Jurmala: Summer by the Baltic Sea

Jurmala Latvia sunset at Majori

For my summer as a choir groupie, I had the choice of watching my friends from the Ateneo Chamber Singers compete in either Latvia or Spain. I always jump at the chance to scratch a new country off our scratch map, so we picked Latvia. My research led me to the resort town of Jurmala, which boasted an 11-kilometer stretch of white, sandy beach just 20 minutes from Riga. I thought: “Perfect!”

Okay, the Baltic coast isn’t quite the same as the Costa Blanca. And maybe I did feel a twinge of envy seeing my friends living it up on the blindingly sunny beaches of Spain. But I have no reason to regret our visit to Jurmala.

I found Jurmala quiet, lovely, and relaxed—a formula for the kind of vacation that doesn’t make you need another vacation just to recover from it. (When school holidays begin in August, maybe not so much.) Beautiful soft golden sand, plenty of space to share, liquid gold sunsets and cocktails on the beach? Meets my basic requirements for a beach. I’ll take it.

Jurmala Latvia grand old wooden house by the beach

The most unique thing about Jurmala are its 19th-century wooden houses. From grand old mansions to weather-beaten cottages, they add a touch of old charm to the seaside atmosphere.

Jurmala Latvia charming wooden house

To attract its wealthy Russian neighbors, Jurmala is seeing an upswing in luxury boutique hotels and low-rise residential condominiums. Many of the old houses have also been turned into tourist accommodation.

Jurmala Latvia wooden house window

But plenty of families still live here, especially outside the main town of Majori, and because of a strong local community, there’s much authenticity to be found.

Jurmala Latvia old wooden house

These cutout panels remind me of the callado details in old Filipino colonial homes. Love.

In this relaxed little town, we enjoyed a wonderful three days of family time in the sun. These are the moments you treasure.

Jurmala Latvia Gingersnaps

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Alternative Riga: Kaņepes kultūras centrs

Kanepes cultural center Riga black lion

Who says grit and culture don’t mix? At the Kaņepes kultūras centrs in downtown Riga, these two unlikely companions kick back, have a drink, and dance together on a Saturday night.

The Kaņepes cultural center was the last stop on our alternative walking tour of Riga, which I highly recommend if you’re looking to discover urban Riga beyond the restored facades of the Old Town.

Kanepes cultural center Riga 1

This building has seen numerous incarnations in its over 100-year lifetime, from an aristocratic residence to a music school. Today, it’s a popular bar and club that’s a hotspot for live music, DJs, experimental art, and cinema—for nightlife in Riga with a laid-back, modern Bohemian vibe.

Now I love places like this, but the real reason I fell hard for the Kaņepes kultūras centrs: it’s surprisingly baby- and toddler-friendly! Since modern Bohemians are largely nocturnal, it’s quiet in the daytime. The wide front yard and terrace provides plenty of room for parking a stroller, or for a little one to toddle around while Mama and Papa enjoy a cup of coffee, a beer or even (ssshhhh, don’t tell) an early cocktail.

Kanepes cultural center Riga interior

Kanepes cultural center Riga Kanepes cultural center Riga bar

Although it sports peeling paint and stenciled graffiti on the outside, Kaņepes is laid-back and welcoming on the inside. I love all this warm wood offsetting the moody hues of the floors and ceilings.

Kanepes cultural center Riga wooden staircase

The most intriguing detail beckons at the foot of the stairs: the wispy tail of a long braid.

Tail end of braid Kanepes cultural center Riga

Shall we follow it and see where it goes?

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Five faves: Riga Central Market

Five faves from Riga Central Market

Whether we’re at home or traveling, Marlon and I love to visit markets. Because we stayed at a self-catering apartment in Riga, a trip to the Riga Central Market became a necessary part of our visit, as well as a different insight into the city. Once we ventured beyond the pastel prettiness of the Old Town and stepped across the railway tracks to the market, Riga truly started to get real.

Spread out over five former Zeppelin hangars, the Riga Central Market was Europe’s biggest covered market when it first opened in the 1930s. Today, it’s the nerve center of the city, where people come to buy daily essentials—including, of course, food. Here are five of my fave finds from the Riga Central Market.

1) LATVIAN BREAD.

