Bent on happiness

BEAUTIFUL BUILDINGS:  German art nouveau buildings in the old town behind piles of fresh snow.
BEAUTIFUL BUILDINGS: German art nouveau buildings in the old town behind piles of fresh snow.

A tragic past hasn't stopped the Latvian capital of Riga from becoming a prosperous and vibrant city, the largest in the Baltics.

You've got to hand it to the Latvians. After years of oppressive Russian and German rule you would forgive them for not wanting any reminders of those ghastly times.

But here in the heart of Riga's old town are five former German Zeppelin hangars bustling with Latvians happily going about their business.

Used in World War I, the hangars have since been converted into a 72,000-square metre market – the largest covered one in Europe. The renovation incorporates neoclassical and art deco design and has earned the hangars a spot on the UNESCO heritage site list.

They could have become a grim reminder of former times. But, showing their resilience and enterprise, the Latvians pounced upon the opportunity to use the buildings for their market, which had been operating on the site for hundreds of years.

The markets are a wonderful spot to spend a few hours gazing in awe at the range of produce and goods on display at more than 3000 stands. There's a huge variety of fish, fruit and vegetables, meat, breads and nuts and seeds as well as fur hats, wooden toys, clothes and antiques. Cafes line the walls and it's where the locals sit and have a coffee and chat and a great place to soak up the atmosphere.

Our visit to gorgeous Riga coincides with the 20th anniversary of the day the country was finally liberated from Russia and, along with neighbouring Estonia and Lithuania, gained its long sought independence. Celebrations are low key and sombre – we get the feeling the Latvians want to acknowledge the day, but not dwell on it.

Ignorant at many facets of this country's shocking history, we visit the museum of Occupation which outlines in graphic detail the years the Baltic state was occupied firstly by the Soviets (140-1941) the Germans (1941-1945) then the Soviets again (1945 until 1991).

Dramatic historical documents and photos show the impact of these totalitarian regimes during which the entire Jewish community was exterminated. Families were separated as men and women were sent to work on farms and in concentration and prison camps in remote parts of Russia and Germany. Farms and houses were taken from people, many of whom were forced to flee with nothing.

It's a sobering visit and we shake our heads in disbelief. But after spending time in the city, you become aware of how such a tragic past has only made the Latvians more determined to be a happy, thriving and independent country. Desperate to become more aligned with Europe than Russia, they've joined the European Union and today Riga is a major industrial, financial, commercial and cultural centre and the main port in the Baltics.

We travelled to Riga from Tallin in Estonia by bus – a fascinating five-hour ride through pine forests, farmland and lakes – all covered in a thick blanket of snow. Riga sits on the banks of the Daugava River, a few kilometres from the Baltic Sea. Renowned for its German art nouveau architecture (Jugendstil) the city certainly has some outstandingly ornate buildings.

The old town is a typical labyrinth of cobbled streets dotted with gorgeous buildings, including the striking St Peter's church, one of the most important medieval buildings in the Baltics. A trip up its 123-metre spire gives sweeping panoramic views and just a little vertigo.

The church was first mentioned in the history annuals in 1209 and was renovated in the 15th century and then destroyed by bombs during World War II. Lengthy rebuilding saw the spire, roof and walls rebuilt and reconstruction work was only finished in 1973. Another landmark building is the ornate Blackheads House, built as a gathering place for wealthy traders. It, too, has been renovated several times during the years.

After two days exploring the delights of Riga, we venture inland to Sigulda, considered the Switzerland of Latvia. Transport is by ancient Russian train but its discomfort is soon forgotten as we gaze at the beautiful scenery – pine forests sprinkled with fresh snow and frozen lakes where fisherman sit and fish through holes in the ice.

Sigulda stands on the southern edge of a heavily wooded section of the Gauja Valley, an area dotted with medieval castles. It was developed as a winter country resort in the late 1800s when its Russian owner Prince Kroportkin sold his land to wealthy Rigans.

Snow is thick on the ground at Sigulda and the air is freezing – minus 20 degrees Celsius and we have to walk fast to stay warm.We take the cable car across the valley and frozen river which gives stunning views up to Krimulda Castle. There are several castles and churches to look at, but eventually the cold gets to us and we head to a cafe for a heartwarming bowl of soup.

Unlike Swiss trains, Latvian trains do not run to schedule and we have a freezing half-hour wait on a bare platform at the station before boarding the train for Riga. We praise the virtues of our silk socks, silk glove liners, layers of cashmere and merino and feather-and-down jackets – but can't help but eye up the fur-clad locals with envy.

Maybe we should have stocked up on fur at the markets after all. Ah well, there's always tomorrow.

The Marlborough Express