Latvia: Baltic Beauty

Europe can pretty much be classified into a few tiers when it comes to the cachet their respective capital cities hold. Riga, an ancient city but Latvia’s capital for less than 100 years, is not in the top tier in the eyes of most people. While this is not at all a criticism, it is true to say that it is generally eschewed by tourists in favor of the more glamorous cities in Western Europe, at least on an initial visit. However the beautiful and historic city has much to offer the Baltic beginner.

With a population of 640,000 and covering area of around 120 square miles, it is almost twice the size of Minneapolis by both measures, but it still retains, somehow, the feel a relatively small city.

An important trade route in the 13th century, Riga has centuries of history and has been associated with or ruled over by many factions, notably the Russian empire for 200 years and then the Nazis and the Soviets in the in the first half of the 20th century. Helped by Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika policies, Latvia restored its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

European capital of culture

History is all around in Riga, but standing above the parapet is the magnificent collection of Art Nouveau architecture. (There are examples of other architectural styles in Riga too, including Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque, but Art Nouveau reigns supreme). The European Capital of Culture in 2014, Riga’s significant hoard of fine examples of the style was a big part of UNESCO’s decision to designate the Historic Centre of Riga as a world heritage centre in 1997.

The collection is nothing short of amazing, in both vision and volume, with the style making up around 40 percent of the buildings in the center of Riga. With around 350 squeezed into the Historic Centre, walking around Riga is an architecture lover’s dream. The well-preserved medieval section at the core of the heritage site is an added bonus with St Peter’s Church the jewel in the medieval crown.

An Art Nouveau stairwell in the city

Walk This Way

For a break from the Art Nouveau masterpieces, take a stroll through Bastejkalns Park. Flanking Old Town and buffering the newer Central Riga area, the canal-side path will take you past the beautiful Latvian National Opera house and the Freedom monument which honors soldiers killed during the Latvian War of Independence. For those who prefer not to walk, there are one-hour cruises that ply the canal from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day. There are also free walking tours of the city every day that meet at midday in front of St Peter’s Church.

Rātslaukums, Riga’s Town Hall Square, is both the location of the main tourism office in the city and the stunning House of the Blackheads (the former is in the ground level of the latter). Built originally in the 14th century, it was added to several times over the following centuries. Destroyed by the Nazis in 1941 and razed by the soviets in 1948, work started on rebuilding the House of the Blackheads when Latvia regained its independence and was finished in 2000, inspired, some say, by words that were inscribed on the walls of the original: "Should I ever crumble to dust, rebuild my walls you must.”

To get a feel for everyday life in the city, visit the Central market. If the five buildings that house the market look like aircraft hangers, that’s because they are, repurposed German Zeppelin hangars to be precise.

Art Nouveau in Riga

Perhaps Riga’s most appealing attraction is its architecture. Inextricably linked it its history, it is a great reason to visit.

Riga has a beautiful starkness to it, as you might expect from a Baltic state, and that is beautifully reflected by the hoard of Art Nouveau buildings (an art movement that is commonly known in Latvia as Jugendstil) that take pride of place. In fact, Riga is home to the finest collection of Art Nouveau buildings in Europe. (The suburbs were originally laid out in the 19th century thanks to rapid industrial development, with imposing wooden buildings in the neoclassical style, a good example of which is George Washington’s plantation home, Mount Vernon, before they were replaced with stone buildings. The UNESCO site contains examples of both periods, and the suburbs, with its impressive wooden buildings, are great for strolling through when the Baltic climate allows.)

Functional yet richly decorated, some of the buildings are beautifully maintained, others less so, but both are appealing, the slightly weather-worn and neglected buildings suiting the ghoulish motifs that are part of the fabric of Art Nouveau. The somewhat macabre elements also act as a foil to the incredible detail of the facades and the overarching beauty of the style. The biggest concentration of buildings, and some argue the best, can be found about a mile north of Bastejkalns Park on Alberta iela. This street is also home to the Art Nouveau Museum, which was constructed to be the private residence of Latvian architect Konstantīns Pēkšēns. Eižens Laube, then a student of architecture, worked on the building with Pēkšēns. Laube would go on to become one of Latvia’s most prominent architects; an example of his work can also be found on this street.

Motifs from antiquity and mythology intertwine with nature to create beautiful facades that at once amaze and send shivers down your spine, particularly as the sun disappears and disembodied open-mouthed countenances take on a more sinister look as they change with the dying of the light.

Art Nouveau was also expressed in features such as window frames and door openings as well as staircases, tableware and even furniture.

Latvian National Opera

The beautiful neoclassical building on Aspazijas Boulevard, sometimes called Riga’s White House, which faces Bastejkalns Park to the west and has Riga’s canal running down its northern side is home to the Latvian National Opera.

