Travel and a bit of shopping
First published in FairLady, May 2017
If you are a caviar lover or want to become one head to Riga, the capital of Latvia and the largest city in the Baltic States. One in three Latvians live in Riga.
Riga is more than 800 years old. It developed as a centre of Viking trade during the early Middle Ages. The historical centre or Old Town known as Vecriga is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
It’s not just caviar that’s affordable in Latvia. Once you have arrived – to which is admittedly a remote destination – absolutely everything in the Old Town and its outskirts as well as in the New Town or city centre called Centrs is within walking distance. Accommodation and lavish restaurant meals cost a fraction of the price you would pay in nearby Scandinavia.
Riga is located on the Daugava River. A city canal (look for pilsetas kanals on town maps) divides the Old Town with its medieval architecture from the New Town with its glorious Art Nouveau buildings. At night blue and pink lights cast a whimsical atmosphere all along the bridges of the city canal.
The Old Town of Riga has a Parisienne feel to it. Sans wide boulevards though. The cobblestoned streets and alleyways are narrow and pedestrianised and the buildings – many with Gothic spires – seem to lean forward ever so slightly. The town squares like Castle and Livu Square are big open expanses where elegant Latvians teeter in stilettos as they go about their business.
On a walk in the Old Town look out for the Powder Tower, one of the oldest buildings in Riga. It dates back to 1330 and was once used to store gunpowder. It is on Smilsu Iela (iela means street), one of Riga’s oldest streets.
The Swedish Gate passes through a whole house. It was built when Riga was under Swedish rule. The Swedish king at the time would enter the city through this gate. Legend has it that the citizens of Riga abducted a young Latvian woman who had fallen in love with a Swedish soldier. Their secret rendezvous took place at this gate. As punishment as well as warning to others she was walled up in the gate.
The main building on Castle Square (Pils Laukums) is Riga Castle. Nearby you will find the Roman Catholic Church of Our Lady of Sorrows as well as the Anglican Church of St Saviour’s. During Soviet occupation the Anglican church was used as a disco by university students.
On Maza Pils Iela three houses with numbers 17, 19 and 21 are known as The Three Brothers. Opposite Maza Pils you have Klostera Iela (Monastery Street) and the St Jacob’s (or St James’) Church.
The House of the Cat endears itself to cat lovers. It is a big bright yellow building and on each of the building’s towers there is a cat with an arched back looking down at the streets. A story is told that a Latvian businessman applied to become a member of the city guild but his application was not improved. To get his own back at them he bought the building closest to the guild and erected two cats on top. He positioned them in such a way that their backsides faced the guildhall and its members.
Riga Dome Church is the largest church in the Baltic States and it has spectacular stained glass panels and windows.
The House of the Blackheads, a landmark in the Old Town, was originally built in 1334 as a banquet venue. It was bombed in World War II but rebuilt in 1999, complete with breathtaking façade.
Konventa Seta is an area with beautifully restored buildings and warehouses. Across from the hotel that shares this name and in front of St Peter’s Church a statue of a donkey, dog, cat and cockerel called The Town Musicians of Bremen are based on the fairy tale by the Brothers Grim but this version is sticking a metaphorical tongue out to Gorbachev’s perestroika. The animals are not staring at the robbers’ feast as they do in the fairy tale; they are attempting to peer through the Iron Curtain. The viewing platforms in the steeple of the church offer unrivalled views over the city and the outlying areas.
Inevitably you will leave the bunker-like Museum of the Occupation of Latvia with puffy eyes. It houses a permanent exhibition devoted to the suffering of the Latvians under the Soviet and Nazi occupations from 1940 to 1991 when Latvia declared its independence.
Walking from the Old to the New Town you pass the Freedom Monument, not worth more than a glance, and thereafter the stupendous Russian Orthodox Cathedral. Its domes are surmounted by orthodox crosses and it has a valuable collection of icons.
To see some of the best collections of art nouveau (or jugendstil) buildings with fantastic facades of flowers and mythological creatures head to Alberta and Elizabetes Iela.
In stark contrast to Stockmann, a multi-storey elegant department store, you have the Central Market (Centraltirgus) across the road. It is situated in five old hangars that have been converted – a term loosely interpreted in Riga – to house a sprawling food market with an occasional stall displaying Soviet memorabilia that evoke muttered obscenities from local passersby.
The food stalls feature smoked fish, sad-looking fish in tanks, lots of coleslaw and other shredded veggies, sausage, bread and cheese.
At the Central Market caviar is plentisome and, as already mentioned, affordable even for South Africans. This is your chance to become a caviar aficionado.
In her book ‘The Taste of Dreams – an Obsession with Russia and Caviar’ the author Vanora Bennett describes caviar as “edible azart”. The dictionary defines the Russian spirit of azart as “heat, excitement and fervour”. Bennett reckons that azart is the dangerous feeling that anything is possible. Eating caviar – in Latvia, not Russia – is not being satisfied that you’ve got enough till you’ve got far too much, to re-interpret her words.
Upon my return I read that when caviar is graded the fish eggs are rubbed together. The sound of superior caviar is barely audible and sounds like a cat’s purr. I liked the sound of that but I was not convinced. Pity I didn’t know this before as I could have tried it.
A Latvian company called Mottra claims that they make the only truly sustainable caviar in the world. According to them the roe are massaged out instead of slicing open the sturgeon.
Wash your caviar down with Spanish cava (bubbly) – on the wine list of most upmarket restaurants and pubs in Riga – and move on to Riga Black Balsam, a local bitter herbal liqueur that has been produced since 1752, at night-time.
It might just make you feel like a Nordic blonde with a fiery heart – the slogan used by a Latvian travel website to describe Riga.
A word of warning though – there are two bars called B-Bar and both specialise in cocktails with Black Balsam. If you are meeting up with a friend make sure you are going to the same B-Bar otherwise you might be sitting by a bar counter all by yourself whilst sipping this bitter potion.
Planning to go?