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Tuesday, 01 September 2009

Vilnius: The City of Dark Humor

After a difficult overnight journey across the Baltic Sea, my traveling companion and I finally arrived in Lithuania. The ferry we took got us to our destination in one piece, but it was far from comfortable. Sleeping on the floor of the boat in a room full of drunken men was not the most luxurious experience, but it did serve its purpose. We docked in Klaipeda, a town in north-west Lithuania in one piece with a few marriage proposals to boot. From Klaipeda we caught a bus to Kaunas, Lithuania’s second largest city and, after a few days of rest, made our way down to Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius.

Published in interest
Sunday, 31 May 2009

Riga: The Paris of the North

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.

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

Published in in love
Monday, 23 March 2009

When in Tallinn, Eat Cake!

The Baltics are just waiting for a tourist avalanche. Estonia, one of the three countries that make up this small and flat region, (the others being Latvia and Lithuania), is now not just known for its weightlifters, but for its beauty, friendly people, quaint pubs and delectable cakes. Situated in the Eastern part of Europe and to the north, Tallinn the capital is, I think, best in winter. 

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