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Sunday, 31 May 2009

Riga: The Paris of the North - Page 2

Written by Belinda Hogan
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There are over forty museums in Riga and close to St Peter’s is The Museum of The Occupation of Latvia. This was worth my trip to Riga alone and it gave me more of an understanding as to why Latvians are fiercely protective of their surroundings. Established in 1993, the Museum’s exhibitions cover the occupation of Soviet and Nazi forces as well as Latvian independence. It is one of those places that is intensely quiet. I felt the ghosts of a Latvian resistance looking over my shoulder as I examined KGB surveillance equipment and read last letters to loved ones from those who fled in terror. I spent a couple of hours there and walked out feeling extremely anguished about a history that I thought I knew something about. As I stood on the front steps I realized that Riga is an incredibly clean city and that its residents walk proudly as if to say, ‘No one will ever hurt us again.’

Crossing over to the north side, the Trīs brāļi (Three Brothers) and Museum of Architecture on Mazā Pils iela, is a must. I know absolutely nothing about architecture and being in one of the structural design capitals of the world, I thought I’d better educate myself. The Three Brothers are not male siblings but three quaint abodes that show the progression of medieval Latvian architecture. Whilst not much is known about their history, the first (number 17) was built sometime in the 15th century and is the oldest structure in Latvia. It is a square white stone dwelling with a gabled roof and Gothic niches. It houses the museum where you can look at over one thousand sketches, drawings and models of Latvian constructional design. Built in 1646, the middle yellow brother (or number 19) has Dutch influences whilst number 21 is a thin green baroque styled building. Close by, The Powder Tower, the only surviving old city tower, which also is the residence of the Museum of War, is definitely worth a look as is Riga Castle, the President’s residence.

Riga’s Old Town is not as vibrant as the old towns in Tallinn or Vilnius. When I left its narrow confined streets, I discovered that vibrant Riga lay beyond its walls. New Riga is vivacious and has a strong artistic feel to it. The many cafes and bars coupled with the Jugenstil (Art Nouveau architecture) is the reason. To see the best examples of Art Nouveau walk down Alberta, Elizabetes and Strelnieku Streets. Russian architect and engineer Mikhail Eisenstein designed most of these buildings, and as I wandered I was fascinated and overwhelmed by their intricacy. I have traveled through most of Europe, yet I have never seen so much of this type of architecture in such close proximity. Gargoyles, monsters, angelic feminine faces, devils and weird animals peer out at you, which is strikingly eerie. The buildings today house everything from residences to schools to offices. Often the interior refurbishments contrast with the sophisticated exteriors and are extremely plain, which I found rather quirky.

Riga is not a concrete jungle by any means. The great paradox of this city is not only that it is an architect’s delight, a horticulturalist or landscaper would feel at home too. Riga boasts some the most manicured and diverse parks in Europe. It was during Riga’s construction boom in the 19th century that most of its 700 parks, gardens and squares were laid. Arkādijas Park is one of the largest in central Riga and it‘s where the locals relax, especially during lunch-time. I went out of the city and visited the wealthy neighborhood of Mežaparks. This is easy to get to via bus and is about seven kilometers north of the city center. It was built originally by the rich as a garden getaway and the houses still reflect this wealth. The area is surrounded by woody forests and lakes that accommodate boats and jet-skies in summer. Many concerts and festivals are held here also. What is very unnerving about this part of town, although stunning, is that the forest was once a Nazi concentration camp where thousands of Latvian Jews and Gypsies were murdered. However, I had this ghostly type of experience on every inch of the Baltic's; I walked on.

Riga really is a surprise; I did not expect its grandeur, and its diversity is dramatic. It is the most rapidly developing city in the Baltic's, making it interesting to see what future direction it takes. Legend has it that the devil emerges from the Daugava River once a century to ask residents whether Riga is complete. If the answer is ‘yes,’ he will flood and destroy their city. Somehow I don’t think Lucifer will be doing any of his dirty work in the Latvian capital for a very long time.

© Belinda Hogan

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Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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