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2004-09-21 Latvia's charm is still around after years of Russian rule

With new nations joining the EU all the time, not only will theseface nations make it more difficult for their bullying neighbours to re-invade, but also it is now much easier for those intrepid explorers amongst us to visit these enticing new European family members.

 

At first sight Latvia seems a lot like Ireland - unspoiled countryside, long sandy beaches, pine forests, wooded hillsides, bogs, wetlands, and a few medieval castles dotted about the green expanse. We were picked up at Riga's architecturally impressive airport by our driver - Elvis! A few Latvian expletives were projected out the window, then those blue suede shoes hit that accelerator, and we all had had our first taste of Baltic road rage. Our hotel's motto was a little unsettling - 'Everything else but ordinary' - but was nonetheless perfectly comfortable, though somehow reminiscient of the Soviet era.

 

Only half of the country's 2 million people are ethnic Latvian ; the other half mostly Russian.One third of the population live in the capital; much the same as us really. Riga has the monuments and architecture of a real metropolis. Old Riga is a maze of zig-zagging alleyways brimming with a wealth of historic edifices, red brick churches and colourful façades displaying its eight centuries of chequered history. Elsewhere, bustling boulevards, richly ornamented Art Nouveau architecture, trendy bars and restaurants show just why Riga is fast becoming a popular city-break destination.

 

Mr O'Leary has even decided to begin flying those no-frills-flying-machines direct to Riga later this year.

 

In 1201, a German crusading priest - Albert von Buxhoeveden - arrived in Riga, enslaving and massacring the Balts in the name of Christianity (What was the 6th commandment Albert?). The entire region was plundered in the following centuries by invading Poles, Lithuanians, Swedes, Germans, and most recently Russians (1940 - 1991). When speaking to Latvians you quickly realise how unpopular the Russians still are in some quarters. When in Latvia, do as the Latvians do. So, after our performance at Riga's imperious 19th century Opera House, instead of a drink at 'Paddy Whelans', we all headed to a large cellar bar/club called Etri Balti Krekli. The Club is popular with a crowd keen to escape the usual techno, house and garage (I definitely fall into that category), and is known for it's Latvian-only music, played by some of the city's finest bands. After we adjusted to the strange smoky atmosphere (Come on Latvia, follow our example, Come on Europe?), we were offered a shot each of the Latvian national drink. Balzams is a 45% proof liqueur made from roots, grasses and herbs, and from it's rather acquired medicinal taste, one would expect this elixir to have a sign on the bottle saying Take 3 times a day after eating". But who am I to complain?

 

A round of drinks for 5 people cost less than 5 lat (roughly £5 Sterling). Food, drink, public transport and postage was cheap, but other than that the cost of living in Latvia is high,though not as laughable as Ireland! That night I definitely overdid it on the Benylin, or was it Balzams? I had been affected by a real feeling of Baltic solidarity, and so when I found myself writing anti-Russian graffiti on the tables I knew it was time to call it a night. The following morning we were taken on a whistle-stop tour of the city centre - the huge 13th Century Romanesque Cathedral with a relatively austere interior, the pretty blue-roofed Catholic Church of St Jacobs, the Latvian President's Official Residence, the 14th Century Gunpowder Tower, the Three Brothers' tumbling Rigan houses, the fittingly ugly 'Museum of Latvian Occupation', Riga's old moat - now the city canal, and the recently rebuilt Town Hall Square with it's colourful late Gothic 'House of the Blackheads', and the Freedom Monument where Prince Charles was slapped in the face by a carnation! An enthusiastic folk-song and choral singing tradition has helped keep the Latvian language alive, and despite having even more 'cases' than German, Latvian is pronounced more or less as you see it.

 

The almost sacred symbol of Latvia is 'the stork', which symbolises good fortune and protection. The people of this Soviet-scarred nation on first meeting almost seem a little cold, but I think after years of occupation you can hardly blame them for what is more likely to be an initial lack of trust.