Our flight from Moscow to Budapest had a long-layover: Latvia!
We arrived in Riga, the capital of the small Baltic country at about 10 at night, and had a plane at noon the next day. We knew we wouldn’t really be able to explore the city or culture much at all, so we settled for a hotel room in the Old Town of Riga.
Riga sits along the Daugava River. Old Town is small, easily walk-able, and sits just on the banks of the river. Riga was originally German, founded in 1201. Bishop Albert von Buxhoeveden built the city as a buttress for keeping Christendom safe from the heathens (these were the Balts, Slavs, and Finno-Ugric people). It thrived on the trade between the east and the west, and then Sweden took the city in 1621. Not long after, Russia grasped control and the city grew more. When Latvia became an independent nation after WWI (1918), the city developed it’s Latvian flavor. Of course, that didn’t last long, as the Soviets occupied the country in 1940 and WWII raged. After WWII Riga was bombed-out with two sizeable populations gone: Germans, back to Germany, and Jews, all murdered in the Holocaust.
Today, however, although the marks of the Soviet era can still be found (like apartment buildings in the suburbs), Riga is working hard to shed the remnants of the Iron Curtain and the bad connotations “Eastern Europe” can bring to mind. Part of the Eurozone, we paid for everything with Euros and had no trouble communicating with everyone in English.
At 10:45 that night Jordan and I lugged our bags from the airport to the edge of Old Town.
“Oh, look, Jordan! A Christmas tree!” I stopped in a cobblestoned square, dropping my bag into the snow.
Jordan glanced around. “Wow, that’s a real tree! I’ve never seen one so tall.”
We took stock, surveying the town.
“It’s like a fairy tale with the clock tower rising up over the roofs.” I admired the picturesque scene around us.
“That’s the Blackheads House you wanted to see.” Jordan pointed to an ornate, pink Gothic structure filling one side of the square. Built in 1344 as something of a fraternity house for the Blackheads guild of unmarried German merchants, it is everything wonderful you could imagine of the Baltics. Destroyed in 1941 and then bulldozed by the Soviets a few years later, the Blackheads House was rebuilt in 2001 for Riga’s 800th birthday. Catty-cornered to the Blackheads was the Museum of Occupations, obviously closed to late at night. I was disappointed to miss it.
We strolled down winding cobblestone alleyways until we found out hostel. After dropping into bed, we awoke to the sun rising at about 8 am over Dom Laukums (Laukums Square) and the wooden shacks decorated in garlands and mistletoe for the Christmas Markets.
Opposite us towered Riga Cathedral. Currently a Lutheran church, the building dates from 1211 as the Catholic diocese in the Baltic. It is the only landmark building to survive all of Riga’s disasters over the centuries, including WWII.
Next, we walked past Riga Castle. Residence of the Latvian president, it was built in 1330. Obviously, it doesn’t look very castle-y nowadays, but we still thought it was cool.
Old Town is a mish-mash of Gothic, Renaissance, Art Nouveau, and everything in between. This famous stretch of buildings is called “Three Brothers.” One is over 600 years old, the oldest home in town. Our guide book mentioned how small the upstairs windows were—in medieval times, Riga’s property taxes were based on window size.
After meandering down a few alleys, watching the bakeries open and foot traffic begin to grow, we stopped by our next touristy-spot: the Swedish Gate. It was built in the city’s medieval walls in 1698 while Sweden ruled modern-day Latvia.
By this point we were getting hungry, so we cut through the middle of Old Town and caught sight of Freedom Monument, just as the interior edge of the district. It was erected in 1935 and takes the space a statue of Russian Peter the Great used to occupy. It wasn’t torn down during Soviet times, but Latvians weren’t allowed to approach the monument.
We found a quiet café behind the Blackheads house and picked a window to look out and see St. Peter’s Church. We couldn’t help ourselves—we splurged. We got an apple cider and two hot chocolates with our omelet and crepes.
St. Peter’s Church’s steeple is even more iconic than Riga Cathedral’s. Built in a distinct Gothic style, people think it’s about 800 years old, one of the oldest religious buildings in the Baltic countries. In 1721 a fire destroyed the spire, although Russian Peter the Great personally rushed to help put out the blaze with locals. The spire was again destroyed in WWII and rebuilt again. Today it stands proudly, rising above the Old Town, an elegant monument to Riga’s history and fortitude.
“I just love the Christmas trees. They’re real,” Jordan exclaimed. “I’ve never seen Christmas trees that big.”
“I liked the Christmas Market, even though it was closed. Did you see the quaint wooden carousel?” It had mythical Latvian animals instead of painted horses.
We soaked in the atmosphere, reveling in a real European breakfast.
By that time, we had to head to the airport. We passed by Ratslaukums and the Blackheads house again to take a better look at the statue of Roland. Although the statue’s only been around since the 1990s to replace the 1897 granite statue destroyed in WWII, he was the nephew of Charlemagne the Great and lived in the 8th century. An epic poem, The Song of Roland commemorates his battle against (and death) against the Basques, then got a taxi (only 10 euros!) and headed toward Budapest.
As short as our time in Riga was, I felt like I got to appreciate the feel and architecture of the ancient city. And now I’m very interested in properly visiting all three Baltic countries.