There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

The Baltic Capitals: Part 2 Riga, Latvia

Next post in this strand: Tallinn
Preceding post in this strand: Vilnius

From the very first Riga offered us something Vilnius had not - road systems and traffic hold-ups. Although the population has shrunk from a million in 1990 to 700 thousand now (still 150 thousand more than Vilnius) Riga remains the largest city in the Baltic States and feels genuinely metropolitan.

After a brief detour to the airport to set down and pick up we arrived at the bus station, conveniently situated between the old town and the market.

Inside the air-conditioned bus we had been unaware of how hot the air had become. The Baltic States enjoy (and endure) a climate intermediate between continental and maritime. The winters are vicious but the summers are warm, wet and as unreliable as they are in Britain. Vilnius is on the same latitude as Durham and Riga is as far north as Dundee but in summer, they are generally much warmer than their British counterparts. The temperature was in the upper 20s while we were in Riga, the humidity high and the hotel without air-conditioning. Sleeping with the windows open, we were regularly woken by sea gulls squabbling over nesting rights on the roof opposite. An air rifle would have been useful.

The Market after hours, Riga
Mainly housed in five huge hangars originally built to house zeppelins, the busy market now spreads into the surrounding area. We trundled our case between the flower stalls, down the seedy street behind and past the Academy of Science. This enormous Stalinist Gothic pile was a gift to the people of Latvia from the ‘workers and peasants of the other Soviet republics’. They must be very grateful; the Academy wins my award for the second ugliest building in the Baltics.

The Riga Academy of Science

Only 42% of Rigans are ethnic Latvians while Russians are the second largest group at 40%. Wooden buildings between the Academy and our hotel could so easily have been in a Russian city.

Wooden buildings near the Academy of Science, Riga

Russification of Latvia started in the early 20th century and was further encouraged by Stalin as a way to destroy Latvia’s national identity. The city’s recent population fall comes mainly from Russians choosing – or being persuaded – to go elsewhere.

Russia might have been the latest country to leave its stamp on Riga, but German influence, particularly in the old town, is even more marked. Indeed Riga has been a German city for most of its existence.

The city was founded in 1201 by Albert Von Buxhoeveden, a priest from Bremen. Scandalised by Baltic paganism he arrived in the River Daugava with twenty shiploads of heavily armed men; just enough, he calculated, to convert the people to a religion of love and peace.

The knights of the Livonian Order, as they became known, threw themselves into crusading with a will. Further south, as we have seen, King Mindaugas united the tribes and, for extra security, converted to Christianity. As a result Lithuanians were to jointly head an empire, while Latvians and Estonians spent the next five centuries as the rural peasantry or urban servants of a German elite.

Increasing stability brought merchants flooding in. Riga soon became a mercantile city and, in 1282, a member of the Hanseatic League - a loose alliance of north German trading cities.

The Hanseatic old town covers a couple of square kilometres bounded by the market, the River Daugava and a ring of parkland. Some buildings date from the fourteenth century, the oldest being part of what is now the Museum of Decorative Arts. The most distinctive building is the House of the Blackheads – a name which loses something in translation. The right hand part of the building dates from the fourteenth century, the left hand side was tacked on in 1891.

Lynne and the House of the Blackheads, Riga
But that House of the Blackheads is not the one in the photograph. The original was damaged by German shelling in 1941 and later demolished by the Soviet Union. The present building is a copy constructed for Riga’s eight-hundredth anniversary celebrations in 2001. The Town Hall across the square is another rebuild, but with less concern for accuracy as its neo-classical portal fronts a modern office block.

The Blackheads was a drinking club for bachelors named for their patron St Maurice, a Roman warrior-saint of African origin. Their carousing was legendry and suggests Riga’s current popularity as a centre for stag parties has historical precedent. The old town is well set out for the purpose with dozens of café/bars having tables on wooden platforms along the street, and whole squares, including the sizeable cathedral square, decked over and turned into bars serving drinks, snacks and full meals. Over the weekend we encountered parties from England, France and the Netherlands, but although they were obvious they were not particularly rowdy. How things became later I do not know, but there was a noticeable police presence in the early evening.

