I travelled to Riga on my penultimate weekend adventure from Stockholm, which was my first foray into the former Soviet Union. Riga is certainly not among Europe’s most beautiful capitals, partly because historic buildings in the Old Town have literally sunk into swampland. Riga does not serve as a bastion of a rich and distinctive national culture, as the concept of a “Latvian” nation has existed for just one hundred years. Nor is the city especially evocative of the communist epoch in Eastern Europe; Riga feels firmly entrenched in the West. Yet my initial assessment of Riga as “not terribly enthralling” proved to be a grossly inaccurate depiction of the largest city in the Baltic states.
Riga’s appeal is the architectural and social diversity in the central areas of the city. The Old Town is quite large relative to the size of Riga and boasts a multitude of architectural styles (though mainly post Renaissance). Surrounding the Old Town on the eastern side is the world’s largest concentration of Art Nouveau buildings. South of the Old Town is an expansive market occupying former Zeppelin hangers. Piercing the skyline of Riga are the spires of Lutheran, Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches and communist and post-independence monuments. Districts of quaint wooden buildings abound on the opposite side of the vast Daugava River. These areas, formerly the abode of industrial workers, are now Bohemian neighbourhoods that have successfully preserved the sense of local community within a big city.
I travelled to Riga expecting to encounter the same grumpiness, bluntness and complete lack of friendliness that I found to be characteristic of the Poles (not necessarily a negative judgement by the way! It was all part of the fun of visiting Poland). However, I thought the Latvians were delightful; always greeting me with a genuine smile, very hospitable, surprisingly good at English and eager to chat when they spoke the language. Even people I really didn’t expect to be particularly warm, such as non-English speaking counter staff at communist-era canteens and market stalls, were always very pleasant. Sometimes quite frazzled to serve a strange-looking tourist at a non-touristic establishment, but committed to finding an amiable solution (where as in Poland I would have just been brushed aside). The Latvians are probably among the friendliest people I have met in Europe.
Riga was founded in the early thirteenth century by German colonisers, who supported Pope Innocent III’s northern crusade against the pagan Baltic tribes. The city was established on marshy land beside the Daugava River, which penetrates deep into Russia. Riga quickly became a key trading interchange between the East and West and joined the Hanseatic League in 1282. For seven hundred years, the city was politically and economically dominated by the minority German merchant class, marginalising the majority Latvian population. Riga was thus influenced significantly by German culture and artistic traditions, which has shaped an identity more synonymous with Central Europe than Eastern Europe. This is evident in the city’s constituent religion (Lutheranism) and the architectural composition of the Old Town. Unfortunately, most of Riga’s medieval structures were either demolished or lie below ground level, as new buildings and thoroughfares were constructed on old, sinking foundations. However, some medieval structures have been preserved and converted into underground restaurants and beer halls. Most of the Old Town’s existing buildings are of German Baroque and Neoclassical styles, flaunting a kaleidoscope of vibrant colours. The Old Town’s churches however are mostly Gothic structures with slender, towering brickwork spires reminiscent of Scandinavian cities.
Riga was incorporated into a succession of empires, culminating in the Russian Empire’s hegemonic rule from 1710. In the late nineteenth century, Riga rapidly developed into one of the largest, richest and most industrialised cities in the Russian Empire, primarily due to its strategic position. The economic boom transformed Riga, with the city’s medieval fortified walls demolished to facilitate urban expansion. The newfound wealth manifested in the construction of Art Nouveau buildings, which became the obsession of Riga’s elites. Consequently, the north-eastern district surrounding the Old Town is composed almost entirely of beautiful Art Nouveau buildings bordering expansive boulevards. Where as the Art Nouveau styles of Paris, Brussels and Vienna are characterised by floral motifs and sinuous geometric patterns, Art Nouveau architects in Riga attempted to create a distinctive Latvian style inspired by local history, construction materials and nature. This ideal was motivated by the Latvian National Awakening, a nationalistic response to the russification of Latvia. The Art Nouveau architecture was not only embraced for its contemporary popularity in Europe, but also for political purposes.
An equally beautiful component of Riga, though developed for the occupancy of an entirely different social class, are the districts of nineteenth century wooden buildings. The buildings were erected during Riga’s industrial boom to accommodate factory workers in overcrowded and decrepit conditions. However, these humble two-storey dwellings have aged and decayed gracefully and now form serene neighbourhoods on the west bank of the Daugava. In the Kalnciema district, I visited a wonderful Saturday market in a yard surrounded by wooden buildings. My visitation to Riga coincided with the beginning of the Christmas season (end of November), so the market was brimming with handcrafted Christmas gifts. I was in such a grand spirit that I spontaneously purchased some non-culinary acquisitions (though needless to say, I hardly left the market hungry), an almost unprecedented event in my travels!
