Julian Rubinstein

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From Travel+Leisure Magazine May 2007

Riga, Latvia

Riga Remade

In this pretty, post-Soviet capital on the Baltic Sea, a city reinventing itself

By Julian Rubinstein

Like many cities in central and Eastern Europe that have a long history of foreign occupation and a more recent history of dramatic transformation and independence, Riga is just getting to know itself. And, more so than most cities in the region, the capital of Latvia is in the midst of an identity-altering boom that gives it the slightly dyspeptic, mildly insane, and highly impressionable mien of a rebellious teen. In the last few years, there have been national furors over a streaker at a soccer game—the country’s first such scandal—and the restoration of a monument to Russia’s Peter the Great that has been relocated to an office-building parking lot.

Photo: Martin Morrell

Photo: Martin Morrell

In the meantime, dozens of multinational businesses, giddy at low-cost Latvia’s acceptance into the European Union in 2004, have opened offices in the city, which is centrally located between the other two Baltic capitals—Tallinn to the north and Vilnius to the south. Cue the tourism industry: European discount airlines have recently made Riga a direct-flight destination. And hotel-iers have responded, putting up more than 30 properties in 2005 and 2006 alone. The resulting influx of foreigners into the capital of the country with the EU’s lowest standard of living has left Riga dizzy in the identity-store fitting-room. “The new Prague”; the “hottest real estate market in Eastern Europe”; the latest “depressing sex-tourism destination”—all have been tried on and are waiting at the counter.

“Until recently, Riga was a blank page,” said Eriks Stendzenieks, a young Latvian advertising maven who is pitching the government on developing a national image campaign. “Now it’s being defined by others.”

Though most Latvians have a hard time describing their capital, one thing they rightfully relish is its size. With a population of approximately 800,000, Riga is the largest and most cosmopolitan city in the Baltics, and yet it remains quaint enough that the Russian mobsters who abstained from shooting me said they preferred it to Moscow. The town is flat, fairly compact, and easy to explore at any time of day, so long as it’s summer. One night I had a drink on the balcony of my hotel with a local photographer I’d met and his friend, a go-go dancer at a nightclub. We watched the sky streak orange and pink as the sun sank into the nearby Baltic Sea, and talked about where we would go out that night. It was 2 a.m. and I’d already had dinner, but for Rigans the night was literally just beginning. Because of the city’s northerly location, Riga enjoys long, pleasant summer days and the rest of the year salutes appallingly dark, unending nights.

We settled on a survey of Old Town’s bars and dance clubs, which I was assured could not be said to feature any of Europe’s best DJ’s. But walking there confirmed two characteristics of the city in which Rigan men take pride: The drivers operate as if they will score points by hitting you, and the women—long hair, Nordic features, skin-tight clothing—are gorgeous and seemingly omnipresent. “Everyone is out now,” Karen, the photographer, said, as we dived out of the way of a swerving Lada, “because this is our only chance. When fall comes, we all get depressed again.”

Assuming you don’t twist an ankle on the cobbled medieval streets, or consume too many shots of Black Balsam—the country’s (horrific) signature cordial—it is possible to visit five or six places in a few hours. We made it to three.

Some of them, like Club Essential, feature so many levels and dance floors they could pass muster in Los Angeles or, more to the point, Moscow. Nearly half of Riga’s population is Russian, and even without listening to a person speak, differentiating the Russians from the Latvians isn’t difficult. It’s like watching the Sex Pistols hang with the London Symphony. Later, when we were walking home past the Freedom Monument, just outside Old Town, a red sports car came screaming around the corner, did two tire-squealing circles around the monument, and tore off, with fists pumping out of its windows. “Something tells me they’re Russian,” Karen (who is Russian) said knowingly.

The ethnic differences are not always amusing, of course, and in fact have themselves become one of the defining traits of the city. There are separate Russian and Latvian newspapers, television programs, and even schools. When Latvia makes international news it is usually because of its ethnic tensions. Last year, a Russian member of the Latvian parliament grabbed headlines when he suggested that the Baltic alignment with NATO and the West would result in war. “We [Russia] will not be bombing Brussels,” he said. “We will bomb Vilnius, Riga, and Tallinn.”

I had the opportunity to ponder this issue further while speeding out of town in a black BMW with a Latvian-born Russian named Yevgeny Gomberg, whose unintentional foray into the conflict triggered an episode involving Russian diplomats, Latvian courts, protests, and a partner named Stanislav who lost everything, including, reportedly, his mind. In any case, he was highly unavailable when we phoned from the car.

Our destination was the aforementioned historic statue of Peter the Great, who had led the Russians into Latvia in 1709, where they stayed until the outset of World War I (only to return during World War II). The monument had sat in Riga’s main square from 1910 to 1917 before being shipped back to Russia to be melted into artillery. But it never arrived, because the vessel it was on sank, and it remained on the floor of the Baltic Sea until being salvaged in pieces in 1934. Now fully restored to its massive 30-foot height, it is absent from any city map that could be obtained from the tourist office. But according to Gomberg, it was to be found in the parking lot behind his office building.