Like any medieval city, Riga has churches to spare.  The Protestant Cathedral – there are also Catholic and Orthodox Cathedrals – was started in 1211 by Albert von Buxhoeveden himself and is the largest in the Baltics (it is interesting how many superlatives are qualified by ‘in the Baltics’). In Lutheran tradition, it is somewhat austere inside – except for a remarkable carved pulpit - but the outside is more flamboyant, the redbrick Romanesque building having been added to and adjusted for eight hundred years. The cloisters house a haphazard collection of cannons and bits of old church as well as the Salaspils head. Allegedly found in the town of Salaspils in the nineteenth century this is either a stone idol from the dark ages or a fake.  Whichever it is, I think I know how he feels.

The Salaspils Head, Lutherna Cathedral, Riga

St Peter’s Church looms over the next square along. Also started in the thirteenth century most of the current building dates from the early 1400s. The 137 m wooden spire, added in 1491, was once the tallest in Europe. It fell down two hundred years later and was rebuilt in Baroque style. For a small fee – actually 3 Lats (£3.75) is quite a large fee for a ride in a lift – you can visit the viewing platform 100 m above the city.

The tower of St Peter's looming over surrounding buildings, Riga
However, photographs made it clear it was not the Baroque tower we were about to climb. When war came to Riga in 1941 the church sustained considerable damage and the current tower is a steel replica of its 18th century predecessor.

St Peter's and its tower in 1941, Riga

To the northwest, there is a view over the old town, the cathedral, castle and River Daugava….
The Cathedral, the river and the castle, Riga

….while southeast are the zeppelin hangars of the market, and the Academy of Science.

The market and the Acadmey of Science, Riga

Behind the cathedral is the Palace of Peter the Great. It is a modest palace, but then Peter only stayed there for a few months in 1711. He had visited Riga earlier, during his ‘Grand Embassy’ when he toured Europe learning how to turn Russia into a modern state. Unfortunately, local officials upset him, so when he returned in 1709, during the Great Northern War, he is reputed to have thrown the first grenade himself. The demise of the Livonian Knights had seen Latvia briefly absorbed into the Polish-Lithuanian Empire before being annexed by Sweden, but after Peter’s second visit Latvia, along with Lithuania and Estonia, was to become part of Tsarist Russia.

The 'Palace' of Peter the Great, Riga

In 1744, the future Catherine The Great stayed here. The captain of her guard was the famed teller of tall tales, Hieronymus von Munchhausen. And that is true.

Walking towards the castle, a brief detour took us to the Anglican Church of St Saviour’s. That there were enough Anglicans in Riga in the 19th century to warrant building a church is surprising; that they imported not only the bricks from England but also the soil to lay them on is amazing. Desecrated during the Soviet period it is now home to an English-speaking congregation, though it was not open when we passed by.

St Saviour's Anglican Church, Riga

Riga is flat and lacks the commanding height considered essential for a medieval stronghold, so that is not what Riga Castle is. Sitting unthreateningly beside the river, the current building was started in 1491 and, after countless modifications, now looks like the office block it is – at least in part.  We passed the door to the Presidential offices as we climbed the stairs to the Latvian History Museum. We considered dropping in for a chat, but decided against it.

Lynne outside Riga Castle
The girl on the desk was embarrassed to be discovered asleep on duty. Once we had woken her up, we spent an hour in the museum, which covers the history of Latvia from prehistoric times to the Soviet Union. It covers much of the same ground as the Lithuanian National Museum, but is more homely, though still comprehensive and well labelled - in English as well as Latvian.

The 1000 km long River Daugava reaches the sea at Riga and like any other tourist city with a major river at its disposal Riga provides the opportunity for boat trips opening up different views of the castle, the city and its spires.

The market and the tower of St Peter's from the River Daugava, Riga
Riga was also home of Lielas Kristaps (Big Christopher), a pagan prototype for the St Christopher legend. Posters throughout the city also hinted at the popularity of the equally legendary Harijs Poters - presumably a relative of Vilnius’ Haris Poteris.

