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

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

Getting there

* The writer flew from Gatwick to Riga with Air Baltic (00 371 6700 6006; airbaltic.com).

* The city is also served by Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) from Stansted, Liverpool, Bristol, Glasgow and East Midlands; as well as by Wizzair (0906 959 0002; wizzair.com) from Luton.

Staying there

* Amber Spa and Boutique Hotel, Meza Prospekts 49, Bulduri, Jurmala, Latvia (00 371 67 755 330; iwcbalans.com). Doubles start at €85, including breakfast.

More information

* Jurmala Tourism: jurmala.lv.

* Latvia Tourism: 00 371 6722 9945; latvia.travel/en.

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Guru Careers: MI Developer

    £35 - 45k: Guru Careers: An MI Developer is needed to join the leading provide...

    Recruitment Genius: Fitness Manager

    £20000 - £22500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leisure organisation manag...

    Recruitment Genius: Visitor Experience Manager

    £25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Delivering an inspiring, engagi...

    Recruitment Genius: Learning Team Administrator

    £17500 - £20500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are looking for a great te...

    Day In a Page

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions