Saturday, June 29, 2013

The twelve days of Latvija: Day 1, Vecrīga

The capital city of Latvia, Rīga is located near the mouth of the river Daugava on the Baltic Sea. Home to more than a third of Latvia’s population, Rīga has gained popularity with tourists in the recent decade. This is partially due to the medieval old town, surrounded by a canal and filled with squares, Gothic churches and Art Nouveau architecture, which is generally considered to be the finest collection in Europe. Old town (or Vecrīga) is on the UNESCO World Heritage list because of this Art Nouveau, and partly due to the neoclassical and Jugendstil style 19th century wood buildings. We stopped by the flower market on our way to Vecrīga to buy some flowers to take to the Freedom Monument. The tall white obelisk is topped by a statue of Mother Latvija holding three stars, which symbolize the historic regions of the country, Kurzeme, Vidzeme and Latgale. An enscription on the front reads Tēvzemei un brīvībai (For fatherland and freedom), and the rest is ornamented with sculptures and reliefs portraying everything from historic events such as the 1905 Revolution and the freedom fighters of 1919, to cultural traditions such as the Song Festival march and Latvian mythology, such as Lāčplēsis (the Bear Slayer).

A fine way to start our day was with a wooden boat tour of the Rīga canal and Daugava. We chose our captain on the banks of the canal just next to the Freedom Monument, and then it was off! down the canal towards the National Opera (did you know this was the first building in Rīga to have electricity?). Shortly after passing the Central Market (built in 1930 and still one of the largest covered markets in Europe) we emerged from the canal to Daugava.
Daugava forms in the Valdai Hills of Russia and forms the Belarussian/Latvian international border before flowing into Latvia and eventually draining into the Gulf of Rīga. It is 624 miles long, only 202 of which are in Latvia. The view from the stretch between the canals is incredible, as you can see the entirety of the Vecrīga skyline to the east and the brand new Gaismas Pils library (“Castle of Light”) to the west.

Right before  the Vanšu bridge is the ancient Crusader Castle of the Livonian Order, Rīga Castle. This third reincarnation of a castle was built in 1491, and has been expanded over the years to now serve as the home of the President. Luckily the President is currently staying elsewhere as the castle is being renovated and a fire burned a large section of attic and roof last week. It is still not being reported how extensive the damage is, and it could be considerable; the castle is also home to the National History Museum of Latvia and the Museum of Foreign Art.
The charred remains of the roof can be seen on the left
Soon we turned back into the canal, passing through Kronvalda Park and past the National Theatre, where Latvian Independence was declared in 1918. Bastejkalns and the five granite memorials to those gunned down by Soviet troops in January of 1991 marked the end of our tour. Well worth it, I would suggest taking the boat ride to see a side of Rīga you wouldn’t normally see. On foot again we ventured past the Laimas clock and into Vecrīga, the stroller clicking on the cobblestone streets. Pulvertornis (Powder Tower, dating back to the 14th century), Zviedru vārti (the “Swedish Gate” which is one of the only remaining gates to the original city walls remaining), the church spires rising on all sides… We stopped for some ķiploku grauzdiņi and a beer to people watch, the garlic toast tasting exactly as I remembered (which is like a perfect accompaniment to an Užavas beer!). Then a quick stop at Senā Klēts in my search to find pieces for my tautas tērps (traditional folk costume), followed by a stroll past the rebuilt, baroque-style Town Hall, and soon we found ourselves in Ala, Folklubs Pagrabs, eating the most delicious snitzel and soup lunch I have ever had. While inside the rain started, signaling the end of our explorations of Vecrīga, but luckily we have many more prospects for return visits…

Melngalvja nams

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