Outside the car window, nondescript five-story apartment buildings passed like a strip from a contemporary European film, and traffic lights blinked yellow at the intersections in both directions, a general call for caution with no firm commitment to right-of-way. “It’s just a little further,” Gomberg said, when he had finished singing along with Slade on the radio.

A 53-year-old hedge-fund trader, Gomberg initially got involved with the statue with the idea of donating it to the city as part of its 800-year anniversary celebration, in 2001. The statue was then in the hands of Stanislav Razumovsky, who had quit his engineering job to work on it but was going bankrupt trying to keep the state from repossessing it. Gomberg jumped in with financial assistance. Eventually, he took over the project and won the right to restore it for display. In August 2001, the statue went up in a central square and instantly became a symbol of everything that was right or wrong with Latvia, depending on your heritage. One man threw an egg at the statue; another took the first man’s egg basket and smashed the remaining eggs over the first man’s head. Three days later, on the mayor’s orders, Gomberg removed the statue.

Just when I was beginning to wonder if asphyxiation by cologne was possible, Gomberg turned off the main road into a small office complex and drove around to the back. “There it is,” he said, unnecessarily, as we stepped out of the car. On a small grassy island in the parking lot, surrounded by floodlights, towered a shining, 3 1/2-ton bronze statue of Peter the Great astride a horse the size of an aircraft carrier. Standing in the shadow of history, it was plain to see why Riga couldn’t really know what it was becoming yet: it hasn’t figured out how to deal with where it’s been. Even celebrating its own folklore seems anxiety-inducing. After the Peter the Great uproar, Gomberg tried to prove that he was also interested in Latvian history by restoring a statue of the famous local folk hero, Lacplesis. “That one’s over there,” he said, turning and pointing to the back of the office building, where the bear-fighting Lacplesis was leaning against a window.

Having sufficiently depressed myself contemplating hardships and the passage of time, I turned my attention to food. In short order, I learned quite usefully that in the early 1990’s, a new broadcast channel called Pizza TV was launched, featuring a cooking show with a beer-guzzling Canadian, Elmars Tannis, who introduced the delicacy of sandwiches to the country. To his credit, Tannis—who is now one of the best-known restaurateurs in the city—makes no pretense about his culinary prowess. “I was just trying to get people to wake up and do something different with their potato,” he says, on the balcony of his new flagship restaurant, Charleston’s, just outside Old Town.

One Latvian who has made it his personal mission to continue Riga’s tradition of architectural excellence is Maris Gailis, a down-to-earth Renaissance man who wears a horseshoe earring and a Hawaiian shirt, and who recently returned from a two-year sailing trip around the world. “Before I got into real estate, I worked in government,” Gailis tells me over an espresso outside his trendy restaurant, the Factory. “I was prime minister.”

I had, in fact, managed to glean before arriving that Gailis had recently run the country. Now he presides, more or less, over the island of Kipsala, a strip of land just across the Daugava River from Old Town, which used to serve as the Soviet military’s laundromat.

Gailis showed me around the area, where he and his wife, Zaiga, an architect, have built the restaurant and a group of loft apartments and are in the process of refurbishing several houses that are hundreds of years old. The handicraft is spare and full of regard for the original wooden style, complete with wood-burning stoves and floors made from thick planks Gailis recovers from abandoned buildings. There is also a single stand-alone hotel room, a 200-year-old former smokehouse that Gailis has turned into a cozy loft with exposed beams and skylights. (Since so few people know about it, he rents it for only 100 euros per night.) They even went to the effort of ripping up several roads and re-laying them with cobblestones. “This place is only for lovers,” he said, meaning people who could appreciate the aesthetic and, of course, be willing and able to pay for it. In the last two years, his properties have appreciated 400 percent.

On my last day in Riga, I decided to drive 30 minutes outside the city to Jurmala, a beach town on the Baltic Sea. The sandy beach was smooth and crowded with scantily clad people, and within five or 10 minutes I was wading into the cool, oddly brownish surf.

When I returned to my hotel, I had only a few hours left in town, so I asked the bartender to dispense his impressions of Riga. He related an old Rigan legend that says that every 100 years a magpie flies over the Daugava River and cries: “Is Riga ready yet?”

“But the magpie is really a witch,” the bartender continued.

“I can imagine,” I said, hoping it wouldn’t be one of those stories I couldn’t follow.

“And if anyone says Riga is ready, the city will sink into the river.”

The new Venice, I thought, annoying myself, then asked, “So what will happen the next time?” “We can never be ready,” he said, sweeping his arm across the bar as if to say voilà. I thought about it for a few minutes. Riga: Perpetually unprepared. It was a unique and yet malleable motto, a blessing and a curse. And it seemed to fit.

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