#16: Winter city break in Riga, Latvia: Cross-country skiing and balsam liqueur

In my silent valleys
Rye bows to the roads
Jasmine glows in its own love there,
The sun pouring mellow,
With a white blossom of clouds
The sky bends under its dome.

From the poem, ‘Motherland’ by Leonids Breikss

The funniest moment of the weekend was my dad falling over on the cross-country ski track and, slipping and sliding on the icy surface, struggling to get back up, legs wobbling like a newborn calf. Doubled over with laughter, my sister and I were powerless to help. In the end he managed to haul himself back into an upright position on his skinny skis and manfully completed an entire circuit.

We were at Mezaparks, a forest park half an hour’s tram ride from the centre of Riga, Latvia’s chocolate-box pretty capital. In the weak January daylight, with tiny powdery snowflakes fluttering in the air, the park looked like a magical Narnia as I left my dad behind and swooshed off under the dark spiky trees. I half-expected an iron streetlamp to appear in the soft blanket of snow at the edge of the ski track, a jaunty faun scurrying around behind it. Instead there were weekending locals with varying levels of skiing proficiency. Kids whooped on the snow tubing slope and graceful skaters glided on the scratched glassy surface of the woodland ice ‘rink’ – an uneven patch of frozen water tucked into a jagged clearing in the forest.

After fragrant mulled wine in the park café, warmed by a hungry wood-burning fire, its windows steaming like the coffee, we made our way back to Riga. Arriving back at dusk, the city sky was lavender, hanging heavy over a skyline of elegant spires, bridges and domes. On Brivibas, the wide boulevard leading to the Freedom Monument, the trees were hung with icicle shaped lights, which came to life at night in a glimmer like white-hot fireworks. The park alongside has echoes of a Japanese garden, with wooden bridges looping over pretty streams, their flow arrested by ice. There is even a pagoda-like wooden teahouse. The gentle curves of the grass were quietly shrouded in snow and the streets were icy. But the Latvians are well-equipped for the winter weather, sashaying around town in floor-length furs and sturdy boots, regularly taking in warming shots of the medicinal-tasting balsam, a herbal liqueur, in the plentiful kafejnicas (café bars).

On our first night, eager to familiarise ourselves with the place, we shot up in the glass lift of the Skyline Bar to admire the snow-crusted city spread out below. Small and compact, it is cut through by the Daugava River (which empties out into the Gulf of Riga and then into the Baltic) and presents an appealing jumble of architectural styles and periods, from Gothic to Art Nouveau. The UNESCO Heritage Site of the Old Town, dating back to the 13th-15th centuries, is breathtakingly pretty, with narrow streets edged by ancient yet pristine buildings in perky colours. Away from the Old Town, slatted wooden houses in pastel colours and with steeply pitched roofs bring an almost ‘wild west’ flavour to wide streets reminiscent of the Soviet era. Unfortunately most of these historic wooden constructions seem to be in a poor state of repair, although apparently renovation work is now beginning in some districts. Riga is one of Europe’s largest centres of Art Nouveau architecture: the tall, glamorous buildings decorated with ornate, swooping lines of this style are most prevalent in Elizabetes, Alberta and Strelnieku Streets, but scattered pockets and individual houses pop up elsewhere in the town too. Wherever you are, whatever the architecture, regular mini avalanches cascade from the rooftops, as shop owners diligently sweep their roofs clear.

For a grittier slice of reality, the Central Market is housed in five musty yellow old Zeppelin hangars. Local shoppers hustle in padded jackets and beggars with pinched faces huddle in the biting gusts sweeping off the canal. The market is a cornucopia of meat, fish and local food products, such as honey and rich dark bread. Tiny coffee shops are tucked in the corners of the aisles, and there are stalls piled with vibrant fruits. We marvelled at the glorious displays of huge pomegranates and bought woollen mittens, sheepskin slippers, and of course, balsam, before heading back into the other-worldly beauty of the Old Town. Passing through the square in front of the slightly odd Cat House, we smiled again at the group of (male) street musicians, unaccountably dressed in women’s peasant clothing and belting out the latest pop songs, accompanying themselves on the sax and trombone. Upbeat, laidback, and daintily decorated in snow, Riga in winter is a great place to visit. But if you go cross-country skiing, prepare to be a source of amusement for the locals!

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HIGHLIGHTS

Natural highlights – we didn’t get out into the countryside, other than to the forest park, but for a small country, Latvia reputedly has vast amounts of tranquil empty countryside full of lakes, forests and beaches.

Cultural highlights – the old town and the art nouveau architecture

Food & drink highlights –the ubiquitous balsam is a bit of an acquired taste! We ate surprisingly well in Riga, for example in the restaurant of our hotel, Neiburgs, where the menu was a tasty combination of traditional ingredients and recipes with a modern twist, and in cosy old town restaurants like Petergailis.

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