Riga has been on my bucket list for a long time. I wanted to visit it, I knew that it had a wonderful architecture, a lot of people was simply amazed by it. But let me emphasize: I wanted to visit it, but it was not a matter of life and death. I read not much about it, did not some big plans. Just when I hit a promotion in Polish Airlines I thought that I’m going to boo these tickets and sightsee the next city on my list.
Today I know that a lot of time will pass before we come back to Riga. Ok, the city is nice, I admit, but there was simply no chemistry between us. I didn’t fall in love, it didn’t bring me to my knees, there was just no atmosphere. And it was not the fault of the weather.
I’m not saying that Riga is not cool! I have friends who fell in love with Riga, and hate the cities that I love. Everything is just a matter of taste.
I just had the impression that I’m in a city that can’t take advantage of the opportunities offered by the European Union (yes, I say this even though I am Eurosceptic). Ok, the main monuments and the boulevard were renovated, on the other side of the river also has grown a great national library building in a little space style. But when we were in the area of the railway station, I felt a bit like the bazaar during early 90s in Eastern Europe, just after communism collapsed.
I also didn’t like the ubiquitous Russians. Don’t get me wrong, I am not opposed to Russia and the Russians, because if I were, I wouldn’t learn their language, wouldn’t watch Tchaikovsky’s ballets and wouldn’t read Dostoyevsky. Russia is my dream destination somehow, it’s a lasting desire.
But my point is that when I go to Riga, the capital of Latvia, I don’t want to feel like in Russia! At some point we realized with Sebastian realize that we can only hear the Russian language almost everywhere! We completely didn’t expect that and we were quite surprised. Well, we knew that almost half of the population of Riga are Russians, but still it’s different just to read about it and hear it on the streets.
And the Russians for the entire period of the Soviet Union felt in Riga like home. In the south they had their resorts in the Crimea and in Batumi, and in the north wide and sandy beaches of Jurmala, which lies just half an hour by train from the center of Riga. No wonder that when the Soviet Union collapsed, the Russians didn’t want to leave Latvia or other Baltic countries. I mean, where should they go, since they spent all their life here? In Russia they were not ‘their people’, they were strangers. At the time of the fall of communism, some of them were already elderly, and in Polish we say that the old trees should not be replant, and young poeple, although ethnic Russians, are from here, from Riga, Latvia.
Apparently from Latvia, but not from Latvia exactly, because still they’re Russians. But in Riga there was an issue that Russian minority became a majority (because there was only 37% of Latvians). When Latvia became an independent state, the authorities told the Russians: listen, you are no longer at home. Either go to Mother Rasija, or prove that you can stay here. You have to prove your knowledge of Latvian. You can’t? Well, so will be stateless.
But Russians were not eager to leave, you know. In order to secure their rights, they began to organize themselves into various unions and associations, so that they can stay in a beautiful Riga.
But that’s just by the way. Certainly, I think that it is worth to go to Riga. Just to form your own opinion about this city. The architecture is certainly original, interesting, although it may not necessarily be overwhelming. At least for me.
Although between me and Riga was no love like Gone with the Wind, there were a few things (not all positive), which I have to mention.
1. Old Town
I love the Old Towns, because as a tour guide (some of you probably already know that it’s my job) I’m love to learn the history of the places I’m visiting. Travel is definitely the best form of education (as long as we want to learn and not only drink or lie on the beach) and allow us to understand the place better than the lessons of history or geography. What is more, the Old Town of Riga is a UNESCO heritage site, so it’s definitely worth the visit.
Let’s take a quick introduction, starting from the Cathedral of Riga: in the beginning there was a settlement of Livs here by the river Daugava, which inhabitants were Christianized by German missionaries in the late 12th century, and a few years later to Riga came the bishop of Bremen Albert von Buxhövden. He founded the military order the Brothers of the Sword that continued the work of Christianization and guarded the diocese (and in fact they we’re abusing their privileges). Albert quickly fortified the city, and soon the king of Germany made out of Livonia the German Empire’s fief, which encouraged the German nobles and merchants to settle in Riga. At the same time, Bishop von Buxhövden managed to get from the Pope the right, which ordered the German merchants to trade in the Baltic Sea through Riga. All of this was the reason for the strong Germanization of the region, which lasted for hundreds of years.
Many of the buildings from this period didn’t remain, but I need to mention perhaps the most characteristic buildings in Riga – the House of the Blackheads. Brotherhood of Blackheads was the association of the richest and unmarried German merchants, and they built a house in the 14th century, which later was expanded twice. Building was bombed in 1941 by the Germans (how ironic), and rebuilt only in the 90s of the 20th century.
In the 16th century the Livonian Wars took place here, as a result of which some of today’s Latvia with Riga became a fief of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Then the provisions of the 1660 Treaty of Oliwa that ended the Polish-Swedish war, ordered the Commonwealth to pass most of these lands (except Latgale) to Sweden. In 1721 after the end of the Russian-Swedish war, Livonia fell under the rule of Russia, which some time later also expanded its territory to other adjacent lands and ruled here until the First World War. During this time, Riga became the third most industrial city in Russia after Moscow and St. Petersburg, and it’s development has accelerated the construction of the railway line. From this period are many buildings of so called The New Riga, like The National Theatre and the National Opera (1860-1863), as well as Art Nouveau architecture, but more about it in a moment.
