There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Ludlow and La Bécasse

[Most of this post is about dinner at La Bécasse, which closed as the Murchison empire foundered. There is currently (Jan 2016) a restaurant called Mortimer's on the same site, which aims to be a fine dining restaurant. I have not been there, so cannot comment.]

Deep in the Shropshire countryside with a fine medieval castle and over 500 listed buildings, Ludlow has no difficulty attracting tourists. This was our second visit in recent years and, like the first, we were lured there not by history or architecture, but by food.

Ludlow Castle
Ludlow’s foody credentials go back a couple of decades. It has a fine market, two real butchers and the cheese shop where God would buy his cheese if he bought cheese (and for all I know, maybe He does).

Ludlow has also had far more than its fair share of Michelin starred restaurants, but when Sean Hill retired and closed The Merchant House (only to re-appear at the Walnut Tree in Abergavenny) and Claude Bosi moved his two-starred Hibiscus to Mayfair, that left only Mr Underhill’s.

One Michelin starred restaurant for 10 000 people might be considered a superfluity -London has 55, roughly one to every 150 000 citizens - but Ludlow is special.

The departure of Hibiscus in 2007 seemed a particular betrayal to us, as it was there we had our first fine dining experience. However, the restaurant-shaped hole that was left in Corve Street was soon filled by Alan Murchison, owner of the Michelin-starred L’Ortolan in Reading. L’Ortolan's head chef Will Holland moved to take charge in Ludlow and Hibiscus re-emerged as La Bécasse (une bécasse is a woodcock).

[The Murchison venture failed in 2013. La Bécasse is closed]
La Bécasse soon won its own Michelin star [see update at end] and it was there we chose to celebrate our thirty-sixth wedding anniversary. We did so with trepidation. Our dinner at Hibiscus was extraordinary, the ability of Claude Bosi is internationally recognised, could La Bécasse possibly complete?

Last time we stayed in the Feathers Hotel, ‘The Most Handsome Inn in the World’ as the New York Times once called it (and the Feathers frequently points out). However, the glories of its 17th century architect can be adequately appreciated from the outside so this time we stayed at a very comfortable, but much cheaper B & B a little down the road at 130 Corve Street. The vagaries of local numbering are such that it turned out to be almost directly opposite La Bécasse, despite that being number 17.

The Feathers Hotel

At the appointed time we strolled across the road and were greeted by a rather nervous young man. He led us upstairs to the newly refurbished lounge where we sat in the window observing the customers in the kebab shop across the street. Lynne ordered a gin and tonic and I asked for a dry martini, which was exactly what I got. ‘Where’s the gin?’ I complained. The young man apologised, went away and fetched somebody slightly more senior but hardly any older. A book was surreptitiously produced at the far end of the room, lemon peel was subjected to some fancy knife work and a few moments later my dry martini arrived; still, in my opinion, with too much vermouth and too little gin, but at least it was the drink I had expected.

We studied the menus and nibbled the offered olives, nuts and, believe it or not, curried popcorn. At this point I was in danger of losing faith in La Bécasse. I should say now (because, amazingly, not everybody reads to the end of these posts) that I need not have worried. Front of house were willing enough but a little short of training. The same did not apply to the sommelier, waiting staff or, most importantly, the kitchen. Our meal was superb – and the curried pop corn? That was Will Holland’s little joke. It was a mark of supreme confidence (or perhaps over-confidence) to produce it at that stage of the evening.

We eschewed the tasting menu and the menu gourmand – we just cannot manage ten courses any more. The à la carte had the usual four starters, four mains and four desserts, each with a lengthy list of ingredients. To make ordering easier each dish had a one - or sometimes two - word title in shouty capitals. Choosing was difficult and required much discussion but eventually we settled on RABBIT and SUCKLING PIG for the mains. The extensive wine list offered few less expensive options – or defined ‘less expensive’ in a sense I had hitherto not encountered. A light red seemed appropriate, a Beaujolais say. I chose a Morgon for £45, which is one hell of a price for a Beaujolais.

Drinks drained, we decamped downstairs to the dining room. Long, or rather deep, and narrow with protruding walls forming alcoves it was much the same as in Claude Bosi’s day, providing privacy without a feeling of isolation.

Camembert risotto balls were crunchy outside, soft inside and richly savoury throughout. A tiny bowl of strongly flavoured tomato soup followed with freshly baked fennel, cumin and olive breads. Then we were ready for our starters.

SNAILS looked disappointing when it arrived with only two shells on the plate. I need not have fretted, six plump snails had already been rendered homeless and scattered about the plate while the shells contained wild garlic pannacotta. Accompanied by croutons, bone marrow beignet (a small but intensely satisfying mouthful) and sorrel, the dish provided a variety of intense yet complimentary flavours. Being unable to extract the last smear of pannacotta from round the corner of the snail shells was frustrating, but such are life’s small difficulties and they must be faced philosophically.

Lynne’s PIGEON involved two small, dark strips of carpaccio-ed breast. The nibble I was allowed was magical; rich and gamey, it lingered long in the mouth without feeling tough or chewy. I left the foie gras terrine, mango salsa and sesame cheese (not sure what that was) to Lynne. I had enough beautiful, elegant additions on my plate without plundering hers.

