Postcard from Riga
What a way to start off dreary 2018 than with a trip to the Baltics! I know, not the usual sunny Stylecamp destination, and certainly not much opportunity to wear one of my two piece sets, but there are definitely some captivating reasons to visit this Art Nouveau haven, Riga, in Latvia.
Colourful streets of Riga
Christmas decorations in Latvia
The runway appeared out of nowhere as our plane descended through the thick fog, landing with a bit of a bump. We had arrived in Riga late on Friday night to happily discover that in late January, Riga is still very much in Christmas mode! Through the dense fog, the glittering Christmas lights along the riverside front were a welcome sight as our taxi took us the short drive from the airport into town, giving a flavour of cosiness to this wintry destination.
Latvian National Opera House
The next day, we were booked in to catch the matinee performance of 'At the Blue Danube' performed by the Latvian National Ballet at, where else, than the National Opera House.
Beautiful waltz music by Johann Strauss backs this romantic ballet about the choice between love and the stage. As always, ballet is mesmerising to watch, I particularly enjoyed the costumes and colour at the Viennese Ballroom scene.
At the Blue Danube - picture c/o the Latvian National Ballet
The theatre feels relatively small for a National Opera House but perhaps that's because it was originally constructed in its neo-classical style as the Riga German Theatre in 1863. It was packed to rafters with charming details, including the show-stopping chandelier with fluted floral sconces that hung impressively in the centre of the concert hall. During the intervals we wandered the grand corridors and stately refreshments' room, imagining what it must have been like for audiences of its time.
Grand details at the National Opera House
I felt a sense of Baltic glamour wearing Stylecamp's luxurious velour Lombard dress for the occasion, a midi length number with elegant split sleeves, which I teamed with my studded lace up ankle boots for a more casual appeal - a dress and boots combination I noticed a lot of the other glamorous ladies wearing. I love the chic longer length of this dress, which after the performance, I threw a chunky knit over to stay warm whilst exploring what else the city had to offer.
Wearing Stylecamp's Lombard dress at the Latvian National Opera
CHOCOLATE & GIN - 2 OF MY LOVES
We were soon taken in by the very 'sweet' (pardon the pun, they were very enthusiastic!) ladies at the Laima chocolate museum, who stuffed bundles of chocolates into our hands before ushering us into their interactive museum experience. The indulgent melted chocolate drink was a real treat as you perused the origins of the factory and personalised your own chocolate bar.
Chocolates and original vintage artwork from the Laima Chocolate Museum in Riga
Afterwards, we wandered up into the shopping district as I always like to have a good nose in the local charity, vintage and secondhand shops, of which there were a few scattered around. I was sorely tempted by some very decadent vintage long length coats, sadly too big.
Andalūzijas Suns - Gin bar in Riga
We'd kicked up a thirst by this point and headed over to a cosy gin bar we'd heard about, Andalūzijas Suns. A chic interior featuring tiled floors and vintage furniture, with a drinks menu entirely of gins infused with all sorts of weird and wonderful things. I opted for a delicious Botanist gin with orange, sage and mint with a tonic to match, possibly one of the best G&Ts I've ever had.
Gin and Tonic at Andalūzijas Suns
RIGA OLD TOWN
Views of Riga from the Hotel
The next day was a real taste of the Baltic when we awoke to a flurry of sleet and snow. Apparently the temperatures can get as low as -25 in January though, so at 0 degrees, I think we were quite lucky! Nevertheless, we trudged in the slush to reach the Central Market, which were once vast military hangars, now full of good quality local meat and brightly coloured vegetable produce.
Riga Central Market - picture c/o Christina Weninger Liden & Denz
Tucked away in the corner of the veg section was this gem of a craft beer bar, Labietis, run by a very knowledgable, Nordic-looking barman. We ended up staying for two pints of the Mežs, or Forest in English, which was a flavourful red ale made with juniper berries. That certainly cheered up my two wet feet!
Labietis Brew Bar in Riga Central Market
Having picked the murkiest day to get that obligatory 'views over the city' shot, in Riga's centre there are two main choices; the cosy Skyline bar at the Radisson, or the decorative wooden tower at St Peter's Church, rebuilt 4 times no less (I'm sure it was still safe...).
St Peter's Church Wooden Tower
Being the adventurers that we apparently are, up the church spire we went, the shock of Baltic-weather blasting through the lift doors when they opened. Still, it was great to see everything from this unique vantage point and really appreciate how colourful and vibrant the city is despite the bleak conditions.
