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Latvia: At liberty in the Baltic

As Latvia marks 20 years of independence, its capital has reinvented itself as an intriguing tourist destination. William Cook relishes his time in a revitalised Riga

In Riga's central square there is a spectacularly ugly modern building which sums up the turbulent story of this war-torn metropolis. Built by the Soviets as a tribute to the Latvian communists who fought for Lenin, this bleak concrete block now houses Riga's Museum of Occupation. Inside, a sombre display charts the successive conquests of Latvia by the Wehrmacht and the Red Army. Outside, Russian and German tour groups wander the cobbled streets, drinking beer and buying trinkets. In an ironic twist of history, Riga's oldinvaders have returned as sightseers.

Tomorrow marks 20 years since Latvia regained itsindependence, after thecollapse of the USSR, and since 1991 its reinstated capital has become a bustling tourist destination. The biggest city in the Baltic States, Riga now has something for everyone. Stag groups come here for the lively bars and the cheap, strong lager – but for less inebriated visitors, Riga's main attraction is its rich international heritage.

Russians, Germans, Swedes and Poles haveall left their mark on Riga. You can see why filmmakers have used it as a double for Stockholm and Berlin. Nearly half the population are Russian speakers (the legacy of half a century as a Soviet satellite) and the weathered brick buildings recall the Prussian merchants who transformed this Teutonic fortress into a wealthy Hanseatic port.

Yet as Riga resumes its role as the capital of a free country, its old colonial buildings have acquired new identities. The Zeppelin hangers are full of market stalls. The high rise Academy of Sciences, a "gift" from Stalin, now houses an archive of Latvian folk songs. The Orthodox Cathedral, once a planetarium, is once more a place of worship. Like its Hanseatic neighbours, Riga has always been international – but for the first time in a lifetime, it's becoming Latvian again.

I checked into a homely hotel called Gutenbergs, which doubles as a printing house. It feels like a local landmark, but in fact is only 10 years old. Its manager, Gatis Graudnis, 33, has been here from the beginning. He came to Riga in his teens and worked his way up, learning on the job. He had to – before independence there was only one major hotel in Riga, which was state run. Butalthough he had to start from scratch, at least he had a historic precedent. Riga was a city built on trade andtravel, and after half a century of state socialism it's returning to its old role. "Latvians like to work," says Gatis, but there are winners and losers in the new Latvia. There are new cars on the roads. There are beggars on the pavement.

I took a tour of the city with Inga Karlstrema. Inga represents a new generation who have come of age since their country gained independence and then joined the European Union in 2004. It's hard to believe that when she was born, Riga was still a remote outpost of the USSR. Inga juggles freelance work as a tour guide with her studies at the Academy of Arts and her day job at the National History Museum.

Still only 24, she personifies a society impatient to make up for lost time. "If you were intelligent, if you were academic or some kind of skilled person, you had no place in that system," she says, of communism. "Latvians were sent to Siberia, and Russians were sent in to work here in the factories."

These two communities now co-exist, but there's not much interaction. "We have lots of integration problems, because you can't integrate 45 per cent," says Inga. "They read their own newspapers, they watch their own television." The tide of history has turned, leaving these Soviet émigrés adrift.

We start our tour in the narrow alleys of the Teutonic old town ("Germans have lived here for centuries, and we are part of their culture," says Inga). We end up in Riga's flamboyant Jugendstil district, one of Europe's finest enclaves of art nouveau. Built between the wars, these ornate apartments evoke the heady optimism of Latvia's last 20 years of liberty, from 1920 to 1940. "Of course Riga is more Latvian than in Soviet times," says Inga. "But it will never be a totally Latvian city." And in a way, it never was.

Riga's master of art nouveau was Sergei Eisenstein, father of the famous filmdirector, and a few blocks from here is a precious relic of Latvia's golden age of film. The first cinema in the Baltic States to screen talkies, the Splendid Palace was built in the 1920s, the cathedral of a new art form. Its founder was transported to Siberia, where he died, but thisexquisite cinema survived. Still adorned with delicate murals and dripping with gold leaf, it now shows films from all over Europe, rather than the Soviet fare of the Cold War years.

Elina, who works here, took some time out to show me round. "It was a real wonder that they left this place," she says, as we stroll through the palatial auditorium – more like a mansion than a cinema. Elina came to Riga when she was 18, four years ago, to study Public Relations and Communications. Her generation seems multilingual, multitalented and highly motivated, but steady jobs are mighty hard to come by.

The best way to see Riga is from the water. In the afternoon I went for a boat trip with a man called Edgars Lazdins. He's 41, and trained as a radio engineer. But by the time he left technical school the factories and military instillations where he could have worked before had disappeared. Embracing Riga's new business ethos, he started his own boat business. "Right now, we have a lot of chances," he says, but his generation can see both sides. "Maybe, on a social level, it was a bit better in Soviet times," he reflects, as we chug along the canal that bisects the old town, and into the Daugava, the wide river that flows through the city and out onto the Baltic. "If you had a job, you had enough money for a good life. Now, if you're a cleaner in a hotel or a hospital, it's a problem." No wonder so many Latvians have gone west, to find work. "We lost 300,000 people in the last seven years."

Edgars isn't starry-eyed about the new economy, but he doesn't pine for the bad old days. "In Soviet times, when you weren't a member of the Communist Party you never went abroad," he says, without rancour. Now all of Europe comes to Riga. Once more, his hometown is a portal between east and west. It's not for nothing that Riga's coat of arms is an open gate.

Next morning Riga was baking in the summer sun, so I escaped to the seaside. Half an hour away by train, Jurmala is a string of bucket-and-spade resorts in a thick pine forest beside an endless beach. In the dark woods beyond, rich Russians are busy renovating the grand old villas once occupied by party apparatchiks. During the Cold War, this was a chic hideaway for Soviet bigwigs. Now it's a chic hideaway for Russia's nouveau riche elite. The railway station is full of sunburnt Latvians in swimming trunks and flip-flops. The car parks are full of four-by-fours with Russian number-plates.

Back in Riga I ate lunch in a parkside café with a 19-year-old student called Mara Sinka. Born and raised in England, she's reading Modern Languages at Durham University, but her father is from Latvia and she grew up speaking the language. She spends most summers here. In 2009, she worked at the Ministry of Defence. This year she's working at the Museum of Occupation. It's given her a unique insight into the shifting personality of the city. "It's definitely a lot less run down," she says. "They've been tearing down the communist buildings."

My last stop was Riga's National Gallery, a refuge from the summer heat. Like itsarchitecture, Riga's art history is a timeline of successive dynasties – Teutonic, Tsarist, Soviet, and now Latvian at last. It's surely nocoincidence that the best pictures in this museum – the delicate local landscapes of Janis Valters and Vilhelms Purvitis – were painted in the Twenties and Thirties, during Latvia's last 20 years of liberty. As this beautiful but battered city celebrates its second 20 years of freedom, after a 50 year hiatus, it seems fitting that these discreetly patriotic paintingsfinally have pride of place.

Travel essentials: Riga

Getting there

* The writer travelled with Baltic Holidays (0845 070 5711 or 0161 860 5248; balticholidays.com) which offers three nights' B&B at the Gutenbergs Hotel from £199, including flights from Stansted and private transfers.

* Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) flies from Bristol, Glasgow Prestwick, Leeds/Bradford, Liverpool, Stansted and East Midlands; Air Baltic (00 371 6700 6006; airbaltic.com) from Gatwick and Wizz Air (0906 959 0002; wizzair.com) from Luton.

More information

* Latvia Tourist Board: 00 371 67229945; latvia.travel/en

* Riga Tourist Board: 00 371 67 227 444; liveriga.com/en