The Morgon was excellent. If I had bought it in Tescos for £15 – still a hell of a price for a Beaujolais – I would have been well pleased. That still leaves plenty of scope for a mark up.

My main course, Bryn Derw Farm SUCKLING PIG, involved several small pieces of piglet. The tiny slices of lean loin and fatty belly, the blob of sausage meat and the rectangle of crackling were all perfect. Confit potato, spring cabbage, sage, amaretti and a slice of char-grilled nectarine each added their own interest. The spring cabbage looked the weak link on paper, but on the plate, cooked in a heavily reduced stock, even that became sublime.

Lynne’s RABBIT consisted of a boned and rolled saddle wrapped in smoked bacon. The caramelised celery, raisins, capers and citrus marmalade, each in tiny quantities, added their own voices to the dish, but here Lynne felt that perhaps the balance was not quite right; the smoky flavour of the bacon being too dominant against the rabbit.

Before dessert we were presented with a small cup of Pimm’s jelly with gooseberries, strawberry parfait and cucumber foam topped with freeze dried strawberries. It was a fine palate freshener and a testament to Will Holland’s restraint that he made us wait so long before encountering a foam.

For dessert I had CARROT CAKE while Lynne chose RED WINE. Carrot cake sounds ordinary, but it looked anything but. A cuboid of cake was balanced on its narrow side like a section of wall with a peg of orange and honey parfait driven through it. It was moist, meltingly beautiful and helped along by a carrot, orange and vanilla puré. The ‘carrot spaghetti’ and coriander cress contributed more to the presentation rather than the flavour. The Tokay recommended as accompaniment was both subtle and intensely sweet, not an easy combination to pull off.

Lynne’s red-wine soufflé was as fine a soufflé as has ever existed, though the wine seemed to contribute little beyond giving it an unappealing greyish colour. A small spoonful of the accompanying berry and mint salad with yoghurt sorbet sent a dozen clean, fresh flavours whizzing happily round the palate.

Red wine soufflé, berry and mint salad with
yoghurt sorbet
Before coffee, we asked for the menu back to remind us exactly what we had eaten. Remembering the finer points was still beyond us: we had to return in the morning, notebook in hand, and copy down the complete descriptions from the menu outside. Perhaps we are a bit sad.

As money had by now ceased to have any meaning we each had a glass of 10-year-old Lheraud petit-champagne Cognac with our coffee and petit fours. ‘Happy Anniversary’ was written in chocolate on the dish, which was a nice touch. The powerful Cognac aroma reminded me that I have wasted too much of my life drinking cheap brandy. I had forgotten just how delightful the best can be. 

Happy Anniversary written in chocolate

After that it was out into the still warm evening for the short walk back, though we did not take the direct route, strolling up and down Corve Street to enjoy the fresh air and the feeling of complete internal satisfaction.

After mentally constructing Hibiscus into a legend we had gone almost hoping, in some perverse way, to be disappointed. Will Holland, we discovered, is no Claude Bosi, but then he does not need to be, he has his own style. We were repeatedly taken aback by the intensity of flavour packed into minuscule quantities, constantly wondering how he managed to do what he did, occasionally we were in awe. The dinner was not absolute perfection, but it was a damn good try and I suspect a second Michelin star cannot be far away [see update at end]. There remains, however, that small front of house problem. It is not the people that are wrong, it is the training they have had – or rather not had.

Happy punters
It was, it is fair to say, one of the finest meals of our lives and I would not have expected it to be cheap; top class ingredients and culinary artistry come at a price. Even so, at £250 for two, it was an expensive evening. We did not help ourselves with our choice of wine and Cognac, but we ate for almost  £100 less at the Walnut Tree in Abergavenny last year and at the two-starred Le Champignon Sauvage in Cheltenham before that. I know I would have paid more if I had visited Claude Bosi in the new Hibiscus, but that is in central London, La Bécasse is in central Ludlow, am I unreasonable in expecting the price to reflect that a little more.

Update (Oct 2011) The new edition of the Michelin guide came out in October 2011. Far from winning a second star, La Bécasse lost the one it had. I am gobsmacked.
(Jan 2016) The restaurant is now closed.
'Fine Dining' posts

Friday, 15 July 2011

The Baltic Capitals: Part 3 Tallinn, Estonia

Preceding Post in this strand: Riga

We stopped at Parnu on our way to Tallinn. Parnu is Estonia’s most popular seaside resort – so popular that a quarter of the population visit it at least once each year. Parnu has a set of traffic lights, some wooden buildings, some stone buildings, some old people sitting on benches and a flashing sign pointing the way to a sex shop. The reasons for its many thousands of visitors are not vouchsafed to those who drop into and then out of the bus station.
Parnu - the view from the bus station
Tallinn bus station is less conveniently sited than those in Vilnius and Riga, but catching a tram to the centre allowed us to see parts of the city that we would not otherwise have bothered with. Estonia was always the richest of the Soviet Republics and our first impression is that nothing has changed. Tallinn, away from the tourist areas, is smarter and more kempt than the other two capitals, the people look wealthier and the buildings more cared for. The Estonian economy was considered sound enough for them to adopt the Euro in January this year, a fact so far unnoticed by the Independent whose international edition told us exactly how many obsolete Kroons we would need to buy a copy in Tallinn. Our only experience of Finland is the inside of Helsinki airport, but Tallinn looks as I would expect Finland to look, and Estonians are the Finns closest relations both ethnically and linguistically.

