Capital of Latvia and largest city of the Baltic Republics, Riga is the pearl of the region with its ‘wedding cake’ architecture, rich culture and lively ambience.
T he capitals of the Three Baltic Republics all lay claim to being the ‘pearl’ of their region. And with good reason. Tallinn, capital of Estonia, is one of the oldest of medieval cities, and the Lithuanian capital Vilnius is the only one of the three that was independent prior to the First World War. But Riga alone is deserving of the title ‘Paris of the Baltic’. Indeed, the place the city’s people accord to culture in their daily lives under the difficult conditions in which the country finds itself is a good indication of just how cosmopolitan they are. That they made their initial investments, during their worst period of economic hardship, in their opera house, their greatest source of national pride, bears testimony to this. After all, Riga is the city that trained one of the world’s number one ballet dancers, Mikhail Baryshnikov, that appointed Wagner director of the German Theater, and that hosted some of the leading musical figures, from Lizst to Rubinstein, in their time.
HEART OF ‘JUGENDSTIL’
Craning my neck, I glance up at every building saying, “This is it”. But no, it isn’t, and I continue on down the Elizabetes Avenue, turning off at Strelnieku into Alberta Street. This time there is no doubt. I am in the heart of the Jugendstil, surrounded by the most outstanding examples of sheer splendor in the history of architecture. Art Nouveau, which grew up in reaction against the classical style, is known in Riga, as it is in Germany, under the name Jugendstil. This movement began to have an influence on architecture in the late 19th and early 20th century in particular, when artists declared their need for freedom and the buildings that would be known as the ‘cream’ of the history of architecture appeared. Among those artists, the one most important for Riga was Soviet film director Sergei Eisenstein’s father, Mikhail Eisenstein, who designed close to half the city’s buildings. It is possible to see here, in this one city, the largest number of examples of Jugendstil architecture in the world in its over 700 buildings in the style.
THREE UNIONS IN RIGA’S HISTORY
In the center of Riga stands a monument to freedom, affectionately named ‘Milda’. The three stars on the monument, which was erected in the city center during the period of independence between the First and Second World Wars, represents Latvia’s three regions (Kurzeme, Vidzeme, Latgale) and their freedom. Children and young people also enjoy themselves in canoes and paddleboats on the canal that runs through the park around the monument.
The period of Soviet rule is still fresh in everyone’s mind. The Soviet Union is the second great union to which Riga has belonged. When the city joined the Hanseatic League in 1282, it became one of the leading economic and commercial centers of the Baltic, which contributed in a major way to its development. Ruled by bishops, knights and German landowners, Riga came under the control of Sweden in 1621. At the beginning of the 1700s, it was severely weakened by famine and a plague epidemic during the Great Northern Wars and its population reduced by half. Emerging victorious from this protracted war, the Russian Tsar Peter I seized control of the city. Riga was a front in the First World War, but its ordeal did not end with the ending of the war, and it was only in 1918 that the city became the capital of an independent Latvia. But twenty years of independence came to an abrupt end with an ultimatum from Stalin. In 1940 Latvia was annexed to the USSR along with the other two Baltic Republics in a union that lasted 51 years. With the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, Latvia again achieved its independence. Then, following a referendum in 2003, Riga (and Latvia) decided to join a third union, this time the European Union.
FIRST ORNAMENTS ON THE CHRISTMAS TREE
Riga’s ‘Old City’ is where people come to shop, to visit the churches and museums and, at night, for entertainment. Included on UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1997, the Old City is reminiscent of Tallinn and Prague. While perhaps on a somewhat less spectacular scale than they are, the first place to be visited in the city is nevertheless the Church of St. Peter with its magnificent city view. Its wooden steeple, which remained standing until it was destroyed by fire in a German bombardment on St. Peter’s Day, 29 June, in 1941, and which is now accessible by elevator, served as a Museum of Architecture in the Soviet period. I continue to gaze down on the city from its vantage point. The Daugava River runs through the center of Riga, and I locate on its bank the ‘Academy of Sciences’ building, a remnant from the Stalinist era, the Zeppelin Hangars, Europe’s largest market, the Parliament building, and the important buildings of the Old City in general. But the horizon is frequently punctuated by churches in this area: Protestant, Anglican, Catholic, Russian Orthodox—proof that this city is a melting pot.
One of Europe’s most important traditions, that of decorating Christmas trees, also originated in Riga. In 1510, Christmas night entertainments spilled over into the streets from the ‘House of Blackheads’, home to the city’s bachelor artisans and merchants, the so-called ‘blackheads’, who began dancing around a pine tree on the main square. Tossing whatever
ornaments they could get their hands on at the enormous tree, they ended up setting it on fire. This is regarded as the first decorated Christmas tree. It developed into a tradition, and eventually Martin Luther brought the tree into the house and, rather than setting it on fire, hung candles on it, thus giving it its present form.
NOT A MARKET BUT A HANGAR
The mobile of the young girl standing next to me rings with a familiar tune, but I can’t place it. It’s impossible to think anyway in all the hullaballoo around me. I’m at Riga’s—and Europe’s—largest market. More than simply being hangar-like, it actually was built as a zeppelin hangar. The city’s administrative buildings were turned into markets after World War I. As if they had been built expressly for the purpose, four were constructed in parallel with a fifth perpendicular to the others and the ones used as storage depots connected by tunnels in their vast basements to facilitate the delivery of goods. Each section is allocated to specific products: fish and fish products only in the first hangar, in the next meat, in the third fresh fruit and vegetables. Although they were built as hangars, aesthetics was in no way compromised, and Art Deco nuances are scattered throughout the construction, which exhibits a Neoclassical influence. I hang out in a cassette shop in which all the cassettes are Russian. The woman clerk changes the music and the telephone tune I heard a little while ago starts blasting away: Turkish pop singer Tarkan’s signature, “Oynama şıkıdım şıkıdım.”
Among the useful information in the Riga guidebook that I got from the Tourism Office are essential words and simple sentences in Latvian. But the second of the three sentences may give the wrong impression about the city: “Tris biletes uz Tallinu, ludzy” (Three tickets for Tallinn please). You shouldn’t have any reason to need such a sentence in Riga! Especially when you consider another important point. Escaping to Tallinn will not save you from the common fate awaiting both cities. Riga may be the Paris of the Baltic, but its legends definitely hark from the dark Northern European-Scandinavian tradition. A creature—a giant that can take different shapes—is said to appear in the city, maybe once a year, maybe once every 50-100 years, and ask the watchman: “Is the construction of the city finished?” The watchman knows what his answer has to be: “No, not yet.” Because if the construction is ever completed, the monster will make the Daugava (or Lake Ulemiste in Tallinn) overflow, leaving the ‘pearl of the Baltic’ under water.