One day in Latvia?
But one day is not enough to visit a city let alone a whole country.
Since this had to be a speedy tour of the three Baltic countries, one day in Latvia’s capital city, Riga, would have to suffice. For now.
After a long bus ride from Tallinn, Estonia, across some beautiful countryside and endless plains of farms and fields; we arrived in a whole new country. Something we would need to get used to being able to do (since this was our first visit to Europe and much different than our island continent of Australia).
In the first few minutes after leaving our hostel, we passed a cute class of kids out for a morning excursion. We were in for a fun day.
Riga was founded in 1201 and its historical Old Town is another UNESCO World Heritage Site. It might not have quite the same charm as Tallinn, but there’s still plenty of it.
The Three Brothers is the oldest complex of dwelling houses in Riga. The oldest, on the right, dates from the 15th century.
In the heart of the Old Town is Dome Square. Seven streets converge on this quiet open square lined with cafes fronting 19th and early 20th century buildings.
Overlooking it is one of the most recognisable landmarks in Latvia; Riga Cathedral, also commonly known as Dome Cathedral. Not so much for any dome-shaped feature, but its ancient German heritage; Dom in German meaning ‘cathedral’.
The site of Riga had long been a centre of Viking trade, thanks to its sheltered natural harbour. German merchants kickstarted it all, leading to Riga becoming a member of the Hanseatic League in 1282, which was essentially a commercial and defensive confederation of merchant guilds and their market towns.
The House of the Blackheads was built in the 14th century by the Brotherhood of Blackheads; a guild for Riga’s unmarried German merchants. The recently reconstructed building still overlooks Riga’s Town Hall Square, but the original was bombed to ruins by the Germans in 1941 and then demolished by the Soviets after that.
Riga fell to the Swedish during the Polish-Swedish War (1621-1625) and was Sweden’s largest city until 1710, when Tsar Peter the Great of Russia stormed in and took the plague-striken city during the Great Northern War (1700-1721). Riga remained part of the Russian Empire up until World War I.
During this time, Riga was the fourth largest city in the Russian Empire, after Saint Petersburg, Moscow and Warsaw (now part of Poland of course). The city’s wealth allowed local architects and graduates of Riga’s Technical University to build the finest and largest collection of Art Nouveau buildings in the world.
Albert Street (Alberta eila in Latvian) is probably the most famous. This street is an architect student’s dream excursion. Both sides of this impressive street are lined with apartment buildings with an array of structural and decorative elements.
The German army marched into Riga on 3 September 1917. Six months later, the three Baltic countries were theirs, thanks to the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. But the Armistice with Germany on 11 November 1918 quickly ended that treaty with Russia, opening the door for Latvia’s declaration of independence a week later on 18 November 1918. The Freedom Monument honours the soldiers killed during the Latvian War of Independence.
World War II brought the Soviet Union and then Nazi-Germany. The city’s Jewish population was forced into the Riga Ghetto. Most of Latvia’s 24,000 Jews were killed on 30 November and 8 December 1941 in the Rumbula Massacre.
The Museum of the Occupation of Latvia was a humble and honestly eye-opening experience that should not be missed.
Riga sure surprised us.
It might not be the prettiest Old Town in Europe and has a somewhat Russian flavour to it (understandably). But there is a fascinating history hiding beneath, for anyone willing to give Riga and Latvia a chance.
One day in Latvia?
Visited 18 September 2014.