We leapt from the tram at what we hoped would be an appropriate place and for the second time in a week disagreed on which way to walk. After studying the map I had to admit, again for the second time in a week, that Lynne was right. Either she is developing a sense of direction in her dotage or I am losing mine – or both.

Our hotel was a short walk away and only 50m from the subway into Vabaduse Square, on the edge of the old town. The subway finishes in an expanse of concrete and a set of wide, shallow steps up to the square. The ramp up the middle had probably not been constructed with skateboarders in mind – but the builder’s intentions were of no concern to the local youth. Above, the less frequented areas of the square provide perfect space for roller hockey.

Roller hockey in Vadabuse Square, Tallinn

Over the entrance was a big screen showing the weather or, occasionally, cartoons. We were now further north than the Orkneys, but under a blue sky, the temperature bounced cheerfully into the low twenties – though a sharpness in the breeze reminded us of our northern latitude.

The Freedom Monument stands on the edge of the square. Erected in 2009, it comprises an Estonian cross on a 24m column of dimpled glass. Officially it looks like an ice-sculpture in danger of melting – symbolising how easily freedom can melt away. To my unofficial eye, it looked like a column of cheap plastic blocks. Freedom, perhaps, can be easily thrown away but not so simply recycled.
Me spoiling the view of the Freedom Monument, Vadabuse Square, Tallinn

From the monument we ascended the limestone outcrop of Toompea Hill. The hill held an Estonian stockade until the Danes arrived in 1219, built a stone castle and founded the city. The present ‘castle’ doubles as the national parliament; it is clearly a much later building and hardly designed as a stronghold. The old town, with its walls still intact – or at least heavily restored - sits at the foot of the hill.

Tallinn Castle

Despite its Scandinavian origins, Tallinn became German after the Livonian knights arrived from the south. A crusading order based in Riga, they had been slaying and/or converting pagans across the Baltic region. Like Riga, Tallinn became a mercantile city and, in 1285, a member of the Hanseatic League. The city was generally known by its German name of Reval until 1920.

The histories of Tallinn and Riga are very similar. Both thrived as Germanic ports for several centuries until, after a period of Swedish rule, they were absorbed into Russia by Peter the Great. As in all three Baltic States, two decades of post-First World War independence was followed in quick succession by soviet occupation, nazi occupation and annexation by the Soviet Union.

The Estonian peasantry, like their Latvian neighbours had been the farm labourers and domestic servants of a German elite.  The 19th century national awakening was an unintended consequence of the attempted Russification of the country. Friedrich Reinhold Kreutzwald’s epic poem ‘Son of Kalev’ was published in 1857. A reworking of folk-tales, it provided a national narrative for the Estonian people. A statue of Linda, wife of Kalev, sits in a sylvan grotto on the shoulder of Toompea Hill. It is hard to imagine the rather genteel lady depicted being the devoted wife of a giant, or single-handedly building Toompea Hill. 
Linda, wife of Kalev, Toompea Hill, Tallinn

Facing the castle is the Russian Orthodox Cathedral. Built in 1900, its primary purpose was to remind the Estonians who was in charge. Much of the discussion on the Wikipedia ‘Tallinn’ page concerns the cathedral, and the objections to its picture appearing in the article; it is not really Estonian, the objectors say. What is beyond argument is that the building is there and difficult to ignore.
The Alexander Nevsky Russian Orthodox Cathedral, Tallinn
Outside the cathedral we first encountered what was to be the bane of our stay in Tallinn. Baltic cruising has become very popular and Tallinn is a major port. Cruise passengers trail around the town following their guides in bands of a hundred or more, each with their bus number stuck on their lapel. The ships are vast and dozens of these groups criss-cross the old town and troop up and down Toompea Hill swamping the unfortunate independent tourist. They want to see the place just as I do, so I should not complain but, perhaps hypocritically, I feel like a moan. Also, I cannot understand why anybody pays so much money to be herded around like sheep.

Nearby is the Lutheran Cathedral, a plain building as are most of Tallinn’s churches. Inside it is more interesting with boxed pews and a glassed off area for the nobility. Photographs were not allowed, but nobody said you could not take them through the open door.

Through the door of the Lutheran Cathedral, Tallinn

From the ramparts we could look out over the old town, and parts of the new town, including the harbour, where we could see the colossal bulk of several cruise ships.

Looking out over the old town, Tallin
(with a cruise ship visible to the left of the church towers)

We descended into the old town by the long cobbled street of Pikk Jag, the wall on its uphill side an impromptu gallery for local artists selling their work.

A glance at the map might suggest we were back in Riga; like Riga, Tallinn has a House of the Blackheads and, instead of the Three Brothers, a set of old houses known as the Three Sisters.

