Taking advantage of a twelve hour layover in Riga, I jumped on a bus and started a whirlwind tour of the capital of Latvia. I had no idea what lay ahead of me in Riga, but boy was I glad that I went there. Riga was beautiful, the architecture simply amazing and the people were pretty great too. Plus, I learned some history that I didn’t know about the region. All in all, a pretty good day.
I embarked on the Old Riga walking tour as suggested by the travel agent at the airport. The tour started with the Freedom monument. ‘Milda,’ as she is affectionately known, was unveiled in 1935 and is a national shrine for Latvians. Designed by Kārlis Zāle, the friezes around the base of the sculpture depict Latvians singing, working and fighting for their freedom, while the three stars in the maiden’s hands represent the three historical regions of the country: Kurzeme, Vidzeme and Latgale. Locals are always placing flowers at the base of the monument, an act for which people were deported to Siberia in Soviet times.
Satiekamies pie Laimas pulksteņa – let’s meet at the Laima clock! Next on the tour was the yellow-brown clock in front of the Freedom Monument that has been a meeting place since it was erected by social democrats in 1924 so people wouldn’t be late for work. For decades it has advertised Laima chocolate, and many a sweet romance has started here. The famous clock was repaired some years ago and its time is now synchronised twice daily by satellite.
I then wandered past the “Powder Tower”. Dating back to the beginning of the 14th century, only the rock foundations remained after it was destroyed by invading Swedish troops in 1621. It was rebuilt in 1650 with 2.5m thick walls to protect its valuable contents inside and was obviously successful, as nine Russian cannonballs that hardly made a dent were later embedded in its walls by cheeky masons.
Onwards through the oldest remaining portion of the Old Town fortifications, the rest having been progressively knocked down because artillery made them obsolete. This fragment was built between the 13th and 16th centuries and restored during Soviet times, hence its rather ‘new’ appearance.
At the end of Aldaru (the street in the picture above), was the Swedish Gate (Zviedru vārti), built in 1698 to celebrate the Scandinavians’ occupation of the city, and the only such structure left in Old Riga. The apartment above belonged to the city executioner or bende, who would put a red rose on the window ledge on the morning before a head rolled.
Next was St James Church, first mentioned in ancient chronicles in 1225. In 1522, it became the first church in Latvia to hold a Lutheran service, but during a brief Polish occupation 60 years later it was returned to its Catholic flock, who have held it ever since.
Then a wander past the Three Brothers, the oldest stone residential buildings in the city representing different stages in the architectural development of Riga, from medieval to Baroque. The oldest of the three is N°17 and dates back to the 15th century. The other two were built in the 17th and 18th centuries, respectively. Unfortunately, not much is known about the history of these abodes, including who owned them. The Riga Museum of Architecture is located in building N°19.
Next on the tour was Riga Castle. Built in 1330 as a base for the Livonian Order, the Castle was destroyed several times during battles with the local townspeople. After the Order’s destruction, the various occupiers of the city housed their governors inside. Latvia’s first post-Cold War president Guntis Ulmanis made it his official office to continue the tradition begun by Latvia’s interwar presidents in the 1920s and 1930s.
I then wandered around the outside and inside of Riga Cathedral, the largest place of worship in the Baltics, measuring 187 x 43m, with walls two metres thick. It also has one of the biggest organs in Europe (6,768 pipes!). The inside was lovely and a change from the churches I’d been seeing through China, Mongolia and Russia. Almost similar to some in Australia!
Second last was St Peters Church. First mentioned in ancient chronicles in 1209, St. Peter’s was a Catholic church until 1523, when it turned Lutheran. Its wooden tower, the highest in Europe at that time, was destroyed several times. It first collapsed in 1666 and was rebuilt a year later. To see how long it would last, the builders hurled a glass from the top: the more pieces the vessel broke into, the greater the tower’s longevity. Alas, a pile of straw cushioned the glass’ fall and the spire burnt down one year later. Artillery fire destroyed the structure again in 1941. In 1973 it was finally rebuilt and the glass ritual was repeated, this time with smashing results.
My tour of the sights ended with a viewing of St John’s Cathedral. First mentioned in 1297 when it served as the chapel of a Dominican abbey, the monastery and church were closed during the Reformation in 1523. The building was used for a time as the city’s armoury, until it was taken over by a Lutheran congregation in 1582. During the building’s construction two monks were bricked into the southern wall and lived out their lives there, fed through the window grate.
After seeing the sights of Latvia, I visited the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia. Once a museum honouring the Latvian Red Riflemen, the building now houses a fascinating museum dedicated to the Nazi and Soviet occupations of Latvia. The various exhibits display the atrocities committed against the people of Latvia and the systematic destruction of their nation’s sovereignty. My knowledge of the history of this part of the world was very limited, I’d say non-existent, before coming to Latvia. This museum was brilliant, even if it was a bit daunting to see images of a country constantly under foreign control and most of it violent.
After the horror of the museum, I then settled in for a beer and a Latvian buffet full of meat and stodge. Something I hadn’t had for a while and man it was great! I then headed back to the airport and boarded my flight to Dublin. What a suprising and beautiful city! May I return someday to see the rest of Latvia and the other Baltic countries. I leave you with one of the best statues that I have ever seen.