Riga Central Market bread

In my previous post, I mentioned how good Latvian bread is. (Side note: read this lively account of a baker’s trip to Riga, in which he enthuses that “the best old-world Jewish baking is in Riga.”) At the Riga Central Market, we discovered Latvian bread in all its various forms and hues, from fluffy white loaves to the deepest, darkest rye bread.

But the best of them all were these crunchy, savory bread chips from Latvia’s most famous bakery, Laci. I got seriously hooked on these!

Riga Central Market black bread chips

Of all the things you can do with stale bread, deep frying it and tossing it in a secret mixture of herbs and salt has got to be the best—and the most addictive. Move over, potato chips… bread is where it’s at!

2) SMOKED FISH

Riga Central Market smoked fish

One entire pavilion at the Riga Central Market is dedicated to fish, and I’d say about 2/3 of everything in that pavilion is smoked.

Riga Central Market smoked fish variety

Smoking fish is a big part of local food culture, and here we saw all kinds: fish smoked with garlic, peppers, herbs and spices…

Riga Central Market smoked fish with peppers

even smoked caviar, which formed a kind of chewy jerky.

Riga Central Market caviar jerky

Marlon and I love our smoked fish—as a child traveling to India, I once carried daing and smoked tinapa in my handbag on the flight—so we bought some for our dinners at home. Although our preference would have been to eat it with a heaping plate of hot rice (of course), instead we flaked some smoked mackerel over a big salad with vinaigrette on the side. Yum!

CHEESE

Riga Central Market smoked cheese

Latvians don’t only smoke their fish—they smoke their cheese too. We tried some of the smoked cheese, but I really loved were these soft cheeses crusted in different herbs and spices. My favorite was the cheese at the bottom, which is covered in a curry mixture. If you’re going on a picnic in Riga’s main city park, this with a salty-savory cracker would be perfect.

PICKLES

Riga Central Market pickles

I was once a girl who fished pickles out of burgers and left them on my plate, uneaten. Pregnancy changed my relationship with pickles forever, and now I love them!

Next to smoking, pickling is a favorite technique at the Riga Central Market. With all sorts of pickled fruit and vegetables ranging from your usual gherkins to beets, tomatoes, whole heads of garlic, and even slaw (also known to us Pinoys as atchara), this is pickle paradise. Pregnant women, take note.

FRUITS AND BERRIES IN SEASON

Riga Central Market cherries in season

Latvia is densely forested, with 47% of land covered by lush, green forests. This makes wild berries and fruits abundant, and picking them is a popular summertime pursuit. While we were there in July, these big, bright red cherries were overflowing from market stalls and sidewalk vendors around the city. At less than €5 (Php300) for a kilo, they were super cheap… and Tala loved them, too.

Is that five things already? Okay, this is not a foodie find, but always a favorite: FLOWERS!

Riga Central Market flowers

Flowers from Riga Central Market

IG-Baby's breath from Riga Central Market

Latvians love flowers. There’s even a 24-hour flower market in Riga—you know, for urgent flower needs, such as those 2 a.m. lovers’ quarrels or 5 a.m. train station goodbyes. Our visit to the Riga Central Market ended with a walk past these colorful flower stalls, which was a nice way to leave.

Apart from watching locals go about their daily business, the best thing about the Riga Central Market is that everything is super affordable. I even spotted some bouquets for as low as €1 apiece! I definitely recommend it if you’re in Riga on a budget—and even if you’re not, it’s a chance to experience Riga, for real.

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Art Nouveau in Riga

Do you remember your childhood obsessions? We all had them. They came in phases, each one as intense and inexplicable as the next. For you, it might have been dinosaurs, stamps, ice skating, Greek mythology. For me, for quite a while, it was Art Nouveau.

It all started when my mom brought home a coloring book of Art Nouveau stained glass windows. With my washable Crayola markers, I attacked that book with the fervor of Michelangelo working on the Sistine Chapel, as kids do. I would hold up each translucent page to the light, mesmerized by the colors shining through flowering vines, graceful curves, and the billowing robes of nameless nymphs.

It’s been decades since I colored within those lines, but my fascination with Art Nouveau remains. This is what made walking down Alberta iela in Riga a thrill for the little girl in me.

Riga Art Nouveau 3

Riga has the highest concentration of Art Nouveau architecture of any city in the world. With an estimated 40 percent of the buildings in Riga’s old center belonging to the Art Nouveau style (or Jugendstil in German), it’s a must-visit for lovers of this architectural style.