There are, however, few other similarities. Riga is a city of small squares, Tallinn has one main square, containing the Town Hall, and long cobbled streets radiating out from it. And of course Tallinn has its wall with its red-roofed towers. Old Tallinn is twee, perhaps reminiscent of Carcassonne and, like that French city, it is, first and foremost, a tourist trap.

Tallinn - a bit like Carcassonne?

The House of the Blackheads, a late-medieval drinking club for bachelors of the Merchant class, has little architecturally in common with its Riga namesake, though the crest of St Maurice is the same.

The House of the Blackheads, Tallinn

The Three Sisters have been united into one upmarket hotel, though I would hesitate before choosing a hotel continually besieged by tourists attempting to photograph it and being thwarted by their inability to get far enough away.

The Three Sisters, Tallinn
We made our way to the Olaviste Church. The Estonian language is closely related to Finnish. The two of them, along with Hungarian are the sole European survivors of the Uralic language group. Apart from Basque – which has no known relatives – they are the only extant  European languages not of the Indo-European language family. Latin has six noun cases, which was, I found in my schooldays, five more than I could cope with. Estonian has fourteen. Hence, St Olaf’s Church becomes the Olaviste Kirik and St Nicholas’ becomes, rather pleasingly, the Niguliste Kirik.

King Olaf II of Norway was a 10th century warlord, but a Christian warlord, so was canonised for slaughtering people in a caring Christian way. The most interesting feature of the rather dull church bearing his name is actually outside it – the richly decorated grave of 15th century plague victim Johann Ballivi.

The grave of Johann Ballavi,St Olaf's, Tallinn

Continuing to the Great Sea Gate, we passed the maritime museum, with its plaque commemorating the help given by the British Navy in the Estonian War of Independence, 1918-20.

Commemoration of British assistance in the War of Independence

At one side of the gate is a tower known as Fat Margaret, for at least semi-obvious reasons.

Fat Margaret, Tallinn

Outside the gate is the memorial to the 852 people who died when the ferry ‘Estonia’ sank en route from Tallinn to Stockholm in 1994. The loss of the largest Estonian owned ship in the worst ever peacetime disaster in the Baltic sea was a severe blow to the newly independent country.

Memorial to those who died on the Estonia, Tallinn

We walked along the walls and back towards the centre where we visited the Church of the Holy Ghost.  Once the Town Hall Chapel, it became the church of the Estonian speaking population. Priests here produced an Estonian language catechism in 1535, an important statement at a time when most Estonians were living as serfs.
The oldest clock in Tallinn

With Tallinn’s oldest clock, dating from 1680, standing guard over the door, it is by far the city’s most interesting church. Cream walls, dark wooden pews and panelled balconies create a special atmosphere. The altarpiece, Descent of the Holy Ghost, by Bernt Notke (1483), is a masterpiece of medieval woodcarving.

The Descent of the Holy Ghost by Berndt Notke
Church of the Holy Ghost, Tallinn
Less sophisticated are the paintings of biblical scenes on the panels of one of the balconies. Naïve they might be, but their charm is undeniable.

Adam & Eve, waving some rather fine fig leaves
Church of the Holt Ghost, Tallinn

From the church an alley leads into the town hall square. The square is surrounded by restaurants and sometimes has a market in the middle. It is a permanently crowded, cheerful false-medieval scene, reinforced by the dress of the serving wenches of the Old Hansa Restaurant, just off the square. To complete the atmosphere they have minstrels inside and a crier dressed in motley, periodically touting for business in Estonian and English.

Town Hall Square

The only building on the square that is not apparently a restaurant is the Reapteek. The façade is seventeenth century, the building behind at least two hundred years older. It is part museum, part working pharmacy and wholly strange.

Reapteek, Tallinn
The City Museum is a couple of hundred metres from the square. The good news was it was the first place we had encountered offering senior citizen discounts, the bad news was they gave us the discount without question.

The museum gives a more genuine account of medieval Tallinn, with artefacts, real medieval costumes and a cut-away model of a merchant’s house. We continued upstairs to 19th century interiors with original furnishing, while on the top floor a fascinating collection of posters showed the happy workers and peasant united in their thankfulness to Josef Stalin, who was represented by a stern bust.
Happy workers and peasants love Uncle Joe
Tallinn Museum

Our main objectives for the second day were St Nicholas’ Church and the Museum of the Occupation just outside the old town.

St Nicholas was largely destroyed by Soviet bombing in 1944 and subsequently rebuilt as an art gallery and concert hall. It contains a number of notable woodcarvings and paintings, including several late medieval altars, but the star attraction is a fragment of Bernt Notke’s Danse Macabre. Everyone, regardless of wealth or station, must die and we see Death inviting kings, popes and fine ladies to join his dance. It was an immense painting - over 30m long - and the remaining fragment is still a substantial piece of work. It is among the finest surviving examples of this genre. No photographs were allowed in the church so I am borrowing Wikipedia’s. 