After the end of World War I, Latvia won its independence, but did not enjoy it too long – a year after the outbreak of World War II was forcibly joined to the Soviet Union. Then German troops entered these lands and started the occupation, which lasted until 1944. At that time, the majority of Baltic Germans were resettled to Wartheland and Danzig-West Prussia (Polish lands occupied by Germans). After the end of World War II a huge number of Russians arrived to Riga, which began Russification of the city and the whole Latvia. Of course, the most recognizable building from Soviet times is the Latvian Academy of Sciences built between 1952-1958 , a gift from the Soviet Union, called also Stalin’s birthday cake. And then in 1991 Latvia came to independence.
2. Route of Art Nouveau architecture
Riga is one of the largest concentrations of Art Nouveau architecture in Europe – there are over 700 buildings in this style or referring to it. Several can be found within the boundaries of the Old City, but definitely the biggest number is on Elizabetes iela and Alberta iela. More about it I’ve written already, so I refer you to my post about Art Nouveau architecture.
I admit that during our trip we didn’t visit any musems, but now I regret a little. As if I had to go back to Riga, then I would choose to visit the Occupation Museum, the Museum of Art Nouveau and the Motor Museum. Read about the subject before you go!
I liked Jurmala, which in Latvian means simply ‘Sea coast’, the most. The village consists of several smaller resorts located on the wide sandy beaches. However, the problem with it is that you have to hit the weather – you know, these are the charms of the Baltic Sea. However, it is worth to visit on a sunny afternoon, even if just to take a look at the characteristic wooden buildings from the 19th century, when the wealthy residents of the city put up here their villas and cottages.
5. Huge open-air museum
Who likes open-air museums (meeeeee!) should visit the ethnographic museum in Riga in Latvia, one of the biggest I’ve ever visited. At the entrance you get the map, because the museum is located on a huge area, mainly in the forest. There are more than 100 buildings here, divided by regions of Latvia: Courland, Zemgale, Latgale and Livonia. They come mainly from the 18th and 19th centuries, but you can find older buildings, too.
The biggest advantage in the Spring / Summer: the forest is full of blueberries and wild strawberries. We ate them straight from bushes! :>
The boulevard by the Daugava has been beautifully renovated and is worth spending an hour or two, sitting in the sun and having a small picnic. Or just take a walk. I really liked it. It’s a nice place for an evening meeting with friends.
7. Prices, costs, wallet’s pain
Riga is not the cheapest city. It was not when Lat was the currency, and now with Euros it’s even worse. I admit that we didn’t prepared ourselves for this trip, and although Sebastian mentioned that it’s an expensive city (he had beed here already), it surprises me. Countries with Euros as a currency, however, can give you a hard time, so at the moment we are not planning to visit any. I guess.
8. Do you learn Russian? Souvenirs: newspapers, movies
The presence of Russians in Riga is not perfect for me, but I will not get upset about something I have no influence at, right? You always have to look for the positives, not just complain about everything, so I was positive that I brought from Riga some learning materials – the film Frozen with Russian dubbing and crossword puzzles 😀 I learn Russian on my own and the best and most effective learning is that, which connects with pleasure and the new knowledge naturally comes to mind. So the movie and crossword came home with me! 🙂 I think that if you are on a higher level of language proficiency, you can also look around the shops with books. Certainly something interesting to find!
9. Pielmieni XXL
Pielmeni is simply a small ravioli stuffed. A Pielmieni XXL is a kind of a cheap bar where you can eat only pielmieni. As already mentioned, Riga is quite an expensive city, and Pielmieni XXL are the light in the tunnel, which allows us to save a little bit. Because for a bowl of dumplings and salads and a glass of juice you will pay no more than 5 euros.
But do not count, that the whole of your stay in Riga you’ll survive on pielmieni. After three days you have enough.
10. Black Balzam
Black Balzam is Riga’s traditional herbal liqueur with 45% alcohol content. For the first time it was mentioned in documents from 1752. And this date is considered of its origins. Its formula is not publicly known. The alcohol Is held in a ceramic bottles to protect it from light and heat.
It’s probably a good idea as a souvenir from Riga, if you do not learn Russian. 😉 You can drink it in its pure form, like a shot a day keeps the doctor away (supposedly has healing effect) or in the form of drinks: a shot with a glass of cold Coke or Sprite with Balzam in 4:1 proportions with the juice of half lime. [recipes from the Lonely Planet guide]
As it turns out, not all the places to visit inscribed on my bucket lists must be awesome. But there’s something good in it, right? This allows me to visit another place, and there is not many of those I want to come back to.
After all, I encourage you to visit Riga, and build your own opinion on it. Maybe you’ll fall in love?
Have you already been to Riga? Did you like it or not necessarily? Share your opinion in the comments below!