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  • Writer's picturePeter Antonucci

Riga, Latvia

Sunday | June 5, 2016

Today, we visited Riga, and have fallen in love with this city. Its 800 years of history and its “Jugendstil” architecture, described by UNESCO as “the finest collection of Art Nouveau buildings in Europe,” came to life for us today in living color.

As we sailed into Latvia, I sat through a lecture given by one of our visiting professors. I Learned quite a few few things about the Baltic states, which I'll take a moment to share.

The term “Baltic States” is usually meant to include Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Interestingly, the personalities of the citizens in each of the three countries differ significantly and can be stereotyped. Lithuanians are known as being passionate and emotional, often compared to Italians. Estonians, on the other hand, are reputed to be reserved and quiet. And Latvians are described as being a logical thinkers.

The Baltics really had two revolutions. In 1917, with the Russian Revolution, those three Baltic States declared their independence. Lithuania cooperated with the Nazis to some extent, rounding up Jews during the early 1940s; Latvia and Estonia participated, but in a lesser manner.  After the war, the Baltic States fell under Soviet control.

In 1991, after the wall had fallen, the three states were the first to declare independence once again.

Some political scientists point to the Baltic states, but especially Estonia, as being examples of how to build a successful economy following independence.

Each of the three countries is hampered by a certain percentage of the population who identify with Russia. In order for ethnic Russians to get citizenship in the Baltic states, they are now required to renounce their Russian citizenship and learn the local language.

Latvia, which we will visit tomorrow, is governed by a center-right coalition. Oh, and it has over 600 blue cows – no seriously, blue cows.

And never get suckered into trying a highly unpleasant local liquor known as Black Balsam.

Riga, Latvia’s capital city on the banks of the Daugava River, boasts an architectural landscape rich with a fascinating mix of medieval and Art Nouveau architecture.

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The facades of the buildings, which are pink, blue and cream-colored, are decorated with figures, columns, flowers, and reliefs.

And in Latvia, we learned, for $25, one can spend the night in a real penitentiary, the Karosta Prison Hotel, where you will sleep on a blanket on a concrete floor and guards will feed you slop and mistreat you.


After a quick breakfast, we boarded the bus with about 20 other residents; Ineke was our ship representative. Our guide, Ruaga, was a charming lady, probably in her mid to late 60s, who lived during the Soviet domination of Latvia and shared many personal details with us.

In essence, she told us that during the occupation, they were required to pay homage to the Soviet Union, learning its language, customs, anthems, and reading its books. But in her words, “We were red on the outside, and white on the inside – like radishes.”

Riga is a town that was founded in 1201.  It occupies approximately 300 km² and is home to more than 700,000 Latvians. It has been occupied by Russia, Poland, and Sweden. In its recent history, Peter the Great conquered the country on behalf of Russia in 1710. The country remained under Russian rule until 1939. Then the Germans invaded with the promise of “fighting communism”, which mantra was appealing to the Latvians; but they really didn’t care about the Germans or the Russians– they just wanted independence. Today, many of the buildings on virtually every street remain riddled with bullet holes from World War II.

Today, a military presence is noticeable.


We were fortunate to see a changing of the guards, relieving several men who had been standing at rapt attention for hours.


Riga is a city of beauty. The architecture is exceptional, and fine examples never end, as one building’s beauty is exceeded by the next. Moreover, the women are striking with their high cheekbones– far more attractive than the Huns we saw during our recent days in Germany.

The city is labyrinthian, with apparently no straight streets.


After World War II, Latvia was “given” to the Soviet Union when that country, the United States, and the United Kingdom carved up the remains of Europe. The Soviets built a “School of Political Thought”, which our guide referred to as “the brainwashing center.”

Ruaga reported that the country is “more Lutheran, by far” but that the Catholics are far more church going.

After a panoramic 30 minute bus drive, we arrived at Riga’s appealing Old Town, where we spent the next three hours walking with our guide. With over eight centuries of history to draw on, there were many highlights.

As soon as we exited the bus, we were enthralled by the floral arrangement in one of the squares.

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In that same square stood a Museum of the Occupation of Latvia – something I cannot imagine exists in other former communist countries.


We walked through some indoor alleys and mazes, where local merchants peddled their wares.


Once we emerged, we saw a beautiful metallic mobile, as well as some other interesting sculptures in this little park tucked into one part of the city.


In that same park, and in other places around the city, we saw young girls and women playing what appeared to be a version of a steel guitar.


On rare occasions, we did see an old building that had not been restored since the Soviet occupation.

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But overall, the buildings were in great condition.

Each building was unique and had different elements incorporated into its façade.


If you look carefully, these turrets have cats on the top, with long tails.


Dogs are on top of this building.


And so many of the buildings are adorned with intricate carvings; it is simply amazing!


We learned that there was a special workshop in the city where the carvings were made and then attached to the buildings; that is, they were not actually made on the site of the building.

And these buildings were old – very old…


Full bronze or iron statues were also visible.


The Riga Opera house was beautiful.


We came upon this simple enough bronze statue of four beasts representing the Bremen Town Musicians (in Germany), and our guide told us about its history.

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But then this wacky woman came up to us and corrected our guide, telling her she was all wrong. There is always one in the crowd!

We came upon the “Swedish Gate,” built in 1698 to celebrate their occupation of the city, one of the few remaining gates through the wall that led into the Old City.


Ruaga told us the legend of a couple of lovers who wanted to be married and allowed into the old city. But their parents said they were not old enough. As result, when they died as teenagers, they were buried in the wall. It is said that every year at midnight on New Year’s Eve, one can hear them screaming “I love you” through the brick walls. As a result, this aptly named bar sits on the same street.


The highlights we saw included the Town Hall Square.


We also saw Blackheads House, featuring these two black statues standing guard out front of the most ornate buildings we saw.

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St. Peter’s Church was allegedly constructed in 1209, and is the only church in the country rebuilt by the Soviets after World War II.

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This is the oldest house in all of Riga. Note the windows are very small because people had to pay a “window tax.”


We then walked past the Parliament building and medieval Riga Castle, before ending at Riga’s imposing Protestant “Dome” cathedral, constructed in 1211. The largest medieval cathedral in the Baltics, it also houses one of Europe’s largest pipe organs.


In fact at the time it was built, it was the largest organ in Europe, and the second largest organ in the world. This organ features 7000 pipes, which vary from 13 mm to 10 m in height. We were fortunate to arrive at noon; we were seated and listened to a 30 minute concert.


After a short bus ride, we landed in the city’s Art Nouveau District. All the buildings there were as elegant and mind-blowing as the ones we saw earlier in the day. The unique features of many of these buildings, most of which were designed by architect Mikhail Eisenstein, were the protrusions that stuck out from the front on the second or third floors.


Because Riga is the capital of Latvia, many of these buildings have been converted to embassies.

Where the bricks appear to be bright red or blue, those are actually tiles;  and the colors are brilliant.


We did not return to the ship until well after 2:00 PM.

But before doing so, I spotted a street vendor selling the largest strawberries I have seen in years, and some terrific blueberries.  I led the charge across the street and we all jumped in; I bought two quarts!


For dinner, we went to an unusual restaurant named Three Chefs.  As we entered the restaurant, and throughout dinner, American music from 1960s and 70s was playing softly in the background. But the food was king here and it truly wore its crown well. Before our appetizers were served, we were treated to a delightful presentation served directly onto our paper tablecloth. Before each of us, a young waitress poured four types of herbal dressings, even one featuring hemp seeds. We were then free to dip home made bread in all the sauces and enjoy the various tastes. (For those of us who can’t eat bread, I was given carrots.)





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