouveau museum on Alberta street 12 where famed Latvian architect, Konstantīns Pēkšēnonce lived is well worth visiting. I am not sure we paid for the tour or more likely ended up tagging along but there was a tour given by an immaculately dressed guide who gave many insights in to art nouveau and the style of houses in Latvia before the soviets. If you want to see how they adjusted volume in a very old gramophone, how a home might be decorated and the art nouveau style and taste some cookies you can join.
Latvia is an open air art nouveau museum. However it has some amusing details such as the story or stories about the Cat House. With more than one variant I can’t say which is true but according to one account the arched cats once had their back facing the merchant hall as the owner was excluded from the merchant hall as he was a non-German. After a court course he was allowed to eventually enter but also ordered to arrange the cats to a more dignified position.
However one of the more important museums from a Latvian point of view is the Occupation museum. This museum details both the Nazi and Soviet Occupation.
It tells the struggle of the Latvian resistance and how the west could be interpreted as abandoning them. There is an interesting propaganda poster from the Nazi’s about the west’ abandonment of Latvia to appease the Soviets. The poster reads that Churchill is telling fairy tales! The Swedes are coming! (Sweden once ruled pats of Latvia including Riga)
There are many Orthodox Churches in Riga (and across Latvia). The large Ascension cathedral has liturgy in Latvian. However we attended a liturgy at a much smaller Church (with liturgy in Church Slavonic) at another Orthodox Church, the small but beautiful Rīgas Kristus Pestītāja Svētbildes pareizticīgo baznīca on Vienības gatve 76. They appear to have many activities for their regulars.
Valeria and I went to Jurmala, which is around 20km of coastline and small town or neighbourhoods. Be aware that there are many train stops that fall under Jurmala and plan ahead where you wish to go. Although the tourist information in the train station (if I remember correctly) has a map of Jurmala and sites.
The town was popular with the soviet hierarchy for a summer beach holiday. I would describe Jurmala as a large Nikolaevka and by extension, not particularly exciting. Perhaps it can be a nice family holiday for a local but there is no special reason otherwise to visit. There are a plenitude of wooden buildings but not quite on the scale of Porvoo in Finland where we later travelled. There was a choice of restaurants and we visited the site of where an Orthodox Church once stood before being demolished by the communists. Fund raising is going on to rebuild the church.
As for the beach it was normal but long, Long enough that you will be able to find your own spot for sure. There were a few eateries on the seaside but we didn’t try them ourselves.
From Russia without love
Until recently Russians actually outnumbered Latvians in Riga itself. No according to 2011 statistics it is Latvians who are the largest group although by a slender margin and if you measure by language they are a minority again (with more Russian speakers present).
In surveys in Russia, Latvia is consistency ranked among the top three countries hostile to Russia and Russians and it is easy to see why.
In the first period of independence both Russian speakers and Orthodox Christians (seen by the government as being connected) were persecuted although St John of Riga (a Latvian) fought strongly against it.
Since regaining independence Latvia has instituted a policy that in order to obtain citizenship one must pass a Latvian language test. This is despite at least 37% of the population having Russian as their first language. Without citizenship one can’t vote or hold a public office job and non surprisingly this overwhelmingly affects Russians.
Also the government has repeatedly rejected giving recognition to Orthodox Christmas as a pub holiday (even when the president supported it) or recognition of Russian as an official language and recent quotes from Culture Minister Janeta Jaunzeme-Grende urging Latvians not to speak Russian!
Even when a Russian party won the most seats the ruling party excluded them to work with a nationalist group instead.
So should a Russian speaker avoid speaking in Russian?
Despite all this I must mention the experience of Valeria who had heard of the tensions and said she thought it was best to avoid speaking Russian but soon found out it was not a problem in Riga (after all there are slightly MORE Russian speakers than Latvians) furthermore she met a kind Latvian lady in Sigulda who said why she did not start speaking in Russian first and saying that Latvians have nothing against Russians.
You can meet both kind and unfriendly Latvians like in many countries.