Welcome to Kiwi Bar. Up on the big TV it’s New Zealand verse South Africa playing the tri-nations decider in Soweto. At 22 all with just 2 minutes from full – it seems like a draw wouldn’t be an unfair result for what has been a gripping back and forth match. Then out of nowhere Nonu makes a line break, passes to Dagg, and the result is a stunnning victory for New Zealand. A 50 + crowd of enormous, hulking guys roar with delight.
But this Kiwi Bar isn’t in New Zealand, Australia, England or even South Africa. This is in Riga’s old town alongside the Magnificent 13th Century Lutheran Church of St Peter. And the guys inside are all Latvian. And here I thought I’d be the only one watching so I was pleased to see that I was also in good company. While Latvia may have minnow status on the world rugby stage, it’s in no way due to any lack of passion for the game. But then this small Baltic nation has a lot be passionate about. (Oh an apparently the Kiwi bar there used to Aussie Bar – but changing it to a NZ theme was more popular for some reason .)
With the shadow of the Soviet juggernaut having barely lifted, Latvia is a country that’s still rediscovering itself as well as been discovered by everyone else. And Riga – often glamorously referred to as “The Paris of the North” – is at the centre of all of it. Though to me, “The better-than-Paris of the North” is more fitting. Putting aside the welcome absence of Parisians, the nightlife is world-class, the women – utterly stunning, the vibe – highly cosmopolitan, the costs – low, and the city – full of delightfully surprising architectural offerings which beat out the token, media flogged tourist tick-offs any day. The Medieval Old Town is a colorful patchwork of Gothic triumphs and absolutely shouldn’t be rushed, with Town Hall Square alongside the Daugava River providing a great starting point. The square itself a masterpiece of juxtaposition – with an Orwellian statue of 2 soviet era riflemen dominating the space in front of the Latvian Museum of Occupation, which perhaps needless to say is a rather recent (and definitely worthwhile) addition.
Immediately behind is the faithfully and beautifully reconstructed House of the Blackheads which was originally built in the 14th century before been bombed to ruins by the Germans, and then tore down completely by the Soviets in 1948. The Blackheads themselves were a guild, made up specifically of unmarried German merchants who despite their seemingly obscure status must have once wielded significant power as to be entitled to such a fantastic building.
Moving North through the old town feels like a trip through a medieval fairyland. Modern retailers, bars and restaurants line every ground level – but travelling back in time is as easy as adjusting your head by 15 degrees. On the Northern point of the old town where history meets modernity, one comes across the Freedom Monument. Built in 1935 as a memorial to the lives lost in gaining independence from Russia in 1920, it would only see 4 years of freedom before continuing to suffer under both Nazi and Soviet regimes through till 1991. None-the-less it remained a symbol of hope for Latvians in dark times and is now under military guard with the soldiers changed hourly in – as is every countries changing of the guard – an over-the-top spectacle with funny walks. If you continue on, the new town showcases one of the biggest concentrations of art noveau in the world.
But I’d already seen all this on my first winter trip through Riga and this time over the summer I was looking for something left of field. While The Latvians fondness for Rugby had been my first accidental surprise, I’d have some assistance in finding the next few.
During my first whirlwind tour, I’d found myself drinking Black Balsam (The Local poison) and hot blackberry juice with my dark haired, fiery waitress Ance, from dinner beforehand. She talked nonstop and I hardly got a word in, but at some point mentioned I should come with her too see her home town of Jūrmula (literally means ‘beach town’) just 25 minutes from Riga. With my extremely tight time frame and snow falling heavily – the timing was off. But 9 months later it was an offer I was able to call her up on and she happily agreed to fulfill her promise.
Jūrmula is spread out like a piece of string along a narrow 33 mile sand spit and has been regarded as the premier resort and wellness centre of the Baltics since the 19th century – a fact well known regionally and to the Russian elite, but virtually unheard of in the West. So after a night at Ances place we headed to the town centre. Jūrmula as it turned out, is sensational. It was a brilliant day and the town is defined by its brilliantly maintained 19th century wooden buildings with a rich scent of sea breeze and pine needles ever present in the air. The overall feeling is one of a real old-fashion resort, curiously modernized by the droves of hyper trendy Russian holiday makers, though thankfully not so many to ruin the ambience. We stopped at a fantastic sushi restaurant for lunch (which cost just about nothing) before continuing on to the main beach.
At first thought your mind probably fails to conjure up something appealing when putting together the terms ‘beach holiday’ and ‘Baltics’ (Possibly an image similar to Borat in a mankini lazing by a stormwater drain). But make no mistake, Jūrmula beach is amazing. The vast white quartz beach stretches as far as you can see and the water is clear as crystal. Electronic and Russian pop music wafted from several waterfront restaurants while mind blowingly beautiful women were playing volleyball on the multiple nets which have been set up. I wish I’d brought my swim gear as the water looked immensely inviting and my soul still feels obligated to return.
After returning to Riga I was slightly deflated to find that blue skies would be replaced with torrential rain for the next 2 days. On the plus side this did little to stop me from enjoying one of Riga’s biggest draw cards – as a party and night scene hot spot. But that deserves an entire guidebook within itself. The fact of the matter is that it doesn’t who you are, why you’re going or when – Riga is a city which delivers on all fronts. If you can’t enjoy yourself here you’re doing something seriously wrong.