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A Baltic surprise
CLEAN (ALWAYS), green (in summer) and (almost) flat all over, Latvia is the compact Baltic state that shouldn't have anything in common with our Little Red Dot - but does. It has a history as a trading port; tourism, high-tech and finance are major industries and visitors will feel a comforting sense of calm whether touring the countryside or walking along city streets.
With Latvia, it's more of a quiet hum than a loud bang when it comes to making an impression. Distance and a lack of direct flights dictate that the country remains a well-kept secret in this part of the world but with a medieval past, a multi-cultural presence and myriad tourist attractions, it deserves a closer look.
Given the country's pocket-sized dimensions, tiny population and shared borders with fellow Baltic republics Estonia to the north and Lithuania to the south - plus a long and complicated relationship with neighbouring Russia and also Germany - Latvia is primed to blossom into something more than an under-the-radar destination.
Next year marks its centenary as an independent state, although World War II and periods of occupation by Germany and Russia interrupted its progress, resulting in a second declaration of independence in 1991. A significant proportion of the country's two million population has Russian roots and during earlier centuries, Germany, Poland and Sweden also laid claim to the nation. Yet there's no doubting Latvia's singular sense of identity.
The capital Riga is the largest city in the Baltics - it serves as a gateway to the Baltic Sea and is the logical starting point of any visit. Without a doubt, the heart of Latvian tourism is the historic Old Town, which occupies half a square kilometre in the city centre - detailed exploration by foot is highly recommended here.
Many locals live in residential neighbourhoods like Kalnciema and Kipsala - an island connected by bridge to the city centre. Visitors will be suitably charmed by Old Town's cobblestone streets and buildings that date back 800 years. In recent years, especially in summer, it has becoming increasingly common to encounter ubiquitous tour groups from East Asia and mainland China. Those interested in bone-chilling temperatures and activities such as ice fishing are advised to visit during winter.
The historic skyline at this Unesco World Heritage Site is characterised by church spires and examples of modernist Soviet architecture. In the distance, along the banks of the Daugava River, is a communications tower that bears more than a passing resemblance to the Eiffel Tower. Closer to town the distinctive National Library, a bank-owned skyscraper and a pair of gleaming residential towers are prominent concessions to the 21st century - and evidence of the country's recovery from the crippling recession of 2008/9.
Latvia joined the European Union in 2004 and switched to the euro currency 10 years later. Living standards are impressive and working-class locals earn roughly 600 euros (S$973) a month. Property-obsessed Singaporeans might be interested to learn that the cost of an apartment in central Riga is significantly lower than the average HDB flat.
Beyond Old Town in the city centre, along Alberta Street and adjacent Elizabetes Street in the neighbourhood known as the Quiet Centre, architecture buffs will find some of the most interesting and alluring Art Nouveau buildings in the world. During Riga's golden age as a trading post in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, wealthy individuals built apartment blocks - many in the decorative Art Nouveau style - with elaborate stylised facades of gods and humans, flora and fauna.
Latvians are reputed to be introverts by nature and nature-lovers at heart - which is particularly useful considering over 40 per cent of the country is covered by pine and birch forests and pristine national parks. Picking forest mushrooms and berries is somewhat akin to a national sport, next to basketball and ice hockey. When the weekend arrives and the weather permits, locals will head in droves to seaside resorts like nearby Jurmala - long a popular spot among the Russian elite. With its location beside the Gulf of Riga, the city has direct access to about 300 kms of shoreline.
Latvians are usually happy to help visitors with street directions or to dispense advice on places to visit outside Riga. Singaporeans are a relative rarity in Latvia - only about 750 visited the country in 2015, out of a total 4.1 million tourists - but it may still be possible to run into someone like Ricky Yong, a transplanted Singaporean who has lived in Riga for 4½ years, working for Singapore-based port terminal operator Portek as its regional head.
"During the Soviet era, Riga was the Paris of the Soviet republics," says Mr Yong, whose tip to potential buyers of property is to "make sure there's basement parking - or you'll be shovelling a lot of snow in the winter." He has explored much of the country during his stay here and reveals that his favourite place to visit is the ancient town of Sigulda at the edge of Gauja National Park, an hour's drive east of Riga. He maintains that the best time to visit is during the autumn season around the end of September, when the leaves turn from green to gold.
"I wouldn't exactly call this a frontier, but there are business opportunities and it's possible to create something here," he says. "The food is good and the countryside is beautiful, especially during the summer - but it's still a hardship posting because of the freezing winters."
On the far side of Gauja National Park, not far past Sigulda, the medieval town of Cesis beckons. Apart from nature-related activities such as hiking and mushroom-picking in the forest around the Erglu Cliffs (a sandstone escarpment beside the Gauja River), the main attraction is Cesis Castle, a complex of ruins dating to the 13th century around which the town was originally built.
There are many options for anyone with the time and inclination to explore the country in more detail. One excursion from Riga may bring them to Rundale Palace, a well-restored 18th-century estate about 80 kms south of the capital. Its lavish Baroque interiors are stocked with antiques and period furniture while the "backyard" comprises 10 hectares of formal French gardens, designed for the amusement of original owner Duke Ernst Johann von Biron and his many guests.
"Latvia is very small, very green, very nice," says Anita Sondore, a local artist and designer of fine jewellery. "It has a much-slower pace than many other capital cities and the economy is driven by many small companies catering to the local market." She adds: "We are a hard-working people - due to our history, we are used to surviving and looking for solutions."
