Bold and beautiful in the Baltics
Pastel-pretty Riga is rich in Jewish history. Go, before it gets as popular as Prague.
You know of course, begins the shammas of Peitav, Riga's only surviving synagogue, "that this shul did not get burned down by the Nazis only because the church next door is so close.
"So instead, they used it as a stable for their horses." My gaze followed his pointing finger towards the fabulous gold-embossed Ark: "Luckily, we managed to hide the Ark and all the Torah scrolls before they got here."
On that sombre note began an eye-opening précis of Jewish life in the Latvian capital of Riga, which has seen what was once a 90,000-plus community that was almost wiped out in World War Two, revitalising itself since Latvia's independence from the Soviet empire in 1991.
While many eastern bloc capitals have succumbed to large-scale tourism - Prague and Budapest, for instance - there are, thankfully, still a number which have not. The misconception, however, is that the latter are run-down Communist backwaters with limited tourist infrastructure, little to eat but borscht and cabbage, and hotels to which you have to take your own bathplug.
In Riga, nothing could be further from the truth; what you will find is a five-star lifestyle at outstanding value for money, lavish architecture, food fit for kings and best of all, no legions of hen/stag parties - at least not yet.
Latvia has swapped between Russian, Swedish and German rule for centuries. Both Napoleon and Hitler saw it and its Baltic neighbours, Estonia and Lithuania, as the gateway to Russia. But all that changed in April 1942 when the Allies handed the Baltic nations to Russia as a sweetener to help them fight Nazi Germany.
In fact, if you are to understand anything about Riga, a visit to the city's Museum of the Occupations has to be at the top of your "to do" list. The museum captures the painful history of Riga, from 1941 when the Nazis marched in, to 1944 when the Russians came storming back, between which events 60,000 Jews were slaughtered in death camps.
The country's struggle for independence helps to explain how much they appreciate their freedom - expect to see plenty of outdoor concerts, lots of communal hugging and a warm welcome from everyone you meet.
I began my Riga visit checking in to the Ainavas, a stylish boutique hotel in a converted 15th-century building in the heart of the old town. Ainavas in Latvian means "landscape", and every one of the 21 rooms is uniquely designed to draw something from the Latvian landscape. It is a charming place, with luxuriously appointed rooms, heated bathroom floors, terry robes and down duvets. Its cellar restaurant delivers superb buffet breakfasts, but a fine, gourmet menu offers limited choices for kosher-observant diners.
Riga is a walking city and just the right size for a weekend break. The historic Old Town, that winds down to the river, has been fully restored to its former pastel-washed glory and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
It contains many hidden gems, including Europe's fourth largest stock of Art Nouveau buildings that you'll spot as you explore its maze of little winding streets flanked by Germanic merchants' houses and magnificent onion-dome churches and dotted with big open squares lined with cafés.
The centre-piece of old Riga is the town square with its fine guild halls, including the restored House of Blackheads with its magnificent Dutch Renaissance façade.
The Central Market - once a hangar for five enormous World War One Zeppelins - now houses a huge indoor food market, each hangar offering a different speciality, from fruit and veg to dairy produce and fish.
Built at the mouth of the Daugava River which splits the city, Riga has no shortage of boat rides, though a river cruise is not a trip laden with great architectural sights.
The modern part of Riga, across Bastekalns Park, is all hustle and bustle and contains everything you would expect from a busy city slowly coming to terms with finally having an independent lifestyle, including bars, clubs, music and fashion and a wealth of good quality hotels.
Finding good places to eat in Riga is about as difficult as boiling a kettle. A good example is the Black Monk. One of Riga's most popular restaurants, it is built inside an ancient cloister near the old city walls. A former presidential chef delivers the kind of quality you would have to book weeks ahead for in a comparable London restaurant. It offers beautifully cooked dishes - though not many for the kosher-observant - from an extensive menu at prices that are almost too low to believe - and with wine included.
For lunch, you have to sample Riga's culinary must-have - its black rye bread. This is not just any old rye; it is Rupjmaize. This hand-made bread has a taste and texture unlike any other rye breads you've had before. Its strong taste, high nutritional value and almost miraculous ability to stay fresh, is achieved by a long and painstaking process using natural malt.
You could take a short bus or cab ride to the North West corner of Riga and visit another piece of history, the abandoned Spilve Airport. In heavy use during Soviet times, the facade of the main terminal building is still adorned with a hammer and sickle.
A visit to the city's Jewish museum is important to understand the true horrors that befell the Jews in Riga. Housed in what, before the war, was the home of Riga's Yiddish Theatre - parts of which can still be viewed - the exhibits graphically reveal the hardships and horrors faced by the Jews of the region. Visitors learn about the ghettos set up in Riga to ensure that all the Jews were held in a single area, and then wiped out in one of the worst single atrocities of the Nazi era, the massacre at Rumbula Forest.
It was there on November 30 and December 8, 1941 that some 27,000 Jews were executed and dumped in mass graves in the forest on the outskirts of Riga.
Now close to a busy four-lane highway that leads to Moscow, and no more than a 10-minute cab ride from the city centre, the Rumbula Forest Memorial is a sombre reminder of man's inhuamnity to man.
Intriguingly, the people at the site, learning about the happenings there, are as likely to be Latvians hearing about their country's past, as foreign visitors.
Under Soviet rule, Latvians were given only scant information about their history in the 20th century, and there was neither the will nor the opportunity to examine the Nazi era until Latvia regained independence.
As Margers Vestermanis director of the Jewish Museum said: "Western Europe has had 65 years to discuss the Holocaust openly and honestly. Latvia has had barely a decade." The memorial, which has been constructed with donations from all over the world, is accessed through the forest path via an enormous, steel work of art at the roadside entrance.
The site is well maintained and seems to strike the perfect balance between offering a place for respectful remembrance while also recalling the sheer horror of what took place there. Jewish life however is returning to this vibrant city - there are more than 14,000 Jews living in Latvia, many settling in Riga again.
The city - known as "Little Paris" before the war, is slowly rekindling a spirit and culture that was so cruelly torn away, and maybe, just maybe the Shamas of Peitav will have a congregation to be proud of once again.
Peitav Shul, Peitavas 6/8: 011-371-722-4549; email@example.com
The Jewish Community Centre, Skolas 6
The Jews in Latvia Museum 00371-728-3484; http://vip.latnet.lv/LPRA/ebr_muz.htm
The Museum of the Occupation of Latvia (00371-721-2715; www.occupationmuseum.lv)
Rumbala Forest Memorial: http://www.rumbula.org/
Kosher amenities include: Café Lechaim: Skolas 6 00728-0235, kosher, no-frills café in the Jewish community centre
Shalom, A Briana 10, 00371 736-4911 traditionally Jewish but not kosher