Bernt Notke's Danse Macabre
St Nicholas', Tallinn
The Museum of the Occupation is housed in a glass box 250m south of the city wall. I would have thought it was ugly if I had not seen the museum in Riga. Like its fellows in Vilnius and Riga, the museum covers the events from 1940 to independence in 1991. The story is much the same catalogue of deportations and repression, but the Tallinn Museum is perhaps the weakest of the three. It is short on artefacts and rather long on video presentations. It would take a stronger man than me to watch six consecutive forty-minute documentaries (in English) on the trials and tribulations of being Estonian.

Perhaps the best part is the basement where they have statues of Stalin, Lenin, and several local leaders, less well known to us. The sculptures are monumental monsters and it is easy to see why the people of Vilnius are so happy with their informal bust of someone as harmless as Frank Zappa – though I suspect Frank Zappa would have been appalled to be called ‘harmless’.

These statues are no longer welcome in the parks and squares of any of the Baltic States, the Lithuanians have even gathered them in a semi-ironic open-air museum near the Belarus border. We found a different situation when we visited Russia in 2007. Lenin remains in his mausoleum in Red Square, while Yekaterinburg and Ulan Ude prominently display his statue, and their main streets - and those of Irkutsk - are still named after Lenin and Marx.

On our wanderings we passed this memorial to naval hero Johan Pitka.

Johan Pitka, Tallinn
Two young Italian men were climbing on the statue to stick their heads in the obvious place for a third to photograph. A local man of similar age was shouting at them – in English - to get down. Finding himself ignored he pulled out his phone and said he was calling the police. Still ignoring him, the Italians posed for their photograph and dismounted. The Estonian put his phone away shouted ‘it’s not your country’ and strode angrily away. This may inform us about a) the behaviour of foreign tourists in Estonia (and elsewhere) and b) the reaction of Estonians to them, or it may just tell us about the four individuals involved - I merely record what we saw and heard.

As we made our way back to the hotel, the big screen over the underpass was showing a documentary. Armoured vehicles rolled across the very square in which we stood, followed by nazi troops goose-stepping and saluting. It made me shiver to watch such events surrounded by exactly the same buildings that surrounded us – apart from a lick of paint the place has hardly changed in seventy years.  But there have been changes, deeper and more fundamental that the facades of the buildings. Given the choice between storm troopers and skateboarders, I will take the skateboarders every time.

If Riga had been more expensive than Vilnius, Tallinn was another step up, indeed restaurant prices in the main square reached the levels you might expect in Western European capitals. Our lunches followed the well-established Baltic pattern of garlicky fried bread and beer. Estonian beer, particularly that of the A. Le Coq brewery, is lighter and gassier than the beer of Latvia and Lithuania. Perhaps for that reason, or maybe just for a change we chose to drink wine in the evenings. We visited one Italian restaurant – complete with genuine Pizza oven and Italian pizza chef, one more regular Estonian establishment and finally gave in to the mock medieval atmosphere and found a free table outside the Peppersack restaurant for our last night. Our ‘Pikeman’s Choice’ was a huge plate for two bearing a leg of smoked pork, roast potatoes, beery sauerkraut, pumpkin, dill pickle, mustard and horseradish. It was good hearty food in the best Baltic tradition, though I doubt any real pikemen fortunate enough to have enjoyed such a meal would have washed it down with a bottle of Chilean Merlot.

Pikeman's Choice, The Peppersack, Tallinn
Having fought our way through the cruise ship passengers we saw little of Tallinn’s other regular visitors, the stag party – though we did once have coffee at the next table to a group of very hungover young men. Our neighbours John and Linda, who lived in the Tallinn’s old town for a year, say they were quite happy to leave the city at weekends. We too left on a Saturday morning and while we were at the airport we observed the arrival of more than several groups of young men. I do not want to sound too po-faced about this (I have a past, dammit) but I was not sorry to miss their company.

An extremely short hop on the shuttle flight to Helsinki, brought our trip to the Baltic States to an end. I am grateful to anyone who has read right though Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn to arrive here. If such a person exists there is probably one burning question they now need to ask. The answer: the Estonian for ‘Harry Potter’ is……well, ‘Harry Potter’. What a let down.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

The Baltic Capitals: Part 2 Riga, Latvia

Next post in this strand: Tallinn
Preceding post in this strand: Vilnius

From the very first Riga offered us something Vilnius had not - road systems and traffic hold-ups. Although the population has shrunk from a million in 1990 to 700 thousand now (still 150 thousand more than Vilnius) Riga remains the largest city in the Baltic States and feels genuinely metropolitan.

After a brief detour to the airport to set down and pick up we arrived at the bus station, conveniently situated between the old town and the market.

Inside the air-conditioned bus we had been unaware of how hot the air had become. The Baltic States enjoy (and endure) a climate intermediate between continental and maritime. The winters are vicious but the summers are warm, wet and as unreliable as they are in Britain. Vilnius is on the same latitude as Durham and Riga is as far north as Dundee but in summer, they are generally much warmer than their British counterparts. The temperature was in the upper 20s while we were in Riga, the humidity high and the hotel without air-conditioning. Sleeping with the windows open, we were regularly woken by sea gulls squabbling over nesting rights on the roof opposite. An air rifle would have been useful.

