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An Afternoon in Riga

LATVIA | Tuesday, 4 August 2015 | Views [1184]

An Afternoon in Old Town Riga

Entering the unknown is one of the joys and challenges of travel. As I had an eleven hour lay over in Riga on my flight from Vienna to Tbilisi, I decided to venture into the unknown and explore the Old Town.  I’d Googled how to get from the airport to the city, but have discovered the hard way that it is best to double check internet obtained information with the locals on site, so I headed over to the Tourist Information Office, which is conveniently located near the arrivals entrance. Normally, the people working in these kinds of agencies are pleasant, so when I got at first no response from the woman behind the desk to my inquiry, then only a fairly belligerent answer, I began to wonder if I had entered a vastly different world.  Luckily, there was a city map and a small brochure in the stacks and I ended up following my Googled directions.  They were accurate, but I hadn’t found out where to get off as I had assumed there was only one city center stop – wrong assumption, there were many. When the bus driver motioned to a couple of Japanese tourists that this was their stop, I decided to get off too.  It turns out that I was at the main train station and from there could easily follow the map.

Walking around Old Town I found lots of churches and wonderful buildings – many reconstructed in the old style.  As I didn’t have much time and wanted to see what I could, I opted for the Red City Tour bus that included the three lines from the regular hop on hop off bus company. The information in the accompanying audio was helpful as much of what they said wasn’t in the tour book I bought or the brochure from the tourist center.  Including that Laima, the chocolate company, (appropriately I think) took their name from the Latvian goddess of happiness. The tour took us through the Art Nouveau section of town as well as the wooden house section, although I saw much more of the latter during the bus ride back to the airport at the end of the day.

After the bus tour, I knew where I wanted to go, so headed off towards the Castle, when it started to rain.  I slipped into the Catholic Church of the Lady of Sorrows, a neatly compact blue and white structure for a few minutes. The Church was originally constructed in the mid-1780s, but was rebuilt by funds from the Austrian Emperor Joseph II, Russian Tsar Paul I, and Polish King Stanislaw. It has an illustrious history, but is fairly austere for a Catholic church. When I was finished looking at the art funded by the regents, the weather lifted – but only as long as it look me to get to the Church of St. Mary Magdalene, when the real downpour let loose.  This church is much more typically old Catholic and had a more comfortable feel than the newer Our Lady of Sorrows. St. Mary Magdalene, which was first built in the 13th C ,was part of a now non-existent monastery that was known as the monastery of the Singing Virgins.  Unfortunately, I didn’t hear anyone vocalizing while there.

The weather cleared for a bit and I made my way over to St. Peter’s, which is the oldest church in town. It is very Gothic,  but inside the Catholic elements have been stripped down to the brick ribbings leaving only a few 17th C gravestones written in German as a reminder of the former artistic glory of the Church.  St. Peter’s spire is topped with a rooster that was the cause of much controversy. Legend has it that considerable effort was made to have a golden cock placed on top of the spire.  The morning after the spire had been successfully decorated, the golden rooster lay in the same spot on the ground in front of the Church.  Although the people where warned not to visit soothsayers, they visited an old woman, who was said to be a witch. She told them that everyone prays to God for gold which is not the message of the Church and that the cock should be made of lead. It was and it stood – at least until a compromise was reached as the pure lead cock didn’t sufficiently indicate coming weather patterns. The rooster was then recast with one side gold, the other lead. 

St. Peter’s was first built from wood in 1209, and subsequently redone in brick and stone. There is another legend about St. Peter’s that also relates to the spire.  The last time Peter the Great visited Riga, a great fire broke out and the church burned.  Peter tried everything to stop the destruction as he believed that if the church burnt down the same would happen to his name. Unfortunately, nothing worked, so he ordered the Church to be rebuilt in 1723.  The spire wasn’t completed until 1746. To celebrate, the master responsible for the construction climbed the spire and sitting on the rooster poured some wine into a glass goblet to inaugurate the building. He then threw down the glass expecting it to shatter as the number of shards were supposed to represent the number of centuries the Cathedral would stand.  Unfortunately, the glass landed in a hay-stack and only one piece broke off (the glass goblet is in the city museum). Astoundingly, the Cathedral did burn again after two centuries, with the latest reconstruction in the latter part of the 20th C and the altar in 2001.  The latest attempt with a glass goblet had it shattering into lots of pieces, so the hope is that this time the Church will stand for many centuries.

Today it is possible to take an elevator from the third floor up to the base of the rooster topped spire, from where there is an outstanding 360 degree view of the entire city.   The red tiled roofs below contrast with the flowing dark Daugava River and the off-white facades of many of the buildings.  The skyline is capped by church spires, clock towers – some painted as on the cloth covering the Dom’s spire as renovations are conducted, and the Soviet ‘birthday cake’ the towering Institute of Science and Technology off to the side of the central railway station not far from the huge Central Market that encompasses five former airplane hangers.

What one can’t see from above are the many sculptures, many quite whimsical, that dot the city.  Contrary to my first experience with a native from this country at the airport, the impression from the artwork is one of a people who know how to laugh, including how to laugh at themselves, while recognizing the volatility of political and economic changes. They have reason to be concerned given their geographical position bordering Russia and the former conqueror’s treatment of their people.

