Old Town, Central market and Latvian National Opera
14.06.2011 - 14.06.2011 20 °C
For our first full day in Riga we set out to explore the Old Town. With overcast skies, however, it was a little colder than we used to and so, after a healthy breakfast of French pastries (!), we started our tour at the Gunpowder Tower. Dating back to the 14th-century it is the only survivor of the 18 original towers that punctuated the old city wall. With cannonball holes still evident the Tower now hosts the ‘Museum of War’. Whilst the museum allowed us to dodge a passing shower it was not the easiest of museums to navigate, with all exhibits being labeled in Latvian. Whilst a separate folder was provided in English this did not make the marriage of display and explanation easy.
Furnished with a vague understanding of the early history of Latvia, conquered by German crusaders in 1201, at the behest of the Pope, we explored their history with periods of both Swedish and Russian rule during through the 18th-century. Declared an independent state on 18 November 1918 it was the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (as we had in both Poland and Lithuania) that ended this honeymoon, with mass deportations, killings and Nationalization. Briefly under German rule and then Soviet until 21 August 1991 the museum tells the story of these battles and periods in an old-fashioned way.
Ready for some social interaction, after the museum, we headed for the Central Market. En route, not wanting to fall foul of transportation issues, again, we secured our bus tickets to Estonia for later in the week. At four hours the journey would be quicker than flying, far more interesting and the only land route practical, as trains do not operate between the two Baltic states.
As we had been made aware the market was vast. Housed both outdoors and in a series of mammoth zeppelin hangars a myriad of vendors peddle their wares from herring to pig livers, cheese, shoes and potted plants. A complete one stop shop the market is both clean and bustling. Everything one required for city living was available within these vast halls. Wondering around the well stocked stalls provided a marvelous insight into the lives and habits of the local population.
Unable to find the Pirates Bar that we were told was an interesting drinking establishment close to the market we headed back into Old Town to explore more winding cobbled streets. Taking a Tram from the bus station we headed north to the Bohemian enclave of Andrejsala, or at least that is what it once was. Today, it houses a series of graffiti ridden Workshops and Sheds, the vast majority boarded up and long abandoned. Gone were the independent art galleries and pavement cafes, replaced with urban art that neither appealed nor was of interest. Disappointed we headed back into the city and down ‘Elizabetes iela’.
Along with lunch (the local favorite of potato pancakes and smoked salmon) this street leads into the Art Nouveau district of the city. Whilst this style of architecture can be seen from Porto to St Petersburg Riga can boast some 750 art nouveau buildings, more than any other city in Europe. With flamboyant and haunting styles of decoration we were faced with ostentatious and freeform facades – design schemes featuring mythical beasts, screaming masks, twisting flora, goddesses and goblins. A complete contrast to the diverse Gothic, Baroque and fairy-tale architectural styles of Old Town.
Returning to Old Town touristy Rātslaukum is home to the picture-worthy Blackheads’ House. Built in 1344 as a fraternity for the Blackheads guild of unmarried German merchants, the house was destroyed in 1941. With the original blueprints somehow surviving an exact replica was constructed in 2001 for Riga’s 800th birthday. Rātslaukum square also houses the ‘Museum of Occupation’. Located in a suitably austere and aggressive building (it was once a Soviet bunker) the museum chronicles Latvia’s Nazi and Soviet occupations between 1941 and 1991. However, having had our fill of occupation museums, the previous week, we had a brief look at the exhibits before heading to Riga’s skyline centerpiece, the Gothic St Peter’s Lutheren Church and from there returning to our hotel to prepare for our evenings assignation.
Boasting some of the finest opera in all of Europe, earlier in the week, we had secured tickets to Verdi’s Requiem that evening at the National Opera House. Dressed to impress , it was clear as we arrived that Latvians are very proud of their national opera company. Whilst not dressed to impress we found our seats, reminded by the gold and green colors of the auditorium of a recent visit to La Fenice. Until ‘Amazon’ women sat down in front of us our seats afforded an excellent view of orchestra, choir and soloists. However, with hair resembling an exploded hedgehog and shoulders to challenge any prop forward our view of the string section, stage-left was obliterated. Yet, this did not impede our enjoyment of Verdi’s Funeral Mass.
With the Requiem finishing, relatively, early we headed to one of the few Irish bars in the city, as they promised live music. Sitting in a bar, in Latvia listening to a Kiwi sing Irish folk songs was a little surreal but none the less enjoyable. With a solid repertoire of crowd pleasing sing-a-longs and personal favorites we had enjoyed our evening of diverse musical entertainment. As we had grown accustomed to, darkness was yet to fall on this northern Baltic city. Our minds were telling us it was 11pm at night, yet our eyes told us it was nearer 6pm. Dusk was just about to fall, in a land where summer, holds the suns attention longer than one might expect. Tomorrow, we would leave the city, briefly, and view the Baltic Sea for ourselves.