Latvia woos with historic buildings, snowy landscape and capital Riga

  • Bhavna Kher, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Mar 24, 2015 15:46 IST

An unusual mix of suppression and empowerment, bondage and freedom; on one hand, a charming old world, and on the other, a country that is enjoying its freshly-acquired independence, Riga - the capital of Latvia - lies in Northern Europe, somewhere between Estonia and Lithuania.

They say that the best time to go to Latvia is between April and September, but we chose February - and although it was bitterly cold, we were delighted with our seemingly flawed choice.

The Freedom Monument is the most conspicuous structure in Riga

The first couple of foggy days were spent walking the cobbled streets of the old town. Be it for sartorial discoveries or for the love of art, our experiences confirmed that Riga is best enjoyed on foot.

There was always something to muse - from something as heartbreaking as a florescent cycle parked in front of a distressed wall or as quirky as a wooden horse installation right across a church. No matter where we started, we would end up at the The Freedom Monument, the most conspicuous structure in Riga.

The Museum of the Occupation of Latvia is a must-see while in the city

While today it's a place where young lovers meet, it was built as a memorial for the soldiers who lost their lives in the Latvian war of independence.

History meets art
After two days of street walking, we found our way into the carpeted corridors of The Museum of the Occupation of Latvia. In a morbid sort of way, this visit turned out to be the most enriching part of our journey.

Chronicling the dark history of Latvia, the museum revealed the scar that this enchantingly beautiful city carries under her surface - holocaust of the Jews and the concentration camps in which native Latvians suffered, the occupation by Russia twice over, the havoc wreaked by the Germans, the struggle for freedom and then finally, independence in 1990.

A public installation in the city

With the freedom slogan of Perestroika ringing in our ears, our hearts felt heavy. Thankfully, this feeling was eased by an exhibition of artist Salvador Dalí's unseen works, including advertising pieces, packaging design and playing cards - which was casually displayed in the basement of the museum building.

Indians, don't worry
Our hotel in Peldu iela was a cosy piece of art, and the street outside this hotel was lined with an all-embracing set of places to chill - a club, a pizza joint, a folk bar and to top it all, a Lebanese restaurant. We drank the local Balsam, tried Latvian food at Provence Latvian restaurant on Kungu Street 2 and downed coffee cocktails at Double Coffee.

A train from the Riga Central Station took us to Sigulda, and another 10-minute bus ride to a larger-than-life red brick castle called the Turaida Castle, a reconstructed medieval castle in Turaida in the Vidzeme region of Latvia. Originally built in 1214, it was abandoned in 1776 and until its restoration remained in ruins. We went up its dingy staircase and ended up on top from where we viewed the frozen river of Gauja, snow-covered parts of the museum reserve.

Statue on the banks of Daugava River

While initially it seemed like a touristy thing to do, but taking the 'hop-on-hop-off' bus tour resulted being a great idea. The window seat opened us to the view of the District of Architectural Heritage, where 40% of the buildings were designed in the Art Nouveau style by Mikhail Eisenstein, the architect whose unbounded creative energy throbbed in each and every building.

Music to our ears
Riga is not just artistic, but musical, too. Every day, we'd run into street musicians who added to the rhythm of Riga - be it someone playing the soundtrack of Amelie (2001) on the accordion; a young girl rocking the lifeless subway as she romances her violin; or an old man playing the Godfather theme track, standing alone on a very cold winter night.

Other North European options
* Denmark
* Estonia
* Finland
* Poland
* Sweden

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