After rain. After rain, everything seems to take on a poignancy and tenderness, as if…yay!…we survived! And so, our first picture of Riga, below, is our favorite, taken about 5:00 pm after raining all day, and it looks ageless, like it could have been taken in almost any of the past decades. Because it is so far north, soon 5:00 pm will be total darkness, all through the winter. However, it does mean that in summer, the sun lasts until about midnight.
Riga is wonderful! It is the largest of all the cities in the Baltics, and has become one of our favorites…you can see from the photos why that is so. There are still a lot of tourists out and about, even though when we began our free city tour this morning, it was 42 degrees F (5 degrees C)…and, as usual, Mike was wearing shorts and a short-sleeved shirt. Nobody else in the entire city was without long pants and a jacket, and our young, robust tour guide said he couldn’t even look at Mike! By the way, Mike was never cold and said the weather temperature was just fine.
Riga feels very youthful, very alive…there are tons of cafes, bars, clubs, and restaurants in its Old Town, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are many Guild Halls around the Old Town, as Riga was a founding member of the Hanseatic League. There are also medieval churches and many small cobblestone streets that lead directly to the next church or plaza. The architecture is stunning, as Riga had many wealthy residents from the late 1800s into the early 1900s – right at the height of Art Nouveau. As they built their homes and businesses, they had enough money to design them with the most stylish artwork of the day. The city has more than 800 Art Nouveau buildings, more than any other city in the world. There are a few mixed in with today’s photos, but we are taking a specialized tour tomorrow focusing on those buildings, so look for them in our next blog.
The cream-colored building straight ahead in the first photo is shown in a closeup in the second, and again in the third. It was used in the 1930s for political speeches and rallies, but the entire plaza you see in the third photo was filled with buildings. After the 1934 coup, the autocrat Karlis Ulmanis had the ancient buildings removed so that people could gather for his speeches. The bricks in the plaza all are set in different patterns, denoting the building they replaced. The upside of this is, it is now a city gathering space for spring concerts, summer beach volleyball (yes, they bring in sand!), and Christmas markets complete with a community Christmas tree.
The fourth photo is the take-your-breath-away moment you experience when you turn the corner from a side street and enter Town Hall Square. It is the House of the Blackheads, first built in 1334, modified a few times, destroyed in a German bombing raid in 1941, and rebuilt slowly over the years, finally completed in 1999. Some locals object to the inscription on the top of the building, “Renovated 1999,” as it isn’t a renovation, but a complete reconstruction. Only the archaeological ruins in the basement are original. Nonetheless, it is magnificent. The closeups following it are of the Madonna and Child, gracing the entrance on the left, and then St. Mauritius (the martyr…the literal black head after whom the guild was named, as an honor in the 1330s) on the right. Following St. Mauritius is Town Hall, which sits across from the Blackheads House, beautiful in its own right but overshadowed by its neighbor.
Okay, so what else is here? Well, next up are some narrow streets opening into views of medieval spires on churches and other buildings, followed by some neat statues and a relief. The first statue is called The Ghost, by Ieva Rubeze, commissioned in 2015 as a public art work. The armadillo walking up a staircase was meant to be a whimsical part of an urban playground for kids. Our tour guide asked if anyone was from Texas before saying, “This is the most American story I have. After talking about the armadillo statue, a woman said, ‘I am from Texas, and armadillos are very destructive…they come into our backyards and root through our trash cans. And even if you shoot them, the bullets just bounce off of their shells…you can’t even kill them!'”
Following the sculptures are some of our favorite buildings from around Old Town, including churches, storefronts, and residential, which are all just so lovely. In that bunch is a photo of the old city wall, cut off mid-arch. Our guide said that the houses and buildings in the city were built over, and incorporating, the ancient city walls into them. Archaeologists would love to do a comprehensive survey of the city walls to assess what remains, but they would have to access most of the homes and dig in everyone’s basement, so sadly, it is not doable.
After all the building photos, we hit the river…the Daugava River, which comes in directly from the Baltic Sea, bisects Riga, and helped the city become so prosperous as an important trade center, since it runs through Belarus and into Russia. Doesn’t the boat cruise look so peaceful, with the ducks in its wake? Then we came to the Central Market, which had everything! There was a hall with many food stands, as well as large meat, cheese, and bread venues. Next up was a hall filled with vegetable vendors, followed by a hall with meat and seafood, but being on the Baltic, there was much more fish…and caviar!….for sale than there was meat. We were looking for blueberries, as we always are, and were disappointed until we went outside and discovered the fresh fruit market. We bought gorgeous, large, sweet, local blueberries for just $2.50 for a good-sized container.
The hall shown in the photo was the first one, with cheese and breads for sale. If you can see the writing and drawing on the colored glass window straight ahead, it says Riga Central Market and shows a zeppelin. The market is a re-purposing of old 1920s German zeppelin hangars, and works wonderfully as a vibrant, clean, and modern-looking market, attracting 100,000 shoppers per day. Following that photo are some of the foods and food signs we found there. The first is a bread oven, where you can see the bread cooking on the side walls! The worker was starting to remove those that were done. Next up, some dumplings, or Russian pelmenyi (the same as pierogi or potstickers)…but look at the varieties: duck confit with chestnut cream; multi-color rabbit meat; matcha sturgeon; and, black seafood. Then there is popcorn soup, followed by traditional Latvian rye bread parfait with cranberry sauce…yes, that is a chunk of rye bread on the bottom as the dessert base. Next is traditional Latvian cream pea soup in a rye bread bowl. Bread is sacred in the Baltics. At the market, we must have seen 40-50 varieties of just rye bread in just one vendor’s offerings, and there was a long line of people waiting to purchase it. The bread was in long cases, some sliced, wrapped in plastic wrap, and it looked like a deli, as that is also how they keep deli meat fresh. The last photo is to make you have a smile on your face when you finish reading this post!