Architecture / Latvia / Travel

Jūrmala, Latvia: Where Modern Fortune Meets Faded Glory

For Europe-bound travelers trying to avoid hordes of high-season tourists, autumn shoulder season is the perfect time to visit. But, one of the downsides is unpredictable weather. Our day trip to Jūrmala, Latvia was a shivery reminder of how capricious weather can turn a cold shoulder.

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Nestled on the white-sand shores of the Baltic Sea, the historic resort town of Jūrmala is a short, 30-minute train ride outside Latvia’s capital city of Riga. We read about the town’s famous collection of turn-of-the-century wooden mansions from its glory days, and how it’s once again become fashionable as a playground for Russian politicians, celebrities, oil tycoons, and mobsters … a combination we couldn’t resist.

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In addition to the nouveau riche, when Latvia was a part of the Soviet Union it was a destination for Communist Party bigwigs like Leonid Brezhnev as well as Nikita Khrushchev, and today even America’s newfound friend Vladimir Putin visits! It’s only a two hour flight from Moscow, so where better to escape the political pressure cooker and blow off some steam.

Given what we’d read, we had a mental image of Jūrmala before arrival, but the reality was different. Yes, there were upscale, well-guarded homes, but there were also large, run-down houses right down the street. This faded glory was unexpected.

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We were particularly surprised by this hotel ruin, perched on what would normally be a prime location overlooking the beach.

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Apparently the owner’s son died after a fall down an elevator shaft, and afterwards, the place fell into ruin. Deaths from this type of fall are … ahem … common, and it probably had nothing to do with the Russian mob … probably. All sorts of conspiracies come to mind. Today, the derelict building is a palate for graffiti artists and an impromptu party venue for local teenagers.

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But in marked contrast, a half block away, meticulously maintained gingerbread mansions sit on Jūrmala’s equivalent of Park Avenue.

And then there was the resort-quality beach. It was a windy, 40-degree day, and not the best day for a swim.

We don’t normally include naked men in our posts, but when this guy strolled out of the water and whipped off his Speedo right there in front of us, Terri (ever the opportunist), couldn’t resist. This game lad had just finished a bone-chilling swim in the frigid Gulf of Riga.

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To put his nippy dip in context, I was on the same windswept beach. Notice the dark storm clouds, white-capped waves, and me, wrapped in every scrap of clothing I could lay hands on. Obviously, the nude dude and I have different blood flowing in our veins.

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As day trips go, Jūrmala was remarkable. It was a surprising contrast to Riga, and even though we missed the glitterati of summer, we loved the feel of its halcyon glamor.

Happy Trails,
James & Terri

Photo Credits: 1. Bryan Ledgard

47 thoughts on “Jūrmala, Latvia: Where Modern Fortune Meets Faded Glory

    • Thanks for the comment Marion and for dropping by the blog. Like you, we enjoyed Riga but it’s always nice to get out into the countryside for a look around. And Jurmala was a nice change of pace from Riga and a very easy train ride. ~James

    • Don’t feel so badly about not knowing much about Latvia. I’m sure you aren’t alone. It was never a major player on the world stage, and the Russian communists made sure that it didn’t get to be. ~James

    • Beth, Jurmala is one of those sleepy, little places you expect Jason Bourne to be sneaking around looking for bad guys. I’m sure the summertime beach feel is totally different, but on the day we visited, it was quiet and mysterious. ~James

  1. Dead men might not tell any tales, but I’ll bet those buildings could. It always fascinates me when I see a ruin next to manicured home. Apparently modesty isn’t one of their ingrained traits, but I’m with you, no swimming below 80 degrees.

