Latvian capital Riga is a wonder in winter

Clodagh Finn samples the joys of the Latvian capital, Riga, a winter wonderland through the festive season.
Latvian capital Riga is a wonder in winter

THERE’S a nip in the air but the bride in ‘L’ plates and her party of short-skirted hens are entirely immune.

Their spindly stilettos don’t seem to hinder them either as they pick a path through the treacherous cobbles in Riga’s historical centre.

This beautiful city on the Baltic has unfairly gained a reputation as a stag and hen-party destination.

You’ll certainly come across a few bobbing hens and bellowing stags, but only as a passing distraction.

Riga has so much more to offer and if you find yourself in the Latvian capital during Advent, the city will wrap you up in its warm festive embrace with mulled wine, gingerbread and roasted almonds.

The Unesco-listed old town centre is the perfect setting for a Christmas market with its winding, cobbled streets, medieval buildings and impressive church spires.

At its heart, Cathedral Square will be hustling and bustling with traders selling perfect under-the-Christmas-tree fare: carved wooden toys, candles, knitted everything (Lativans are demon knitters), beautifully worked felt and Baltic amber jewellery, to mention a few.

At any time of year, the old centre has a fairy-tale quality about it, but at Christmas it feels as if you’ve stepped into a frost-edged picture postcard.

The atmosphere is full-fat yuletide, with choirs singing Christmas carols and trees decked out in their winter finery.

In fact, Riga claims to have had the world’s first decorated Christmas tree.

The story goes that a group of local merchants decorated a fir tree with flowers in 1510 in honour of the birth of Christ.

There are so many stories here, many of them echoing in the buildings that bear testament to the city’s medieval past, its halcyon art nouveau days and the Soviet era.

Even if you are in Riga to fill the Christmas stocking, don’t miss its exceptional art nouveau district. Take a guided tour or simply wander around the embassy district to see some of the 800 or so art nouveau buildings.

The architectural style emerged in Europe as the 19th century turned into the 20th and you’ll find a breath-taking selection of features on Riga’s buildings, which are adorned with mythological characters, dancing maidens with garlands and grapes, sweeping floral flourishes and ornate cornices.

Look out for the building on 10 V¯ilandes Street which has an entrance shaped like a keyhole.

A personal favourite is the aptly named House of Cats, a butter-yellow building at 12 Meistaru Street with two cat sculptures on the roof. It’s said the house’s owner wanted the cats, with their arched backs and raised tails, to point towards the guild house to show his displeasure at not being admitted.

They were later turned the other way and decorum restored but the little black cat is a popular symbol. You’ll find a perfect knitted rendition in the market.

Latvians, it seems, can render anything in wool: any animal you care to mention, the Minions, the Simpsons, Darth Vader.

To see the local knitting prowess in action, make sure to visit the Central Market near the bus station where airbus hangars from WWI have been converted to house one of the busiest markets in Eastern Europe.

This is where the locals go to buy everything from freshly salted cucumber and smoked eel to industrial-strength knitted hats and gloves.

You’ll hear the click of knitting needles at several stalls and be pleasantly surprised at the prices, much lower than the rather gentrified market in Cathedral Square.

One of many other pleasant surprises in Riga is the ubiquity of live music.

There always seems to be live music on the street. It’s not for nothing that the mass singing demonstrations that saw Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia gain their independence from Russia in 1991 was called the Singing Revolution.

The thought of over two million people holding hands to form a human chain across all three counties in August 1989 still sends a shiver down the spine.

To get a sense of what life was like much earlier, it’s worth venturing into the medieval restaurant Rozengrals at 1 Rozena Street in the old town.

There is a formidable man on the door dressed in 13th-century garb and a winding stair leads down to a candle-lit vault that serves up delights such as spit-fired piglet, stewed calf cheeks served with honey fungus sauce, or a version of the rabbit stew with prunes and cedar nuts that was the centre piece at the 14th-century wedding feast of Isabella of Bavaria.

For a more prosaic experience, the pub, Folkklubs Ala Pagrabs (19 Peldu Street) with its vast warren of basement rooms, is a fantastic place to refuel.

It serves a staggering range of beer (hemp and ginger beer anyone?) and hearty food (beef shank, royal stroganoff) that is really tasty and very cheap.

Try the traditional grey peas; much tastier than they sound.

If you have time, venture out of the centre Riga to Sigulda, 50km to the east, where you’ll find nature trails, green parks, castles and a seasonal opportunity to take a bobsleigh ride.

The bobsleigh track regularly hosts international luge competitions but for about €50 a person you can take a ride in a renovated bobsleigh from the Sarajevo Olympics. Fear not, there’s a professional driver at the helm.

Riga’s Christmas market takes place in Cathedral Square in the city’s historic centre and runs from November 28 to January 8.

GETTING THERE

Ryanair flies daily from Dublin to Riga. Ryanair.ie

Where to stay

The Wellton Old Riga Palace Hotel is an unpretentious four-star hotel right in the centre of the old town.

It’s remarkably reasonable (double-rooms start at €43 per night), has really friendly staff and does a great breakfast spread.

You’ll be welcomed with a glass of bubbly on arrival.

Minsterejas iela 8/10, Riga, LV-1050, Latvia

A little indulgence

Attirance manufactures natural Lativan cosmetics but it also has a really wonderful spa too that is well worth a visit.

The sales pitch invites you to “experience the sophistication and glamour of the 18th-century France” but really, it’s doubtful if French nobles ever indulged in a 75-minute chocolate massage.

If that sounds a little gimmicky – and messy – the regular massages are wonderful and well-priced.

You get chocolate too, but afterwards and neatly wrapped in golden foil.

It’s Riga’s famous Laima chocolate, which has been made in the city for 145 years.

Terbatas iela 14, Riga, LV-1011, Latvia

http://attirance.com/en

Don’t miss

The Bremen musicians.

The famous bronze statue of a donkey, a dog, a cat and rooster stand on Skarnu behind St Peter’s Church.

Their noses have been rubbed shiny by visitors looking for luck.

The city of Bremen presented the statue to Riga in 1990 to mark Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika.

They have a political resonance – the animals are supposedly looking through the Iron Curtain,

They reference the Brothers Grimm fairy tale but now they have become a destination too.

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