As our tradition dictates Annie and I planned another adventure, however after the antics of last year we decided to stay closer to home. Actually – we decided to go back to my home. A visit and a tour which has been well overdue.
We arranged to meet in Riga International Airport, which meant my journey from Amsterdam was made alone. It all started out with a very pleasant surprise when I was upgraded to Business Class (not the first time and that is why I ❤ AirBaltic). I was indeed very thankful as I opted for a small suitcase for my hand luggage – with the full flight it would have been difficult to find available space overhead.
Sitting in the aisle seat, enjoying my glass of Champagne, I decided to look around and see who else was with me. In the window seat was sitting a young looking guy, dressed in an R&B sort of get up (clearly like me he was upgraded – unless he was some sort of Latvian rapper I had not heard of before). He looked quite nervous and kept on looking at his bag under the seat in front of him. Every minute he would bend down and poke around in it. Being the nervous flyer that I am, my first though was “I got upgraded to sit next to a terrorist!” oh well…at least I die on a (Champagne) high. When we started to take off I heard some weird sounds coming from his bag…beads of sweat appeared on my forehead as I was praying that my anti anxiety meds would kick in soon. The noise just grew louder and louder – until I could recognise what it was…..a cat!!!!
Yes … the lovely man was transporting little Anoushka the cat for his mother. He was nervous because the kitty was stressed! She was just absolutely adorable and for the rest of the 2 hour flight I spent sitting in my comfortable Business Class chair, drinking Champagne and stroking the cat – like some sort of Dr Evil character from Austin Powers. But hey – I loved it!!!
The first night was spent in the wonderful Zolitude Lemkina Pad where Annie and I had a proper girly catch up well overdue.
Saturday was our intense sightseeing day. Being born in Riga, I am extremely proud to have come from such a beautiful city – hence every person I bring with me for a visit gets the intense introduction to the main sights. We took the legendary marshrutka to the city centre. Annie just could get over the fact that this little mini bus hides in the bushes waiting for the time its their turn to pick up passengers and take them to the city. Apparently that is an odd thing….haha. The only explanation I could offer was that this is the end stop and quite frequently the drivers have to wait until it is their turn to go to the city. In order to avoid impatient passengers staring at them (and maybe try for a cheeky nap) the drivers hide the minibus in the bushes … for privacy (?).
The tour started with a visit to the Small Yellow Church in the Centre of Riga, also known as the Church of Aleksandr Nevski. This bright little sight is a place I got christened in many years ago and I still make a point of stopping over for a quick visit.
Walking round the corned we stopped over at School No. 40 – my former secondary school.
This beautiful building is one of the examples of National Romanticism, which is a branch of Art Nouveau. The building completed in 1905 has a unique edifice. The unusual entranceway, the expressive façade and windows that recall the ancient homesteads of the countryside all add to the charm that makes it unbelievable this building functions as a school . The sandstone of the façade is the Staburags cliff, fabled in Latvian mythology but submerged when the Plavinas hydroelectric dam was built under Soviet rule.
The school building is a world class work of architecture that incorporates strong references to the history of architecture in Latvia and the local ecosystem, particularly in the materials used. The largest windows are the upper ones of the school’s auditorium. Its interior was unprecedented in that era, with the wooden structural elements of the roof being exposed to the public.
Our next stop us took us for a quick bite to eat in one of Rigas famous chain restaurants – Lido. Known for high quality traditional food, served in traditional environment
Their moto is to change the idea of fast food service in Europe – to provide people with quality service and a pleasant atmosphere, while at the same time allowing them to make the most of their time and money. Unfortunately we were so busy with stuffing our faces that there was no chance in taking any pictures.
A short walk from Lido, with a stop over with world hottest (literally) coffee kiosk, was the Sakta flower market. This street flower market was built on the same block as a big store called “Sakta”. The store is still there – but if you mention Sakta to any Rigas native they will direct you straight to the flower market.
To the right you could easily spot the Catedrale! The Cathedral of the Navity of Christ stands out amongst the modern surrounding buildings.
The Cathedral was built between 1876 and 1883 during the period when the country was part of the Russian Empire. It is the largest Orthodox Cathedral in the Baltic region and survived both wars. during the early sixties the Soviet authorities closed down the cathedral and the building was converted into a planetarium however it was restored to its original glory after Latvia regained its independence in 1991. To this day some of the locals refer to the Cathedral as a planetarium.