The Market after hours, Riga
Mainly housed in five huge hangars originally built to house zeppelins, the busy market now spreads into the surrounding area. We trundled our case between the flower stalls, down the seedy street behind and past the Academy of Science. This enormous Stalinist Gothic pile was a gift to the people of Latvia from the ‘workers and peasants of the other Soviet republics’. They must be very grateful; the Academy wins my award for the second ugliest building in the Baltics.

The Riga Academy of Science

Only 42% of Rigans are ethnic Latvians while Russians are the second largest group at 40%. Wooden buildings between the Academy and our hotel could so easily have been in a Russian city.

Wooden buildings near the Academy of Science, Riga

Russification of Latvia started in the early 20th century and was further encouraged by Stalin as a way to destroy Latvia’s national identity. The city’s recent population fall comes mainly from Russians choosing – or being persuaded – to go elsewhere.

Russia might have been the latest country to leave its stamp on Riga, but German influence, particularly in the old town, is even more marked. Indeed Riga has been a German city for most of its existence.

The city was founded in 1201 by Albert Von Buxhoeveden, a priest from Bremen. Scandalised by Baltic paganism he arrived in the River Daugava with twenty shiploads of heavily armed men; just enough, he calculated, to convert the people to a religion of love and peace.

The knights of the Livonian Order, as they became known, threw themselves into crusading with a will. Further south, as we have seen, King Mindaugas united the tribes and, for extra security, converted to Christianity. As a result Lithuanians were to jointly head an empire, while Latvians and Estonians spent the next five centuries as the rural peasantry or urban servants of a German elite.

Increasing stability brought merchants flooding in. Riga soon became a mercantile city and, in 1282, a member of the Hanseatic League - a loose alliance of north German trading cities.

The Hanseatic old town covers a couple of square kilometres bounded by the market, the River Daugava and a ring of parkland. Some buildings date from the fourteenth century, the oldest being part of what is now the Museum of Decorative Arts. The most distinctive building is the House of the Blackheads – a name which loses something in translation. The right hand part of the building dates from the fourteenth century, the left hand side was tacked on in 1891.

Lynne and the House of the Blackheads, Riga
But that House of the Blackheads is not the one in the photograph. The original was damaged by German shelling in 1941 and later demolished by the Soviet Union. The present building is a copy constructed for Riga’s eight-hundredth anniversary celebrations in 2001. The Town Hall across the square is another rebuild, but with less concern for accuracy as its neo-classical portal fronts a modern office block.

The Blackheads was a drinking club for bachelors named for their patron St Maurice, a Roman warrior-saint of African origin. Their carousing was legendry and suggests Riga’s current popularity as a centre for stag parties has historical precedent. The old town is well set out for the purpose with dozens of café/bars having tables on wooden platforms along the street, and whole squares, including the sizeable cathedral square, decked over and turned into bars serving drinks, snacks and full meals. Over the weekend we encountered parties from England, France and the Netherlands, but although they were obvious they were not particularly rowdy. How things became later I do not know, but there was a noticeable police presence in the early evening.

Like any medieval city, Riga has churches to spare.  The Protestant Cathedral – there are also Catholic and Orthodox Cathedrals – was started in 1211 by Albert von Buxhoeveden himself and is the largest in the Baltics (it is interesting how many superlatives are qualified by ‘in the Baltics’). In Lutheran tradition, it is somewhat austere inside – except for a remarkable carved pulpit - but the outside is more flamboyant, the redbrick Romanesque building having been added to and adjusted for eight hundred years. The cloisters house a haphazard collection of cannons and bits of old church as well as the Salaspils head. Allegedly found in the town of Salaspils in the nineteenth century this is either a stone idol from the dark ages or a fake.  Whichever it is, I think I know how he feels.

The Salaspils Head, Lutherna Cathedral, Riga

St Peter’s Church looms over the next square along. Also started in the thirteenth century most of the current building dates from the early 1400s. The 137 m wooden spire, added in 1491, was once the tallest in Europe. It fell down two hundred years later and was rebuilt in Baroque style. For a small fee – actually 3 Lats (£3.75) is quite a large fee for a ride in a lift – you can visit the viewing platform 100 m above the city.

The tower of St Peter's looming over surrounding buildings, Riga
However, photographs made it clear it was not the Baroque tower we were about to climb. When war came to Riga in 1941 the church sustained considerable damage and the current tower is a steel replica of its 18th century predecessor.

St Peter's and its tower in 1941, Riga

To the northwest, there is a view over the old town, the cathedral, castle and River Daugava….
The Cathedral, the river and the castle, Riga

….while southeast are the zeppelin hangars of the market, and the Academy of Science.

The market and the Acadmey of Science, Riga

Behind the cathedral is the Palace of Peter the Great. It is a modest palace, but then Peter only stayed there for a few months in 1711. He had visited Riga earlier, during his ‘Grand Embassy’ when he toured Europe learning how to turn Russia into a modern state. Unfortunately, local officials upset him, so when he returned in 1709, during the Great Northern War, he is reputed to have thrown the first grenade himself. The demise of the Livonian Knights had seen Latvia briefly absorbed into the Polish-Lithuanian Empire before being annexed by Sweden, but after Peter’s second visit Latvia, along with Lithuania and Estonia, was to become part of Tsarist Russia.