Views over Old Riga from St Peter's Wooden tower
This faux fur coat I bought from a charity shop many years ago was an absolute godsend during this trip; it never fails to keep me warm and I always feel glamorous in it, even if it's teamed with a ridiculous woolly hat and pink trainers. Here I am embracing the millenial pink with my emergency shoes bought to replace my now-sodden boots, however I was very grateful for them. Winter isn't my season, can you tell? Note to self, always bring appropriate footwear!
Blustery weather in the spire at St Peter's Church
ART NOUVEAU IN RIGA
Next we set out to find some of the Art Nouveau treasures the city has to offer, which, for me, was the main draw to visit Riga. In the early part of the century, Latvia saw great wealth and it was forever immortalised in these vast buildings. It has one of the largest concentration of Art Nouveau buildings within a city in the world, around 800 in total. There is an Art Nouveau museum near Alberta iela worth visiting, boasting astonishing Art Nouveau interiors and staircase.
Art Nouveau Staircase - picture c/o Shing Yoong of the CultureMap
Aside from the usual natural forms and swirling shapes characteristic of Art Nouveau, in Riga, the key themes you notice range from mythical beings and zoological aspects to visions of the femme fatale. I was drawn to the screaming or dramatic faces seen on many of the facades which I later found out were unique to the architect Mikhail Eisenstein.
He created a fair proportion of the buildings around Alberta iela, and these distorted faces are said to be outward symbols of his marital break-up, designed in as though the buildings themselves are crying. Thanks to Art Weekenders for clearing that up for me!
Details of Art Nouveau buildings in Riga
GOING OUT IN RIGA
By the evening we were looking to sample some of the local cuisine and we'd heard of this cosy neighbourhood bar popular with the local hipsters, Folkklubs Ala Pagrabs. Down some dank underground and, frankly smelly, corridors, emerged a sprawling bar bursting with life; under medieval brick vaulted ceilings were packed out tables with a roaring fire at one side and a local band providing the ambience at the other. We washed down hearty plates of affordable traditional Latvian food with a few pints of local beers, leaving very satisfied.
Bar at Folkkus ala Pagrabs - picture c/o Jetsetting Fools
Riga Black Balsam
It's impossible to visit Riga without talking about the Black Balsams. A herbal concoction made of over 24 ingredients mixed with vodka at 45% abv, Katharine the Great was said to have been offered some, either curing her ills or leading her to never visit Latvia again. It's a bit of a Marmite thing, some love it, some hate it, but either way you have to try it. I would describe the taste as medicinal and bitter, but then, that's exactly what it was designed for. I reckon it's a good way to keep the cold away, so I'm looking forward to trying some mixed in a hot blackcurrant or lustrous hot chocolate when I'm next feeling under the weather. I also love the handmade ceramic bottle it comes in, its design feels somewhat iconic.
Black Magic Bar, Riga
The Black Magic bar, although touristy, is a good way to have your first taste of Balsams. This cavernous place full of curiosities features a cafe up top and a bar down below. Everything to eat and drink contains the stuff, so, having already tried the Black Balsams chocolates at Laima (my personal favourite), I ordered a simple hot chocolate, which came as a pre-made chocolate block to stir into hot milk yourself. Very warming and a great way to round off the weekend.
Inside the Black Magic Bar, Riga
We thoroughly enjoyed our brief stay in beautiful Riga, finding lots to see and do and the locals to be very friendly. I'd love to come back at some point to explore more in the future, but until then, we're already plotting our next dream art nouveau destination to visit - how about Nancy in France or Aveiro in Portugal?
View of Old Riga from the bridge in the sunshine
WHERE WE STAYED
Outside the Hotel Neiburgs
We stayed at the Neiburgs, a boutique hotel in the heart of the Old Town, famous for it being the only Art Nouveau style building in Old Riga. You can't miss the great stone edifice of its founder, Ludvigs Neiburgs, on the front of the building. The suites inside are more like stylish little apartments than your standard hotel room, which makes your stay all the more comfortable.
Apartment suite at the Hotel Neiburgs - picture c/o Neiburgs
Even if you aren't staying at the hotel, the connected Restaurant Neiburgs is worth a visit for its contemporary take on traditional Latvian cuisine, all sourced locally from the Central Market, and all at reasonable prices.
Restaurant Neiburgs - picture c/o Neiburgs