Architecturally it is a gem, there's music in the air and the Soviet Union is a mere memory. The capital of Latvia is still unexplored.
THE LATVIAN capital has come a long way since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. When I first visited Riga in 1994, you could almost taste the freedom in the air - but it seemed a brittle, delicate thing that could not last. And Russian troops were still stationed in the country.

Three years on, the exuberance remains, but now it is backed by a new- found confidence. All right, so it has become a little less Latvian - McDonalds has arrived, along with Internet cafes and Irish bars. And, yes, tourists are less of a rarity now than they were in 1994 - but who would begrudge the Latvians their share of Europe's largest industry?

With Prague passe and Budapest booked solid, Riga is well placed to grab a chunk of the market in weekend breaks to eastern Europe. Architecturally, it is the rival of any city, with Hanseatic merchants' guilds, Gothic churches and turn-of-the-century art nouveau. The old city, a square mile at the heart of Riga, has miraculously survived both wars and communism and is now a busy pedestrian area of cafes, shops and churches.

Take a stroll around the narrow streets of the old town, keeping your eyes fixed firmly above you, and you discover half-hidden details on every building. Even the rooftops have stories to tell: the yellow-painted "Cat House" for instance, on the edge of Philharmonic Square, with its feline figures on the roof, arses facing the Great Guild across the road (they were placed there by an irate owner after his application to join the Guild was rejected - the mediaeval equivalent to an up-yours sign).

While the rest of the world is recovering from its millennium hangover, Riga, founded by Teutonic knights in 1201, will be celebrating its 800th anniversary at the same time as marking 10 years of independence. The old city is already being spruced up, and work has begun on rebuilding the 17th-century town hall, which was destroyed during the Second World War.

Looking from the October Bridge across the Daugava river, the skyline is dominated by three tall spires. A creaking lift inside the spire of St Peter's leads to a platform with fairytale views over the old city (if you are lucky the attendant will treat you to his impersonations of Soviet leaders on the way down).

During the Soviet years the Lutheran cathedral was used as a concert hall; in 1991 it became a place of refuge for independence fighters. Now it is open again for its original purpose. The highlight here is the organ, with its 6,768 pipes. The regular recitals are packed out with locals as well as tourists, and at barely pounds 1 a ticket they must be one of the best deals in Riga.

But then this is a city devoted to music. Richard Wagner once lived here - he conducted the Latvian Philharmonic from 1837-39 - and the Wagner Hall is a popular concert venue. The reopening of the National Opera in 1995 was a potent symbol of independence, the appearance of Montserrat Caballe signifying Latvia's return to the international cultural fold.

In summer, the streets have a Parisian feel. Pavement artists set out their stalls, musicians play, there are flower-sellers wherever you look. The square outside the cathedral is lined with open-air bars, which come alive each evening with music and conversation in Latvian, German, English and Russian. Students pile into the Alus Seta beer hall for flame-grilled shaslik with horseradish sauce while two doors away a folk band tune up their instruments at Tim McShane's iru krogs (Irish pub).

It is all a far cry from 1991, when this same square was lined with barricades. In the park where the old city meets the new, five simple stone slabs pay tribute to those who were killed when Soviet troops raided the Interior Ministry during the struggle for independence. The nearby Freedom Monument, erected in 1935, is Latvia's Statue of Liberty, topped by a bronze female figure holding three stars to represent the historic regions of Latvia. In Soviet times, gatherings at the monument were banned - with the result that it became an even more powerful symbol. Now it is protected by a constant guard of honour, but people come and go, taking photographs, leaving flowers, and rejoicing that their beloved "Milda" has outlived the statue of Lenin which was once placed nearby.

And how the city has flourished since Lenin's disappearance. One of the things I remembered from my first visit was the (very Soviet) Central Department Store, with its surly staff and rows of Identikit goods. Now there are lots of small shops selling everything from English books and Latvian chocolates to beautiful, handcrafted wooden toys.

And at the central market, housed in five former Zeppelin hangars near the railway station, stalls sell honey and horseradish, butter and cheese, fresh and salted salmon and two dozen varieties of bread. Outside, farmers sit behind mounds of cherries and apricots, piles of beetroot and bunches of herbs, and baskets of mushrooms gathered from the forest.

Out of town? Fifty miles south of Riga, Rundale Palace is Latvia's Versailles. The guides tell you that it was designed by Bartolomeo Rastrelli, the Baroque architect of St Petersburg's Winter Palace, as the summer residence of the Dukes of Courland, but that is only half the story. Anna, Empress of Russia in 1736, wanted to reward her adviser and lover Johann von Biron - so she had a summer palace built for her husband and the three of them lived there in a cosy menage a trois. When the Duke died a year later, von Biron took his place, but he himself was forced into exile on Anna's death in 1740. It was not until 23 years later that he returned to finish off the palace, this time in Rococo style. For much of the Soviet era this monument to empire was neglected - it was used as a grain store and fell into disrepair. But restoration work was begun in 1972 by a group of artists from Moscow, Riga and St Petersburg and the first rooms were opened to the public in 1981. Once again, ballrooms and bed-chambers sparkle with gold leaf, and chandeliers and ceramic stoves have been reproduced from original 18th-century designs.

An even nicer day-trip is to Jurmala, a string of seaside resorts stretching for 20 miles between the Lielupe river and the Baltic Sea. An old-fashioned electric train from Riga trundles through the suburbs and a succession of former fishing villages on its way to Majori, Jurmala's largest town. The main drag here runs for almost a mile, from the station to the sea. Children play on dodgems, country women sell flowers and jars of wild strawberries, and on summer evenings the sea breeze is accompanied by music from outdoor discos and a concert hall beside the beach.

Once on the beach you can walk for miles, as far as the fancy takes you, then head inland and return across the dunes, or hop on another train to get back to Majori.

Not long ago, Jurmala was a Soviet playground where bureaucrats and trade unionists would come for state-subsidised holidays at the Edwardian dachas dotted about the pine woods. Now, 60 per cent of the visitors are Latvian, the dachas are let out as holiday cottages, and the sanatoria where Russian functionaries once recuperated are being turned into stylish spa hotels. Just another sign of these heady times in Latvia.

latvia fact file

Getting there

The author was a guest of Riair Riga Airlines and the Latvian Tourist Board. Riair (01293 535727) has flights from Gatwick to Riga five times a week, with Apex return fares from under pounds 250 plus taxes. Flights from Gatwick are also operated by British Airways (0345 222111).

Tour operators featuring short breaks to Riga include Gunnell Travel Service (01473 828855), Regent Holidays (0117 921 1711) and Intratravel (0171 619 6700).

Visas are not required by UK citizens.

Where to stay

Hotels in the old city include Hotel de Rome (00 371 782 0050; doubles from pounds 100), Riga Hotel (00 371 721 6285, pounds 80), and Man Tess (00 371 721 6056, pounds 85). Tony Kelly stayed at Konventa Seta (00 371 782 0050), a newly opened hotel complex set around a restored convent and a section of the old city walls, which has double rooms from pounds 50.

Further reading

The Lonely Planet book on Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania is one of the best. Bradt also publish a Latvia Guide (pounds 10.95.)

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