The 'Palace' of Peter the Great, Riga

In 1744, the future Catherine The Great stayed here. The captain of her guard was the famed teller of tall tales, Hieronymus von Munchhausen. And that is true.

Walking towards the castle, a brief detour took us to the Anglican Church of St Saviour’s. That there were enough Anglicans in Riga in the 19th century to warrant building a church is surprising; that they imported not only the bricks from England but also the soil to lay them on is amazing. Desecrated during the Soviet period it is now home to an English-speaking congregation, though it was not open when we passed by.

St Saviour's Anglican Church, Riga

Riga is flat and lacks the commanding height considered essential for a medieval stronghold, so that is not what Riga Castle is. Sitting unthreateningly beside the river, the current building was started in 1491 and, after countless modifications, now looks like the office block it is – at least in part.  We passed the door to the Presidential offices as we climbed the stairs to the Latvian History Museum. We considered dropping in for a chat, but decided against it.

Lynne outside Riga Castle
The girl on the desk was embarrassed to be discovered asleep on duty. Once we had woken her up, we spent an hour in the museum, which covers the history of Latvia from prehistoric times to the Soviet Union. It covers much of the same ground as the Lithuanian National Museum, but is more homely, though still comprehensive and well labelled - in English as well as Latvian.

The 1000 km long River Daugava reaches the sea at Riga and like any other tourist city with a major river at its disposal Riga provides the opportunity for boat trips opening up different views of the castle, the city and its spires.

The market and the tower of St Peter's from the River Daugava, Riga
Riga was also home of Lielas Kristaps (Big Christopher), a pagan prototype for the St Christopher legend. Posters throughout the city also hinted at the popularity of the equally legendary Harijs Poters - presumably a relative of Vilnius’ Haris Poteris.

Big Christopher (he's the one in the case), Riga
The old town contains many more buildings worthy of more than a passing glance. The Three Brothers are venerable merchant’s houses, the oldest, on the right, dates from the early 1400s and seems to be leaning on its younger sibling to stay upright.

The Three Brothers, Riga

The Menzendorf House is a rather misleadingly named museum. The Menzendorfs were coffee merchants who prospered here at the at the turn of the 20th century, but the museum has been furnished in the style of its 16th century owner, Jurgen Helm.

St James’ Barracks date from the Swedish period and are slowly being colonised by upmarket boutiques.

St James' Barracks, Riga

The Great Guild and the Small Guild looked after the interests of the German tradesmen. Latvians were eventually allowed a Guild of Fishermen and Boatman, with all the lack of prestige the name suggests. The Art Nouveau edifice opposite the rather dull Great Guild building was allegedly constructed by a man blackballed from the Great Guild. In revenge he placed two black cats on his roof offering their backsides to the Great Guild, though he was later persuaded to turn them round. It is a good story, though not necessarily true, but the cats are remarkably lifelike.

The Black Cat Building, Riga

The parliament is also in the old town. The building is appropriate for its purpose, a bit dull but not as dramatically ugly as its Lithuanian counterpart. Nearby is a memorial to those who died on the barricades in 1991 as Latvia wrested its independence from the crumbling Soviet Union.

Barricade Memorial, Riga

The Freedom Monument was erected just outside the old town during Latvia’s 20 years of inter-war independence. Surprisingly, the Soviets never demolished it, and less surprisingly, it was the scene of the first independence demonstrations in 1987. As in Lithuania, some Latvians saw the 1941 German invasion as liberation from the Soviet Union and in the 1990s the statue became the focus of gatherings of former SS volunteers.

The Freedom Monument, Riga

Not all of Latvia’s Russian population welcomed independence. The dour granite statute of The Latvian Riflemen across the old town from the Freedom Monument provides a focus for their grievances. Created by the Russians in 1915 the Latvian Riflemen fought with distinction in the First World War but, after taking needlessly heavy casualties, became politicised and sided with the Bolsheviks in 1917. The Red Latvian Riflemen were used in the failed Soviet take over of Latvia in 1919, and fought throughout Russia in the subsequent civil war.

The Latvian Riflemen, Riga

Current attitudes to their memorial are mixed. The statue is still there, but The Latvian Rifleman’s square is now a car park, and their museum, between the statue and the House of the Blackheads, has become the Museum of the Soviet Occupation.

The museum is a strange black cuboid on stilts that, despite strong opposition from the Lithuanian Parliament and the Latvian Academy of Science, gets my vote as the ugliest building in the Baltics – and for some way beyond.

The Museum of the Occupation, Riga - the ugliest building in the Baltics

Inside, it covers much the same ground as the Lithuanian Genocide Museum, inevitably so as the history of oppression and deportation under the Soviet occupation is very similar. Although it lacks the drama of the KGB cells in Vilnius, the museum is thoughtful and well laid out with a rather more measured tone - and at least this time the Jews get a mention. 35 000 Latvian Jews were murdered in 1941 alone.

