Trail of the unexpected: A spa break in Latvia
The Latvian resort of Jurmala is giving new life to its historic spa traditions, says Alice Azania-Jarvis
Saturday 21 May 2011
Boutique hotels took a while to infiltrate the former Soviet Bloc – but, judging by the Amber Spa in the Latvian resort of Jurmala, they are helping to resurrect historic spa towns for the 21st century. Sandwiched between dense forest and the calm of Lake Sloka on the shores of the Gulf of Riga, Jurmala first carved out an identity in the 19th century as a vacation spot for well-to-do Russians. Today, it performs much the same role; around half the guests are the nouveaux riches from St Petersburg, Moscow and beyond. The remainder comprises Scandinavians, Central Europeans, plus a smattering of Kazak and Uzbek diplomats. This summer, they should be augmented by a few pioneering Brits seeking indulgence on a budget.
As I arrived for my three-day stay in this sandy beach resort, I was handed a cup of tinglingly fresh mint tea. Mint, I was told, is just one of the many abundant herbs, fruit, and vegetables grown locally. As I looked around, it struck me that the Amber Spa Boutique Hotel hums with a sense of quiet contentment. Spacious, modern interiors – in shades of the precious resin that is found throughout the region – bring a calm warmth to what is, in fact, a converted athletic training centre. Built in 1938 during the Soviet era, it still houses a gym, swimming pool and enormous table tennis facility – not to mention the only bowling alley in Jurmala. However, an emphasis on athleticism has given way to one of pampering.
In the warren of treatment rooms, ladies with well-coiffed hair offer procedures ranging from the cosmetic (facials, masks and body wraps) to the therapeutic (massages, aromatherapies), to the ruggedly functional. My inaugural experience was of the latter: I was sprayed by gushing water during an hour of hydrotherapy.
The jewel in the crown, however, is the stoically traditional banya, or Russian baths. Visits to the banya remain a regular, often weekly, occurrence for Latvians. Men, it is said, do business deals in the little curtained-off cubicles, where fresh berry juices, black bread and smoked fish are served. There are clusters of younger women, wrapped in towels and conical, cloche-like banya hats, traipsing from sauna to steam room, to shower to plunge pool. My afternoon-long session was quite impressive. In the saunas a woman – distinguishable by her red hat – beat us with her "besom" or broomstick, in order to stimulate circulation. Each beating was preceded by a symbolic series of gesticulations, intended to infuse the air with the branch's scent.
Outside, Jurmala bursts with historic significance. With the birth of the Soviet regime, genteel tourists were replaced by Politburo dignitaries; stays at one of the several purpose-built holiday homes were offered in reward for toeing the party line.
Today, these buildings – squat, angular testimonies to the Constructivism of the day – crouch like outposts of another time amid the pine trees. Gloriously, some dachas remain in their original state. One of them, Government Dacha Number 2, is preserved as a museum. Inside, I took in the retro geometric décor, browsing the well-stocked bookcases and experiencing the full-blown diplomatic tour, surly bodyguard-cum-guide and Brezhnev-look-a-like included. It's terribly kitsch, but also rather wonderful – particularly if you happen to end up on the receiving end of a torrent of abuse for failing to keep up with the guide's brisk pace.
Almost as effective a time warp is the Amber Shore Sanatorium. An entirely separate operation from the Amber Spa, the health resort holds a unique charm which makes it a worthwhile day trip in its own right. From the outside – a grey concrete rectangle – the building opens up to reveal towering hallways, resplendent with polished floors and spindly pot plants. Footsteps echo through the corridors; and the faint air of school gymnasium is difficult to suppress.
Amber Shore is a perfect little slice of history. This is sturdy, traditional stuff: treatment rooms are sparse, white-tiled affairs, a single hose in one, a bucket of mud in another. For generations, patients from across the region flocked here. Clay sucked from the base of the nearby lake was thought to cure infertility, local strawberries used to treat the skin. Upstairs, a museum sheds light on the origins of such practices.
Of course, not everything here looks to the past. The Amber Shore's owners are considering renovation to bring the business into line with the luxury spa market elsewhere in Europe. I felt sad at the prospect: Amber Shore is enchanting, infused with tradition.
Fascinating as the spas are, there are plenty of other ways to occupy your time on the Baltic coast. Riga, divided between a historic old town and the inner city, offers charm, elegance and vibrancy. Almost every square of the Latvian capital has a story to tell, whether it is the chi-chi Bergs Bazaar shopping district, established in the 19th century but left to ruin under Soviet ownership and recently revived; or the Unesco-protected Art Nouveau district. Here, elderly ladies run stalls loaded with sweet peas, daisies and cornflowers that cost just 1 Lat (£1.20) a bunch – it's hard to resist the impulse to gather blooms as you go.
Despite the many nightspots catering for British stag weekends, a kind of hipster bohemia was more than apparent on a night of cocktails at the Riga Art Space's garage. The food, too, is often exceptional. One taxi driver told us he loved his country's strawberries so much he ate two kilogrammes a day, then followed up his boast by driving us to a store, and buying some. "A present," he said, "from Latvia."
Travel essentials: Latvia
* The writer flew from Gatwick to Riga with Air Baltic (00 371 6700 6006; airbaltic.com).
* Amber Spa and Boutique Hotel, Meza Prospekts 49, Bulduri, Jurmala, Latvia (00 371 67 755 330; iwcbalans.com). Doubles start at €85, including breakfast.
* Jurmala Tourism: jurmala.lv.
* Latvia Tourism: 00 371 6722 9945; latvia.travel/en.
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