A taste for the real Riga

Cathrin Schaer dodges the tourist traps and ends upon the wrong side of the tracks.

'Basically a friend and I were talking about it and we decided that the Old Town was s---." It's an unusual introduction to a walking tour of Riga, the capital of Latvia. Our guide-to-be is an opinionated young man.

James Eldridge runs E.a.t. (experience alternative tours) Riga - advertised as "an alternative walking tour" - and, as he explains, "it was all born out of a frustration with the tourism industry and this idea of pigeon-holing tourists into the Old Town, filling the area with police and video cameras and subsequently pushing the locals out".

The appearance of me and my travelling companion on his tour is born of a similar frustration. Too often, when you're in an exotic location for a few days, you end up at the obvious sights, frustrated because you don't get to see the life of the city. On his website, Eldridge promises to help us escape the tourist ghetto and see the "real Riga".

It's a beautiful city. It quickly becomes clear why the compact capital has been described as "a jewel of art nouveau architecture as impressive as Brussels or Barcelona".

Despite a troubled history of wars, coups and occupation - Germans, Russians, Swedes and Poles have all run the place at one time or another - Riga has remained largely intact. The ornate facades of even the most ordinary building appear to have come straight from some fairytale - up to 40 per cent of all its buildings are original art nouveau in style.

And then, after just one night, it becomes clear why the city has become a popular destination for boozing Britons on stag weekends - and there have been more and more of these parties since FHM magazine nominated Riga in 2006 as the No. 1 stag party destination in Europe. After years of apparent stagnation under communist rule, Riga is a city on the rise. Latvia joined the European Union in 2004 and seems set to reprise its role as a trading post between East and West.

Real estate prices have been rising for some time and since budget airlines started flying here from Western Europe in 2004, the Latvian Tourism Development Agency estimates visitor numbers have increased about 25 per cent each year.

As a result, the city has been described by European newspapers as "the new Prague", "the rising star of European destinations", "the hottest real estate market in Eastern Europe", even as "the latest sex-tourism destination".

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Among the historic buildings of the Old Town are some of the hippest bars you're likely to see. Nestled between dark stone walls are globular lights swinging over red sofas in minimalist interiors, techno music pumping as dapper bartenders serve sushi.

As fascinating as it all is, we know there must be more to Riga than this, which is why the first stop with E.a.t. Riga is the Moskva district, or Little Moscow. Eldridge has led our group of eight away from the Old Town to what is regarded as the wrong side of the tracks.

Here he points out examples of the delicate, old wooden houses that used to make up most of this riverside city when it was populated by wealthy merchants and seafarers early in the 20th century.

"It's OK to wander around here during the day if you want to see more. But it's probably not best to come here at night on your own," he warns us. We've come here via the huge, hangar-style warehouses in which we find the local markets, bypassing more than a thousand stallholders selling cheese, flowers, fruit, traditional dark rye bread and pig snouts. Our only souvenir is the lingering smell of smoked fish. Next stop is a sort of scruffy flea market.

"If you've had something stolen in Riga you'll probably be able to buy it back in here," Eldridge says. Characters dressed in baggy polyester suits stand around outside. They're selling pirated CDs and odd bits of electrical equipment.

We head back into the city and breeze past shops selling expensive clothing, past cafes - Latvians have some of the best cake shops in Europe, as well as some of the finest chocolates - and monuments to war heroes.

We make a brief stop at a posh farmers' market, where shops selling handmade lace, knitted toys and polished amber compete with boutique cheesemakers and organic-olive bottlers. We also sneak briefly into one of Riga's old movie theatres, with impressive baroque gold leaf and curlicues inside. The art of hand-painted movie posters is kept alive on the walls outside.

And all along, Eldridge keeps chatting. He's irreverent but well informed and his conversation is sprinkled with gems we will eventually mine. For instance, he points out the recently renovated 1960s-designed Hotel Latvia.

After the collapse of communism, listening devices were discovered in the walls of nearly all the rooms. "Diplomats used to stay there," Eldridge explains. "If you want a great view, go check out the cocktail bar at the top."

We pass a small art-house cinema. Tonight at the Kino Galerija they're showing the historical drama Defenders Of Riga (or Riga Sargis), the most expensive film ever made in Latvia and the highest grossing at the local box office.

"It's pretty cheesy but it's really interesting - the story of how Latvia became a nation," our guide says. Before our sunset cocktails, we rush back to the cinema and bump into other day-trippers who have also taken Eldridge's tip.

We emerge two hours later, bleary-eyed from the subtitles but aware of why Latvia's flag is flown with such pride. And why locals solemnly leave red and white flowers (the same colours as the flag) beneath the central Freedom Monument, a 42-metre-high plinth built in 1935 in honour of Latvia's independence and featuring a woman holding three golden stars.

But the grand finale is yet to come: Alberta Street and the end of Elizabetes Street, also known as "the most important streets for art nouveau style" in Riga. Unlike some of the other places we've viewed, this tree-lined boulevard is a tourist drawcard. Every facade is a fantasy of figures and fairytale beasts. Every window pane is a photo opportunity.

Our group roams through the neighbourhood and as Eldridge winds up the tour we realise that while we have tried to avoid tourist ghettos, there are good reasons why certain locations become magnets. I wouldn't have wanted to miss this stunning architecture. It's just important to get a balanced diet.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Aeroflot has a fare to Riga for $1355 where you fly a partner airline to Hong Kong or Tokyo and then on to Riga with Aeroflot, with an aircraft change in Moscow. For $1779, you can fly Cathay Pacific to Hong Kong and then Turkish Airlines with an aircraft change in Istanbul. (Fares are low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney, excluding tax.)

Walking there

Eat Riga tours cost 5 lats ($14) and run daily during the summer, starting at midday from inside the Old Town. They also run during winter but not as regularly. See eatriga.lv.

For further information on what to do in Riga, the free In Your Pocket Guide is excellent; pick one up at the airport.

See inyourpocket.com.

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