Travel: RIGA TO PLEASE; Scott McDermott Loves Cheap Beer, Casino and Even Culture in Latvia
Let's call it a spying mission. A scouting trip. A Riga recce to see if the Latvian capital justified its reputation and growing popularity.
The chance to assess its credentials as a venue for my brother's stag do next year. Well, that was my excuse anyway. In truth, I was NEVER going to knock back the chance to visit the city.
I was there for Mailsport last season, covering Hibs' Intertoto Cup game against Dinaburg and vowed to return in a non-working capacity.
So when pounds 48 flights appeared by magic on my computer screen, courtesy of Ryanair, who was I to ignore them? Never one to turn his nose up at anything cheap, my mate Martin tagged along for the four-night trip.
Riga at night is a sight to behold - like so many Eastern European cities.
We arrived at our digs, the Reval Hotel Latvia, quite late on but were immediately mesmerised by the way their ancient buildings were lit up. It doesn't get called the Paris of the North for nothing.
The tram lines and old-fashioned street vendors make you feel like you've gone back in time. Our hotel couldn't have been better situated, just a 10-minute walk into the city's main shopping and nightlife area.
Arguably it's best feature is the Skybar on the hotel's 26th floor, which overlooks Riga. It genuinely has to be seen to be believed and I've rarely felt as relaxed as we did guzzling our Corona beer and taking in the city's majestic skyline.
The fact it was a hotel bar, absolutely heaving with people, tells you everything you need to know.
The Hotel Reval's other main attraction was the Voodoo Casino, open 24 hours a day, obviously. The beer might be cheap but if you're going to have a flutter on the roulette or blackjack, just make sure your wallet is bulging when you go in.
Amazingly, after visiting Voodoo every night in the early hours, we ended up with chips in our back pockets at the end of it. Beginners' luck.
Eating out usually meant a heated debate. Cultural Marty wanted to sample traditional Latvian cuisine but I prefer to keep things simple.
The brilliant Italian restaurant Monterosso would have satisfied me every night. Dickens' pub grub was also superb (huge portions) or there's always TGI Fridays.
The beauty of Riga is you can try a bit of everything.
Drink-wise you can't go wrong. The Skybar was a bit pricey but most pubs sold dirt-cheap beer.
The downside? Our other favourite tipple, vodka, was more expensive. In fact, most spirits rocketed in price, particularly in the city's nightclubs.
Club Essential was a regular haunt for us, as was Roxy. Both were mobbed and open till 6am - just in time to catch breakfast at the casino. I nearly coughed up my cornflakes though, when Martin asked me if I fancied going to a museum on our third day. Visions of boring eastern European paintings and inane old artefacts filled me with dread. …