Latvian independence was briefly achieved after the Russian Revolution, but the country was forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union by Stalin during World War Two. To cement Latvia’s place in the union, hundreds of thousands of Russians relocated to Latvia, which reduced the ethnic Latvian composition of the country from 77% to 52% by 1989. Latvia was one of the first republics to declare independence from the Soviet Union and has since attempted to strengthen its sovereignty militarily, economically and culturally from Russia. Latvia is clearly an enthusiastic member of the European Union and NATO; Riga is in fact the only city I have travelled to where I repeatedly noticed the NATO flag flying prominently. I suppose it’s a clear indication that Russia still casts an ominous and unwanted shadow over the small states of Eastern Europe. The strategic acumen of expanding the EU and NATO so rapidly into Eastern Europe, to the wrath of Russia, has been debated ad nauseum. Perhaps the policy has jeopardised relations between the West and Russia; but is it moral to once more abandon these populations to Russian dominance as the West did after World War Two? I think any country with a Western cultural tradition that embraces liberal, secular democratic ideals and the Western alliance has an inviolable right to be protected by the Western alliance.
Symbolising the independence of Latvia is the iconic National Library, the modern pride of the country. A national library for Latvia has repeatedly been denied by ruling powers, so Riga had the unusual distinction for a capital of lacking a major facility to store the city’s literary collection. Consequently, the construction of a national library, replete with monumental and distinctive architecture to celebrate Latvian sovereignty, became a foremost priority for the government post-independence. The building, completed in 2014, resembles a metallic pyramid with a bent summit. The interior is as much about the unusual geometric layouts of the floor plans, atriums and staircases as the books (the library effectively functions as the custodians of the Latvian language.
Easily my favourite part of Riga was the huge Central Market (particularly relished considering the absence of one in Stockholm). The market resembles a series of Zeppelin hangars, as the facades of obsolete hangars were refitted to the front of the cavernous market halls in the 1920s. Each hall is devoted to a particular food group: meat (by far the largest, indicative of the national diet), dairy, fruit and vegetables (featuring a bewildering array of pickled vegetables) and seafood. However, throughout the market were numerous specialty stores selling (specifically) tomatoes, dill, parsley and spring onions.
Latvian cuisine features all the delicious, artery-clogging hallmarks of Eastern European food, with a few unique twists. Pickles are served ubiquitously with meals to cut through the grease, with gherkins and pickled pumpkin (now my favourite way to eat pumpkin) especially popular. Communist-era canteens serve ultra-cheap bite-sized Latvian dumplings, called pelmeni. These self-service lunchtime canteens usually offer meat-filled dumplings boiled in broth and deep-fried cheese dumplings, collectively eaten with sour cream, pickles and parsley. I sampled sauerkraut soup, a surprisingly delectable and rich soup consisting of little more than sauerkraut, stock and a dollop of sour cream. I also enjoyed one of my favourite Central-Eastern European dishes, cabbage rolls stuffed with meat, served with shreds of potato fried in a copious amount of oil. Twice I dined at a subterranean pub that occupies a sunken medieval hall. On my first night, I had potato dumplings with sour cream and cranberry jam, battered chicken topped with onion, pickled cucumber, mushrooms, goat’s cheese and cram sauce and rye bread pudding. On my second night there, I drank cranberry beer (quite delicious and not excessively sweet. Fruit beers seem to be popular in Latvia) and enjoyed a huge “beer tasting” plate of cured meats, smoked cheese, vegetables and garlic rye bread croutons, followed by beef “stroganoff” (more like a casserole, since it was absent of cream and mushrooms). Sklandrausis, probably Latvia’s moat traditional baked good, is a sweet pie made from rye dough, filled with carrot and potato mash and flavoured with caraway seeds (massively overrated). Reflecting Latvia’s former place in the Soviet Union, numerous Uzbek eateries dot the city.
While I was unable to visit the other Baltic capitals of Talinn and Vilnius, my weekend trip to Riga certainly provided a pleasant sample of this tiny region. Riga is hardly a WOW-factor destination, but it features several appealing characteristics: the city is off the mass-tourist trail, its history is defined by its status as an interface between two distinct cultural regions (Europe and Russia), it boasts immense architectural diversity) and scrumptious cheap food. Riga is definitely worth a three day break!
That’s all for now,