“Don’t shugar cowt it,” a young man tells me in a thick Latvian accent. “Do you really laike Riga?”
It’s almost midnight and we’re standing beside a bridge over Riga’s canal, in the heart of the city. I’m setting up my tripod to take a picture, and he’s waiting for his last rental boat to return to the dock. The bridge is lit in neon blue from underneath and the water reflects the inverse image, making it look quite surreal, like a giant blue eyeball.
“Yes,” I say, surprised by the question. “Are you serious? It’s beautiful.”
I try to convince him that I really mean it, in part because his regional pride is on the line but mostly because it’s actually true. What’s not to like? Aside from neon-blue bridges, which are, admittedly just a small bonus, there is Riga’s old town, with its historic, onion-bulb church spires and winding, cobblestone streets. The city also boasts stunning 19th century architecture. Riga is sometimes called ‘The Paris of the Baltics,’ but the truth is the compliment should go the other way around. According to UNESCO, when it comes to the quality and quantity of Art Nouveau architecture, Riga is “unparalleled anywhere in the world.” Take that, Paris.
A little Rigan insecurity is perhaps understandable, when you think about it. After a 50-year-long winter of Soviet rule, Latvia reestablished its independence only in 1991 and is still figuring out its place in Europe. And yet things are moving fast. In 2014, Riga will be a European Capital of Culture. (And in the ‘Be Careful What You Wish For’ category, Latvia may also soon join the Euro).
It turns out that Riga is also one of Europe’s top destinations for culture of a different kind–stag parties. It’s a warm Friday evening when I head to the historic old town, which was founded in 1201 and huddles beside the wide Daugava River. The sidewalk patio of the first bar I come across has been taken over by shirtless Brits, one of whom is passed out on his back, lying on a picnic table (mission accomplished). Other stag tourists stroll the streets aimlessly, pint glasses raised, happily spilling beer on each other, and belting out sing-along songs.
Riga has an impressive nightlife considering that they don’t actually have much night to begin with–in summer the days last just a few minutes shy of 18 hours. Every square is taken over by musical bands, sometimes two or three of them, and they play everything from rockabilly to flamenco. I sit down at one of the bars and have an excellent unfiltered, hoppy ale called Valmiermuiza while listening to a clarinet-bass duo perform a snazzy rendition of the theme song to the Flintstones. From my barstool perch, I watch tall blond Latvian women effortlessly perform a trick worthy of a Cirque du Soleil act–namely, walking on the roughly cobbled streets in very pointy, very high-heeled shoes.
The next day I rent a bike to get the lay of the land which, I discover happily, is flat. Outside the old town, there’s a good system of bike paths that wind through the streets and the lush green parks. I stop to take a picture outside the Latvian National Opera, a stately white building near the canal, where Riga-born Mikhail Baryshnikov started his career. From there I follow the path and cross a large street into the Vermanes park to admire the Orthodox cathedral, with its towering, shiny, neo-Byzantine domes.
It’s hard to imagine a more pleasant way to spend a warm summer afternoon than exploring a strange city on a bicycle. And Riga makes it easy with its bike paths, wide boulevards, and spacious, tree-lined sidewalks. Apparently not all Rigans agree, however, because a surprisingly large number of them seem to prefer cruising around the city in their convertible Bentleys. (Why are there so many?)
The percentage of super cars climbs steadily as I pedal away from Vermanes Park heading north. I stop alongside some elegant sidewalk cafes of the sort that you can just tell are the places you want to be seen if you’re the kind of person who wants to be seen. I lock my bike to a post next to what could pass for a Range Rover dealership and stroll down Alberta Street, gawking at some of the fanciful, iconic architecture.
More than 700 Art Nouveau buildings were built in Riga at the turn of the last century, when Riga became the most important port on the Baltic Sea and the city’s economy made lots of people rich. To have a peek at how these early 20th-century one-percenters used to live, I go to the Art Nouveau Museum. Located in one of the most striking buildings on Alberta Street, the whole museum is a single apartment, fully furnished in period style.
On my bike again, I decide to cross the city and explore the market. Housed in no fewer than five old Zeppelin hangers, it’s one of the biggest in Europe, but apparently, it’s not quite big enough. Hundreds of stalls spill out into the surrounding streets, staffed by men and women selling fruit and flowers and also fur hats, knockoff perfumes, Russian nesting dolls, amber jewelry, fishing vests, discount women’s undergarments and just about anything else you can imagine.
I head for the corner of the market where they sell fish and predictably, I see all kinds of sea creatures that I never knew even existed before. The fish in the market come in many different ways, from fresh to marinated to still-alive-and-kicking, but by far the most ubiquitous is the smoked variety. Long counters display a smoked version of what seems like every single species of fish in the Baltic Sea.
I had already picked up a few things–a hunk of sausage, some roast pork, a mini loaf of rye bread with fruits and nuts in it, and a type of cheese popular in summer that has caraway seeds. But to not try at least one smoked herring in Latvia would be like never having been here at all, so I point at some of the golden-hued fish on offer and then hold up my index finger, hoping that by ‘one,’ she will understand that I want one of them and not one kilo of them.
She does. But as she wraps my single herring and hands it across the counter, she smiles and says, “You will be back.” And of course, she’s right.