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Articles Blog

Riga, Latvia

Karyn Planett

Baltic Bastion

An icy wind whipped off the grey-blue Baltic, buffeting those souls scraping out little more than a subsistence existence long, long ago. Today, however, Riga’s 800,000 give-or-take residents hurry past the very spot where those weary folk staked out their small homes, rarely taking notice of the remnants of earlier citizens who founded their city in 1201. Often, they jostle past massive ramparts and baroque facades as they scurry off to jobs in this active seaport. Visitors, on the other hand, journey from nations afar to Riga to bask in the splendor of this UNESCO World Heritage Site, to study the Jugenstil Art Nouveau architecture, or to pause in the quiet naves of stone-cool cathedrals. The city’s compactness affords even the hurried traveler a satisfying inspection of the capital city of the Republic of Latvia, the geographical “center” of the Baltic States.

Where The Daugava Meets the Ridzene

Considered by local historians as the crossroads between Western Europe and the massive, consumer-thirsty Eastern markets, Riga remains an active business community sprawled along two rivers. This explains her long-standing past as a viable market town. In the 14th and 15th centuries, the city of Riga grew into one of the Hanseatic League’s most important trade centers. Specifically, city fathers were given special permission to transport a variety of goods along the Daugava River to cities further east. The expansion of an efficient rail and road network enhanced trans-shipments confirming Riga as one of the Baltic’s leading business centers. The city’s economic success then spilled over into its respected centers of learning, cultural outlets, as well as scientific endeavors.

Churches and Cherubs

Old Town is home to two of the city’s inspiring churches. St. George’s, constructed in 1202, is considered Riga’s oldest structure. Originally a meeting house and later a chapel, it remains the city’s only Romanesque monument. St. John’s, built by the Dominicans at the end of the 13th Century, has conducted services for more than 400 years. Destroyed several times, it is today a jumble of architectural styles.

St. Peter’s is revered as one of Riga’s most magnificent houses of worship and dates back to 1209 when it served as a merchant’s church. As the 17th Century drew to a close, this structure received a new Baroque façade by R. Bindenschuh, the city’s master builder. 

Doma (Dome) Cathedral is recognized as the most massive church in all the Baltic States. The reality of Bishop Albert’s wish, its foundation stone was laid in 1211. Inside the serene confines is the cathedral’s organ designed in 1884 by the German company, E.F. Walker. Its music still rattles the soul. 

Scattered about the city are architectural curiosities in the form of rooftop adornments. Among them are masked figures, animals, and cherub-like faces. A wander down Alberta Street will introduce visitors to the Jugenstil Movement that features these images in its architecture.            

As It Once Was

Honoring the traditions of days gone by, Riga’s Ethnographical Open-Air Museum is a snapshot of early life of the Latvian people. Serving as a prototype for other European open-air museums, these doors opened in 1924. Masters of 18 different crafts weave and carve, fashion pots and perform typical music surrounded by windmills and homesteads. Many of the structures were built between the 16th and 20th Centuries. 

Riga Castle, home today to the country’s President, was originally designed for the Order in 1330. Draped along the banks of the Daugava, it affords the leader with a clear view of the busy river and the cargo-laden vessels. 

Three Brothers and A Star 

During Riga’s medieval period, it was traditional that members of a single handicraft all reside on the same street. “Tris Brali”, or the “Three Brothers”, is in fact a trio of dwellings standing shoulder-to-shoulder, timber-to-timber. The oldest (#17) dates back to the 15th Century and the most contemporary only to the end of the 17th Century. Their styles range from Medieval to Baroque. Found within is the Latvian Museum of Architecture. 

A “star” was born in Riga in 1948 only to light up the sky, the world’s most celebrated stages, and Hollywood’s silver screen gaining him a coveted Oscar nomination. He began to study dance in Riga at age 15, then later under famed Alexander Pushkin who also taught Rudolf Nureyev. Our “star” performed with the Kirov Ballet, dazzled millions in the films “The Turning Point” and “White Nights”, and was nominated for Broadway’s Tony Award as “Best Actor in a Play” for “Metamorphosis.” Ballerina Gelsey Kirkland gushed about him, claiming he is the “greatest male dancer on earth.” 

Riga’s famous native son is none other than … Mikhail Baryshnikov.