Stretching along a wide sandy strip of the Gulf of Riga, the stylish beach resort of Jurmala boasts more than 4000 art nouveau wooden houses built in the time of its Prussian heyday.
The resort has remained popular ever since, and during the Soviet years the town was where Russians and Latvians alike flocked to party like, well, a Russian.
Jurmala is 14 different townships linked along 32kms of coastal strip and bounded by pine forest.
It’s considered to be the ‘French Riviera’ of the north so we couldn’t resist a couple of days wandering amongst its historical architecture, its sandy and bustling beach and people-watching.
The villas are in various states of repair. Many have been renovated, but in doing so have lost their original, elegantly crafted appeal. Frilly wooden fringes and gables have been swapped for simpler styling in machine-cut shapes.
Some smaller homes have been patched up and sit as summer houses in the garden plots of modern ‘grand designs’. Some, sadly, are left abandoned and tumbling down.
We enjoyed hunting out our own Latvian project and found it along the forest road out of town and heading west towards the end of the resort.
Its lantern tower looked appealing for an evening’s star gazing and as the blood moon was predicted that night we imagined enjoying it from inside. It wasn’t for sale but otherwise might have been tempting!
Away from the busy beaches and town centre the shaded and tree-line roads of the resort were quiet.
Amongst the tumbledown houses ostentatious detached mansions squatted, with the occasional gardener and cleaner at work but all looking shut up and presumably inhabited as summer houses for a couple of weeks of the year.
We surmised that the wealth was incoming, and the locals were outgoing and selling up. Huge plots of land which were partly forest and partly demolished old houses were being offered for sale and it was clear the new owners were not interested in restoring old glamour, but rather building new mansions with bling. It was interesting.
One exception is the ‘summer cottage’ and botanical garden of a Prussian entrepreneur, built in 1883. Now used by the State University of Latvia, the gorgeous emerald green neo-gothic wooden house is only open to view by appointment, so we peeked through the railings to swoon over it.
The Soviets have left their landmarks. A notable one is the Vaivari Sanatorium which looms like a beached cruise ship improbably in the woodland.
It’s still popular with clientele who are said to be regular visitors since the Brezhnev era. We cycled around its parched and spare gardens bumping along broken paving stones and passing elderly people contentedly sat on dilapidated benches.
Cycling was once again a challenge. There were no cycle lanes and although signs directed us to pedal up on the high pavements amongst the pedestrians, there was no clear provision for this and certainly no expectation of it by the groups of people packing their way along the pavements.
Latvia has a stretch of motorway around Riga and barely any dual carriage ways, but for some reason the authorities have seen it fit to lay out the road system in and around Jurmala as a two-lane highway. Add in the usual holiday makers’ mode of driving – normal rules don’t apply – and it was hair raising trying to stay in the saddle whilst narrowly being clipped by the wing mirrors of fast and flashy cars. Simon almost got taken out on a crossing by a young and very glamorous blonde speeding through a red light in a big black Porsche, with Russian plates (of course!)
It was certainly busy. With the Baltic Sea an unseasonably warm 23 degrees during the daytime the beaches were full.
We enjoyed cycling along the sands, it was permitted, and easier to pick our way through people of all ages, and all states of undress. Despite the publicity the beach was definitely less fashionista and more family.
It had a happy feel and we noted the absence of loud music from portable speakers and smoke from barbecues.
The beach was simply there to sit on, sunbathe and swim from. A few hotels had designer sun beds for hire, but at 90 euros a day, it was clear that the clientele was happy to lay on towels in the sand and amongst the dunes.
Camping in the grounds of an abandoned Soviet hotel, the price was steep at 23 euros a night but location, location, location!
At just 11kms down the road from central Riga, Jurmala is still pulling in visitors in their hundreds of thousands. We wish it well.