Friday, 23 January 2009

Riga 2008 - Jūrmala

On the second day of this year’s vist we returned to Jūrmala which is the largest beach resort in the Baltic States and is famous for its natural treasures, the mild climate, sea, healthy air, curative mud and mineral water.

The first time that we saw Jūrmala beach was in June 2006 and it was a real surprise for this was a very high quality beach with thirty-three kilometres of scrupulously clean white sand, a blue flag beach and a clear Baltic Sea stretching out over the Gulf of Riga towards Sweden somewhere over the horizon. I had expected the sea to be grey and forbidding like the North Sea of my childhood holidays but instead it was a serene denim blue and looked genuinely inviting. There were a few holidaymakers on the beach but not many in the sea because I suspect that looks were probably deceptive and that the Baltic remains fairly inhospitable for most of the year and despite the warm sunshine I wasn’t prepared to find out because to be honest I am more used to swimming in the Mediterranean and would almost certainly have to toughen up a bit if I was going to test the genital shrivelling temperatures of the Baltic.

Jūrmala has been a popular retreat as far back as the eighteenth Century when it became a favoured recuperation point for Russian soldiers recovering from service during the Napoleonic Wars. For over two hundred years after that Jūrmala has been Riga’s playground, especially in the elegant days of the 1930s right through to the years of Russian occupation. During this time the city was the ultimate destination for holidaymakers from the east and countless tourists from across Russia descended on this small peninsula all the way from from Lielupe to Vaivari every Summer. Under the Communist regime this was a popular destination for high-level Party officials and it was a particular favourite destination of Russian Presidents Brezhnev and Khrushchev. Today, as Latvia rejects most things Russian, most of the Soviet flavour has faded and the hotels, shops and restaurants have been upgraded to Western standards.

Most visitors to Jūrmala are from Latvia and they form 32% from the total number of tourists. Lithuanians and Estonians are next, each with 13% from the total number of visitors and the number of Russian tourists is increasing at 10% of the total, Finland with 7% and Germany with 5% come next. Visitors from the United Kingdom make up only 1% from the total number of tourists which is lucky for them really because that means no football shirts, chavs or misbehaving louts on stag weekends who happily seem content to stay in Riga.

We returned to the beach in January 2007 on a gloriously sunny morning, with snow on the ground and walked there through some wooden romantic houses built in a variety of styles and most in various states of disrepair and renovation. Since the first half of the nineteenth century, the popularity of classical architecture made Jūrmala what it is and there are buildings in the styles of historism, Art Noveau, national romantism, and functionalism. But whatever the style the characteristic feature of Jūrmala’s architecture is that it is rich in decorations of wooden carvings on the facades and roofs of the buildings. The houses were fascinating, mostly made of timber and in contrasting styles that suggested that the owners had had fun building them in a competitive contest each determined to eclipse the efforts of their neighbours. These were once grand seaside villas accommodating the wealthy Russians who came here for their summer holidays and we were relieved to see that thankfully many were being restored, rather than being demolished to make way for modern structures. It is an interesting fact that the town has an official list of four hundred and fourteen historical buildings under protection, as well as three thousand five hundred wooden structures.

The first time we had seen Jurmala beach was in the June sunshine when it was a wide expanse of inviting sand and gentle seashore so this time we were amazed to find it covered in ice and snow. I had been told stories of a freezing sea but I don’t think I was completely convinced so to see this was awesome. The sea had frozen at high tide and formed into natural ice sculptures well over a metre deep and topped with an inch or two of undisturbed snow. We clambered over the ice to the sea line and found the sand was frozen solid too, I imagine the sea was cold but of course no one was brave enough (or insane enough) to try it. I had never seen a beach frozen solid before and certainly had never walked on water before either.

This time there was no snow or frozen sea and the beach was strangely warm and hospitable and a digital information sign advised us that the temperature was 10º centigrade. Walking along the pine fringed beach we passed the fine old swimming baths building that was built in 1916 and where it was previously possible to take a bath in the heated seawater. In Soviet times, it served as the resort spa centre and was a medical institution with the best facilities in Jūrmala. Today however it was closed for business and looked neglected and quite sad. Nearby was a sculpture of a turtle that represents long life that had been impossible to photograph on the summer visit but much easier today on account of the absence of people.

Micky decided that this was a good opportunity to test the waterproof qualities of his £250 Dubarry boots and he swaggered out to sea in a confident manner and was able to confirm that his calf length, waterproof, breathable boot crafted from choice crushed water resistant leathers and lined with gore-tex was an excellent purchase that kept his feet both warm and dry. I decided not to test my £20 boots from Springfield’s outlet shopping centre because I had the awful feeling that these wouldn’t be quite so waterproof.

After the beach we walked for a second time along Jomas iela, which is one of the central and oldest streets of Jūrmala with restaurants, summer terraces, hotels and cafés and here we found a bar that was grateful for customers and we enjoyed a bowl of spicy Russian Solanka soup and a glass of Latvian beer.

Just as we had arrived, we left Majori by train and headed east back to Riga and on the journey passed by the Lielupe River, which is a beautiful waterway that flows all the way from Lithuania to the south to drain in the Gulf of Riga and runs parallel with Jūrmala beach, sandwiching the resort between river and sea and creating a marvellous natural panorama that was magnificent even through the grubby windows of the train.

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