Our next stop was the Freedom Monument, situated in the square separating New Riga from Old Riga on the Brīvības bulvāris (Freedom Boulevard) . The monument was built as a memorial for soldiers killed during the Latvian War of Independence (1918 – 1920). Unveiled in 1935 it towers at over surrounding buildings at the height of 42 metres.
The sculptures at the base of the monument are divided into 13 groups, depicting different parts of Latvian culture and history. The build was finance by private donations and the monument is guarded by The Company of Guard of Honour. the interesting fact is that there is a requirement to be at least 6 feet tall to be able to qualify for the position of a Guard of Honour.
On the same square as the Freedom Monument there is the famous Laima Clock. This clock was placed here in 1924 and had its front decorated with the Laima brand in 1936 and it has remained the same since then. Laima is the famous Latvian confectionery brand (you will be able to find the Laima store right behind the clock). The clock provides for a popular meeting spot for locals – especially in the summer when young people meet here to go on a date in the Old Riga.
At this point I had to point out to Annie one of the quirks of Riga. Right across from the Laima clock is one of the main McDonalds in Riga (actually it has been here for at least two decades and is where I tried a hamburger for the first time in my life). The McDonalds has a walk through window (a sort of pedestrian drive through). This is amazingly popular expecially later on in the evening.
We went past the McDonalds into Old Riga the first point of interest was the Livu Laukums. A square with a few bars and restaurants that spill out into the street in the summer. Unfortunately, this was not the case in October.
Many artists come to display and sell their work here. Also you will see some locals selling the famous Latvian amber and all the little trinkets they manage to make out of it. Livu Laukums also has the Russian Drama Theatre, where my school used to celebrate each beginning of the school year on the 1st of September. However the most famous residents of the square are the Great and the Small Guilds. The Great Guild was the home to merchants brotherhood of Riga and the Small Guild was dedicated to the master craftsmen. Both functioned as primary seats for these ‘associations’ holding official meetings and social events. Currently the Great Guild is being used as the home to the Latvian Symphony Orchestra – whereas the Small Guild building is used for official conferences.
We couldn’t leave the square without me telling Annie about the legend behind the famous Cat House. Situated at 10 Meistaru Iela just across from the Great Guild stands a house built in 1909 based on medieval architecture with some elements of art nouveau. The urban legend states that it was built by a wealthy tradesman who was refused membership to the Great Guild. In revenge he commissioned for two angry cats to sit on the turrets of his house with the tails facing the Great Guild. As expected the brotherhood of the Great Guild found the bums of the cats offensive and so a long court case began. In the end the judge ruled that the offending wealthy tradesman had to turn the cats around – which to me still seems quite clearly expressive of the feeling he had towards the Great Guild.
Walking on through the narrow windy streets of Riga we arrived at Doma Square. Again this is another popular spot for the locals to hang out in the summer and sit outside in the cafes and bars enjoying their Latvian beers. The housing around the square is famous for the gorgeous ‘graffiti’ – pieces of art on blank walls of the buildings. This time Annie and I encountered an art exhibition displaying the technological and environmental infrastructure development in the whole of Latvia. In the middle of the square sits the famous Doma Cathedral. Built in 1211 it is the biggest cathedral in the Baltics and it contains a famous organ which many people come to listen to it being played.
One of the most noticeable attributes of the cathedral is that it is indeed sinking. Due to some faulty foundations, the weight of the building and the condition of the soil the cathedral is currently a couple of metres under the ground level. However, this does not make it any less beautiful – but actually unique in its own way.
A couple of streets over, buried in one of the narrow streets are the Three Brothers. at 17 Maza Pils you will find the oldest block in Riga and the oldest surviving dwelling house. This house was built in the late 15th century when Riga established contacts with merchants from the Netherlands and, as a result of this cooperation, some traits of Renaissance characteristic of the Dutch architecture started to appear in Riga.
The other two brothers are youngers – 17th and 18th century. Together they represent different development stages of medieval dwelling houses in the period when houses were built on narrow plots of land.
Our walk continued to Rigas Pila – Rigas Castle. Built in 1330 it has been constantly reconstructed, either due to war, fire or general updating. Currently it is the official residence of the President of Latvia.
Just a short distance from the Castle we came across the remnants of the old wall the city and the gun powder tower that was originally part of the defensive system of the town.
From here Annie and I entered the park that runs across Riga between the New Town and Old Town. Called the Basteikalns – it was crated in 1859-1859 to replace to old defensive.
The park on the man made hill and contains a canal that runs through out. Many people come to the park just for a walk or to hang out.