Riga Art Nouveau 1

Riga’s 800+ Art Nouveau beauties were built during the economic boom that swept Europe between the late 1800s to early 1900s. Most of them can be found on Alberta iela (street) and Elisabetes iela, or the embassy district.

Riga Art Nouveau 4

These Art Nouveau apartment buildings are loaded with sumptuous details, and I strained my neck just looking up at all of them. Female faces abound, with finely molded expressions ranging from gentle to melancholy to fierce.

Riga Art Nouveau 13

Riga Art Nouveau 8

Riga Art Nouveau 6
Riga Art Nouveau 14

The male faces, however, tend to veer towards the freakishly tortured. There’s a story in there somewhere, I’m sure…

Riga Art Nouveau 11

These buildings were intended to show off wealth, which explains the heavy-handed “more is more” approach. Aside from nature, Art Nouveau draws heavily from myth—from nymphs to dragons, sphinxes to centaurs, no mythical creature is spared.

Riga Art Nouveau 12

I’m also slightly obsessed with doors. If you’re a lover of doors, gates or windows, a stroll down Alberta iela will add some impressive photos to your collection.

Riga Art Nouveau 15
Riga Art Nouveau 5
Riga Art Nouveau 9

For more on Riga’s Art Nouveau architecture, check out Artweekenders’ informative and interesting post is a good read, which includes some juicy tidbits about the main man behind Riga’s Art Nouveau boom. I know this style of architecture isn’t for everyone, and I probably wouldn’t want to live entirely like this, but I find it fascinating nonetheless.

Okay, geek girl moment over! Next up: a visit to Riga’s Central Market.

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Old Town Riga: A Baltic beauty restored

Riga old town St Peter's spire

“What on earth are you going to do there for a whole week?” was something I was asked a lot before our recent trip to Riga. Aside from being a choir groupie and cheering my friends on at the World Choir Games, I couldn’t say much other than: “Get to know Riga, I suppose.” (I also got a lot of “World Choir Games? Is that like the Hunger Games?” Duh. But that’s another story.)

Visitors to the city pretty much start—and end—with Old Town Riga, a treasure box of pretty pastel buildings, winding narrow alleys, and gleaming cobblestoned streets.

Riga old town street

Riga old town rooftop

Riga old town cat on roof

The Cat House, or House of the Black Cat. Love this.

Most of Old Town Riga’s buildings were built in between the late 1800s to the early 1900s. After Latvia gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, meticulous restorations brought back the sparkle to this quaint and charming Baltic gem.

Riga old town Art Nouveau building

I really admire (and envy) how the Latvians were able to restore their Old Town in a little over than 20 years. Call it “prettified” or a “theme park” (well, maybe compared to the rest of Riga), but that’s infinitely better than abandoned and left to rot. Manila needs this kind of love.

Riga old town balcony

Riga’s Old Town is compact and easily explored in a day or two of walking, making it perfect for a weekend city trip. Most of its highlights—particularly the touristic trifecta of St. Peter’s Church, the House of Blackheads, and the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia—are within minutes of each other.

Riga old town buskers at St Peter's Church

Buskers playing the Game of Thrones theme (!!!) at St. Peter’s Church

Riga old town House of Blackheads

The House of Blackheads

Riga old town Museum of the Occupation

A sobering but essential visit: the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia

A few notables:

  • The restaurant at Hotel Gutenbergs serves dinner on its roof terrace overlooking the rooftops of the Old Town. A little pricey, but the view makes it special.
  • Good news for the tech-addicted: wifi is everywhere! Most Old Town restaurants and cafes offer free Wifi, and you can practically hop from one network to another as you walk down the street.
  • Latvian bread is incredibly yummy. I couldn’t get enough of it! The local black bread is especially tasty and makes white bread taste boring and bland in comparison.

Old Town Riga is incredibly pretty, and I’m glad the World Choir Games brought me here. I probably wouldn’t have gone all this way to visit for no reason at all—it’s not exactly one of those bucket list destinations, which makes it such an underrated jewel.

But there’s far more to Riga than its Old Town, and truth be told, it was those discoveries that made my experience of this Baltic capital memorable and complete. Stay tuned.

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