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Riga: Strangely unfamiliar

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18:53 CET+01:00
Taking a ferry out of Stockholm need not mean a booze cruise to Helsinki. Alannah Eames went to Latvia to check out one of Sweden's most charming neighbours.

Tired of wrestling the shopping crowds on Drottninggatan? Squeezing your credit card to pay for a badly-needed massage to dampen the winter blues? Craving an escape from the winter social hibernation? Been to visit the famous sights and landmarks in Sweden too many times?

Well, you may be dreaming of white sandy beaches, palm trees and cocktails, but if time and money is an issue, why not take a quick hop over to Riga, the Latvian capital? Relatively accessible from most of Sweden, it's particularly close for people based in the capital

Most Stockholmers have been on the Silja booze cruise to Helsinki, done the spa trip to Tallinn - but Riga? Along with the Ice Hotel, it always ranked on my “to see” list but somehow I never made it during my five years living in Sweden.

So, when I boarded the Tallink boat for the overnight trip to Riga at the end of November, I had mixed expectations. Would it be the stereotypical former Eastern Bloc capital where the most common tourists were stag parties and the food was mediocre?

Riga opened up to mass tourism several years ago with the appearance of low-cost carrier Ryanair and more recently with the direct Tallink route between Stockholm and Riga. Today, it's reachable by boat (17 hours) or air (one hour) from Stockholm. Zane Zelenkova from the Latvian Tourist Board in Stockholm, says that when she first arrived in Stockholm two years ago, “an Air Baltic flight to Riga used to almost cost the same price as a ticket to New York”. Today, competition from Ryanair on the route has cut this ticket price dramatically.

If traveling in a group and not in a hurry, the boat is a good option, even if the ferries plying the route are not exactly luxury cruise liners (Tallink plans to introduce newer vessels in 2008). Make sure you try a Riga Black Balsam to quench seasickness; yes, it gets a little choppy at times. Latvians love their Riga Black Balsam as much as the Swedes love their 'nubbar'. A bitter herbal alcoholic concoction, this drink takes a bit of getting used to - beginners should try the bottled version with blackcurrant or cola before progressing to the real thing!

Riga gives a good first impression: beautiful tree-lined boulevards, stunning Art Nouveau buildings (Riga has one of the largest and best preserved Art Nouveau quarters in Europe), clean and well-kept streets and stylish people with strong sense of individualism. Even though it was a dark, gray day in mid-winter, the architecture can't help but impress.

People often make the mistake of classifying the Baltic States as one entity, in much the same way as outsiders often mistakenly classify Danes, Swedes, Norwegians and Finns as part of a single Scandinavian culture. In reality, however, Latvians and Riga are quite different from Estonians and Tallinn. One Estonian lady I talked to during the trip said, “Even if the Latvians don't understand a joke, they laugh anyway. They are thought to be more emotional and expressive than their neighbors.”

The small Baltic State with its population of just two million, obtained independence under Yeltsin in 1991. Since then, it has thrived to become the powerhouse of the region and holds on fiercely to its ties to the Nordic region. Nordic companies have invested heavily in the Baltic states, with Finnish department store chain Stockmann, Norwegian clothes retailer BikBok and Swedish brands like H&M all visible.

You might feel on the surface that you're still in Scandinavia but dig a little deeper and you'll discover a world of creative entrepreneurs with a strong sense of patriotism, a moving history and a will to become true Europeans. Sure, you'll also see the seedier side of Riga too - girls dancing on the bars, an active red light scene, drunken British stag parties and some of the communist legacy which raises its head every so often – but by far, the attractions outweigh the eyesores.

What to do?

Spend an afternoon exploring the Old Town

Riga's old town is quite simply stunning. Take a coffee at the Laima Café – a grand old Parisian-style café cum candy store. Laima is Latvia's own chocolate brand and carries the same appeal locally as Marabou or Cloetta in Sweden. Another advantage of the many cozy places to take a coffee in Riga, is that you can also grab a shot of something stronger to complement your coffee break– providing a welcome respite from the strict alcohol laws in Sweden.

Stroll around the Art Nouveau quarter.

Some of the grand facades are beautifully restored, others are a little more dilapidated. If you like Art Nouveau architecture, you will love this “open-air” museum in Riga. The building housing the Stockholm School of Economics is actually one of the most impressive buildings. The Art Nouveau quarter is a stone's throw from the city center.

Shop like the locals at the market

Housed in old Zeppelin hangars bang in the center of town, there are six different market areas, each catering for a different type of food – meat, fish (so fresh that they are still thrashing around in the plastic trays), fruit and vegetables, bread, dairy and flowers. Prices since joining the EU have gone up but shopping for quality, fresh produce in the market is still a bargain compared to Swedish supermarkets.

www.centraltirgus.lv

Take a chocolate massage at the Kolonna SPA

While some of Riga's spas still have some catching up to do with their Scandinavian neighbors, with savings of around 30-40% (or sometimes more) on massages and treatments, the smaller details can be overlooked. Spas in Riga are affordable and offer perfect pampering treatments during the long winters. The 90-minute chocolate massage treatment (messy but nice) is definitely something worth splashing out on.

www.kolonnaspa.lv

Drink a shot of Riga Black Balsam.

And there's no better place than at the Riga Black Magic Show A candlelit underground cellar in the Old Town with its own resident magician and where the staple drink is of course the Riga Black Balsam. The more you drink, the better the magic!

www.since1752.lv

Shop for some handmade crafts and jewelry

Alongside the usual Scandinavian chain and department stores, you'll find plenty of stores stocked with hand-woven textiles, knitted gloves, handcrafted jewelry, amber and handmade candles. The Latvians are big into their arts and crafts and you can pick up some very quaint gifts along the way. If you're a jewelry fan visit the Museum of Ancient Baltic Jewelry which is owned by jewellers Inita and Vitauts Straupe.

www.balturotas.lv

Take a trip through history at the Occupation Museum

Even the biggest museum and history haters cannot fail to be impressed or moved by this museum. During the course of their history, the Latvians have been occupied twice by the Soviets and once by the Germans. They've also lived through mass deportations to Siberia and spent years in concentration camps. The museum is housed in what was once (and still is) one of the ugliest buildings in the city but it serves its purpose nicely as home to one of the most important parts of Latvia's history and national identity. Another bonus – the museum is free.

Occupation Museum

Eat a lunch at the Lido restaurant

This place is mega-tacky but fun. A variety of restaurants and amusements under one roof, it's perfect for adults and kids alike. Check out the brewery in the basement where you can order a massive bottle of local beer!

The Lido Restaurant

Get tipsy at the Skyline Bar

This roof-top bar on the 26th Floor of the Reval Hotel Latvija has an impressive drinks list and one of the best views over the city. There's also a healthy mix of foreigners and locals. Be prepared to fight over the coveted window seats!

www.revalhotels.com

FACTS

How to get there: By boat Tallink Silja; by air Air Baltic or Ryanair

Where to stay: The elegant and recently renovated Europa Royale, the Scandinvian Art Nouveau style Hotel Valdemars or the more minimalistic Hotel Avalon.

Currency: Latvian Lat (LVL). I LVL = SEK 13 approx.

Population: 2.26 million (July 2007)

Language: Latvian and Russian. Most people can communicate in English.

Time: One hour ahead of CET and Swedish time.

Visa: Not necessary from EU.

More information:Latvian Tourist Board

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