As the largest city in the Baltics, with a population of 800,000, some say the good things in Riga are particularly good and the bad things are particularly bad. That’s to say, on the bright side, it seems to have the most vibrant nightlife by far in the Baltics. But, on the down side, it’s also got the worst traffic. However you look at it, Riga is regaining its reputation as a fun-filled, forward-looking city. Increasingly confident Rigans are again applying the city’s pre-war label: the Paris of the Baltics.
The generally-held belief in the Middle Ages was that he who ruled Riga ruled the Baltics as a whole—hence the centuries of war fighting for control of this city. This Riga-as-a-key-to-regional-domination strategy is certainly not as valid as it was in the days of the Teutonic Knights. Still, as the biggest and most centrally located Baltic city, many observers continue to believe that Riga could very well become a regional powerhouse four or five years down the pike.
The biggest and most cosmopolitan Baltic capital, Riga can also appear a little chaotic, unwieldy and, at times, intimidating and rough. With its predominantly Russian population, Riga also seems more ill-at-ease with itself than the other two capitals, and a little more schizophrenic. But this isn’t necessarily new to Riga, which has been a multi-cultural city throughout its 800-year history. At one time or another, Germans, Jews and Russians have all left their mark on Riga.
This past diversity is evident in the eclectic architecture of the city. Breathtaking Jugendstil mixes with Classical Symbolism, Constructivism and a spattering of Stalinist-era horrors. In Riga, the buildings have a distinct sense of humor. Walk with your head up for architectural wonders you’re not likely to see anywhere else.
As it has modernized since independence, Riga has retained something of its distinctive, old-world feel. Rigans aren’t just throwing out everything old and replacing it with something new, and possibly worse. This is a city, thankfully, where you can still turn a corner or walk into a room and feel that you have stepped back into the 1890s or the 1920s. If Riga continues to build on its past, its future looks bright, indeed.
Quotables about Riga
“The Paris of the Baltics.” What many people in the region called Riga between the two world wars, when the Latvian capital was celebrated for it’s lively nightlife and progressively cultural scene.
“A suburb of London.” Napoleon wryly describing Riga’s close link to England, a major trading partner in the 1800s.
Latvia’s divided into four regions —Kurzeme, Zemgale, Latgale and Vidzeme—named after tribes that once dominated the respective areas. Despite sometimes being referred to as the Switzerland of the Baltics (partly because of pretensions of being a regional financial center), Latvia is distinguished by rolling plains and modest hills; the highest hill, Gaizinkalns, is a mere 311 meters. Latvia has a 494-kilometer coastline and thick forests.
Population: 2.4 million; 57% Latvian; 40% Russian-speaking; 2% Lithuanian; 1% Polish.
Riga population: 800,000.
Other large cities: Daugavpils 125,000; Liepaja, 100,000.
Total territory: 64,600 sq. km, a little smaller than Ireland.
Main Religions: Most ethnic Latvians are Lutheran, with Roman Catholics in eastern Latvia. Most ethnic Russians are Orthodox.
Climate: July’s the warmest month, with temperatures near 20°C (68°F); the coldest month’s February—temperatures near 0°C (32°F).
All things considered, Latvia’s economy has performed miraculously since independence in 1991. It was shrinking by an astounding 35 percent a year in 1992; but thanks to impressive market reforms that Latvia-unlike Russia-implemented quickly, it saw positive growth just two years later. In 2001, Latvia registered one of the highest growth rates in Europe—some 7 percent. Latvia is a key transit point for Russian oil, which helps fuel growth.
Most commentators, groping to pin the Latvians down, have tended to describe the national character as an average of the Lithuanian and Estonian characters; that is to say, emotional in some ways like the Lithuanians and yet, in certain situations, cool and relentlessly rational like the Estonians.
As their economy improves, Latvians are clearly becoming more confident. But this new confidence does not seem to be accompanied by an overt arrogance to the extent it sometimes is in Estonia. Latvians can seem a little more easy-going and open-hearted. Smiles come a little more easily and naturally to Latvians than to Estonians.
In The Baltic Revolution, Anatol Lieven describes Latvians this way: ‘Latvia is an indeterminate nation, neither fish nor fowl, ambling unsteadily between its two more decisive neighbors… Latvians like to think of themselves as dreamers with a practical streak…. they are regarded by the other Balts as having the rare capacity to believe two contradictory things at the same time…. It brings to mind a character in a Latvian satirical novel who comes to a crossroads, ‘and after giving the matter careful consideration, goes in both directions.’
Before 1800, Latvia (Latvija in Latvian) was known as Lettland, Leththia or Lothwa. Let and lat seem to refer to the Leta or Lata rivers near Vilnius, inhabited by Latvians before they migrated north.
The origin of Riga is disputed. Some say it derived from the name of a river drained in the Middle Ages. Others say it’s from the Old Baltic word for ‘curved,’ ringa—as in the curved bend of the river, next to which Riga was founded. Others say Riga’s a Germanized version of rija—‘barn’ in Latvian.
Latvian, unlike Estonian, is an Indo-European language. This doesn’t mean it’s easier to speak, but at least it is in the same ballpark as German, English and most other European languages. Latvian is related to Lithuanian, and people from the two nations can roughly understand each other. The stress is almost always on the first syllable.
Mani sauc/My name is….
Ka tev iet?/How are you?
Es nesaprotu/I don’t understand
Vai Jus runajat angliski?/ Do you speak English?
Kur atrodas …?/Where is …?
Es veletos/ I would like…
Cik tas maksa/How much does it cost?
Ludzu, rekinu/The bill please
viens/one divi/two tris/three cetri/four pieci/five sesi/six septini seven astoni/eight devini/nine desmit/ten simts/100 tukstotis/1000