SHOPPING IN RIGA
"Everything is mass-produced these days, we have to preserve the art of craftsmanship," says Elina Dobele, an architect-turned shoe-designer who describes her eponymous brand as a balance between aesthetics and ergonomics, comfort and construction. "Shoes are like small houses for our feet," she explains, adding that hers is a niche product that appeals to strong personalities. Her Old Town atelier features bespoke services, unique shapes and shoes and boots with hand-turned wooden high heels. (www.elinadobele.com)
Concept store BOLD (Best Of Latvian Design) focuses on niche fashion brands from Eastern Europe. "Baltic design is similar to Scandinavian design, but we want to stand out in comparison to other stores," says managing partner Krista Birmane, who started out in a small store in Jurmala before opening in the city centre about nine months ago. "People are tired of the big brand names, they want something more independent - we don't limit ourselves to minimalistic black-and-white because braver, daring designs seem to work now, especially for Russian clients." (www.boldconceptstore.lv)
Locally designed and made lifestyle items can be found at Riija, a store that represents the modern face of Latvian design. A variety of household products including tableware, linens, lights and furniture are available here - all espousing a tradition of craftsmanship. Wood products are also well represented - hotel rooms and restaurants have oak floors and wood finishes, courtesy of a thriving local timber industry. (www.riija.lv)
Once you've finished souvenir-hunting, head to Miera Street, the go-to destination for trendsetting independent stores such as bookstore Mr Page, whose quirky interior and well-curated bookshelves make browsing a lot more fun. (www.mrpage.lv)
Meanwhile, high-tech methods are used to make decorative glass-and-stainless steel bowls at An&Angel, a gallery-cum-showroom of usable art by glass artist Artis Nimanis. His previous works include the first fully-functioning glass bicycle in the world. (www.anangel.glass) For more conventional art, check out the National Museum of Art as well as numerous art galleries across town.
Those in search of something edible are advised to start at Riga's Central Market, open in 1930 and housed in five former airship hangars just next to the Old Town. The quality of local produce is very good and in the warmer months, there's plenty of variety to choose from. Latvian black rye bread from bakery Laci is an edible souvenir and deliciously dense - each loaf typically weighs one kilo. If it's something heavier you're after, bring home a bottle of Black Balsam, Latvia's signature alcohol - a herbal liqueur that is guaranteed to make your knees buckle.
EATING IN RIGA
Modern Latvian cuisine takes its cue from its Nordic neighbours across the Baltic Sea, with a focus on seasonality and farm-to-table cooking. There are several well-known practitioners in Riga with restaurants that will appeal to foodie visitors. "We are a new generation of Nordic chefs," says Eriks Dreibants, who is one of the culinary talents behind 3 Pavaru (3 Chefs), an Old Town restaurant that has garnered regional accolades and international attention since it opened in 2011. (www.3pavari.lv)
"Our inspiration came from the Nordic countries but in recent years, we have been looking to find a Baltic identity based on nature, locality and seasonality," he adds. "We have good culinary traditions, and Latvians are close to nature; they can identify plants and herbs in the wild. There was a break during the Soviet era but now, the Baltics are back."
Two years ago, Dreibants and his fellow chefs opened Restorans 3, a place with a casual vibe that offers a modern take on the back-to-nature philosophy (hay smoked cheese and spinach puff, venison smoked over juniper twigs at the table, elderflower yoghurt and so on) and one of the go-to eateries in town. (www.restaurant3.lv)
"In Denmark, children are taught from young about nature and how to eat; here, we have a tradition based on smoking meat and fish, and it's passed down from generation to generation."
Dreibants keeps tradition alive at Dabas Garsa (Taste of Nature), his chefs-in-residence programme and culinary lab of sorts in the woods near Gauja National Park.
"We are pretty much on the same level as the rest of Eastern Europe - we have restaurants that are going in the right direction, but many places are still stuck in post-Soviet mode," says Dzintars Kristovskis, a chef who represents Latvia as an official food ambassador. Until recently, he was also head chef at Valmiermuizas Embassy, the Riga outpost of a craft brewery (there are some 46 of them in Latvia - they take their beer very seriously here) and gastropub of sorts where beer-and-food pairings are de rigueur. (www.valmiermuiza.lv)
"With the onset of social media, people just want pretty pictures - they don't care what it tastes like," he adds. "A lot of restaurants follow every trend possible, and it's bad if you don't have your own point of view - but it's getting better."
For irrefutable proof, look no further than Vincents, an elegant eatery consistently rated the top table in town, where 105 euros (S$171) gets you good service, impeccable technique and a thoroughly enjoyable five-course tasting menu. It's a little gimmicky at times but has a fun factor that amuses and entertains, enhanced by cooking that is executed to a very high standard.
At one point, our server appears with a brown paper bag, pulls out a tin of smoked herring and apologises that the kitchen has "messed up" a dish. Then he opens the sealed tin to reveal an elaborate tuna tartar salad within, beautifully garnished with local herbs and flowers. And so it continues. At Vincents, the bread basket alone is worth the price of admission, a perfect complement to the main culinary show. (www.restorans.lv)
WHERE TO STAY
Dome Hotel & Spa is a charming 15-room boutique hotel just around the corner from Dome Square in the Old Town. It is attached to a very good seafood restaurant and features a great breakfast that is included in the room rate. (www.domehotel.lv)
Pullman Riga Old Town combines an 18th-century building with 21st-century architecture. It occupies an excellent location across from the Presidential Palace and near the Parliament Building. (www.pullmanriga.lv)
"Latvia is the compact Baltic state that shouldn't have anything in common with our Little Red Dot - but does. It has a history as a trading port; tourism, high-tech and finance are major industries and visitors will feel a comforting sense of calm whether touring the countryside or walking along city streets."