Riga: A City for All

June 14, 2017
Currently: enjoying a glass of wine at a beautiful secluded house-turned-b&b in the middle of Latvia’s national park

If Vilnius is a babushka, then Riga is a ninja. You don’t really hear much about Riga, and I don’t quite know why.

The second I stepped out onto that cobblestoned street and looked around all doe-eyed, I knew this was my kind of city.

Here’s why. Ah-mazing architecture both in Old Town and New Town. The incredible well-managed forever-free park system. 15 percent of the city is green, so they have the right priorities. Old Town is walkable with the usual tourist traps, but also has hidden alleyways that make you feel like an insider when you discover them.

Old Town looks like whoah.

the Swedish gate

 

St. Peter’s Cathedral
Town Hall Square

 

yet another gorgeous plaza

 

wanderlust happiness

New Town looks like whoah.

its famous nouveau architecture
(more on that later)
their art university has got their
juxtaposition on fleek

 

Nativity of Christ Cathedral (Russian Orthodox)
Neo-Byzantine style

Wheww, okay I feel better now. Those pictures were just sitting on my computer desperately needing to be seen by the world. Onwards to the main event: another free tour. Yes, we’re hooked! This time we had a young guy named Martin who…was quite the talker. Let’s just say he’s in the right profession. He made it very clear that he was not a fan of the Old Town. He (and other Latvians?) is sick of tourists staying in their little bubble and not seeing the ‘real Riga’ so he showed us the alternative Riga.

First off, Old Town is not actually old. To be fair it’s been restored to what it used to be, but Riga’s history is this: Build something. It’s destroyed. Build something. It’s destroyed. Build something. It’s destroyed. Aka the Baltic tango. Martin wanted to take us to where Latvians actually live and buildings that are older than any of the Old Town buildings. First stop was the Central Market.

Central Market: three rounded top buildings on the right

 

 

This place is their grocery store. Residents go there to buy their food not some chain grocery store. Why? So Latvians are buying from Latvians, not some foreign company. Latvians are also known for growing their own food. Even city dwellers have gardens. Sounds like that trend America is trying on for size, but hasn’t quite accomplished yet.

Another quiet achievement by a Latvian architect is known as Stalin’s birthday cake. This building has many sisters *cough Warsaw cough* and is a hated symbol of Stalin’s regime. Little known fact but the architect was super smart about its construction. He brilliantly hid the controversial hammer and sickle features that were a Stalin requirement. I dare you to find them! He also added a cool little hat of sorts and placed the structure so it contributed nicely to Riga’s skyline. Not too big. Not too small. All these little details added up to where Latvians decided to keep it. Though they might not admit it, it sounds like they might even be a little proud of it.

Moving on to the art nouveau district in Riga. It’s pretty posh, I gotta say. I will admit to falling into the trap and snapping a ton of pictures. What! It was made for tourists after all. Therein lies the problem. Latvians were pretty upset when art nouveau became a thing in Riga and understandably so. Those decorations are expensive. That money took away not only from its interior design but also the livability of these buildings, which were originally supposed to be luxury apartments. Riga is still a relatively poor city, and people couldn’t afford five bedroom apartments. And if they did, they definitely couldn’t afford heat and electricity for all five rooms. The city has made steps to improve the problem by downsizing the apartments, but Latvian’s still consider the entire block to be a facade.

it could be Vienna, no?

 

No surprise, but Riga is also defined by the Nazi and Soviet occupation. From my visit to the Museum of Occupation, the plot is the same as Lithuanian’s story. I did, however, come across a beautiful exhibit that gave me a new perspective on the deportation process from the minds of those who experienced it. I captured one story for you.

We were put into freight cars with barred windows and without any facilities, without water, 40 people in each car, in ours there was even 42. Like this we started our journey. After two days of driving and standing at the stations, we got to Stutthoff. There on the next rails, beside a potato field, our cars were surrounded by Stutthoff SD men. We immediately sensed that we had been taken to Vernichtungs – an extermination camp. They opened the door and commanded us to jump out. The jump was two to two-and-a-half meters high. The older men lingered before jumping. SD men cursed and rushed to “help” by pulling them out by their legs. Because of the fall two men sprained or broke their legs, another one hit the edge of the car with the back of his head and was unconscious. All three men were pulled away from the rails and shot. On our way to the camp, another four were pulled out as they could not go as fast as needed. I did not see it, because the men from our car were in front of the column. We heard the machine gun fire though. – Vilis Rutks

These stories put me in the shoes, in the time, in the mindset of those who were deported. I hope it gave you the same haunting thought of “what if it had been me.”

Final story, I promise! The freedom monument. Her name is Milda and she’s the Latvian Statue of Liberty. Built to honor the soldiers who died in the Latvian War of Independence (1918-1920), it survived the Soviet era. Instead of getting rid of it (even the Russians knew they’d have a ‘situation’ on their hands if they did), they tried to redefine its meaning. They claimed the stars stood for the three newly created Baltic Soviet Republics. Ha! Nice try, but no. To Latvians, the meaning never changed. Today it remains a sign of Latvian independence and freedom.

that cloud drama 😍

Okay that’s more than enough on Riga! Riga’s official nickname might be “London for the Poor” but I think it should be “London for All.” Go before it becomes the new Reykjavik. You won’t be sorry!

Lots of love,

Lena

P.S. If you do actually go, an amazing restaurant is the Fezenda cafe. Affordable, adorable, and appetizing. You feel like you’re sitting in a home instead of a restaurant!

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