One Latvian who has made it his personal mission to continue Riga’s tradition of architectural excellence is Maris Gailis, a down-to-earth Renaissance man who wears a horseshoe earring and a Hawaiian shirt, and who recently returned from a two-year sailing trip around the world. "Before I got into real estate, I worked in government," Gailis tells me over an espresso outside his trendy restaurant, the Factory. "I was prime minister."
I had, in fact, managed to glean before arriving that Gailis had recently run the country. Now he presides, more or less, over the island of Kipsala, a strip of land just across the Daugava River from Old Town, which used to serve as the Soviet military’s laundromat.
Gailis showed me around the area, where he and his wife, Zaiga, an architect, have built the restaurant and a group of loft apartments and are in the process of refurbishing several houses that are hundreds of years old. The handicraft is spare and full of regard for the original wooden style, complete with wood-burning stoves and floors made from thick planks Gailis recovers from abandoned buildings. There is also a single stand-alone hotel room, a 200-year-old former smokehouse that Gailis has turned into a cozy loft with exposed beams and skylights. (Since so few people know about it, he rents it for only 100 euros per night.) They even went to the effort of ripping up several roads and re-laying them with cobblestones. "This place is only for lovers," he said, meaning people who could appreciate the aesthetic and, of course, be willing and able to pay for it. In the last two years, his properties have appreciated 400 percent.
On my last day in Riga, I decided to drive 30 minutes outside the city to Jurmala, a beach town on the Baltic Sea. The sandy beach was smooth and crowded with scantily clad people, and within five or 10 minutes I was wading into the cool, oddly brownish surf.
When I returned to my hotel, I had only a few hours left in town, so I asked the bartender to dispense his impressions of Riga. He related an old Rigan legend that says that every 100 years a magpie flies over the Daugava River and cries: "Is Riga ready yet?"
"But the magpie is really a witch," the bartender continued.
"I can imagine," I said, hoping it wouldn’t be one of those stories I couldn’t follow.
"And if anyone says Riga is ready, the city will sink into the river."
The new Venice, I thought, annoying myself, then asked, "So what will happen the next time?" "We can never be ready," he said, sweeping his arm across the bar as if to say voilà. I thought about it for a few minutes. Riga: Perpetually unprepared. It was a unique and yet malleable motto, a blessing and a curse. And it seemed to fit.