    • Laura, as a photographer, you’ll find this interesting. Have a look at the photo of the deserted, flesh-colored house with the huge metal-looking compass rose leaned against the house on the bottom right. What could that be and how on earth did it get there? Talk about a mystery. ~James

    • Good Monday morning Rusha! When I see these guys doing their “Polar Bear Plunge” I’m not sure whether to admire them for their bravery or pity them for their insanity. But either way, you won’t see this southern boy jumping in for an endurance test. Nope – not happenin’. 🙂 ~James

  2. Another very interesting post. The gingerbread on those buildings was fascinating.
    We have always enjoyed traveling in the shoulder seasons – just to avoid the crowds. I recall grilling some sausages on a chilly beach once, and soon the smell of the cooking attracted several people from “nowhere.”

    • Ray, we travel some in summer and occasionally winter, but most of our travel is in the off-season. Luckily, we have the luxury of traveling when we want, and it just makes no sense to subject ourselves to massive crowds if we don’t have to.

      We lived at St. Augustine Beach, FL for a few years, so I can relate to the beachside hibernation that happens in cool weather. There are always people around, but you just don’t see them. If you live at the beach and put up with tourist crowds, it’s actually a really neat time. ~James

  3. A great report on your visit to this lesser known place. I have come to enjoy visiting places not everyone goes to. I’m sure the nude guy had some shrinkage. Brrr! A great picture though with the fully clothed man in front. Almost looked staged. LOL!

    • LOL. Shrinkage … don’t I know it Darlene. As I said to someone else, Terri gets full marks for getting a photo of a totally naked man without getting the niggly bits, which would change our normally PG rating to X. 🙂 ~James

      • Like much of Eastern Europe, the second language in Latvia is Russian, not English or French. So basically, don’t count on English. However, if you’re looking for an English speaker your best chance of finding one is a youngish person – from teens to 20-30 somethings. They’ve all grown up with the internet and many speak enough English to answer your questions. In fact, some go out of their way to strike up conversations just to practice, which can be fun. We get around the lack of English by making as many arrangements in advance as possible; like hotel, train, or bus reservations and tickets. But, don’t worry, you’ll do fine. ~James

  4. Would love to visit Latvia someday. It would be a fascinating place! I have to say my favorite shot is the naked guy changing! I can’t believe it! Must have really made you laugh. 🙂

    • Nicole, I think you’d enjoy a visit to this area. When we visited, we flew into Helsinki, took the ferry across to Estonia, and traveled overland to Latvia, and Lithuania. It was one of those “empty holes” on our travel map. Like much of Eastern Europe, it was interesting to see the post-Communist influence.

      And the nude dude was a hoot. Here I was freezin’ but butt off, and he was showing his off. 🙂 ~James

  5. In just a few sentences, you’ve thoroughly piqued my interest in visiting this place! I need a return to the Baltic countries to fill in what I missed and Latvia is high on that list.

    • Lexie, as a big believer in concise writting I’m happy to hear that I’ve convinced anyone of anything in just a few sentences. 🙂

      Our trip to the Baltics was exactly as you say: to fill in a hole in our travel map. We enjoyed our trip and because it’s geographically small, it’s an easy area to see. Riga and its Art Nouveau architecture was fabulous, and we also really enjoyed Tallinn’s oldtown. The Russian communists ruled with an iron fist here, so if you’re interested in that history at all there are a few sights that were important. ~James

  6. Now I have to say that is quite the contrast between the swimmer and your portrait James! Apparently they grow them tough or possibly numb in Latvia. I will take the cold weather over crowds any day. However our Canadian winter training comes in handy for such things.

  7. omg – this place is magnificent!! The derelict buildings break my heart though… to see such beauty being neglected.

    I LOVE that big spiky thing in the photo of the first rundown mansion. oooo – I want! It looks as big as my house but who cares 😉

    • Joanne I’ve wondered about that thing from the beginning. It looks like a massive, metal compass rose, and it’s just as big as it appears. I wonder if, at one time, it was attached to a building of some sort, which begs the question where was it and how did it come to be in Jurmala? Anyway, this little beach town was very unusual and interesting and made a great day trip. ~ James

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