Originally constructed as the Riga German Theatre in 1863, the Latvian National Opera House is built on the former grounds of city's fortifications. A large part of it was destroyed in fire in 1882, but it was restored true to the original plans. A full-scale restoration to accommodate modern technical demands as well as to increase space for administration took five years to complete (during which the building was closed and the LNO performed elsewhere), reopening in 1995 (with the number of seats going from 1200 to 933). An annex was completed in 2001 which added a new 300-seat venue. The interior has elements of several styles, including Renaissance, Baroque, Classicism and Empire.

The LNO itself was founded soon after Latvia declared its independence in November 1918 and was joined in the 1920s by the first professional Latvian ballet ensemble. The season runs from September to June with more than 200 performances a year and averaging six new productions of both opera and ballet, and closes with the Riga Opera Festival every mid-June.

The LNO is a repertory theatre with the cornerstones of it repertoire being the classical and Romantic operas and ballets, but they also welcome modern productions too. With tickets as low as 5 euros, a visit is all but essential.

Daily tours that explain the history of the building and its place in Latvian opera are available. Backstage tours must be booked at least a week ahead but are unfortunately subject to a minimum of 10 people.

Eat Like a (Latvian) King

For a break from all the beauty of the buildings and a taste of pre-Art Nouveau Riga, try Folkklubs Ala Pagrabs on Peldu iela (around the corner from Town Hall Square), the city’s only medieval pub. The medieval feel is brought about by vaulted ceilings, medieval brick arches, wooden floors, a roaring fireplace and hearty Baltic fare. The locally brewed beer is good too – and cheap.

Billing itself as a folk music club, it is nothing if not folksy. Located in a basement (Folkklubs Ala Pagrabs translates loosely as folk club cave in the basement), there is live music several nights a week. There are also around 28 beers (and Kvass, a non-alcoholic fermented drink made from rye bread) on tap (around half of which are Latvian and some as low as one euro a pint) and traditional dishes that have been brought up to date. Dishes include a 1kg pork hock (the most expensive main dish at €8.50 euros), Latvian meat balls (€6.00) and the traditional grey peas (boiled peas with smoked bacon and an onion and cream sauce served in a hollowed out loaf of bread, €3.50). Folkklubs is a good place if you are just passing through and have time for only a few meals. Both tourists and locals enjoy the convivial atmosphere.

There are of course more modern eateries. Triga rocket bean roastery Arturs Taskans, who has worked in several Michelin-starred kitchens including under René Redzepi at NOMA, found local fame with 3 Nazi (three knives) which has recently relocated. Taskans has moved on to Rocket Bean Roastery which has been described as an “airy coffee lab with seasonal European/nouvelle Latvian cuisine.”

A wine-ding day trip from Riga

A two-and-a-half -hour bus trip from Riga is Sabile. Arriving at dusk, with the town hushed town and the Lutheran Church opposite the bus stop still, gives the impression that Sabile is decades away from the relatively bright lights of the capital.

The walk to the only accommodation in in town takes you past the former Synagogue (now the Centre of Contemporary Art) and down Riga Street, at the end of which is the Garden of Dolls.

In dwindling light the 200 or so straw dolls of all shapes and sizes that are dressed in second-hand clothes and have drawn on faces, look incredibly sinister. There are mothers, fathers and a small group of children poised to sing “Ring a Ring o' Roses.” Latvian artist Daina Kučere started making the dolls in 2005 and adds new ones for various celebrations throughout the year.

A further 500m down the road is Hotel Hospital which also happens to have a sinister air to it.

Looking less converted and more just repurposed, the former hospital is actually a hostel (contrary to the name) and as such the rooms as Spartan even if they have been recently renovated. A wander around the large red brick building the following day (during daylight hours during which we didn’t see another soul) revealed rooms that were abandoned long ago and have yet to be renovated.

The actual reason for the visit to Sabile was to visit two wineries, one very new and the other very old.

Sabile’s wine heritage dates back centuries and is embodied by Wine Hill, a 1.5 ha vine plantation on the hill above town. A few hundred liters are made every year from the 15 or so vines, but while it is symbolic of Sabile (literally: the town’s coat of arms has a bunch of grapes on it) it is little more than that.

Abavas winery, however, is a legitimate operation two kilometers down the road. Martins Barkans has for five years been trying to turn his passion for both wine and Latvia into a second career. Barkans is a dedicated cold climate viticulturist (one of the few in Latvia) and is determined to change the wine-scape of the country. He produces a range of wines including grape and fruit (the sparkling rhubarb is very interesting).

The early bus to Riga is at 5 a.m. so be prepared to creep past the Garden of the Dolls once again.

A wonderful city and country, both Riga and Latvia offer visitors, both first timers to Europe and seasoned travelers, a unique experience that is not to be missed.

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