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Cosmopolitan Riga: ‘Paris of the Baltics’

My hotel in Riga was bugged. Yep. It said so right in the guidebook that hotel workers used monitoring equipment to listen to guests' phone calls. But that was decades ago.
Young Latvian dancers perform a traditional dance marking the arrival of summer in 2006 in old Riga, Latvia.
Young Latvian dancers perform a traditional dance marking the arrival of summer in 2006 in old Riga, Latvia. Jacques Boissinot / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

My hotel in Riga was bugged.

Yep. It said so right in the guidebook that hotel workers used monitoring equipment to listen to guests' phone calls.

But that was decades ago, in the Soviet era. In fact, The Museum of the Occupation of Latvia has some of that old KGB equipment on display. It was donated by the hotel's owner after a 1999 renovation turned up the bugging gear in the walls. Walking down the long, dark hallways of the Hotel Riga, I imagined the hushed conversations being captured on old tape decks by bellboys with oversized headphones. Maybe they were stationed in the now-curtained, curved-window offices in hallway corners where they could see who entered each guest room.

Latvia gained its independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991. Its capital is now a cosmopolitan city wrapped in a beautiful, ornate coat of history. Although its urban center dates to medieval times, the city is sometimes referred to as the "Paris of the Baltics" because of its Art Nouveau architecture, built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These streetscapes in the city's historic center earned Riga designation as a World Heritage site by UNESCO. "Riga has the finest collection of art nouveau buildings in Europe," the UNESCO citation says.

An architectural tour of Riga highlights the best examples. Every structure along Albert Street fills the bill. The facades are gloriously decorated with carvings of lions and serpents, birds and dragons, flowers and shells, and both the bodies and elongated faces of lovely ladies. The styles reflect influences from Germany, Austria and Finland, and are categorized by experts in terms that may not mean much to the average American: a decorative eclectic style, a toned-down Nationalistic strain and the National Romantic design.

My hotel was across the street from the National Opera House, right on the edge of the historic Old Town. It was a convenient base from which to check out Old Town's medieval buildings, churches, the gunpowder tower and the guild halls. There are plenty of bars and restaurants with a variety of cuisines.

Getting lost in the Latvian capital
Somehow, the local, stylish young women have managed the art of wearing spiked heels on the cobblestone streets. But I don't recommend it for days of sightseeing; comfortable shoes are a must for tourists.

It's always fun to learn a few phrases in the local language when you're traveling, but Latvian is not easy for Americans. A friendly wave worked for me, since my brain couldn't readily retain "uz redzesanos," Latvian for "goodbye." But as throughout Europe, many people here speak English.

As for street signs, if you can remember to turn right on Skunu rather than left on Skarnu or stay straight on Kalku rather than veer off on Kungu to reach Grecinieku instead of Gleznotaju, well, your intuitive GPS is better than mine. I got lost so often wandering from place to place in Old Town Riga that I started scheduling extra time for it into my day.

At one point, I noticed a sign on an old building for a museum of musical instruments. I was the only visitor. I gladly took up offer of a man who spoke some English and volunteered to explain the exhibits. I got one of the best guided tours ever, from someone who knew more about music, the individual instruments, their history, even the philosophy and social significance of music, than anyone I'd ever met.

"You don't know me and I don't know you, but we can speak to each other through the common language of music," he explained in broken, but rapid English. He introduced himself simply as Sergei, and of course I tipped him for his help.

With a few exceptions, including the stark, modern Museum of the Occupation of Latvia and the splendid gothic House of Blackheads (a union hall rebuilt after it was destroyed in World War II), most museums in Riga are in old houses, churches or storefronts. Old Town is filled with them.

Another attraction is the Central Market, one of largest in Europe. It's situated in five old Zeppelin hangars. Each building features different food groups: meat, fish, dairy, bread and produce.

Chocolate and amber
For souvenirs, I brought home plenty of chocolate bars from the country's premier chocolate-maker, Laima. If you spend any time in Riga, you will come to recognize the Laima clock tower, which was donated by the company. The clock is a favorite meeting place for young people and is right next to Latvia's Freedom Monument on the edge of Old Town.

In addition to chocolate, the other must-bring-home item from Latvia is amber. The Baltic Sea is one of the world's richest sources of amber, and amber jewelry is sold everywhere in Latvia, from kiosks on the street to jewelry stores. The color of the stones varies from white to dark brown. The quality varies, too. Watch out for plastic that looks like the real thing.

My last night in town coincided with an annual free museum night (this year May 16). Some museums weren't closing their doors until 3 a.m. Setting off well after a late dinner, I braved long lines to take in the Museum of Decorative Arts (with surprisingly modern furniture, utensils, jewelry and wall hangings), an architecture museum and an exhibit in the Arsenals museum called "Mythology of the Soviet Land."

The place was packed, as were all the museums, with Latvians young and old looking at large Soviet-era paintings that reflected what was referred to as the "myth of happiness" of that recent era.

The artworks featured happy-looking workers, families and soldiers, as well as revolutionary historical themes and figures, including Stalin and Lenin.

"The period of socialist realism has ended," explained exhibit notes on the wall.

I left quite late and heard fireworks capping off the night's events. Following the crowd and trying to find a good viewing spot, I got lost, again. Suddenly the buildings looked more like this century and traffic was zooming by. I was torn between my concern over which way to head next, as it was approaching the wee hours of the morning, and the relief my feet felt from walking on a flat, paved, non-cobblestone surface for a change.

But then I came upon a familiar-looking canal and followed it until I spotted a landmark that even a disoriented tourist could recognize: The Laima clock. From there, my hotel was easy to find.