I visited Riga for an Erasmus conference last November, just a few months after the Brexit vote and therefore with a certain amount of not unfounded trepidation. As expected, my attendance at an event aimed at participating European countries was met with a mixture of sympathy from some and outright hostility from others. Fortunately, on the third day of the conference Donald Trump was elected, and thus my own misdemeanour of belonging to a country whose citizens had, by a narrow margin, voted to leave the EU were quickly forgotten in the grim light of a self-proclaimed womanising megalomaniac occupying the most powerful position in the free world.
Riga is very pretty. Like nearby Tallinn it positively sparkles in the icy grip of the Baltic winter, its turrets and tiled rooftops willingly lending themselves, as the snow falls and the icicles form, to a fairytale exquisiteness that doesn’t seem quite real. Like Tallinn it is still – relatively speaking – cheap, with a plethora of cosy restaurants and a thriving café culture. Like Tallinn, the centre is relatively compact, and it’s possible – if you don’t mind braving the cold – to walk to most places. More soberingly, like Tallinn, it has a dark history, very well documented in several excellent museums. Finding myself with a free day after the conference ended, I went exploring with a colleague, an Austrian Jew. “There are no synagogues in Riga,” she said. “They are not hidden away, they just do not exist. The SS did a very thorough job here.”
One thing that delighted me about Riga was its abundance of art nouveau buildings – by far my favourite architectural period. In contrast to the older, more typically eastern European Medieval churches and swaggering Gothic buildings in the centre, you don’t need to venture very far out to find the neighbourhood of Alberta Iela, crammed with its delicately ornate doorframes and elaborately decorated windows, oozing sophistication with their sensuous curves and confident colours.
On that final day Riga genuinely jostled with Tallinn for the honour of becoming my favourite winter city, though Tallinn, with its original watchtowers still intact and its altogether more laid-back feel, its many pedestrianised areas and its truly sensational restaurants, still holds that spot. Riga, though beautiful, did have that capital city feel about it that chipped away at some of its charm. That said, a mere two hours from the UK on a number of cheap airlines makes it an ideal quick getaway, and one I would definitely recommend.