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Travelling to Latvia: Riga is probably one of the most cosmopolitan of Baltic capitals with upwards of a million people.
A seasoned official who looks like he should be running the joint scans my passport, asks me questions till I start stumbling over the answers, then waves me through. I’m clearly too honest to be a problem.
My hotel has arranged a shuttle, and the leather-jacketed driver is impatient as I trade my euros for a handful of lats – the local currency – at an exchange rate I later kick myself for accepting. We hurtle into the night, the driver smoking and chattering on a cell phone as we race across the Daugava River down Valdemara Street toward my hotel.
Sandwiched between the Estonian embassy and Riga Technical University’s business school on Skolas Street, the Laine Hotel is a boutique property spread across several floors of an art nouveau building on the edge of the city centre. It’s a great introduction to a metropolis with the highest concentration of art nouveau buildings in the world, according to UNESCO, which includes Riga’s Old Town on its list of world heritage sites.
The next morning, I slip from my spare but comfortable room into the hotel restaurant. Bloated from a week of Dutch breakfasts, I avoid the bread, cheese and cured meats set out on the buffet in favour of a bowl of granola with kefir. The hostess brings a coffee to the corner table, from which I watch the groups of Swedish and German guests roll in for a weekend of sightseeing and shopping.
Rapidly rejoining the mainstream of Europe after decades of Soviet rule, Riga is probably one of the most cosmopolitan of Baltic capitals with upwards of a million people. Millions of euros of investment are putting a fresh face on the historic Hanseatic trading centre. The current glow of prosperity is helped, no doubt, by the Ryanair flights that have brought tourists in from the U.K. and elsewhere to spend their cash in a country where purchasing power is about half what it is in Canada. (The minimum wage stands at 120 lats, or about $260, a month, and salaries average 463 lats – about $1,020 – a month.)
Breezing down Brivibas Boulevard, I pass the recently restored Cathedral of Christ’s Nativity and arrive atthe Freedom monument. A clutch of soldiers are clambering out of their van as I approach, preparing for the hourly changing of the guard at a landmark that remains an enduring symbol of Latvia’s independence.
I continue into the old city, winding my way into Dom Square where the annual Michaelmas fair is in full swing. Vendors from outside the city hawk wares ranging from knitting to smoked mackerel. There are breads and sausages, toys and trinkets and – in another square – bushels of apples, which line a stage where folk dancers whirl.
The dancers give way to a band performing an accordion-driven mix of tunes from Baltic folk to Tex-Mex. I mill about, buying a selection of local apples, passing on the crafts, and head to the esplanade along the Daugava. I arrive at a small Anglican church (like so many, used as a warehouse in the Soviet era) and find a music recital in progress. A local gospel choir is wowing the crowd, proving the genre as good as any for showing off the country’s flair for choral performance.
I pass back through Dom Square and dive into Rigensis, a bakery that claims continuity with one that occupied the site in the late 19th century. I tuck into a coffee with a slice of bienpien masa, a local cake made with cottage cheese. The pastry flakes as my fork cuts into the sweet filling. I’ve been longing for a slice of the dessert since my last visit in 2001. My day is complete.