From a cat on an Art Nouveau roof to zeppelin hangers full of mouth-watering treats – unLTD’s Jill Theobald finds there’s more to Riga than meets the eye.
Recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage site, Old Riga is the heart and soul of Latvia’s capital and where my friend and I’s compact and cosy B&B apartment was located.
Just around the corner was the gorgeous cinema Splendid Palace which certainly lives up to its name. The first cinema in the Baltics to screen sound films, today film fans can enjoy watching movies in an architectural monument of national importance as the first ferro concrete building in Riga. The building was designed in Rococo style – as you enter cherubs surround the doorway and inside the ornate cinema itself there are ceiling paintings and palm motifs flanking the stage/screen.
Next door is the Tinto restaurant and bar, a modern and stylish hot spot where we enjoyed some tasty tapas and the contemporary, chic atmosphere.
The Latvians’ struggle for their country’s independence is encapsulated in the rather beautiful Freedom Monument or ‘Lady Liberty’. Unveiled in 1935, the sculpture depicts the nation singing, working and fighting for liberty and, on top, Lady Liberty holding aloft three stars.
The Central Market is a foodie lover’s heaven – one of the largest markets in Europe, its five vast zeppelin hangars are full of stalls selling cheese, fish, smoked meat, honey, fresh fruit and vegetables and seasonal produce. A real sight for all the senses.
Riga Castle is in the Central District on the banks of the River Daugava. It’s the residence of the President of Latvia and one of the largest medieval castles in the country … so I’ll gloss over the fact I misread the map by mistaking the canal for the river, walked past it and took me and my pal effectively jay-walking across the cable-stayed Vanu Tilts bridge…
The Doma Cathedral is much less hard to miss, even by my standards. According to the Travel Latvia website, it’s both the ‘spiritual heart of the city’ and a ‘work in progress’ – a perfect description given its exterior incorporates Gothic, Romanesque, Baroque and even Art Nouveau elements. The interior, meanwhile, holds many works of art, and there are also artefacts from Riga’s history to be discovered on display in the adjacent Cloister Garden.
Dome Square is full of little street stalls – and it is taken over by the Christmas Market in December – plus there are plenty of bars and cafes around to nip in to warm up with a lovely hot chocolate.
And just around the corner is one of my favourite buildings in Riga. Called The Cat House, the custard-yellow building has two wrought-copper cats perched on the corner turrets of the roof.
Latvian legend has it, the building was owned by a wealthy trader who, out of resentment for not being admitted as a member of the Great Guild, put the figures on the roof – tails aloft and with their backsides in the general direction of the Guild which had rejected him.
The insult to his enemies did not go unnoticed. They were turned around after a lengthy court battle and he was eventually admitted to the Guild.
The rest of my favourite buildings in Riga are in the Art Nouveau district. Indeed, Riga is the city with the highest concentration of Art Nouveau architecture anywhere in the world – with more than a third of buildings in central Riga alone – and was one of the main draws for me.
For full stretches of pastel and brightly coloured multi-storey apartment buildings the Art Nouveau district is the place to head. Talk about #architectureporn.
In the Art Nouveau district is the charming Flying Frog café. The extensive menu features omelettes, grilled dishes, burgers, sandwiches, and pasta – in huge portions. We dined at a little table with sunlight pouring in through the colourful window adorned with floral motifs, our table surrounded by frog decorations, funky gargoyles, and tanks full of tropical fish.
We also experienced some Russian cuisine in the upmarket Uncle Vanya restaurant which was like dining in the front room of an elegant house in Doctor Zhivago. My friend and I really enjoyed the traditional Slavic cuisine and our waitress treated us to a shot of one of their homemade spirits – horseradish flavoured vodka which was a bit more of an acquired taste.
We strolled through the beautiful Vērmanes park in the heart of Riga every day on the way to and from our apartment and as we visited in autumn the leaves on the trees – and ground – were gorgeous golden and rustic red.
Speaking of the season (and location) we expected it to be, quite literally, Baltic. But while it was certainly ‘layer up, hat and scarf’ weather, it was a crisp, fresh cold. None of that British chill or fine rain that soaks you right through…
Easy Wine does exactly what it says on the tin – or bottle. Sixty different wines in dispensers for every taste and budget. On entering the bar you get a card with 50 Euro deposit. Put the card into the wine dispenser, select your wine, pop your glass under, press the button et voila – vino! No pre-payment – at the end of your visit you hand the card back and pay for what you have drunk.
And if you’re after a more local flavour try Riga’s Black Balsam. A traditional herbal liqueur made with many different natural ingredients mixed in vodka, it’s certainly a very versatile drop – it can be had as a shot, on the rocks or mixed with schnapps, soda or soft drinks. It can also be served warm in tea or coffee and is an ingredient in a variety of cocktails.