Brace yourself for a dip in the Baltic Sea

Once a favourite with Russians, Latvia's resorts are being discovered by tourists from across Europe, says Robin Buss

In the days of the USSR, Russians used to think of the Baltic states - Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania - as the "Soviet West", a haven from the austerity of the vast socialist empire. Ironically, now that the three countries are part of the European Union (since 1 May) and proving more attractive to tourists from elsewhere on the Continent, their appeal lies partly in what distinguishes them from the rest of Europe - 50 years behind the Iron Curtain.

In the days of the USSR, Russians used to think of the Baltic states - Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania - as the "Soviet West", a haven from the austerity of the vast socialist empire. Ironically, now that the three countries are part of the European Union (since 1 May) and proving more attractive to tourists from elsewhere on the Continent, their appeal lies partly in what distinguishes them from the rest of Europe - 50 years behind the Iron Curtain.

A favourite destination for holidaymaking Russians was Jurmala, in Latvia. Jurmala is not a town, but a district: the name means "seashore". It extends along the southern edge of the Gulf of Riga, west of the Latvian capital, a string of resorts behind a continuous 35km beach of fine sand, backed by woods of pine and birch, dotted with hotels and dachas, along road and railway links to Riga. There is one obvious reason why Jurmala will not be the new Côte d'Azur: the temperature of the Baltic; but Jurmala enjoys its own micro-climate and bathing in summer is no more challenging than on the south coast of England.

We stayed in the Hotel Daina, in Melluzi. The chief town in Jurmala is Majori, which has most of the hotels, shops and restaurants, as well as whatever nightlife is on offer. As you move west from Majori, Jurmala becomes less populous, the beach is emptier and the ambience more rural. Melluzi has a couple of small general stores, a chemist, a café and a railway station. The houses are wooden, often with highly decorated porches and windows. They sit among the fir trees like a film set for Dr Zhivago.

The Hotel Daina (a daina is a short Latvian poem, often set to music) was built in the late 1980s as a holiday home for workers in the chemical industry. It has the characteristics of a Soviet hotel: basic accommodation and spacious public areas, decorated with tapestries in Scandinavian browns, greys and greens, the colours of woodland and seashore. The chemical workers did not come here to sit around doing nothing. It has a billiards room, a fitness room, ping-pong tables and a superb, 25m swimming pool, guarded from 7am to 2pm by a motherly lady whose job seems to consist of directing visitors to the right changing room. Sometimes, one end of the pool is occupied by a synchronised swimming team whose coach barks at them fiercely and beats time on the metal rail of the steps. But at 8am, the pool is empty and the morning sun shines on the birch trees outside the tall windows as you swim.

The Daina is a few hundred yards from the sea. At Melluzi, the beach is crowded on a fine day, though less than at Majori; if you want the sea to yourself, you have to go a lot further west. There are changing cabins, benches and litter bins at intervals, and both the beach and the water are clean. The sand is so fine that near the water's edge you can build good sandcastles and go cycling; bicycles are easy to hire, and quite cheap.

In fact, the cheapness of everything is a constant source of wonderment. We ate at the Dukats cafe in Dubulti - starter (a herring fillet, say), then a main course, with potatoes and a salad, then tea or coffee and a bun - for around seven lats (about £7) for three of us. It is hard to find a meal at more than five lats a head. Prices in Riga are higher, but the further you go from the capital, the cheaper it gets. On a minibus excursion into the western province of Kurzeme (arranged through the Tourist Office in Majori), we are directed by the guide to the best café where we buy coffee and cakes; the bill for three comes to less than a pound.

Of course, the low cost of living reflects the poverty of the country. The average wage is around £2,000 a year. There are few beggars but, as in Russia, groups of people sit outside railway stations or by the road selling pots of cranberries, yellow raspberries, wild strawberries and other produce that they have collected in the woods or grown in their gardens, for a few pence. On the whole, Latvia looks poor but respectable. Even the dachas of the wealthy New Latvians, which are starting to go up in Jurmala, are less ostentatious than those of the New Russians on the outskirts of Moscow.

Russian is the first language of most people in Riga and Jurmala, but you will see no official notices in Russian outside the Occupations Museum in Riga, which tells Latvia's version of Nazi and Soviet oppression. English is becoming more widely spoken and has no political connotations. This is the place for a restful family holiday rather than a rave-up, though there is some nightlife in Majori and Riga is adjusting to what it sees as the needs of the hedonistic West. One hotel and restaurant in Riga, opposite the Latvian National Opera, offers a strip show without "even a slightest trace of vulgarity" (the illustration shows two girls in nurses' uniforms getting very close). The biggest thrill in Melluzi, however, is likely to be sunset over the Baltic, which happens at around 9.30pm in summer: to the east, the sea and sky gently merge in a grey mist while in the west the sun goes down in a blaze of red and orange - an unforgettable spectacle, though a showy one and, it has to be said, with more than a trace of vulgarity.

GIVE ME THE FACTS

How to get there

British Airways (0870 850 9 850; www.ba.com) flies from London Heathrow to Riga from around £98 return.

Where to stay

Hotel Daina (00 371 7767057) offers b&b in a double from €137 (£93) per night.

Further information

Visit www.latviatourism.lv.

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