Riga – Day 2 – A Walk Around Vecriga, The Old Town

[…Riga, Latvia May 19, 2011…]

The spire of Riga Dom Cathedral, with Vansu Tilts spanning the Daugava river. Seen from the tower of St. Peter's.


When I first looked at Riga’s map, it seemed to me like a huge city, so at first I was concerned about having to get to one place to another in a short span of time. But arriving here, I quickly found out for myself that it’s compact, walkable, and as an added plus – has easy orientation with well-planned street layout. The landmarks are distinguishable, and when you’re walking around old town, all you need to to do in case you lose your bearing is to look up at the church spires – sort of like the North Star guiding your way.

The skyline of Riga is dominated by church spires. I lost count of how many churches there are but the famous ones are the Riga Dom, St. Peter’s and St. Jacob’s Church. Not only the churches have the pointy tops, even the town hall and the Latvian Academy of Sciences bear it. Of course, they look great across the river at sunset or twilight when their silhouettes stand out against the blue sky.

Stained glass window at Maza Gilde - the Small Guild.

Riga’s most distinct characteristic is its architecture. Although not grandiose and excessively-ornate like other European cities, its structures bring a nice sense of the place and its evolving history. Most of the historic buildings of Riga fell to ruins during the wars, but the city has managed to resurrect some of it, and as a result there’s a cohesive blend of medieval and modern across the city.  One perfect example of this great resurrection is the House of Blackheads, built in the 14th century, bombed by the Germans in WWII and its remains picked on by the Soviets thereafter. At present day, it’s almost hard to believe it’s the shining jewel of Vecriga and easily my favorite piece of landmark. As a big fan of night time, it also helps me that it’s beautifully lit after hours, so tonight I had enjoyed it to its fullest and sat down at the almost-empty square, waiting for the lights to turn on.

Most of Riga’s architecture is understated. Even Riga castle isn’t as majestic as the European castles I’ve seen. The city’s biggest asset is its Art Noveau or German Jugendstil which is said to be unparalleled and the best in Europe. A lot of these can be found on both Elisabetes and Alberta Streets where I had walked down late afternoon, trying to decipher the details on the buildings’ facade which vary in style from decorative to romantic modernism. It was almost like going back the late 19th to early 20th century – a time-traveler’s feeling that I’ve learned to appreciate in all of my travels.

Add to all these architectural qualities the fact that Riga in itself is a melting pot of varied ethnicities including German, Russian and Jewish. They all give a nice eclectic flavor to the overall atmosphere.

The bridges – there are 5 of them – spanning the Daugava river are not big architectural marvels compared to the ones I’ve already seen, but they have their own appeal. The railway bridge was the one that grabbed my attention while doing photo research on the web and one of the reasons I came to Riga. There was another bridge I wanted to see – the newly-constructed Southern bridge – which I missed because it was further downstream, and Tourist Information has advised me against going there by myself at night. It was a big disappointment for me as I really wanted to shoot it, and still considered the idea up until it got dark.

This morning, I walked around busy Central Market across the railroad tracks and bus stops. I think I entered each of the 5 pavilions – hard to tell as I just made a general sweep coming in and out of doors. These pavilions – almost 700k square footage, although it didn’t feel that way – used to be old German zeppelin hangars in the early 1930’s, and now as one of Europe’s largest markets, is included as a World Heritage Site. Just your typical market that sells regular produce and more, but again, it was nice to feel part of the local breed and be a quiet observer.

Brunch at Double Coffee: rauga pankukas are yeast pancakes with caramel sauce, and Cream White cappuccino with panna cotta topping. Tastes like dessert.

Also part of the city’s history is the Brotherhood of the Blackheads or guilds that were formed as early as the 13th or 14th century. These were associations of unmarried German merchants and ship owners. So I decided to visit one of the guild houses this afternoon – the Maza Gilde or the Small Guild – an English Neo-Gothic style building which was the headquarters of the city’s craftsmen union. Most of its walls are filled with paintings of its members and the great floodlit hall adorned with stained-glass windows. I did not stay long but it was nice to take in the atmosphere of the rooms that surely had some historic significance.

Of course, a visit to the tower of St. Peter’s church which travelers’ reviews and guidebooks recommend, was part of my agenda. The sky today was a bit unpredictable and I carefully planned my route according to what it looked skyward. I was hoping to catch some deep blue skies and big clouds but for lack of better options, I was stuck with mid-afternoon blue-gray skies. Looked like rain for a moment there, although it never happened, which was fine to me. Funny that the forecast for both days was bleak, but it turned out to be mostly clear and photographer-friendly.

Another feature of the city that I had enjoyed the most were the parks, particularly Bastejkalns on both sides of Brivibas Iela. Ironic it seems that despite its turmoiled past of wars and occupation, on a regular day, this city feels eerily peaceful. Merely sitting in one of the benches, either looking at the towering landmark of Freedom Monument, or being flanked on both sides by newly-sprung flowers facing the padlock bridge and the canals, time seems to drift by effortlessly.

In fact, I found the atmosphere here quite infectious. Maybe I just happened to be here on a good day, but all that sweet serenity makes you want to retreat to a cozy cafè and digest all the observations of the day. Luckily, I got word of the popular Latvian chain, the Double Coffee – their version of Starbucks only better in my opinion – which I found scattered all over old town. Apart from great food, it also had one of the best-tasting coffee I’ve had.

With all that being said, don’t let the quiet lull of the day fool you into believing that that’s all Riga is cut out to be. At night, it’s a different story. Walking down the cobbled streets tonight trying to find the nearest Narvesen shop to get a cup of hot cocoa, I found the sights and sounds of the city changed dramatically from daytime bird-chirping hush to loud live-music fanfare. Even the blinking red lights from the bars and nightclubs compete with the low-key lights of the House of Blackheads. I walked alongside sweet-smelling women dressed to the nines in their stilettos which, amazingly,  got through the cobblestones unscathed.

At night, while I am just getting ready to go to work and  capture the city in beautiful twilight goodness, the other darker side of Riga carefully reveals itself.

Latvian Academy of Sciences (building on the left) with the 5 pavilions (one facing a different direction) of Central Market, and the TV tower in the back.

A scene I've seen many times in different cities - padlocks in bridges - a popular tradition among newlyweds who 'lock their love' and throw the key into the river for the sake of eternal love. This bridge is located in Bastejkalns Park.

Matryoshka nesting dolls, believed to have originated in Russia, also known as babushkas.

The Baltics is known to have the largest deposit of amber stone, with about 80% of amber coming from here. So it's not a surprise that there are markets abound selling these in Riga. Amber is regarded as a sun stone in Latvia - hard to contest that when you see how brilliantly it shines when the sun hits it.

Colorful architecture in Vecriga, with one of the church spires seen in the back.

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