I flew into Riga on a Sunday afternoon and experienced straight away the old town teaming with tourists. I booked a hotel on the side of the Vecpilsēta (Old Town) because on the second morning I had to catch a bus to Vilnius and being slightly on the lazy side I didn’t want to have to walk to far with my backpack.
An evening walk around the old town gave me the first glimpse into the town’s history – Hansa got there too. Another thing I realized, having grown up in a city where streets are perpendicular and parallel to each other, I get easily lost in metropoles where streets meander in no logical order or direction. Luckily the old town is not too big, the weather was nice and the discovery of freshly squeezed orange juice being available in small supermarkets made my day.
The following day was filled with sightseeing: on foot and on a boat. I can highly recommend the Free Walking Tour – I only had time for one, outside the Old Town. Our guide was most knowledgeable, had good sense of humour and could tell a story. I will try here to give you some recount of what he told us, especially the things that surprised me or were completely new to me, which was a lot.
Let’s start with a bit of history. The city was founded 1201 by Bishop Albert von Buxthoeven and throughout history it has changed hands quite often – being an important port in the Baltic region (Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Sweden, Russian Empire, Holy Roman Empire, Soviet Union – to name a few). As a country, Latvia has been independent for 28 years, starting 1990. The only other short period of independence in modern history lasted 22 years, 1918-1940. Before that it was recognised by the pope as Terra Mariana or Livonia - an independent state. For details on that have a look on Wikipedia or history books, although I imagine that similarly to my old school books, not many of them mention Latvia as such. Sadly, they always treated the region as part of a bigger empire.
For most of the time the majority of inhabitants were ethnically German, Russian or Latvian. That is also the reason why you can see so much of Hanseatic architecture in the city, this was a huge connection to the trade world, a European trading union of sort. Because of those connections the region became Lutheran. With the Russian Empire the Orthodox have obviously taken over, although Latvians were granted religious freedom and stayed till this day mainly Lutheran. Soviets, as they did in all their territories, took away religion so these days it’s actually a mixture.
Latvian language is one of two remaining that belong to the Baltic family, like Lithuanian, so quite different from any of the Slavic languages, although of course there are some German and Russian influences. There was a third Baltic language: Old Prussian (not to be confused with the later and much larger German state of the same name). It was used by people who used to live in today’s north-eastern Poland, the Kaliningrad Oblast and the southernmost part of Lithuania. People persecuted during the Reformation found refuge in the region and the more commonly used German started to push away the original Old Prussian. It has been thought that it hasn’t been in use since the early 18th century. Apparently, Baltic languages are closer to Sanskrit (believed to be one of if not the oldest language in the world) than any other Indo-European neighbours.
So what have I seen on my Walking Tour? We focused mainly on the area outside of the Old Town. A little-known fact: although not widely famous for it, Riga has the highest concentration of Art Nouveau buildings in the world – even more than Vienna!
The main reason for that was the demilitarisation of many cities enforced on Russia after the Crimean War. As a result, part of the fortifications, the esplanade, and where the moat was before, were demolished. That has opened the possibility for the city to grow and the most influential building style was Jugendstil. And more than 800 buildings in that style still remain in Riga till this day.
Another reason for the housing boom was the change in feudal law. In the middle of 19th century feudalism was getting abolished and people in the country side, who became free, obviously had no land and so they came to the cities, most of them to work in factories. They needed places to live. There was also fast-growing middle class that could afford building investments on a larger scale.
Due to the transport revolution and the appearance of cars engineers were involved in the city planning so that infrastructure could support the developments. The most luxurious streets were wider with buildings that didn’t reach over 4-5 floors so that even people on the ground floor could get some sunlight as well.
On an average, an Art Nouveau building had about 10 apartments with 2-4 rooms each (plus servant quarters) with high end shops on the ground floors. All that changed with the arrival of Soviet Union. The central government was in the business of displacing whole nations and Riga received a faire share of them. They were all squeezed into the “bourgeoise” buildings, one room per family. Make shift facilities, kitchens, buckets for toilets and open fires destroyed almost everything of architectural value inside.
The most know architect of Jugendstil in Riga nowadays is Eisenstein, although not taken very seriously by his peers at the time. He has copied a lot from western European magazines, which gave this area of Riga a look quite familiar to a lo of central Europeans. One of the best examples of his craft on the Albert Street. You’ll recognize it by his signature blue façade. The buildings there are very decorative and eclectic. On some buildings you will find a lot of contrast and contradictions like a depiction of a Sphinx next to group of Valkyries.
Once independence was gained buildings got claimed by the descendants and they quickly started the renovations.
But Eisenstein wasn’t the only one. Others have created gems around Riga as well. You will also see a lot of vertical and perpendicular lines on mainly yellow buildings, projected bay windows – that style was brought from Germany. Others have decided get their inspiration locally and created a style called National Romanticism. They wanted to show pride of own culture. And because it was all also sourced locally, it became cheaper to build. The colours are darker, almost earthy and the symbol of the sun is very prominent. It has to do a lot with Latvian mythology.
