Two Days in Riga – The Cold City with a Warm Heart

It is an early Wednesday morning in February in Latvia. I am spending two days in Riga. It is freezing cold in the city, divided by the frozen mirror-like Daugava River with maximum temperatures rooted below zero. It snowed most of the night. You look down and see the deep sharp footprint edges in the fresh snow. Some of the age old cobblestones are totally covered by this white blanket. In other places the square forms of the stone paving are edged off by an ice border, like lead-glass in a cathedral’s rose window: telling a gripping story of the city’s history as part of the mighty Russia of yesteryear.

If you look up, you will see the most impressive array of Art Nouveau architecture in the world, displayed against the grey cloudy sky, to the enthusiastic traveller. No, you are not somewhere in Germany, renowned for its Jugendstil movement, but in the Baltic capital of Latvia, Riga.

Riga’s collection of Art Nouveau buildings has been recognised by UNESCO as unparalleled anywhere in the world. And the good news for the architecture lover is that it is all concentrated in the two streets Elizabêtes and Alberta iela, within walking distance from the Old City, Vecríga.

I was met with a maximum temperature of -3 degrees Celsius, but the cold climate is balanced with the very special warmth  of its people: especially the younger generation of Latvians who are friendly and will always greet  you with confidence in fluent  articulated English.

The three Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania today form a soft transition between the Scandinavian countries and old Russia. Latvia is tucked in between Estonia to the north and Lithuania to the south, with its capital nestled in a natural harbour at the mouth of the River Daugava.

Since the end of 2007, Latvia has been part of the Schengen zone of European nations and no longer operates passport checkpoints on its land borders with Estonia and Lithuania. The official currency is the Lat (Ls = R18.00) and not the Euro as elsewhere in Schengen Countries.

The international airport (Lidosta), is some 13 kilometres southwest of Riga city centre. Most of the major European Airlines have daily flights to Riga. The official airline, Air Baltic, serves all three Baltic States and links them to the rest of Europe on numerous flights daily. Upon arrival, a queue of eager taxis is waiting outside the terminal building at a one way fare into town of 10Ls. The Airport Shuttle bus stops at different hotels for 3 Ls.

A neatly dressed young man Renats, met me at the airport and transferred me in a late model German car to the St Peter’s Boutique Hotel in a converted 15th century warehouse, with well-maintained vaulted stone walls in a quiet back street of Vecríga. A small personalised hotel, with each of the 22 rooms individually decorated, according to the colours, tones and moods of the beautiful Baltic landscape. The two young front-desk girls, Inge and Ilze, radiate a warmth of friendliness towards their guests, and promote their city as knowledgeable ambassadors in fluently spoken English.

En route, Renats tells me of the years of turmoil, preceding the first free elections, mid 1993. But as recently as January 2011, a so called peaceful anti-government demonstration turned violent and eventually caused mayhem on Riga’s Dome Square.

Despite the fact that most of Old Russian symbols have been removed since independence, one will still find, since perestroika, in the recently reborn independent countries, beacons reminding the new generation of the days of suffering and oppression. But in sharp contrast, the Freedom Monument, with Milda, the lady holding the three golden stars, is a symbol of the continuous struggle, and was built with money donated by the people of Latvia in 1935.

The snow that fell during the night had melted and forms small water ponds on the hard surface of Brivibas iela; in these quiet water mirrors the clear reflection of Milda echoes a story of hope for all to sense the vibrancy of a new Latvia.

