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Riga: Latvian City Earning Moniker ‘Paris of the Baltics’

Tourism growing in 800-year-old city

East Valley Tribune – Feb. 24, 2002

RIGA, Latvia – It’s a warm, sunny weekend morning in Riga, Latvia, and I climb aboard one of those red, double-decker sightseeing buses that are ubiquitous throughout Europe.  My tour is scheduled to begin in just a few minutes, so I claim a prime seat in the open-air section in the upper deck.

Riga’s Freedom Monument.  

I wait for other tourists to join me, but after a 30-minute wait, it becomes apparent that I’ve got the whole bus to myself, along with the driver and guide.  “I’m sorry,” the guide tells me.  “Tour is canceled.  We need at least six people.  You are the only one.”

Undeterred, I venture off to enjoy Riga’s sights on my own, guidebook in hand.  I find a charming city with fascinating architecture, flower-filled parks, wide boulevards, eclectic museums, a bustling central market, and a medieval “Old Town” that is a labyrinth of winding, cobblestone streets.

It would be more than enough to please most tourists, yet Riga is hardly a European vacation hotspot.  Don’t be surprised, though, if that changes in the next few years, as word spreads that this former Soviet outpost is once again becoming worthy of its pre-World War II nickname – “Paris of the Baltics.”

Riga’s charming Old Town.

In the meantime, visitors will find lots of empty seats on tour buses, inexpensive hotel rooms and restaurants, and plenty of elbowroom to enjoy all that Riga has to offer.

Latvia is located in northeastern Europe, across the Baltic Sea from Scandinavia. After 50 years of Soviet occupation, it gained its independence in 1991, along with the other Baltic Republics, Estonia and Lithuania.

Today, there are nearly as many ethnic Russians as Latvians in the country, which is why you’re just as likely to hear Russian spoken on the streets of Riga as native Latvian.  Most people speak at least a little English, especially those who work in shops and restaurants frequented by tourists.

During its 11 years of independence, Latvia has embraced democracy and a free-market economy. As a result, it is well positioned to join both the European Union and NATO in the next few years.

Riga is located on the Daugava River about 10 miles inland from the Gulf of Riga, an inlet of the Baltic Sea. It is Latvia’s capital and largest city, with a population of about 850,000. The city is still dusting off some of the cobwebs from its years under Soviet rule, but underwent major renovations last summer in honor of its 800-year anniversary. It’s difficult to find a European city that is cleaner and safer.

A street musician performs in Riga’s Old Town.  

The heart of the city and logical starting point for visitors is known as Vecriga, or Old Town,a maze of narrow, crooked streets flanked by historic buildings, towering church steeples, cafes and art galleries. Some streets look just as they did in the Middle Ages.

Strolling through Old Town, most of which is closed to cars, is delightful. Street musicians perform Latvian folksongs, a nice backdrop for the interesting mixture of Gothic, Baroque, Romanesque, Constructivism and Art Nouveau architecture.

Few cities can match Riga’s large crop of well-preserved Art Nouveau buildings. You can easily spot an Art Nouveau building, as some sort of ornate carving in the structure – often times a grotesque monster — is peering right back at you. This distinctive German architectural style, which dates back about 100 years, has survived better in Riga than in many German cities and now comprises about 40 percent of the buildings in the central part of the city.

While Old Town makes up only a small portion of Riga, it can easily take the better part of a day to explore all of its treasures. But be prepared to have a stiff neck the following day, as you’re constantly looking up to admire the architecture. You also need to look down at your feet, as the cobblestone streets can be treacherous in places.

One of Riga’s many lovely parks.  

For a magnificent view from above, visit the 13th century St. Peter’s Church. There’s an elevator that goes to the top of the spire, which at one time was the highest tower in Europe. Wars and lightning strikes have destroyed the tower several times. It was most recently rebuilt in 1973.

Another impressive church in Old Town is the redbrick Dome Cathedral, the largest place of worship in the Baltics. It also dates back to the 13th century and now houses a 6,768-pipe organ, the fourth-largest organ in the world. Like St. Peter’s, the Dome Cathedral was destroyed and rebuilt several times. Both churches are Lutheran, the leading faith among Latvians.

Like most countries in this part of the world, Latvia has had a troubled history of war and occupation. The city’s most important museum, the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia, does an impressive job of chronicling the 50 years of Nazi and Soviet control. Exhibits include a replica of a barracks in a Soviet prison camp in Siberia, where thousands of Latvians were deported.

Given the country’s history, it’s not hard to understand why Riga’s Freedom Monument is such an important symbol to Latvians. Located just outside Old Town, the monument is topped by a bronze female statue affectionately called “Milda” by the locals and bears the inscription Tevzemei un Brivibai (For Fatherland and Freedom).

The hourly changing-of-the-guard ceremony at the Riga Freedom Monument.  

Two soldiers guard the Freedom Monument and there’s an hourly changing-of-the-guard ceremony. Latvians regularly lay flowers at the base of the monument to honor the victims of totalitarianism. It’s said that those who dared to do so during Soviet times ended up with an extended, all-expenses paid vacation to Siberia.

Just a block away is the lovely National Opera House, which hosts world-class opera and ballet performances. In fact, famed ballet dancers Mikhail Baryshnikov and Aleksander Godunov made their names here. Tickets cost a fraction of what you’ll pay for a similar production in the U.S.

For shoppers, the place to visit is the centraltirgus, or central market, one of Europe’s largest and most colorful markets. It is housed in and around five huge buildings that were used as Zeppelin hangers during World War I. There are more than 1,000 vendors here, selling everything from fresh meat and produce to bootleg CDs and fake Rolex watches. Unlike similar markets found in many other countries, haggling over prices is not customary in Latvia.

Amber jewelry is the most pervasive item sold in souvenir shops. Known as “Baltic gold,” amber is fossilized pine resin. It is found on beaches and is brought up in fishing nets in the Baltic Sea. Amber so dominates the souvenir market, stores that don’t sell it proudly proclaim themselves as “amber free.”

Another popular souvenir is Riga Black Balsam, Latvia’s most famous liqueur. Black Balsam is made with herbs, flowers, juices and medicinal roots. It tastes a bit like cough syrup gone bad, but Latvians swear by its healing powers. You may not want to drink the stuff, but the attractive brown ceramic bottle makes a nice conversation piece.

It’s definitely worth escaping Riga for a day or two to explore the Latvian countryside. Sigulda, a small town 90 minutes away by train, is known as the “Switzerland of Latvia.” With hills instead of mountains, Sigulda may not entirely deserve such a moniker. But it is a great place for hikers to explore, with sandstone caves, lakes, and a picturesque wooded valley dissected by the Gauja River.

The Turaida Castle near Sigulda, Latvia.

Sigulda also boasts several medieval castles, all within walking distance of each other. The best known is the Turaida Castle,which dates back to 1214. Inside is a museum that documents the history of the area and visitors can climb the castle’s central tower for breathtaking views of the surrounding countryside.

Jurmala, a beach resort area on the Gulf of Riga about 15 miles west of Riga, is another popular daytrip. Jurmala used to be a popular hangout for rich Soviet retirees and military officers. Today, Rigans enjoy its sandy beaches, health spas and seafood restaurants. The swimming and sunbathing season is short, though, due to Latvia’s cool climate.

© 2009 Dan Fellner


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