A derelict and rusting customs post complex marks the point at which you leave Lithuania and enter Latvia, on the road to Riga. The scenery at first glance, remained the same wide fields of wheat and cereal crops, but it changed subtly.
Unlike the road, which abruptly ran out of smooth and lined tarmac, and became a bouncing surface of patched up and frost-damaged single lane highway with large potholes. The subtle change was the visible lack of care and grooming that we had become accustomed to in the land of the ‘Baltic tiger’.
We were surprised. Our expectation was that Latvia would be smarter, better-heeled, more obviously content. Analysing this, we agreed that our impression was based solely on ‘Riga calling’ during the Eurovision song contest, and glorious photography of the capital city. The truth is that Latvia is a poor relation of Lithuania and is positively disowned in the case of glamorous, expensive Estonia.
Strange then that our first stop was the sumptuous, elegant Rundale Palace. With its cream and marzipan-coloured façade built in the neo-classical style this is a place with an evocative tale to tell.
Begun in 1736 by Baron Enrst Johann Biron, the lover of the Empress of Russia, it took more than thirty years to construct. This was not due to its grand, ostentatious scale and myriad of public, state and private rooms.
It was down to the fact that Biron was exiled (having planned to be executed) by his political enemies, in 1740. When he was allowed to return home in 1763, he immediately set his architect, Italian Bartolomeo Rastrelli, creator of the Winter Palace in St Petersburg, back to work.
The palace was finished in 1768, and the Baron reportedly loved it, living out the remaining four years of his life there. It became home to a succession of Russian nobles, before being savagely attacked during the First World War, the Latvian War of Independence in 1919, and again during the Second World War.
Restoration began in the 1970s and concluded in 2015, at an estimated cost of 9billion euros funded by the Latvian State and EU. We spent a glorious late afternoon rambling through the labyrinthine state rooms and ball rooms and halls for festivities.
The many drawing rooms and attending rooms were painted in the palest blues and creams, and floor to ceiling sashed windows allowed the light to pour through the south-facing façade of the East Wing. It had an air of calm serenity and I particularly loved the Farrow and Ball-style colour palette, and putty-painted and deep skirting boards.
The main rooms were originally heated by an ingenious network of 80 porcelain stoves, of which six remain. Magnificent and striking, they sit grandly in the corners of rooms and are decorated with blue and white tiles, we thought from Delft but discovered to be from Gdansk and dating back to 1740.
One of us peeked into the private apartments of the West Wing whilst the other went to the gardens, created in the French style and inspired by Versailles.
The famous roses and the new peony collection had sadly already blown in the hot weather and the most popular spot was the central fountain which tantalised hot feet and toes but were strictly off limits to wilting podiatric parts! CCTV cameras peered down from poles poked amongst the box hedging.
Reunited, and with booty of a photograph of the Duchess’s chamber pots, we headed back to a free night’s stay in the car park of a nearby and quirky guest house.
The low-slung and rustic Balta Maja was closing up for the evening, but we were invited to sit in its lovely garden, next to a pond of water lillies and frogs, and enjoy a glass of cool beer.
As a meal of roast pork and fried potatoes was not going to be on offer, we indulged in a home-style fried chicken burger and salad treat.
Not at all typical of the traditional cuisine but a nod to the popular Hesburger fast food chain that we were seeing a lot of advertising for.