Another most moving memorial in Riga, unveiled some ten years ago, is situated outside the town centre, within the dense Bikernieku forest area: the Holocaust Memorial. A footpath leads from the busy road, under a white concrete arch, revealing a field of jagged stones huddled together in sections, each inscribed with the name of the European city the Jewish victims derived from. It is a profoundly beautiful piece of plain-air sculpture, with the central feature an angular concrete canopy covering a black slab, on which an inscription appears in four languages: “Oh earth, cover not my blood, and let my cry have no place. “

The originality and serene simplicity reminds you instinctively of the almost secluded, and by many unnoticed, memorial facing the River Seine, and hidden behind the Notre Dame Cathedral on the Ile de la Cite in Paris, called the Martyrs de la Deportation. The best place to orient you within the maze of many zigzag alleys is to use the elevator reaching the top of the steeple of the St Peters Church, not far from my hotel. It has been rebuilt several times; the last completed as recently as 1973. Fantastic panoramic views await you from the enclosed platform some 125 meters high above the red tiled roofs of old Riga. Unfortunately the cold limits your stay while enjoying all the vistas from above. Luckily a cosy coffee shop is situated just around the corner where you can warm up and refocus again to face the next excursion out in the freezing city.

Another yellow Art Nouveau building is home to the popular image of Riga: two feline statues.

The story goes that a merchant, who owned the building, was refused entry to the great guild because he was Latvian and membership was reserved for Germans only. In retaliation, he put two statues of black cats – with arched backs and tails up – onto the roof, positioning them so that their backs faced the guildhall. After a lengthy court battle, the merchant eventually gained entry into the guild and turned the cats around.

The Latvians have a rich cultural history of the arts: the literature of Pumpurs, the classical music of Vitols, ballet by Godunov and Baryshnikov, painting by Rozentals

The Doma Baznica (Dome Cathedral) has been hailed, for many years, to have the largest organ in the world. At noon on Wednesdays, an organ recital is performed by local artists. When I approached the Doma Laukums behind the Council Building, the massive sound of Händel’s music rang out over the old narrow alleys around the cathedral. Once inside the Baroque space, one forgets all the bustle and pressures and for the next hour, I just relaxed and enjoyed Ilze Reine‘s command of the music. But it is not only professionals who perform and live for their music; while strolling around in the heart of Riga’s old town, numerous young students and old forgotten maestros give soul to their music, fighting the cold elements on a misty grey winter’s afternoon.

Small groups of appreciative listeners are joined by feral cats or rock pigeons ransacking the freezing cobbles for a morsel of food.

Another interesting phenomenon are the groups of apparently auspicious ducks in the ice-covered park landscape of Basteikalnis, guarded by Milda in the distance. They have all locked themselves in as lords of the park; only one little pedestrian arched bridge links the zigzag lovers’ lanes across the now frozen stream.

Thousands of locks with inscribed names and messages are intertwined on the handrails of this bridge telling many a story.

On my way back to the warmth of my cosy hotel room at St Peter’s hotel, I spent some time browsing through some art shops in Teatra, Laipu and Vecpilsétas iela: Sematme: an art salon for amber, wood and silver novelties, NicePlace with the most original local handmade cards, toys and souvenirs, and ArtGocha, where the bronze works and paintings of Gocha Huskivadze, a young promising artist, are sold.

At the end of a full and soul-satisfying day, you have various options to unyoke yourself and relive the many faces of people, places and atmospheres you have experienced in the past ten hours:

Either at the Riga Melnais Balsam Black Magic Bar at Kalku 10, serving Black Balsam drinks since 1752. You can taste this distinctive black bitter alcoholic liqueur in various coffees and chocolate drinks; they also sell various fancy cakes, cookies, tortes, cupcakes, candies, glazed plums and almonds, all with a chocolate finish and undertone. The décor is in an old world theme with chemist drawers and ornamental shelving to compliment the interior.

Or you can visit the chic Champagne & Wine Bar at Valnu iela with their wide choice of excellent world wines served also by glass and a tempting tapas menu to end off the long day. Jánus is the sommelier and Zane a knowledgeable and friendly waitress assisting him.

Although I only spent two days in Riga I tried to breathe in as much of this fantastic city of contrasts, by experiencing both the place and its people to its fullest: whether it was with Aleksandr on a reconnaissance ride by tram to distant suburbs, and learning the history from him, or experiencing art with Gocha, discussing politics with Renats, or dreaming the heavenly music of Ilze, it won’t be long before I return to this magical city and its friendly people. ■

Johann Beukes is CEO of SURE

Etnique Travel & TRAVELwithus in

South Africa



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