Big Christopher (he's the one in the case), Riga
The old town contains many more buildings worthy of more than a passing glance. The Three Brothers are venerable merchant’s houses, the oldest, on the right, dates from the early 1400s and seems to be leaning on its younger sibling to stay upright.

The Three Brothers, Riga

The Menzendorf House is a rather misleadingly named museum. The Menzendorfs were coffee merchants who prospered here at the at the turn of the 20th century, but the museum has been furnished in the style of its 16th century owner, Jurgen Helm.

St James’ Barracks date from the Swedish period and are slowly being colonised by upmarket boutiques.

St James' Barracks, Riga

The Great Guild and the Small Guild looked after the interests of the German tradesmen. Latvians were eventually allowed a Guild of Fishermen and Boatman, with all the lack of prestige the name suggests. The Art Nouveau edifice opposite the rather dull Great Guild building was allegedly constructed by a man blackballed from the Great Guild. In revenge he placed two black cats on his roof offering their backsides to the Great Guild, though he was later persuaded to turn them round. It is a good story, though not necessarily true, but the cats are remarkably lifelike.

The Black Cat Building, Riga

The parliament is also in the old town. The building is appropriate for its purpose, a bit dull but not as dramatically ugly as its Lithuanian counterpart. Nearby is a memorial to those who died on the barricades in 1991 as Latvia wrested its independence from the crumbling Soviet Union.

Barricade Memorial, Riga

The Freedom Monument was erected just outside the old town during Latvia’s 20 years of inter-war independence. Surprisingly, the Soviets never demolished it, and less surprisingly, it was the scene of the first independence demonstrations in 1987. As in Lithuania, some Latvians saw the 1941 German invasion as liberation from the Soviet Union and in the 1990s the statue became the focus of gatherings of former SS volunteers.

The Freedom Monument, Riga

Not all of Latvia’s Russian population welcomed independence. The dour granite statute of The Latvian Riflemen across the old town from the Freedom Monument provides a focus for their grievances. Created by the Russians in 1915 the Latvian Riflemen fought with distinction in the First World War but, after taking needlessly heavy casualties, became politicised and sided with the Bolsheviks in 1917. The Red Latvian Riflemen were used in the failed Soviet take over of Latvia in 1919, and fought throughout Russia in the subsequent civil war.

The Latvian Riflemen, Riga

Current attitudes to their memorial are mixed. The statue is still there, but The Latvian Rifleman’s square is now a car park, and their museum, between the statue and the House of the Blackheads, has become the Museum of the Soviet Occupation.

The museum is a strange black cuboid on stilts that, despite strong opposition from the Lithuanian Parliament and the Latvian Academy of Science, gets my vote as the ugliest building in the Baltics – and for some way beyond.

The Museum of the Occupation, Riga - the ugliest building in the Baltics

Inside, it covers much the same ground as the Lithuanian Genocide Museum, inevitably so as the history of oppression and deportation under the Soviet occupation is very similar. Although it lacks the drama of the KGB cells in Vilnius, the museum is thoughtful and well laid out with a rather more measured tone - and at least this time the Jews get a mention. 35 000 Latvian Jews were murdered in 1941 alone.

Our final day started in the market, a huge bustling place where flowers, vegetables, dairy produce and meat all have their own area – though hand-knitted socks seemed available everywhere. Red ‘caviar’, the roe of salmon or trout, is very popular. Prices in the old town were higher than in Lithuania, though still below western European levels. The prices paid by real Latvians in the market were considerably lower.

The meat market in a zeppelin hangar, Riga

We had only previously drunk kvass in Russia, but found the distinctive little yellow bowsers dotted around the market. Brewed from bread, this very mildly alcoholic drink has some relationship to the ‘small beer’ that was the English staple when most water was too dangerous to drink. Kvass almost went the way of small beer after independence, hit by the double whammy of Coca Cola and improved hygiene regulations. The kvass makers have now cleaned up their act and fought back to such an extent that Coca Cola has become a loss making business in Latvia. Local kvass is produced from either regular rye bread or black bread. The fresh, cool yeasty drink we enjoyed at the market had the unmistakable pumpernickel flavour of black bread.

