The Latvians have had a hard life and not just because of the weather.
Flying in over the docklands I saw burnt out buildings and the ground was black. At first I thought it was coal, but later realised Riga has been built on black sand.
Deeper investigation reveals that Riga can erase the gloomy stigma surrounding the Baltic cities. There is more to Riga then the black trees, the black water of the Daugava River along with the black skies. Even the local favourite drink is black – “Kvass” a fermented rye which is definitely an acquired taste.
Riga is definitely worth a visit, especially for the architecture. Below are some choice itinerary suggestions:
Walk around this free museum with the provided black folder which explains the Latvians struggle against the Russians and then temporarily welcomed the Nazis as liberators. Only to be given back to the Russians after World War 2.
A large part of the exhibition displays personal items of camp prisoners such as handmade needles, embroided handkerchiefs, spoons made from melted aluminium bowls. The rope shoes and pitiful clothing worn while working in -40C after being transported to work camps in Siberia.
Horrific stories are told about people hidden when they died so others could still get their rations.
Stalin’s’ red-penned signature can be seen on a map of new borders from the Germany-USSR treaty agreed on in Moscow in 1939.
The red granite Monument to the Riflemen is a typically bloated Soviet-era statue outside the Occupation Museum. Once celebrating Latvian riflemen who protected Lenin after the 1917 revolution, it now honours all riflemen from wars gone by.
Town Hall Square
In the past the square was a weekend marketplace. Also where criminals were humiliated and witches were burnt at the stake. The first Christmas tree in Europe was decorated here and a bronze disk marks the spot. The surrounding buildings were destroyed during World War II and replaced by Soviet concrete abominations.
House of the Blackheads was rebuilt in 1999 and is the most photographed sight in Riga due to design and shiny pieces on the roof as decoration. It is two houses connected by an interior courtyard with a museum inside.
St Peters Cathedral
For 3Lt you can go up to the 360 degree observation platform via the manned elevator. There you can see is how flat Riga is with no mountains or hills to be seen. The tower is the tallest in Riga and has been toppled three times due to fires and war.
One third of the buildings in central Riga are built this style therefore 700 – 800 buildings. The best examples are 10b Elizabetes Iela and 41 Strenieku Iela, now the School of Economics. Built prior to World War I, they have been restored to their original design.
This five gold cupola masterpiece was returned to the people in 1990 and restoration finished in 2006. During the Soviet era it was a planetarium, cinema and restaurant.
Museum of Natural History
Opened in 1845, I think the stuffed animals on display are as old as the museum. There are five floors covering zoology and taxidermy, geology, botany, palaeontology and human evolution including skulls and foetuses in jars.
On the edge of the old town is the tall National symbol of Latvia erected in 1935 before the Soviet occupation. The fresco beneath the statue depicts Latvian’s singing, working and fighting for their country. On top stands a woman holding three stars above her head representing the three cultural regions of Latvia. The Soviets surprisingly did not tear down the monument and instead erected the now removed statue of Lenin which stood behind facing the east towards Moscow. Between 9am and 6pm two guards stand to attention below and change each hour.
Bastion Hill was once a part of the city defence network and the second highest hill in Riga rising 16 meters above sea level consisting of black sand. There are the memorial stones for five victims from 1991 when Black Beret forces loyal to Moscow attempted to take over government buildings nearby. Bordering the old and new Riga, small boats can be hired to cruise along the canal. Nearby the Bridge of Love fences are full of padlocks attached by married couples.
With many Russian immigrants moving to Riga for hundreds of years, this part of Riga has interesting sights to see. The wooden buildings rotting away are protected by the state.
Dominating the skyline is the Latvian Academy of Sciences built in1956/57 as a gift to Riga from workers and peasants from the Soviet republics. The design is based on the ‘Seven Sisters’ in skyscrapers in Moscow and Warsaw. The hammer and sickles can be seen on the façade.
Riga Central Market is Europe’s largest market consisting of five pavilions built as intended zeppelin hangers in the 1920’s. Each pavilion sells different products such as live air-gasping fish and caviar, meat, fruit and vegetables, clothing and household goods.
The outdoor stalls sell cheap tobacco, odds and sods with a flower market held each weekend. Old ladies sit knitting while serving customers.
On the corner of Gogola and Dzirnavu Iela you will find the flea market Latgalite full of Soviet-era items such as medals, pins and uniforms. It seems you can find anything at this market with piles of rusty tools and second-hand man toys.