Riga Latvia 30 August 2014

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August 31st 2014
Published: September 2nd 2014
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Riga Latvia 30 August 2014

We arrived in Riga on good roads, at about 4.00pm on 29 August and found Camping Riga which was on the island across the River Daugava which winds its self through the city. It was an OK-appointed camp site which had everything we needed. We got to our GB and German neighbours. In fact, the next morning we took a 90 sightseeing bus trip around the city and 2 couples from Germany came to. They had both been to Australia so we chatted about their times in our country. The bus trip gave us a good overview of the city and how beautiful it was with its many German Art Nouveau buildings. Gosh I love those buildings. It is the largest collection of Art Nouveau buildings in the world.

Riga is the capital of Latvia, the largest city in the Baltic States, and the second-largest city of the Eastern Baltic. It holds about a third of the country's population.

We saw that Riga was experiencing a new Renaissance as the capital of Latvia, and many large-scale restoration projects on old buildings that have made Riga one of the most attractive cities in Europe. The Riga Castle is one example that is closed until 2016 while it is being restored so we couldn't visit it. Riga has become an increasingly popular destination for Europeans drawn by its old town, its historical importance, and its reputation as having one of the most sparkling nightlife scenes in Europe.

Once we got back to the camp site after the sightseeing bus dropped us off, we hopped on our bikes and rode back into the city's Old Town. There was so much happening in the city - extreme sports, outdoor basketball competition with loud, basey music playing, temporary stages set up in many of the city squares, open air art displays and 100s of outdoor restaurants and cafes. It was a fantastic city to visit.

Even though they celebrated their annual summer festival 2 weeks ago, and the guy at the tourist office said it was over, it was if it had been extended. Admittedly, we were visiting on a Saturday so there was plenty of entertainment. In one square, they had hay bales and big white plastic bags filled with hay in one of the city squares where people were lounging around, drinking and chatting. Later that night there were bands playing great music from the 70s and 80s.

We were really pleased that we had taken our bikes as we could visit more features of the city. There was an incredible number of parks and gardens with fountains and monuments sprinkled throughout them. The most attractive was the one in front of the Opera House. A canal runs from this "white house" (as the locals call it) and it a popular spot for wedding photos (which we saw many of).

We visited one museum, the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia. This noticeable and austere black building is clearly out-of-place. In the Soviet days, this housed a museum to the Red Riflemen, a group of Latvians who volunteered for the service to Russia during the Russian revolution of 1917. Now it houses a museum of Latvia's time under both the Nazi and Soviet occupations. Very long, but very moving-essential for anyone interested in the history of the USSR or Nazi Germany. We could only last halfway through the display after reading about all the atrocities of that era. It was horrible what Hitler and Stalin did to the Latvian and wider European people. Outside the building away from the town square stands the Soviet-era Monument to the Riflemen.

If you are interested in a bit of history about Riga, it was founded in 1201 by Albert of Bremen as a base for the Northern Crusades. It developed as the major trade hub of the Eastern Baltic during the high days of the Hanseatic League, ruled by the Archbishop of Riga. The Reformation reached Riga in 1522, which ended the Archbishops' power. After the fall of the Hansa, Riga became a part of first the Swedish and then the Russian Empires, before becoming the capital of independent Latvia in 1918. Riga remained as the capital of Latvian Socialist Soviet republic throughout the Soviet period, and emerged in the 1990s as the capital of newly-independent Latvia.

Germans have inhabited the city since its establishment by Albert, and throughout most of its history Germans were the elite while Latvians remained a lower class. Their position as the elite continued through the Imperial period of Riga. As such, much of the architecture in Riga has been heavily influenced by Germany. The Germans were forcibly repatriated after the Nazi occupation of 1941-44.

Much of Riga was bombed during World War II and the ruins were mostly left to decay until independence, when the government, realizing the tourism potential, began to invest in reconstructing and restoring the old buildings. Because of this, Riga has one of the most complete old towns in Europe.

Riga is divided into two parts by the river Daugava. Old (medieval) town is in the centre of the city on the east side of the river. It is surrounded by a ring of 19th-early 20th century architecture, followed by a mix of private 2-floor house districts (many also pre-WW2) and Soviet-era 5-18 floor apartment districts, with an occasional factory (especially near railroad lines). The term "centre" loosely refers to quite a large area around Old town limited by the river to the west, the railroad lines to the east and south, and without a definite boundary to the north.

We walked around the Old Town which was mostly built between 1860 and 1914 and has many buildings that resemble Berlin, Paris, or Rome. Many Soviet-era movies set in Western Europe were filmed here as the buildings can make the city pass for a city in Western Europe.

We had lunch in a little restaurant near Town Square. The surrounds of Town Square, which was my favourite part of the city, is the Statue of Roland, House of Blackheads, which is where the merchants-to-be had their guild. Part of this building is the tourist information office, the rest is a museum. The upper levels house grand ballrooms while the basement has a wine cellar and several exhibits relating to trading in Riga. We couldn't go in as the offices from the Castle has moved in temporarily.

The lovely Town Hall is also on the square as is the St. Peter's Church. St. Peters Church, dating to 1209, is Riga's oldest church. Besides its ensemble of architecture, the church has an elevator to the tower which we went up and got spectacular views of the city. This is also where we attended a concert put on by the Latvian National Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir. And wow, the acoustics. It was very moving, heavy but incredible. I thought of my Mum while I sat there listening to it as she would have loved it.

We also visited the St. Saviour's Anglican Church, Riga's only Anglican church.

Swedish Gate, (see photo) is the last remaining gate from the old city walls.

The Freedom Monument is one of Latvia's national symbols and a frequently used area for meetings and rallies. It was erected during the first independence and surprisingly never taken down by the Soviets (although laying flowers at its feet was forbidden). The statue of a woman holding three stars at the top of the monument represents Freedom embracing Latvia's regions.

We had read that the Riga Central Market is the biggest markets in Europe. They are noticeable for its huge hangars, built from parts of actual zeppelin hangars bought for the market in 1920. The market has also a large open-air area. It deals mostly in fresh food and is a good place especially during summer for fresh local fruit and vegetables. There are also stalls that sell cheap clothing and accessories. It is beloved by especially Scandinavian tourists coming via ferry for its cheap cigarettes, most of which are speculated to be contraband. We wandered around it for an hour or so...it is massive!!

Outside the central Railway Museum, there was a temporary stage set of with excellent young artists singing music from the 90s. There were plenty of people sitting around listening and dancing.

That night, we found a restaurant and had the most tender steak we have had on this trip.

So all in all, we thoroughly enjoyed Riga. We got back to our motor home at 8.30pm when the sun was setting and got away by just after 8.00pm and headed west to Ventspils, a harbour town on the coast. We are really enjoying Latvia, easy to get around, people are so helpful (speaking lots of English) and it is a beautiful countryside with very neat towns and cities.

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