Riga, The Jewell of the Baltic States (And the Home of Some Very Nice Beer)
Riga, the capital of Latvia is a beautiful and historic city that has about 4000 years of recorded habitation and a long and trying past, as Latvia has had only about half a century of independence total in all that time. Still Latvian culture has endured and remains strong with their language and folk music that is ever present in even this modern world. I came to Riga to meet a friend, an American like myself, but one that has been living in Moscow for the last 6 years and had been in Prague for the 6 or so years before that. He was a wonderful tour guide and was able to get me into the spirit of the place right away with a drink in a local pub in the old town within 45 minutes of landing in this beautiful city. Michael did have connections and the apartment he rented for us was ideally located in the heart of the old town and very near the medieval section and close walking distance to everything important to see and experience here. Smooth cobblestones greeted my feet as we ventured into the Riga night, I had just spent a week in Sweden with friends and at first saw some Scandinavian accents here and there, and in fact at one time Riga was the second capital of Sweden. The history breathes in this place and its mark is everywhere. The Finns, the Danes and the Swedes all ruled here, but it is the German and Russian occupations that are remembered here and still there is much bitterness that can be felt. Soviet liberation is sweet for Latvians and only came in the early nineties and one is struck by its effect. That sad, the Russian influence will continue here as a third of the population in Latvia are ethnic Russians and their language seems to be the most widely spoken, even as the Latvians tear down signs and billboards in that tongue. The German influence remains in the Lutheran churches and of course the beer, of which I enjoyed very much. That first sip convinced me, and the smoke filled pub just added to the atmosphere in this charming city, though the pole at the end of the bar with the beautiful young blonde in a bikini didn’t hurt either. Did I mention the women here? Well, I’ll be back just for them I can tell you, never in my life have I seen so many beautiful women as I did in my three days in Riga, but that is another story.
That first night in Riga, Michael and myself savored the local favorites Aldaris and Cesis beer brands and stuck to their Pils, both of which were fresh and very tasty. Over the next couple of days we ventured Riga far and wide from its riverbanks, parks, soviet blocks, orthodox Russian churches, museums and of course the city’s fantastically located beer gardens and trying some of their more exotic beers and ales. Bee keeping has a long history here as well and honey is cherished and honeycomb is like gold at the marketplaces, so as you’d imagine honey mead is popular and indeed very nice here and the are honey beers too of which I had a few during a sun drenched afternoon that saw us chatting away about how Riga remains totally unique and how it has absorbed western influence without much loss in its old world ways. There are cell phone stores, Puma boutiques and a few Pizza Huts like the rest of western Europe, but in Riga somehow they seem to go unnoticed with everything else that grabs your attention like markets in most squares selling handmade linens, hand crafts, amber jewelry and traditional garments. The sounds of Riga are different and are like nothing like anywhere else I’ve traveled. An old Russian soldier played fiddle for us, in between telling us of his march to Berlin in 1944 and his time now unwanted by both his motherland and his adopted Latvia, neither of which will not pay his army pension. Things are different here and many struggle with life in this new age here. We were approached by little kids begging, scurried away by Michael shouting at them in his perfect Russian and then smiled and groped at by “massage therapists” with perfect creamy white skin and ultra purple eyes who we gently sent on their way without any tinge of quilt. It was time to get back to the beer, and a wonder live-hop style called Uzavas of which we tried both the Bauska or Tervetas brands at two of our favorite beer taverns. These beers were some of the best hoppy beers I’ve had and highly recommend them. Latvia also does dark beers in porter and stout styles to and we sampled some of these while taking in a real Latvian lunch at a traditional restaurant Michael found here a couple of years ago. It was all dark wood and had many fireplaces and the food was served buffet style with a tray and all, which I found somewhat Las Vegasish, but real in its local feel. Latvian food tends to be heavy and dull tasting, though it should serve them well in the cold of winter. There is fish, though it tends to be cured or pickled, so my quest for a light lunch didn’t fly too well, especially after I sat down with my lightly battered chicken breast which turned out to be stuffed with ground beef and ham! Thank god for the beer, most definitely the best part of the Latvian lunch, no question.
Honestly the best food I had in Riga was had when we slipped off to an Uzbekistan restaurant in the suburbs that had great lamb and couscous, that we eat up with a pleasant Georgian red wine, though we had a few lager style local brews as well. Apart from the great beer, Latvians drink up Vodka like water in the clubs and discos, which are mostly run by the Russians still. Latvians in Riga enjoy a secret liqueur called Riga Balzam or Black Balzams, it is a hundred year old recipe that is made up of roots, flowers, herbs and various juices, it is both sweet and bitter and is an acquired taste much like some of the other herbal liqueurs found across Europe that were made by monks over the last couple hundred years or so.
Riga is an amazing city with lots of soul and life that will intrigue you and leave you mystified and place you’ll want to visit again and not just for the great beer.