Additionally you will most likely spot a wedding party or two there as it is a popular place for the newly weds to take their photographs and hang a lockpad, throwing the key into the canal – to cement their love.
Inside the park there are memorial stones to the five people that were killed by the Soviet bullets during the January 1991 disturbances. The walk through the park took us once again past the Freedom Monument and towards the Latvian National Opera and ballet building.
From there we swerved back into Old Town towards St Peters Church. On our path we encountered the statue of the Bremen musicians. Given to Riga by the sister city Bremen, Germany – this satirical statue takes a different look at the popular children’s story.
Here the musicians are not looking through the window at the robbers feast – instead they are peering through the iron curtain on a completely new world where they hope to find a bone or a piece of meat. Essentially an ironic view at the sudden independence of the Latvian State.
After this quick stop over we went over to St Peters Basilica. This beautiful building has been the highlight of Riga’s sky line – making it ever more recognisable. A church has been established on this plot of land in 1209 – making it the oldest church in Riga. The present day basilica was built during the reconstruction in the 15th century, however since then it has been bombed and burned down many times – nonetheless always reconstructed.
Now the church is not only used for religious services but also to showcase local art and other exhibitions.
The best part of the church (not to take away from the beauty of the architecture) us the view from the top.
After enjoying the view from the top and freezing our bottoms off we came back down to earth and headed to a nearby square containing one of the most iconic building in Riga.
The Brotherhood of Blackheads was an association of local unmarried merchants, whip owners and foreigners that was active in Livonia (Estonia and Latvia) from the 14th century until 1940s. it was dissolved by the Soviet occupation. The Brotherhood of Blackheads was founded as a military organization, however, non military aspects of the association gradually became more pronounced until the Brotherhood became a predominantly social organization.
The building was a rubble after WWII, however in 1999, when the reconstruction was completed and the portal engraving was fulfilled:
Should you ever see me falling – raise me up, ’tis your calling!
St Maurice, as seen on the building, is the patron of the Brotherhood of Blackheads. He is known as the Roman Commander that refused to bow down to pagan gods and kill Christians. This refusal cost him his head and the heads of his entire 6600 legion.
The statue outside the House of Blackheads is of Roland – Charlemagne’s nephew. he is a symbol of justice and freedom and has Riga’s coat of arms emblazoned on the shield.
On this same square I also showed Annie a plaque on the floor. Many people walk past and don’t even notice it or its historical value. What people don’t now is that the first ever recorded Christmas tree was actually recorded in the papers of the Brotherhood of the Blackheads and it says it was placed in the town square. Today this plaque marks the spot where the worlds (alleged) first Christmas tree stood so many years ago. On this plaque it states ‘The first New Year tree in 1510’ in 8 different languages.
Next to the square stands a very imposing, grey building also known as the Latvian occupation museum. It is a private museum, thus independent from political influence, depicting Latvia’s occupation during 1940-1941.
Across from the museum is one of the last remaining statues of the Soviet era – made from red granite this statue is dedicated to the rifle men who fought in WWI.
Just around the corner from the statue is Raastlaukums – Riga Town Hall – we walked down a narrow cobbled stoned street where we found something I had NEVER seen before. An old oak tree laying sideways – might now seem too much.
However looking at the sign next to it we realised its significance.
Its pretty amazing to realise how something that might not seem so major – has so much history.
The day was getting long at this stage and our last stop took us to Central Tirgus – Central Market Built in the former zeppelin hangars. Each hangar is dedicated to its own type of food stuffs: meat, fish, daily and fruits. After a quick tour we stocked up on food for the evening and made our way back to Zolitude – mia casa.
We had the best of intentions for going out on Saturday night – but after this extensive tour our feet were aching and our stomachs desperate for food – we decided to stay at home and have another girly night.
There may, or may have not, been some face mask action. 😉
After Annies disastrous trip to the local supermarket (one broken vodka bottle and one raging shopping assistant later) we made our way outside to go into city centre for a lovely catch up with some good old friends.
Quick walk through the Old Town and a stop over for a cuppa we were on our way back to Zolitude in no time where some of my oldest friends showed up for a visit. it was absolutely amazing to catch up. Despite the distance or the time passing – every time we see each other it always feels like no time has gone by at all! I suppose that is what true life friends are like.
Monday was a day of long walks and packing. Early afternoon Annie and I made our way to the airport (thanks to an old friends for the lift :)). Quick weekend away was already over. I think the weekend could be summarized as:
Редко но медко
Rarely but to the point