People used to live in the forests, neighbours were far away and the summers short. Everything had to be grown in that short period and the summer solstice became very important. Bone fires were lit in the highest places so they could be visible from afar. Young couple were jumping over them to get a blessing. It was also the time of the legend of the fern flower – an old myth in most of the Slavic countries. Fern was said to bloom for one night only once a year, there would be only one flower somewhere deep in the woods. Young men (in Latvia the couples) would search for it during the shortest night of the year. Some were said to go mad, some never returned. I think the legend also existed in the Germanic myths as Die Blaue Blume – the blue flower, that many have searched for.
Many of the Art Nouveau style corner buildings have Turrets on the corners, most of them quite unique so when people get lost in the city they might find their way back by recognizing the roofs.
There is a local Art Nouveau museum in one of the houses – it was closed on the Monday when I was there so cannot tell you much about it except that it has a very picturesque staircase.
Our guide told us an anecdote about one of the houses. The rent there is super cheap but, in the contract it says that the owner can do whatever he wants and he has been famous for turning off the heating in the winter or the water in the summer – as you can imagine not many people live there for longer than few months.
After the glorious Art Nouveau came the social realism and allow me not to mention it here. I grew up with it and most of us from central and eastern Europe would recognize it in our sleep.
Some places to see around the city:
Old Hansa Trading School building has been converted to Art School and is a place of a very special celebration. Once a year there is a very hippy carnival of legendary proportions. And by invitation only so of course very high in demand.
National Art Museum - first purpose-built museum in the Baltic states. It houses exclusively local art, meaning created in the region including various ethnicities, also has artwork from the time of the Soviet Union.
The Library – you can see it already on the way from the airport. Very impressive part of the modern Riga skyline. It has been built by a Latvian-American architect 2011-2014. For the opening people were lined up on the streets passing books to the new library from old ones. The building is supposed to represent a glass mountain from a famous drama in Latvian literature. A princess was imprisoned on its top and everyone could get up and save her – not just a prince.
National Theatre building – this is where independence was declared 1918, and the national flag was adopted, based on a century old banner used by first Latvian "tribes". Not far from there is also the Riga Russian theatre, the only one in EU that uses exclusively Russian language.
Black cats building: the guilds used to rule the city and they only accepted Germans into their ranks. In the meantime, Latvians themselves were getting richer and wanted in as well. To no avail. To spite the guild one Latvian merchant built a large yellow building right next to them with cats on top positioned in a way that they appear to defecate on the guild building next door. The merchant was taken to court and unfortunately lost and so the cats were turned around where you can still see them today.
Let’s move on to culture. As I mentioned Riga went through many different hands over the centuries and each one of those hands left a mark. Some better than others. The Swedes for example have done a lot for the infrastructure and introduced a lot of firsts into Riga: education available for everyone, first newspapers, first cafés etc. Russian tsars destroyed most of it. Only Katherine I think managed to regulate, reroute the river and made it mandatory to bury people on a cemetery outside of town – it helped people survive outbursts of diseases. You can actually see where the river used to be as there are many signs with waves around town that indicate it.
40% inhabitants of Riga still speak Russian. Kids in school learn of course Latvian – but not exclusively. For many Russian is their mother tongue and that's the language of their education. Also as a foreign language Russian belongs, next to English to most popular ones. The plan is to change the education system by 2030 to focus more on Latvian and regional culture/history but that is still long ahead (Latvian was considered the “language of the dogs” in Soviet Union). Of course, Russian minorities oppose, they do however run into some serious problems. Most of them don’t have a citizenship of any kind and without it no voice. Since the Soviet Union ceased to exist they have refused to apply for a Latvian passport, and they don’t have one from the Russian Federation either. Most of their children don’t see it that way and they are actually Latvian citizens. However, there are still tens of thousands of people from the older generation that exist in the grey zone and there is no convincing them to change it. Of course it is also not as simple as in this short paragraph, nothing every is. This is just to give you a glimpse into some of the cultural issues.
Latvians may not seem friendly at first sight. Traditionally families had to take care of themselves first, there wasn’t room for sharing with neighbours because you were risking starvation yourself. And if your neighbour was in need it mainly meant that they were lazy themselves and didn’t prepare accordingly for the winter months. So, being outgoing was never in their nature. The younger generation now is different. And apparently once you make friends with them, it’s forever.
Real amber can only come from the Baltic Sea. There are many fakes around and you will recognize them by the low price. Best way to check is to hold a lit lighter against it as real amber won’t melt. No souvenir shop owner in their right mind will ever allow you to do that. The safest way is to buy it in a proper jewellery store.
Laima chocolate was very famous in Soviet Union and produced in Latvia. 1920 the company has set up a pole on a square with a massive clock on top. It has become a meeting spot for everyone before smart phones. Especially for blind dates. You could see a lot of men with flowers standing or pacing around waiting for the girls.
I have learned many more things on my Walking Tour but I don't want to give it all away. My stay was definitely too short. I didn't realize I would enjoy it so much. Riga is now on my list of cities to go back to. A perfect long weekend getaway. And if you have more time, there is plenty to visit in the area.
So, for now goodbye Riga and hopefully see you soon.