Steeped in history, Latvia is a country of contrasts with much of interest to offer visitors.
It was one of those almost endless summer nights on the Baltic, where the daylight keeps going long after one's sightseeing legs have given up. So, we headed out on the town in Latvia's capital Riga looking for a drink instead ... Latvia's own specialty, no less.
Riga Black Balsam was first developed in 1752, so it's no overnight sensation. If people had been drinking it for more than 250 years it must be good, we reasoned, as we set out on what we presumed would be a straightforward mission. After two barmen shrugged their shoulders indifferently when we asked to try their national tipple, named after their own city, we began to think otherwise.
Increasingly wearily we trailed up and down stairs to and from some seriously seedy dives and ended back where we'd started from, in our own hotel, albeit in the rooftop bar.
Yes, they had Riga Black Balsam, of course. How would we like it? Six blank stares met the barman's inquiring gaze. He reached for a black ceramic bottle and poured a slosh into a shot glass. It looked like liquid Marmite. "Maybe you like it with blackcurrant juice?" he asked. Maybe we would. I, for one, certainly wasn't keen to drink it neat.
While we waited for our balsam to arrive, we surveyed Riga. It was well after 10pm but the sun had not set and the old city's roofs and facades were glowing in golden light. To the west was the beautifully restored medieval heart of Riga with its spires, steeples and elaborate facades. Out the opposite window was Riga's special claim to fame - the finest collection of art nouveau buildings in Europe. More than 40 per cent of Riga's old city's buildings are classified as art nouveau, more than any other city in Europe.
But, before we could trace the route we had taken through Riga's architectural treasures earlier in the day, our drinks arrived. The Black Balsam, even diluted with blackcurrant, looked less than appetising. Those who opted for Latvian beer couldn't help looking rather smug.
The balsam tasted somewhat medicinal. It apparently contains 24 different plants, flowers, buds, roots and oils. It's regarded by many Latvians as a health tonic as much as an alcoholic drink (the fact that the herbal concoction is mixed with pure vodka and is about 45 per cent proof could make that claim debatable). Its health claims are bolstered by a story that Catherine the Great of Russia became ill during a visit to Latvia but was cured after drinking Black Balsam.
After having one glass of it, I decided that if I'd been sick and been prescribed this I'd also instantly have felt much better before anyone attempted to offer me a second glass.
However, if it hadn't been for our determination to at least try the drink we would have missed out on what is probably the city's most panoramic vantage point. More than 700 years of Latvian history was spread before us, a visual reminder of this small nation's tumultuous past.
Latvia traces its origins back to the arrival of the Teutonic knights who founded Riga as a trading centre in 1201. The knights (Germanic warrior monks) dominated the region until the 16th century when the Poles, followed by the Swedes, invaded. The Russians were next, and Riga was conquered by Peter the Great in 1710.
Latvia enjoyed a brief spell of independence between 1920 and World War II when it was invaded by the Nazis who exterminated 94,000 of its estimated 95,000 Jewish citizens. However, from 1945 on, it was absorbed into the USSR. It finally gained its independence in 1991.
Although much of Riga's historic heart was destroyed during World War II, today it is impossible for visitors to tell which buildings escaped unscathed and which were painstakingly restored. However, much of the city's art nouveau heritage is original.
Most of the buildings are in private ownership - many are used as embassies - so can be viewed only from street level. But there's still much to admire, even if it is only the exterior. Art nouveau is characterised by a fascination for ornamentation based on nature, especially flowers, leaves and fruit, but also for allusions to mythology and ancient history.
Dragons writhe above doorways, Medusa heads glare at passers-by, Atlas-like figures bend under the weight of window ledges and shapely maidens cavort with garlands of flowers and bunches of grapes.
One of the most quirky of the collection is the Cats' House, which features two statues of cats with arched backs that are set on two corners of the roof. The story goes that the owner of the building, a Latvian, had been refused entry to the city guild, where membership at the time was reserved for Germans. So he erected the cat statues so that the animals' rear ends pointed directly at the guildhall. After being granted membership, he turned the cats around.
So outstanding is Riga's art nouveau heritage that the city is now a Unesco World Heritage-listed site.
Although the Soviet occupation of Latvia transformed what had been a largely rural economy into one dominated by heavy industry, the country still has vast tracts of agricultural land and forests.
Latvia's rural legacy lives on in an ethnographic open-air museum on the outskirts of Riga. Beginning in 1924, nearly 120 buildings from throughout Latvia have been reassembled here, including farmsteads, windmills and churches. The buildings are set in a forest beside a lake and because they have been there for so many decades they appear to be part of the landscape rather than a manmade museum.
What adds to the low-key charm is that people practising traditional crafts, such as wicker weaving and woodwork, are based in many of the houses, bringing life to the site.
A rather different rural lifestyle is on display at Rundale, the home of one of the Baltic region's most magnificent palaces. Built in the 18th century for a minor noble, Ernst Johann Biron, the palace was the work of Italian architect Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli. He is best known for designing St Petersburg's Winter Palace, which now houses the world-famous Hermitage museum.
Rundale is still under restoration after having various uses during the Soviet occupation, ranging from a school to a granary. The house is a confection of baroque and rococo interiors, including the grand gallery that was used for banquets. The gallery ceiling alone took 14 years to restore. Ornate stucco work, huge tile stoves (for heating) and original parquet floors adorn the state apartments.
One of the most unusual features of the stucco is a series of ceiling decorations featuring storks and their nests - the real thing can be seen outside perched on the palace chimneys. A palace guide pointed out how authentic one of the stucco nests appeared, before adding that the reason was because the master craftsman who created it used a real nest, applying it to the ceiling and then covering it with stucco.
The gardens, also designed by Rastrelli, are under restoration too, and look set to rival many of the more renowned gardens of Italy and France. There are elaborate parterres and a one-hectare rose garden featuring roses with origins dating back hundreds of years.
Rundale is a testimony to old Russian money but you need only visit the Baltic Sea resort of Jurmala, about 30 minutes drive from Riga, to realise that, despite the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian money is still flowing into Latvia.
Of the three Baltic states, Latvia retains the highest number of ethnic Russians, about 25 per cent, and there are close economic ties with Russia.
During the Soviet era, Jurmala, with its long stretch of white-sand beach, was a favourite resort among the Soviet hierarchy, including Leonard Brezhnev and Nikita Khrushchev.
But its history as a resort began in the 18th century when its hot springs, the Baltic Sea, pine forests and the beach saw it become popular as a spa.
As with Riga, many of the seaside mansions were built in art nouveau style, but from wood, not stone. The houses show the influence of Russian, Scandinavian and German architects and, although some are in disrepair, many more are beautifully restored.
Each year Russia's uber-rich gather in Jurmala for a summer new wave pop festival. One table at the VIP lounge of the local concert hall during the festival costs NZ$48,000 and it's rumoured that the combined wealth of the holidaying Russians exceeds Latvia's government budget.
But, say some locals, it's not just the Russian oligarchs and show business stars who come to Jurmala now, there are Russian spies as well, and a who's who of the Russian mafia.
It's the chance to mix with the powerful and the connected that is the real draw.
It is probably no coincidence that some experts believe Latvia is now one of the most important money laundering bases in Europe.
If the multimillion-dollar properties weren't sufficient evidence of the Russian connection, the cars cruising the main thoroughfares certainly were. If you become too entranced peering through hedges and over walls at the beautiful wooden buildings you could be run over by anything from a Rolls- Royce to a Ferrari. And if it's being driven by one of the Russia mafia they're unlikely to stop and administer first aid.
- © Fairfax NZ News