East meets West in one-time Soviet St Tropez


Jurmala (Latvia) : Here's a question for pub quiz addicts: what do Boris Yeltsin, Charlie Mingus, Viagra, Dr. Watson and the Gipsy Kings have in common?

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The answer is a place you've probably never heard of: Jurmala, once the Soviet Union's equivalent of St Tropez and now the top beach resort in independent Latvia.

"Jurmala was one of the most famous festival venues in the USSR. Its name was better known than the name of Latvia itself," said Ieva Kokina, spokeswoman for Jurmala's main concert venue, the Dzintaru concert hall.

Few people west of Berlin have heard of Jurmala, which lies on the pine-clad shores of the Gulf of Riga 20 km from the Latvian capital. Snow-covered for five months of the year, it can't hope to compete with Western playgrounds such as Biarritz or Bondi.

But mention it to anyone from the other side of the Iron Curtain, and their eyes will light up with a nostalgic glow.

"Jurmala was one of the best places in the USSR in those days. All the old Kremlin boys came here – Yeltsin, (former prime minister Alexey) Kosygin, (action-film hero) Mikhail Boyarski, everyone," veteran Jurmala masseuse Aina Melbarde said.

And despite the fact that Latvia broke away from the USSR in 1991, and has had a fractious relationship with Moscow ever since, Jurmala remains an icon of glamour on the Russian concert circuit.

"All the top Russian stars come here – it's famous," Kokina said.

This July and August, some of the biggest names in Russian showbiz are set to strut their stuff on Jurmala's festival stage.

Their names may not be well known in the English-speaking world, but retro-pop group Doktor Vatson, comedy duo Novie Russkie Babki ("new Russian grannies"), balladist Sergei Trofimov and matinee idol Maxim Galkin are daily fodder on Russian TV.

This year, they are set to perform alongside a string of Western stars. From July 12 to 14, Jurmala offers the exotic cocktail of Doktor Vatson, the Gipsy Kings and German group Genghiz Khan.

From July 25 to 30, meanwhile, the resort is set to rock to the sounds of the "New Wave" contest – a showcase for young performers from around the world, jointly organized by legendary Latvian composer Raimonds Pauls and Russian diva Alla Pugachova.

Last year, the contest's top guests included Enrique Iglesias and Russian girl band Via Gra. This year's stars will be similarly high profile, though their identity will only be released nearer the time, Kokina said.

In August, meanwhile, both Trofimov and Galkin will take to the Jurmala stage, before it looks West to host jazz greats the Mingus Big Band and Latvia's recent Eurovision entry, Cosmos.

Jurmala has not yet quite earned the cachet in the West that it has in the East: no A-listed Western star has yet performed beside Russia's superstars in the town's summer festivals.

But with Jurmala's profile still growing, it is surely not long before its mix of sun, sand and showbiz make it the ultimate place to watch the stars of East and West form new constellations.