Hugo Slimbrouck, our Director of Strategic Partnerships, took a famtrip to the Latvian capital, Riga. During his adventures in the Baltics, Hugo discovered many hidden spots and funny things to do in Riga. We can’t wait to read more about it!
“The Baltic States have always been a mystery to me but in the past few days I have been able to discover that Europe has some best kept secrets on the North-Eastern frontiers of the Brussels led European Empire. Already two years ago, during Convene, I was able to discover the lovely Vilnius, capital of Lithuania, and this week my travels took me to the biggest metropolis in the Baltics, Riga. A city that perfectly blends timeless tradition and cutting edge cool. It was time to get energized by a city and region with surprises around every street corner and rooftop.
A Nordic blonde with a fiery heart, there’s much more to Riga than meets the eye. In its 800 years of turbulent history, German knights, Swedish kings and Soviet commissars have left their footprints, and today Latvia’s capital is an exciting European metropolis at the crossroads of eastern and northern Europe. Gothic spires in the Old Town mingle with the fantastic facades of one of the world’s richest collections of Art Nouveau buildings on the grand boulevards. Riga is a UNESCO World Heritage site, with cobblestone streets and breathtaking river views. For the modern traveler, this is Europe’s WiFi capital with almost 1,000 spots to get online for free.
Bread, beer and balsam
Riga is an adventure for the taste buds too. The Central Market is a far cousin of Barcelona’s Bocqueria and a treasure trove of earthy sausages, cheeses and black bread, organic grown vegetables, smoked fish, and much more. And an event venue too! A great idea to go for an early morning stroll and sample the godos for a picnic in one of Riga’s lovely parks or an excursión in the many forests in the region. The historic heart of the city is buzzing with many great value bistros, cafes and fine food restaurants where cooking organic is part of the game. To wash it down, sample intriguing local beers in the brew pubs along hipster strip Miera iela, or try a cocktail with the mysterious Riga Black Balsam, a truly bitter liquor in fun-filled bars across town.
Palace of hospitality
Originally built in the 19th century, the Grand Hotel Kempinski is situated in the heart of the Latvian capital. Just opposite the National Opera House and by the entrance to the town’s historic centre, all main attractions are within walking distance. The hotel re-opened in its present state of luxury in October last year. The furnishings in all of its 141 luxury romos and suites are second to none, no budget was spared. Hotels like this you cannot only find in the Emirates, now Riga has got one too! The hotel has all-day-dining and a rooftop restaurant, a bar and a cigar lounge. For the meeting planners in our audience, there is a great ballroom with natural daylight to welcome your event. The Spa, featuring six treatment rooms, a swimming pool and a health club with fitness center must be the best in the country.
People fond of interior architecture will find great inspiration in the furnishings and luxury of the exceptionally spacious rooms that come with a nice seating area and beautiful marble bathroom.
Walk the talk
On the first night I was able to discover the Old Town of Riga with its narrow cobbled stone streets, old buildings dating back to the 15th century, squares, churches and inner yards, the Dome Square and Cathedral, Riga Castle, the Town Hall and the House of Blackheads, Swedish Gates, Jacob’s Barracks, Liivs’ Square and many other instagramable delights. Riga has a clear hanseatic atmosphere with historic links to my hometown Bruges. Knowing my passion for laboratories (especially of the brewery type), my hosts of Baltic Blues Events, Ovation’s partners for the Baltic States took me to the Old Pharmacy in the heart of the Old Town where an alchemist disclosed some of his secrets about medicinal plants and traits. I was introduced to century old receipes that can improve my health and sex life. You must certainly try the lengendary Riga Black Balsam one day! If it does not fancy your taste buds, at least it’s good to clean the old pipes.
The Art Nouveau district
The Latvian capital has long been known to have one of the world’s greatest collections of Art Nouveau architecture, so prior to dinner our lovely guide showed us around this world famous elegant neighborhoods. Art Nouveau originated in the late-19th century in Brussels, at a time when Riga and Latvia in general were at their peak of economic prosperity. The Art Nouveau architectural style quickly became popular, and today there are about 800 Art Nouveau buildings still standing in Riga. Each one a unique piece of art on its own. And art comes in many forms in Riga, when I discovered that our guide had some great singing skills and gave us some goosebumps when singing a capella in front of the presidential palace. Definitely the Voice of Riga!
