For quite some time now I have not been so delighted with a city as I was recently with Riga. What Isfahan in Iran was in the previous year, it is Riga for 2018. Although, I must admit, Tallinn and Vilnius are not far behind.
I knew that Riga was the largest city in the Baltics, that it was the liveliest one of them all, that it was carefully decorated, that it had a rich gastronomical scene and that the old city centre was special. I also knew about the wide avenues filled with grandeur that spread themselves along the parks and the quarters in which the masterpieces of Art Nouveau, Secession or Jugendstil architecture could be found. Despite of mentioned, I was overwhelmed by the youthful and positive energy of this city, which we consider to be, way up north.
The weather was almost ideal which is unusual, since it is, as natives retell, seldom warm and sunny there. The younger people were half-naked as if they were on the Hvar island, sitting in the open-air terraces with live music acts rejoicing life till late in the night. They were dressed as if they were in the middle of summer, while we were in jackets – light jackets, but still jackets. The temperature was pleasantly around twenty something until late in the evening. It should be taken into consideration that the sun shines until late in the evening. The sunset was around 11 pm, and the sunrise at about 4 am. A couple of days later and hundreds of kilometres farther, in Helsinki, the night was even shorter.
Riga, with its seven hundred thousand inhabitants, houses one third of entire Latvian population. Many European cities are well connected with Riga through numerous low-cost companies, making this city easily accessible to tourists from Europe and the world.
Since the Second World War until the beginning of the 1990s, Riga was quite neglected in city appearance because the Soviets did not spend much money on beautification and maintenance. Ever since it became independent, it was rapidly reconstructed and it has become the main tourist destination in this part of Europe. Citizens define themselves as both northern European and eastern European, but perhaps the north-eastern best suits them.
The old town is like a museum and is under UNESCO protection. At every corner, square or street, there are sights and interesting stories. The most picturesque building is the Blackhead Society building on the main square. It was the Guild of Young Traders, which is claimed to still exist today.
Riga is full of legends.
The most popular legend is one of a wealthy trader who could not have been admitted to the Guild of traders because he was known for, well, taking some cream of the top in more than one occasion. The reception in the Guild was very strict, which is why business documents, relationships with other merchants, honesty and ethics were examined prior to admission. By one of these criteria, our rich trader failed.
Dissatisfied with the result, he built his palace right across from the Guild’s palace, and he placed on top of it a figure of the squatting cat facing its behind towards the Guild’s palace. By doing so, he made clear to everyone, beyond any doubt, what he thought of the Guild. Offended traders complained to the court raising a lawsuit against the trader, but the court reprimanded them as young children who should learn to settle their differences between themselves.
In no time at all, the merchant was granted admission to the Guild and the black cat magically changed the direction it was facing. However, it remained on the top of the palace and, since then, it has become the symbol of the city. It should be noted that Guilds were the strongest associations in the Baltic back then and that they were often stronger and richer than cities and states.
From the thirteenth to fifteenth century, this rich Hanseatic city was under the reign of the bishop of Riga. Throughout history, Riga was conquered by many, so it was at certain periods in the history a part of property of German Teutonics, Sweden, the Russian empire, Germany once again, the Soviet Union, and finally free and independent since 1991.
Apart from the old town, Gothic churches and various castle’s remains, perhaps the most interesting district in Riga is one of Art nouveau. It is said that in Riga, there are more than 800 Art nouveau buildings. Why so many? It coincided that when this style was experiencing its peak of popularity, Riga was at its peak of wealth. This enormous wealth provided the best architects and builders, who swiftly replaced old wooden buildings with magnificent palaces outside the old city walls.
As it turned out that the walls were no longer needed, they were torn down and the city systematically expanded along the broad avenues that surrounded, then, the most up-to-date designed palaces. Mikhail Eisenstein, the father of the famous Russian filmmaker Sergey, was the star of architecture. He has created projects for more than 250 buildings, the most beautiful of which can be found in the Albert Iela Street.
In just thirty years, Riga has grown from an old city to a modern European metropolis. When you visit Riga, make sure to have at least half a day for admiring these buildings. There is also a small museum decorated as a typical richer-middle-class apartment, and most of the buildings are nearby one another so you can view them all in a short walk.
In addition to the old town and the Art nouveau quarter, you should visit the largest green market in Europe. It is located in the former hangars of the Zeppelin company and is under UNESCO proutection. Five pavilions in more than 70,000 meters squared still resist the lure of the modern shopping centres, which is why this market continues to exist as a belly of the city and a place for cheap trade.
Today in Lithuania the official language is Lithuanian, but half of the population speaks Russian, and all youngsters speak English – so it is easy to get around. Older folks speak German as well.
For visiting Riga and its surrounding area, you should take a minimum of three days. You should go on excursion trip to the famous resort of Jurmala, on the coast of the Baltic Sea. There you can experience grandiose palaces, art deco hotels, promenades with numerous venues and no less than 500 kilometres of uninterrupted sandy beaches. Do people swim at a temperature of +20 degrees Celsius? Of course they do, even with the same enthusiasm as in the Adriatic in the middle of summer.
There are two magnificent palaces near Riga. Rundale – decorated like a museum – is a rectangular palace with a beautiful French garden that was decorated by German, Italian and French masters at the end of the eighteenth century. Jelgava palace is somewhat bigger, but its restoration has not yet been completed.
Latvia, as well as neighbouring Lithuania and Estonia, are the countries worth visiting and I can guarantee you will remain pleasantly surprised by the richness of the life in the north. Those high standard countries have been grown rapidly in thirty or so years and have gotten ahead of us in every aspect of development; economic, technological and social.