Monday, 26 January 2009

Riga 2008 - The Hotel Latvia

One very good reason for returning once more to Riga was the opportunity to visit our favourite cocktail bar at the Hotel Latvija because when it comes to a favourite cocktail bar this is one that stands out above all the rest. Quite literally stands out because it is on the twenty-sixth floor (out of a total of twenty-seven) of the hotel, which is the tallest building in Riga.

The Hotel Latvia is a modern high quality tourist hotel but has a very secretive past. It was built by the communist regime and was one of the few State approved tourist hotels run by the Russian travel Agency, Intourist. Intourist was founded in 1929 by the dictator Joseph Stalin and was staffed almost exclusively by the KGB secret police. It was responsible for managing the great majority of travellers access to, and travel within, the Soviet Union and it grew into one of the largest tourism organisations in the world, with a network embracing banks, hotels, and bureaux de change. It is said that all of the rooms in the Hotel Latvija were full of surveillance equipment to keep an eye on what guests were up to and in the nearby Latvian Museum of Occupation, which sets out a grim story of twentieth century Latvian occupation and oppression, there is an exhibit of the telephone bugging equipment that was discovered in the building when it was renovated and brought up to four star status in 2001.

On this visit to Riga and the hotel, in addition to enjoying the cocktail bar and based upon a recommendation we decided to eat there as well. The food was excellent and there was a reasonably priced self-service buffet but what was especially good about his meal was that it happened to coincide with ‘International Woman’s Day’ and there were free cocktails for all of us and flowers for the girls. To be honest I had never heard of International Woman’s day before, it certainly isn’t that big in the United Kingdom, and to be honest I have to say that I thought it was a bit odd to have it on a Saturday, which is a day really reserved for sport, but it turns out that this was just an unhappy coincidence because IWD is held every year on March 8th and is a day of day of global celebration for the economic, political and social achievements of women around the world.

It all started in New York when in 1908 fifteen thousand women marched through New York City demanding shorter hours, better pay and voting rights. In 1917, with two million soldiers dead in the war, Russian women chose the last Sunday in February to strike for ‘bread and peace’. This turned out to be hugely significant and a contribution to the overthrow of the Romanovs and four days later the Czar was forced to abdicate and the provisional Government granted women the right to vote. That historic Sunday fell on 23rd February on the Julian calendar, then in use in Russia, but on 8th March on the Gregorian calendar that was in use elsewhere. It has since become very important in Eastern Europe after a 1965 decree of the USSR Presidium that International Women's Day was declared as a non working day in the USSR "in commemoration of outstanding merits of the Soviet women in communistic construction, in the defense of their Motherland during the Great Patriotic War, their heroism and selflessness at the front and in rear, and also marking the big contribution of women to strengthening friendship between peoples and struggle for the peace." Good for them, but I still think it would be more appropriate to have IWD on a Monday!

Another interesting thing is that although Latvia doesn’t care to remember or celebrate much about the Russian occupation they seem happy enough to continue with this day off from work arrangement.

In these days of equality it is important to be fair of course and I am pleased to say that International Men's Day is an international holiday, celebrated on the first Saturday of November. It was first suggested by Mikhail Gorbachev in 1999 and was supported fully by the United Nations.

The Skyline Bar is a great place to relax in the early evening after a day sight seeing and a good spot for watching the sunset. For the in crowd in Riga this is clearly the place to be and to be seen, and the modern, trendy furniture and d├ęcor suggests that there’s a level of exclusivity to this place that is in contrast to its total accessibility. It’s easy to just wander in off of the street and take the external panoramic lift to the top of the hotel and enter the best bar in the city.

Getting one of the seats by the windows is absolutely essential but can be difficult when the place is busy and competition is fierce, and you really need to have your wits about you and move in quickly when the chance presents itself to get one that looks to the west to enjoy the stunning view of the City, the river, the Russian Orthodox Cathedral that stands nearby and the Baltic Sea out on the horizon. Sometimes you have to wait and stay alert for window seat opportunities but it is worth the effort, especially if there is a sunset to be seen. There was no sunset on the first day this time but on the second day our patience was rewarded and we were treated to a glorious show as the sun dipped down and bathed the city in a warm orange glow like the dying embers of a very good fire.

The skyline is supposedly designed to resemble a Manhattan bar but as I have never been to New York I am unable to confirm whether it has achieved this objective. The place has a relaxed atmosphere and a friendly ambience and it certainly doesn’t have Manhattan prices with generous cocktails costing on average only about £4.00.

There are many suggestions for the origin of the word cocktail, almost as many as the choice of drinks available at the Skyline Bar. Some say that it was customary to put a feather, presumably from a cock's tail, in a drink to serve both as decoration and to signal to teetotalers that the drink contained alcohol but my favourite is that after a cock fight it was customary to mix a drink with a different shot of alcohol for each remaining feather in the winning cock’s tail.

This has to be one of my favourite places to sit and relax, have a cold beer or an exciting cocktail, take in the views of the city and enjoy the company of good friends at the end of the day.

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