Strolling Through the Streets of Riga Latvia
Latvia is the second of the Baltic States on my itinerary. Latvia shares its border with Estonia and Lithuania from where I’ve arrived after a 4-hour bus ride. The country also shares a border with Russia on the east, Belarus on the south east and the Baltic Sea on the west. Latvia’s capital, 800-year old Riga, is best known for its UNESCO-listed historic medieval centre.
It’s another cold day in the Baltics, and the outside temperature is 2C. I guess by now I’ve acclimatized to this chilly weather!
I check in to the Rixwell Konventa Seta, a hotel made up of nine medieval buildings from the 14th to 16th centuries and located in the heart of the Old City.
Just a short walk from the hotel and I am standing outside the House of the Blackheads at the heart of the Old Town Centre.
Built in 1334, the House of the Blackheads was used as a venue for meetings and banquets held by Riga’s various public organizations. The building was destroyed by bombs in the Second World War but was fully rebuilt in 1999 and is now used as the temporary residence of Latvia’s president.
But before that, in the 17th century, a merchant organization called the Brotherhood of Blackheads became the sole tenant of the House of the Blackheads.
Next to this building is the Tourist Information Centre and the main meeting point for walking tours. But placed very unobtrusively is the little iron structure that claims to be the “first decorated Christmas tree in Riga” dated 1510. There are many theories about this claim of being the first written record of a decorated Christmas Tree.
Also located in the vicinity of this Old Town is the statue of the Bremen Town Musicians. Quite unlike a usual statue, here’s a donkey, a dog, a cat and a cockerel standing on each other’s backs. This political monument is based on a fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm, but created with a political subtext inspired by Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika. The sculpture, a gift from Riga’s sister city Bremen, was made in 1990. It’s a humorous approach towards previous political stereotypes. The bronze figures are not staring through the window at the robbers’ feast at a table full of drinks and food; they are peering through the Iron Curtain on a completely new world where they had thought to find a bone or a piece of meat. And of course, like every “special” statue in every country, this one too grants a wish if any of the noses of the animals are rubbed!
In the heart of the city centre, standing straight and tall is the Freedom Monument, which can be seen from almost any part of the city. This monument was constructed as a memorial to those who died in Latvia’s struggle for independence. At the top of the monument’s obelisk is the nine-meter symbol of freedom – a young woman holding three stars above her head, which symbolizes the three historic provinces of Latvia, and national unity. Today, a two-man guard of honour stands at the base of the monument, symbolizing Latvia’s sovereignty.
One of the more beautiful sights in Riga is the Nativity of Christ Cathedral. With its gleaming golden domes shining in the mid-morning sun like a well shaven head, this is a WOW moment for me! Having served as a planetarium and a restaurant during the Soviet Era, the building has now been completely restored as a church and holds regular Orthodox services.
Although the cathedral had survived both World Wars, in the early 1960s, Soviet authorities closed the cathedral, sawn down the crucifixes, and re-melted the bells, and converted it into a planetarium, called the Republic House of Knowledge. Now, after restoration in the late 1990s, it is Riga’s largest Orthodox church. Unfortunately, there are large signs warning me against taking photos inside. But all in all, it is stunningly beautiful inside as well.
If you look up at the buildings at Meistaru 10/12, you will spot the black cat on the roof. This custard yellow-coloured building is called the Cat House, with a strange tale (no pun intended). In the early twentieth century, a wealthy Latvian merchant built a stately art nouveau home on the same square as Riga’s Great Guild, a German run and Germano-centric organization with control over business interests in the city. He, being the savvy businessman that he was, sought but was refused entry to the guild. Incensed by the Guild’s denial, which likely would have crippled his ability to do business in Riga, he hatched a plan to spite the Guild. And so he commissioned some cat statues: two statues of black cats, their backs arched high to the sky, their tails stuck up in the air- with their backsides facing the Guild! However, he was later admitted to the Guild and turned the statues around to appease the Guild members!
Another interesting sighting along with an equally fascinating story is the three historical houses called the Three Brothers. According to legend, these three houses, built beside each other belonged to three men of the same family.
The Oldest Brother’s house is where manufacturing and trade was carried out during the 1490s. The house had one big room where the work, trade and everyday life took place, and it has retained its original appearance. The Middle Brother, the richest of the three, was built in 1646, and in contrast to the oldest building, has a spacious room with large windows above the ground-floor hall, and there were special residential premises in the yard side of the building. The Youngest Brother’s house was built in the second half of the 17th century and had small apartments on each floor. It is also the narrowest and smallest of the three houses.
These Three Houses are recorded as the oldest medieval dwelling houses in Riga.
Like most of these States, there is a significant place of worship with historical value. The Riga Cathedral, the seat of the Archbishop of the Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church, was built in 1211. In the 14th-15th centuries, the church was transformed into a basilica, raising the central nave, constructing the western cross-nave and side chapels, as well as raising the tower to 140 meters, which made it the tallest tower in Riga of that time. The building of Riga Cathedral combined features of Romanesque, Early Gothic, Baroque and Art Nouveau styles.
Note the rooster sitting on the top of the spire, which I’m told is one of the symbols of Riga. This one also serves as a weathercock, always facing the wind. The sculpture, weighing 86 kilograms, is about 0.5 meters tall and about 1.3 meters wide. Engraved in its crest is the rooster’s story.
Walking down Ģertrūdes iela it’s hard to miss the monumental Neo-Gothic church at the beginning of the street. Consecrated in 1869, this red brick masterpiece topped with a green copper spire was designed by one of the city’s most prolific architects, J.D. Felsko. Unfortunately, some of its decorative ornaments cast in concrete are now in a sad state and hang precariously above passers-by. Many of the art nouveau buildings surrounding the church are also worth a look.
I’ve also stumbled across the Footprint to Freedom tile in Riga. One more to go! I’m off to Tallinn, Estonia…