Our final day started in the market, a huge bustling place where flowers, vegetables, dairy produce and meat all have their own area – though hand-knitted socks seemed available everywhere. Red ‘caviar’, the roe of salmon or trout, is very popular. Prices in the old town were higher than in Lithuania, though still below western European levels. The prices paid by real Latvians in the market were considerably lower.

The meat market in a zeppelin hangar, Riga

We had only previously drunk kvass in Russia, but found the distinctive little yellow bowsers dotted around the market. Brewed from bread, this very mildly alcoholic drink has some relationship to the ‘small beer’ that was the English staple when most water was too dangerous to drink. Kvass almost went the way of small beer after independence, hit by the double whammy of Coca Cola and improved hygiene regulations. The kvass makers have now cleaned up their act and fought back to such an extent that Coca Cola has become a loss making business in Latvia. Local kvass is produced from either regular rye bread or black bread. The fresh, cool yeasty drink we enjoyed at the market had the unmistakable pumpernickel flavour of black bread.

Lynne drinks Kvass, Riga Market
This 'distinctive yellow bowser' is wearing a confusing blue overcoat

Beyond our hotel and away from the old town we found the remains of the Great Synagogue. Destroyed by fire in July 1941, the ruins are now a monument to the thousands who died in the holocaust. The names listed on the memorial plaque, however, are not those of the hundred people inside the building when it was set alight, but of the four hundred or so Latvian Rigans who risked their lives hiding their Jewish fellow citizens.

The remains of the Great Synagogue, Riga
Our walk from the synagogue to the Art Nouveau district the locals call Centrs took us through some less salubrious areas and past the Russian orthodox church of the Annunciation.

Bus queue in Gogol Street, Riga

The Art Nouveau district is, reputedly the finest in Northern Europe, many of the buildings being designed by local architect Mikhail Eisenstein, whose fame was rather outshone by his son, film director Sergei (Battleship Potemkin) Eisenstein. Apart from the regular pattern of wide streets - a marked contrast to the medieval alleys of the old town - it does not strike the casual observer’s eye like the much larger Art Nouveau district of Barcelona.

The Museum of Latvia’s Jews is on the third floor of the Jewish Community Centre in the Art Nouveau district. The story is told largely in photographs.

Jews made up over ten per cent of Riga’s population in the pre-war years. The photos are largely of prosperous families doing what prosperous families do, going to the seaside, having picnics, posing outside their homes. The pictures would be banal were it not for the realisation that only the old people at a 1903 family picnic would die natural deaths, and that the whole of a football team lined up for their pre-season picture were destined to be murdered.

Film clips of the shootings, though well-known, are anything but banal. Mass killings ‘in a forest in Latvia’ sounds extraordinarily remote when sitting in the Staffordshire countryside. When it happened in a forest not 10 km away, a forest we had seen from the tower of St Peter’s Church, the immediacy is chilling.

The names on the monument at the synagogue are here as well, but fleshed out with photographs and stories. Some of the hidden Jews were discovered, with terrible consequences for them and their hosts, others remained in hiding to the end of the war. A number of the people photographed are still alive and it is remarkable to think that the old woman at the next table at the restaurant may, perhaps, be one of these heroic people. More chillingly, the old man at another table may be one of those who volunteered for the SS and took part in the killings. And the man of my age at yet another table could be a former KGB officer, though he is more likely a blameless Polish electrician on a bus tour. There are still fissures in Latvian society that are best not probed too deeply.

Beer snacks in Esplanade Park, Riga
We had lunch in Esplanade Park before popping into the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of the Nativity.

Inside the Russian Orthodox Cathedral, Riga
Lunch in Riga involved beer snacks, with the inevitable garlicky fried bread playing a major part as it did in Vilnius. In the park we had fried squid rings with it while elsewhere we had a mackerel fillet on a thick slice of bread, or a seafood medley, lightly floured and fried.

Dinners in Riga were not memorable, but wholesome and reasonably priced. The Baltic staples of pork and potatoes – with or without cheese - were well represented on menus but there were other choices available; Lynne particularly enjoying a carp in cream sauce. Dinner was always accompanied with a breadbasket of the highest quality. The black rye bread, often with inclusions of nuts or fruit, was memorable, but the garlic butter that invariably came with it seemed rather inappropriate.

Drinking in Riga inevitably means beer. The local brews, like those of Vilnius, being heavy, darkish lagers in the Polish style. There is also Riga Black Balsam. At 45% alcohol, this black viscous liquid looks like it should be sweet but is actually very bitter. It is said to be an acquired taste. Lynne gave up at first sip, but I persevered and several days later, when I finally emptied our 20 cl bottle, I was sorry that it had all gone.

Next day the Simple Bus Line, which had brought us from Vilnius, whisked us on to Tallinn. Their comfortable air-conditioned buses are operated with commendable efficiency, but requiring employees to wear a badge bearing the single word ‘Simple’ does bring a smirk to the lips of those with English as their first language.

Our journey north took us briefly beside the Gulf of Riga, but was largely through forest. Again the well-maintained two-lane road passed through no towns or villages before the Estonian border, which was marked, as Schengen borders should be, by nothing more than a ‘Welcome to Estonia’ sign.