Riga has a great and innovative restaurant scene which we were able to test at a historic restaurant set in the Swedish baracks – „3 Chefs”. The restaurant likes to surprise its guests not only by meals but also the way they are served. I sampled some of the best of local tastes, which often proposes fish from the Baltic and game from the forests!
Of land and rovers
Day two was planned to discover what the city and country side had to offer. I was picked up from the Kempinski by a communist age Polski FIAT built on the basis of a traditional Cinquecento. Which means when the driver breaths in, the passenger needs to breath out. This litle trip took us to the outskirts of town where we switched to a Land Rover to tackle the next exciting activity – extreme off road driving in the wild forests and steep sand dunes of Sigulda and an old Russian army base. Quite an exciting experience to drive 4×4 off-road and in the snow! A wet and muddy experience indeed especially when you park your vehicle in the middle of a river.
Comrades, nobles and castles
Before leaving the woods we paid a visit to an old Soviet bunker – always a fine place for fun when doing an event in former Eastern Europe. This place lost its confidentiality only in the year 2003 and became accessible to public. The bunker is located 9 m in the ground under a recreation centre, occupying an area of 2000 sq.m. The visit in the bunker reminded me of the furniture in one of my favorite movies (Goodbye Lenin), definitely back in fashion now with the retro trend. I also learned how a Soviet gas mask can prolong my life and misery with 15 minutes in case of a nuclear catastrophe. Luckily there were the Baltic herring canapés, a pickled gurkin and a shot of vodka to warm us up after our driving experience.
We decided to continue our life above the ground and drove up to the Kungu-Rija restaurant for lunch. The building looks like a granary and was built in 2004 in line with historical traditions. It resembles the Turaida Estate granary that was built by Prusian Baron Holstein. Not sure if he was related to the black and white cattle which you can find in your plate. The cuisine of Kungu Rija is eclectic because it tries to unite Latvian traditions with impressions of the world.
After lunch it was time to work off the collected calories and the perfect place for that was a stroll through the gardens of the red brick Turaida castle, which dates back to the 13th century when it was built by German crusaders. The visit of the castle gives an insight about life in medieval times but also takes you on a journey of Latvian and Estonian from the 13th until 18th/19th centuries. To burn down more calories we climbed the tower to sample a beautiful view of the surrounding valleys. The grounds around the castle offer great opportunities for outdoor challenges and dining which Baltic Blues Events have often staged here. But as the temperature was 16°C below zero this afternoon, my new friend Verners had opted for another activity to warm me up.
What I did not know was that Latvia has one of best bobsleigh, sceleton and sledge teams in the world and that Taxibob was not my ride back into town but a brutal slide down the track. With speed up to 150 km/h and turns up to 4G it makes sure that your adrenaline is flowing. There are only two handfuls of bobsleigh tracks in the world that welcome mortals like ourselves and Sigulda is one of them. Not for the faint hearted but you do not want to miss this activity! For the sissies and softies amongst us, there is a ‘tourist padded’ version that makes only half of this speed and a quarter of the experience. Go for it! (No DMC was killed or hurt in the process of this activity.)
Fine Dining and High Flying
Restaurant Muusu and chef Kaspars Jansons were a fine example of the high level and contemporary gastronomy that is available in the Baltics. A story of values developed through years of experience. Before I left to the airport, we took a look from Riga Radio and TV Tower which at 368 metres high is the highest tower in the European Union. The observation platform, located 97 metres above the ground is the highest view point in Riga, and you can easily survey Old Riga and the Pardaugava district from there. In good weather conditions it is possible to see Riga HPS in Salaspils City and highest points of Sigulda City, as well as the Gulf of Riga and ships in there. Today, because of mist, low cloud and snow, we saw the parking lot and some ice fishers on the river. There is a saying in Latvia that when you see people practicing ice fishing on the river, winter is soon to come…”
If you want to know more about this destination, please get in contact with our team of local experts.
Text by Hugo Slimbrouck
Director of Strategic Partnerships – Ovation Global DMC
First published on www.bbtonline.eu