Riga is about 800 year old, and the Old Town lies between the Daugava River and a series of canals.  The actual Riga River disappeared a few centuries ago, but the name still stuck.  The city has seen numerous foreign rulers, starting with its founding by a German, Bishop Albert. It was one of the original cities in the Hanseatic League, but in the 1500s Sweden swept in, when it became the largest city in the Swedish Kingdom. That didn’t last long, and the Germans came back, followed by the Russians.  The jockeying between Germany and Russia lasted through WWII.  In 1939 Stalin and Hitler signed a secret pact dividing Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Romania between them, even though Soviet Russia had signed a treaty in 1920 relinquishing all claims to Latvian territory.  Treaties are made to be broken, though, and clearly this one was, as was the Secret Agreement between the two dictators when Russia reclaimed Latvia in 1940 and deported over 15,000 people to Siberian Gulags in addition to the forced resettlement of numerous others to various places in Mother Russia.  Families were separated with women and children sent to one set of camps and the men to others. The Germans arrived in ’41 and some Latvians had hopes that they would be freed from their current terror, but no such luck, the Nazis terrorized the people in new ways, sending the Jews to concentration camps and destroying the country. The Russians came back after the end of the war to inflict more devastation, sending over 2% of the population, including entire families, to Siberia. The Russians went a step further and started moving masses of native Russians into Latvia, so that now the population is less than 50% Latvian.  Ethnic Russians make up over 20% of the country’s population and 37% of Riga’s.

The origin of the city of Riga is a mystery, although there are church records establishing a church at the site in 1200, so this is the date that is commonly accepted as the founding.  There is also a version of the Carthage origin story whereby the King negotiated the area the size of a bull skin from the local tribes.  It is fascinating to see how often this myth appears and in such diverse regions as North Africa, Iran and now Latvia. Another more local legend is that when the people wanted to cross the river, they had to ask a tall Giant to take them as there were no bridges or ferries.  One dark and stormy night a call for help awoke the Giant, who lived in a cave by the riverside.  He lit a ‘hurricane lantern’ and saw a soaked and miserable poor child on the other side. The Giant didn’t hesitate to help, just jumped into the swirling waters and forced his way across to rescue the child.  He took it to his cave to dry off, but the next morning the child was gone and instead there was a pot of gold where he had lain.  The Giant died shortly thereafter and the money was used to build the city. A statue of the Giant with his lantern, lance and cross necklace and the Child on his shoulder was constructed on the site of the former cave.  The statue has been destroyed, removed and replaced a few times in Riga’s history.

 Riga was always a major trading center and crossroads between Russia and the West.  Different eras stressed particular cultures given the dictates of the current ruler, but today in Independent Latvia, Riga is a fascinating mix of German, Russian and Latvian heritages. There are still Soviet box buildings outside the Old Town, but only one in the core of the city, and it houses the Museum of Latvian Occupation detailing the horrors and treachery the city and country endured during the 20th C.

While this reminder is prominently displayed not far from the Daugava River and the modern steel bridge, the city itself is a pleasant mix of new and old.

 Ratslaukums Square with the restored Town Hall and House of Blackheads is a perfect example of this.  Both have been restored in the manner in which they supposedly once stood prior to the devastating bombings in WWII. The House of Blackheads with its Dutch Renaissance façade was originally built to house the Guild of Unmarried Merchants in the 14th C and wild parties were supposedly held there.  This will probably not happen once the President of Latvia moves in at the end of the year.

The National Opera house is in a beautiful setting by a lush green canal and flower rich garden. The late 1863 building was originally constructed to house the German Theater, while the exterior now resembles Moscow’s Bolshoi.

Perhaps the greatest symbol in downtown Riga is the Freedom Monument, which is dedicated to Latvian independence.  The female figure, Freedom, with arms outstretched to the heavens holds three stars, originally intended to indicate the three provinces of the country, which now has four – the fourth a combination of elements from the two southern regions. All told there are thirteen statue and relief groupings on the monument relating to Latvian life. Freedom stands between two greenbelts lining the canal where the former city ramparts stood.

The Old Town has an updated medieval feel and Guilds were very important in that era.  Not only Blackheads had a guild, but two other structures the Large Guild Hall and the Small Guild Hall, which was a later 18th C addition, create anchors for the city. As commerce and religion have a way of merging, the Dom is not far away.  It was built as St. Albert’s Cathedral in 1211 and has burned down and been rebuilt several times since then.  It is not quite as austere as St. Peter’s as it has some Baroque elements that St. Peter’s lacks, but has now a distinctly Lutheran flair. The opposite extreme is the Nativity of Christ Cathedral, just north of the Freedom Monument, the city’s major Russian Orthodox Church.  Photos in the Church are strictly forbidden and I was severely chastised by a small black-garbed elderly nun for trying to take some from the vestibule.

Before heading back to the airport for my connection to Tbilisi, I headed over to the Latvian restaurant the young man who sold me the city bus tour ticket told me about.  The Lido Restaurant, not far from the Dom, has an excellent buffet of various typical Latvian salad, soup, meat and dessert dishes. It is very reasonably priced and housed in an old style tavern setting. If one doesn’t like their desserts, there is a pastry shop directly next door that serves a decent latte.

Not sure if I should chance waiting at a bus stop for the city airport bus, I headed back to the main station and sure enough as soon as I got on the bus, the rain started again.  Luckily only for a little while and the rest of the trip back to the airport allowed a pleasant view of more of the wooden houses, many of which have yet to be restored.

My extended afternoon in Riga was fascinating.  I had forgotten – if I was ever conscious of the fact – that Latvia and the Baltics have such a strong German heritage. As a child of the 50s & 60s, I simply remember them being Russian, so I was very surprised to learn that Mikhail Baryshnikov was born in Riga, not in Russia, and to be reminded that young Master Wagner was the orchestra director here from 1837-1839.  He started working on ‘Rienzi’ while here and supposedly got the idea for ‘Der Fliegende Holländer’ from a storm on his way out of the city as he fled his creditors. The booklet also said that he wrote “O Tannenbaum” commemorating the first decorating of a pine tree on Christmas by some Latvian young men in the 16th C.  The stories, like that of the bull hide, may not be true, but they do form part of the cultural heritage of this vibrant 800 year young city. 


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