Latvia’s capital and the Baltic State’s largest city, Riga, has known hard times and good times. A medieval powerhouse of trade, it was squabbled and fought over by the interests of Church and commerce. It’s been occupied by German Knights, Swedish militias, Nazis and Communists.
Early 20th century prosperity and artistry was stamped on by the Soviets, ended by the Nazis, then for long decades supressed by the Soviets, again.
Now a rising star, Riga is growing its economy following the shaky collapse of Latvia’s national banks, in part down to Moscow’s meddling, and to the global financial crash of 2008.
Although many of Latvia’s young people leave for the EU to find skilled and highly-paid work, Riga is developing a bustling services scene that reflects demand from growing numbers of visitors to the city, many on day trips from the many luxury ocean cruisers calling in to port.
We cycled across the wide Daugava River from our small marina campsite on Riga’s left bank, Kipsala.
The area is undergoing regeneration with tall brick warehouses converted into stylish apartments. That said, we didn’t see many locals and were told that the properties are being bought by Russian investors, pricing any hopeful young professionals out of the market. The same housing problems are everywhere, it seems.
Our guidebook waxed lyrical about a different type of housing in Riga, it’s Art Nouveau legacy from the early 1900s. We were reminded of visits we had made to other East European cities renowned for this era of architecture, Szeged in Hungary and Subotica in Serbia. Both of which are outstanding.
Albert Street, a little way out of the centre, is the best example but here typified for us, our experience of Riga. In a short street of perhaps a dozen properties, three facades were easy to admire, the others being either under wraps or beyond restoration. It felt a bit of an anti-climax.
Eyeless faces stared or glared down at us. Satyr-like women and classical heads of gods gazed, incongruously out of place. Tribal motifs and winding plants and feathers decorated balconies and bay windows. It was mesmerising to look at, although for a disappointingly short time.
Riga’s Old Town is largely reconstructed following attacks on it for 700 years. Signature buildings, such as the 14th century Blackheads House (a former club for unmarried German merchants), have been rebuilt following decimation during the Second World War and Soviet years.
There are many pretty places. Former guild houses jostle each other along cobbled streets, painted in gentle colours and home to designer clothes and jewellery stores, art galleries and bistros. The high blue skies and clear, searing sunshine meant we wandered for eight hours in ever decreasing circles to capture the right time of day in the right light, at our favourite corners.
A row of dwelling houses is prosaically called ‘the three brothers’ and epitomise building styles of their time, from the 15th to the 17th centuries.
Europe’s oldest example of a ‘garden city’, Mezaparks, was a half-hour dusty ride away by tram. Built in the early 1900s by German city planners, it was an experiment in providing healthy living away from Riga’s grimy industrial core.
Its wide shady avenues are lined by houses in an array of states, wealthy-looking and modernist, expensively restored and wooden-built, or more typically down-at-heel and dreary. The lake at the park’s centre was curiously devoid of any shoreside manicure, and we spotted just one bar temporarily pitched up in a small marquee.
People wandered in the shade, some swam in the brackish waters. Later we learned of the concentration camp hidden in the park by the Nazis, at which many of the city’s Jews and political prisoners were murdered. A place to set you shivering, despite the soaring heat.
Out of the bustling commercial centre, Riga is evidently still recovering itself. Dusty streets of crumbing terraced apartments looked suitable only for demolition in the cruel and unblinking sunlight.
The heat of recent weeks created a red dust bowl which our tram blasted through, adding to the overall discomfort of everyone. In some places uber-urban complexes are being built, and memorably the entrance to one was a walkway lined with a fake frontage of bijou shops and restaurants. Behind the fakery was a derelict office block on one side, and a large crater on the other.
However, businesses and shops lined the roadside – busy barbers, kebab sellers, fabric shops and haberdasheries. Ornate poster kiosks advertised official events of opera, jazz and theatre and fly posters told of unofficial comedy and club nights.
Back in town, we had a new burst of energy after devouring carrot cake in Livu Square!
A colourful collection of fibre-glass ‘buddy bears’ had arrived as a gift to the city from Berlin. The exhibition is designed to reflect on how ‘we are all one’ and each bear represents its native country with a message of hope. The UK bear demonstrated ‘where West meets East’ in a colourful Union Flag sari.
The evening’s heat brought out the party crowd and inevitably, perhaps sadly so, they were cheap-flight and drunken stags and hens. Lithuania’s Vilnius is holding out against this money-spinner, but Riga is embracing it.
Latvia sees itself as firmly within the EU now and is Western-looking. Riga typifies this with a recognisable living standard, household names on the high street and in the business districts, a media industry and the latest Hollywood movies heavily advertised on hoardings. It has a burgeoning underground arts scene, we were told.
Perhaps our guide book (Lonely Planet, others are available) was guilty of over-hyping Riga’s centre and sights. We enjoyed a couple of days exploring the city, but to us it felt more like a provincial county capital than a major player jostling for space on the European stage.
There is a school of thought that says that Riga, and indeed Latvia, is still being supressed by Russia which naturally curbs the country’s ambitions. The mayor of Riga and the head of one of Latvia’s biggest media organisations, we later learned, is Russian. Draw your own conclusions.