Riga is a gorgeous city of old artistic buildings packed together along cobblestone streets, large city squares, ancient churches, navigable canals and blissful parks. We wandered Riga’ streets, gawked at the architecture and relaxed in its large open squares enjoying local food and beer. I hope I don’t sound too cute when I say ‘We spent a lot of quality time with Riga’.
Seven ielas, Latvian for street, lead to my favorite square in Riga: The Dome Square. It gets its name from the Dome Cathedral, which stands here. It bounded by multi-colored buildings on every side, open-air inviting restaurants; perfect place to relax in Rigan summer. There are a few such squares in Riga, the Castle square where stands the old castle and now residence of President of Latvia, Livu square – created after WW2 has upscale restaurants and clubs and historic Cathedral Square where stands the St. Peter’s Cathedral whose tall spire can be seen from most places in Riga.
The spire has an unfortunate reputation of collapsing over the years. So, to judge the life of the spire, a local tradition dictates the architect to climb the spire, drink wine and then toss the glass. The number of pieces the glass breaks into, is the number of year the spire shall stand. The previous architect managed to drop the glass on hay stack and the spire burned down in a year during World War 2. The current architect managed to splinter the glass into a million pieces, much the delight of Rigans.
Also at this square stands the House of the Blackheads, built by & for single German merchants, is perhaps the most delicately designed buildings in Riga. I managed to take a picture of it after dark which is no small achievement since in summer Sun sets in Riga after 10pm.
To protect trade, Old Riga had defensive walls and a moat surrounding it. Today most of the wall is torn down to make way for the city’s expansion. Only a small portion of the wall and one gate, called Swedish Gate, remain today. The moat is converted into a canal which is really an awesome, picturesque addition to the city. On the bank of the canal are large expansive green carpet parks such as the Kronvalda Park. Walking in them, it was easy to forget that I was surrounded by a busy city.
Riga was founded by German traders in the 12th century, as a gateway between the East and the West. Contrary to its ancient past, Latvia’s contribution to modern history is significant. It is one of the places that created history in my lifetime – the falling of the iron curtain, the fall of communism USSR in 1991, perhaps the most significant event in the last 30 years. A gift by Germany to Latvia to mark this event stands behind St. Peters Church : Animals from a popular song ‘Town Musicians of Bremen’ peeking through the iron curtain and singing in joy.
It’s actually remarkable how a small country of just 2 million preserved their language and culture through the centuries of occupation by Swedish, Estonian, German and Russians. A monument – the Freedom Monument in the center of Riga – is built in the honor of the Latvians who have fought for Latvia’s independence over the years. Two foot prints marking the ‘Baltic Way,’ a human chain 675 km long of 2 Mil people from Tallian(Estonia)-Riga(Latvia)-Vilnius (Lithuania) marks the protest against the Soviet occupation. Even today, Latvians are suspicious of their last occupier, Russia, due to the latter’s annexation of Crimea in 2013; the main reasons for Latvia to join to EU and NATO.
Riga and Latvia have made impressive progress since gaining their independence from USSR. I went to Riga expecting old cars, uneven streets, failing infrastructure – things one would associate with Communist Russia. No amount of research on TripAdvisor prepared me for a modern country, with first grade roads, top-class and expensive cars and fledging infrastructure and transportation systems. I didn’t know this: Latvia has amongst the top ten fastest internet speeds in the world – an excellent way to attract business. We had free yet really fast Wi-Fi all over Riga.
This trip to Riga was a very interesting experience. Not only is it an amazing beautiful city but also the modern history tells a compelling story. Small wonder then that Riga is fast becoming a popular tourist destination in Europe.