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Sunday, 31 May 2009

Riga: The Paris of the North

Written by  Belinda Hogan
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Once called the “Paris of the North,” Latvia’s capital, Riga, is a vibrant city once again. Now known as “The Baltic Hub,” it is easy to see why. Before Soviet occupation in 1940, the city was one of the most important ports in Northern Europe because of its proximity to The Baltic Sea. The city was so influential at one stage, Napoleon described it as a “suburb of London, ”as it was a major trader with England and France.

Once called the “Paris of the North,” Latvia’s capital, Riga, is a vibrant city once again. Now known as “The Baltic Hub,” it is easy to see why. Before Soviet occupation in 1940, the city was one of the most important ports in Northern Europe because of its proximity to The Baltic Sea. The city was so influential at one stage, Napoleon described it as a “suburb of London, ”as it was a major trader with England and France.

Since Latvia joined the European Union in 2004, Riga has undergone a resurgence economically as well as culturally, having one of the fastest growing economies in the E.U. (until this year). Although the Latvian population has decreased since independence from Russian rule in 1991 (mainly because of strict citizenship laws and repatriation) Riga has flourished as a trade and tourism center since it was able to re-open its doors. It invited foreign investment in and its real estate prices soared. With a population of three quarters of a million people and a history of occupation from German, Polish, Russian and Swedish neighbors, the city’s liberty has been its rebirth.

Riga: “The Paris of the North”, Baltics, Latvia’s capital, travel Riga, Jugenstil, Art Nouveau architecture, St Peter’s Church, Doma Bazn+ca, Strelnieku Street, The Museum of The Occupation of Latvia, River Daugava, Tr+s brouveau architecture, St Peter’s Church, Doma Bazn+ca, Strelnieku Street, The Museum of The Occupation of Latvia, River Daugava, Tr+s brmWhat completely hypnotized me about the Latvian capital is its architecture. I was also taken aback at how different Riga is from its neighbors’ capitals’ Tallinn and Vilnius. It is far more cosmopolitan (because of its wealthier history) and it did feel like a metropolis. It is reminiscent of Vienna, Stockholm, Prague and even Paris. It is easy to get to from other parts of Europe by plane or boat, and accessible to the rest of the Baltic's by train or bus.

The River Daugava splits Riga in half. On one side sits Vecrīga (Old Riga) with Pārdaugavu (New Riga) on the other. The city is an architects dream from medieval to gothic to art nouveau; wooden and modern buildings all stand in solidarity. Although Riga has endured decades of occupiers and wars that have damaged many of its buildings, the government has restored them to their former glory, instead of redeveloping. Even though recently there has been much debate about the city’s current skyline expansion, the United Nations has recognized Riga’s architectural splendor, placing it on the World Heritage List in 1997. In fact, Riga boasts the best-preserved collection of Art Nouveau architecture in the world. The greatest thing about the three Baltic capitals is that you can virtually see them all on foot, and walking through Riga has been one of my life’s greatest pleasures.

Historically, Old Riga was the commercial heart of the city and traders were wealthy. Neighbors tried to outdo one another and it shows, with the array of multicolored buildings, churches, courtyards and squares that adorn its warped narrow streets. It is separated by Kaļķu iela (Kalku Street) with St Peter’s Church to the south and the Doma Baznīca (the largest cathedral in the Baltic's with the third largest organ in Europe!) to the north. It is virtually pedestrianized, making strolling safe and quiet.

The best way to start your morning is to take the elevator to the top of St Peter’s Church, where you can wander around a 360-degree platform. This makes it easier to get your bearings and plan your day. Built in 1209, the church is a great example of Gothic craftsmanship, although it has had a history of bad luck. It has been destroyed many times over the centuries (the last time by fire from a war time attack ironically on St Peter’s Day in 1941) and was finally rebuilt again in 1971.The observation tower is 74 meters high giving you a panoramic vista of the entire city and as I gazed over it, I felt I had been transported into a Gothic novel.

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Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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