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Baltic beauties Add to ...

Riga Castle, on the edge of the Old Town by the Daugava River, has special significance for Canadians. It's the official residence of President Vaira Vike-Freiberga, a former Montreal professor returned to the land of her birth. While her duties are mainly ceremonial, she is responsible for finding a new prime minister whenever a government collapses, as happened earlier this year.

Latvians take politics seriously, by the way. The country has 100 members of parliament and 23 political parties. "When two Latvians get together," our guide Ievay told us, "they form three political parties."

Riga offers visitors a double bounty. Along with its masterpieces of medieval and Renaissance architecture, it also boasts Europe's greatest concentration of art nouveau -- jugendstil in German -- buildings. The style, popular from 1890 to 1910, features flowing lines, floral patterns and building façades festooned with carvings of faces and mythical figures. Some of the best examples are in the downtown core on Alberta, Elizabetes and Antonijas streets.

As always in the Baltic capitals, the ambience of the ancient streetscape is counterbalanced by memories of a more tragic recent past. The full story of Latvia's sufferings under Stalin, Hitler and the Soviets again, is told in the Occupation Museum, a stark bunker-like structure operated by a Latvian American. A short drive outside the city lies Salaspils, a moving memorial on the site of a Nazi concentration camp, one of 23 where the country's Jews were slaughtered.

The locals lay out fresh flowers daily at riverside memorials to two filmmakers, Gvido Zvaigzne and Andris Slapins. They were shot by Soviet troops in 1991 while covering a bloody crackdown against freedom demonstrators. There is also a sprinkling of flowers at the Old Town's Freedom Monument, erected during Latvia's first period of independence (1921-1940). The Soviets talked of destroying it, then relented because the woman on top resembles Mother Russia. Today there's no ambiguity about what the soaring lady represents. A Riga primer: Latvia's population is 2.5 million with 850,000 in the capital. Of the three countries, Latvia has the highest Russian-speaking population (40 per cent), while 57 per cent speak Latvian. The Latvian language has the same roots as Lithuanian. The Hotel Konventa Seta, phone (371) 708-7501, is in a restored, historic complex in the heart of the Old Town. The best place to sample Lativan dishes is Alas Seta, 6 Tirgonu, a cafeteria beer hall in the Old Town where you can point at what you want. Canadians require a visa for Latvia, which is also accepted by Estonia. For details, contact the Embassy of Latvia, 112 Kent St., Suite 208, Ottawa, Ont. K1P 5P2, phone (613) 238-6868. Tallinn Estonia's capital rewarded us with two Old Cities in one: a Lower Town, originally home to prosperous merchants and tradesmen, and an Upper Town on the rocky hill above it, once peopled by aristocrats.

Today's tourists flit from one to the other along two short, steep pedestrian walkways -- Luhike Jalg (short leg) and Pikk Jalg (long leg). But during seven centuries of German domination, these were separate, feuding communities. The nadir point in relations came when an Upper Town landowner recaptured an escaped serf in the Lower Town, carted him home and had him tortured to death. A Lower Town magistrate reacted by having the aristocrat brought back and executed. Only in the 1880s, were the two towns united.

A fairy-tale wall sweeps around one side of the Lower Town, punctuated by red-roofed watchtowers with names like Fat Margaret and Peep in the Kitchen. A mandatory McDonald's is next to one of the gates. It's magical to walk beside the wall through the exterior gardens, even if the public walkway atop the wall is closed for repairs. Also off-limits at the moment, and draped in a tarpaulin during restoration, is the Town Hall, a landmark on the Lower Town's main square. But enough churches and trade centres have been scrubbed clean and refinished to provide hours of delightful sightseeing.

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