Lynne drinks Kvass, Riga Market
This 'distinctive yellow bowser' is wearing a confusing blue overcoat

Beyond our hotel and away from the old town we found the remains of the Great Synagogue. Destroyed by fire in July 1941, the ruins are now a monument to the thousands who died in the holocaust. The names listed on the memorial plaque, however, are not those of the hundred people inside the building when it was set alight, but of the four hundred or so Latvian Rigans who risked their lives hiding their Jewish fellow citizens.

The remains of the Great Synagogue, Riga
Our walk from the synagogue to the Art Nouveau district the locals call Centrs took us through some less salubrious areas and past the Russian orthodox church of the Annunciation.

Bus queue in Gogol Street, Riga

The Art Nouveau district is, reputedly the finest in Northern Europe, many of the buildings being designed by local architect Mikhail Eisenstein, whose fame was rather outshone by his son, film director Sergei (Battleship Potemkin) Eisenstein. Apart from the regular pattern of wide streets - a marked contrast to the medieval alleys of the old town - it does not strike the casual observer’s eye like the much larger Art Nouveau district of Barcelona.

The Museum of Latvia’s Jews is on the third floor of the Jewish Community Centre in the Art Nouveau district. The story is told largely in photographs.

Jews made up over ten per cent of Riga’s population in the pre-war years. The photos are largely of prosperous families doing what prosperous families do, going to the seaside, having picnics, posing outside their homes. The pictures would be banal were it not for the realisation that only the old people at a 1903 family picnic would die natural deaths, and that the whole of a football team lined up for their pre-season picture were destined to be murdered.

Film clips of the shootings, though well-known, are anything but banal. Mass killings ‘in a forest in Latvia’ sounds extraordinarily remote when sitting in the Staffordshire countryside. When it happened in a forest not 10 km away, a forest we had seen from the tower of St Peter’s Church, the immediacy is chilling.

The names on the monument at the synagogue are here as well, but fleshed out with photographs and stories. Some of the hidden Jews were discovered, with terrible consequences for them and their hosts, others remained in hiding to the end of the war. A number of the people photographed are still alive and it is remarkable to think that the old woman at the next table at the restaurant may, perhaps, be one of these heroic people. More chillingly, the old man at another table may be one of those who volunteered for the SS and took part in the killings. And the man of my age at yet another table could be a former KGB officer, though he is more likely a blameless Polish electrician on a bus tour. There are still fissures in Latvian society that are best not probed too deeply.

Beer snacks in Esplanade Park, Riga
We had lunch in Esplanade Park before popping into the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of the Nativity.

Inside the Russian Orthodox Cathedral, Riga
Lunch in Riga involved beer snacks, with the inevitable garlicky fried bread playing a major part as it did in Vilnius. In the park we had fried squid rings with it while elsewhere we had a mackerel fillet on a thick slice of bread, or a seafood medley, lightly floured and fried.

Dinners in Riga were not memorable, but wholesome and reasonably priced. The Baltic staples of pork and potatoes – with or without cheese - were well represented on menus but there were other choices available; Lynne particularly enjoying a carp in cream sauce. Dinner was always accompanied with a breadbasket of the highest quality. The black rye bread, often with inclusions of nuts or fruit, was memorable, but the garlic butter that invariably came with it seemed rather inappropriate.

Drinking in Riga inevitably means beer. The local brews, like those of Vilnius, being heavy, darkish lagers in the Polish style. There is also Riga Black Balsam. At 45% alcohol, this black viscous liquid looks like it should be sweet but is actually very bitter. It is said to be an acquired taste. Lynne gave up at first sip, but I persevered and several days later, when I finally emptied our 20 cl bottle, I was sorry that it had all gone.

Next day the Simple Bus Line, which had brought us from Vilnius, whisked us on to Tallinn. Their comfortable air-conditioned buses are operated with commendable efficiency, but requiring employees to wear a badge bearing the single word ‘Simple’ does bring a smirk to the lips of those with English as their first language.

Our journey north took us briefly beside the Gulf of Riga, but was largely through forest. Again the well-maintained two-lane road passed through no towns or villages before the Estonian border, which was marked, as Schengen borders should be, by nothing more than a ‘Welcome to Estonia’ sign.

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