The subtly illuminated vehicle was one of several with ties to Kremlin leadership that caught my eye in the impressive museum, whose façade playfully represents a Rolls-Royce radiator grill. They included a 1966 Silver Shadow with a crumpled bonnet: the world’s only crash damaged Rolls-Royce on display in a museum was being driven by Leonid Brezhnev at the time of its accident in 1980.
Several vehicles with connections to the Soviet Union’s hierarchy were acquired by Latvian Antique Automobile Club members before the fall of the Iron Curtain. Viewing racing cars, beautifully restored models from throughout the history of the motor vehicle as well as locally made trucks and buses ensured that my trip 15 minutes outside of Riga’s attractive city centre was worthwhile.
To orientate in Riga, I spent nearly two hours with Arturs Adamsons on the cobbled lanes and squares of the Old Town during one of his daily Riga Free Tours. “We have medieval buildings, eclecticism and a great mix of early 20th century architecture,” said Art?rs in excellent English as we gazed up at ornate facades. Central Riga has more than 300 Art Nouveau buildings, including rare wooden examples.
As his tour ended, Art?rs urged me to cross the Daugava River, which flows through the city, to visit the P?rdaugava district for its small, atmospheric bars. Those in the city centre are popular for stag and hen parties. He also recommended a trip to view the lakeside Meaparks district, where cycling through the pine forest means opportunities to view villas and the arena that hosts Latvia’s national song festival every four years. UNESCO added Riga’s historic centre to its list of world heritage sites in 1997, seven years after Latvia’s independence was restored. The Museum of the Occupation of Latvia introduces the grisly yet engrossing tale of times under Soviet and Nazi rule. The former headquarters of the KGB, the Soviet Union’s state security agency, today hosts an eye-opening exhibition about the organisation’s oppressive operations.
Surely anyone fascinated by modern history would enjoy roaming in Riga? At Spilve Airport, a 25-minute taxi ride from downtown Riga, I combined viewing a contemporary art exhibition and looking around the old aerodrome. Glancing up, I spotted a bas-relief hammer and sickle symbol above the building’s sun bleached wood doors. Old propaganda murals inside the main building depict a rally featuring smiling Latvian women in the colourful gowns of Latvia’s national dress next to red flags rippling in the breeze.
Visiting Riga in winter meant packing for bracing wind that delivered flurries of snow. Snowfall made visiting the advent market at the square by Riga’s Evangelical Lutheran Cathedral feel all the more seasonal. Stalls selling hand carved wooden gifts and knitwear attracted me as I sought to stave off my usual panicked present buying on Christmas Eve.
Cinnamon-laced mulled wine warmed me ahead of more shopping at Riga’s Central Market, which makes claims to being the biggest in Europe. Four arching, interconnected halls were constructed on the site of Zeppelin hangars built by Germans during World War One. Stocking flowers, fruit and vegetables, meats and cheeses it’s a colourful, busy place and great for tasting local produce such as rye bread and sausages.
I paused to view Riga’s Russian Orthodox cathedral on my way back to my hotel, where I changed into my suit for cultured night out. For 20 (£17) I’d bought a prime ticket for a performance of Nabucco at the Latvian National Opera and Ballet and was forewarned that Latvians dress smartly for performances. As it was a Friday, I treated myself to a glass of bubbly during the interval. Overdressed for a beer in a pub, I headed to the Skyline Bar for a cocktail, views over the city’s lights and to plan the rest of my long weekend in Riga.