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Travel & Holidays in later life


The Swedish Gate built into the city walls during a Swedish occupation in 1698Reg Butler took a city break trip to Riga, the capital of Latvia, and arrived on a Saturday evening, just when all the shops were closing for the weekend. 

The guide warned us that some streets might be rather over-merry with weekending groups from Scandinavia. But there was in-house hotel entertainment at the Whisky Bar and in the basement Casino.

My room on the 20th floor of the Latvija Hotel - a former Intourist property, built by the Soviets but since renovated - gave a splendid view across Old Riga. In the foreground was the Russian Orthodox Cathedral, newly restored as a church from the Soviet idea of using the building as a planetarium.

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Travel agents can suggest a range of short breaks to Latvia and the other Baltic countries, based on air transport and accommodation.

You can buy opera or ballet tickets in advance online. Payment by the usual credit cards.

Latvia's currency is called the Lat, which is divided into santims. Click for exchange rate. All local prices are extremely cheap including city bus or tram rides,  pub or restaurant meals beer and fast food. 

More information: there is no Latvian Tourist Office in UK. But there's an excellent web-site Or why not choose a good guide-book from those suggested below? 

Travelsphere escorted holidays


Our Sunday morning city tour featured all the standard sites of a 700-years-old medieval town: bits and pieces of ancient walls, a gunpowder tower, a 17th-century Swedish-built entrance gate and well-preserved houses.

Although long weekend tours are the most organised and inclusive style of holiday, there's usually free time for going your own way.

For the Sunday afternoon at leisure, other members of the group chose to visit the neighbouring seaside resort of Jurmala, known for its white-sand beaches. 

Instead, I headed for Riga's Central Market. This food, flower and general flea market rates among the largest and most colourful in Europe. It's open daily including Sundays from early morning until late afternoon, and is specially crowded at weekends.

A fish stall in Riga's Central MarketThe under-cover section of the market is housed in five huge but separate food halls. They were built during the first world war by the Germans to house zeppelins. Converted to peaceful use, the hangars are perfect for all-weather use, while more of the informal market overflows outside.

If you like sausages, Latvia is paradise. Long strings of them hang like curtains from stalls in the meat hall. The next hangar is all fruit and vegetables, sold direct by farmers. But there's also a full range of more exotic fruits such as grapes and pineapples. 

In the dairy hall, vendors weigh out butter from great slabs, and smack it into shape for wrapping. Nothing is ready packaged, and cheese is carved to order. Last in line is the fish hangar, offering a full range of fresh, dried and smoked with a smell to match.

The restored Opera House, famed for its Ballet SchoolAn evening meal was included in the weekend package, but the timing clashed with my hope of seeing ballet at the National Opera House. So, instead, I went to a restaurant opposite the Opera and had an extra-early traditional Latvian meal served by waiters in national costume.

When Latvia was still Soviet occupied, the Riga Ballet School ranked as Number Three in the Soviet Union after the Kirov and the Bolshoi. Mikhail Baryshnikov, for instance, began his career there.

By happy coincidence, the School was giving a concert performance, in a three-part programme which included performances by the regular ballet company. I asked at the ticket office for the best available seat, and was given front row of a dead-centre box in the dress circle. 

The student dances were delightful, a selection of classical and modern. The third and final section comprised highlights from Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker. 

Equally delightful was the audience. My two neighbours in the box were Russian-speaking. The husband was a President Yeltsin look-alike, with that same square face and slow-moving bulk, and a wife to match. Even since Latvian independence in 1991, half the population of Riga is still of Russian origin.

Many of the audience looked like relatives of the student performers. Pretty young schoolgirls in blonde pigtails bubbled with excitement at seeing their brother or sister dancing on a real stage. Maybe they were building hopes for their own future. 

The Powder Towder, dating from 1330During the two intervals, I followed the traditional routine of drinking a glass of Soviet-type champagne.

The theatre itself was newly renovated with the blue, white and gilt decoration of the original 19th century baroque. Behind me, a cameraman recorded the performance for TV. 

To round off the evening, I sampled the Casino in the Hotel Latvija's basement. The Casino tables looked very professional, with staff in dinner jackets and bow tie. A separate bar section was partitioned off by glass.

Consider these other Baltic destinations

ESTONIA - plenty to sing about

HELSINKI - go when the sun shines

LITHUANIA - The bumpy road to Vilnius

"Books to read - click on cover pictures" or click on the links below

Latvia: The Bradt Travel Guide - Things are changing fast in Latvia, so buy this latest edition of a reliable guide..

Baltic Capitals - A perfect buy for a multi-capital journey that features Riga, Tallinn, Vilnius and the very off-beat Kaliningrad, and including a brief glossary for each language. 

Lonely Planet: Estonia, Latvia & Lithuania - A collaboration of four authors to cover the three Baltic States.

Baltic States Insight Guide - a comprehensive survey.

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